A accounting of Shaolin Temple history without prejudice. Importantly, we do not seek to establish some genetic, ancestral or other link to Shaolin Temple. This account is written for the pure pleasure of clarity about Shaolin and it's history.
In no way is this account of Shaolin History perfect. Since the first appearance of this WEB page in 1995, we have received many comments and much additional information from all over the world, including China and Shaolin. When material came with a source, further research was performed before any changes were made to this page. Three corroborating independent sources were the ideal circumstance often two would have to do as long as they were not copied from one another.
This page does not seek to establish anything other than a record of Shaolin History as best as possible and within the context of Shaolin Kung Fu. If you have any information that relates to Shaolin, its philosophies, history, beliefs, principals, events and/or it's Kung Fu, please write to us. Include the source of your material; quoting page number when referring to books and WEB site addresses when referring to WEB pages, etc. Should your input be used, you will be credited in the Bibliography."Appreciate and learn from the past, Plan and dream for the future and Live in the here & now; and don't repeat old mistakes, they eventually become bad habits."
Chinese civilization started well before most other. Officially, it was the first civilization to cast metal in 8,000 BCE; 2,000 years before anyone else and 4,000 years before Europeans. It was emperor Chin of the Qui Dynasty who united many of the warring states of China and by joined many parts of the Great Wall created a more or less unified people. Unfortunately, as an avid believer of life-prolonging methods, he was a constant user of a concoction with Mercury. he died 6 years later to be succeeded by the Eastern Han Dynasty
(Emperor Chin or Shi Huangdi [246-210 BC], is known as the Tiger of Qin, and the unifier of all China who ruled between 221 and 210 BC. Emperor Qin built much of the Great Wall of China, but is best known in archaeological circles for his legendary tomb. In 1974, workmen discovered the tomb of Shi Huangdi near the city of Xi'an in the modern Shensi province. Among the treasures found there is a marvelous army of terracotta soldiers and horses, consisting of nearly 8,000 life sized individual statues that were sculpted from clay and fired.)
Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han sent a delegation to the west to search out and study Buddhism. They returned after three years with two eminent Indian monks with Buddhist sutra's and figures on a white horse. He created a temple, 100 km from Luyan and named it the White Horse Temple. This became a center of learning and Buddhist study. About 100 km away, in the Center of China was a mountain range that would come to fame some 440 years later.
Towards the end of the 5th Century CE (about 440 years after the establishment of the White Horse Temple) an Indian Warrior and Buddhist Monk was traveling through China following the path of, and teaching Buddhism. He had a great heart and mind helping and guiding anyone who wanted his help. His great wisdom and kindness was such that it came to the ears of the Emperor who summoned him to the Palace . Buddhabhadra by name, which was difficult for Chinese to say, was renamed to Batuo spent some time at court. He so impressed the emperor with his Wisdom and Buddhist interpretation that he was offered a permeant office and place at the Palace. Buddhabhadra proposed that his teaching may be better served if he were in a more accessible place. The Emperor offered them several hectares in the province of Henan, in the Sacred Mountains on the side of Shao Shi (Shi meaning Mountain). They chose a spot in an area of Lin (Lin meaning Young or New Trees) as the place for the Temple; and this came to be the name of the Temple >Shaolin ( Sillum in Cantonese) Temple.
At around th same time a prince was born in a small tribe of Southern India (As a prince, he was a member of the Warrior Class, some assert he was of the Brahman Class), thus schooled in the martial arts). He converted to Mayhayana Buddhism at an early age and became the student of the Monk Prajnadhara, who was the 27 th lineage holder of the Chi'en (Zen in Japanese) Tradition. His training was in Mayhayana Buddhist practices, which requires hard exercise and training as part of the meditation and studying.
His training lasted many year and until the death of his teacher at which time he became the 28th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism and was named Bodhidharma. Before Master Prajnatara died he tasked Bodhidharma to spread Buddhism to China.
He traveled east in to Southern China by ship arriving in Kwangzhou (Canton) in 526 CE. Much like his famous predecessor Buddhabhadra, Bodhidharma made an impression on many Chinese. He also came to the attention of Emperor of the day and was invited to Nanjing. That is where the similarity stops as Bodhidharma stark teaching offended the Emperor. He had to leave.
During his time at court, Bodhidharma was renamed to Damo (Tamo, Datmo . . .), as Bodhidharma was very difficult for the Chinese to pronounce. At this time he had also heard of both the White Horse and Shaolin Buddhist Temples. Whereas not much is know if he visited the Whitehorse Temple, there is a bit know about his visit to Shaolin.
When Damo arrived at Shaolin he again made his stark views know. He commented most derogatorily of Shaolin's weak, sickly ad lazy Monks. As a true believer of Mayhayan Buddhism and master of staff and bare hand skills, he was a firm believer of the need for exercise to reach enlightenment. It was not surprising that the Shaolin Monks were not happy to be so confronted and, like the Emperor, asked him to leave. Be it because of his previous relative failure with the Chinese Emperor or be it that he had enough of traveling or be it that he really was disgusted with the conditions at Shaolin, he did not leave. A small cave, that is still there, some 30 minutes walking distance from Shaolin became his new home.
Damo retreated to this cave to meditate on the problem(s). Many legends suggest he sat in this cave facing a wall for 9 years. Whether it was nine years, months or moons, he did spend quite some time in this cave meditating. It his time in the cave, he had a few encounters. Some of the Shaolin started visiting him and in a way he became an oddity. He also met She Kuang, possibly a Shaolin student or visitor who came to his cave to see the strange man. There are several accounts of what She Kuang did to became Bodhidharma's 1st disciple.
Bodhidharma did eventually gain entrance to Shaolin. There are also multiple legends on this matter and there are many variations. One of the most popular is that he sat facing the cave wall for 9 years straight. The Shaolin were so impressed with his determination and skill that they invited him in even providing him with his own quarters (this is significant as the Shaolin Temple never was that sizable).
