Shaolin Temple’s ‘CEO Monk’ Survives Salacious Accusations
After a 15-month-long investigation into a $25,000 robe weaved with gold thread — and a DNA test to determine whether he had fathered a child — the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery has been cleared by China’s graft busters.
In the summer of 2015, a former disciple accused Shi Yongxin of extorting money from his students, transferring shares of the temple’s company to a mistress, and fathering a child with a nun, among other salacious claims. On Feb. 4, investigators in the central province of Henan, where the monastery is located, officially exonerated him of all charges.
The Shaolin Monastery, founded in A.D. 495, is the birthplace of Chan Buddhism, a precursor to the meditative Zen tradition, and is famous for its “warrior monks.” During Yongxin’s stint as abbot, the temple has grown into a sprawling commercial empire that has raked in millions of yuan for allowing films and video games to use its “Shaolin” trademark and selling items as diverse as rice and traditional Chinese medicine under the time-honored brand.
In his pursuit of growth, Yongxin had filed hundreds of trademark lawsuits and cozied up to government officials to grease the wheels of the monastery’s progress. But he had also made some enemies along the way.
An essay titled Who is monitoring the ‘big tiger’ of Shaolin, Abbot Shi Yongxin?, posted on a Chinese internet forum on July 25, 2015, sent shock waves through China and the Buddhist community. It was written under the pseudonym “Shi Zhengyi.” “Shi” is a title adopted by all Shaolin monks, and “Zhengyi” could be translated as “justice” in Mandarin.
The post included photos of a woman with a shaved head playing with a young child whom the post claimed Yongxin had fathered. Another photo showed a handwritten police report filed by a woman in Shenzhen who claimed to have had sex with Yongxin. The woman, who even claimed she had a condom with the abbot’s sperm, later retracted her statement, saying it was a false report. It also included photos of two separate hukou, or household registrations, purportedly belonging to Yongxin, one in his hometown under his birth name, Liu Yingcheng, and one under his Buddhist name, in violation of Chinese laws.
Days after the revelation, former Yongxin disciple Shi Yanlu and other temple insiders filed a formal complaint with the state prosecutor — the Supreme People's Procuratorate — as well as the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Buddhist Association of China.
An official investigation began immediately thereafter, and its results were released in two installments, in November 2015 and Feb. 4. The November report concluded that the accusation that Yongxin had fathered a child were untrue, as were claims that he had once been kicked out of the temple.
The February report concluded that allegations that Yongxin had extorted over 7 million yuan ($1 million) from Yanlu were false, noting that the disciple “had donated a smaller sum of around 3 million yuan in accordance with Buddhist traditions.” It also dismissed as untrue the claims that Yongxin had transferred 80% of his holdings in the Shaolin Intangible Assets Management Ltd., established to oversee the temple’s many subsidiaries, to a mistress. In response to accusations that Yongxin owned multiple luxury cars, investigators found 15 vehicles, including four imported cars, registered to the monastery, but said they were being properly used by the monks to travel to official meetings.
The report acknowledged the existence of “management and financial issues that needed to be ‘rectified,’” without elaborating. It also acknowledged that Yongxin had, in fact, maintained two hukou, and that one had been canceled following the investigation.
But the overall message was clear: Yongxin was clean. Online, however, some remained cynical, with one netizen saying that the abbot “is, after all, not a common man.”
The ‘MBA Monk’
Yongxin was known for his knack for cultivating the right connections. In 1995, the young monk was on a train bound for Beijing. He paced through the corridors, slowly scanning the faces of the other passengers. He was looking for the provincial party secretary, who had been too busy to meet with him in Henan.
Yongxin was in the midst of planning a ceremony for the 1,500th anniversary of the temple’s founding and was eager for government support and recognition. He had recently presided over a restoration of the ancient temple under the guidance of the temple’s 29th abbot, Shi Xingzheng, and was planning a grand affair to show off the renovated grounds.
He was confident that he could secure official backing. After all, he had spent the past decade working closely with the city government in Dengfeng to promote the city as a tourist destination. Once a secluded abode for a handful of monks, visitors had been pouring in after the release of one of the earliest Chinese-made international blockbusters, Shaolin Temple, starring the then-rising kung fu star Jet Li, in 1982. By the 1990s, the number of visitors had exploded to over 1 million each year, and one-third of the city’s revenue came from tourism.
