For 1,500 years, Shaolin Temple trained Buddhist warrior monks in the mountains of Henan, presumably not knowing wuxia novels and kung fu movies would make them pop-cultural touchstones, or that the Cultural Revolution would leave its martial arts discipline in ruins. Nor could they have know that Shaolin would one day become a big business, one synonymous with spy cams and embezzlement in Chinese web communities.
Since Abbot Shi Yongxin took over the mythic birthplace of kung fu in 1999, he’s been derisively called a Kung Fu CEO. Shaolin Temple now has overseas temples, publishing offices, even monks going on tour for Olympic shows, Hollywood training, and Las Vegas boxing matches against the US Marines. The temple now draws in $24 million a year through ticket sales alone, after the temple’s entrance fees doubled to to ¥100 ($16). To some, Shi’s worldly acumen smacks of something less than holy.
Shi also faces persistent rumors. Most recently, a Spanish newspaper claimed to have unearthed billion-dollar overseas bank accounts, German villas, illegitimate children, and a mistress from Beijing University — and even before any evidence surfaced, Weibo blew up in outrage. In 2011, the Shaolin Temple’s website was hacked to say “Shaolin evildoer Shi yongxi, go to hell.” Though the temple vehemently denies all claims, public suspicion continues to dog Shi’s Shaolin regime.
In 2011, Shi was reportedly caught visiting prostitutes during a police raid. The temple vehemently denied that the chief abbot paid for sex. Later, the temple claimed that Shi was only performing Buddhist rites for the prostitutes. The internet had a field day, drawing unflattering comparisons between Shaolin and another Buddhist monastery, the Dabei Temple.
In July, Xinhua News reported that hidden cameras were found in the walls of the monastery, with the lenses aimed at female abbots’ beds. The cameras were found during routine renovations.
In August, Spain’s El Periódico reported that Shi stowed away $3 billion dollars in overseas banks and fathered an illegitimate son in Germany with a young Beijing University student. The Temple has since denied the allegations, adding that El Periódico had never contacted the temple, and that “powerful people” were spreading these rumors because the Shaolin Temple had backed out of a $133 million IPO sale in 2009.
No matter what ongoing investigations reveal, two things are for certain: Shi is maybe the only Buddhist monk ever to attract TV-celebrity levels of rumors and scandal (each of these incidents received massive mainstream media coverage and Weibo attention), and Shi’s nontraditional publicity and business tactics provide dry tinder to his detractors’ imaginations. Below is Shi gracing the cover of a business magazine and hanging out with Shaquille O’Neal.