An­cient Brand­ing Se­crets of The Shaolin Tem­ple™

Shi Yongxin built a tiny monastery into a GLOBAL BRAND. Then karma caught up to him

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - Features - By Christopher Beam

His Ho­li­ness the Ven­er­a­ble Ab­bot Shi Yongxin would de­liver the money him­self. Five thou­sand miles from the Shaolin Tem­ple, the an­cient Bud­dhist monastery and well­spring of kung fu that he over­sees in the moun­tains of cen­tral China, a city coun­cil in Aus­tralia had ap­proved his pur­chase of some land. At­tuned to the power of sym­bolic ges­tures, Yongxin wanted to seal the deal in per­son, so in Fe­bru­ary the cheru­bic, saf­fron-robed ab­bot jour­neyed from He­nan prov­ince to Shoal­haven, New South Wales, and handed the mayor a check for $3 mil­lion. Yongxin smiled and pressed his hands to­gether, as if in prayer. “It is des­tiny,” he said.

Yongxin had ne­go­ti­ated for the property for nearly a decade. He wanted to build a com­plex there called Shaolin Vil­lage, where Aus­tralians and in­ter­na­tional tourists could learn about Chan Bud­dhism and the tem­ple’s famed war­rior monks. But to think of Shaolin Vil­lage as a tem­ple would be like call­ing Ver­sailles a house. In ad­di­tion to a monastery and kung fu acad­emy, the de­vel­op­ment Yongxin en­vi­sioned in­cluded a four-star ho­tel with 500 beds, res­i­den­tial vil­las, and a 27-hole golf course, at a cost of more than $270 mil­lion.

Yongxin, in his 16 years as head of the Shaolin Tem­ple, had presided over many busi­ness ven­tures and was known across China and the world as the “CEO monk.” Since tak­ing his vows of piety in the early 1980s, he had trans­formed the Shaolin Tem­ple—a picturesque com­pound of prayer halls, tree-dab­bled court­yards, and Bud­dhist shrines set against a lush moun­tain­side—from a poor and rel­a­tively un­known out­post into a global brand. He be­came a sym­bol of the suc­cess­ful in­ter­sec­tion of church, state, and commerce in China, a kind of anti-Dalai Lama who en­joys po­lit­i­cal fa­vor as well as spir­i­tual sta­tus. Yongxin first drew na­tional at­ten­tion in China in the mid-1990s, when he filed a law­suit against a com­pany that pro­duced Shaolin brand sausages—a prod­uct that was not only unau­tho­rized but also, given the Bud­dhist monks’ vege­tar­i­an­ism, par­tic­u­larly off-mes­sage. To pre­vent fur­ther brand di­lu­tion, he cre­ated the He­nan Shaolin Tem­ple In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Co. and reg­is­tered the name Shaolin as a trade­mark. While ab­bots had tra­di­tion­ally over­seen only the tem­ple grounds, Yongxin got the shabby war­ren of shops and mar­tial arts schools out­side the com­plex de­mol­ished, in the name of pre­serv­ing its char­ac­ter, and

clashed with the lo­cal gov­ern­ment over ticket sales to the re­gion. He also cre­ated the Shaolin Kungfu Monk Corps, a tour­ing troupe that per­forms for pay­ing au­di­ences from Thai­land to Canada.

For cen­turies, the monks of the Shaolin Tem­ple mostly prayed and prac­ticed mar­tial arts, while liv­ing off the land and the do­na­tions of wor­ship­pers. Un­der Yongxin, their ac­tiv­i­ties ex­panded to in­clude food and medicine sales, con­struc­tion, en­ter­tain­ment, and con­sult­ing. In 2006 the tem­ple teamed with a Shen­zhen me­dia com­pany to pro­duce Kungfu Star, an Amer­i­can Idol-style TV com­pe­ti­tion. Shaolin an­nounced last year that it would be­gin de­vel­op­ing mo­bile apps, in­clud­ing in­struc­tional kung fu soft­ware. The Shaolin Vil­lage project in Aus­tralia was only the next log­i­cal step in the ab­bot’s ex­pan­sion­ist theo-cor­po­rate em­pire. “If China can im­port Dis­ney re­sorts,” he said in March, “why can’t other coun­tries im­port the Shaolin Monastery?”

