The Spade, the Whip and the Mountain Gate

By Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May/June 2012 It's the biggest group sparring form practiced today. A full Dashanmen takes twenty-two Shaolin monks to execute. Dashanmen is the show-stopping finale to many Shaolin performances. Translated as "attack the mountain gate" (打山門), Dashanmen retells the age-old story of a legendary Shaolin rite of passage. In order to leave the temple, monks had to prove their skills by facing eighteen of their martial brothers and their master in battle. It takes twenty-two monks because, according to legend, three applicants would face a Dashanmen as a team. If the last one won, all three could leave the temple together. Given the amount of participants and the high level of skill and endurance required to execute Dashanmen, it's always very special to witness one performed.

Shaolin monk Shi Yanran (释延然) has participated in nearly a dozen different Dashanmen demonstrations all around the world. He was a longstanding member of the Shaolin Temple's official martial monk troupe, Shaolinsi wusengtuan (少林寺武僧团), and demonstrated his skills in over forty countries. Yanran was also the cast leader for one of Shaolin's most distinguished theatrical shows. Shaolin: Wheel of Life (shengming zhilung 生命之轮) ran for three years and toured the world. Wheel is considered one of the best martial arts live shows to date, so much so that it was documented by PBS Great Performances. Yanran also is the only monk to successfully stage an independent Dashanmen on American soil. In honor of Songshan Shaolin Temple Day 2009, the production Magnificent Shaolin (Shaolin guyun 少林古韵) was staged at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts. It concluded with Dashanmen, featuring a crew of recently immigrated monks.

But Dashanmen, like so many tales of Shaolin, is based on a myth. Yanran is quick to set the record straight. "There were two legends about Shaolin exit exam," he says in Mandarin. "The other was carrying the big incense burner. Both were more from stories, from the movies. In the old days, monks cultivated Buddhism. But some came to Shaolin because they were abused in the past - full of anger and craving revenge - so the masters may have set such tests to see if their pupils were ready to return to civilian life. They wanted to prevent those who didn't achieve enough from leaving. They also wanted to be sure that they had the skills to help others. But Shaolin doesn't really have this ceremony anymore. It's just a performance."

Nevertheless, Dashanmen is a rigorous test of skills, just to perform. For the examinees, they have to quickly move between different sparring partners and shift from using bare hands and weapons, all live and in real time. "It's really tough to fight through eighteen others," says Yanran. "Endurance is limited. There's no set form. Choreography depends on the masters. At the very least, Dashanmen requires two people to fight through twelve others. It's a big job because everyone has different skills. It's very intense." Yanran isn't exactly sure when Shaolin monks started performing Dashanmen. "It probably began with the first generation [after the restoration], maybe back to '89 or so."

There are actually historical precedents for Dashanmen. Peter Lorge's new work, Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, mentions performances of a reenactment of the Battle of Muye in the Zhou court. The Zhou Dynasty was 1046-256 BCE. Civil War reenactments proliferate in the United States, so a Shaolin reenactment of a romanticized past isn't too farfetched. Tibetan Buddhist monks have sacred dances that reenact mythical events. Could Dashanmen be considered a sacred dance?

Today, Shaolin Temple is as much a product of modern movie myths as its 1500+ year legacy. Fake monks, tourist traps and the proliferation of modern wushu have plagued Shaolin for several decades now. Nevertheless, Shaolin kung fu continues to advance around the world. On the surface, Shaolin is constantly struggling to live up to its own mythic image. But at its heart, Shaolin is an institution of Chan Buddhism, a belief system which espouses delusion. With all the incense smoke and feng shui mirrors, genuine Shaolin practice can be very complicated.

