The Rise and Fall of Shaolin’s CEO Monk

Shi Yongxin built the Shaolin Temple into a global business. Now, karma’s catching up.
Photographer: Chinafotopress/Getty Images

His Holiness the Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin would deliver the money himself. Five thousand miles from the Shaolin Temple, the ancient Buddhist monastery and wellspring of kung fu that he oversees in the mountains of central China, a city council in Australia had approved his purchase of some land. Attuned to the power of symbolic gestures, Yongxin wanted to seal the deal in person, so in February the cherubic, saffron-robed abbot journeyed from Henan province to Shoalhaven, New South Wales, and handed the mayor a check for $3 million. Yongxin smiled and pressed his hands together, as if in prayer. “It is destiny,” he said.

Yongxin had negotiated for the property for nearly a decade. He wanted to build a complex there called Shaolin Village, where Australians and international tourists could learn about Chan Buddhism and the temple’s famed warrior monks. But to think of Shaolin Village as a temple would be like calling Versailles a house. In addition to a monastery and kung fu academy, the development Yongxin envisioned included a four-star hotel with 500 beds, residential villas, and a 27-hole golf course, at a cost of more than $270 million.

Yongxin, in his 16 years as head of the Shaolin Temple, had presided over many business ventures and was known across China and the world as the “CEO monk.” Since taking his vows of piety in the early 1980s, he had transformed the Shaolin Temple—a picturesque compound of prayer halls, tree-dabbled courtyards, and Buddhist shrines set against a lush mountainside—from a poor and relatively unknown outpost into a global brand. He became a symbol of the successful intersection of church, state, and commerce in China, a kind of anti-Dalai Lama who enjoys political favor as well as spiritual status.

Yongxin first drew national attention in China in the mid-1990s, when he filed a lawsuit against a company that produced Shaolin brand sausages—a product that was not only unauthorized but also, given the Buddhist monks’ vegetarianism, particularly off-message. To prevent further brand dilution, he created the Henan Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Co. and registered the name Shaolin as a trademark. While abbots had traditionally overseen only the temple grounds, Yongxin got the shabby warren of shops and martial arts schools outside the complex demolished, in the name of preserving its character, and he clashed with the local government over ticket sales to the region. He also created the Shaolin Kungfu Monk Corps, a touring troupe that performs for paying audiences from Thailand to Canada.

For centuries, the monks of the Shaolin Temple mostly prayed and practiced martial arts, while living off the land and the donations of worshippers. Under Yongxin, their activities expanded to include food and medicine sales, construction, entertainment, and consulting. In 2006 the temple teamed with a Shenzhen media company to produce Kungfu Star, an American Idol-style TV competition. Shaolin announced last year that it would begin developing mobile apps, including instructional kung fu software. The Shaolin Village project in Australia was only the next logical step in the abbot’s expansionist theo-corporate empire. “If China can import Disney resorts,” he said in March, “why can’t other countries import the Shaolin Monastery?”

Yongxin had a knack for politics as well as business. He was both vice chairman of the Buddhist Association of China and a member of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature. He met with luminaries, including Nelson Mandela, the queen of England, and Tim Cook, the head of Apple. Within the temple, he commanded a loyal following among its 400 or so monks. “He’s the person I respect the most,” said Shi Yanlu, one of Yongxin’s most trusted disciples, at one point. “He really dares to dream.”

Kung fu students practicing in Shaolin.
Kung fu students practicing in Shaolin.
Source: AFP/Getty Images

Then, on July 25, a message about Yongxin appeared on a Chinese Internet forum. Its authors claimed to be Shaolin disciples and used the pseudonym Shi Zhengyi. Shi is a title taken by all Shaolin monks, and zhengyi means “justice” in Mandarin. Borrowing the language of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign, which promises to target both “tigers” (high-level officials) and “flies” (low-level ones), the post asked, “Who will supervise the big tiger Shi Yongxin?” To “protect the hall of our ancestors” and “revitalize Shaolin,” the self-proclaimed whistle-blowers were “bravely stepping forward to reveal the rule-breaking and lawbreaking of Shaolin Temple Abbot Shi Yongxin.” His misdeeds, they charged, included raping a nun, fathering two children, embezzling funds, and generally “staining the reputation of the Shaolin Temple.” The accusers posted photos of a nun and a small child who were supposedly Yongxin’s mistress and daughter.