Soon after entering Shaolin he defined three types of exercises later transcribed by monks as;
This marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple Kung Fu ( Kung Fu in Shaolin meaning hard work and perfection not martial or war art). Damo later devised some self-defence movements based on his knowledge of Indian fighting systems. (possibly introducing Pole as a Weapon as this was part of his training and is often depicted with it.)
Towards the end of the time of the Northern & Southern Dynasties, around Emperor Wu Di of the Northern Zhou Dynasty called for the "abolishment of Buddhism". In 574 and again in 577, Emperor Wu had Buddhist and Taoist images destroyed and their clergy returned to lay life. He believed the temples had become too rich and powerful, so he confiscated their land and gave it to his own soldiers. During this time, the Shaolin Monastery was closed, Shaolin Dispersed. This was considered the 1st and 2nd persecution of Buddhism (looking at it only from a Buddhist perspective) but there were to be two more such purges.
A new Dynasty and a new start, the new Tang Emperor himself believed in Buddhism and allowed Shaolin to be rebuilt and reoccupied. Shaolin understood that it needed to be able to manage their own protection, not being able to rely of the 'good will' of the local governor. A higher focus was put on the training of Monks in martial art as an exercising. As they were not skilled warriors, they started interacting with the outside by inviting warriors and local masters to visit and train with them. The Shaolin Monk skills came to be respected and well know. This is evidenced by the Emperors call for aid in freeing his captured son..
General Wang-Shih-Chung had gathered a large army in an attempt to oust the Emperor from the Imperial throne and start a new Dynasty. Li Shimini, the Emperors son, was sent with an army again the usurper. Wang-Shih-Chung forces managed to capture the Emperors son and inflicted great damage to the Tang army. The General also threatened to kill the Tang Emperors heir if he did not desist with his attacking army. It seemed like a no win situation.
It is recorded that Shaolin sent 13 Pole Fighting monks to help free the Imperial heir. The Shaolin devised a Dawn Attack raid wherein they silently entered the Army just before dawn, removed any resistance, creating some damage (legends suggest they killed 10,000 soldiers but .. .) and escaped with the Emperors son. This successful raid causing much damage and demoralizing the troops which broke the army and allowed for Royalist troops to 'clean up'.
With his son and throne safe again, the Emperor was pleased and gifted Shaolin with greater lands, regular funds and the Royal Grant of allowing Shaolin to have up to 500 Warrior Monks (Soldier Monks, Seng Bing). This again, put Shaolin on the Chinese Political and Buddhist map. This improved even further when a few years later the old Emperor died and his (by the Shaolin saved) son became the new Tang Emperor. A very close relationship between Shaolin and the court was established, which would last until the Buddhist persecutions towards the end of the Tang Dynasty.
With Shaolin becoming so renown, many, many young people wanted to become Soldier Monks; many wanted to learn Shaolin Kung Fu and many just wanted what ever they could get. Shaolin seemed the 2nd center (beside the Imperial court, that was a bit more difficult to access than Shaolin) of the Chinese Universe. This had both Advantages and disadvantages.
It was a rich young noble an experienced martial artist, found his way to Shaolin and entered the Shaolin Monastery. He assumed the name of Chueh Yuan and devoted all his studies to the further development of Shaolin Kung Fu and fitness training. He was talented and had Shaolin as his play ground and within a few years, he was able to revise the unstructured Kung Fu training into a structure of 72 Fists, Movements, Martial Art Skills. These were very successful, both to train and to use, very effective and Shaolin adopted the the 72 Fits to is 18 Hands exercises. They were very effective for both internal and external fitness; and incorporated strategic elements and thought. These 72 Fists were "very" effective; possibly too effective and not quite in line with original Buddhist non-injuring principles (any harm done to other will be returned 10 fold on the giver).
Chueh Yuan had plenty of time on his hands and had devoted his life to Kung Fu and Shaolin. he wanted to test his system and see what the world has to offer. He went on a study and testing journey.
On his travels, Chueh Yuan witnessed a bandit attacking an aged person. He saw how the attacker landed an apparently very strong kick seemingly, to the body of the traveler with very little or no effect. The old traveler only used minimal effort against the bandit's leg sending the attacker crumbling to the ground. This maneuver impressed Chueh Yuan enormously. Considering that Buddhist Shaolin needed a style that was more in line with Buddhist principles (not to do violence to others), this seemed like a good start. He introduced himself to the senior and inquired if he would be able to teach this art to him. Much to his surprise the old man did not know much of what he did and referred them to the local master Pai Yu-feng.
Pai Yu-feng was a friendly 50 year old and Chueh Yuan convinced him to accompany him back to the Shaolin temple. Over the next few years they, using the 18 Hands of Lohan, the 72 Fist Styles together with Pai Yu-feng's pressure point grappling/wrestling techniques' and redeveloped the Shaolin 72 Fist Kung Fu into the 170 exercises, a mixture Striking and Controlling, Evading and Countering. This was possibly the first official introduction of Vital Points to martial arts (it is now common for involved martial artiste to study the human body, meridians, joints, major organs and Dragon Points). This form of Kung Fu would endure for over 400 years before any significant changes were made
As a well financed, well protected and by the ruling Dynasty favored temple, Shaolin was now the most famous Buddhist Temple. It was the place to be; Scholars, Martial Artists, Healers, Masters of Craft and Imperial Soldiers, Artists were now fairly common in Shaolin. A village developed around the Temple (as the Temple proper was actually quite modest). Some of these were invited as Honored Guests, information and teaching was exchanged.
As Buddhists teaching and sharing of knowledge and wisdom was the gift of Buddha. This resulted in the school having teaching and lecturing facilities in addition to the normal training facilities (much like modern Chinese schools are now managed).
The Monk Soldiers also had a reputation to keep but could not really 'pick fights'. Friendly competitions were sponsored by Shaolin and the Soldier Monks had opportunity to test their skills against the best. Shaolin training including using Weapons but not for the purpose of using these Weapons against other humans (Using the Pole was already a burden on their spirit); these Weapons were learned and then put aside. They learned how to defend against Weapons. They trained many Weapon styles as part of their regular fitness training. With their exposure to Imperial Officers and having the time to spend in training, their skills grew. Shaolin would again be asked to use these skills in the name of the Emperor.
