Not Very Zen: How A Shaolin Monastery Turned Into A Chinese Soap Opera

Liu Jinsong

DENGFENG - Three years ago, the local government of Dengfeng City in central Henan Province ceded their controlling stake in the “Shaoling Monastery Scenic Area” to China National Travel Service (CTS). The price was very low in order to attract greater investment, and the CTS vowed to carry out several major construction projects around the ancient site, the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and symbol of Chinese marital arts.

But as time has passed — with CTS pocketing huge profits via the monastery — the projects it promised have never come to fruition. On July 1, the Dengfeng government finally and forcibly took over control of the entrance to the scenic area. But just one day later, thanks to the intervention of higher authorities in Beijing, CTS had reclaimed managerial rights over the site.

This is but the latest plot twist in the ongoing Shaolin soap opera. Since this famous monastery was declared a national scenic location (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), and became a for-profit entity, all parties that have anything to do with the temple want a slice of the money-making pie. In the name of discovering Kung Fu stars, martial arts matches are organized; beauty pageant candidates appear, in bikinis, at the sacred monastery to attract extra media coverage; new businesses every day use the holy name as their brand, including Shaolin Automobile and Shaolin Hotel.

Protesting monks

Of course, the local government and the monastery remain the greatest benificiaries of this ready source of revenue, the Shaolin itself. Ticket sales of all attractions around the temple make up the considerable sum of 150 million RMB (about $25 million) annually, allocated at 70% and 30%, respectively.

But conflicts exist even between the two biggest winners in this free-for-all. Shi Yongxin, the Shaolin abbot, once complained to a newspaper, “We are the passive party of the ticket sales and take whatever the local authority deigns to give to us. As to how many tickets are really sold, we don't have a say.”

Seeking outstanding payments from the Dengfeng government, Shaolin monks once even petitioned at 2 a.m. in front of Henan Provincial Government's doorway. “Monks are there to chant their scriptures,” one official retorted. “What do they want so much money for!?"

There are also moochers who exploit the monastery, which was founded in the 5th century. These freeloaders include operators of kung fu shows and matches, hotel owners, crooks who build fake shrines nearby for “incense money” donations, or even fortune tellers pretending to be monks.

Many even regard the abbot as a businessman-at-heart. When he appeared at the monastery's gate to receive the kneeling homage of the hundreds of foreign disciples of kung fu from America, the local crowd applauded with admiration: “Yongxin has got the goods!”

Buddhist divo

Naturally, fame and wealth also bring trouble. A while ago, one rumor was circulating that Shi Yongxin was accused of possessing tens of billions in savings as well as having a young female student from Beijing University as his girlfriend. Several cameras were discovered in Shi's bedroom, and certain Shaolin staff believe that the spying devices were installed because the monastery had managed to halt a hotel project.

In addition to the direct financial interests, Shi's frequent media coverage has also been the source of local jealousy and disharmony. Some government officials say privately that he is self-centered and pompous, and always winds up standing in the middle whenever group photos are taken with VIP visitors, including the first time a head of state, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, paid a visit to the temple to watch a kung fu demonstration.

The birthplace of Zen seems incapable of learning its own ancient lessons about inner peace.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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