There are few historical entities that engender as much debate,
confusion, and acrimony as the nature and reality of Shaolin. We have
heard distinguished university professors categorically deny the existence
of either Shaolin or its problem-children Tongs; that only authenticated
accounts by the Communist Chinese government are to be trusted; or that
the temples are fictitious, based on stories in old novels.
The following accounts are taken from sources who 1) practiced
the specific kung fu styles to Master level from the "supposed"
temples, 2) learned their arts AT those temples before the temples were
destroyed, or 3) were taught by practitioners from those temples. Also,
our sources were corroborated by at least three individuals (standard rule
of evidence accepted by most professional journalists). The masters,
however, have declined to be named for the reasons that 1) they do not
want to engage in controversy-the information is here to accept or reject
as you like (as directed by the last lesson of the Buddha), 2) they have
assumed new names after leaving China because, as refugees, did not want
their families to suffer for their actions. Having said that, and agreeing
in advance to protect the confidentiality of our sources, we have been
The Shaolin order dates to about 540 A.D., when an Indian Buddhist
priest named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese), traveled to China to see the
Emperor. At that time, the Emperor had started local Buddhist monks
translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. The intent was to
allow the general populace the ability to practice this religion.
This was a noble project, but when the Emperor believed this to be his
path to Nirvana, Tamo disagreed. Tamo's view on Buddhism was that you
could not achieve your goal just through good actions performed by others
in your name. At this point the Emperor and Tamo parted ways and Tamo
traveled to the nearby Buddhist temple to meet with the monks who were
translating these Buddhist texts.
The temple had been built years before in the remains of a forest that
had been cleared or burned down. At the time of the building of the
temple, the emperor's gardeners had also planted new trees. Thus the
temple was named "young (or new) forest", (Shaolin in Mandarin,
Sil Lum in Cantonese).
When Tamo arrived at the temple, he was refused admittance, probably
being thought of as an upstart or foreign meddler by the head abbot (Fang
Chang). Rejected by the monks, Tamo went to a nearby cave and meditated
until the monks recognized his religious prowess and admitted him. Legend
has it that he bored a hole through one side of the cave with his constant
gaze; in fact, the accomplishment that earned his recognition is lost to
When Tamo joined the monks, he observed that they were not in good
physical condition. Most of their routine paralleled that of the Irish
monks of the Middle Ages, who spent hours each day hunched over tables
where they transcribed handwritten texts. Consequently, the Shaolin monks
lacked the physical and mental stamina needed to perform even the most
basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo countered this weakness by
teaching them moving exercises, designed to both enhance chi
flow and build strength. These sets, modified from Indian yogas (mainly
hatha, and raja) were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in
Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake,
dragon, etc.), were the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.
It is hard to say just when the exercises became "martial
arts". The Shaolin temple was in a secluded area where bandits would
have traveled and wild animals were an occasional problem, so the martial
side of the temple probably started out to fulfill self-defense needs.
After a while, these movements were codified into a system of
As time went on, this Buddhist sect became more and more distinct
because of the martial arts being studied. This is not to say that Tamo
"invented" martial arts. Martial arts had existed in China for
centuries. But within confines of the temple, it was possible to develop
and codify these martial arts into the new and different styles that would
become distinctly Shaolin. One of the problems faced by many western
historians is the supposed contraindication of Buddhist principles of
non-violence coupled with Shaolin's legendary martial skills. In fact, the
Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she dispatch the
most devastating defenses in any situation. Rather, the study of kung fu
leads to better understanding of violence, and consequently how to
avoid conflict. Failing that, a Buddhist who refuses to accept an
offering of violence (i.e., and attack) merely returns it to the sender.
Initially, the kung fu expert may choose to parry an attack, but if an
assailant is both skilled and determined to cause harm, a more definitive
and concluding solution may be required, from a joint-lock hold to a
knockout, to death. The more sophisticated and violent an assault, the
more devastating the return of the attack to the attacker. Buddhists are
not, therefore, hurting anyone; they merely refuse delivery of intended
The Shaolin philosophy is one
that started from Buddhism and later adopted many Taoist principles to
become a new sect. Thus even though a temple may have been Taoist or
Buddhist at first, once it became Shaolin, it was a member of a new order,
an amalgamation of the prevailing Chinese philosophies of the time.
