Shaolin Temple– Cradle of Kung Fu (Wu Shu)

Shaolin Temple

The temple or monastery of Shaolin was built, according to some old documents and legends, in 495 (497?) AD by the Chinese emperor Hsiao Vhena when an Indian monk called Bhadri (Batuo) arrived and started preaching Buddhism there. The old documents, as well as narratives, claim that building lasted for about twenty years.

The monastery is situated in the central China in a mountainous region, surrounded by forests at the foot of the mountain Shao Shi after which it got its name (Shao-mount, Lin- forest). It is near the village Song Shan, the town Zhengzhov and the city of Louynag in the province Henan, and surrounded by the mountain chain Wu-tai.

Next to the temple there are 220 pagodas, built from 8th (791AD) to 19th century(1803). The Chinese name for the temple is Pinyin Shaolin-si. It has been the sacred place of Zen Buddhism (the Buddhist temple – Mahayana Chan of Zen Buddhism) to the Chinese and newcomers from India.

Somewhere around 517AD an Indian Buddhist called Bodhidharma (Ta-Mo) came to China. He was 28th Patriarch of Zen Buddhism ( Bodhidharma- Bodhitara Chadili, a nobleman from the Indian warior caste Kshatriyas, a disciple of Praynatara). First he arrived in Nanjing, but he left it, as some old documents say, for too much noise and frequent disturbance. In 520s he came to the monastery of Shaolin. There the monks were studying philosophical postulates of Zen Buddhism but they also had some knowledge from martial arts ( lots of them were former soldiers who came to the monastery tired from fighting and sustained wounds).

In order to relax the monks, but also to strengthen their bodies and minds, as well as prepare them to a prospective defense from potential attackers – robbers, Bodhidharma made up a slow gymnastics and relaxation exercise with lots of breathing elements. The whole system was called Cih pa lo han cho, which means 18 arms of Lo ham ( lo han) or simpler, the exercise of 18 movements. He also added the Indian martial art vairamushti( the techniques naranokaku and kalaripayattu) as well as the Chinese fighting style chi chi because he wanted to make this exercise bouncier and more spirited to enable the monks' self-defence. Such an exercise accompanied by fist fighting in the beginning was not accepted by the monks very well.

After that Bodhidharma retreated into solitude and dedicated himself to meditation, and the legend says that he spent even 9 years meditating in a cave his face to the wall. That's where the name Pi Kuan comes from. Allegedly this cave is located 45 minutes' walk from the temple of Shaolin. Today there are 1698 stairs leading there.

There were numerous legends about Bodhidharma. It is likely to be true that he was a rather inconspicuous but excentric man, with strong moral principles and often frowning. Moreover, for that time, he was highly educated and a real connoisseur of martial arts. As narratives claim, in his old age he withdrew to the solitude of the cave where he meditated but also wrote his findings ( in two rolls?). They also say that he was even buried next to the Shaolin temple around 540AD.

In 574 an emperor from the Chou dynasty closed the monastery and banished the monks, but around the year 600AD another emperor, now from the dynasty Sui, opened it again when he came to the throne. Allegedly the monastery was looted in 727 (when certain relics of Bodhidharma were stolen), and probably the same happened in 1356. The reputation of Shaolin grew up in 1522 with the arrival of the famous master of martial arts Chuen Yuan, who was an expert for fist fighting and fencing. Yuan accomplished the system of existing exercises by adding some new ones or applying his own solutions. This system of exercises was shortly afterwards called 72 Quan fa technique (72-chuan fa).

Travelling through China, Master Yuan heard of two renowned martial artists Lee and Fong. They accepted his invitation to come to the monastery and teach the monks the discipline of fighting with fists. These three masters together made up the exercises called 170 exercises Quan fa ( Chuan fa), and they systematized them into the style called "Five Forms". The mentioned style of fighting consisted of imitating the fights of the following animals: dragon, tiger, lepard, snake and crane. This style was later the basis for many later substyles and subgroups in Kung fu discipline. The three masters had also big reputation with people, and they were known for patriotic attitudes towards the raising number of newcomers and invaders to China.