Before Shanghai was the major sea port and trading center that is is today, Fukien (Fujian) was the major connection trade with over 2000 years history, It was perfectly situated as a port to trade with Taiwan, Korea, Japan, India and the rest of the World. Fukien (Fujian) history extends well back before the dawn of Chinese civilization as major population and trading center, possibly even with Arabs, Romans and Greeks ate various times in history. In the time of the new Tang Dynasty, it was in the grasp of Pirates and Lawless. Military intervention from the Imperial court had very little effect, the Pirates were wealthy and were able to bribe any official interfering; or kill them (one can see where accepting bribes would have seemed the preferred option to the officials; and it was a long standing culture of Chinese politics; bribes and survival that is). Remembering the success of the 13 monks, the new Tang Emperor asked Shaolin for help.
Shaolin decided to send 3 of the original 13 Monks (Dao Guang, Seng Man and Seng Feng), together with 500 Soldier Monks to help solve the problem. Shaolin could not easy be bribed and, theoretically, as Buddhists, were not intimidated by threats of death. As monks they also had the support and trust of the common person. What they specifically did is not know, but what the outcome was is. Although they did not eradicate the Pirates entirely, they reduce their influence in Fukien to the point where Imperial Office and Law was able to manage this centers of commerce. Fukien was back in the hands of the Imperial Court and paying good taxes again.
This made the Emperor happy and gifts were again bestowed on the Shaolin temple including an even greater area of land around the mountain. In addition to thanking Shaolin which incidentally was also a way to keep his Shaolin influence in Fukien, he gave Shaolin their own Temple. Records show that the initially gifted temple was in Putian, only 100 years old but a bit small. As the Shaolin outgrew this location quickly, they relocated to other temples. Artefacts and records found as recently as in the first few years of 21st century, that they also occupied temples in Guandong (Canton) and Hebei. In the years of 874-8 CE, still during the Tang dynasty, a Shaolin specific temple was built. But this was to be a short lived pleasure. Buddhist and Temples were in for a bad period.
With the military and martial art successes and having officially been given leave to have 500 Seng Bing, Soldier, Warrior or Guard Monks, Shaolin training was now very involved and rigorous for all monks. It may have become very focused on the martial art aspect and have 'forgotten' it roots of Yoga and Breathing. Because of Shaolin fame, reputation, wealth and Status (even today Shaolin Trained Body Guards earn up to twice the normal protectors wage), many young people wanted to gain entrance and be part of the reputation (Gain Face). Too many wanted to be associated with the Shaolin reputation. Shaolin needed a way to separate the clowns from their future monks.
Shaolin developed a stricter process of choosing who could study with them. For some, this was just a greater amount in donations to Shaolin, lacking that other entry exams were included. Speculation on this is rife but it was clear that lacking excellent funding, gaining entrance into Shaolin was tough. Some records suggest that there was a week of entry per year. That some people stood in line well before the day of choosing, sometimes weeks before, much like, at today's very popular events ticket sales (even days and weeks, as some traveled several months to get to Shaolin). Once you were in, irrespective of age, you spent several years on kitchen duties which included all styles of menial tasks, the famous Water Carrying (yes there is a water flow about 150 meters down a hill from Shaolin), sweeping, fixing, mending, serving, etc. On the upside, they also received a very good educations including Calligraphy (writing with the brush) skills, basic math's, Buddhism (of course, possibly principles of Confucianism and Taoism), Poetry, History and Music (the 6 Noble Skills).
It was a very hard life but it was of grand benefit to everyone. For Shaolin, it sorted out the best for possible full training as a Shaolin Monk. For the so accepted, if they became Shaolin, that was the Grand Ultimate. If not, the education they received put them in the top 1% of Chinese Education; that about how many Chinese per population could write, let along being taught the other Noble Skills. It was a Win-Win situation for all around. Those who successfully completed their 'Kitchen' period were still not fully accepted. They needed a mentor, a Monk who would accept each graduate and 'take' them into their fold. This was to ensure that 'right minded' were chosen not just tough individuals. Then the second phase of training would begin with greater focus on Buddhism than ever before. Aside from Buddhist studies, many Shaolin has their areas of expertise, areas where they mastered an aspect of the Noble and other learning's. The Soldier Monks also chose from the batch of graduates to replace retired and killed Soldier Monks.
Although it is dramatized in movies, Shaolin thus chosen would be brought to the brink of exhaustion through their training. Records indicated a very tough regime of physical and mental exercise with only 4 hours sleep most nights; long runs before breakfast, very hard martial art exercises, chi kung and endurance training on top of their Buddhist studies and obligatory daily meditations. This would go on for several years. Those who failed were not allowed to stay in Shaolin and were asked to leave (although their future was secured with this level of training and education). Those that endured, were accepted (note - the branding of forearms by the lifting of a cauldron of a pedestal was wildly popularized and sometimes accepted as fact. As no clear records exist of any such test and Buddhism does not allow the permanent marking of human bodies).
Military eunuchs had controlled the government for some time. They had put the previous emperor, Wuzong's older brother Wenzong, under house arrest, where he apparently drank himself to death. The eunuchs had also murdered the last two emperors before him, Jingzong and Muzong. Meanwhile, the Uyghur Khanate was attacking China from the northwest. Imperial finances were in trouble as most provinces were not paying any taxes to the central government. Reforms and tough action was needed.
With the help of his uncle, the future Emperor Xuanzong, Wuzong was able to stage a coup against the eunuchs and ascend to the throne. He and his prime minister Li Deyu were able to curb the eunuchs' power. Li Deyu took personal command of the war against the Uyghurs and won an important victory in 843. But they still did not have enough money to 'turn' China around. They needed funds!
