The Story of Shaolin

By TC Media

1500 Years
A variety of more detailed history of the Shaolin Temple can be found throughout the different Shaolin articles in this issue. However, we present you here with a capsulized version of the Temple's past 1500 years to better contextualize the multi-faceted story of Shaolin. -Ed.

The origins of Shaolin Temple are perhaps the most famous and mythologized part of its history. Founded by Ba Tuo around 495 BCE, the temple was home to his disciples Hui Guang and Seng Chou, the earliest known martial arts monks. Thirty years later Ta Mo, or Bodhidharma, came to China from India and settled at Shaolin temple, where he introduced Chan Buddhism. He was said to have sat in his cave in the mountain for nine years meditating, and from his teachings the 18 Luo Han form was created to keep the monks who spent long hours of meditation limber and alert.

In the following centuries martial arts was growing more predominant in warfare. By the end of the Qin (221-207 BCE) peasants are recorded fighting with staffs and tree forks, and during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 ACE) Guan Yu's broadsword defeated five cities. Author Liu Yamin comments that, "To a great extent, Shaolin wushu, which really took shape during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 ACE) drew upon different folk schools of wushu. In fact, before embracing the Buddhist faith, many of Shaolin monks were wushu masters."

Located in the central plain of China, Shaolin Temple also became a magnet for retired soldiers and ruffians who were also experts at kungfu. Shaolin became favored by the Emperor's court after the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581 ACE), and thus given land for their sustenance, which also made a necessity of "soldier monks" within the temple to protect it from bandits.

13 Monks Rescue the Tang Emperor
As Shaolin Temple became more economically independent, it was also more tied politically to the government, a situation which reached its apex in 621 of the late Sui Dynasty. The Prince of Qin, Li Shimin, was leading the Tang army in a bitter battle in the Songshan mountain region against Sui General Wang Shicong. Li Shimin was taken captive after several days of fighting, and the Tang army defeated. They sent a desperate message to Shaolin Temple asking for help. The Temple's monks, resentful of Wang Shicong for taking their land, sent 13 monks to the aid of the prince. Headed by fighting monks Tan Zong, Zhi Chao and Hui Yang, they came with their cudgels and ambushed the Sui army, defeating them, capturing Wang Shicong's nephew and freeing Li Shimin. Li went on to ascend the throne becoming the Emperor of Tang, and he rewarded the monks with 40 hectares of land and other privileges.

This victory quickly gained notoriety for the Shaolin Temple, and with the patronage of the Tang court the number of monk-soldiers began to grow. Li, in fact, gave the title of Great General to monk Tan Zong, and permitted the Temple to retain a standing army of monk-soldiers. Liu Yamin comments, "Tang generals were often sent to exchange routines with Shaolin monks. Generals Cheng Yaojin, Luo Cheng, Gao Huaide and the Yang family members, for instance, taught the monks their characteristic fighting skills with the crescent axe, the plum blossom spear and the black tiger hammer. After repeated practice and research, Shaolin monks were able to develop different types of weapons and form their own unique styles."

Martial arts was developing outside of the Shaolin Temple as well, all over China. Responding to this, the Temple sent monks out to tour the country to seek out other kungfu masters and their knowledge. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) the abbot of Shaolin invited experts from 18 kungfu schools to come exchange skills at the Temple. They stayed for three years and produced the Shaolin Boxing Manual which contained 280 routines.

The monk Jue Yuan traveled around China during the Jin and Yuan Dynasties, meeting other kungfu experts and bringing them to the Temple, creating 173 routines of Shaolin boxing. He also refined the earlier Five Animal boxing routines, and developed the Dragon, Leopard, Snake, Tiger and Crane forms of boxing which are the ancestors of so much of our kungfu today.

Ming Blossoming
This research, development and practice of martial arts at Shaolin Temple over centuries brought Shaolin kungfu into its great blossoming during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was also the era when the ties between the Temple and the government were closest, as the Ming rulers engaged large groups of monk-soldiers for a number of their military campaigns; one source estimates that the Ming had as many as 2,500 Shaolin kungfu monks organized to defend the temple and the Emperor.

In 1644 the Ming was overturned and the new Manchu rulers inaugurated the Qing dynasty. As the Manchus ruled the Hans, there was much popular resentment of the Qing government, and a common sentiment among the people was, "Overthrow the Qing, restore the Ming." Known for its great favor by the Ming government, Shaolin Temple's power, both political and military, was feared by Qing officials, and they subsequently banned martial arts, outlawing weapons training on pain of death. This sent a number of monks out roaming the country, and later they returned with more wushu knowledge.

Despite the ban, Liu Yamin states that by the end of the Qing Dynasty there were several hundred types of Shaolin boxing in current use. While Shaolin martial arts was no longer a public glory, it was still carried on assiduously under the darkness of night and behind closed doors. The depressions in the stone floor of the Thousand Buddha Hall attest to a dynasty of closed door practice. Another result of the new secret training was a renewed emphasis on qigong, and making the body itself a hardened weapon.

Despite secrecy, the Manchus still feared the power of the Shaolin monks, and under Emperor Kangxi, early in the Qing Dynasty, the Temple was burned down.

Shaolin Temple rebuilt itself, but was burned down again centuries later in 1928 during a conflict between the warlords. The monastery burned for over forty days, during which sixteen temple halls were completely razed, and many cultural relics lost forever.

Rebuilding again, Shaolin Temple then had to contend with the Cultural Revolution, which devastated it once more. By the end of that political era in 1978 there were only nine monks left, starving and poverty stricken. In every era the pendulum swings. In former dynasties where the Temple was most glorified, there still existed certain Emperors who persecuted Shaolin's Buddhism. And even in the Qing, generally regarded as the dynasty most antagonistic to the monks, there was the Emperor Qianlong, who visited the Shaolin Temple in 1750 and was so pleased with his visit that he wrote the three characters "Shao-lin Si" (Shaolin Temple) for the sign to hang over the Mountain Gate. These same characters, in the Emperor's handwriting, still hang over the Temple's main front entrance door today.

In the 1980's the pendulum swung once again in the favor of Shaolin. With the help of Henan officials who saw the treasure that was the Temple, and the astounding popular success of Jet Li's movie Shaolin Temple, government and tourists once again helped raise Shaolin up. The seven stages of the monastary's temples have been almost fully restored, and more reconstruction continues. Today there are approximately 300 monks at the Temple, and the rise of dozens of wushu schools in Shaolin village, overseen by the fighting monks, insures that Shaolin's martial art will be well preserved. In 1995 the Temple and the village celebrated their 1500-year anniversary, attended by thousands of fans from China and around the world. Shaolin's fame is now international, and even exists in cyberspace with its own web page. The future is unwritten, but it seems inevitable that however many times the pendulum may swing in the next millenium, Shaolin Temple will endure.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .

Written by TC Media for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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