Over the next few days, Zhengyi released new material. Side-by-side photos seemed to show that Yongxin had not one but two housing registrations, which is illegal in China. A police report included handwritten notes from the interrogation of a Shenzhen businesswoman who claimed she’d slept with Yongxin and had been threatened by his disciples; one of them “told me he’d let me have a comfortable death,” she told the police. A social media user, posting under the same woman’s name, uploaded a photo of dirty underwear supposedly worn during a sexual encounter with Yongxin and claimed to have saved a condom used by the abbot. Letters bearing the official stamps of former Shaolin abbots said that Yongxin had been expelled from the temple—twice. The documents’ authenticity wasn’t confirmed, but those inclined to believe the charges saw in Yongxin a classic portrait: the outwardly pious religious leader exposed as a hypocrite, abusing his authority to commit sins of the flesh and the purse.

Yongxin made a show of proceeding with business as usual. On its website, the temple dismissed the charges as “vicious slander” and called for the government to investigate and prosecute the accusers. Yongxin taunted them in an interview with Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, published on Aug. 3. “If I really had a problem, you wouldn’t have to post accusations about me on the Internet,” he said. “You could go directly to the relevant departments.”

He might have regretted the challenge. That week, six Shaolin disciples traveled north to Beijing and, on Aug. 8, walked into the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the central government agency that handles investigations. The group included a former head of the Monk Corps, several other senior monks, and, leading them, Yongxin’s trusted disciple, Shi Yanlu. Within a week, government investigators were visiting the Shaolin Temple and scrutinizing the Yongxin empire. 

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 A.D. by the monk Buddhabhadra, who had traveled from India to China. It’s considered the birthplace of Chan Buddhism, a precursor of Zen Buddhism. At the foot of Mt. Song, the temple became known for its warrior monks—a contradiction, given their commitment to nonviolence, but an advantage during wartime—when, in the year 621, a group of Shaolin monks came to the aid of the Tang emperor in battle. The temple thrived during the Ming dynasty, as government officials recruited its monks for 16th century military campaigns, including several battles against Japanese pirates. One account describes a group of 120 monks killing more than 100 “dwarf pirates,” while suffering only four casualties.

The Shaolin fared worse under the Qing (1644-1911), as the new rulers, questioning the monks’ loyalty, tried to curb their military activity. In 1928 the temple was torched by a Nationalist general. The rise of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party caused damage first spiritual—monks were forbidden to wear robes or practice Buddhist rituals—and then physical, when the Red Guards destroyed many of the temple’s relics during the Cultural Revolution.

A 16-year-old named Liu Yingcheng arrived in 1981. Growing up on a farm in Anhui province, he’d often heard stories about Buddhist monks, and was taken with the idea of, in his words, “living a carefree life, coming and going like the clouds and the fog.” Liu’s parents opposed him becoming a monk, so he waited until they were traveling to take some money and sneak away to Shaolin. He found the place in a shambles. The temple was falling apart, and only two dozen monks lived there, eating little but maize paste and steamed buns. There hadn’t been an official abbot for more than 300 years. Still, Liu sought out the acting abbot, an old man named Xingzheng, who agreed to take him on. Liu cooked and grazed cattle while beginning his studies. He was an unremarkable martial artist, but he was smart, and Xingzheng took a liking to him. During the young man’s vow ceremony, the abbot gave him the dharma name Yongxin.