Calling a Spade a Spade
For Yanran, demonstrations like Dashanmen are more than just kung fu performances. Shaolin is an expression of his devotion to Buddhism. At age 30, Shi Yanran has risen to become one of the most influential Shaolin monks in America. His organization Shaolin Temple USA is an officially-recognized non-profit by the state of California. Through that organization, Yanran oversees three official Shaolin Overseas Cultural Centers (Shaolinsi hai wai wenhua zhongxin 少林寺海外文化中心), the most of any monk. All are officially blessed by Venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin (释永信), the most recent one strategically positioned in Herndon, Virginia, near Washington DC, and the two previous ones in San Francisco and Fremont (less than five miles from the Kung Fu Tai Chi production office). Yanran has been actively promoting Shaolin in such notable circles as the National Geographic, Stanford University, U.C Berkeley, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, and San Francisco's internationally renowned Chinese New Year Parade.

What's more, Shi Yanran is a fully-ordained Buddhist monk. By definition, a monk is a man who is a member of a monastic order. Shaolin has several types of monks. However, only a few in America are fully ordained. Most are martial monks or wuseng (武僧) who only take a portion of the Buddhist vows. In 2004, Shi Yanran received Triple Platform Full Precepts (三坛大戒) at Guangde Temple (广德寺) in Sichuan. This makes Yanran a genuine Bhiksu (biqiu 比丘), the formal term for a fully-ordained Buddhist monk.

Although Dashanmen is a newly created form based on a potentially apocryphal story, Yanran accepts it as a vital part of Shaolin culture. Buddhism, like any longstanding religion, has integrated myths and legends into its modern-day practice. Christians celebrate Christmas, despite ample scholarly evidence that Christ was actually born in spring. The lion's share of Christmas rituals - the tree, the stockings, Santa Claus - aren't from the Bible. Nevertheless, it would be folly to deny the spirituality of Christmas. Buddhism has assimilated numerous arts into its practice including painting, tea ceremony, poetry, even flower arranging. So why not kung fu?

Many commonly-accepted expressions of Shaolin culture are based upon hazy notions. The Shaolin monk spade serves as a perfect example. Known in Mandarin as yueyachan (literally "moon tooth spade" 月牙鏟), it is the most commonly identified weapon of Buddhist monks (staffs can be innocuous walking sticks so they aren't necessarily weapons). This attribution comes from two famous fictional Buddhist monks from Chinese literature, Lu Zhishen (魯智深) from the 13th century epic, Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) and Sha Wujing (沙悟凈) from the 16th century epic Journey to the West (西遊記). Both characters are depicted again and again in art, opera and film, always bearing a monk spade. However, according to the original books, neither actually used one.

Banished Generals and Walking Sticks
In Outlaws of the Marsh, Lu Zhishen is a general who takes sanctuary at a Buddhist monastery after he accidentally kills someone (he struck a scoundrel and accidentally killed him because his blows were too powerful). Sagacious Lu, as his name is translated in Sidney Shapiro's marvelous translation of Shi Nai'an's classic, is a tattooed meat-eater and wine drinker who often urinates and defecates behind the temple. He's not the best example of a Buddhist, but he eventually rises to be one of China's greatest heroes.

In a drunken binge, Lu orders his weapon from an ironsmith. He wants it to be one-hundred catties. Catty is conventionally used in English for jin (斤), which is a little more than a pound. After arguing with the smith, they settle on eighty-one catties, the same weight as Guan Gong's (關公) weapon (Guan Gong is another legendary general who is considered the patron saint of martial arts). The weapon he has made, however, is not a spade. According to Outlaws of the Marsh, Lu bears a chan zhang.

A chan zhang (禪杖) is a Buddhist walking stick (Chan as in Chan Buddhism, better known to westerners as Zen). This is a pole with rings on it, sometimes referred to as a ring-staff (xizhang or "tin staff" 錫杖, khakkhara in Sanskrit, the original language of Buddhism). Ring staffs were used to announce an approaching monk so animals could get out of the way and humans could give alms. They are also sometimes held up in meditation so if the meditator falls asleep, the staff will fall noisily and wake them. Chan zhang can be very ornate, especially those borne by high-ranking Buddhists like temple abbots. Some theorize that the rings on all Chinese weapons may have descended from those on chan zhang.

