Around 700 years later in 497 AD, in the time of the Southern & Northern
Dynasty, the first Shaolin Temple was built.
Establishment of Shaolin
Towards the end of the 5th Century AD an Indian Buddhist monk by name of Ba Tuo
was travelling through China teaching Buddhism, helping and guiding those he
met. His great wisdom and kindness came to the ears of the Emperor who summoned
Ba Tuo to come to him.
Exact details of what happened at this meeting are not entirely clear but is
seems that Ba Tuo was offered riches, a place in the palace and encouraged to
continue his teachings. Ba Tao kindly declined this offer and asked for a piece
of land far away from any 'civilised' place in the province of Henan, on the
side of the Song sang Mountain. There he was given a large piece of land and the
resources to build a monastery in an area called 'Wooded Hill' or 'Small
Forest', which translates to Shaolin in Mandarin or Sil-Lum in Cantonese.
In about 539 AD, a holy man named Bodidarma ( later called Ta Mo by the Chinese
) left his monastery in Southern India to spread the Buddhist faith to China,
later called Ch'an Buddhism. ( Ch'an is the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit
word "dhyana" meaning Yogic concentration, also known as Zen in
Japanese when it was introduced from China.). After travelling hundreds of miles
to reach Northern China and crossing the Himalayan mountains and the Yangtze
River, he headed North to Loyang, the capital of Henan Province.
There of course he found the Shaolin Ssu (Temple). It was, 40 years after it
was founded, and it had become famous for scholarly translations of Indian
Buddhist scripture into Chinese. Bodidarma sought entrance to Shaolin but the
abbot of the day, Fang Chang would not let him into the temple ( many sought
entrance for various reasons ).
Bodidarma was determined to enter and see the Shaolin Ssu. He located to a
nearby cave on the side of a mountain ( this cave can be visited when in Henan/Shaolin
as well as climbing to the top where a 40 foot Buddha is erected in honour of Ta
Mo ) where (it is said) he sat in meditation facing a stonewall. Many versions
of this event exist, including;
- That he sat facing a wall for most of the next nine years at the end of
which Bodidarma's deep blue piercing eyes had apparently drilled a gaping
hole in the cliff wall. ( we did not find such a hole but we did find what
seemed to be a permanent shadow )
- That he fell asleep meditating and his eyelids closed and when he awoke,
he was so distraught that he cut of his eye lids so that this would not
happen again ( since this would be against Buddhist teaching - and he was a
devote Buddhist - this is unlikely ).
- That he was visited by monks ( initially secretly as they were interested
in the 'foreigner' ) and was supplied with food and water. In this way he
was able to demonstrate his knowledge and skill of Buddhism to such a degree
that he was finally ( after 9 years? ) admitted to the into the temple.
Irrespective of which story is true, it is clear that Fang Chang at some time
relented and allowed Bodidarma entry into the temple Shaolin.
Upon gaining entrance to Shaolin, Ta Mo ( as he was now called by the Chinese
) saw that the monks were weak and unable to perform the rigorous meditations he
expected that Buddhist Monks should be practicing. Whilst meditating they often
fell asleep or were very restless and were not achieving inner calm or peace ( a
state required to reach Enlightenment, that for which all Buddhist strive! ).
He spent some time in seclusion pondering the problem. Considering the time
and health awareness of the period, Ta Mo came to a staggeringly accurate
conclusion, that the monks were not fit to meditate. With this in mind he
started working on a solution; he created three treaties of exercises.
These in-place exercises were later transcribed by monks as;
This marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple Kung Fu ( meaning hard work and
perfection ). Ta Mo later devised some self-defence movements based on his
knowledge of Indian fighting systems ( Bodidarma was born an Indian Prince and
was well versed in Yoga and Indian Kung Fu ).