Spreading and development of Shaolin style of Kung fu discipline, inside and out of China's borders were linked to lots of historic events , e.g. between 1644 and 1662 when China was under Manchurian occupation ( the dynasty Ching) practising all Kung fu styles was forbidden. In memory of that period even update Kung fu terminology has got the symbol and word – won that is used in Korean martial arts. During that period a lot of Chinese masters were exiled, some killed and their schools were closed or destroyed.

In 1734 the occupational army Manchu during the Manchu dynasty ( the emperor Yong Zhenga) destroyed and burnt down the monastery of Shaolin and exiled the monks because of their political orientation and frequent resistance to Chinese invaders. Some chronicles of that time said that the temple of Shaolin was burning even for four days.

Only twelve monks survived the attack and ran away to distant parts of China to find shelter with the supporters of a movement called the Chinese Triad, after the three famous Shaolin masters of martial arts. Some legends claim that in 1647 a secret organization called the Chinese Triad appeared in the monastery Fuchova and it fought against the invaders using various Chinese martial arts disciplines in collaboration with Shaolin monks.

And what happened to the twelve survivors from the Shaolin monastery? Seven were discovered later by the authorities and they were executed. The remaining five monks left an indelible mark in spreading martial arts not only throughout China, but also in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Burma, Vietnam etc. Those five were the monks: Hung, Lee, Mok, Cau and Choi (stayl - Hung gar, Choy Lay fut, Mok, Lun and Lee).

Shaolin History

In Shaolin's history there were many legends about the monks practising and their great skill. Many of these haven't been scientifically founded and confirmed because in 1734 the monastery burnt almost to the ground together with its archives. A few written documents and certain narratives by words of mouth are neither enough nor historically proven and scientifically grounded to make the final conclusion on the issue. The truth is that since 8th to 17th century there were no written traces of happenings inside the Shaolin temple.

The first book that mentions Shaolin written in 17th century was " Shaolin Quan fa " - Ji Xiao Xin Shu (by Qui Jiguang). It is also an indisputable fact that the monastery was often closed and reopened in various periods as, for instance, in the period of the dynasties Ming and Qin. The question is how much it is about the real Shaolin monastery (built in 495) and how much has been left of it considering the fact that the legendary monastery was almost burnt to the ground.

In the province of Henan 20 to 60 km away from Shaolin there were five other monasteries which were in link with Shaolin so that some experts think that certain archives from these places could have moved to Shaolin. These five monasteries were: Hua, Wu tang, Kwang tung, Omei chan, Shantung and Fukien. It is said that there were about 500 monks in all of these places. In 1734 the survived monks from Shaolin at first ran to nearby monasteries but even they were not spared from destruction.

The Shaolin temple as the other monasteries in the vicinity were frequently closed for their political activism. These monasteries were shelters of numerous secret organizations that fought against the current rulers and invaders to these parts of China. Some of these companies of Buddhist and Taoist sects that worked in the temple of Shaolin as well as

in the nearby monasteries were: the Chinese Triad, the White Lotus, Bagua, the White Brow and the Boxer (the boxing movement). The other well-known groups in Siu Iam- Fuijan were 10 Tigers and in 18th century the opera troupe of the Red Ship (Hung fa wui goon- the union of the red flower, whose leader was a martial artist called Cheung Ng)...

The remnants of the Shaolin temple and the five nearest monasteries were destroyed by Chan Khai Chek's army (reportedly general Si You Sah's order) in 1928 on their military campaign. Some records claim that the temple was burning for 40 days and that the fire destroyed almost 90% . After the destruction there are records that only in the monasteries next to Shaolin some monks practised Kung fu called Kwo-su. From 1946 to 1980 the monks' activities were under strict control. Such prohibition was particularly present from 1955 to 1975 during the Cultural Revolution when lots of documents were destroyed and monks used to be humiliated and imprisoned (especially in 1966).

Nowadays the temple of Shaolin is a tourist attraction visited by martial arts fans from all over the world who come to see monks practising Kung fu. The temple and the pagodas were included in the list of UNESCO World Hertage as a historical monument of Deng Feng.

Shaolin Temple

One question remains unanswered - are the modern monks from the Shaolin temple real heirs of ancient masters of martial arts or are they only top acrobats of the Chinese province known for circus performing used as Chinese tourist offer?