Yongxin had a knack for pol­i­tics as well as busi­ness. He was both vice chair­man of the Bud­dhist As­so­ci­a­tion of China and a mem­ber of the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress, the coun­try’s leg­is­la­ture. He met with lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing Nel­son Man­dela, the queen of Eng­land, and Tim Cook, the head of Ap­ple. Within the tem­ple, he com­manded a loyal fol­low­ing among its 400 or so monks. “He’s the per­son I re­spect the most,” said Shi Yanlu, one of Yongxin’s most trusted dis­ci­ples, at one point. “He really dares to dream.”

Then, on July 25, a mes­sage about Yongxin ap­peared on a Chi­nese In­ter­net fo­rum. Its au­thors claimed to be Shaolin dis­ci­ples and used the pseu­do­nym Shi Zhengyi. Shi is a ti­tle taken by all Shaolin monks, and zhengyi means “jus­tice” in Man­darin. Bor­row­ing the lan­guage of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s on­go­ing an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paign, which prom­ises to tar­get both “tigers” (high-level of­fi­cials) and “flies” (low-level ones), the post asked, “Who will su­per­vise the big tiger Shi Yongxin?” To “pro­tect the hall of our an­ces­tors” and “re­vi­tal­ize Shaolin,” the self-pro­claimed whis­tle-blow­ers were “bravely step­ping for­ward to re­veal the rule-break­ing and law­break­ing of Shaolin Tem­ple Ab­bot Shi Yongxin.” His mis­deeds, they charged, in­cluded rap­ing a nun, fa­ther­ing two chil­dren, em­bez­zling funds, and gen­er­ally “stain­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of the Shaolin Tem­ple.” The ac­cusers posted pho­tos of a nun and a small child who were sup­pos­edly Yongxin’s mis­tress and daugh­ter.

Over the next few days, Zhengyi re­leased new ma­te­rial. Side-by-side pho­tos seemed to show that Yongxin had not one but two hous­ing reg­is­tra­tions, which is il­le­gal in China. A po­lice re­port in­cluded hand­writ­ten notes from the in­ter­ro­ga­tion of a Shen­zhen busi­ness­woman who claimed she’d slept with Yongxin and had been threat­ened by his dis­ci­ples; one of them “told me he’d let me have a com­fort­able death,” she told the po­lice. A so­cial me­dia user, post­ing un­der the same woman’s name, up­loaded a photo of dirty un­der­wear sup­pos­edly worn dur­ing a sex­ual en­counter with Yongxin and claimed to have saved a con­dom used by the ab­bot. Let­ters bear­ing the of­fi­cial stamps of for­mer Shaolin ab­bots said that Yongxin had been expelled from the tem­ple— twice. The doc­u­ments’ au­then­tic­ity wasn’t con­firmed, but those in­clined to be­lieve the charges saw in Yongxin a clas­sic por­trait: the out­wardly pi­ous re­li­gious leader ex­posed as a hyp­ocrite, abus­ing his author­ity to com­mit sins of the flesh and the purse.

Yongxin made a show of pro­ceed­ing with busi­ness as usual. On its web­site, the tem­ple dis­missed the charges as “vi­cious slan­der” and called for the gov­ern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute the ac­cusers. Yongxin taunted them in an in­ter­view with Global Times, a Chi­nese news­pa­per, pub­lished on Aug. 3. “If I really had a prob­lem, you wouldn’t have to post ac­cu­sa­tions about me on the In­ter­net,” he said. “You could go di­rectly to the rel­e­vant de­part­ments.”