Other temples sprung from Henan.
This happened because the original temple would suffer repeated attacks
and periods of inactivity as the reigning Imperial and regional leaders
feared the martial powers of the not-always unaligned monks. Refugee
Shaolin practitioners would leave the temple to teach privately (in Pai)
or at other Buddhist or Taoist temples. In rare cases, a new Shaolin
Temple would be erected (Fukien, Kwangtung) or converted from a
pre-existing temple (Wu-Tang, O Mei Shan). Politically and militarily
involved monks (such as the legendary White Eyebrow and Hung Tze Kwan)
would be perpetual sources of trouble for the generally temporally aloof
The Boxer rebellion in 1901 was the beginning of the end of the Shaolin
temples. Prior to that, China had been occupied by Western and Japanese
governments and business interests. The British had turned the Imperial
family into an impotent puppet regime largely through the import and sales
of opium and the general drug-devastation inflicted upon the poor
population. This lead to the incursion of other European powers, including
Russia, France and Holland, and later the Japanese and Americans. By the
late 1800s, China was effectively divided into national zones, each
controlled by one of the outside powers (similar to post World War II
Berlin, on a hugely larger scale). The long standing animosities between
China and Japan worsened, and extended to include all other "foreign
devils" as well. Coupled with the now almost universal disdain by the
Chinese for their Empress, a Nationalist movement with nation-wide
grass-roots support was born. Among the front line soldiers of the new
"order" were the legendary and near-legendary martial
artists-many Shaolin-known as Boxers (remember how Bruce Lee, in his
films depicting these times, refers to himself as a Chinese boxer...).
Though their initial assaults on the military powers of the occupation
governments were not entirely successful (many believed in Taoist magical
spells that would make them impervious to gunfire), their temporary defeat
would lead to a more modern reformation that included adopting modern
military weapons and tactics.
The withdrawal of western forces was prolonged over many years, and by
the end of World War I saw China in an almost feudal state of civil war.
Not only were national troops fighting loyalists, but both sides had to
fight the Japanese (who still held much of the northern Manchurian region
of China) as well as many powerful, regional warlords. Many parts of China
were virtually anarchies, but by 1931 almost all non-Asian occupants had
been successfully driven out (with the interesting exception, in the late
1930s, of the volunteer American airmen known as The Flying Tigers, who
helped repel Japanese forces prior to World War II), and the major
combatants within China were the Nationalists and the Communists. Both
sides displayed the typical jingoistic attitudes of forces in mindless
warfare-if you aren't with us, you are against us. Neutrality meant
nothing except the possibility of a later enemy. Consequently, Shaolin and
other monks were routinely murdered by soldiers from both sides. One
result of this program of murder was the exodus of many monks into the
hills, or abroad, with the hope that Shaolin knowledge might survive even
if the temples themselves did not.
The temples were unfortunate victims of war in a land that had
abandoned its historical practice of respecting posterity and ancestors.
All were ransacked and looted by various armed groups. O Mei Shan Temple
("Great White Mountain"), in Szechuan Province, was situated on
a mountain top and deemed by Chinese officers to be a fitting target for
artillery practice. It was shelled in turn by Nationalist and Communist
armies. In a fitting twist of fate, this one-time site of medical and
natural history knowledge was rebuilt by the Communists in the mid 1970s,
and now stands as the National Park and Research Headquarters for the
There are various stories coming out of China today referring to the
history of Shaolin, particularly over the past 300 years. However, many of
these stories are suspect (compare Chinese accounts of Tiananmen Square
with CNN news coverage), with the more commonly "authenticated"
versions coming from government records. The fact that Chinese authorities
outlawed Shaolin and martial arts practices makes any story about their
history from such sources suspect. The prevalent wu-shu styles originated
as a result of a compromise between the post-World War II governments and
the national need and history of having a martial arts tradition. Wu-Shu,
however, was not designed as a martial art (strictly illegal), and claims
to the contrary date back only a decade or so, following on the popularity
of Kung Fu.