Today in the vicinity of the Shaolin temple there are about 70 different Kung fu schools with different Kung fu styles, and each of them claims to be the right one, the original and the best. The Shaolin temple has its own public school situated in a separated section of the temple which is attended by 800 practitioners under the leadership of one of the chief instructors Dae Young. The school is open to anyone who wants to come, ie. who is willing to pay $1,300 per month. Neither the age nor sex, race and necessary previous knowledge are conditions to enrol. In the temple there is also a school for Zen monks attended by 100 disciples and their teacher of martial arts is a certain master called Zou.

The principle of the international school for warrior monks in the whole province of Henan is Ms Xiao Hui Wang. The attendants from China pay $3,500 per year while the scholarship for foreigners is between $1,300 and $1,400 per month. One of the main instructors in the school is a master called Shi Yanlu ( Lin Qinghva) born in 1970 in the city of Tancheng in the province of Shadong where he exercised so called Sanda Kung fu (in the boarding school) and later was ordained in the Shaolin temple in 1986 (it is interesting that he hasn't got the monk sign on his head!?). His assistant is a teacher- monk called Shi Dejianom (their names are not real but given in the temple). All the complex is run by a controversal master- the monk with the given name Shi Yong Xin.

The Temple of Shaolin

It is obvious that the temple of Shaolin with its monks is a highly profitable enterprise, millions in value. Some data report that in the Temple and surrounding schools there are 10,000 martial artists exercising (before the pandemic). Although it is said that each monk takes one disciple, the reality is somewhat different because they are taught mostly by older monks or former disciples. According to some data there are even 1,000 female disciples. When a newcomer starts school he or she makes a commitment to stay there at least for three years. Boys traditionally tie the belt so that the knot is on the left and girls do it on the right side; only masters may tie it in the middle.

The international school was officially opened in 2000 though it worked shortly before. All the students, the school attendants have to obey the rules and the lifestyle proclaimed at the school. For example, students get up at 5:30 a.m. and till 7:30 they get dressed and have breakfast. The morning training is between 8.30 and 11:30 and lunch from 11:30 to 12 o'clock. From 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 they have classes of various subjects like Maths, History, Writing, Chemistry, English, ICT and so on. The evening training lasts from 7 p.m. to 8:30. Dinner is at 9 o'clock and they should go to bed between 21:30 and 22 p.m.

Foreigners usually stay a month or two at the international schools. Many attendants as well as teachers are not called "monks", but only a few have the typical monk signs on their heads (putting the sign is rather painful- it presents repentance and suffering for previous sins). Furthermore, there are the issues of celibacy, owning property, alcohol etc.

Lots of people claim that students at these schools have extremely hard trainings, but the ones who say so have obviously never seen a top training of young athletes in certain top martial arts clubs (schools) round the world. They haven't probably seen gymnastics trainings in some countries or attended trainings of breakdance and hip hop in some dance studios, performances of parkour trainees or the ones in extreme sports.

The truth is that most of the exercises that disciples of the Shaolin temple perform can be trained in some better gymnastic or martial arts club in only about three years' exercising. It is also true that in some bigger gym anywhere in the world there would be some sportsmen who could easily break the sticks and other objects that the monks break to show the skill of strength ( not to mention the masters of kyokushinkai karate) . It can be taken for granted that any better martial artist in UF (MMA) could deal with so called warrior monks.

Although it can't be denied that these warrior monks have acquired certain knowledge and skills, it is not at some extremely high and expected level. Their style is rather showy, light and swaying, with lots of high bounces (like in ballet) with rather quick but weak movements and frequently with the wrong breathing techniques (fast and shallow). Nevertheless, it is certain that among so many exercisers in Shaolin and around it, and elsewhere in other parts of China (in other schools and boarding schools) there should be some quality.

Shaolin Headstand

The Shaolin temple has become world-famous since 1982 and the film "The Shaolin Temple" with the popular actor Jet Li in the main role at 17. There is also a well-known group of 15 monks from Shaolin, who have been performing their shows since1995 worldwide ( they have visited about 40 countries). Their manager is an Austrian producer called Herbert Fechter. Finally, it is important to point out that the Shaolin Temple has got its own troupe ( Beijing) consisting of 20 monks under the leadership of Li Ximing.