In Journey to the West, Sha Wujing is a general who is cursed to be a demon because he broke a heavenly vase. Friar Sand, as his name is translated in W. J. F. Jenner's monumental translation, eats humans until he is converted to Buddhism (and consequently vegetarianism) and undertakes the quest for the sutras with Priest Xuanzang (an actual historic figure), the Monkey King and Pig (a cursed Marshal). Throughout the journey, Friar Sand is the most minor player of the quartet, usually delegated to guarding the luggage and the horse.

According to Journey to the West, Friar Sand wields a bao zhang (precious walking stick寶杖). It is also called a xiangyao zhang (demon slaying walking stick 降妖杖). Friar Sand's weapon is magical, having been cut from a mystic Sala tree living on the moon. Sala trees figure heavily in Buddhism as Buddha was born under a Sala tree and died in a Sala grove. Friar Sand's bao zhang has a core of gold and is adorned with pearls. The lunar connection might be the source of the crescent moon blade on a monk spade, as Friar Sand is sometimes depicted with crescent moon symbols on his attire. However, in early art depictions, both Sagacious Lu and Friar Sand wield sticks, not spades. It is not clear when their sticks evolve into spades.

As a side note, a yueyachan is mentioned later in Journey to the West, wielded by Prince Ninehead (九头驸马). Prince Ninehead is cited by scholars trying to trace Journey to the West to the 5th century BCE Indian epic Ramayana, as both stories center around a Monkey King. Just like Prince Ninehead (or the Hydra killed by Hercules), the Ramayana's villain, Ravana, has nine heads and grows a new one when decapitated. Some link the Hydra to the beast of Revelations.

Shi Yanran calls a monk spade fangbian chan (convenient spade 方便鏟). He notes that monks weren't really supposed to carry weapons. They needed tools, which is why they became so famous for stick fighting. The shovel and crescent blade might have evolved as functional caps to walking sticks. The crescent blade may have evolved from a sickle, although it is noteworthy that Chinese weapons have had crescent blades since the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) with the ji (戟). These caps might also have served to hold up luggage when the stick was used as a carrying pole. Yanran adds that these are just legends that he has heard. He doesn't necessarily hold them as fact. Regardless of its historic validity, Yanran practices monk spade because it is good for training endurance and long weapon coordination.

A Monk's Life
If legendary exit exams and mythical monks seem incredible, the life of a real monk can be even more so. Shi Yanran arrived at Shaolin at age nine in 1991. While that might seem too young for a child to leave his parents, he had already spent a few years living away as a full-time pupil at a martial arts school. Yanran was born as Li Xiaolong (李曉龙 - coincidentally homophonic to Bruce Lee's Chinese name, only the second character is different. Lee's xiao (小) means "little"- Yanran's xiao means "dawn"). Yanran was born in Handan Prefecture which is known for its martial arts. Yongnian, a county famous for producing the first three generations of Yang taiji masters, is in Handan.

Yanran's father was a military man. As a child, Yanran was always very active, learning martial arts from friends and playing in farm fields. After seeing an ad for a citizen's militia that had a martial arts program on television, he really wanted to go. He was only six and was afraid to ask his dad, so he wrote a note and stuck it under his dad's bed. When his dad found it, he admonished him for misspelling the character wu (martial 武), but agreed to send him. His parents only wanted to send him for three months, but he begged to stay for a year, so they compromised at six months. Yanran could already kick very high, so much so that his new teachers thought he had prior training. But training was still extremely tough. Because Yanran enrolled late in the school year, only a top bunk was left to him, which he promptly fell off one night. When his mom visited a few days later, he was in so much pain from the fall and training that he cried and said he wanted to go home. Of course, there were no refunds, so his parents made him stay. It was bitterly hard but he got it eventually.