Buddhist monasteries had become rich and were tax exempt. Many people entered the Buddhist community to escape military service and tax duty. The increase in the number of temples, priests and nuns put even more financial pressure on the state (added to the wars, internal battles and politics). With the rise of the Neo-Confucian's who wrote manifests against the foreign religion (including Buddhism), believing its egalitarian philosophies destroyed the social system of duty and rights of the upper and lower classes. He had reasoning and an amount of popular support for his next reform.
The "Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution/Reform" was launched by the Emperor. His reasoning was that to reduce foreign influence he needed funds for his army (which than would enforce tax law), which would be raised by stripping all Buddhist clergy of all possessions, temples, literature, properties and such.
Shaolin were either forced into into lay life or into hiding. During this time, followers of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other non Taoist beliefs were persecuted as well. The persecution lasted for twenty months when Emperor Wuzong died and was succeeded by Emperor Xuanzong. On his ascension he and put forth a policy of tolerance in 846. For a few year it seemed that this had restored the Tang, yet.
A large-scale peasant uprising launched by Huang Chao again severely attacked the Tang regime. Although the revolution failed to unseat the Tang, later emperors were unable to restore the dynasty's power. As central authority weakened, nomads on the frontiers gained control over large portions of China and generals were able to establish regional kingdoms. In 907, the last Tang emperor, Emperor Ai was forced to abdicate by Chancellor Zhu Quanzhong, who afterwards changed the state title into Liang, finally putting the ever powerful and mighty Tang Dynasty to an end 907 CE. A time of unrest started.
Between 907 and 960 there was a mess of Dynasties; some lasting as little as 3 years but none longer than 17 years. In fairly rapid succession the Later Liang Dynasty (907 to 923), Later Tang Dynasty (Shatuo Turk 923 to 936), Later Jin Dynasty (936 to 946), Later Han Dynasty (947 to 950) and Later Zhou Dynasty (951 to 960). As Tang power ebbed by the center of the eighth century CE Domestic economic instability and military defeat in 751 by Arabs at Talas, in Central Asia, marked the beginning of five centuries of steady military decline for the Chinese empire. Misrule, court intrigues, economic exploitation, and popular rebellions weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to terminate the dynasty in 907. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms. The dispersal of political and economic power that marked the collapse of the Tang dynasty resulted in a brief period of disunion known as the Five Dynasties period (AD 907-960). Not only did five short-lived dynasties follow one another in the Huang He (yellow River), valley of North China, but ten independent states were established (AD 906-979), most of them in South China. Although foreign invaders did not overrun China during this period, the Liao dynasty (AD 916-1125) of the Khitan Mongols, based in Manchuria and Mongolia, was able to extend its influence over parts of northern Hebei and Shanxi provinces. Beijing became the southern capital of their joint Sino-Khitan Empire.
A new power, the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), reunited most of China proper. The Song period divides into two phases, Northern Song (960 to 1127), and Southern Song (1127 to 1279). The division was caused by the forced abandonment of north China in 1127 by the Song court, which could not push back the nomadic invaders. The founders of the Song Dynasty built an effective centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. Some writings even suggest that the founder of the Song Dynasty was a Shaolin Graduate or Layman and was very pro Wuji (martial arts) as a form of health giving exercise.
It was also in this time that Kung Fu Animal styles begun to flourish. With the Song Dynasty support for wuji (martial arts) many Kung Fu styles came into existence; styles such as Rooster, Toad and Dog were not uncommon and some are still around. But there were also other such as 10,000 bees, Mantis, Tiger, etc. With Shaolin's system of learning from travelers, many of these styles found their way into Shaolin. At this time in 1044, the "Grand Classic of Martial Arts which included many aspects of military strategy, case histories and fighting styles was published. Many Archery and martial art schools are recorded during this time. Martial Artists would earn their way by providing shows and exhibitions in fighting, wrestling, archery and strength demonstrations.
For Shaolin it was again a good time but also a time of change. The Confucian school of idealist philosophy was in the making, while the three religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucian were in collaboration. This may have been the time when Shaolin Temple Buddhists and Wudang Mountain Taoist's may have made their first connections. The Wudang mountain may have been one of the refuges that the persecuted Shaolin escaped to during the declining years of the Tang and the unruly periods following. Another coincident's at this time was the inclusion of Animal Metaphors into the Wudang style of the era. Then there is also an account of Shang Sang Feng.
Shang Sang Feng, a schooler and wise person left his home and family to travel to the Shaolin temple to learn Kung Fu. Being of middle years and not really up to the rigors of Shaolin Training sent him to Wudang Mountain School. Where Shaolin was know for it's hard physical style, Wudang, which was Taoist based, was more versed in the softer and gentler Tai Chi like style. There he learned, the health giving Taoist exercises. It is said that he then started to merge the movements of Shaolin with the principles and foundations of Wudang to create a form of Chi Kung-Tai Chi. It came to him in a dream.
One night while sleeping, he had a dream of a snake surviving an attack against an eagle. Whatever the case the dream inspired Shang Sang Feng to combine the Chi Kung he learned at Wudang, with the martial arts he learned at the Shaolin temple, thus, the martial art known as Tai Chi Chuan was born.
A martial art expert named Zhue Yuen joined Shaolin. Much like the young noble 500 years earlier, he took it upon himself to Systemize this mess of styles that dominated China and Shaolin. In addition to traveling the monasteries (not only Shaolin), Zhue Yuen traveled China in search of other martial art styles and found many which he learned and evaluated. But it wasn't until he reached the town of Lan Zhau and met Li Sou that anything significant happened. Li Sou introduced Zhue Yuen to Bai Yu Feng, who was another famous martial arts practitioner. Zhue Yuen was able to convince both to come back with him to Shaolin to develop what they had learned and developed and combine it with Shaolin Kung Fu. Together they redeveloped Shaolin Animal Kung Fu into the 5 Animal Fists ( Tiger, Snake, Dragon, Leopard/Panther and Crane ), possibly even developing the 18 Hands of Lohan further into what we may call a combination of Tai Chi and Chi Kung.