- "The Muscle Change Classic" or "The Change of the
- "The Marrow Washing"
- "The Eighteen Hand Movements later named The Eighteen Lohan Shou (Lohan
Shaolin Kung Fu
Many of the Shaolin priests were retired soldiers and generals, thus, Ta Mo's
teachings were enriched and refined by these martial art masters and it slowly
developed in to a martial art of the hands also known as Shaolin Ch'uan [
Shaolin Fist ] or Shaolin Ch'uan Fa [ Way of the Shaolin Fist ].
Shaolin was not a poor temple by this time and was regularly attacked by
peasant armies ( since individuals had no chance to penetrate Shaolin defences
and walls ). Often, to enrich it's knowledge, Shaolin would invite wandering
healers, scholars and now also martial art masters into it's walls to learn from
these by sharing knowledge and skills.
Shaolin became very apt at Kung Fu and in repelling the attacking bandits.
Slowly but surly the Shaolin became renown for their martial arts prowess and
fighting ability. It is to be noted that not all Shaolin Monks were warrior
monks, often they chose to specialise in areas of expertise, much like
university professors. Although at this time all practiced Kung Fu, not all were
totally focused on the practical aspect of the art, only the Warrior Monks. It
is also interesting to note that Shaolin preferred not to hurt their assailants
as this would have ramifications for their spirituality in this life and the
A mere 30 years later, Shaolin was closed and forbidden, it took some 30 more
years, around 600AD, before it was reopened.
Built around the same time as the Henan Temple, the Fukien Temple was integrated
into mainstream Shaolin around 650 AD and became the 'Second Temple" of
Shaolin. It was/is a much larger temple than the one in Henan and served as the
second main temple in times where Henan was destroyed or occupied by other than
Buddhists and Shaolin.
In 698 AD, Emperor T'ai Tsung, of the Tang dynasty, called upon the fighting
monks of Shaolin to aid him in his war against General Wang-Shih-Chung, who had
gathered a large army in an attempt to oust the Tang emperor from the Imperial
throne. Li Shimini, the Emperors son, was leading the army against Tang. Tang
managed to capture the Emperors son and was inflicting great damage to tangs
Tang sent a message to the Shaolin temple asking for help to save his son. 13
monks were sent to answer their emperor's plea, although in fact it may have
been a much larger force (113 monks or so). Even though the number of Shaolin
monks sent was small ( the enemy's army numbered 10,000 men ) the Shaolin were
victorious, the enemy was beaten back and decimated and the Emperors son was
In recognition of their great action T'ai Tsung awarded the monks land, and
bestowed upon the temple the title, 'Number One" temple in China.
Later that same saved son, Li Shimini, succeeded his father and a very strong
bond was forged between the Imperial court and Shaolin. Regular interchange and
training between high ranking soldiers and graduate Shaolin Warrior Monks saw
further development of Shaolin Kung Fu and the integration of the secret
Imperial ( Eagle ) Kung Fu into Shaolin knowledge and skills.
A couple of hundred years later a rich young noble and experienced martial
artist, entered the Shaolin Monastery and assumed the name of Chueh Yuan. He
soon devoted all his studies to the further development of Shaolin Kung Fu and
fitness training. Within a few years, he revised the 18 Fists of Lo Han and
created what he called the 72 Styles or movements. His methods and teaching were
so successful that all Shaolin monks adopted his 72 fists very quickly. The 72
movements were very effective for both internal and external fitness. They
incorporated much of what is being taught today. But Chueh Yuan was still not
fully satisfied with this and he went out to teach and learn, looking for
Masters of other styles.
This later became common practice for Shaolin. Shaolin adepts were sent out
to share Buddha's teaching and help the poor ( much like the founder of Shaolin
). It was also a test, as many would be Shaolin monks were tempted by worldly
pleasures and did not return. Those that did became the Priests and brought many
new skills, knowledge and wisdom from their travels.
It is also around this time that the third temple was integrated into the
Shaolin order. The Wutang Tiger Temple was located in the politically unstable
area near Manchuria and the Korean Peninsular. It was often besieged or
attacked, and the monks there were very versed with the practical aspect of war,
weaponry and defence. The Wutang ( Wutang, Wu Tang ) temple was very old and
integrated into Shaolin around 800 AD.
