The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts

By Chau, Adam Yuet | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts


Chau, Adam Yuet, The China Journal


The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, by Meir Shahar. Honolulu: University of Hawai' i Press, 2008. xii + 281 pp. US$54.00 (hardcover).

Shaolin martial art is one of the most globally-known Chinese brands, thanks to the spread of martial art legends, kungfii schools and the success of films such as the 1980s Shaolin Temple series (featuring the young Jet Li) and Stephen Chow's hilarious Shaolin Soccer. This book is a serious and fascinating cultural history of the multi-layered historical links between the Shaolin Temple and the martial arts traditions that have been associated with, and sometimes attributed to, the temple. The book reads like a detective story, as Meir Shahar ventures into the oftenmurky waters of martial arts legend and Buddho-martial fantasy land. The driving question for Shahar's detective work is the curious link between a Buddhist clergy who have apparently disavowed killing and all kinds of violence and the historical existence of monk armies and monks practicing sometimes deadly martial arts, with weapons as well as with their bodies.

Shahar's historical sources include temple epigraphical inscriptions, temple iconography, monks' biographies, dynastic histories, literary sources, military and martial arts manuals, household encyclopedias and so on, and he has also drawn on a wide range of Chinese-language scholarship on the topic. He traces the origins of Shaolin martial monks to the necessity to defend the temple against bandits and marauding armies, since defending the temple grounds and its substantial property was tantamount to defending the Dharma. The big break for the temple came, however, when the monk army helped Li Shimin, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, in his military campaigns; for this the temple was rewarded with imperial patronage and a large amount of land. On another well-known occasion during the Ming Dynasty, the Shaolin "monk soldiers" (sengbing) helped the imperial army beat back pirates off the Zhejiang coast. Such close connections with the throne and dynastic power guaranteed the temple's institutional prominence over centuries. However, the temple's loyalty to the Ming in the face of Manchu conquest spelled the end of its long period of fame and glory; the temple was destroyed and its monks dispersed. Even though a few Qing emperors allowed some limited restoration of the temple, and even visited it, the court resolutely curbed its martial ambitions - with some justification, as the boundary between the monastic martial clerics and what Shahar calls the "larger martial community" (including the proverbial sectarians and rebels) was extremely permeable.

Though the earliest records of Shaolin martial activities did not indicate particular weapons or fighting styles, it is clear that from the Ming onwards the temple became famed for both the staff method (gun) and hand combat method (quart). The most fascinating chapters of Shahar' s book (Chapters 4-6) detail the development of these methods and their link to Buddhist symbolism, clerical practices and traditional Chinese (especially Daoist) inner-alchemical and meditative methods. The Shaolin staff-fighting method became such a temple hallmark that even the temple's Dharma-protecting deity Vajrapäni was portrayed as holding a staff rather than the usual, iconic vajra. Shahar also reminds us that some of the most famous monks in traditional Chinese fiction are also staff wielders: Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) in The Journey to the West, Huiming in Story of the Western Wing, Lu Zhishen in Water Margin and so on. …

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