'Me? I'm skeptical!'
by raffi


[This section has been updated since I first put this essay up in December '99. I've gotten a good bit of email, both agreeing and disagreeing, I thought it was a good idea if I expanded and clarified my view on the Shaolin Temple situation before I start talking specifically about the Shaolin Monk Tour scandals].

For those who may not be aware, the Shaolin Monks like you see in the movies no longer exist. By this I mean the historical Shaolin Monks, popular in Chinese history, folklore, literature and movies, who practiced Shaolin wushu while staying devote buddhist monks, living in the Shaolin Temple have disappeared. The temple was practically abandoned during the Cultural Revolution in China. What you find at the temple today is not what was there beforehand. The fact that the people you find in and around the Temple now claiming to represent it are not true monks is well known amongst martial artists in China. Jet Li himself is the best eyewitness, he went to the Temple in 1979 for the filming of Shaolin Temple and didn't find any martial monks. Read his remarks off his own webpage here. Furthermore it is a well known fact that martial arts masters from other parts of China were brought by the government to Shaolin in the 80's to reintroduce martial arts to the area.

Presently around the temple there is a large number of private wushu schools, some of whom teach authentic Shaolin Wushu, but many of them also feature contemporary wushu (ie 'competition sport wushu'). Even if the people running these schools were buddhist monks (which many of them, of course are not), they would not be Shaolin Temple Monks (they would be "Monks who live down the street from the Shaolin Temple"). But then, are Buddhist monks supposed to be running a private martial arts school? Despite this fact, for many of these schools, their student's attire during wushu performances (if not practice) is the robes of Buddhist monks - kind of like dressing up like a Catholic priest during Halloween, somewhat sacreligious if you ask me.

But what about the people that live and train IN the Temple? Well either way, we know they aren't direct, uninterrupted decendents from the historical monks. But still, you can ask the question: Are they true Buddhist monks? By that I mean they have taken the vows of a Buddhist monk (the same Buddhist vows that any monk, Shaolin or not must take and follow). There is a difference between a Buddhist and a Buddhist monk, just like there is a difference between a Catholic and a Catholic Priest, the standards of behavior within the religion are different, Monks and Priest are held to much higher standards of behavior than laymen. The behavior of the "monks" in the news and on these tours would lead you to believe that these people are not living up to those standards (see the update section at the bottom for examples). There very well may be true devote Buddhist Monks out there practicing Shaolin Wushu, but I'm afraid these people are a very small minority.

As Jet Li alluded to, and anyone who has travelled to the temple and surrounding village can attest to, The Shaolin Temple and surrounding areas have been transformed into more of a 'tourist trap' by the Chinese and local governments and the local villagers in the years since the film. Dozens of martial arts schools popped up, some now quite large, with hundreds or thousands of students. Often times the instructors at these schools claim great pedigrees of martial arts knowledge ('Thirty-somethingth generation disciple of Shaolin Kungfu', for example) But here did these people come from? Where were they hiding from 1965 through 1980? Some journalists would lead us to believe that the government forced the monks to break their vows, leave the temple and assimilate into society, although I don't understand how the Red Guard can FORCE someone to get married and have children. Others mention that these monks may have been in hiding in the mountains during the Cultural Revolution, either way they certainly weren't living in the Temple and their sudden appearance in such great numbers lead one to be very suspicious. (three non-martial monks in 1980 to hundreds within a decade or two).

Lately in America a number of groups claiming to be Shaolin Monks have been touring and performing on TV (programs such as Regis and Kathie Lee, Letterman, MTV, etc). It seems that these groups are most often from the schools outside of the temple, which means you're paying for people who aren't even from the Shaolin Temple, and aren't even monks either. So you're just getting people who have shaved heads and wear robes and perform wushu. But what are they performing? More often then not, it's not even Shaolin quan. It's Contemporary Changquan, Broadsword, etc -- and often times, not even that good, any professional in China would blow them out of the water.

So what are you getting for your money? It's definitely not "Shaolin Monks" it's more like "People wearing robes with bald heads who might live near the Shaolin Temple who aren't even monks who aren't even performing Shaolin wushu." - Clearly these tours are misrepresenting themselves to the unknowing public and making money off of people through deception (which is fraud, last time I checked).

But that's not even touching on the monks we see popping up all over the world nowadays claiming to be 'authentic'. But let's return to the original focus of this essay, the "Monk Tour" promoter I tried to ask about this -

The following is an email exchange I had with an individual claiming to be promoting a Shaolin Monks tour. These email are all the information I have about him, I do not know anything about him or his motivations but I thought I would share these email with the wushu community so they can see what happens when you try to ask one of these people details about their "Shaolin Monks."

