The Shaolin Temple is no stranger to making the news in China, in part because of its monks’ martial arts skills (which regularly prompt challenges from rival fighters keen to debunk the idea of Shaolin’s kungfu being invincible). Shaolin’s more commercial side grabs headlines too – because some think it sits ill with the Zen Buddhism that Shaolin espouses. For instance, its chief abbot Shi Yongxin was nicknamed the ‘CEO Monk’ after he incorporated the temple and trademarked its brand. He even monetised the monastery’s fighting prowess in a video game and in 2015 came up with an unusual proposal to combine a Shaolin Temple with a golf resort in Australia.
So you’d have thought Shi and Shaolin had just about exhausted their capacity to surprise. But late last month they managed to do so again when Shi did something for the first time in the temple’s 1,500 year history. At 7am on August 27 he and his monks raised the flag of the People’s Republic of China, at an event that also included the vice chairman of the Buddhist Association of China and a member of the Party’s local standing committee.
Sina says the move came after a meeting earlier in the summer of national religious groups in Beijing where a new initiative was proposed on ‘raising the flag at religious ceremonies’. After an “in-depth study of the constitution” Shi decided his temple would take the lead and set the example for others.
The ceremony again shows Shi’s pragmatic side, but for critics it is yet another example of the Party extending its control. As one netizen lamented: “Religion cannot be mingled with the state, it needs to maintain a neutral relationship. But in China it is hard to have pure religion.”