Of course, if you want to visit Shaolin, you will have plenty of interesing sights to see. Let's just mention some of them: the pavillion called 1000 Buddhas, with a fresco from 19th century painted by the known painter Wu Da Ozi ( the Tang family); the interesting pavillion Kiteshvare ( Ksitigarbha); then the most interesting hall for martial arts fans – Wen-Shu, where on the floor you can see some kind of dents, allegedly made by long-term exercising of monks on the ground. It might have happened, but it is also true that such dents can be noticed in other temples and castles round the world and they appeared because of subsidence of the foundations. It's a pity that visitors are not often allowed to enter there.

The other outstanding sights are the famous Mountain Gate, the Mahavira Pavillion, and Dhyana and Dharma Hall and Bodhidharma Pavillion. Besides all these sights you can take a walk round the temple and visit numerous pagodas or go upstairs to the cave where, as legends say, Bhodhidharma meditated for years. The pagodas are of various form and height (some even to 15 meters high) depending on the time ie. dynasty or for which important monk they were built. They were made for Chinese but also for Indian and Japanese monks.

Shaolin Monks

But again,we can ask ourselves: what is really ancient in the temple of Shaolin and how much is it old?

If we know for sure that the army of the Ching dynasty (1644-1911) frequently destroyed the temple, and that during this period only the temple Siu Lam from the province of Fuk Kien (Fujian) remained untouched, then we can conclude that there isn't almost anything left from 495 AD, and that most of the sights date from 17th,18th and 19th century and that all the rest has been restored in recent periods. The restoration of the Shaolin temple started in 1984 and lasted with breaks until 2006 and lots of pavillions are being renewed now.

Nowadays there are various so-called Shaolin centers opened worldwide, e.g. in America, France, Germany, Russia, Australia etc. Their managers often call themselves monks, e.g. a man called Shi Yan Po, but it is doubtful if there is any real link to the old tradition of Shaolin martial artists, especially if we know that every showing of fighting techniques or demonstration of the skills in public was strongly forbidden and punished, sometimes even with the death of the one who broke that rule.

Shaolin monks using the bo staff

It is obvious that the modern era has made these alleged monks aware as well as informed how important show business is. They often pay attention to show time, which can be seen in pictures of poses they take both in the air or on the ground. Although their essential mission is that extreme peacefulness can be transformed into explosive power, the number of them who can demonstrate it is very negligible. All that the monks fom Shaolin perform has already been seen in different forms during the demonstrations of a significant number of masters of various fighting skills round the world. If the ancient and genuine Buddhist monk Bodhidharma lived and saw all this turmoil in the temple of Shaolin, he would go to the furthest cave in China and stay there in meditation for, at least, 10 years, not to mention the reaction of three famous Chinese masters of martial arts from 16th century.

All in all, they are gone and today's Shaolin centers are built next to modern hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and even shopping malls.

Regardless the previously mentioned shortcomings, all who want to get additional life experience and acquire certain new and simply different knowledge from some martial arts, and can afford it, should visit the Shaolin temple. Every year it is visited by more than 1 million tourists. There is just one thing everybody must keep in mind – it doesn't matter how long you travel in China , you will hardly find true Zen warrior monks . Even if you meet them, they will be very kind to you, but you are very naive if you think that, because of nice attitude, they will show you their skill of fight. Yet, there are many visitors to China who think they are the lucky ones who will see the secret of the old Kung fu masters revealed.

Don't forget that although the Chinese started coming to America even before 1860s, Americans didn't know anything about Kung fu up to 1960. Today many things have got their price and can be bought but the real skills and knowledge of ancient Shaolin masters are priceless as lots of Chinese masters of martial arts sacrificed the lives for this goal.

In the end, if you want to visit the temple of Shaolin, it is useful to know that the warmest month there is July with temperatures reaching 27° C and the coldest one is January with low temperatures to 0 ° C.

As well, before you go, get informed on Shaolin- Deng Feng (Ave), Song Shanu-Henan websites. To get further information you can read a few articles on the matter from renowned experts before you decide to join a kung fu school. It is also recommended that you know something about the monks' diet, e.g. steamed white bread, the ways fish is prepared, seasonal vegetables etc. (though they afford themselves international dishes, too).

The accommodation and hygiene in camps are satisfying, and there are shops with articles for every taste. Near the Shaolin temple tourists can stay in 20 different hotels.

You should keep in mind the following principle of ancient Shaolin masters- only the man who is completely ready to defeat the strongest enemy, may be resisted also with non-violence!

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