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The Arts
March 28-April 3, 2007

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Shaolin monk

Aloft: One of the Shaolin Temple monks takes flight in the great outdoors.

Taut Iron

The superbly trained Shaolin monks showed off their physical skills at the Festival of Cultures

By Marianne Messina

THE SHAOLIN Temple kung fu monks' visit to the California Theatre as part of the Festival of Cultures marked a rare opportunity to experience Chinese martial arts close to the roots. Though the monks have been testing the commercial waters lately, including a Hollywood-produced film to be released at the Beijing Olympic games 2008, their daily routine still begins at 4:30am with all the rigor and discipline of the centuries-old Shaolin kung fu tradition—hours of meditation (ch'an), physical conditioning and skills practice. All through the program, from a contortionist standing on one hand with his legs wrapped behind his neck to a bare-fisted monk's rapid, intensely choreographed fight against a monk with a spear, the training shows.

The program started off with a meditation ritual meant to evoke the traditional start of the monks' day. Wearing saffron robes (a color once worn only by royalty, but worn by Shaolin monks ever since a Tang dynasty emperor granted them special permission) and beating a slow count out on wood blocks, they filed in behind leader Li Xiao Long and a smoking censer. Facing the altar, the monks sat with their backs to the audience, making the audience part of the ceremony but also signaling a time for turning inward not outward.

The kung fu monks ended most of their incredibly athletic demonstrations with a crisp tableau, frozen in poses that required incredible balance and strain. They often held fierce facial expressions, which taken with their taut, tensile bodies emphasized their deadliness. Yet both snarls and postures melted into quiet, graceful bows (more thankful than celebratory) to end the act. The presentation of animal forms was most popular among the largely Asian crowd of all ages: the eagle angling his high spread arms on painfully crouched legs; the toad humorously puffing his cheeks, his body on all fours rising and falling like a bloating belly; the mantis with his strange hooked arms and curious movement; the monkey—who drew repeated laughter raking his arm over his bald, rolling head—picked at fleas and ate them.

One has to wonder about the stress on bodies (even these relatively young bodies) trained to reach maximum human potential since early childhood, operating continuously at superhuman levels. Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the show, the amazing feats involving qigong, offered some insight. A monk rests his neck on the points of three upright spears while another monk splits a cement block across his back with a hammer. A double-sided bed of nails is placed on the chest of one prone monk while another monk lies on top of it with a cement block on his back, and a third monk shatters the block with the blow of a hammer.

Two monks went into the reluctant audience and called up two witnesses for one of the most sensational feats. It took three tries (for dramatic effect?), but the monk threw a needle through a pane of glass that popped a balloon on the other side, and the witnesses confirmed. More fascinating than the acts themselves was the intense qigong warm-up—deep, rib-baring breaths; focused concentration; hands that seemed to sweep the air along their limbs or compress air at the body's center. And after the feat—of being held aloft bare-chested on spear points for example—the cool-down seemed similar but intensified, as the monk's body poured with sudden sweat. The audience waited silently to applaud; the monk seemed engrossed, as if searching for the true culmination point of the feat, until he took his humble bow.

The monks graciously manned the dragon for Chinese Performing Artists of America's traditional dragon dance—always a scene of glowing black-light wonder. (CPAA's artistic director, Ann Woo, who also produced the Shaolin monk event, was MC for the evening.) The monks were obviously not as proficient in dragon taming as in other martial skills. In a concluding act by Chinese Performing Artists of America, dancers Yang Yang and Xue Bing Xu emerged from the mist before a deep blue sky, balancing out the show's aggressive yang with soft, colorful female yin as they performed a ribbon dance. The ribbon colors blurred—purple, aqua, pink, peach—and the long, floating ribbons seemed to trace the spins and swirls of the vanished monks in the air.

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