He might have re­gret­ted the chal­lenge. That week, six Shaolin dis­ci­ples trav­eled north to Beijing and, on Aug. 8, walked into the Supreme Peo­ple’s Procu­ra­torate, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment agency that han­dles in­ves­ti­ga­tions. The group in­cluded a for­mer head of the Monk Corps, sev­eral other se­nior monks, and, lead­ing them, Yongxin’s trusted dis­ci­ple, Shi Yanlu. Within a week, gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors were vis­it­ing the Shaolin Tem­ple and scru­ti­niz­ing the Yongxin em­pire.

The Shaolin Tem­ple was founded in 495 A.D. by the monk Bud­dhab­hadra, who had trav­eled from In­dia to China. It’s con­sid­ered the birth­place of Chan Bud­dhism, a pre­cur­sor of Zen Bud­dhism. At the foot of Mt. Song, the tem­ple be­came known for its war­rior monks—a con­tra­dic­tion, given their com­mit­ment to non­vi­o­lence, but an ad­van­tage dur­ing wartime—when, in the year 621, a group of Shaolin monks came to the aid of the Tang em­peror in bat­tle. The tem­ple thrived dur­ing the Ming dy­nasty, as gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials re­cruited its monks for 16th cen­tury mil­i­tary cam­paigns, in­clud­ing sev­eral bat­tles against Ja­panese pi­rates. One ac­count de­scribes a group of 120 monks killing more than 100 “dwarf pi­rates,” while suf­fer­ing only four ca­su­al­ties.

The Shaolin fared worse un­der the Qing (1644-1911), as the new rulers, ques­tion­ing the monks’ loy­alty, tried to curb their mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity. In 1928 the tem­ple was torched by a Na­tion­al­ist gen­eral. The rise of Mao Ze­dong and the Com­mu­nist Party caused dam­age first spir­i­tual—monks were for­bid­den to wear robes or prac­tice Bud­dhist rit­u­als—and then phys­i­cal, when the Red Guards de­stroyed many of the tem­ple’s relics dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion.

A 16-year-old named Liu Yingcheng ar­rived in 1981. Grow­ing up on a farm in An­hui prov­ince, he’d of­ten heard sto­ries about Bud­dhist monks, and was taken with the idea of, in his words, “liv­ing a care­free life, com­ing and go­ing like the clouds and the fog.” Liu’s par­ents op­posed him be­com­ing a monk, so he waited un­til they were trav­el­ing to take some money and sneak away to Shaolin. He found the place in a sham­bles. The tem­ple was fall­ing apart, and only two dozen monks lived there, eat­ing lit­tle but maize paste and steamed buns. There hadn’t been an of­fi­cial ab­bot for more than 300 years. Still, Liu sought out the act­ing ab­bot, an old man named Xingzheng, who agreed to take him on. Liu cooked and grazed cat­tle while be­gin­ning his stud­ies. He was an un­re­mark­able mar­tial artist, but he was smart, and Xingzheng took a lik­ing to him. Dur­ing the young man’s vow cer­e­mony, the ab­bot gave him the dharma name Yongxin.

Any sense of tran­quil­ity was about to end. In 1982 the film The Shaolin Tem­ple, shot on lo­ca­tion and star­ring a 19-year-old kung fu phe­nom named Jet Li, be­came one of the first Chi­nese-made in­ter­na­tional block­busters. In­spired by the story of a slave boy flee­ing to Shaolin to learn kung fu and avenge his fa­ther’s death, would-be monks made pil­grim­ages to the tem­ple and of­fered to join

its ranks. Chil­dren flocked from around the coun­try to study mar­tial arts, and dozens of train­ing schools opened. Tourism spiked from roughly 50,000 visi­tors per year in the late 1970s to 2.6 mil­lion in 1984.

Yongxin watched this explosion with some trep­i­da­tion, but mostly ex­cite­ment—it was an op­por­tu­nity to spread Shaolin be­liefs to more peo­ple. At the same time, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment’s grip on re­li­gion was start­ing to re­lax. Xingzheng took ad­van­tage of the “re­form and open­ing” poli­cies of Deng Xiaop­ing to push for greater in­de­pen­dence for the tem­ple, trav­el­ing fre­quently to lobby of­fi­cials in the provin­cial cap­i­tal and Beijing. He would of­ten bring along Yongxin, who be­came known as Xingzheng’s “walk­ing stick.”

