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Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 4

Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 4

On our research trip to China, we visited the remote Nine Lotus Temple, located in a rugged region of the Putien district. Just getting to the base of the mountain on which the temple sits required an hour-and-a-half bus ride from the nearest town. Then came an arduous climb with an elevation gain of 4,000-plus feet. Along the way, the route was surrounded by steep cliffs and ravines that cascaded thousands of feet down to the lowlands.

At the summit, we found that the steep mountainside leveled off into what’s known as Nine Lotus Basin. A village, replete with huts and rice paddies, lay just outside the temple’s boundaries, forming a self-sustaining community. It was a perfect location for warrior monks and revolutionaries conducting operations against the Qing invaders. Supposedly, the complex was attacked by Qing forces because of its link to rebel activities.

The Chinese government claims that Nine Lotus Temple was constructed in 557 and later destroyed. The purported rebuild resulted in the current “original” Southern Shaolin Temple. Some scholars disagree, saying that Nine Dragons Temple was the original edifice and that Nine Lotus Temple was an extension of it. As stated in Part 3 of this report, we concluded that Nine Lotus Temple was the real training ground for the monks who were bent on overthrowing the Qing.

Nine Lotus Temple in the Putien district of southern China

In any case, Nine Lotus Temple was a fascinating place to visit. On display were artifacts and relics dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-906). We paid particular attention to a rack of antique weapons that included a sai and pitchfork (tiger fork). They looked like they’d been buried for centuries. There were also several bathtubs carved out of solid stone. In the past, the monks would submerge themselves in herbal/medicinal mixtures after grueling workouts or bloody battles.

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Unfortunately, the temple was in a state of disrepair. It appeared that much of it had been constructed during the past eight to 10 years but subsequently abandoned. A skeleton crew was left to run the place. We later found out that after it had been rebuilt, the Chinese government opened it to the public on December 8, 1998. Monks used to live there, and they would demonstrate their skills on a regular basis, but the temple failed economically. Perhaps it lay too far off the beaten path to attract enough tourists.

But centuries ago, being off the beaten path is just what the monks would have wanted. In fact, Nine Lotus Temple would have been an obvious choice for anyone in need of a base from which to engage Qing-dynasty forces. Whether that actually happened may never be known, but it cannot be disputed that the Shaolin tradition was firmly established in the south and was used for military operations against the Qing.

Nine Dragons Temple in southern China

One result of the Manchu (Qing) conquest was that it stimulated the proliferation of the Shaolin style throughout Asia. Monks fleeing the Manchus spread the art far and wide. They traveled to the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) and the Japanese mainland.

A monk named Chen Yuan Pin (1587-1674) journeyed to Japan and stayed there from 1644 to 1648. He taught three samurai his fighting methods, which were later incorporated into jujitsu.

Another traveler who left his mark was Zheng Cheng-gong, known in the West as Koxinga. A pirate who adopted the Ming cause, he ruled the East and South China Seas with his fleet. His crew was composed of warriors from Fujian and the surrounding provinces. In 1661 he landed in Okinawa and taught many islanders his combat techniques, which eventually influenced the development of modern karate.

The Shaolin fighting tradition lives on because of Nine Lotus Temple’s warrior monks, martial artists who practiced and trained fiercely in southern China. The kung fu styles that descended from their art tend to emphasize close-range tactics and rely mostly on the fists. They use 80-percent hand techniques and 20-percent leg techniques — which is the same ratio as Okinawan karate.

After watching and training with the Southern Shaolin monks, it became clear that many modern Okinawan and Japanese karate styles evolved from their system. The wuzuquan style that’s practiced in southern China and by the monks at Nine Dragons Temple, with its emphasis on the sam chien (Japanese: sanchin) form, is no doubt the forerunner of such Okinawan styles as goju-ryu, ryuei-ryu and uechi-ryu.

Also included within the Shaolin fighting arts we investigated on our trip were local village traditions such as the white-crane, dog, tiger and hung styles, along with the five-ancestor fists. Those are the systems that formed the basis of the Okinawan and Japanese arts we practice today. As such, they constitute the roots of modern karate.

Read Part 1 of this article here.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 3 here.

Nine Lotus Temple and Nine Dragons Temple Photos by George W. Alexander

George W. Alexander, Ph.D., is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation. John E. Graham is vice president of the International Nan Shaolin Wushu Federation and chief instructor at the United Academy of Kung Fu in Mobile, Alabama.

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