The martial arts school was about three hundred miles from Shaolin, so all his instructors were from there. After about two years, he went there himself. Unlike most children who arrive at Shaolin, Yanran didn't start at one of the many private schools surrounding the temple. He went directly to Luohantang (罗汉堂), the temple across the street from Shaolin. He trained there for about two years until he was moved into Shaolin itself. Yanran took a break from Shaolin for only a few years. He went to train at a school in Shijiazhuang City because the academics were stronger there. He won a few competitions and found himself faced with the choice of going on to the provincial team or returning to Shaolin to train at the Wusengtuan (武僧团). He didn't want to go pro and preferred traditional kung fu over modern wushu, so he went back to Shaolin. Yanran became a direct disciple of the abbot and accompanied him to many important martial and Buddhist events.

Thirty Years Ago
Auspiciously, Shi Yanran was born on Buddha's Nirvana Day (February 15 in lunar calendar) in 1982. That was a pivotal year, as it was also when China's blockbuster film, Shaolin Temple, was released. Starring Jet Li alongside several top wushu champions, Shaolin Temple was filmed on location, bringing the world's attention back to this historic monastery, long thought abandoned after the Cultural Revolution. The movie sparked renewed interest in Shaolin, setting off a chain of events that led to its restoration and revitalization.

The film also inspired changes in the Shaolin curriculum, especially what was demonstrated in performance. The introduction of modern wushu was inevitable given its pervasiveness throughout China. Additionally, modern versions of mantis and toad emerged. Mantis came from the champion who played the abbot in the movie, Yu Hai, a renowned mantis master from Shandong. The origin of toad style is dubious. Toad kung fu occurs in a comic scene in Shaolin Temple, and that has filtered into Shaolin performances too. The monk spade didn't play a significant role in the movie, but the whip did.

Since the film, Shaolin whip has become a very popular performance weapon because the ear-splitting crack gets audience attention. In Shaolin Temple, the only female character, a shepherdess (played by Ding Lan) uses a whip. She sings the Shepherdess song in the film. In commemoration, the lyrics and music have been set in stone on a stele inside Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin whip is really called shepherd's whip (muyang bian 牧羊鞭). According to Yanran, it is also called spirit whip (shen bian 神鞭), sound whip (sheng bian 聲鞭) and hunting whip (lie bian 獵鞭). Yanran heard that it came into the Shaolin curriculum back in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when Kublai Khan prohibited martial arts practice. According to legend, the Shaolin abbot, Fuyu (福裕), found favor with the Yuan and was permitted to develop and cultivate Shaolin kung fu during this period. The whip was integrated then from methods used by the Hui (Muslim 回) people of Gansu. Again, Yanran is quick to point out that the origins may well be mythical. Like the monk spade, he finds the whip a useful training tool. "The whip trains arm and shoulder strength," states Yanran. "It teaches how to expand the chest and develop qi."

Today, whip is gaining popularity in China as a fun recreational practice. Whips are portable and can be worn discreetly as belts. It's not uncommon to see people practicing whip techniques in public parks. The monk spade remains esoteric, but it enjoyed an unusual spotlight in the popular books of Max Brooks. In his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, the monk spade was showcased as the weapon of choice for defeating zombies. As for Dashanmen, it's still around too, but you have to get a lot of wuseng together to practice it.

Fiction has been woven into the culture of Shaolin for centuries. While people might balk at the addition of a Shaolin light saber form, the inclusion of myth-based forms is appropriate in certain cases. A fundamental precept of Chan Buddhism is change. While Shaolin kung fu extols its traditions, it is constantly progressing. Forms like Dashanmen, monk spade and whip have become an essential facet of Shaolin culture, despite their ambiguous introduction to the curriculum. Ultimately these can all be vehicles of Chan, but only if practiced with complete mindfulness.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May/June 2012

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