On his travels, Chueh Yuan witnessed a bandit attacking a 60-year-old traveller.
He saw how the attacker landed an apparently very strong kick to the body of the
traveller with very little or no effect. The old traveller only used two fingers
against the bandit's leg sending the attacker to the ground, seemingly
unconscious by the time Chueh reached them.
This manoeuvre obviously impressed Chuan enormously and he introduced himself
to the senior. Much to his surprise the old man did not know much of martial
arts and what little he knew he had learned from the local master Pai Yu-feng.
Pai Yu-feng was a friendly 50 year old and Chuan convinced him to accompany
him back to his temple. Over the next few years they, using the 18 fists, the 72
movements and these 'pressure point techniques' redeveloped Shaolin Kung Fu into
the 170 exercises that became one of the foundations of Shaolin Kung Fu as we
know it ( This is also how traditional Shaolin Kung Fu is taught today. First
the basics very similar to the 170 exercises and then the 5 Animal Styles ).
The Time of
the Ming Dynasty
The time of the Ming Dynasty was another golden area in China's arts history (
so called because of all the treasures and artwork created in this time but
there was also a very dark side to this era, especially in the 16th and 17th
centuries ). Many works of art were created that still exist, considered now to
be priceless. Philosophy and knowledge was taught to an equal degree. During
this time the Shaolin Temples also grew and prospered becoming the centre for
teaching, philosophy, history, Buddhism, mathematics, poetry and of course
martial arts. Many monks, wise persons and travelling martial artists would gain
entrance to Shaolin and share their knowledge; in return for Shaolin knowledge
At this time, Shaolin reached its peak. Each Temple was like a university of
Buddhism, health and the finer arts. Each temple had several Shaolin Masters who
were experts or specialists in a particular area of training, well-being or
philosophy. Rich Chinese would send their sons ( and later even Daughters ) to
Shaolin to become students ( not priests ) and learn from the best in every
Shaolin adepts would also undergo a rigorous test before they were considered
ready to leave the temple on their journey years. In order to graduate from the
temple, they would have to exhibit phenomenal skills and pass through 18 testing
chambers in the temple ( which were possibly more symbolic in nature as no
evidence was found in any of the Shaolin Temples of any such rooms ). Although
it is dramatised in movies, Shaolin would actually be brought to the brink of
exhaustion through a serious of 18 tests, 6 physical, 6 mental and 6 spiritual (
thus the 18 chambers ). It is even possible that one of these physical tests,
the final one, was the lifting of a hot cauldron with their bare forearms ( each
temple traditionally had such a cauldron, unique to each temple ). This cauldron
would not have been plain and would possibly have the raised relief of symbolic
animals, which would thus be burnt into the graduating monks arms ( as a
reminder to them of their trials ). Varied accounts suggest that these cauldrons
may have had the following symbols on them;
- Wutang Temple- A Tiger and Dragon for martial art Prowess
- Henan Temple- Dragon and Phoenix for universal balance/Yin Yang
- Kwan Tong Temple - Two Dragons for their clones to the Emperor
- O Mai Shan Temple - Two Cranes as they were close to the Tibetan border
and a healing temple
- Fukien Temple - (no record or anything found for this temple)
These marks were the signs of a Shaolin graduate. ( Not all who entered
Shaolin graduated in the full 18 chambers, many were only lay priests or guests,
especially towards the end of the Ming Dynasty ).
This is also the time when the original 170 movements were redefined into the
5 Animal Style, Ng Ying Ga Kung Fu.
A martial art expert named Zhue Yuen joined the Shaolin. He noticed that the
Kung Fu practiced in Shaolin was unbalanced, tending strongly to the hard
external style. Zhue Yuen travelled China in search of other martial art styles
and found many which he learned and evaluated. But it wasn't until he reached
the town of Lan Zhau and met Li Sou that anything significant happened.