There were 5 main temples at the height of the Shaolin
order, though all 5 temples were rarely active at the same time.
Henan: This is "the" Shaolin temple seen
in Chinese kung fu movies, and the one portrayed in the ABC-TV "Kung
Fu" series of the 1970s. The physical premises, located in Loyang, a
small mountain town southwest of Beijing, have been restored by the
Chinese government in the mid 1970s (the temple was destroyed as a result
of the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, but probably not until the late 1920s),
and subsequently become a tourist/martial arts Mecca. Most of the resident
"monks" seen today are actors, similar to the people you would
meet in Colonial Williamsburg and other historical sites. During most of
its history, Henan Temple was the seat of the most senior monks in the
Fukien: Probably built around the same time as
Henan Temple, but originally a mainstream Buddhist temple until the early
1600s. This temple was integrated into the Shaolin order around 1650.
Larger than the Henan Temple, Fukien served as the
"headquarters" during times when Henan was either destroyed or
under threat. The southern styles of praying mantis, snake, dragon, and
Wing Chun were all developed in Fukien Temple, or by its masters. The
temple was burned during the Boxer Rebellion, and its remains were
rediscovered in the early 1980s.
Kwangtung: southern school, taught many great
warriors, snake temple. Temple was built in late 1700's as a Shaolin
temple, built in a mountain area overlooking the ocean near the city of Canton in Canton Province. This
Cantonese temple was close to (ca. 150 miles southwest) Fukien, and was
home to many southern styles, including Choy Li Fut and dragon (styles
often originated in one location and were modified at others). Shelled
during the civil warring following the Boxer Rebellion.
Wutang: Tiger temple. Located near the town of
Wutang. Built in a politically unstable area (near Manchuria and the
Korean peninsula). Probably the temple most involved with temporal
concerns, and consequently often besieged by one army or another.
Mercenary monks, including Bok Lei, Hung Si Kuan, and Bok Mei all came
from Wutang, eventually moving to Henan (and thus involving Shaolin in its
biggest political incursion). Very old temple, integrated into the Shaolin
order around AD 800.
O Mei Shan: (literally, "Great White
Mountain"), northern, library and medical temple. This temple was
located in an inaccessible area of the Szechuan province and imported
monks much like research institutions do today. The temple itself was very
old, probably Taoist in origin. Integrated into Shaolin order around AD
1500. Was in close contact with Tibet. Crane temple. This was a major
medical "school" for four centuries, the libraries filled with
tomes from East and West. The buildings were used for artillery practice
by the armies of both Shang Kai Shek and Mao Tze Tung, but restored in the
early 1970s. Today, the "temple" serves as the conservation
service headquarters for the bamboo forests of Szechuan and research
center for the pandas.
The first four temples had the brands of the tiger and
dragon on the left and right forearms respectively. The O mei shan temple
had the mantis and the crane on the right and left forearms.
The Shaolin had a limited class structure with three major
levels: students, disciples, and masters. At the base was the student
class, which held the most individuals. Members of this group cooked all
the meals, washed clothes and performed all other menial or manual labor.
Their station was such in order to teach them humility and respect, but
also to provide the masters with an opportunity to observe potential protégés
before entrusting them with martial arts skills. One who entered before
you and was still in your class was an older brother or sister.
The next class of the Shaolin was composed of disciples.
They were students who had demonstrated that they were worthy of learning
the martial arts of the temple. Upon entrance into this class, they spent
from two to four years in the exclusive study of the Shaolin arts of war
and medicine, having already received their basic philosophical training
as students. As students they learned the principles of Shaolin ethics; as
disciples, their time had come to live those ethics, posing as examples
for others to follow.
Above the disciples were the masters, who were accorded
status as full monks of the temple. The title of master had been bestowed
upon them because they had learned completely a system of martial arts
from their temple and perfected it, thus achieving technical mastery.