In his mem­oir, Shaolin Tem­ple in My Heart, Yongxin re­mem­bers trav­el­ing on the cheap, eat­ing bread they’d packed them­selves and stay­ing in bath­houses. (Yongxin, through a

spokesman, de­clined sev­eral re­quests to be in­ter­viewed.) He met of­fi­cials and learned the im­por­tance of po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions. Xingzheng suc­cess­fully per­suaded the gov­ern­ment to let the monks wear robes again and to al­low ticket sales, which gen­er­ated an in­come for the tem­ple. In this rad­i­cally open eco­nomic land­scape, Yongxin saw first­hand how the tem­ple could lever­age the Jet Li mir­a­cle into se­cu­rity, au­ton­omy, and growth.

Some ac­counts sug­gest Yongxin be­came too keen a stu­dent of power. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by Sina News, a Chi­nese news por­tal, in 1986, as Xingzheng was preparing for a cer­e­mony that would of­fi­cially make him ab­bot, he couldn’t find a nec­es­sary scroll. Xingzheng ac­cused Yongxin of steal­ing the sa­cred ob­ject out of a de­sire to be­come ab­bot him­self. At first Yongxin de­nied the charge, then re­port­edly ad­mit­ted guilt and gave the scroll back. Xingzheng also learned that Yongxin had been re­fer­ring to him­self as Shaolin’s “sec­ond in com­mand,” and some­times even as “ab­bot,” ac­cord­ing to Sina.

Xingzheng expelled Yongxin from the tem­ple, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments posted by Shi Zhengyi and state­ments by peo­ple who were at Shaolin at the time. But Yongxin re­fused to leave, even when, per one ac­count, some monks took his bed­ding and per­sonal items and threw them out of the tem­ple. A year later, doc­u­ments re­leased by Shi Zhengyi ap­pear to show, a new “hon­orary” ab­bot, Shi Dechan, again tried to kick Yongxin out. He wrote a let­ter to the Bud­dhism As­so­ci­a­tion of China enu­mer­at­ing Yongxin’s al­leged of­fenses, in­clud­ing in­cit­ing monks to beat up an elec­tri­cian. Again, Yongxin re­fused to be dis­missed. The farm boy who had come to Shaolin wish­ing to come and go like the clouds and the fog had learned the power of stay­ing put. He built his own base of supporters and, with higher-rank­ing monks ei­ther too ill or too un­pop­u­lar to take charge, even­tu­ally emerged as the de facto leader of the tem­ple, the monk with the clear­est abil­ity to con­tinue the mod­ern­iza­tion that Xingzheng had be­gun.

In 1995, Yongxin or­ga­nized a cel­e­bra­tion of the Shaolin Tem­ple’s 1,500th an­niver­sary, invit­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, Bud­dhist lead­ers, and thou­sands of guests from around the world. In a clever bit of po­lit­i­cal theater, he put on dis­play a me­mo­rial tablet com­mem­o­rat­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of China’s vic­tory over Ja­pan. The five-day cel­e­bra­tion got ex­ten­sive me­dia cov­er­age and helped es­tab­lish the Shaolin Tem­ple as the pre­em­i­nent monastery in China. “It was ex­cep­tion­ally suc­cess­ful,” Yongxin wrote in his mem­oir. Four years later, he went through the of­fi­cial in­duc­tion cer­e­mony and was named 30th ab­bot of the Shaolin Tem­ple. He was 34 years old. “I al­ways per­sist in things that I am de­ter­mined to do,” he wrote. “Peo­ple might not understand for the mo­ment, but ev­ery­thing will be­come clear at last.”

