The Shaolin Temple in central China's Henan Province, famous for its espousal of martial arts skills, has recently made a splash in the business world by confirming that it has purchased a piece of land in Australia and is planning to build a "temple branch" there. The program also includes a four-star hotel, as well as a golf course.
In recent years, the ancient temple has been involved in a number of commercial activities, challenging the public's traditional conception of a religious organization.
The plan to set up a branch in Australia, which is seen as another step toward commercialization, has split the public right down the middle. While some regard this move as damaging to the temple's image as a sacred religious site of worship and pilgrimage, others say this practice will help promote the culture of Buddhism.
He Yonghai (www.gmw.cn): Recent years have seen the Shaolin Temple operated more like a business than a religious institute and engaging in ventures encompassing martial arts, the tea industry, tourism and film production. There's no getting away from the fact that Shaolin is now a multimillion-dollar brand. With its plan to open a branch in Australia, the Shaolin Temple seems no longer to be a temple in the traditional sense, but instead a transnational company.
Discussing its new program in Australia, Shi Yongxin, Abbot of the Shaolin Temple, explained that setting up a branch outside China will be conducive to the spread of Shaolin culture and its burgeoning overseas popularity. He said that following the spirit of globalization, China's Buddhism culture should go out and make a greater contribution to the diversification of world culture. China's kungfu, represented by Shaolin martial arts, is indeed famous across the world. However, is it necessary to set up a branch outside China in order to export Shaolin culture?
Setting up such a branch will cost a lot of money and represents a waste of resources. The program in Australia costs 1.76 billion yuan ($283 million), most of which comprises Buddhist believers' donations to the temple. How will these people feel after discovering that their donations will be used to build up a branch in Australia? It would be better for the temple to spend the money improving local people's livelihood than setting up a branch far away in another country.
The final goal of this is commercial expansion, under the guise of promoting religious culture. It's well known that temples are places for believers to conduct religious activities and express their beliefs. They are supposed to represent curators of religious history and culture instead of businesspeople. However, in recent years, the Shaolin Temple has paid the public's criticism no heed and insisted on moving forward with commercialization.
If it does want to spread its ancient religious culture overseas, the Shaolin Temple can recruit foreign disciples. It can also send its monks to perform martial arts and disseminate the associated culture abroad. Conducting real estate and tourism programs in the name of religious and cultural promotion is utterly improper.
Wang Yahuang (www.cb.com.cn): Abbot Shi has recently asked why he and his disciples cannot export Shaolin culture overseas since China can import Disney from abroad.
Disputes over the Shaolin Temple's Australian plan center on how the temple should position itself. Shi said the temple means to serve local Buddhists. Whether this will be successful remains unknown. In addition, Shi's comparison of the expansion of the Shaolin Temple to that of the U.S. entertainment giant is virtually inviting public doubts and even derision. Owing to excessive commercialization in the past years, together with other factors, the Shaolin brand is fast losing its luster in China. Nevertheless, it is still highly valued outside the country. Shaolin monks' excellent performances are, in particular, winning the temple increasing international recognition.
When its branch is set up in Australia, the temple will no doubt expect to see foreign demand for the opening of branches in even more locations. It is likely we will see the Shaolin Temple become a flourishing franchise in the mould of Disneyland. But once this happens, will the brand then find itself facing backlash and declining reputation in its host countries as it has in China?