Shaolin History


OverviewGung Fu TimelineTemples

Description of the Temples

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 Shaolin Order.

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.

Structure of the Temples

Description of Ranks

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.

Titles

These titles are in Mandarin

Male

Female

Junior Student

shidi

shimui

White Sash

Senior Student

shihing

shimei

White Sash

Disciple

shisuk

shigoo mei

Black Sash, 1st-2nd

Instructor

shifu

shimoo

Black Sash, 3rd-4th

Senior Instructor

sibok

shidigoo

Black Sash, 5th

Master

sigung

shipoo

Gold Sash, 5th-7th

Grandmaster

shidaigong

shidaipoo

Red Sash, 8th and up

 

These titles are in Cantonese

Male

Female

Junior Student

sidi

simui

White Sash

Senior Student

sihing

sijei

White Sash

Disciple

sisuk

sigoo mui

Black Sash, 1st-2nd

Instructor

sifu

simoo

Black Sash, 3rd-4th

Senior Instructor

sibok

sidigoo

Black Sash, 5th

Master

sigung

sipoo

Gold Sash, 5th-7th

Grandmaster

sitaigung

sitaipoo

Red Sash, 8th and up

Ranking

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 as trim:

  • 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

What is a disciple?

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 was lucid.

"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.

LIFE IN THE TEMPLE

Part 1

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 walls.

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 on.

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 proceed inside.

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.

Part 3

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 limited use.