Li Sou introduced Zhue Yuen to Bai Yu Feng, who was another famous martial
arts practitioner. Zhue Yuen was able to convince both to come back with him to
Shaolin to develop Kung Fu. Together they redeveloped Shaolin Kung Fu to the 5
animal style ( Tiger, Snake, Dragon, Leopard and Crane ).
Although originally just exercise and Kung Fu styles, over the next few
hundred years the Shaolin were able to discover and develop the 5 Animal Style
system to be metaphors for human situation handling, interaction, problem
solving, planning and much more ( much of this was lost with the second burning
of Shaolin and only the external Kung Fu aspect was cultivated and maintained;
but more on that later ).
The 4th temple
It is at around this time that the 4th temple was added to the order of Shaolin.
The O Mei Shan ( Great White Mountain ) was a devoted library and medical
temple. It was located in a very inaccessible area of Szechwan province. Very
much like the other temples used to import Kung Fu masters, the O Mei Shan
temple imported healers.
O Mai Shan was in close contact with the Crane Temple in Tibet and a major
medical temple with books, tombs and scrolls from east and west. This is
probably the temple that burnt in the symbols of 2 Cranes on to the forearms
instead of having the traditional Dragon as one of the two animals, as in the
other three temples in the 18th or 19th chamber principle.
The Great wall, and China's army, was mostly successful in repelling invaders,
but around mid 17th century, invaders from Manchurian, lead by the Ching Family,
ended China's Golden area, and the Ming Dynasties reign. They slowly but surely
and brutally took control of China and systematically eradicated all resistance.
Many Chinese nobles, warriors and commoners were forced underground where they
sought to oust the invaders and reinstate the prosperous Ming Dynasty.
There were a significant number of factions among the Chinese who aided the
Manchu's against Ming loyalists, in large part because the Manchu's held to the
same ideology, governmental patterns, and social organization as the Ming. By
the early 1600's the Ming dynasty was significantly weakened. It was unable to
cope with both its own internal tensions and the militarily strong 50's to the
An internal rebellion was the direct cause of the downfall of this dynasty (
Chinese rebel Li Tzu-ch'eng seized Peking in 1644 ). That the Dutchmen were able
to capitalize on this by being invited to put down the rebellion by a frontier
general is largely coincidental. The Great Wall was hardly so impregnable that
they would not have been able to invade and conquer the area in its weakened
Thus the Manchu's found the entrance to China and slowly but steadily
conquered China. Those that did not wish to conform had to either migrate or go
underground, some also sought refuge in the Shaolin temples.
Shaolin initially only offered passive resistance against the invaders,
seeking to remain above the political matters. It helped anyone who sought
refuge and thus involuntarily became a safe haven for refugees and resistance
fighters. The Manchu's also had 5 classes of people clearly defined;
- The Manchu Ruler and his family
- The Manchu Nobles and their families
- Manchurians in general
- Northern Chinese
- Southern Chinese
Many loyal Ming soldiers and nobles sought refuge and help in Shaolin.
Shaolin, although themselves passive, became a center of resistance. This was a
thorn in the invaders side and needed to be dealt with, drastically, but -
Burning of Shaolin
Shaolin was strong, their reputation great and their support from commoners even
stronger. Finally, in 1647 AD, through the betrayal of an insider and large
amounts of Ching loyal troops, armed with cannons, the original Shaolin temple
in Henan was destroyed. The monks who remained to defend it were slaughtered,
many fled to the Fukien Temple and for 30 years continued their resistance and
their support of resistance fighters. This in turn led to the destruction of the
Fukien temple, the remaining major temples and most of the lesser temples, as
well as the destruction of Shaolin texts. ( these events have inspired many 'Shaolin
Temple' movies including Shaolin Mystagogue )
From this time onwards Shaolin were outlawed and any practice of Shaolin Kung
Fu punishable by death, much was lost. Most of the priceless scrolls of Shaolin
Kung Fu, teachings and many treasures of knowledge and wisdom were lost. Shaolin
monks and laypersons were now split into many directions, all initially
operating in secret. These were those that;
- continued their resistance and taught Kung Fu for the sole purpose of
fighting and defeating the Chin's. They were the fathers of secret
resistance organisations know as the 'Triads', so named after a gift of the
Ming Dynasty Emperor to the Shaolin of a jade triangle.