Also, they had succeeded in learning the philosophy of the temple well
enough to teach what they had learned. Indeed, this was their function in
the temple. They were the dispensers of knowledge to the student classes.
Among themselves, they had levels of excellence which indicated their
martial arts prowess and their grasp of the Shaolin philosophy.
The title "grandmaster" is not a traditional
rank, but a modified term to indicate that the master had also been a
teacher of other students who had attained master rank. There was no test
or formal requirement for the use of this title, and grandmasters rarely
use the term in reference to themselves.
These titles are in Mandarin
Black Sash, 1st-2nd
Black Sash, 3rd-4th
Black Sash, 5th
Gold Sash, 5th-7th
Red Sash, 8th and up
These titles are in Cantonese
There are four traditional sash colours in Shaolin (master
ranks are divided into a lower gold and higher red levels):
white sash: student
black sash: disciple
gold sash: weapons master, basic unarmed master
red sash: unarmed master, pries/monk level
The standard uniform is white with the colors used below
Choy Li Fut: tan stripe, symbolic of horses
Crane: white stripe, symbolic of the crane
Tibetan white crane: pale blue stripe
Cobra: emerald stripe, origin unknown
Dragon: color of style of dragon studied
Snake: very dark green stripe
Tiger: red stripe, symbolic of healthy muscle
The young student was curious about why some wore the
black sash and others didn't, though both showed similar martial prowess.
The Master was approached, and the questions presented to him. His answer
"What is a black sash? By now you know that it means
entry into discipleship, one who has proven himself over a period of
rigorous training. He is dedicated, loyal, knowledgeable and above all,
trustworthy. So trustworthy, in fact, that they alone in the organization
have a rank which automatically expires annually unless they prove they
are still worthy.
"It is not an automatic award; there are no specific
physical requirements to met for all. The number of forms is irrelevant.
Intangible elements are the most important elements in this promotion.
Taking responsibility for one's life and actions; the ability to respect a
trust; the ability to be friend, counselor, sibling, or training
companion. Out of the nearly 3000 students in this pai, only a very few
have been the black sash.
"They do more than what is asked of them, seeing
tasks not as duties but as challenges to learn from. They sacrifice time
and effort. Rather than neglect work or school, they learn to cultivate
each with their Kung Fu. They are competent in their chosen field, and use
this knowledge to enhance that competence. They do not forget the
philosophical principles after each class; they LIVE them. And they
persevere, even-ESPECIALLY-when things get rough.
"They lead, not through intimidation or rank, but
through compassion and respect. They are models, and people openly and
genuinely respect them. And they learn, always."
The student pondered this answer for some time. He watched
the senior students and new disciples work out, then he watched them
during non-training time. In time he saw the difference in action between
those who acted in full knowledge of their actions, and those desperately
fighting a flow from outside
Finally he understood the whole point of the structure of
Shaolin ranking, as it were. You could not be made into a worthy one, but
rather you acknowledge that you are by being one. How subtle! How
appropriate. How Shaolin.
It would be as difficult to describe an
"average" day in the life of an "average" Shaolin monk
because, as with almost all other human activities, each day and each life
was different. What we shall attempt is a guided tour through a temple
(based on oral history from Canton's temple) as it existed until about
1915. The features are generalized, but intended to give a vicarious feel
for what the reality was like.