I’d heard a lot about the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the Shaolin Tem­ple, but noth­ing could pre­pare me for my first en­counter with Bud­dhism Inc. I paid the steep $16 en­trance fee and walked the long, tree-lined path from the front gate of the Song­shan Shaolin Scenic Area to the tem­ple. The lilt­ing theme song from Shaolin Tem­ple, the movie, played from speak­ers in the trees. Tour groups con­gre­gated in front of the tem­ple, snap­ping pho­tos of its front steps, slop­ing tile roofs, and, de­spite a rule against it, the oc­ca­sional monk. A man in a puffy jacket of­fered to sell me a Pho­to­shopped pic­ture of my­self with Yongxin and Vladimir Putin flank­ing me like body­guards. I shelled out $30 to see the 400per­son nighttime Shaolin Zen Mu­sic Rit­ual, and caught a kung fu per­for­mance where the stage was em­bla­zoned with the name of a tire com­pany. In the mall-like gift shop, I bought a toy gun.

One evening I was sit­ting in a nearby guest­house, read­ing a

copy of Yongxin’s mem­oir, when an old man with a long white beard shuf­fled over. His son ac­com­pa­nied him and said his fa­ther had stud­ied at the tem­ple long ago. The old man stepped to the cen­ter of the room and per­formed an el­e­gant kung fu rou­tine, strik­ing and kick­ing invisible en­e­mies. Here it was, I thought: liv­ing her­itage, un­sul­lied by crass com­mer­cial­ism. When the man fin­ished, I ap­plauded and went to shake his hand. “Now give me some money,” he said.

In his book, Yongxin de­scribes his goal for the tem­ple not as com­mer­cial­iza­tion, but rather the preser­va­tion and spread of au­then­tic Shaolin cul­ture. To do that, he ar­gues, re­quires that monks be en­gaged in the sec­u­lar world. “It seems that in peo­ple’s minds, monks wor­thy of re­spect should do noth­ing but chant prayers,” he writes. “I do not think that way.” He re­jects the CEO Monk nick­name, but based on past state­ments, his aim isn’t rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from that of a For­tune 500 com­pany: growth. Yet growth re­quires ef­fi­ciency, ra­tio­nal man­age­ment, and cre­ative de­struc­tion, which don’t al­ways suit re­li­gious lead­ers.

If Shaolin is com­mer­cial now, it used to be worse—or at least tack­ier. In the mid-1990s, the area sur­round­ing the tem­ple was filled with sou­venir shops sell­ing prayer beads, fig­urines, swords, and Tasers. There was a roller coaster sim­u­la­tor and a house of hor­rors with a pet­ri­fied ca­daver. One of Mao’s pri­vate planes stood on dis­play. The dirt road to the tem­ple was lined with com­pet­ing mar­tial arts schools, where stu­dents trained to be­come, typ­i­cally, kung fu coaches or mil­i­tary per­son­nel, and oc­ca­sion­ally Shaolin war­rior monks. “They were daz­zling, in a weird way,” says Gene Ching, a Shaolin dis­ci­ple and as­so­ciate pub­lisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi mag­a­zine who first vis­ited in 1995. “My fa­vorite was watch­ing two kids as­signed to clean up the street. They got in a fight over a dust­pan. At first it was typ­i­cal push-pull, then one kid trapped the other kid’s hand on the dust­pan and put him in an arm­lock, and the other kid did a tor­nado kick to dis­arm him.”

Upon be­com­ing ab­bot in 1999, Yongxin de­cided to clear out the dreck. “Who would want to visit this filthy and chaotic place?” he wrote. He lob­bied the lo­cal gov­ern­ment to ap­prove de­mo­li­tion in the area and helped pay for it with what he said was the ma­jor­ity of the tem­ple’s sav­ings. Vil­lagers, whose liveli­hoods were jeop­ar­dized, pick­eted and held ban­ners de­nounc­ing the ab­bot, but in 2002 the forced re­lo­ca­tion pro­ceeded. Yongxin was pleased. “Now it pos­sesses a lit­tle bit of the po­etic charm that I have long cher­ished for the Shaolin Tem­ple,” he wrote. The project dove­tailed with his trade­mark-pro­tec­tion lit­i­ga­tion, as he sought to con­trol the tem­ple’s im­age lo­cally and abroad. When Yongxin first tried to lay ex­clu­sive claim to the name Shaolin, he found that 57 other par­ties had al­ready reg­is­tered the trade­mark in China, as well as 18 in the U.S. and 228 in Ja­pan. Af­ter nu­mer­ous law­suits, all rights to the name were trans­ferred to the tem­ple in 2009. Yongxin was in­still­ing the mod­ern tenets of brand dis­ci­pline on a 1,500-year-old faith. But he was also cre­at­ing a long list of en­e­mies who had been cut out of the Shaolin econ­omy.

