Kung fu was first developed at the Shaolin Temple as a form of gymnastics to counterbalance the immobility of meditation. The monks studied the movement of animals and copied them – the way snakes crawled, tigers leapt and mantises danced – and coordinated these movements with meditational breathing routines. As the temple was isolated it was often prey to bandits, and gradually the monks turned their exercises into a form of self-defence.

The monks owed their strength to rigorous discipline. From childhood, monks trained from dawn to dusk, every day. To strengthen their hands, they thrust them into sacks of beans, over and over; when they were older, into bags of sand. To strengthen their fists, they punched a thousand sheets of paper glued to a wall; over the years, the paper wore out and the young monks punched brick. To strengthen their legs, they ran around the courtyard with bags of sand tied to their knees, and to strengthen their heads, they hit them with bricks.

Only after twenty years of such exercises could someone consider themselves proficient in kung fu, by which time they were able to perform incredible feats, examples of which you can see illustrated in the murals at the temple and in photographs of contemporary martial-arts masters in the picture books on sale in the souvenir shops. Apart from breaking concrete slabs with their fists and iron bars with their heads, the monks can balance on one finger, take a sledgehammer blow to the chest, and hang from a tree by their neck. Their boxing routines are equally extraordinary, their animal qualities clearly visible in the vicious clawing, poking, leaping and tearing that they employ. One comic-looking variation that requires a huge amount of flexibility is drunken boxing, where the performer twists, staggers and weaves as if inebriated – useful training given that Shaolin monks are allowed alcohol.

Yet the monks were not just fighters; as many hours were spent meditating and praying as in martial training. They obeyed a moral code, which included the stricture that only fighting in self-defence was acceptable, and killing your opponent was to be avoided if possible. These rules became a little more flexible over the centuries as emperors and peasants alike sought their help in battles, and the Shaolin monks became legendary figures for their interventions on the side of righteousness.

The monks were at the height of their power in the Tang dynasty, though they were still a force to be reckoned with in the Ming, when weapons were added to their discipline. However, the temple was sacked during the 1920s and again in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, when Shaolin’s monks were persecuted and dispersed. Things picked up again in the 1980s, when, as a result of Jet Li’s enormously popular first film Shaolin Temple, there was a resurgence of interest in the art. The old masters were allowed to teach again, and the government realized that the temple was better exploited as a tourist resource than left to rot.

Evidence of the popularity of kung fu in China today can be seen not just at the tourist circus of the Shaolin Temple, but in any cinema, where kung fu films, often concerning the exploits of Shaolin monks, make up a large proportion of the entertainment on offer. Many young Chinese today want to study kung fu, and to meet demand numerous schools have opened around the temple. Few of them want to be monks, though – the dream of many is to be a movie star.

Inevitably, such attention and exploitation has taken its toll on Shaolin Temple’s original purpose as a Buddhist monastery. The temple’s primary drive today seems less towards the spiritual and more about the travelling shows and protecting commercial interests – they are currently pursuing efforts to trademark the name “Shaolin”, in order to capitalize on its use by everything from martial-arts outfits to beer companies. For a good account of what it’s like to live and train here, and the challenges that the modern temple faces, read American Shaolin by Matthew Polly.

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