Shi Yongxin walks past monks at the Shaolin Monastery. Photo: Chen Liang
As a young monk, Yongxin was excited by the opportunity to expand the Shaolin Monastery’s profile and saw the fate of the city and the temple as inextricably linked. “The fate of the Shaolin Temple has always been connected with the fate of the country,” he told Caixin in 2015. “Only when the country is doing well will the temple flourish.”
When Yongxin finally found the party secretary on the train that afternoon, the two talked for the rest of the two-hour journey about Yongxin’s vision for showcasing the Chinese temple’s history to the outside secular and international community.
The party secretary was impressed and promised support. With his blessing, a special planning group was created with officials from the police plus the cultural and religious-affairs departments in Dengfeng. When the train arrived in Beijing, Yongxin immediately bought a return ticket back to Shaolin and continued planning.
The ceremony lasted five days and was a huge success. The city went out of its way to ensure a smooth event, even ordering hotels to turn away guests who weren’t in town for the celebration. Over 100,000 people showed up, and more than 400 journalists reported on the spectacle. In a politically savvy nod of thanks to the official help he had received, Yongxin made sure a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression was prominently displayed.
The event, and the young monk’s keen ability to align his temple’s growth ambitions with national politics, cemented Yongxin’s position as both a spiritual and political leader in China. And for the rest of the decade, Yongxin continued his rise, steadily climbing up the two parallel ladders of political and religious power.
In 1998, Yongxin became a representative to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature. Later that same year, he became chairman of the Henan Buddhist Association. In 1999, when he became the temple’s abbot, he had just celebrated his 34th birthday.
Central and local government leaders were happy to promote a religious figure who seemed as eager to promote China as he was to promote his own religion. A retired Dengfeng city official put it more bluntly, telling Caixin that the government liked Yongxin because he “obeyed both religious and development-related government policies and actively promoted and cooperated with government work.”
Building a Global Brand
When Yongxin first entered the Shaolin Monastery as a 16-year-old in 1981, the dilapidated monastery was home to just 20 or so monks. They subsisted on watery corn porridge for breakfast and dinner, and just two wheat buns each for lunch.
Yongxin wanted more for the temple. Following a period of tight religious control and outright persecution during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, the temple was slowly regaining its autonomy as China entered its period of reform and opening-up.
Yongxin was active in promoting the temple’s teachings and ensuring that the Shaolin brand remained unsullied.
The ambitious monk first garnered national attention in 1993 when he sued a local sausage producer that was marketing its product using the temple’s name. Since the release of the Jet Li film, the Shaolin brand had been used to promote products that also included shoes and anti-theft gates. At first, temple leaders turned a blind eye to the brand dilution. Government leaders had already acknowledged that the ancient temple’s name belonged to the public domain.
But Yongxin was particularly enraged that a symbol of nonviolent Buddhism, whose followers adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet, had become the namesake of a product made from discarded meat scraps. He sued and won. From then on, whenever infringements surfaced, Yongxin took the violators to court.
Yongxin also used his political clout to try to protect the temple’s brand. For four consecutive years beginning in 1998, he submitted proposals as a representative to the National People’s Congress that could give monasteries ownership of their names. The government agreed that a religious institution’s full names did indeed belong to the temples. But abbreviations, such as “Shaolin” instead of the full “Shaolin Temple,” did not.
So in 1998, Yongxin established Henan Shaolin Industrial Development Co. Ltd. to take back control of the Shaolin brand. It was the precursor to what would later become Shaolin Intangible Assets Management Ltd., with 1 million yuan in registered capital, and with Yongxin holding an 80% stake. The rest of the stakes in the company were owned by two other Shaolin monks, despite religious vows that forbid monks from owning property.
Company General Manager Qian Daliang told Caixin that this arrangement was “a legal necessity.” After two failed attempts to register the company with the temple itself as the legal representative, first as a 100% shareholder, and then as an 80% shareholder, it was decided that individual monks should hold control on behalf of the temple.
