Inside Shaolin

KUNGFU GOES WEST: Exporting Shaolin

From TV to film, rap music to exhibitions, kungfu has become popularized in the West. The blending of more than a thousand years of Eastern tradition with modern day Western culture can prove to be a challenge for those monks - the “Shaolin Ulysses” — who have made the journey West. Trace the export of Shaolin and its ripple effect below.

Collage of monks and disciples at Shaolin temple: monk and teacher, young monk squatting in kungfu pose, monk on cellular telephone

The Journey Begins with a Single Step

Shaolin monks have a long tradition of making pilgrimages to spread the teachings of Buddhism. The founding fathers of the Shaolin Temple were two monks who traveled from India to China, 1,500 years ago, in order to bring their beliefs to a new land. In today’s information age, however, it is no longer necessary to walk thousands of miles to spread the gospel. Movies and other forms of pop culture have proven to be an effective means of rousing interest in Shaolin kungfu, both within China and across the globe.

Enter Bruce Lee

The popularity of kungfu in the United States can be traced back to one man: Bruce Lee. As a struggling actor in Hollywood, Lee came up with a concept for a TV show that was the ultimate fusion of Eastern philosophy with Western mythology (the Wild West). The show, Kung Fu, depicted an outlaw Shaolin monk roaming the countryside, using his martial arts to battle gun-toting cowboys and Chinese bounty hunters. The studio, convinced that the American public would not be receptive to a Chinese star, replaced Lee with David Carradine, a Caucasian man without a martial arts background. Kung Fu became the most popular TV show of the early 1970s.

Bruce Lee found better luck back in Hong Kong where he directed and starred in several successful films that turned him into a national hero. On celluloid, his astonishing athletic ability coupled with his manifestation of internal energy (ch'i) was a spectacle in and of itself. This success led him to an American production in what would be his final masterpiece, Enter the Dragon, released posthumously in 1973. The extraordinary success of the film, enhanced by Lee’s mounting cult status, forever altered the landscape of American movies and firmly established the kungfu genre in the U.S.
Enter the Dragon poster,
Enter the Dragon poster,
courtesy Warner Studios

The Legacy

A deluge of Hong Kong films followed. While these films were screened primarily in Chinese American communities outside the mainstream, as a collective force their influence would reverberate for years to come in science fiction, video games and music videos. Kungfu films also made waves in African American culture, helping give shape to the Blaxploitation genre. This cross-cultural pollination was celebrated by Wu-Tang Clan, a 1990s rap group, who fashioned themselves after Shaolin monks and whose lyrics contained references to Chinese folklore and kungfu cinema.

Jet Li and Shaolin Temple
Romeo Must Die poster
Romeo Must Die poster,
courtesy Warner Studios

The next film to impact the perception of kungfu was Shaolin Temple, (Shao Lin tzu), made in 1979, starring a young Jet Li. Shot on location, the movie won a cult following in the West. In Asia, the combination of masterful kungfu and national folklore ignited a storm of interest in Shaolin teachings.

The valley near the Temple was soon flooded with hopeful disciples and their eager parents. As the area became an increasingly popular tourist destination, the temple took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with vendors hawking memorabilia by the entrance. Many Westerners could not reconcile this commercialism with their prevalent image of acetic monks without a relationship to the material world.

The Shaolin Temple has generated further publicity from the tours and showcases that have brought kungfu monks to perform before Western audiences. Initially, these tours were conceived as a fundraising technique for the Temple at its 1500th anniversary in the early ‘90s. Their popularity encouraged promoters to organize slicker productions. The monks were subsequently included in the 1996 Lollapalooza rock festival and are the main attraction in the Wheel of Life tour.

In some respects, these tours represent a return to the hands-on approach to proselytizing practiced by the ancient monks. While touring, several monks have chosen to remain abroad where they have set up centers to disseminate Shaolin principles. In learning to navigate the tempestuous waters of modern life, the monks are helping to guarantee the survival of Shaolin.

Crouching Tiger Pounces

In 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released to an enchanted American audience that made it the most successful foreign film ever released in the U.S. Its artistry and accessibility, substantiated by a cache of Oscars, pushed the kungfu genre towards the mainstream.

The genre has grown to include non-Asian films such as The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels, which feature iconic kungfu elements that harkens back to Bruce Lee. These films have been so profitable that American movie studios have made a business in recent years of digging up kungfu films that had previously been passed over, such as Iron Monkey produced in 1993 and released in the U.S. in 2001. This newly expanded genre also includes Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, starring none other than David Carradine, the original “American Shaolin monk.”

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