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Meet the Shaolin monk who taught RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan kung fu

Shi Yan Ming
Shifu Shi Yan Ming defected from China, partially because he didn't agree with the monastery's strictures.Matt Doyle
  • Shifu Shi Yan Ming is a Shaolin warrior monk and founder of USA Shaolin Temple.

  • He defected from China and escaped to New York in 1992, in part because he didn't agree with the monastery's strictures.

  • Shi is both teacher and friend to RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, whose music was inspired by kung fu.

Shi Yan Ming is a 34th-generation Shaolin warrior monk and the founder of the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan.

Shi Yan Ming
Matt Doyle

Source: USA Shaolin Temple

Shi was born in Henan Province, China on Chinese New Year, February 13, 1964. Then, China was under Mao Zedong's rule, a time of sociopolitical change and hardship.

Shi Yan Ming childhood pictures
Shi as a child.USA Shaolin Temple

"That time was extremely hard," Shi told Insider. "During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Red Guards, which were Mao's army, did whatever they wanted, while we didn't have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, or clothes."

Two of Shi's older brothers and one older sister died of starvation in Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.

Shi himself almost died when he was around 2 or 3 years old. He only recovered after an acupuncturist outside their village treated him. Shi believes the man was a bodhisattva — an enlightened being — sent by Buddha to save his life.

Source: USA Shaolin Temple

Worried about their son's health, Shi's parents took him to the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple in the province, where he remained and trained as a monk.

A monk and a child practice Kung Fu underneath blooming cherry blossoms at Shaolin Temple on March 30, 2022
A monk and a child practice Kung Fu underneath blooming cherry blossoms at Shaolin Temple on March 30, 2022Liu Huibin/VCG via Getty Images

"At the time, I remember the temple didn't have anything," Shi said. "Chairman Mao tried to destroy different religions, like Buddhism."

Source: USA Shaolin Temple

Shi said his "kung fu uncles" at the temple were very loving, and took care of him as his own parents would. He learned kung fu, Chan Buddhism, and acupuncture from his masters, waking up at 4:30 a.m. everyday and sleeping at 10 p.m.

Aerial photo taken on July 8, 2021 shows Shaolin monks practicing martial arts at Shaolin Temple
Aerial photo taken on July 8, 2021 shows Shaolin monks practicing martial arts at Shaolin TempleLi An/Xinhua/Getty Images

"I love kung fu," Shi told Insider. "My philosophy from many years of practice is: To sharpen your life, you need to practice. Every day you practice kung fu, you have life. If you don't practice kung fu, you don't have life."

Source: USA Shaolin Temple

In 1992, Shi was touring the US with a select group of Shaolin monks when he defected from China, sneaking out of his hotel at night and escaping to New York. Shi said his defection was motivated in part because he disagreed with the monastery's strictures.

Shaolin Temple founder Sifu Shi Yan-Ming
Shi has won several national martial arts competitions.James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

"I didn't think that much. I just walked out of the hotel and jumped into a cab," Shi said. "I knew absolutely no English. I used my hands and pointed to the taxi driver, like, 'Keep going, get away from here as far as possible.' I wanted to spread Shaolin Temple martial arts and philosophy to the Western world."

Sources: USA Shaolin Temple; Mel Magazine

Unlike other Buddhist warrior monks, Shi eats meat, enjoys champagne, which he calls "very special French water," and has two children with a former partner.

Shi Yan Ming posing at the Kill Bill premiere
Shi wears a bomber jacket to the "Kill Bill: Volume 1" New York City premiere after party.Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage for Miramax Films

"The monks have 250 rules — that's too much!" Shi told Insider. "That's in the past. Especially now that we live in the 21st century, we don't need that many rules. If we use past rules to live in the present day, it doesn't work for anybody. You wouldn't understand how to live life."

Shi met his former partner when she came to study at the temple he founded in 1994. They soon bonded. Explaining his decision to renounce celibacy, Shi told the New York Times in 2006, "I'm too handsome for that."

Sources: New York Times; USA Shaolin Temple; Mel Magazine; Slate

In 1994, Shi opened the first USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan's Chinatown. He teaches Shaolin martial arts and Chan Buddhism from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday to nearly 500 students, which have included celebrities like Rosie Perez, Wesley Snipes, and Bokeem Woodbine.

Founder Sifu Shi Yan-Ming (standing), a 34th-generation Shaolin monk, is joined by members of his lower Manhattan USA Shaolin Temple after practice.
Shi, a 34th-generation Shaolin monk, is joined by members of his lower Manhattan USA Shaolin Temple after practice.James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The temple had humble beginnings. Shi didn't have enough money to pay rent or utilities, and used flashlights taped to the wall for lighting, only turning them on to teach. There was no heat or hot water at wintertime, and Shi said he didn't have time to step out to wash clothes.

"I just kept buying socks and changed into them. I probably had over 400 pairs of socks!" Shi told Insider. "Every day, students would walk in and say, 'Shifu, what's that smell?' I tried to use incense and cologne, but ended up making the smell even worse."

Sources: New York Times; USA Shaolin Temple; Mel Magazine

One of his most avid students is RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, who calls Shi "master."

Gza, Shi Yan Ming of Shaolin Monks and Rza during Rza and Trace Magazine Host "Kill Bill: Vol 2" - Private Screening at Tribeca Screening Room in New York City, New York, United States
GZA, Shi Yan Ming, and RZA at a private screening of "Kill Bill: Vol 2" in 2004.Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Since its debut, the Wu-Tang Clan has mixed references and samples from classic Chinese martial arts films into his music. Ever since he was a kid, RZA has been a fan of martial arts, and saw similarities between kung fu and hip hop culture.

Shi and RZA met at an album release party in 1995. The pair swiftly bonded, and RZA became both disciple and brother to Shi.

"I believe it's destiny," Shi said.

Sources: New York Times; Black Belt Magazine

Since its debut, the Wu-Tang Clan has mixed references and samples from classic Chinese martial arts films into their music. Ever since he was a kid, RZA has been a fan of martial arts, and saw similarities between kung fu and hip hop culture.

Wu-Tang Clan
The Wu-Tang Clan.Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"Kung fu in a way has a dancing pattern to it. In the movies, you see the guys flipping and stuff, and I think it just had a natural resonance," RZA told Black Belt Magazine.

Sources: New York Times; Black Belt Magazine

Hip hop has influenced Shi, too. As he teaches his students, the Shifu will yell, "Yeah, represent!" The mantras "Train harder!" and "More chi!" are embossed on his shoes.

Shi Yan Ming stretching and kissing his feet
Matt Doyle

"I learned American slang, like 'represent' and 'respect,' from the Wu-Tang Clan. They're also very open-minded, combining Chinese philosophy to their music and their own philosophy. That's why we bonded so strongly," Shi told Insider.

Source: Mel Magazine

Shi offers free kung fu classes to public school students to help spread his philosophy: "Life is a war. Life is fighting. You have to fight for a great future."

Shi Yan Ming
Matt Doyle

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, the USA Shaolin Temple is offering free classes to New York and New Jersey students.

"Shaolin temple martial arts is for everybody. I wanted to help as many people as possible," Shi told Insider. "I want to remind people to stop making excuses in life, because life is so short. Grab it, cherish yourself, and cherish your life. Challenge yourself to make a wonderful example of yourself and others, to make the world a better place for everybody."

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