Wushu Clan

One summer day A.D. 525, a Buddhist monk from India named Ta Mo arrived at the base of Mount Shaoshi in what would later become the Henan province of central China. He took in the scenery, thought or said something to the effect of "This is the place," and promptly founded the Shaolin monastery--the headquarters of a Buddhist sect that became known across Asia for its disciplined spiritualism and deadly martial-arts prowess.

My guess is Ta Mo had no idea that 1,471 years later, the 76-year-old master of that monastery would appear onstage side by side with Joey Ramone during "Blitzkrieg Bop."

How's that for postmodernism?
Slotted between the Screaming Trees and Rancid on the 1996 Lollapalooza main-stage bill is the act that swayed me to write about the sixth edition of Perry Farrell's indie brain child turned demon spawn.

I defended Lollapalooza in this space last year, because last year Lollapalooza was defendable as still true to Farrell's vision, with a main-stage lineup featuring Beck and Pavement and capped off by indie-rock war-horses Sonic Youth. But this year's full-metal-jacketed roster is the nastiest kick in the nuts this alt. rock fan has suffered since Nirvana's early demise. The top of the bill especially is so clearly bogus that slamming it at length would be a pointless exercise--most people can read a program, after all.

So I'd more or less decided to treat Lollapalooza '96 like a lot of people treat Christmas--steel myself against the hype and ignore it until it goes away--but then just for kicks (ha, ha), I decided to take a spin through a video I got in the mail last week titled The Mystic Powers of Shaolin Kung Fu. It turned out to be a Chinese government documentary on the aforementioned monks, which is ironic because the Shaolin monastery was put to the torch and hammer during Chairman Mao's "cultural revolution." China only recently let the monks back to their temple in the shadow of Shaoshi (the sect survived in exile). Only the living quarters are now standing, and starting with a tour of Europe last fall, the monks have been performing martial-arts demonstrations for money to rebuild their monastery. China's leaders presumably saw readmitting the monks as a way to scrape some of the tarnish off their human-rights rep, and curry favor with the country's people (the Shaolin monks are still held in great reverence in China; the monastery received more than 6,000 applications for admission last year, of which only a handful were accepted).

In any case, it was decent of the People's Republic to produce a video to pump up the monks' press kit. Naturally, any video put out by the Chinese government for a Western audience is likely to have a few propagandist quirks. The Caucasian narrator of Mystic Powers, who looks like a gaunt Barry Manilow, periodically stares sternly into the camera and utters lines like "Completely resisting any capitalist consumer temptations, the monks visit a department store in France" and "In contrast to Western religions, the Buddhists never tried to convert others using violent means like the bloody, Christian crusaders did."

Which is actually a good point. To Ma and his early disciples recognized that, as a bunch of bald guys living in the middle of nowhere in a battle-torn land (feudal Chinese warlords and all that), they'd better figure out how to whip some butt in a hurry, lest they get their own butts whipped. And so they did what Buddhists do to figure things out--they meditated, concentrating on the attack and defense movements of the animals that lived near their monastery. Ah, see--now all those cheesy lines in kung fu movies are starting to make sense: "I see you fight tiger style, but that is no match for my striking-cobra technique."

The Shaolin monks called their system of fighting wushu, and after a few centuries of practice, their order was famous far and wide for being a brand of Buddhists you did not want to tangle with (according to the narrator, their skills were never put to aggressive use, except by a group of evil monks who left the monastery around 1620 and formed a secret mercenary organization known as White Lotus that specialized in quiet, sure assassination).

Today, the monks still train in martial arts for several hours every day--perfecting the art of hand-to-hand and weapons combat (every monk is required to be proficient in each of the sect's 18 traditional weapons, and a master of one). Which is all to say, when it comes to kung fu, they got game. Their video screens like a cross between Olympic free-ex tumbling highlights and that straight-up ol' Bruce Lee shit, minus all the hooting and howling (the monks fight mostly in silence).

Impressed and curious, I set up a phone interview and rapped with the monks. Well, some of them, sort of. Fifteen of the monastery's 60-some monks are on the Lollapalooza tour; they range in age from 6 to 76 (the youngest is actually an adept, or shami, who lives at the monastery with his uncle, who is a full monk). I'm afraid I can't tell you precisely which monks I spoke to (although I think the old dude was in the room most of the time) because my questions and the monks' answers were conveyed back and forth by an Austrian translator. It was sort of like a press conference in reverse. I'd pose a question, the Austrian would relay it to the monks in the room, I'd hear several competing responses, then the Austrian would come back on the phone and give me an answer in halting English.

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