Let me start with the first unsolicited emails recieved from this individual who apparently is bringing a troupe of monks to the US (I have removed his surname and email address), the first one was sent to a fellow wushu webpage creator, the second one was sent to me. His English leaves something to be desired, but I think his responses are not caused by his lack of English fluency:

[Note that the date and times of these emails appear to be out of order. This is due to the fact that Jimmy is writing from Asia, and was writing from the West Coast of the US, so his times are all 15 hours ahead of mine]

From: Jimmy ____ <>
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 16:29:03 +0800
Subject: Shaolin Temple Fighting Monk Team
Message-ID: <> 

I read your page 3 times and then decided to send this message for your
My name is Jimmy,the supervisor of Fighting Monk Team of China Shaolin
Temple of Songshan Mountain(Henan Province of China),and like to set up
a close and long-term relationship with you if practical on your part.
I hope to bring our team to make 2- month performance tour to some good
universities in USA the purpose of which is to have ___Chinese culture
Wushu popularised there in the north America.If you're very interested
in this
field and in good position please don't hesitate contact me.

Your reply would be highly appreciated. Sincerely/Jimmy,Fax(852)2850
4203/   P.S. Your fax No..please!
This is the one sent to me, very similar -
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 17:39:34 +0800
From: Jimmy ____ <>
Subject: Shaolin Temple Fighting Monk Team(Songshan Mountain/Henan/China)

Dear Raffin,
Our team just came back to China from Engalnd,and likes to visit USA
in 2 or 3 monthes for Wushu performance in some universities there.If
you're VERY INTERESTED in it and are in strong position to cooperate
with us in this way please kindly show us your idea.This purpose of
USA is to have Shaolin Wushu recognized and seek a good partner for
Your response would be appreciated,we remain.

Fax(852)2850 4203/Email: ____&
P.S.Your Fax No.,please.
Being the skeptic that I am, I sent the following reply asking for some more details:
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 07:42:51 -0700 (PDT)
From: Raffi Kamalian
To: Jimmy ____ <>
Subject: Re: Shaolin Temple Fighting Monk Team(Songshan Mountain/Henan/China)

Do you perform Shaolin wushu, or do you dress up in the robes and say you
are Shaolin monks? Who are the performers?

The next day, I recieved the following ambigious reply:
Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1999 10:16:27 +0800
From: Jimmy ____ <>
To: raffi
Subject: your email

There's only one "Shaolin Temple of Songshan Mountain,China" all over
the world and which has a team of fighting monks(Kungfu boxers)who are
monks,performers and good coaches.Me?The one of two leaders.

Clearly he claims here that they are "monks." I decided to write him again and tell him that I was aware of people presenting fake monks as authentic and try to get him to clarify that last statement. I presented the evidence from the Jet Li webpage to see if he could refute it:
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 22:08:33 -0700 (PDT)
From: Raffi Kamalian 
To: Jimmy ____ <>
Subject: Re: your email

There have been a lot of groups coming to the US lately claiming to be
Shaolin Monks, when in fact they are most often second rate wushu
athletes with shaved heads and monk's robes. I do not want to help
perpetuate any falsehoods on the public.

From what I understand there are no true Shaolin monks in existence and
even the village and the temple at Shaolin have become nothing more than
a tourist trap in recent years.  This is information I've gathered from
wushu athletes from China.

For example according to Jet Li, when he arrived at the temple to film the
movie "Shaolin Temple" in 1980: 

"There were only three monks living at the temple. One was the abbot, one
the gatekeeper, and the last one was the caretaker/cook. As far as we
knew, none of them had any particular martial prowess and nobody in the
area practiced wushu."

(see Jet Li's official website at:

Can you contradict this information?

I eagerly awaited his response, since I thought I was clear and unambigiously confronting him with evidence which would force him to actually disclose some real information about his "monk team". Unfortunately I didn't hear from him for a few days so I wrote back again:
Date: Tue, 2 Nov 1999 10:42:11 -0800 (PST)
From: Raffi Kamalian 
To: Jimmy ____ <>
Subject: Re: your email

Mr. ____,

I never got a response to my last email.  Let me ask you again,  is your
group comprised of true Buddhist Monks performing Shaolin Quan?

-Raffi Kamalian
I did get a response, but it was not what I had hoped for:
Date: Wed, 03 Nov 1999 11:55:08 +0800
From: Jimmy ____ <>
To: raffi
Subject: Top-Rate Fighting Monks of Shaolin Temple,Songshan Mountain

Dear Raffi,

Many secrets & profound things inside Shaolin Temple,unknown to the
outside world.Me,actualy the secretary to Head Abbot(square Zhang) and
the supervisor of Fighting Monk Corps.Recently,we cooperated with some
technicians of Hollywood in England.

