The Wheel of Life’s high-kicking monks

From Times Online UK

Invite a gang of lean, mean shaven-headed, orange-robed kung-fu masters to do an ad hoc afternoon performance next to the Thames and a crowd quickly forms. “I could do that,” yells a passer-by as a Shaolin monk takes a gravity-defying flying leap off a wall. I suspect the deluded audience member has been partaking of too much lunchtime sherry.

The Shaolin monks strutting their high-kicking stuff are part of the team rehearsing for their next UK tour of Wheel of Life, the acclaimed show that does not just rattle through a series of awe-inspiring moves, it also tells the story of the monks. It is no surprise that they have honed themselves to the pinnacle of fighting perfection. In their 1,500-year history in eastern China they have regularly had to fight warlords, most recently in the 1920s. “They were like the Robin Hoods,” says the co-producer Steve Nolan, “helping emperors against invaders.”

These days, however, the acrobatics are for show and dough. Money raised goes to fund schools in the Henan Province where up to 50,000 children from all backgrounds are taught Zen Buddhism alongside computer studies, maths, English and a general curriculum. “It is a great training for the world,” says Nolan’s fellow producer Zhuang Yubao.

The monks hit the road nine years ago. “Originally the temple Abbot wanted a show to raise money and awareness, so his envoy Zhuang booked a night at the Royal Albert Hall, not quite knowing what they would do,” recalls Nolan, who is shaven-headed through baldism rather than Buddhism. “So the Albert Hall called me. All I knew about kung fu was the old David Carradine TV series, but when I heard their history I knew we could do a show.”

World tours have followed and the monks have gone from strength to strength. The schools must be thriving too. They also receive a cut from Xbox games which incorporate the monks’ moves, though it is hard to believe that an animated version can be anywhere near as thrilling as the real thing. Rarely has grace and brute strength been so exquisitely combined. Many of the routines are based on watching animals, everything from cats and dogs to monkeys and crabs. They also shatter iron bars on their heads, which is not something animals do but would certainly alarm enemies.

The slight, quiet Zhuang has his own interesting story too, having arrived in Britain as a refugee after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He had been an army officer, but after demobilisation made speeches and was photographed and called an activist. “It became so bloody. I never dreamt the Army would shoot at its own people so that was why I left.” He is optimistic about his country now, though feels there is progress still to be made. “China is changing but it has a long way to go before people are really liberated.”

Zhuang denies the show is about fame. “This is a way to make more people to come to Buddhism,” he says. It certainly works. A number of fans have ended up studying in China and many more have converted while living here.

Nolan is clear about its appeal. “It’s the ultimate in Power Rangers and there are no special effects. But it also has a positive message, that perseverance pays off.” In front of me I can see the proof. A performer is being held aloft on the spikes of numerous spears and is not even wincing.

The monks – mostly aged about 20 – but some as young as 7 and some as ancient as 32, certainly persevere when it comes to perfecting their craft. Back home they train at dawn and dusk, before and after academic studies. Shi Yan Feng, 18, explains what his life is like in China. He has hardly seen his parents since he moved into a monastery aged 13: “You have to forget everything and concentrate on training.” He is a late starter – some performers have been in the monastery since the age of 4.

Even with the strictest of training regimes, displays carry risk. “There are broken arms, the kind of injuries dancers and acrobats get. Elbows, knees and ankles from twists and stretches. And nasty cuts from swords. We always have a paramedic at the side of stage,” says Nolan, whose previous work doing lighting for Bob Dylan rarely threw up sword injuries.

The martial arts stage spectacular, however, is becoming a crowded marketplace. At one end South Korean tae kwon do ensemble Ye Gam has been muscling in with their slapstick variant, Jump, while Damon Albarn’s Monkey has cornered the artier end of the oriental market. The Shaolin monks still provide the finest thrills and spills, but are also cannily diversifying. They regularly do corporate events that pay well and, Nolan adds, go down very well: “Companies such as banks like the fact that the monks are a perfect example of team-building and mind over matter.”

Well, you certainly need both if you work for a bank these days. The monks certainly seem happy. Between performances the monks gossip like any group of young men anywhere in the world. But as Zen Buddhists they lead a fairly ascetic life, relaxing by reading religious texts as well as watching kung fu movies. Nolan confirms this, but when it comes to the nitty- gritty of their down-time he is more vague. Are they allowed to have sex, for instance?

“You’d have thought after nine years I’d have plucked up the courage to ask but I haven’t. I know they are not allowed to have illicit sex, but like all things in Zen Buddhism it’s up to oneself to make judgment. I asked the Abbot’s assistant and he said illicit sex means sex without love, which I suppose is not good for anyone.”

Against the backdrop of the Thames, the spontaneous show continues and they invite me to do a few moves. Little do they know that back in the Seventies, inspired by David Carradine, I studied kung fu. This is my chance to throw a few shapes. I do the monkey and the chicken head for starters. In seconds a group gathers round me twisting my arms, stretching my legs and showing me how hopelessly out of position I am. It is a literally painful reminder that disciplined daily practice is required before one attempts even the simplest of exercises.

As I’m regaining my dignity, the choreographer Micha Bergese arrives. He is currently also working on the Top Gear Live tour. “It’s not so different,” Bergese says, which sounds like a pretty Zen remark. He may be right. I suspect there are quite a few people who would like to see Jeremy Clarkson hitting himself over the head with an iron bar.

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