Although originally just physical exercise and Kung Fu, the 5 Animal style took on a life of it's own. Shaolin were able to discover and develop the 5 Animal Style system to be not just physical but also a personality style index; metaphors for human situation handling, interaction, problem solving, planning and much more. Although still in it's infancy, the Shaolin 5 Animal style would find it's peak in the time of the Ming Dynasty.
Zhao Kuangyin re-unified most China, reformed the Military and Public service, instituted some practiced, including Soldier helping farmers in the fields at planting and harvesting times, that are still in practice today. He also sought to revitalize Buddhism which still had not recovered the persecutions of the latter Tang Dynasty. He sent representatives on a Buddhist mission to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures.
As a few hundred years earlier with the White Horse Temple, this was successful and much was brought back. The Emperor decided that a center for study needed to be established. Even though the Song Capitol of the time was in Kaifeng, not to far from the original White Horse Temple and Shaolin, he chose the Taoist Temple of Emei Shan. Established in the 3rd Century CE at the top of a 3km high mountain, Emei Shan was also on the way to India and Burma, the rout taking by the previous treks for Buddhist learning. It is possible that the fact that is was a Taoist Temple and not damaged by the 3rd Buddhist Persecution (where possibly 4500 main and around 40,000 minor temples were destroyed and laid waste.) and it's proximity (relative) to India and location by Henan made it the prime choice. The temples location made it less likely to be part of any future destruction of temples, and there was still one to come.
The Song Emperor spent a considerable amount of resources on this remote yet convenient location for Buddhist communication between the West and China. Records show that over 50 major building were built, including temples; and quite a number of lesser buildings including living quarters and a huge number of pavilions. This was a greater effort and larger complex than any before and possibly since. It is now considered one of the 4 Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (Emai Shan [Benevolence] Wutai Shan [Wisdom], Jiuhua Shan[salvation] & Putuo Shan [compassion])
Although previously thought to be the 5 temples of Shaolin; Henan, Fukien, Wudang, Kwantung and Emai Shan, it is more likely that these 5 temples had strong connections with Shaolin and Buddhism
It was a time of inventions and development including; gun powder, cannons, multiple stage rockets, restaurants, tea, noodles, paper money and Bank notes. Voted the most significant invention in the western world, Gutenberg's movable type (1440), the Chinese are credited with this invention in 1041 in the Song Dynasty.
In 1206 an assembly of all Mongol Tribes conquered China and thus came the Yuan Era from 1279 to 1368 CE. China became a part of the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan (Khan meaning Emperor) led the Mongols in their defeat of much of China. However, it was his grandson, Kublai Khan who became the emperor and founder of the Yuan dynasty.. He captured the Jin capital in 1215 and extended his power over all of North China. The conquest of the Southern Song was not completed until 1279, after Kublai Khan, his grandson, had succeeded to Mongol leadership. Kublai moved the capital to Beijing, adopted much of the Chinese administrative machinery that existed under the Song. They ruled as Chinese monarchs under the dynastic title of Yuan (1279-1368 - 90 years). Communications were vastly improved. The Central Asian trade routes were secured. Traffic from West to East increased. Missionaries and traders came to China, bringing new ideas, techniques, foods, and medicines. Marco Polo arrives to write about the splendor of the Mongol Empire of the West. However, discontent was growing in China, these were foreign invaders.
The Chinese resented Mongols proscription against the Chinese holding important offices. Inflation and oppressive taxes alienated Chinese peasants. The 1330s and 1340s were marked by crop failure and famine in North China and by flooding in the Yellow River. Uprising occurred in every province during the 1340s. By the 1350s several major rebel leaders had emerged, and in the 1360s a former Buddhist monk was successful in extending his power throughout the Yangtze Valley. In 1371, while the Mongol commanders were paralyzed by internal rivalries, he marched north and seized Beijing. The Mongols withdrew to Mongolia and from there continued to harass the Chinese.
There are no known surviving records from this period of warfare about Shaolin. It is not even know if the Shaolin offered any significant resistance or withdrew and bided their time. Yet, Shaolin Temples fame had spread to many oriental countries including Japan. Around 1312 CE, Da Zhi, a Japanese monk, came to the Shaolin Temple to learn the nature of Chi'en (Zen in Japanese) which was the essence of Shaolin Buddhist meditations (and Taoist in a different form). He stayed in Shaolin for 13 years participating in Shaolin training, Kung Fu and Pole before he returned to Japan where he spread the idea of the Shaolin Temple, Zen and Kung Fu. About 10 years later (coincident/result?) another Japanese monk by name of Shao Yuan, came to Shaolin to also study Chi'en. As with the previous visitor, he participated in Shaolin life for some 12 years, His interests were calligraphy, painting, Chi'en theory and of course Shaolin Kung Fu. When he returned to Japan he gained a reputation as a "Country Spirit"(?).
The Ming Dynasty was founded by Chu Yuan-chang, the rebel leader that was successful in removing the Mongols from the throne. Chinese control was re-asserted in China and eastern Asia. Literature became more important, schools were created, and the justice system was reformed. The Great Wall and the Grand Canal were also improved. The dynasty was divided into 15 provinces and three commissioners were assigned to each province: one for finances, one for military, and one for judicial matters.
The Ming's power was great. They started to re-establish a tribute among the non-Chinese states of East Asia. This tribute required that these states acknowledge the moral and cultural supremacy of the Chinese. In the first quarter of the 15th century, the Ming had decisively defeated the the Mongol tribes. In addition to the superior land troops, the Chinese navy was strong. Their power was felt throughout Southeast Asia, India, and even Madagascar.
The time of the Ming Dynasty was another golden area in China's arts history ( so called because of all the treasures and artwork created in this time but there was also a very dark side to this era, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries ) and also a great time of Shaolin. Many works of art were created that still exist, considered now to be priceless. Philosophy and knowledge was taught to an equal degree. During this time the Shaolin Temples also grew and prospered becoming the center for teaching, philosophy, history, Buddhism, mathematics, poetry and of course Martial Arts. Monks (from other orders, Taoist's), expert warriors, teachers, healers, philosophers, elders, and traveling martial artists could/would gain entrance to Shaolin to share their knowledge in return for Shaolin teaching and shelter.