Around Shaolin Temple,there're some 1st rate wushu boxers(golden Metal
awards at least) and 3 famous Kung Fu Movies Stars(little Tighter/little
Dragon/little Leopard.aged from 8 to 11 years old)

The skeptic in me does not believe in the "secrets" of Shaolin. Give me some facts! I'm wondering what this "Hollywood in England" thing is, anyone know? This is the second time he uses the "Me(?), ...." literary device, by the way.

One thing to note is that he apparently is implying that Jet Li spent like two years in the area filming the movie Shaolin Temple and didn't know about the "secrets" or "profound things" hidden there.

I decided to pursue the part mentioning winning wushu championships and "movie stars" (Would real shaolin monks would be making movies? Then again, would real shaolin monks would be touring around performing for money?)

Date: Wed, 10 Nov 1999 17:35:49 -0800 (PST)
From: Raffi Kamalian 
To: Jimmy ____ <>
Subject: Re: Top-Rate Fighting Monks of Shaolin Temple,Songshan Mountain

Mr. ____,  what movies have Little Tiger, Leopard and Little Leopard
been in?

Also what competitions have they won gold metals in? Are they monks or
simply children who practice Shaolin Quan?

I'm sorry if I am being skeptical, but as I said before,  many people
attempt to abuse the name of the Shaolin Temple for self-promotion.

OK, direct questions right? Can't go wrong, right? Guess again:
Date: Thu, 11 Nov 1999 10:59:15 +0800
From: Jimmy ____ <>
To: raffi
Subject: Shaolin Temple,China

Dear Raffi,

I understand you well.In this world there's only one Shaolin Temple!
Kindly show us your background and the proposal for cooperation with us
if a big project could be established there in USA THROUGH reliable
cooperation fo both parties.

We'd like to invite you(& some famous Kungfu movie stars on your side)
to visit Shalin Temple,China.Invitation Letter will be written to you
directly by the Head Abbot of China Shaolin Temple of Songshan Mountain,
China that way you could get part of secrets of this Zen sect.And,by the any
Hong Kong movie stars have been received by the Head Abbot.Fighting
Monks & Little
Movie Stars will meet you for Gungfu Exchange,too.

So now this man who sent me unsolicited email asking to cooperate with them in presenting a performance is asking me to prove my background to them once I start asking too many questions. I gave up on trying to get any answers out of this guy.

I guess I should have been flattered that Abbot of the only one Shaolin Temple would write me an invitation letter, but that actually only makes me even more sure that this is phony. Who the hell am I? Abbots have more important things to be doing than inviting people who run webpages to visit and "exchange gungfu." The fact that meeting "Little Movie Stars" is being dangled out there is also suspect. Obviously this guy didn't look at my Famous Picture Page.

A few weeks later I got this email from him. I'm still waiting for him to contact me though. :P

Date: Fri, 03 Dec 1999 10:23:34 +0800
From: Jimmy ____ <>
To: raffi
Subject: Gungfu Exchange with Fighting Monks?

Hope to set up friendly connection with your university if practical on
you part.When reaching LA,I'll contact you.

I assure that this email correspondence is presented completely and unaltered with the exception of the removal of the Monk tour guy's surname and email address. If anyone wishes to disagree with me or discuss more about the true status of the Shaolin Temple right now, please don't hesistate to email me.
Update - 5/26/00: The People's Daily published an article on this subject giving the Chinese Government's position on this subject, CLICK HERE to view it.

Update - 7/15/00: MSNBC has an interesting article on the Shaolin Temple and its "monks." I think the article is actually from the international edition of Newsweek. I don't agree with everything in it but it gives a clear picture of what a corrupt shame it all is. CLICK HERE to view it.

Update - 9/24/00: Apparently there has been a great deal of turmoil around the Temple as of late. The local government (and/or the Head Abbot of the Temple) has been demolishing a good number of the schools and businesses near the Temple that I refer to above. This site has a good deal of information from sources in the village on the situation - (there are like 20 pages worth of stuff up here, but at least read the first couple). CLICK HERE for an alternate view from the People's Daily (an official news outlet of the Chinese Government). In my opinion, this situation only bolsters my arguments that the entire thing driven by people more interested in power and tourist dollars than Shaolin wushu.

Update - 11/30/00: Here's a disturbing article on a murder near the temple of a student at one of the private schools I was talking about - Killing of Shaolin pupil, 14, shocks China (The Scotsman Newspaper).

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Last modified: November 30th, 2000