By the end of 2008, the temple had successfully reclaimed its name in China, and was officially recognized as a legally protected brand by the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. Internationally, the company had successfully petitioned for 713 trademark registrations in nearly 100 countries and regions.
|Tourists visiting the Shaolin Monastery watch a kung fu performance. Photo: IC|
But Yongxin’s vision for the Shaolin brand was far grander than simply preventing the temple from becoming the namesake of a commercial sausage. In the temple’s 1,500-year history, abbots had generally kept their role limited within the monastery walls. Yongxin not only ventured outside, he brought his temples and unique brand of kung fu Buddhism with him.
Shaolin became the first Buddhist temple in China to set up a website, file a lawsuit, and develop overseas locations.
In 2001, the first overseas Shaolin Temple was established in Germany. It preceded the first overseas government-backed Confucius Institute by four years, according to the temple’s promotional material. There are currently more than 40 cultural centers affiliated to the monastery worldwide, with over 300 disciples teaching kung fu and Chan Buddhism.
In 2006, the temple teamed up with a Shenzhen media company to produce Kung Fu Star, an American Idol-style contest. The same year, the monastery bought 3,000 acres in the coastal city of Shoalhaven, in Australia’s New South Wales state, to build a temple complex that included a luxury hotel and a golf course.
Yongxin had also armed himself with an MBA as the architect of this massive expansion drive. As his and his temple’s clout grew, the central government took notice of Yongxin’s ability to promote China’s soft power overseas. He had become a de facto ambassador of Chinese culture in his own right, meeting with world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin and business leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook. In 2004, he and his kung fu troupe accompanied then-President Hu Jintao on a trip to South America to participate in cultural exchange activities organized by the State Council Information Office.
Karma catching up
Yongxin didn’t look anything like the power-hungry corrupt leader his detractors said he was. The cherubic monk in saffron robes looked more like a jolly “rub-my-belly” Buddha, and his thickly accented Mandarin belayed a simple past.
But he was regularly called out by the media for a lavish lifestyle deemed unbefitting of a monk, which included accepting a Volkswagen SUV worth $125,000 as a gift from the Dengfeng government in 2006 for his contributions to tourism, and a $25,000 robe with gold thread from a brocade maker in Nanjing.
News that a travel company backed by the Dengfeng government with rights to Shaolin ticket sales was going to list on the stock exchange in 2011 further emboldened critics, who said the “CEO monk” put mercantile interests over religious integrity. Yongxin, however, had no stakes in the company and vehemently opposed the move.
Yongxin first found himself the target of harsh criticism shortly after becoming abbot in 1999, when he pushed the local government to demolish a tacky commercial area surrounding the Shaolin Monastery.
The narrow mountainside alleys leading up to the temple were packed with martial-arts schools and souvenir stalls selling cheap trinkets, and even one of Mao Zedong’s private planes was on display for the unending horde of tourists. Karaoke bars, a cinema and an ice rink dotted the village. As one villager surnamed Zhang puts it, “The area near the temple was livelier than Dengfeng’s city center.”
“It was total chaos,” Yongxin told Caixin in an interview in 2015. He was worried that his temple, which — despite its high profile — housed fewer than 100 monks at the time would be swallowed up by the frenzy of commercial activity outside its gates.
Yongxin called on the local government to forcibly demolish the shops, kung fu schools, and even homes within 5 km of the temple. Funding for the demolition, which cost 9 million yuan, was split three ways between the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, the city of Dengfeng, and the Shaolin Monastery. The demolition began in August 2000, and within two months, 273 “unsightly” buildings near the temple had been destroyed.
Shi Yongxin, left. Monks at Shaolin Monestary. Photos: Chen Liang
In his 2015 interview, Yongxin described the public outrage and personal attacks that followed as akin to Cultural Revolution-era denouncements. For more than a month after the demolition, the temple was plastered with posters calling for Yongxin to get out of the Shaolin Monastery, and angry villagers regularly stormed the gates, some flinging stale bread at the abbot’s room.
It was following this demolition that letters first began arriving accusing the abbot of visiting prostitutes and keeping a mistress, a source close to the temple told Caixin.
