The East has forever drawn seekers of all kinds.
In centuries past, merchants and explorers sailed to the Orient searching for wealth and untapped resources. One explorer, in a manic search for a quicker way to the fabled lands, discovered America instead.
More recently, Asia has been the destination of a different sort of seeker, in search of higher spiritual planes. Since the '60s, thousands of American sons and daughters have ventured to India to lay their backpacks at the feet of gurus, or to China and Japan to witness the awe-inspiring structures of monastic life.
In the '70s, the oft-times violent urges overtaking young American revolutionaries found an outlet through Asia's martial arts. While the American practice unfortunately translated what had been designed primarily as meditation into just another form of ass-kicking, it also provided America with a reference point for a very real -- and very beautiful -- culmination of Chinese culture: the art of Kung Fu.
There is no doubt that it is an art, martial or otherwise. The beauty of Shaolin Kung Fu is unequalled by any other form. And though it may not be as immediately deadly as military styles such as Krav Maga, Jujitsu or Kenpo, Shaolin reflects a rich tradition -- both warlike and scholarly -- that dates back 1,500 years.
Developed in the aftermath of Zen Buddhism's migration from India to China, the Shaolin style borrows heavily from the aesthetics of nature. Multiple fighting styles imitate the movements and temperament of animals like the eagle, the praying mantis, the tiger and the monkey. Some movements may reflect the manner of flora -- the lotus bloom -- while others take their cues from imaginary fauna, such as the dragon.
The Shaolin monks who have perfected these movements have done so both in times of war and peace, with or without the favor of the emperors who ruled the day. Their path -- like Zen Buddhism itself -- is one of individualism, and it is this tolerant approach that led to the monks' near-destruction (along with most of their temples) at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Currently, the Shaolin monks enjoy a bit of protection at their temple on Song Mountain; with worldwide interest in their culture at a peak (courtesy of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), it is unlikely that the gorgeous movements of Shaolin will disappear anytime soon.
This relative security for their art (relative in the context of 1,500 years of conflict) has provided the Shaolin monks with the peace and resources needed to stage a spectacular touring show, philosophically titled "Shaolin: Wheel of Life."
The lavish stage production places the exquisite movements within an equally appealing context; gone are the high- school gyms and muddy public parks that, to this day, have been the main staging ground for martial-arts demonstrations. And gone too are the clunky gestures of novices grappling with an unfamiliar art form.
Here, the story of Shaolin is beautifully told through a dramatization of minor treachery: In "Wheel of Life," the monks' loyalty to their emperor is repaid with betrayal and murder, when a group of Shaolin practitioners seek to return to their monastic life after defending the emperor against foreign invaders. Yet the drama is incidental to the action, as scene after lush scene is dominated by demonstrations of the monks' incredible skill and jaw-dropping flexibility.
In their orange robes and rippling muscles, the monks bring the legends of Shaolin to life as they are hoisted aloft on spears, folded into incredible contortionist shapes, and shown to be formidable wielders of an arsenal of weapons. Whips, chains, broadswords and staffs are brandished with awesome ease, and every manner of material is broken over every possible human surface. (The steel rod bent over the forehead is cool, but when one monk splinters a wooden pole over another's backside, I began to wonder just what they are teaching up there on Song Mountain.)
The action is set to a lively soundtrack played by traditional Chinese instruments. This is not the sort of canned instrumentation one hears over egg rolls and duck sauce. The costumes are extremely colorful and realistic and lend the drama an air of traditional Chinese opera, though there are very few lyrics, aside from the screams which young monks use to center their "Qi" (pronounced "chi," meaning energy) before performing another set of death-defying feats.
While martial-arts purists may have reservations about watching short-form katas and the Shaolin traditions reduced to spectacle, the performance is rightfully billed as theater. And truthfully, it would be much drier if drama did not lend an air of antagonism to the martial arts demonstrated here.
The performance is tailored for an audience who might be less familiar with Kung Fu, and through the objections of some practitioners, the sheer beauty of the show provides an entry point to an art form which might otherwise remain inaccessible.
Indeed, the Shaolin monks are few even today, and though they uphold the best traditions of their history, the majority of Kung Fu practiced in China is a watered-down, state-sanctioned version of Wushu. Though beautiful to look at, it is not very effective on the battlefield (or in the back alley, as the case may be today).
But no matter: "Wheel of Life" eschews orthodox argument for aesthetics and dramatization and promotes a tradition of Shaolin Kung Fu that has been all but lost in the blood-spattered pages of Chinese history.