The downfall of the Ming dynasty was brought about by a rebellion due to the inability of the government to provide food in a time of famine. When the rebels attacked, the best Ming troops were deployed along the Great Wall to protect against a Manchu tribe. The Ming commander was offered help by the Manchus and helped drive out the rebels. But once the rebels were purged from the capital, the Manchuria's refused to leave. This forced the Ming to retreat to the south.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty, the concept of an integrated style of Kung Fu was born within the 5 Animal Style. Not just a style for emulating animals as in the theatrical depictions of Animal style but a true system and personality based style that allowed both specialization and adaptation to the need, ability and aptitude of the practitioner. Although everyone learned every aspect of the 5 Animals, when they were deemed to be sufficiently proficient and broad based, the specialization or customization of the style to the practitioner began.
Tiger was well suited to Strong, Big and Powerful practitioners who sought and were able to bring a quick end to conflict. Their key was simplicity, directness and an explosion of enormous power coupled with a very low threshold of pain. Leopards/Panthers were like small tigers; generally aggressive and dominant but not using physical force and power but mental cunning and strategies. These were the intelligent and manipulating martial art stylists. Crane Style was for small, non-aggressive persons who did not wish to fight or attack. This was not a style of winning but a style which created the environment for an attacker to loose. These practitioners needed to be agile, flexible, agile and exact. Snakes were the people who turned their attackers into knots, using pressure points to disable and control their attackers. Snakes were technicians of human physiology and creating pain without damage. Dragons were those who mastered all and were able to avoid fighting without loosing. it was the Ultimate in Shaolin principles almost not achievable; thus the symbol of the Dragon was chosen.
The Invaders were a stock of the Jurched tribe who lived in Manchuria. In the twelfth century, they founded a dynasty in Manchuria called the Chin or Gold dynasty. The Jurched lived north of Korea and east of Liaotung, which was a Chinese province just north of Pyongyang, Korea. In the sixteenth century, Chinese crossing over from Liaotung taught the Jurcheds how to build forts and how to farm. The importation of technology and agriculture converted the Jurcheds from a largely nomadic culture to a sedentary one. The stage was set for the emergence of the Jurcheds as a major cultural force in Asia. The new Jurched tribes, having traversed several hundred years of development in a single century, awaited a single catalyst to erupt on the scene. That catalyst was Nurhaci (1559-1626), who led the Jurched on a series of conquests that would eventually position the Jurched, which his son, Abahai, renamed as Manchu (1635), to conquer the whole of China. Thus began the last imperial dynasty of China, the Ching or Pure dynasty.
The Jurchen (Mancu) Dynasty took advantage of the rebellion and chaos in the Chinese empire and moved south. Forming an alliance with a Ming loyalist general, they entered Beijing in June and almost immediately took power for themselves. A combination of military campaigns and diplomacy enabled them to wipe out the remains of Ming resistance. By 1673 they had completed their conquest of China, though they continued to expand well into the next century, bringing Xinjiang and Taiwan into the motherland.
Shaolin was a place of Buddhism and did not involve itself in the war. It was a long time ago since Shaolin were used in any other capacity than Buddhist teachings. Although they trained in 5 Animal Kung Fu they were no longer inclined to kill for the empire. So when the Manchus took over the Shaolin did not resist. As a spiritual center of China, Shaolin offered help and assistance to all who came. This caused it to involuntarily became a safe haven for the resistance fighters. Many loyal Ming soldiers and nobles sought refuge and help in Shaolin and although Shaolin Monks themselves remained passive and non violent they still protecting their temples and people therein. This was a thorn in the Invaders side; and it was in the center of China. Once all the major areas or resistance and strife were settled, this thorn needed to be removed.
Around 1647 Shaolin was successfully attacked and destroyed. Large amounts of Ching loyal troops, armed with cannons and other explosives leveled much of the temple and killed anyone left in there also destroying many records. Not all Shaolin were destroyed and the center of operations was moved to Fukien and continued for another 30 years. This in turn led to the attack and destruction of the Fukien temple. This would have meant the total destruction of all things Shaolin. Yet there were rumors and legends.
Manchu did not want any symbol of resistance. Shaolin needed to be destroyed also in the minds of all who know it, and stopped from passing on its extremely effective fighting style. The Manchus forbade all martial art practice in all of China (this law is still in place, nationally). Shaolin Monks was disbanded and mostly killed. Yet some escaped.
It is around this time that the Emei Shan temple came to be mentioned in context of Shaolin. It seems that some Shaolin sought refuge at Mt Emai, some may have traveled to the Wudang Mountains although this was Taoist territory. Some just simply migrated to other countries sparking a martial art style explosion in many oriental and western countries, Some continued their resistance and taught Kung Fu for the sole purpose of fighting and defeating the Chin's. They were the fathers of secret resistance organizations know as the 'Triads' (so named after a gift of the Ming Dynasty Emperor to the Shaolin of a jade triangle). Some just simply became anonymous 'citizens' and mostly blended in; there were some of these that continued to teach the 5 Animal Fists.
The Nineteenth Century saw a great European influence in China including Christianity. "Opium Wars" between China, Britain and France led to defeats for China which saw strategically important port of Hong Kong ceded to the Brits. In 1894-95, Japan attacked China and won Korea, Formosa (Taiwan) and Port Arthur. China lost effective control of her lucrative sea ports. 50 of China's most prosperous ports were deemed "treaty ports" which meant that they were open to foreign trade and residence. European nations also divided up China into spheres of influence in which the European nation involved all but ran the area. The wishes of the Chinese were ignored which, understandably, created a great deal of resentment amongst the Chinese.
