The newest target of China’s anti-corruption campaign may be Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the Shaolin Temple, a sprawling monastery that combines housing for thousands of monks with restaurants, shops, and martial arts demonstrations targeting the millions of tourists who visit annually. In the west, Shaolin is known as the birthplace of Kung Fu and the spiritual inspiration for the Wu-Tang Clan. But in China, Shaolin is notorious for the scandals surrounding Shi — for allegedly charging thousands of dollars for burning incense at holy grounds on the temple, and for allegedly fathering several children out of wedlock — and his business acumen at building Shaolin into a multi-billion dollar brand, earning him the unaffectionate nickname “CEO Monk.” (Shaolin representatives have denied those allegations.) When Shi failed to appear at a Buddhist meeting in Thailand in early August, fueling speculation that he’s under arrest, a temple representative told the Chinese website Sina that the “situation is complicated.”
Complicated indeed. When I met the now 50-year-old Shi in the summer of 2011, he was already sick of the rumors swirling around news sites and Chinese social media about his personal life, with accusations of infidelity and immorality getting louder and louder. Back then, the most pervasive “rumor” was that Shi had been arrested for visiting prostitutes, and a temple spokesman claimed he had met the prostitutes in order to “enlighten them.” Shi denied all of these allegations, which he said had been invented by bored and impulsive Chinese netizens. The abbot told me, in a gravelly voice, that “it is impossible for this to happen to someone who has been a monk for seventeen years.” And then, lifting his Don Corleone-like jowls, he smiled.
Is Shi corrupt? As with many of the prominent Chinese allegedly targeted with corruption probes, it’s impossible to say for sure. That said, Chinese press coverage — from the article posted on Sina suggesting that this is the biggest crisis the temple has faced in its 1,500 year history, to the English language China Daily’s headline that the “claim about [sic] abbot needs investigating,” make it seem likely that this is a scandal from which he’ll be unable to recover. Indeed, it’s a bad sign that the contact page on the Shaolin website now includes not only the number for the abbot’s office and Shaolin’s asset management company, but also for Shaolin’s lawyers.
In the United States, Shaolin resonates as a cultural touchstone, embraced by the Wu-Tang Clan, dozens of Kung-fu movies, and celebrities including Stevie Wonder and Robert Downey Jr. As I wrote in a 2012 profile of Shi for Newsweek, the abbot is perhaps the only non-dissident Chinese who gets better press coverage in the United States than he does in China. To his Chinese critics, Shi embodied religious hypocrisy and rampant consumerism, the monk who would cheapen Buddhist culture by planning to build a $297 million complex in Australia — one that would reportedly feature not only a temple and a Kung Fu academy, but also a hotel and a golf course. (It’s unclear if the complex, announced this February, will be built; a representative from the temple’s external affairs department couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.)
In a strange role reversal, Chinese journalists wanted to know whether Shi had a mistress and child in Germany, and $3 billion hidden in foreign banks. (Shaolin’s website called those allegations “pie in the sky, fabricated, maliciously invented slander.”) And yet, a healthy amount of the Western media coverage focused on Shi’s Kung Fu skills.
My interview with Shi took place in a temple room with golden walls and air conditioning befitting a poultry freezer. The temple sits not far outside of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of the large province of Henan, and Shi spoke proudly about his relationship with local government officials. He also claimed, unconvincingly, that he received less than $100 of pocket money a month, and that the temple’s roughly 3,000 monks share the big ticket items, like cars. I couldn’t decide if he moved like a languid martial arts champion who can poke holes in glass with his toe, or like a world-weary gangster relaxing in a bathrobe.
Perhaps gangster is too strong a word for Shi, the 13th abbot of Shaolin, a former temple disciple who ascended to the top in 1999. And yet, he’s a man used to deference: in my seven years in China, the only time I ever saw someone kowtow to a living person – head touching the ground by their feet – was a food seller who wanted something from Shi. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” Shi told him tiredly, barely glancing at the man’s prone form.
During our interview, Shi seemed offended at even being asked about allegations of wrongdoing: “I find media interviews annoying,” he told me, in the tone of a man whom others don’t deign to provoke. “They raise a lot of stupid questions.”
Instead, Shi wanted to talk about the success of Shaolin’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. “Every year on a provincial level we have meetings with representatives from different religious groups,” he said. “Everyone is very satisfied with the government’s policy.” Whether or not that was ever true, the local government no longer seems satisfied with him.