Any sense of tranquility was about to end. In 1982 the film The Shaolin Temple, shot on location and starring a 19-year-old kung fu phenom named Jet Li, became one of the first Chinese-made international blockbusters. Inspired by the story of a slave boy fleeing to Shaolin to learn kung fu and avenge his father’s death, would-be monks made pilgrimages to the temple and offered to join its ranks. Children flocked from around the country to study martial arts, and dozens of training schools opened. Tourism spiked from roughly 50,000 visitors per year in the late 1970s to 2.6 million in 1984.

Yongxin fought the local government over ticket revenue.

Yongxin fought the local government over ticket revenue.

Source: Chinafotopress/Getty Images

Yongxin watched this explosion with some trepidation, but mostly excitement—it was an opportunity to spread Shaolin beliefs to more people. At the same time, the central government’s grip on religion was starting to relax. Xingzheng took advantage of the “reform and opening” policies of Deng Xiaoping to push for greater independence for the temple, traveling frequently to lobby officials in the provincial capital and Beijing. He would often bring along Yongxin, who became known as Xingzheng’s “walking stick.”

In his memoir, Shaolin Temple in My Heart, Yongxin remembers traveling on the cheap, eating bread they’d packed themselves and staying in bathhouses. (Yongxin, through a spokesman, declined several requests to be interviewed.) He met officials and learned the importance of political connections. Xingzheng successfully persuaded the government to let the monks wear robes again and to allow ticket sales, which generated an income for the temple. In this radically open economic landscape, Yongxin saw firsthand how the temple could leverage the Jet Li miracle into security, autonomy, and growth.

Some accounts suggest Yongxin became too keen a student of power. According to a recent report by Sina News, a Chinese news portal, in 1986, as Xingzheng was preparing for a ceremony that would officially make him abbot, he couldn’t find a necessary scroll. Xingzheng accused Yongxin of stealing the sacred object out of a desire to become abbot himself. At first Yongxin denied the charge, then reportedly admitted guilt and gave the scroll back. Xingzheng also learned that Yongxin had been referring to himself as Shaolin’s “second in command,” and sometimes even as “abbot,” according to Sina.

Xingzheng expelled Yongxin from the temple, according to documents posted by Shi Zhengyi and statements by people who were at Shaolin at the time. But Yongxin refused to leave, even when, per one account, some monks took his bedding and personal items and threw them out of the temple. A year later, documents released by Shi Zhengyi appear to show, a new “honorary” abbot, Shi Dechan, again tried to kick Yongxin out. He wrote a letter to the Buddhism Association of China enumerating Yongxin’s alleged offenses, including inciting monks to beat up an electrician. Again, Yongxin refused to be dismissed. The farm boy who had come to Shaolin wishing to come and go like the clouds and the fog had learned the power of staying put. He built his own base of supporters and, with higher-ranking monks either too ill or too unpopular to take charge, eventually emerged as the de facto leader of the temple, the monk with the clearest ability to continue the modernization that Xingzheng had begun.

In 1995, Yongxin organized a celebration of the Shaolin Temple’s 1,500th anniversary, inviting government officials, Buddhist leaders, and thousands of guests from around the world. In a clever bit of political theater, he put on display a memorial tablet commemorating the 50th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan. The five-day celebration got extensive media coverage and helped establish the Shaolin Temple as the preeminent monastery in China. “It was exceptionally successful,” Yongxin wrote in his memoir. Four years later, he went through the official induction ceremony and was named 30th abbot of the Shaolin Temple. He was 34 years old. “I always persist in things that I am determined to do,” he wrote. “People might not understand for the moment, but everything will become clear at last.”