The grounds outside the temple contain a variety of
agricultural gardens, where most of the monk's food is grown. The front
walls, however, are landscaped to reflect Shaolin concepts of peace and
harmony. Pine and bamboo are carefully tended to line the approachway, but
a grassy area separates the front gates from the trees. This
"moat" is about 40 feet wide, and provides an area of no cover
for potential intruders to hide behind. It is also out here where most of
the weapons practice takes place (only Hollywood could afford a temple so
large that all its functions were contained within walls). The main
entrance is barred by two huge, wooden gates, that close at right angles
to each other; one swings like conventional doors, the other slides
laterally from one wall to the other, providing extra protection against
battering ram assaults. Normally, the front gates are used for ceremonial
occasions, such as the exiting of a recently promoted monk. For today, the
gate is secured, and we must enter by a smaller gate on one of the side
As you walk along the side wall, you may observe a few
monks playing traditional musical instruments, or attending a
philosophical discussion with a senior monk. Though movies portray Shaolin
as testosterone-enhanced mega-jocks, the temples were actually cultural
centers, something like modern universities. It was believed that mastery
could only come from attaining a harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Each
monk, therefore, was versed in more than martial arts, which were actually
considered among the lower levels of accomplishment. (Here we must
digress; Shaolin did not belittle their kung fu, but saw it and the
practitioner incomplete and rather wasted if fighting was all he could do
well. Kung fu proved a peace of mind through superior firepower, but was
mainly used for physical discipline. That discipline was expected to be
used to improve the holistic person.)
You enter through a narrow stone portal, and pass into
another garden, possibly planted with a variety of flowers. In a small
adjacent courtyard some disciples are training in kung fu. Along the walls
are benches, where younger students are mending clothes, making baskets,
or practicing calligraphy. A stone building on the left is the granary,
and just beyond are more monks making flour. All around you are people
doing rather mundane activities, for this is the guts area, where food is
stored and prepared, students study, and daily business with the outside
world transacted. A large structure twenty yards to the right looks like a
temple; you enter to find a small temple area, with an altar, statues, and
burning joss sticks at the far end. This is not the main temple, but a
disciple and student area for daily meditation. It is here where they
receive morning and evening instructions in meditation and visualization,
and during the daytime disciples are taught other aspects of coordination.
It is here where you may first notice that not all the
inhabitants are men; nor are men the only monk trainees. Shaolin was
dedicated to the universality of human experience, and denied no one with
qualifications admittance (again, contrary to television). Among the most
famous Shaolin were some of the "nuns", including southern green
dragon co-founder Ng Mui, Wing Chun founder Ng Mui (separated by about ten
generations, and probably no relation), and others. The chauvinistic idea
that Shaolin was for men only is loudly declaimed by the very existence of
two of the Temple's most famous and prestigious styles. As for the term
"nun," a sad choice, but, like "priest," was taken
from the familiar structure of Christian missionaries to name their
"heathen" counterparts. Women in the temple had the same rights,
privileges, responsibilities, and offices as the men. All were addressed
as (loose translation) "monk." Only titles of specific address
were gender-related (see RANKING), such that senior women were called
"older sister", training masters called "aunt", and so
Moving out the far door and continuing to the left, you
walk through a beautifully manicured garden. The path meanders among short
islands of grass and carefully raked sand and gravel. Small trees are
dotted among the islands. A pool of fish is on one side, and sitting near
it is a monk in meditation. At the far end are some students, also
meditating. Your walk ends abruptly at another wall, and you may go either
left or right; going right, you eventually come to the end of the wall,
which is the south face of the main and ceremonial temple building. Ahead
some 200 feet is the main gate again, but instead we turn left and proceed
across the barren courtyard towards the temple's entrance. We climb three
sets of stone stairs and pass through an intricate door, each side
supported by a column carved to resemble upwardly-flying dragons, their
scale edges colored with gold, their bodies painted dark green. Across the
entrance is a red plaque with gold characters that translate into
"Shaolin Temple." Huge wooden doors would normally be closed,
except when the temple is in ceremonial use; for now, they are open and we
Our eyes slowly adjust to the dark interior, illuminated
today by a minimum number of candles along each wall. Above and behind the
candles are statues, each 2-3 feet in height; along the left wall are
various incarnations of the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and important Shaolin
patriarchs from history. Along the right are depictions of the classical
animals in a variety of fighting stances, each posed as if defending its
human counterpart across the aisle. At the far end of the long hall is a
giant statue of the Buddha.
