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Ancient Chinese culture is certainly one of the most intriguing and diverse. There are countless stories about major battles, cruel or benevolent emperors and outstandingly skilled heroes. In most of these stories, martial arts played a fundamental role in Chinese society practiced by people from different social classes. Chinese martial arts became popularly known in the West by the name of Kung Fu and their origins are strongly attached to the legendary Shaolin temple and its warrior monks.

The Shaolin Temple is a famous Buddhist monastery that was built in the year 495 by Emperor Xiao Wen of the Northern Wei dynasty. The temple is found on the western slope of Mount Song, today part of the Henan Province in the People’s Republic of China. Initially the Shaolin temple was a common monastery obtaining its importance with the arrival of an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. Nowadays, there is a scarce information about Bodhidharma’s life as many stories acquired a semi-legendary character over time.

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One of the most accepted versions claims that Bodhidharma was born in South India, the son of King Sugandan. As part of a noble family, he received a privileged education, being trained since childhood, in combat styles called Vajramushti and Kalaripayattu, deemed the first of all martial arts. Bodhidharma traveled to China, where he began to spread Buddhism and meditation practices. Gaining many followers and attracting the eyes of important Chinese noblemen, finally he was invited to stay at the Shaolin Temple. Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating in a cave near the temple, visited by the Shaolin monks who brought him food and sought spiritual advice. The legend says that Bodhidharma was confronted with the monks’ feeble health condition as they did not exercise and generally had a poor diet. Then he initiated the monks into the practice of several physical exercises based on the Indian martial art of Vajramushti. Also, he told them about the foundations of Zen philosophy, with the aim of rehabilitating them physically and spiritually. It was the birth of the dreaded Shaolin kung fu known in Chinese as Shaolin Quan.

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Many parts of China were ravaged by groups of bandits who plundered small villages and sometimes attacked Buddhist temples as the peaceful monks were considered easy targets. To defend their temple, the Shaolin monks used their fighting techniques against countless attackers, proving the monks’ great skill and further spreading the reputation of the Shaolin temple. To increase their chances of success against criminals, the Shaolin monks started to train with several weapons such as iron or wood sticks, swords, spears and ultimately any object that could be used as a weapon. Soon the growing fame of the Shaolin temple began to attract people from different parts of China. Some sought the opportunity to join the temple or just satisfy their curiosity about the famous warrior monks. But no one was allowed into the Shaolin temple. And it was even more difficult to be accepted as a disciple.

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Bodhidharma taught Shaolin monks exercises based on deep breathing methods and yoga. As well as body movements inspired by the behavior of wild animals such as tigers, snakes, monkeys and birds. Those exercises soon became a tradition among Shaolin monks and gradually new postures and sequences were developed, forming a complex system of different kung fu styles. Many monks began training in childhood between the ages of 9 and 12, enduring severe training sessions to strengthen body and mind. Consequently, the health of the temple’s inhabitants greatly improved but Shaolin kung fu became more than a recreational exercise.

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The Shaolin Temple experienced its Golden Age during the Tang Dynasty ruling much of Chinese territory from 8618 to 907. One story tells that in the early 7th century, a group of 13 Shaolin monks participated in the Battle of Hulao, having an important role in saving the life of the future emperor of the Tang Dynasty. As a reward for their courage, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty presented the Shaolin Temple with generous donations of food and precious objects. There are also records of the participation of Shaolin warriors and four major wars between 1533 and 1555, in which the monks fought against the invasion of Japanese pirates that were pillaging many villages.

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Those who wanted to become monks would have to spend several days meditating in front of the temple, dealing with hunger, cold temperatures and the need to sleep to prove his determination and devotion to the ways of Buddha. Once accepted, the acolyte would shave his hair and take a series of oaths such as use his techniques only for personal defense, be honest and always show cordiality, never eat meat or taste alcoholic beverages and avoid greed and aggressiveness. Part of the physical and disciplinary training was part of a daily task. The monks were in charge of looking after the vegetable crops, cooking large quantities of rice to feed all the disciples and cleaning and maintaining the temple. Such activities ensured that the monks were always busy while at all hours of the day.

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But the Shaolin history was not always glorious and the temple was destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Having been attacked by bandits during an event that became known as the Red Turban Rebellions in the middle of the 14th century. During that time, the criminals looted and burned the monastery which left the Shaolin temple abandoned for over six years. There were also clashes between the Shaolin and the Imperial Court of some dynasties. Often the armed monks were seen as a threat, since they formed an independent army and concerned some generals and emperors.

In some periods of Chinese history, Buddhist temples were persecuted by governments that attempted to stifle the influence of monks in the population. This influence could fuel peasant uprisings, people who were often oppressed by high taxes and military threats. To avoid being persecuted by the imperial armies, the monks started to avoid carrying weapons in public and specialize in the use of wooden sticks. Since this would be a less lethal weapon, another sad episode in the history of the Shaolin happened in 1733, when the Manchus of the Qing dynasty started a wave of invasions and conquests in China. The Manchus bribes one of the monks, who traitorously poisoned the temple’s water and caused a great fire facilitating the Manchu’s attack, who destroyed almost everything in their path, leaving few survivors in the wake. Probably during these troubled periods, the Shaolin kung fu spread to different Chinese regions as some surviving monks or fugitives opened martial arts schools to make a living away from temple life.

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Shaolin kung fu’s influence grew over the years, reaching other countries like Japan, where its techniques were the basis of different Japanese fighting styles, such as the karate style Shorin Ryu practiced on Okinawa Island and Shorinji Kempo. The term ‘shorin’ used in Japanese, literally means ‘Shaolin’. Even the rulers of foreign powers acknowledged the Shaolin importance. Like the famous Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty, who during his reign in China, ordered all Buddhist temples to be led by the Shaolin temple.

With the arrival of the modern era, new challenges emerged and the Shaolin were almost wiped out during the Chinese cultural revolution in 1966, where many monks were arrested and valuable sacred texts and ancient objects were destroyed. In all likelihood, the Shaolin temple would have remained in ruins and doomed to oblivion. But in the 1982 film entitled ‘The Shaolin Temple’, starring actor Jet Li, revived the temple in popular culture, welcoming again many visitors. Perennially resilient and brave, the Shaolin rebuilt their temple again and in 2010, the Shaolin temple was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO as part of the historical monuments of Dengfeng.

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Even with its historical importance, the temple still depends on donations to continue to exist and receives help from several institutions linked to martial arts around the world. Albeit a place dedicated to meditation and personal improvement, the Shaolin temple ended up being the stage of many tragedies and bloodshed. Something that surely goes against the precept of Buddhism. As we speak, the Shaolin temple is visited by thousands of people coming from many different countries, who want to know more about the history of the legendary warrior monks of China.




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