The Five Ancestors of Shaolin
April 25th, 1644 (the year after Sir Isaac Newton developed the laws of gravity), Ming dynasty emperor Chong Zhen committed suicide by hanging himself as Beijing fell to the Ming rebel leader Li Zu-cheng. Less than a year later, Manchurian troops overtook China, Li was assassinated, and thus began the Ching dynasty.
However, anti-Ching sentiments pervaded the country and in 1662 (the year Connecticut was chartered as an English Colony), Taiwan-based Ming loyalist Zheng Chen-gong, who was well aware of the superior fighting skills of the Shaolin monks, sent some of his troops to China to stir up an anti-Ching revolution and to seek refuge at Song Shan Temple, under Abbot Zhi Tong, not unlike people seeking asylum in a Church. Among some of Zheng's men sent were the young fighters Tsai De-Zhong, Hu De-di, Li Shi-kai, Fang Da-Hong and Ma Chao-xing. Starring the dynamic duo of kung-fu films Ti Lung (Di Lung in Mandarin) and David Chiang portraying Tsai De-zhong and Hu De-di respectively, the Chang Cheh directed Shaolin Temple (1976) poignantly depicts this story, but as we shall see artistic license is rampant.
In 1685 (the birth year of German composers Handel and Bach), during the reign of Ching Emperor Kang Xi, the emperor of the Xilu ordered a mass invasion of China. Afte the Xilu pushed Ching resistance south to Tong Guan (like if invading Canadian forces reached St. Louis), Ching army generals begged the government for help who responded by offering rewards/honors to anyone willing to help save the country. Answering the call was 128 Shaolin Monks from Song Shan Shaolin who headed West to Tong Guan and defeated the Xilu army.
Since the monks considered that they were doing their duty to protect the country from invaders, they humbly refused the emperor's riches and offers for government positions asking only that they can return to their temple and live secluded lives. Upon the emperor's persistence they accepted an imperial jade seal and returned to Song Shan. Word rapidly spread about the heroic monks and though men of peace, they would use martial arts to protect their country.
It's like when true Christians in Europe weren’t allowed to kill, which partially led to the Roman Empire’s downfall because when soldiers became Catholics, there was no one left to defend the realm. The Pope said that killing in the name of God to protect Christianity was not a sin. This gave rise to the Monks of War that could safeguard any kingdom founded under God's name.
Understanding this ideal, anti-Ching rebels appealed to the Shaolin Temple's sense of nationalism, saying that Chings were a foreign power. When the Ching court learned that Shaolin began to accept students with less restrictions and train them, the match was lit.
In 1736, during the reign of Emperor Yong Zheng (the year American revolutionary Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty, or give me death" was born), when a government official named Deng Sheng was burning incense at the temple, he noticed the valuable imperial seal given to Song Shan Temple by Emperor Kang Xi and tried to steal it.
When confronted by the monks, Deng stormed out of the temple in anger, then spitefully complained to the emperor that Shaolin was planning subversive activities thus confirming to the Chings the possible threat of Shaolin. The emperor sent 3000 thousand soldiers to Shaolin under the guise of wishing to burn incense to the gods, but instead, during one bleak, horrific night, they burned down the temple and slaughtered the monks.
Another version of this story tells that Manchu officials were able to bribe one of the top Shaolin monks, Ma Lin-ge, to help them with their plot to destroy the temple. Of the 128 monks that lived in Song Shan, Ma was ranked seventh, hence the number "7" now represents bad luck in some circles. Apparently, Ma was being punished for breaking a valuable lamp so perhaps he saw helping the Manchus as a way of wreaking revenge against those that punished him. So, Ma showed the commanding Ching generals the locations of all the temple's hidden passageways and traps, thereby paving the way for the temple's burning and subsequent monk killings.
Only five monks survived the Song Shan razing, the now highly skilled Monks of War, Tsai De-Zhong, Hu De-di, Li Shi-kai, Fang Da-Hong and Ma Chao-xing, i.e., The Five Ancestors of Shaolin, who at the Red Flower Pavilion, pledged their brotherhood by organizing the secret kung fu society Hong Men (Hong is a family name and Men means door as in entering a gate of knowledge or way of training), where they vowed vengeance against the Chings. Chang Cheh's Five Shaolin Masters (1974) focuses on their exploits following the burning and stars Ti Lung (Tsai), David Chiang (Hu), Mung Fei (Fang), Alexander Fu Shen (Ma) and Chi Guan-zhuin (Li).
A few years later when Chang directed Shaolin Temple (1976) only Ti Lung and David Chiang reprised their Five Ancestor roles. Chi Guan-zhuin and Alexander Fu Shen portrayed the Shaolin student friends Hu Hui-qian and Fang Shi-yu respectively. Yet as we will see, the timeline is off here, because these two characters were never present at Song Shan.
Regarding the Xilu, to reiterate the famous line from the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), “Who are those guys?” According to Shwai Xue-fu’s text The Origin of the Ching and Hong Secret Societies (1878) it is implicated that the Xilu were soldiers from Russia.
Just goes to show you even way back then, to paraphrase Irvin Berlin’s famous 1929 musical hit “Puttin on the Ritz,” the Russians are still Putin on the Hitz. Yet without the Russians, Shaolin Studios wouldn’t exist and because of that, Shaolin has become even more famous.
Next time: the rise of another Fab Five; and the return of Shaolin’s public enemy number one.