The Manchus seemed uninterested or unable to take action against the European ‘take-over’ of China and were strongly financially weekend by the from England introduced Opium. This led to the Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864) that involved 600 cities and as many as 20 million deaths and vast areas of fertile land destroyed. Ultimately, the Manchus restored their power (more or less) with the help of the occupying nations, which made them even more hated by the Chinese people. Although some effort was put into changing the perception of the Chinese, nothing changed on the status-quo. This then lead to the famous Yi-Ho Tuan movement - the Boxer Rebellion as it was called by the English (who still did not know of Kung Fu).
When the Boxer Uprising first broke out in Shantung Province in 1899, the Ching Government immediately sent troops to put down the rebellion. But when the Boxers upheld the slogan of "supporting the Ching and exterminating the foreigners," the Ching Government reversed its attitude from suppression to pacification. However, as the foreign powers took an increasingly intransigent attitude toward the Boxers, the Ching Government under the pressured could not decide which to support, the Alliance or it's own people. In 1900, when a group of armed legation guards entered the legation quarters in Beijing and the eight powers formed allied forces, the Ching Government stopped attacking the Boxers and united with them against the foreigners.
They started attacking most anything foreign, killing Chinese Christians, westerners, western style buildings and burning western missionary facilities. They converged on Peking (now Beijing), the Capital, in June 1900. The Imperial Government ordered the foreigners out on the 18th June. The German Minister set out to meet with the Government but was murdered by his escort. There followed a 55 day siege of the foreign concessions in Peking by both Boxers & Imperial troops. This action provoked an allied relief expedition by the offended nations.
The Christian Allies though imported more Guns & Cannons and eventually crushed their Chinese opposition and occupied north China. Under the Protocol of 1901, the Chinese had to agree to the execution of high ranking officials and the punishment of hundreds of others, expansion of the Legation Quarter, payment of war reparations, stationing of foreign troops in China, and razing of some Chinese fortifications.
In 1901, China was forced to accept the terms drawn up by the foreign powers for negotiations. On September 7, a Protocol was formally signed, which is historically known as the Protocol of 1901. This Protocol tramped on China's sovereignty and human rights into non-existence.
This was the final death of the Chinese resistance and lead to another exodus of Chinese from China (it was also the beginning of the end for the Ching Dynasty). Some Triad members escaped to other countries, including the US, Korea, etc. Without a focus some/many triad members went into a new line of business (and their descendants still are in this line of work ). This caused another influx of 5 Animal Kung Fu into the Orient, the US and now also the new continent of Australia.
Chiang was born in the midst of all this unrest as the son of a Wine merchant. In 1907 he attended the Military State College in Tokyo. During this period he became a supporter of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). During the 1911 revolution Chiang led a regiment that captured Shanghai. After the counter-revolution that followed, Chiang returned to Japan. With the help of advisers from the Soviet Union the Kuomintang gradually increased its power in China. In 1924 Chiang became head of the Whampoa Military Academy. Sun Yat-sen died on 12th March 1925. After a struggle with Wang Ching-Wei, Chiang eventually emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang. He now carried out a purge that eliminated the communists from the organization.
In 1926 Chiang commanded the army which aimed to unify China. He defeated the communist army and forced the survivors to make the famous Long March to Shensi in North West China. Chiang eventually established a government in Nanjing. Major financial reforms were carried out and the education system and the road transport were both improved. Chiang also established the New Life Movement in 1934 which reasserted traditional Confucian values to combat communist ideas.
In 1927 CE, Chiang Kai-shek, fearful that the Shaolin temples could once again become centers of revolt (and possibly still were symbols thereof), ordered them all closed, possibly ordering ones where he did find resistance burned. Chiang Kai Check himself was a great believer of Kung Fu though and although he forbade all martial art practice, he surrounded himself with 100 of the best Kung Fu fighting masters as his personal body guard. When he was being threatened and ousted by the newly forming Chinese Republic, he packed up as much Chinese treasure as he could, took his wife (who died in the US aged 106) and most of the 100 masters and moved to Taiwan. His arrival had a key influence on that country and greatly 'enriched' the country both with Chinese Gold and Chinese fighting styles.
The Cultural Revolution was launched by Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong during his last decade in power (1966-76) to renew the spirit of the Chinese revolution. Fearing that China would develop along the lines of the Soviet model and concerned about his own place in history, Mao threw China's cities into turmoil in a monumental effort to reverse the historic processes underway. Mao thus ultimately adopted four goals for the Cultural Revolution
He initially pursued these goals through a massive mobilization of the country's urban youths. They were organized into groups called the Red Guards, and Mao ordered the party and the army not to suppress the movement. One of the keys to getting control and keeping everyone off guard was to put things up-side-down. Doctors became farmers, farmers were sent into the hospitals, all matters of traditional were rejected including Religion Traditional Chinese Medicine and Kung Fu! If you were seen to be preaching, teaching or practicing anything other than Mao's' words, you were immediately sent to re-education camps (imprisoned). This was more disastrous to Shaolin Kung Fu, Traditional Chinese Medicine and many 'traditional type disciplines; to the point of almost making them disappear from China all together. This was the final death of Shaolin Kung Fu in China; worse than all three previous burnings together, the invasions and Buddhist persecutions!
It was a time of need during the hard years during and after Chiang Kai-shek, and the 2nd Chinese Civil War, which also saw conflict with Japan, the establishment of the People's Republic of China (1 Oct 1949), the Long March and tha associated turmoils. It is recorded that over 22 million (22,000,000) people died as a result of the unrests during the 50 year period to 1950 including; Dynastic and Republican China , Warlord China, The Nationalist Period, The Sino-Japanese War, Japanese Mass Murder in China, Victims: The Civil War. China was starving, tired and collapsing with hyperinflation, rampant and unchecked corruption.
But far from the main cities and most of the battles, up in the central mountains of China, there is a secluded area which has a burned out and destroyed temple, a small village and a water stream. here the venerable Buddhist Monk, Su Xi, found refuge in a long forgotten and discarded temple. He did not mind as these humble and hard conditions as he was a strong believer in the words of the Lord Buddha which frowned on thinking of the self and promoted the thinking helping of others. he set himself up in the temple, and with his skills planted some vegetables around the temple which he shared freely with the few remaining towns people. Soon other joined in the central peaceful place and started irking out a meager lifestyle.
