Shaolin- Meaning and History

There are many myths about the Shaolin temple and its martial arts. Movies, TV shows and media has done its part to mix up truth, legends and stories. 

Shaolin Temple

There is a big myth about Shaolin, its temple and its martial arts. Shaolin Kung Fu is a very wide system with endless subcategories. According to the legend Martial arts were brought from India in the person of Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (in Chinese known as Do MA) around 525 AD or during the Liang dynasty.

When Bodhidharma came from India to China Buddhism was already spreading and there were monasteries popping up. One of them was the Shaolin monastery, named after Shaoshi mountain, a forest and peak of Song mountains. According to legends which were published for the first time in the 17th century, Bodhidharma came to the monastery and found the monks not strong enough to meditate sufficient. He taught them the 18 Lohan or “18 hands exercises” which are thought to be the first official martial arts system. These exercises were meant to improve their health and strength and can been seen as a type of Qigong. Furthermore, he is the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As historians have lined out that in China during the time of Bodhidharma, there existed already a healing and a martial arts system and a lot of the weapons which were included in the Shaolin style can be traced back to farmers. 


The different monasteries

The Siu Lum aka Shaolin Order had more than monastery as it is thought. The most famous one is located in Henan province. That one is well known in TV and the movies at least since the 1970s through the ABC-show “Kung Fu”. After its destruction in the 1920s as a late result of the Boxer Rebellion, it was rebuilt from the Chinese government, not until the 1980s or 1990s. Even though most of the monks left the temple during the Cultural Revolution. The Henan temple, near Luoyang, was built in 477 AD and was most of the time the seat of the senior monks.

Although this temple nowadays is the most popular and recognized Shaolin temple, there are more Shaolin temples which turned up during the history. One other important temple was located in Fukien and was probably built around the same time as the Henan temple. The remains of the temple were discovered in the 1980s and burned down during the Boxer Rebellion. It seems like this temple was a more mainstream Buddhist monastery until the 1600s but was integrated into the Siu Lum order around 1650. This temple is important because of two things. First at all, it was way bigger then the Henan monastery and served as a headquarter when the main temple was under threat. Secondly, a lot famous and important styles, known today, were developed in the temple or by some of the masters who came out of it. Known Southern styles like praying mantis, snake, dragon, and Wing Chun are a product of this temple.

Another temple of the Southern style is Kwangtung where many great warriors were taught. The “snake temple” was built in the late 1700s near the city of Canton in Canton province. It was built in a mountain next to the ocean but shelled. From here styles like Choy Li Fut and ragon styles were developed. Another still active and famous monasteries was and is the Wutang or Tiger monastery which is located near the city of Wutang. Since it was built in a very unstable area this monastery was constantly under attack. It was built near Manchuria and the Korean peninsula. Several armies came in and out and destroyed the temple. A lot of mercenary monks, like Bok Lei or Bok Mei, came from that temple. The temple was incorporated into Shaolin around AD 800. The last important temple was the O Mei Shan, the Northern Monastery which served as library and medial institution. It was located in the Szechuan province and worked like a research institution. This old monastery, probably a Taoist temple, was integrated into the Shaolin order around AD 1500. The crane temple was very close to Tibet in an inaccessible area and was a major medical school. Today it serves as a headquarter for the conservation of the bamboo forests and as a research center for pandas.

At the time of writing this article the Shaolin order has around eight temples.



Ranks in the monastery

The Siu Lum or Shaolin monastery had a class structure which was divided in three major levels. We can identify masters, disciples and students. The biggest quantity occupied the student class who also did all the labour around the monastery such as preparing the meals, cleaning and washing, cultivating plants. The basic tasks were established to make the monastery working but also to teach the students humility and respect. It gave the masters also a momentum to observe the students to decide who will be a good disciple and has the ability to learn martial arts. The disciples showed that they were worthy to learn martial arts skills. Since the had received their basic philosophical and ethical training as students, as disciples they spent at least two and up to four years to study exclusively what we can call the Shaolin arts (martial arts, medicine and healing). As disciples, they had to live the philosophy and ethics they were taught as students and pose as example to others. Masters were full monks and received this title after completing the study of a whole system, which they perfected. Besides masters had understood enough of the philosophy of the temple to teach it to students.

Who wants to find out about the old (modern) masters of Shaolin and who they were can find a good overview on the page of the Shaolin Xinyiba school in China.

Shaolin Temple Statue

Modern History

The history of the Shaolin order is very much about who and when tried successful or not to conquer or destroy the temple. China had a troubled history of empires and dynasties and the Shaolin temple played its role in it. The detailed history and how the different styles grew will be the topic of other blogs. The last big destruction the main Shaolin temple in Henan had to get through was in 1928, when warlord Shi Yousan burned down 90 % of the temple. Then the communist party under the leadership of Mao Tze Tung took over. At the beginning, they didn’t care too much since the temple was already decimated. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist party wanted to get rid of all traditional and religious overweight. For this reason, they beaten up, imprisoned, killed or humiliated publicly monks from Shaolin. A few fled into the surrounding mountains or to other countries where they opened their schools. After the success of films like “The Shaolin Temple” in 1982 and the taking over of power through Deng Xiaoping, Shaolin temple was slowly but steadily rebuilt and some old monks were invited to come back. Even though a lot of knowledge is lost. Today China is supporting to establish a modern sport approach to Chinese martial arts called “Wushu”, within that they established competition forms with open hand or weapon, but also Taiji forms. Another new form of promoting China is the modern Sanshou or Sanda which is a mix of Muay Thai, Kickboxing and Judo, and wants to help China to get into the Olympic Games. Since the raising of popularity of kung fu many martial arts schools have opened around the Shaolin temple and in China to make business out of it. 

Today the temple is a huge commercial empire which attracts millions of tourists every year to visit the temple and thousands of young people to get there to study “Wushu”. It is a huge controversy in the kung fu- martial arts world if the modern wushu has something to do with traditional kung fu or not. On one side the temple could gain a bit more freedom and independence from the Central government and do a lot to promote Chan Buddhism in and outside of China but at the same time the abbot Shi Yongxin (also called “Shaolin CEO”) is member of the Communist party and allows and allowed all kind of business with the temple, even a reality show. Most of the modern forms and representations are focussed on exhibition and lost the element of application. Also, it is often forgotten that a lot of styles were practiced within families and given from father to his children or wealthy families paid monks or other martial artists to teach their children. This was the case of GM Ark Yuey Wong and many other great masters.