As you leave by a small rear door from the main temple,
you can again see the food area to the far left; ahead are the kitchens,
eating, and sleeping areas; and to the far right a string of low buildings
that house the common rooms, library, and writing areas. You walk through
the dining hall into another narrow courtyard bordered by a low wall. At
intervals along the wall are narrow entrances, each with a wooden door.
Beyond each door is an area for the training and instruction of kung
fu-these are the legendary chambers.
The training chambers of Shaolin have assumed a nearly
mythical status among martial artists, probably because of the legendary
results of their successful students. In reality, the chambers were simply
training areas for different aspects of kung fu. Some were style-specific,
that is, where you would learn the kuen (formwork) of tiger or dragon.
Others were places for muscular development, such as horse-training and
water-carrying chambers. Some taught coordination and reflex drills;
combat and sparring; weapons use; and meditation and visualization
techniques. The actual number of chambers varied, depending upon which
temple you were in, the combination of skills taught as a "core"
by particular training masters, and, naturally, the size of the temple. In
Canton, for example, many chambers served double or triple functions. You
might study a crane form in chamber 4 at 8 a.m., practice sparring there
at 12, and return for coordination drills at 5.
It is important to stress that more myth surrounds our
general beliefs about Shaolin monks than is warranted. Among the readily
dismissed fallacies are: Shaolin were all male, were celibate, were
primarily warriors, studied primarily kung fu, were all trained
physicians, were different somehow from other people. Myths place real
people on pedestals, and this does nothing for potential students. After
all, who could possibly and realistically expect to attain demi-godhood?
Shaolin had their heroes and villains, ascetic priests and political
rebels, devout celibates and prolific parents.
The most universally held belief seems to be that Shaolin
was a place to study, first and foremost, kung fu. China has a history of
hundreds of martial arts, only a small fraction being true
"Shaolin" practices, so it was virtually never necessary to get
thee to a convent to learn pugilism. In fact, the combat side of kung fu
was taught to Shaolin disciples as a means of combating the self, to
restrain ego and develop physical domain over your own body. Consider how
little true control people generally have over themselves; we are never
far from a "pathological" klutz, or people who revv their
physical energies to little avail. When Bodhidharma instituted the
practices that evolved into kung fu, his primary concern was to make the
monks physically strong enough to withstand both the isolated lifestyle
and the deceptively demanding training that meditation would require. In
fact, it is one of the oldest Shaolin axioms that "one who engages in
combat has already lost the battle." Such philosophies, alas, make
for terrible movie plots...
The early phases of Shaolin training involved a lot of
what we would call grammar school (for most students, entry was made when
under the age of ten). Long days were spent learning to read and write,
and quality calligraphy was seen as proof of a good education. Students
also learned math, history, manners and customs, Taoist and Buddhist
philosophies, painting, music, textile work, agriculture, pottery, and
cooking. To be anything less than self-sufficient was seen as a failing of
the training regimen. Older students and disciples would often write books
of history, poetry, or natural history, while others would form musical
ensembles (often with a master or two), paint, or learn medicine. It was
one's development of the cultural side of life that mainly marked one's
standing in the Shaolin community.
Hence the rather large amount of building space for
housing a library, art materials, a music area, and other life-skills.
Such interests were actively encouraged, and to again draw a parallel to
modern American universities, such monks often taught "outreach"
sessions to the local community. Wandering monks brought art, reading,
medicine, and agriculture to remote villages, while people near a temple
could come for sessions in all these topics. Mainly, however, they came
for farming and medical assistance, as most Chinese villagers were not as
intellectually active as some "New Agers" would have us believe.
Now for a controversial note: our instructors, all
products of the old temples, taught that if a person study Shaolin and
learn little more than kung fu, he was not Shaolin. All the arts of the
temple were aimed at leading one closer to enlightenment by providing
tools to make a whole person, or what we often call Renaissance people. A
jack of many trades, master of one or two, those are qualities that define
a priest, according to those who long made such designations in China. If
you are a young person in school, do not sacrifice studies for martial
arts; even if you learn skill, a tool with a dull edge is a dull tool of
©1997-2008, Shaolin Gung Fu Institute
About Us - FAQ -
search - links