The inspiration for countless kung fu stars from Bruce Lee and David Carradine to modern films such as Shaolin Soccer, video games and even hip-hop albums, the sacred teachings of the Shaolin Temple were for centuries known only to those willing to turn their backs on life outside the temple and devote themselves to its teachings.
In recent years, however, the temple has moved rapidly into the modern age, with a style of aggressive commercialisation that has shocked many in its homeland.
And now the current abbot has announced plans for a £200 million complex about 100 miles south of Sydney, Australia, which alongside a holy temple would include a kung fu academy, luxury hotel and even a golf course.
The Shoalhaven City Council in New South Wales said earlier this month that Shaolin Temple Foundation Australia, the developer, had finalised a land purchase at Comberton Grange for what will be known as Shaolin Village.
Mayor Joanna Gash said the city council and the state government had both approved the concept plan, which includes a temple sanctuary with resident monks, a live-in kung fu academy, a 500-bed four-star hotel and a 27-hole golf course.
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There were suggestions the complex would attract up to 300,000 visitors to the area each year.
“We would like to see it happen as soon as possible,” said Gash. “Shaolin Temple is well regarded. It will be phenomenal for us. There’s a lot of interest in it.
“It’s more than a temple,” she said. “It’s a spiritual thing. It’s also tourism. And it’s employment.”
The temple, built in the late fifth century and located in central China’s Henan province, has rapidly commercialised itself under Abbot Shi Yongxin over the past decade.
Since taking over as abbot in the late 1990s, Shi has threatened to sue companies that use the temple’s name or image without permission, and has served as executive producer for martial arts films centred on the temple.
The temple now takes in foreign students, runs executive martial arts retreats, and maintains a website in Chinese and English. Two modern bathrooms were recently added to the temple for use by monks and tourists, and last year the temple advertised for the post of a media director to help build its brand.
Shaolin’s owners are also developing a gaming app to teach people kung fu on their mobile phones.
Shi has defended the drive towards commerce as a means to preserve the temple and its Buddhist cultures.
The abbot made a personal trip to Shoalhaven earlier this month to present a check of more than £2 million to finalise the land acquisition. The gesture was a commitment to the project, according to the city council.
The proposal for the complex was first filed with the state government in 2008, and the lengthy planning process had reportedly left Shaolin Temple considering walking away from the project.
Shi, however, told local media that it was “destiny” that Shaolin would come to Australia.