I’d heard a lot about the commercialization of the Shaolin Temple, but nothing could prepare me for my first encounter with Buddhism Inc. I paid the steep $16 entrance fee and walked the long, tree-lined path from the front gate of the Songshan Shaolin Scenic Area to the temple. The lilting theme song from Shaolin Temple, the movie, played from speakers in the trees. Tour groups congregated in front of the temple, snapping photos of its front steps, sloping tile roofs, and, despite a rule against it, the occasional monk. A man in a puffy jacket offered to sell me a Photoshopped picture of myself with Yongxin and Vladimir Putin flanking me like bodyguards. I shelled out $30 to see the 400-person nighttime Shaolin Zen Music Ritual, and caught a kung fu performance where the stage was emblazoned with the name of a tire company. In the mall-like gift shop, I bought a toy gun.

One evening I was sitting in a nearby guesthouse, reading a copy of Yongxin’s memoir, when an old man with a long white beard shuffled over. His son accompanied him and said his father had studied at the temple long ago. The old man stepped to the center of the room and performed an elegant kung fu routine, striking and kicking invisible enemies. Here it was, I thought: living heritage, unsullied by crass commercialism. When the man finished, I applauded and went to shake his hand. “Now give me some money,” he said.

In his book, Yongxin describes his goal for the temple not as commercialization, but rather the preservation and spread of authentic Shaolin culture. To do that, he argues, requires that monks be engaged in the secular world. “It seems that in people’s minds, monks worthy of respect should do nothing but chant prayers,” he writes. “I do not think that way.” He rejects the CEO Monk nickname, but based on past statements, his aim isn’t radically different from that of a Fortune 500 company: growth. Yet growth requires efficiency, rational management, and creative destruction, which don’t always suit religious leaders.

If Shaolin is commercial now, it used to be worse—or at least tackier. In the mid-1990s, the area surrounding the temple was filled with souvenir shops selling prayer beads, figurines, swords, and Tasers. There was a roller coaster simulator and a house of horrors with a petrified cadaver. One of Mao’s private planes stood on display. The dirt road to the temple was lined with competing martial arts schools, where students trained to become, typically, kung fu coaches or military personnel, and occasionally Shaolin warrior monks. “They were dazzling, in a weird way,” says Gene Ching, a Shaolin disciple and associate publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine who first visited in 1995. “My favorite was watching two kids assigned to clean up the street. They got in a fight over a dustpan. At first it was typical push-pull, then one kid trapped the other kid’s hand on the dustpan and put him in an armlock, and the other kid did a tornado kick to disarm him.”

Upon becoming abbot in 1999, Yongxin decided to clear out the dreck. “Who would want to visit this filthy and chaotic place?” he wrote. He lobbied the local government to approve demolition in the area and helped pay for it with what he said was the majority of the temple’s savings. Villagers, whose livelihoods were jeopardized, picketed and held banners denouncing the abbot, but in 2002 the forced relocation proceeded. Yongxin was pleased. “Now it possesses a little bit of the poetic charm that I have long cherished for the Shaolin Temple,” he wrote. The project dovetailed with his trademark-protection litigation, as he sought to control the temple’s image locally and abroad. When Yongxin first tried to lay exclusive claim to the name Shaolin, he found that 57 other parties had already registered the trademark in China, as well as 18 in the U.S. and 228 in Japan. After numerous lawsuits, all rights to the name were transferred to the temple in 2009. Yongxin was instilling the modern tenets of brand discipline on a 1,500-year-old faith. But he was also creating a long list of enemies who had been cut out of the Shaolin economy.

As Yongxin’s fame grew, his critics accused him of living an increasingly extravagant lifestyle—especially for a monk. In 2006 the government of Dengfeng gave him a Volkswagen SUV worth $125,000 as thanks for his contributions to tourism. “I dream of getting a bigger prize next year,” he said at the time. Three years later, he was again denounced for showing off a cloak with gold thread worth $25,000. He said it was a gift from a brocade company in Nanjing as an example of their shared “intangible cultural heritage.” Allegations of more serious misbehavior began to appear in 2011, when someone claimed online that Yongxin had been caught visiting prostitutes during a police raid. The State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a statement saying the report was only a malicious rumor. Whatever controversies surrounded Yongxin, they never stuck. When he addressed them, it was only in koan-like utterances. “If these things are problems,” he once told a reporter, “they would have become problems by now.”