The public outcry led to a temporary halt in demolition activities. But Yongxin was determined to press ahead with it since he feared the tacky environment would deter tourists. “Who would want to visit this filthy and chaotic place?” he wrote in his memoir, Shaolin Temple in My Heart.
In 2003, following a boost of support from a visit from top leaders in the central government, large-scale demolition and rebuilding of the temple grounds finally began. Villagers resisted the forced relocation, suing the local government in municipal court. Some even attempted to commit suicide by drinking pesticides.
But by the spring of 2005, the demolition and renovation was finally completed and local media said the scenic area was “greatly improved.”
But it didn’t take long after the unveiling of the renovated grounds before Yongxin found himself once again at the center of conflict. Dengfeng decided to raise the ticket price of the Song Mountain scenic area, of which the Shaolin Monastery is the main attraction, from 40 to 100 yuan. While the temple’s cut from ticket revenue would increase from 8 to 30 yuan per ticket, Shi was vehemently opposed to higher ticket prices. Since becoming a member of China’s legislature, he had proposed laws calling for lowering the prices and even allowing free entrance to religious temples.
While squabbles over ticket sales had strained the temple-government relationship for years, as the number of visitors and revenue grew, tensions became heated. What had once become a win-win partnership had morphed into a delicate power struggle — a struggle in which Yongxin had the upper hand, given the city’s overreliance on the temple to line its coffers.
In 2010, the Dengfeng city government attempted to renovate a competing temple in the area named Tianzhong. It was a lower-house temple belonging to the Shaolin monastery. But restoration work ground to a halt in 2014 after the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said the temple was “located within an existing cultural heritage site,” where only “conservation and not restoration” was allowed. The Shaolin abbot denied rumors that he had a hand in halting the project, but acknowledged that he believed it was an effort by the city to limit Shaolin influence. Several locals interviewed by Caixin at the time said Yongxin had objected to the construction, saying it would damage old relics.
A Disciple’s ‘Betrayal’
But these disputes paled in comparison to the slew of allegations that Shi Yanlu leveled against his former teacher in 2015.
Yanlu had at one point been one of Yongxin’s closest disciples. Just five years younger than Yongxin, Yanlu grew up in a kung fu family and came to Shaolin in 1985 to learn the ancient martial arts. When he was ordained as a monk two years later, Yongxin was assigned as his “spiritual guide.” Yanlu was a gifted martial artist, winning an international competition in Toronto in 1997. That same year, Yanlu was entrusted by the Shaolin Monastery to open a martial arts school as the temple itself could not act as a legal entity in the application to found a school, Yongxin told Caixin in his earlier interview. More than 15 million yuan was invested in the project, Yongxin said. Sources close to the temple said this model was common, and that money for new projects would be entrusted to an individual on behalf of the temple. Once the projects turned profitable, it would be returned to the temple.
Teaching kung fu had become a lucrative business since the Shaolin Monastery’s rise to fame. Yanlu’s school attracted tens of thousands of students and was the second-largest school in the valley. It was the only one allowed to run a student recruitment office inside the temple premises.
But the relationship between master and disciple began to slowly fray as Yanlu, the school’s headmaster, started to expand the school without involving the Shaolin Monastery. The educational empire now includes a kindergarten (preschool) and a vocational college, and a specialized football training school called “Shaolin soccer” and a Holyfield Boxing Training Center, named after legendary heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Yanlu’s agent, Cai Liangliang, showed Caixin receipts indicating that the original investment from the temple was merely a loan, and was being paid back by Yanlu in regular installments with interest. When asked about their fallout, all Yongxin told Caixin in 2015 was that “Shi Yanlu had become unrestricted.”
Temple insiders said rumors had circulated that Yanlu had gotten married and fathered a child, and that Yongxin was afraid of how this would impact the reputation of the temple and was considering asking Yanlu to step down. This would have affected Yanlu’s business as he relied on his reputation as a Shaolin monk to attract students, they said.
When Cai was asked what caused the relationship to turn sour, he said it was Yongxin’s constant requests for money from his former disciple. Yongxin dismissed the claim in his 2015 interview with Caixin, saying, “I never asked for a penny from anyone.” The investigation results apparently have given credence to Yongxin’s version of events.