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   Main Gate of the Shaolin Temple Henan Province China, photo by Sifu Derek Frearson



Sifu Derek Frearson outside the Main Gate of the Shaolin Temple



Monks Burial Place. photo by Sifu Derek Frearson

Stone Forest Shaolin Temple. photo by Sifu Derek Frearson


Shaolin Monk. photo by Sifu Derek Frearson


Ancient Weapons at the Shaolin Temple. photo by Sifu Derek Frearson




Number One Temple Under Heaven

By Sifu Derek Frearson




On the Northern China plains there are five Holy Mountains ;  Mt. Tai,  Mt. Hua,  Mt. Heng, Mt. Heng ( which has a different Chinese character from the proceeding one ) and Mt. Song.  Mt. Song in Dengfeng county in Henan province is in the centre of the Holy mountains,  so it is also known as the Middle Holy Mountain. Emperor Wu Di of the Han dynasty ( 206 BC- 220 AD ) visited this mountain in 110 BC  and since then emperors of succeeding dynasties either came in person or sent special envoys to  pay homage to Mt. Song.

Indeed, over the years many memorial halls, Buddhist and Taoist temples, stone arches and inscribed tablets were erected.


 At the foot of Mt. Song is the Shaolin Monastery so named because it was built near a small ( Shao ) wood ( Lin ).  In 495 AD an Indian monk named Batuo came to China to teach Buddhism, Emperor Wen Di of the Northern  Wei dynasty  ( 386- 534 ) was a devout follower of Buddhism and ordered the building of the monastery for the visiting monk.  Some thirty years later,  Batuo was followed by another Indian monk, Bodhidharma. Emperor Wen Di bestowed on the Shaolin Monastery 3,000 hectares of land and the Buddhist sanctuary became a big land owner.  The peasants in the area became the monastery’s tenants, unable to tolerate the exorbitant exploitation by the Monastery the peasants often rose in revolt. The monastery  trained monks to protect its property from disgruntled tenants and bandits.



At the end of the Sui dynasty  ( 581 - 618 )  warlord Wang Shichong took over the Shaolin Monasteries land at Boguzhuang by force. Wang Shichong sought to establish a separate regime in Luoyang, he proclaimed himself Emperor and gave his newly created state the name of Zheng.  Li Shimin, a nobleman from the land of Tang was captured by the despot Wang Shichong, historical records report that thirteen cudgel playing monks came to the rescue of Li Shimin and captured Wang Shichong’s nephew Wang Renze. After he ascended to the throne,  Li Shimin,  now Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty ( 618-907 ) rewarded the monks highly and permitted them to maintain monk soldiers.  It was at this time that the Shaolin Monastery was at its zenith and owned an area of 360,000 square kilometres with more than a thousand halls, towers, pagodas and pavilions.  Five thousand and forty eight palaces and rooms were built at  the Monastery complex and at its peak the monastery had a force of 2,000 monk soldiers  and was known as ‘ The Number One Temple Under Heaven ’.



The Emperor not only bestowed a large estate on the monastery but also sent meat and wine and thus broke the five commandments of Zen Buddhism ( killing, theft, pride, drinking wine and eating meat ) and necessitated their alterations. The monks not only practised barehanded combat but were also skilled in horsemanship, QiGong ( or Chi Kung,  breathing Exercises ) and combat with weapons.  Over the centuries, there have been many monks whose names are now a deep rooted part of  the  folklore of the Shaolin Monastery.  These include  Hui Ke, Wu Song, The Monk With The Big Shoes, Iron Knee Ti Jing, Chun Xi Fights a Tiger, Broadsword Yi Jang and many more.



A Major influence occurred during the Five Dynasties ( 907- 960 ) period when monk Ju Fu invited renowned martial arts masters to stay at the monastery  to train and  share their knowledge,  he later combined their boxing skills. Zhao Kuangyin attended a martial arts meeting at the monastery,  he demonstrated a set of Long Range Boxing which the monks readily adopted into the Shaolin system.  It is also said that Zhao made an intensive study of Shaolinquan and developed thirty-six forms of Changquan ( Long Boxing ).

 Zhao Kuangyin became the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty ( 960- 1279 ).



During the Yuan Dynasty ( 1279- 1368 )  Bai Yufeng came to the monastery and after long study created a boxing system based on the movements of five animals, Dragon, Tiger,  Crane,  Leopard and Snake.  In 1341  the Shaolin Monks were used to attack an army of peasant insurgents named the ‘ Red Turbans ’,   this battle is portrayed in a mural in the White Robe Hall of the monastery.



In 1522 ( Ming Dynasty 1368- 1614 ) forty Shaolin Monks led by the monk Yue Kong were used to fight Japanese aggression in the Songjiang river area of Zhejiang Province,

they fought many battles before laying down their own lives.