- were devoted to the art. These passed down their learning from father to
son or most apt student. In this process, much was lost but enough was
maintained. Non of these styles is all of Shaolin but each have key
- reverted to being 'just' Buddhist priests.
- migrated to many other countries including the US, and many oriental
countries including Japan, Indonesia, Malasia, Taiwan, etc...
Many great Chinese Fighting Martial Artist became famous during this time of
strife and resistance ( mid 17th Century to 1899 ), some gaining great
notoriety. Among these were Hung Hei-Kwun and his teachers from the temple, the
Monk Sam Tak and the Abbot Chi Zin. But Shaolin monks were now outlawed. They
had to go into hiding and could no longer be 'Shaolin' monks openly. This is a
time when Tai Chi 'styles' flourished, a way of secretly training and teaching
Kung Fu. The techniques were disguised, movements slowed, stances and toughness
hidden, but not forgotten.
Around a century or more later, towards the start of 19th Century, the Shaolin
Temples were reopened and included the 5th Shaolin Temple Kwantung (located
around 200 km's southwest of Fukien).
But the rulers of the day were still fearful of the power of the Fighting
Shaolin Monks so they only allowed Shaolin to be used as purely religious
purposes without allowing any Kung Fu or other martial art training by order of
death. The underground, no longer Shaolin but Ming loyalists, were still very
busy making life hard for the Ching's.
The rebellion came to a dead end with the failure of the Boxer rebellion. Now
some 250 years later, after the ousting of the Ming's, the Boxer Rebellion was
to overthrow the Ching Dynasty and reinstate the original descendant of the Ming
Dynasty. For decades, Chinese Martial Artists ( the Brits called this 'funny'
style of fighting Boxing - and the name stuck ) prepared for this event.
practacing hard Kung Fu and Chi Kung body hardening, they attacked. The
Manchu's, now armed with handguns and rifles, totally destroyed the Boxers.
This was the death of the Chinese resistance. Some triad members escaped to
other countries, including the US, Korea, etc. Without a focus some/many triad
members went into a new line of business (and their descendants still are in
this line of work ). This caused another influx of Chinese martial arts into the
Orient, the US and now also the new continent of Australia.
Weather this was related to the Boxer Rebellion or not, the Ching Dynasty
debunked in 1911 (so well represented by the movie 'The Last Emperor' ). The
time of Chaos and Hunger began.
Burning of Shaolin
As with the previous times, Shaolin influence, power and Kung Fu ( although
officially forbidden and punishable by death ) was still feared and forbidden
even now almost 300 years after the Ching's decree. This possibly led to the 3rd
Burning of Shaolin in 1927 AD during Chiang Kai Check's reign.
Chiang Kai Check himself was a great believer of Kung Fu and although he
forbade all martial art practice he surrounded himself with Kung Fu fighting
masters as his body guard. When he was being threatened and ousted by the newly
forming Chinese Republic, he packed up as much Chinese treasure as he could,
took his wife ( who recently died in the US aged 105 ) and 100 masters and moved
to Taiwan. His arrival had a key influence on that country and greatly
'enriched' the country.
The cultural revolution was against all matter of religion and martial arts or
anything that would allow individuality, resistance or free thought. If you were
seen to be preaching or teaching anything other than Mao's' words, you were
immediately re-educated or imprisoned.
This was more disastrous to Shaolin Kung Fu (traditional Chinese Medicine and
many 'traditional type disciplines; even Ming Tombs were opened and the wood of
the coffins used for furniture) than anything else as it attacked Shaolin
teachings and style on all fronts, not just Kung Fu, but also Buddhism, Tao'ism,
Healing and any type of organization other than Mao's. This was the final death
of Shaolin, worse than all three previous burnings!
