Shaolin Monks to unleash kung fu prowess on Lied Center

They break iron bars over their heads and big, thick sticks over their legs, backs and stomachs. They lie on their bellies, bend their knees and pull their feet up next to their ears.

Their strength, flexibility and threshold for pain are astounding.

They're 7 years old.

Well, at least one of them is. Most of the Shaolin Monks who will perform gravity-defying leaps, strike contortionist poses and balance in precarious positions Wednesday at the Lied Center are in their late teens and early 20s.

Although the monks are credited with inventing kung fu martial arts, the Shaolin Wheel of Life tour is more than a demonstration of skill.

"We like to call it a theatrical kung fu show. It's not really a kung fu demonstration as such because it tells a story," said Susie Lyons, whose proper title is artist tour manager. ("But I like to call myself the monk wrangler," she said.)

The story Wheel of Life tells is based on the true story of the monks' ancient predecessors at the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province. The Buddhist order, founded in 495 AD, was called upon by the emperor at the time to defend the royal palace, which was under attack by an invading army.

The monks fought and won the war, using only everyday objects and their bodies as weapons, and the emperor asked them to stay. But they returned to the temple, angering the emperor, who ordered their slaughter. Five young monks survived.

"The end of the story shows the wheel of life and how the Shaolin Monks and Buddhist practices can continue because of the five young monks, traditionally called the five ancestors," Lyons said.

Twenty-four present-day monks on leave from the temple, four actors and three musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments have been recreating the story since April 2000 for thousands of people in countries around the world. What was originally intended by the abbot of Shaolin Temple to be a one-time kung fu demonstration in London has turned into a fast-paced tour. A portion of ticket sales benefit Shaolin schools, where up to 40,000 students train in kung fu.

Among the feats in the show is a two-finger handstand executed by one of the monks. He has to wrap twine around the single finger on each hand that will bear the weight of his body, presumably to keep his fingers from breaking under the strain.

"You should see his hands," Lyons said. "They're so strong."




What: Shaolin Wheel of Life.When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.Where: Lied Center.Cost: $23-$48. Purchase tickets for this House of Blues show at www.hob.com/wheeloflife or from any TicketMaster outlet by calling (785) 234-4545, (816) 931-3330 or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

Life on the road and under lights is quite a shift from the focused, contemplative time the monks spend in the temple, but they've adjusted well, Lyons said.

"It has changed them in that they've become more worldly, I suppose, and more understanding of the western world. At the end of the day, they all say that they prefer the temple life because it is so peaceful and they enjoy the routine," said Lyons, who is able to speak to the monks in their native Mandarin. "I suppose it's difficult for them to adjust, but they're young kids and they are very flexible and adaptable.

"It is an honor and a privilege for them to be touring, showcasing their kung fu."

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