At various times throughout the Qing Dynasty (  1644- 1911 )  the Shaolin monks were forbidden to practise martial arts. When the monastery was going to be rebuilt in

1723 plans had to be sent for the Emperors approval, he decreed that the monks be placed in

strict supervision by an abbot appointed by the court. The  main gate of the Monastery is called the Mountain Gate, it was first built during the rule of Emperor Yongzheng in1735.

Emperor Kang Xi visited the Monastery in 1751 and stayed for three days, he wrote the three characters Shao-Lin Si for the horizontal board which now hangs above the main gate.



During its long history the monastery has been both patronised and persecuted by various Dynasties.  It was the Tang Dynasty that saw the greatest developments of Buddhist culture despite three officially inspired persecutions when 40,000 small temples and 4,600 large ones were destroyed.  The monastery has been  seriously damaged by fire in three wars, the first in the Sui Dynasty, the second in the early  Qing Dynasty during the rein of Emperor  Kangxi and the third and possibly the worst in 1928 when the warlord Shi Yousan's army set fire to the monastery.  The fire burned for over forty days and 80-90% of all buildings were destroyed,  many precious relics and boxing manuals were either destroyed or looted.


 After the 1911 Revolution, Shaolin monks, together with village militias, fought against bandits in defence of the monastery and its surrounding  area.  In 1922, Monk Miao Xing, who had served in the army as a regimental commander  became Abbot.  Miao Xing led a group of monks to wipe out bandits in the vicinity of the monastery. After the liberation of China in 1949 there was an attempt to stifle religious practise including the study of Traditional Martial Arts as they were viewed as being filled with feudal and superstitious ideas. The Temple was ransacked again during the Cultural Revolution  ( 1966- 1976 ) when many books and artefacts were destroyed.





Entering The Priesthood



The Shaolin Monastery throughout its history has been a place of refuge where the poor, sick and oppressed would seek sanctuary.  Prospective monks would be taken to the Hall of Preparation to undergo training for the Festival of Choosing Soldiers. At the annual festival monks would take part in a competition, only the very best would be selected to become monk soldiers.


Within walking distance to the west of the Shaolin Monastery is the Forest of Stone Pagodas where the remains of the Shaolin Monks are buried. The pagodas date back from the Tang to the Ching dynasties and consist of two types, communal and single. The communal pagodas contain the ashes of many monks, these monks would not have taken many disciples so after their death the ashes would be placed in a group pagoda. The single pagodas belong to monks with many disciples who after their masters death would build a pagoda for his remains, the more disciples the monk had, the larger his pagoda would be. There are presently 241 pagodas still standing with no accurate account of how many there were during its peak. A story is told of the visit of Emperor Qian Long ( 1736- 1769 ) to the Shaolin Monastery. Upon seeing the pagodas he asked the accompanying abbot  " how many pagodas are there ?".

"No one has ever counted them "  was the reply.  Qian Long had brought with him five hundred palace guards, he ordered them into the pagoda forest and said that each guard should stand by a pagoda, this they did. The commander soon reported back that even with all the guards inside there were still unmarked pagodas.











The traditional history of the Shaolin Monastery has been passed down by word of mouth and has developed amongst various schools of Chinese Martial Arts and within the Secret Societies. It has long been the tradition in China for martial arts schools to adopt the name of  famous Generals,  Buddhist or Taoist priests as being  the founder of their style.



This is particularly true of Shaolin and shows the prestige with which the martial arts fraternity holds the Monastery.



Many fantastic stories are told about the monks and their boxing prowess. The two most popular stories tell of the beginning and of the destruction of the Monastery.  The monk Bodhidharma was supposed to have crossed the Chang Jiang ( Yangtze ) by floating on a reed.

On his arrival at the monastery he found the monks in poor physical condition, he entered a

cave where he meditated for nine years.  On leaving the cave he taught the monks three sets of exercises, the Sinew Change, Marrow Washing and the Eighteen Movements of Arhat Hands.

The second is that in 1674 helped by a renegade monk the Qing army attacked and burnt the monastery, five monks were supposed to have escaped and because of this are now known as the ‘ Five Ancestors '.  The Five Ancestors went south to  Fujian province where they set up a secret society ( Hung League or Triad ) whose aims were to overthrow the Qing government.

It's also said that the Five Ancestors were responsible for spreading the Shaolin Martial Arts to the general public. This story has some variation between different styles of martial arts and the secret societies. Some historians say that Shaolinquan ( Shaolin Boxing ) was created by the Indian Monk Bodhidharma who came to China some thirty years after Batuo. Others say that it was created earlier by two of Batuo's disciples.



The development of Shaolinquan can not be ascribed to anyone person or to a particular time in history. All we know is that it was refined by generations of monks possibly based on earlier forms of exercises and influenced by other popular schools of Quanshu ( barehanded exercises ). Many people, both monks and laymen have contributed to the rich repertoire of Shaolinquan and the style has always been ready to adopt the strong points from other boxing forms. Outstanding martial artists have always been welcome at the monastery as well as political refugees who were often versed in Chinese Martial Arts.