In November, I visited Qian Daliang, the general manager of Shaolin Intangible Assets Management Co. Ltd., which Yongxin had established to oversee the temple’s many subsidiaries. In his spare office inside the temple walls, Qian—the surname means “money”—turned on a small, ineffectual space heater and made tea while he told tales of the Shaolin monks’ greatest financial battles. “Religions should be independent, and economic independence is the most important part,” he said. One of Yongxin’s most significant stands had been with the local government over the issue of allowing the temple to sell tickets—the campaign Abbot Xingzheng had started. Eventually, Qian said, the government agreed that the temple would receive 30 percent of the revenue from ticket sales to the Songshan Shaolin Scenic Area, in which the temple is the main attraction. Temple insiders suspect the local government is trying to reduce its financial dependence on Shaolin. In 2010 the city of Dengfeng started developing plans for a competing temple, to be called Tianzhong. Construction began but was soon delayed. According to a report in Caixin magazine, although Yongxin expressed outward support for the project, many locals believe he played a role in stalling it by raising objections that the construction would damage old relics. Work was halted in May, two months before Shi Zhengyi launched the public crusade against Yongxin.

The highway connecting Dengfeng to the Shaolin Temple passes a dozen martial arts schools—tall, gray buildings crowned with almost identical red lettering, most containing the name Shaolin and many run by former monks. Some relocated there after Yongxin’s demolition; others have been erected since, sometimes with temple funds. The schools, which bring in tens of thousands of students every year, including wealthy foreigners, have over the years turned into gold mines for their owners. In 1997, Yongxin reportedly dispatched his disciple Shi Yanlu to found the Shaolin Warrior Monks Training Base and invested 15 million yuan ($2.3 million) in the school. Yanlu, a sinewy specimen, especially compared with Yongxin’s melted-candle figure, had grown up poor in Shandong province and came to Shaolin in 1987. He eventually became a respected warrior monk and one of Yongxin’s loyal aides. During the abbot’s 1999 induction ceremony, Yanlu stood behind Yongxin, holding his umbrella.

Yanlu’s school became one of the most successful in the region. It maintained close ties with Shaolin: Yanlu would send his best students to perform in the temple’s kung fu shows, as well as in the lucrative Shaolin Zen Music Ritual song and dance show. Yongxin allowed Yanlu alone to maintain a recruitment office inside the temple.

A Shaolin monk poses for a photograph in London’s Chinatown on Feb. 23.

A Shaolin monk poses for a photograph in London’s Chinatown on Feb. 23.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

Over time, the relationship frayed. Yanlu began to receive his own high-profile visitors, including the prime minister of Hungary and the king of Cambodia. Temple leaders suspected that Yanlu was no longer sending his best pupils to participate in Shaolin performances, keeping them instead for his own school’s shows. Yanlu further distanced himself from Yongxin when he bought a piece of land and began advertising an ambitious new program called Shaolin Soccer, without involving the temple. Yanlu and Yongxin would squabble over money. According to Yanlu’s report to the government, starting in 2005, Yongxin began asking Yanlu for money. “He was insatiable,” Yanlu’s spokesman told Caixin. Yongxin denied this, saying he “never asked for a cent.” Yanlu also claimed that Yongxin forced him to pay 2 million yuan to the Shenzhen businesswoman with whom the abbot allegedly had sex. “He was the abbot, so I had to do what he said,” Yanlu wrote. “After that, he warned me not to raise the issue of the money or else I’d be kicked out of the temple.”