3rd Area of
After many successful Chinese Kung Fu movies by Bruce Lee ( presenting Kung Fu
to the world ) and Jacky Chan ( introducing the concept of Shaolin ) and in
particular Jet Li in the movie Shaolin Temple, Officials in Beijing ( means
Northern capitol originally know as Peeking ) started to realize the potential
of Shaolin as marketing tool, but also as heritage! However, the fear and
distrust of Shaolin, its Kung Fu and power was deep. They knew that they needed
some type of 'replacement', some type of art other than Tai Chi and Chi Kung
that was hard, external and athletic to fill this emptiness. This was the
replacement of Kung Fu by Wu Shu, an acrobatic art using Kung Fu movements and
A respected Chinese official was given the task of breathing life back into
Shaolin. As with many Chinese decisions, it was both a pragmatic decision as
well as financial and historical. The key was to have an art that was dynamic
and in spirit of Shaolin but not Kung Fu. Wu Shu was ideal for this purpose. it
embodied the spirit of Shaolin by providing all the requirements for health and
wellbeing as Kung Fu but focused more on flow and athleticism rather than
technique and fighting. Wu Shu has grown and developed, with the many versions
and adaptations of Kung Fu - in some cases there is very little difference
between the two.
There was a problem though, as Shaolin and it's idea was already 'occupied'
by a whole thriving industry called Shaolin Village and many so called Shaolin
temple training Schools. The re-opening of the Shaolin temple by the "Grand
Abbot" Master Su Xi who's kindness and dedication seem so much similar as
the original founder of Shaolin, gives hope to a new era of Shaolin teaching and
Spirit. But for all his good teaching and kindness, he was also being used.
Animal Wu Shu is being practiced, but not the Shaolin 5 Animals but a new
breed of modern, very athletic and well developed Animal styles including;
The current Abbot of Shaolin the venerable has been in place for 10+ years
now. He or the Chinese government have just cleared all the schools and the
village surrounding Shaolin allowing only one to be there, the official Chinese
Government Shaolin Temple training School. All schools, some numbering up to
8000 students, have been moved to the nearby major city of Kerfeng ( possibly
wrong spelling, right sound ). Shaolin and the area around it is being prepared
to be possibly a tourist and martial art trap or a heritage site. Time will
The most curious thing about Wu Shu is that they actually import Muay Thai
fighters to train Wu Shu fighting. In a way it is in tradition of 'learning'
from the enemy. For many centuries leading up to the 20th, Kung Fu fighters and
Muay Thai fighters challenged each other to prove which style was superior. This
was a regular challenge between the two traditional styles and fighters for the
honour of the style and country. Death in these was not unusual.
Shaolin's 1st Golden Era started with the ascension to the throne of the Tang
Dynasty son who they saved. The second Golden era of Shaolin came during the
Ming Dynasty with much cooperation between the Emperors Palace and Shaolin. Now
with the full force of the Chinese Government behind them, efforts to have Wu
Shu in the Olympics and over 1 billion people training in Wu Shu, Kung Fu, Tai
Chi and Chi Kung, we can consider this the third golden era not only for Kung Fu
and Wu Shu but for all peaceful martial arts ( I believe that violent and
aggressive MA are a recessive breed ). As a martial artist in body, heart and
spirit, it is a good time to be alive!
Many martial arts acknowledge, even boast to be influenced by Shaolin. What
is true and what note is irrelevant. In today's age it would be impossible to
extract what influenced what, where and how. It is more important that the
spirit of Shaolin is alive in many different forms. Be it in Shaolin Wu Shu, be
is Shaolin derived Kung Fu/Wing Chung or even the 'Fist of China' as was Karate
once known; Shaolin is in the spirit and heart not in the strength of your punch
and as such should be celebrated.
Shaolin Kung Fu is a way of health, a way of life and a way of being, we just
use martial arts as an exercise!
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