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Monday, 23 September, 2002, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
China's fighting monks
Shaolin Wheel of Life
The monks display incredible acts of endurance

Most people imagine monks closeted, absorbed in the act of hushed and sedentary meditation.

So it is a shock to find a group from central China kicking and somersaulting their way around the world's stages.

The monks, from the ancient Shaolin monastery, are currently engaged on a gruelling tour, approved by the Chinese government, of Europe, the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.

Shaolin Wheel of Life
Some are young boys, prized for their flexibility
Their show tells the story of Shaolin's tumultuous history - over the past 1500 years the monks have been called on to defend their temple from a series of invasions.

During the course of their campaigns, the monks transformed a set of fighting actions which they had originally developed as a means to keep fit, into a deadly natural armoury.

The moves, which emulate those of birds and animals, evolved into what is now known as kung fu.

What is unsettling about the Shaolin Wheel of Life show, is not so much the content, as the staging.

The monks begin by kneeling before a giant Buddha on stage to pray, but the hallowed atmosphere is broken by a booming voice-over which sounds unnervingly like the gravely dramatic introduction to some Hollywood film trailers.

This, along with the garish lighting and the melodramatic rendition of the story of the monastery, transforms what began as an awesome manifestation of Zen Buddhism into something of a circus.

Shaolin Wheel of Life
This monk balanced on his fingertips alone

But the show is worth seeing, if only to witness the incredible physical prowess of Shaolin's monks.

When News Online watched the show at London's Peacock Theatre last week, the audience winced audibly as the monks appeared to defy the laws of nature.

One elderly monk, for example, smashed himself over the head with a steel bar; another survived a hammer blow to a stone block on his chest.

Others braved beds of needles and spears on the chest.

Evidently, their discipline has enabled them to develop an astonishing level of physical fortitude.

But the way this religious context is used as a decorative aspect of the staging also makes the show uncomfortable to watch.

Shaolin Wheel of Life is at The Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, London WC2A 2HT (020 7863 8222) until 5 October. It is in Canada from 1 - 21 November and in the US from 26 November, into spring 2003.

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29 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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