As Yongxin’s fame grew, his crit­ics ac­cused him of liv­ing an in­creas­ingly ex­trav­a­gant life­style—es­pe­cially for a monk. In 2006 the gov­ern­ment of Dengfeng gave him a Volk­swa­gen SUV worth $125,000 as thanks for his con­tri­bu­tions to tourism. “I dream of get­ting a big­ger prize next year,” he said at the time. Three years later, he was again de­nounced for show­ing off a cloak with gold thread worth $25,000. He said it was a gift from a bro­cade com­pany in Nan­jing as an ex­am­ple of their shared “in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.” Al­le­ga­tions of more se­ri­ous mis­be­hav­ior be­gan to ap­pear in 2011, when some­one claimed on­line that Yongxin had been caught vis­it­ing pros­ti­tutes dur­ing a po­lice raid. The State Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Re­li­gious Af­fairs is­sued a state­ment say­ing the re­port was only a ma­li­cious ru­mor. What­ever con­tro­ver­sies sur­rounded Yongxin, they never stuck. When he ad­dressed them, it was only in koan-like ut­ter­ances. “If th­ese things are prob­lems,” he once told a re­porter, “they would have be­come prob­lems by now.”

In Novem­ber, I vis­ited Qian Daliang, the gen­eral man­ager of Shaolin In­tan­gi­ble As­sets Man­age­ment Co. Ltd., which Yongxin had es­tab­lished to oversee the tem­ple’s many sub­sidiaries. In his spare of­fice in­side the tem­ple walls, Qian—the sur­name means “money”—turned on a small, in­ef­fec­tual space heater and made tea while he told tales of the Shaolin monks’ great­est fi­nan­cial bat­tles. “Re­li­gions should be in­de­pen­dent, and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence is the most im­por­tant part,” he said. One of Yongxin’s most sig­nif­i­cant stands had been with the lo­cal gov­ern­ment over the is­sue of al­low­ing the tem­ple to sell tick­ets—the cam­paign Ab­bot Xingzheng had started. Even­tu­ally, Qian said, the gov­ern­ment agreed that the tem­ple would re­ceive 30 per­cent of the rev­enue from ticket sales to the Song­shan Shaolin Scenic Area, in which the tem­ple is the main at­trac­tion. Tem­ple in­sid­ers sus­pect the lo­cal gov­ern­ment is try­ing to re­duce its fi­nan­cial de­pen­dence on Shaolin. In 2010 the city of Dengfeng started de­vel­op­ing plans for a com­pet­ing tem­ple, to be called Tianzhong. Con­struc­tion be­gan but was soon de­layed. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in Caixin mag­a­zine, al­though Yongxin ex­pressed out­ward sup­port for the project, many lo­cals be­lieve he played a role in stalling it by rais­ing ob­jec­tions that the con­struc­tion would dam­age old relics. Work was halted in May, two months be­fore Shi Zhengyi launched the pub­lic cru­sade against Yongxin.

