rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-03-11 08:58

Shaolin Finger Jab

Upon return from Longmen, we caught a bus out to Dengfeng - a small city in the shadow of Song Shan, upon which sits the ancient and hallowed Shaolin Temple, whence originated Kung Fu, and thus all other east asian martial arts.

Dengfeng is a bit of a shithole, but there were a bunch of tents set up, in which we sat, ordered food to be cooked before our eyes and played cards, much to the amusement of half the population. Fried frogs with chilli and sichuan pepper, garlic stem and pork stir-fry, Fish With 10,000 Tiny Bones, and the real deal - lamb's balls on a stick. Ossie wasn't much of a fan (claimed to not like the texture because it reminded him of brains), but I thought they were damn good. Soft and juicy, a bit muttony. Try them if you get the chance. Yes, I can see you all smiling nervously and squirming in your seats. Squeamish bastards.

Dengfeng ain't great shakes, so the morning found us at Shaolin temple. Another golden mile of tourist traps (yes, I beleive you that that genuine Shaolin Wu Shu sword is only 300 kuai - no, 200 kuai - no, 150 kuai - no, your best price!). If the facilities themselves had half as much kuai spent on them as the tourist traps, they'd probably house substantially more than the thousands of students who currently train there. But anyway.

A fairly stock demonstration, incredibly fit young lads from about eight to sixteen years old showing what wu shu is all about, but being hassled to have my photo taken with the boys and to buy postcards and beads and fake swords and shit was just a bit much. I did manage to sneak out back, where the lads who do the demonstrations get to hang out and be lads before a show - sparring and talking and playing basketball and sleeping in the sun. That's still the best thing I took from the place.

Two other things of worth relate to our man Da Mo - the cave in which he meditated for nine years, and the stone which his shadow is said to have been imprinted upon. The smooth, black stone was removed from the cave at some point, and a life-sized figure of him carved into it, and it was erected in the second-to-top level of the Shaolin temple. The cave itself is still there, and now has a much-larger-than-life image of the old geezer sitting above it. The story goes that Da Mo came to this part of China via India via indochina, Sichuan and Tibet. When he arrived at Songshan, the Shaolin monks turned him away as he wasn't sufficiently cultivated. So he climbed up to the cave on Bear's Ear peak, and meditated there for nine years, until they relented and let him in. The first martial arts in the world supposedly originated in India, and Da Mo found the Shaolin monks in very poor physical shape, on account of them practicing very much meditation and very little else. Da Mo demonstrated that life is about balance, and between meditations, encouraged them to imitate the actions of the birds and animals of Songshan. When Shaolin came under attack from local warlords, the monks found that their meditative styles adapted very readily to combat, and thus were born the fundamentals of what we now call kung fu - Crane Style, Bear Style, and the Tiger Style of Wu-Tang fame, and from there developed eastern martial arts as we know them today.

Da Mo's cave is a bloody long way up the mountain, and it's amazingly steep. When you see footage of monks in orange spider-walking up and down stone stairs in the middle of winter, that's where they're going.


2006-03-11 08:28

20,000 headless buddhas

The 6th century was a big deal in China, a time of massive turmoil and conflict, from which emerged the Tang dynasty which ruled gloriously for three hundred years, and exerted influence over virtually all of modern China, most of Mongolia and modern Korea as well (via the Silla). Luoyang was one of the great capitals during the Tang (the other being Xian, or Chang'an as it was then known), and was also a capital of a bunch of other dynasties and so on. The effect of this was the tendency of the (relatively) recently buddhisyletized Chinese royalty to acquire merit in various ways, most notably in the endowment and construction of buddhist temples and monuments. The Longmen (or Dragon Gate) caves are positively thick with them - hundreds of hand-hewn caves, containing thousands of inscriptions, statues, reliefs and sculptures dating back to the fifth century, on both banks of a greasy river. The catch: looters and rabid cultural revolutionaries have defaced (literally, removing the faces or heads) or destroyed almost all of them. A chamber of 10,000 tiny buddhas - each with its face chipped off. Not as much work as carving them, certainly - but that sure is a hell of a lot of effort to go to. But I suppose when you have 4,000 years of culture to erase in a single generation, there can be no half measures. Arms were thrown up and hands were wrung in righteous indignation when the Taleban destroyed the Bamiyan buddhas - do those people even know about this?

Some pieces are in museums in the US, more are in private collections, and yet more were just smashed up and used to build roads with. If there's one thing which really stands out about communism, it's shortsightedness. This is perverse, since communist theory is all about building a bright future through temporary hardship, but it shows in almost everything built since 1949 - and since there's practically nothing remaining from before then, that means most everything in China. It's a country of shreds and patches, which appears to just be realising that maintenance is something which needs to be done, not talked about.

So there's still a lot to see at Longmen, but what's more remarkable is the dissonance between ancient and recent history, and between stated and acted attitudes. The signage bemoans the thieves and vandals and treasure hunters of the 1930s, but fails to mention the Cultural Revolution. It states as fact the wars of the 6th century which halted the construction of some of the finest pieces, but not the war between the PLA and the KMT which destroyed many more (though mostly not within the Longmen area). The place is now all shored up and accessibilised, and hefty fees are charged both to get in, and in a gauntlet of tourist-trap shops, extortionate bus and taxi fares, and restaurants on the gholden mile from the parking lot to the ticket counter. On the far bank of the river, connected to the Xiangshan Temple where empresses once composed poetry, is a luxury resort and conference centre. The place must be hell in summer.