Yanlu has faced his own charges of sacrilege. Several years ago, a photo reportedly circulated in the Shaolin community of Yanlu with his month-old son. As Qian Daliang explained it to one news outlet, Yongxin confronted Yanlu and told him to stop wearing the monastic robes. From then on, when they met in person, Yanlu would dress in everyday clothes, but he still wore the robes at school events. His role as headmaster depended on his image as a pious Shaolin warrior monk—without that, he could lose everything. Yanlu didn’t respond to requests for comment sent to his spokesman.

Tensions exploded one day in 2013, when a group of Yanlu’s students tried to enter the Shaolin Temple without tickets. A fight broke out between the students and the Shaolin monks guarding the gate, and the police arrested two of the guards. After that, Yongxin closed Yanlu’s student recruitment office and, according to reports, officially expelled him from the temple. 

In November, the year’s first snowfall blanketed the monastery. Nearly four months had passed since the charges against Yongxin went viral, and the results of the state investigation still hadn’t been announced. The initial blast of chatter about his fate had quieted to a low hum. No one wanted to talk on the record: Those who had already voiced support for Yongxin had nothing to add, while those who had denounced him didn’t want to say more in case he kept his job after all. As time went on and nothing changed, the locals were beginning to consider the possibility that the abbot, as he had survived past crises, would weather this one. That would be an astonishing anticlimax, given the dynamite nature of the charges, but one that they had to consider—knowing the extent of Yongxin’s power, the thinness of the evidence, the bias of the accusers, and the capriciousness of the Chinese legal system.

Then, on Nov. 28, the Henan government released partial results of its investigation. The authorities had split their probe into two parts, one focusing on “disciplinary” charges and the other on “economic” ones. Yongxin was cleared of the former. The claims that he fathered two children were false, according to the report: One of them was in fact adopted by the nun with whom Yongxin had allegedly fathered the child, and anyway the woman had become infertile after an operation; a paternity test revealed that the other was the child of Yongxin’s younger brother. The state’s report also rejected the claim that Yongxin had been expelled from the monastery in the 1980s. In an interview with a Henan newspaper, a member of the investigation team said the expulsion had been “a personal matter” and was “invalid” because it was not approved by the proper government authorities.

Yongxin with Jackie Chan.
Yongxin with Jackie Chan.
Photographer: Donald Chan/Reuters

The results of the “economic” investigation haven’t yet been released. (Nor have investigators explained their unusual choice to publish in thematic installments.) But the findings so far suggest that Yongxin may be headed for exoneration, or at the most a slap on the wrist. The “disciplinary” results are conspicuously incomplete: They fail to address the rape accusation, as well as the charge that Yongxin slept with the Shenzhen businesswoman. Verdicts on these charges don’t appear to be forthcoming.

The public response has been predictably cynical. One Chinese netizen spoke for many when he wrote, “He’s a good Party monk, of course he can’t have problems.” The point being, whether he’s guilty or not, Yongxin is too big to fail. If he did, given the gravity of the charges, he would take countless others down with him.

It’s true that many party leaders have lost their jobs in recent years because of the anticorruption campaign, and those who fight their accusers rarely win. But those officials have been targeted by the upper rungs of the party. The small group that fingered Yongxin included rogue disciples who had axes to grind. From a stability perspective, his ousting would cause more problems than it would solve. Moreover, he’s a powerful symbol for the Chinese government. His success showcases not only China’s tolerance for organized religion but also the country’s soft power. Shaolin has reached new audiences through every manner of pop culture, from Stephen Chow movies to The Simpsons to the Wu-Tang Clan, whose latest album is titled Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. At a time when China can’t seem to win an Oscar or produce literature that travels well, the fact that American teenagers know the name Shaolin is a source of pride.

During my visit to the temple, I went by the office of Wang Yumin, the head of foreign affairs, and told him I wanted to write about how the temple had become so successful under Yongxin. “Successful?” Wang said. He laughed bitterly and gestured around him as if the allegations dogging Yongxin were physical objects in the room. “We don’t think it’s very successful.”