The high­way con­nect­ing Dengfeng to the Shaolin Tem­ple passes a dozen mar­tial arts schools—tall, gray build­ings crowned with al­most iden­ti­cal red let­ter­ing, most con­tain­ing the name Shaolin and many run by for­mer monks. Some re­lo­cated there af­ter Yongxin’s de­mo­li­tion; oth­ers have been erected since, some­times with tem­ple funds. The schools, which bring in tens of thou­sands of stu­dents ev­ery year, in­clud­ing wealthy for­eign­ers, have over the years turned into gold mines for their own­ers. In 1997, Yongxin re­port­edly dis­patched his dis­ci­ple Shi Yanlu to found the Shaolin War­rior Monks Train­ing Base and in­vested 15 mil­lion yuan ($2.3 mil­lion) in the school. Yanlu, a sinewy spec­i­men, es­pe­cially com­pared with Yongxin’s melted-can­dle fig­ure, had grown up poor in Shan­dong prov­ince and came to Shaolin in 1987. He even­tu­ally

But he was also cut­ting ri­vals out of the Shaolin econ­omy

be­came a re­spected war­rior monk and one of Yongxin’s loyal aides. Dur­ing the ab­bot’s 1999 in­duc­tion cer­e­mony, Yanlu stood be­hind Yongxin, hold­ing his um­brella.

Yanlu’s school be­came one of the most suc­cess­ful in the re­gion. It main­tained close ties with Shaolin: Yanlu would send his best stu­dents to per­form in the tem­ple’s kung fu shows, as well as in the lu­cra­tive Shaolin Zen Mu­sic Rit­ual song and dance show. Yongxin al­lowed Yanlu alone to main­tain a re­cruit­ment of­fice in­side the tem­ple.

Over time, the re­la­tion­ship frayed. Yanlu be­gan to re­ceive his own high­pro­file visi­tors, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter of Hun­gary and the king of Cam­bo­dia. Tem­ple lead­ers sus­pected that Yanlu was no longer send­ing his best pupils to par­tic­i­pate in Shaolin per­for­mances, keep­ing them in­stead for his own school’s shows. Yanlu fur­ther dis­tanced him­self from Yongxin when he bought a piece of land and be­gan ad­ver­tis­ing an am­bi­tious new pro­gram called Shaolin Soc­cer, with­out in­volv­ing the tem­ple. Yanlu and Yongxin would squab­ble over money. Ac­cord­ing to Yanlu’s re­port to the gov­ern­ment, start­ing in 2005, Yongxin be­gan ask­ing Yanlu for money. “He was in­sa­tiable,” Yanlu’s spokesman told Caixin. Yongxin de­nied this, say­ing he “never asked for a cent.” Yanlu also claimed that Yongxin forced him to pay 2 mil­lion yuan to the Shen­zhen busi­ness­woman with whom the ab­bot al­legedly had sex. “He was the ab­bot, so I had to do what he said,” Yanlu wrote. “Af­ter that, he warned me not to raise the is­sue of the money or else I’d be kicked out of the tem­ple.”

Yanlu has faced his own charges of sac­ri­lege. Sev­eral years ago, a photo re­port­edly cir­cu­lated in the Shaolin com­mu­nity of Yanlu with his mon­thold son. As Qian Daliang ex­plained it to one news out­let, Yongxin con­fronted Yanlu and told him to stop wear­ing the monas­tic robes. From then on, when they met in per­son, Yanlu would dress in ev­ery­day clothes, but he still wore the robes at school events. His role as head­mas­ter de­pended on his im­age as a pi­ous Shaolin war­rior monk—with­out that, he could lose ev­ery­thing. Yanlu didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment sent to his spokesman.

Ten­sions ex­ploded one day in 2013, when a group of Yanlu’s stu­dents tried to en­ter the Shaolin tem­ple with­out tick­ets. A fight broke out be­tween the stu­dents and the Shaolin monks guard­ing the gate, and the po­lice ar­rested two of the guards. Af­ter that, Yongxin closed Yanlu’s stu­dent re­cruit­ment of­fice and, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, of­fi­cially expelled him from the tem­ple.

