With the claw of international commerce at its door, the Buddhist temple with the martial-arts tradition made famous by dozens of kung fu movies is fighting back - and not with its hands and feet - to safeguard the Shaolin trademark from opportunistic marketeers. "It is our unshirkable historical responsibility to protect and rejuvenate the culture of Shaolin," said Shi Yongxin, the abbot of Shaolin Temple, quoted Wednesday by the official Xinhua News Agency.
In recent months, the temple in central China's Henan province has been trying to register "Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple" as trademarks with the government's General Administration for Industry and Commerce. It has also set up a firm, Henan Shaolin Temple Industrial Development Ltd. Co., to safeguard the temple's name and ban its "abusive use" in commercial activities.
The message: Don't mess with the monks. "To those who abuse the name for commercial purposes, we're going to take appropriate actions," Qin Daliang, the new consortium's general manager, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
In mainland China, more than 100 businesses - including those selling cars, food, liquor, medicine, even furniture - use a Shaolin trademark of some sort, the China Trademark and Patent Affairs Agency says. Six years ago, the temple's vegetarian monks won a lawsuit against a company in a nearby town that was using the Shaolin name to market its product - canned hams.
And abroad, a spot check by the agency on five continents found 117 items that use the name Shaolin - all without consulting the temple. "They're probably appealing to a sense of mystery, the exotic notion of ancient China, some kind of intangible benefit or sense of somehow being authentic," said Bob Zielinski, a Philadelphia intellectual property attorney - and martial artist of 35 years - who has worked with Chinese companies.
Shaolin Temple, built in 496 in the foothills of sacred Mount Songshan, is widely considered the birthplace of Shaolin Boxing, a unique combination of Buddhism and Chinese martial arts that evolved into "gongfu," or kung fu.
According to state historians, the militia monks of Shaolin gained notoriety during the early Tang Dynasty (618-907) by helping Emperor Li Shimin defeat a feudal ruler trying to overthrow the monarch. These days, the monks use their martial arts skills primarily as self-discipline.
But it was a spate of kung fu movies in the 1970s - many starring Bruce Lee and myriad imitators - that brought the martial art to the world's attention. Hong Kong's Jackie Chan, among others, has maintained that tradition in recent years, and the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan has traded heavily on its Shaolin imagery.
The spread of unauthorized Shaolin material - and the monks' awareness of its existence - illustrate how globalization has united products and people in unusual ways. Twenty years ago, it was unlikely Shaolin Temple would have heard about companies on other continents trading on its name, much less cared.
Now, though, with money and prestige on the line and economic barriers between nations falling, it's a different story. And for the government, it's an example of what foreign companies have been grousing about for years in China: the rampant sale of unauthorized products that trade on famous brands. "The incidence of the Shaolin Temple is very small in comparison with software and DVDs," Zielinski said. "But it will be instructive for the Chinese, I think, to understand that in order for them to get protection for something they view to be valuable, they'll have to start playing by the rules."
So far, the temple has procured the rights to five already registered Shaolin trademarks in Australia. And not only is it working to register the Shaolin name in 100 countries, Qin says, but it has applied to the United Nations as a "World Intangible Heritage" site. "We have to take steps to protect ourselves," Qin said. "To protect the names of Shaolin and Shaolin Temple is to protect the classics of the Chinese culture."