The venerable Buddhist Monk, Su Xi spent his life helping the villagers in their time of hunger, turmoil and confusion. Did he know that he chose Shaolin ruins as his place of residency is not entirely clear or important for that matter. What was important is that Shaolin again, after a long period of neglect was again being what Shaolin was; a place of refuge, help and teaching. It remained a quiet, secluded temple and it was not rebuilt but just made functional until an event in a place fare away changed all that!
Someone, somewhere in Hong Kong got a hold of a bit of information about Shaolin and made a movie. Much of the movie was complete entertainment nonsense but for some reason it stuck. Shaolin Hong Kong Movies became the flavor of the late 70's and 80's. In fact they were so good that for the first time ever, westerners were looking at Chinese made movies, often not even synchronized into English (mostly not even synchronized with the lip movements). Then some western movies took up the genre moving from Spaghetti Westerns to Kung Fu Eastern's.
Whilst this was happening a troubled teen by the name of Lee Jun-fan, who was good in fighting, had fought the wrong person, the son of a triad boss. His parents chose to send him to the US to stay with his older sister Agnes Lee. After a settling in period Lee enrolled in the University of Washington where he majored Drama. here he also started teaching his style of martial arts which he called Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. Later renamed jeet Kung Do.
Lee's father Lee Hoi-chuen was a famous Cantonese opera star and through this, Lee was introduced into films at a very young age and appeared in several films as a child. Lee landed the role of Kato in the Batman look-alike series called Green Hornet. he made quite an impact (pun intended) in the movies and even was in several cross-overs in the Batman and roles in Ironside, Here Come the Brides and others. But aside from this, there was no major roles for Lee. he returned to Hong Kong. The series Green Hornet was renamed Kato in Hong Kong and Bruce Lee was exceedingly popular. This started off his starring roles in several movies all centered around Kung Fu. This just added to the fame of kung fu and all the theater around it.
It may seem unrelated but at this time Nixon 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China was an important step in formally normalizing relations between the United States and China. It marked the first time a U.S. president had visited the PRC, which at that time considered the U.S. one of its foes, and the visit ended 25 years of separation between the two sides. During this time one of Nixon's chief aids appendix burst and he had to be immediately operated on or he would die. The Chinese had no western medical facilities so to save the life of the Aid, the procedure was carried out with Acupuncture whilst the patient was opened and the appendix fixed. During this procedure the Aid was awake and without pain.
China realized that aside from it's abundance of people power, which would take time to develop into an earning and export force, it had two world uniqunesses, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Kung Fu! >After all the devastation of culture wrought by Mao Tsedong, original Chinese skills and resources were being rediscovered for export and earning potential. Yet they were reluctant to allow, officially, Kung Fu to be used. They knew that they needed some type of 'replacement'. Something that could be Chinese (as Kung Fu now was almost everywhere with world organizations and federations. An obscure athletic style based on martial art movements was just the answer; Wushu! Now this was exportable.
A Chinese Government official was given the task of breathing life back into Shaolin. As with many Chinese decisions, it was both a pragmatic decision as well as financial and historical. The current occupants was honored but moved aside and as kung fu was forbidden in China by the former Chin Dynasty ruling, the whole system needed a revamp. The key was to have an art that was dynamic and in spirit of Shaolin but not Kung Fu. Wu Shu was ideal for this purpose. It embodied the spirit of Shaolin by providing all the requirements for health and wellbeing as Kung Fu but focused more on flow and athleticism rather than technique and fighting. Wu Shu has grown and developed, with the many versions and adaptations of Kung Fu - in some cases there is very little difference between the two.
The current Abbot of Shaolin has been in place since around 2003. He or the Chinese government have just cleared all the schools and the village surrounding Shaolin allowing only one to be there, the official Chinese Government Shaolin Temple training School. All schools, some numbering up to 8000 students, have been moved to the nearby major city of Kerfeng ( possibly wrong spelling, right sound ). Shaolin and the area around it is being prepared to be possibly a tourist and martial art trap or a heritage site. Time will tell.
A new, Dynamic and very interesting competition fighting style is finding it's way through many Kung Fu schools; not as damaging and brutal as Muay Thai, Boxing or MMA but much more interesting than most other tournaments, it will see Kung Fu fighting not for war or strife but for fun and excitement for the peaceful 21st Century Shaolin Warrior.
Shaolin's 1st Golden Era started with the ascension to the throne of the Tang Dynasty son who they saved. The second Golden era of Shaolin came during the Tank Dynasty through efforts of the 13 Shaolin Soldier Monks and then there was the time of the Ming Dynasty and possibly others. Now with the full force of the Chinese Government behind them we can hope that a new golden era for Shaolin is starting. We have the privilege to see a new beginning.
Many martial arts acknowledge, even boast to be influenced by Shaolin. What is true and what note is irrelevant. In today's age it would be impossible to extract what influenced what, where and how. It is more important that the spirit of Shaolin is alive in many different forms. Be it in Shaolin Wu Shu, be is Shaolin derived Kung Fu/Wing Chung or even the 'Gift of China' as was Karate once known; Shaolin is in the spirit and heart not in the strength of your punch and as such should be celebrated. Shaolin Kung Fu is a way of health, a way of life and a way of being, we just use martial arts as an exercise!
Let's see what the future brings (we didn't want to use the Star Trek, unknown country quote . . . )
The Shaolin History page has been an ongoing project of Master Robert Z that started in 1995 (around the 1500 th birthday of Shaolin) and has been edited as recent as 26 April 2017. Since this time he has researched the history, collected books on the subject and even traveled to Shaolin to verify facts and location as far as possible. The amount of information collected of this time and the references used are innumerable. It all started with just two books with contradicting facts about Shaolin. Two decades later the contradictions just add to the interest and history of a place that signify's a principle more than anything else.
Compiler - Sijo Robert Z
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