In Novem­ber, the year’s first snow­fall blan­keted the monastery. Nearly four months had passed since the charges against Yongxin went vi­ral, and the re­sults of the state in­ves­ti­ga­tion still hadn’t been an­nounced. The ini­tial blast of chat­ter about his fate had qui­eted to a low hum. No one wanted to talk on the record: Those who had al­ready voiced sup­port for Yongxin had noth­ing to add, while those who had de­nounced him didn’t want to say more in case he kept his job af­ter all. As time went on and noth­ing changed, the lo­cals were be­gin­ning to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that the ab­bot, as he had sur­vived past crises, would weather this one. That would be an as­ton­ish­ing an­ti­cli­max, given the dy­na­mite na­ture of the charges, but one they had to con­sider—know­ing the ex­tent of Yongxin’s power, the thin­ness of the ev­i­dence, the bias of the ac­cusers, and the capri­cious­ness of the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem.

Then, on Nov. 28, the He­nan gov­ern­ment re­leased par­tial re­sults of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The au­thor­i­ties had split their probe into two parts, one fo­cus­ing on “dis­ci­plinary” charges and the other on “eco­nomic” ones. Yongxin was cleared of the for­mer. The claims that he fa­thered two chil­dren were false, ac­cord­ing to the re­port: One of them was in fact adopted by the nun with whom Yongxin had al­legedly fa­thered the child, and any­way the woman had be­come in­fer­tile af­ter an op­er­a­tion; a pa­ter­nity test re­vealed that the other was the child of Yongxin’s younger brother. The state’s re­port also re­jected the claim that Yongxin had been expelled from the monastery in the 1980s. In an in­ter­view with a He­nan news­pa­per, a mem­ber of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion team said the ex­pul­sion had been “a per­sonal mat­ter” and was “in­valid” be­cause it was not ap­proved by the proper gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties.

The re­sults of the “eco­nomic” in­ves­ti­ga­tion haven’t yet been re­leased. (Nor have in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­plained their un­usual choice to pub­lish in the­matic in­stall­ments.) But the find­ings so far sug­gest that Yongxin may be headed for ex­on­er­a­tion, or at the most a slap on the wrist. The “dis­ci­plinary” re­sults are con­spic­u­ously in­com­plete: They fail to ad­dress the rape ac­cu­sa­tion, as well as the charge that Yongxin slept with the Shen­zhen busi­ness­woman. Ver­dicts on th­ese charges don’t ap­pear to be forth­com­ing.

The pub­lic re­sponse has been pre­dictably cyn­i­cal. One Chi­nese ne­ti­zen spoke for many when he wrote, “He’s a good Party monk, of course he can’t have prob­lems.” The point be­ing, whether he’s guilty or not, Yongxin is too big to fail. If he did, given the grav­ity of the charges, he would take count­less oth­ers down with him.

It’s true that many party lead­ers have lost their jobs in re­cent years be­cause of the an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paign, and those who fight their ac­cusers rarely win. But those of­fi­cials have been tar­geted by the up­per rungs of the party. The small group that fin­gered Yongxin in­cluded rogue dis­ci­ples who had axes to grind. From a sta­bil­ity per­spec­tive, his oust­ing would cause more prob­lems than it would solve. More­over, he’s a pow­er­ful sym­bol for the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. His suc­cess show­cases not only China’s tol­er­ance for or­ga­nized re­li­gion but also the coun­try’s soft power. Shaolin has reached new au­di­ences through ev­ery man­ner of pop cul­ture, from Stephen Chow movies to The Simp­sons to the Wu-Tang Clan, whose lat­est al­bum is ti­tled Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. At a time when China can’t seem to win an Os­car or pro­duce lit­er­a­ture that trav­els well, the fact that Amer­i­can teenagers know the name Shaolin is a source of pride.

Dur­ing my visit to the tem­ple, I went by the of­fice of Wang Yu­min, the head of for­eign af­fairs, and told him I wanted to write about how the tem­ple had be­come so suc­cess­ful un­der Yongxin. “Suc­cess­ful?” Wang said. He laughed bit­terly and ges­tured around him as if the al­le­ga­tions dog­ging Yongxin were phys­i­cal ob­jects in the room. “We don’t think it’s very suc­cess­ful.” <BW>

Yongxin fought the lo­cal gov­ern­ment over ticket rev­enue

Kung fu stu­dents prac­tic­ing in Shaolin

Yongxin with Jackie Chan

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