A Brief Account of Pre-Ming (1368-1644 CE) Martial Training at Shaolin Temple

Before I begin, I feel that I should clarify that the line between fiction and historical fact is an extremely blurry one, particularly with reference to pre-Ming (1368-1644 CE) instances of martial arts training at Shaolin. Most of the events collected below have been gathered from a few written sources, as well as personal interviews with Shaolin monks or disciples of Shaolin monks. I personally lack the resources and academic authority to obtain the necessary material to soundly corroborate the following occurrences. Nevertheless, I am confident that a substantial amount of them are historically verifiable.

Dominic, Montreal Canada

ca. 500 CE
    Batuo (also known as Bada or Fotuo) was the first abbot of Shaolin Temple (est. 495 CE) some thirty-two years before Bodhidharma's arrival, and was known for his keen interest in the fighting arts. While it is unclear if he ever trained in martial arts two of his famous disciples, Hui Guang and Seng Zhou (Seng Ti is a variation of his name) were masters of "consummate skills." At the age of twelve Hui Guang was known to kick a shuttlecock 500 times in a row while standing on the edge of the Tian street well in Luoyang. Seng Zhou could "walk a wall" and leap up a rooftop with one bound. He had a strong physique and his boxing was "swift and valiant." According to legend, Seng Zhou once witnessed two tigers fighting each other in the mountains, after which he drove them both away with his "Buddhist stick" (xi zhang) (1). These two are the first to have practiced martial arts at Shaolin and heavily contributed to the flourishing and taking shape of Shaolin martial arts during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 CE) (2). Furthermore, Henan's geographical location and surrounding historical circumstances made it a hotbed of factionalist wars and banditry. Hence, many of the monks that entered Shaolin were accomplished warriors and experienced fighters prior to their ordination. Consequently, most of them persisted in their martial training within the walls of the monastery.

ca. 527 CE
    Bodhidharma is believed to have initiated and devised the first ritualized system of quan during his stay at Shaolin. He is said to have meditated in a sitting position inside a cave under Wuru peak for nine years, facing the wall. Long periods of seated meditation caused discomfort, muscle cramps and muscular atrophy. Hence, Bodhidharma punctuated his meditation sessions with periodical physical exercise. Based on his previous knowledge of Indian yoga exercises, Bodhidharma created eighteen movements to restore physical alertness and promote proper health. These movements, known as the "eighteen routines of luohan boxing," were also to serve as a means of self-defense against the bothersome and often aggressive animals that sneaked up on Bodhidharma while he meditated. Contemporary hermeneutics lead us to believe that Bodhidharma's pioneering martial system had other merits which complemented those of sitting meditation. Shi Guolin, a thirty-fourth generation monk of Shaolin explains that the practice of Chan requires a balance between stillness and movement: "For example, in sitting meditation […] on the outside it appears still and calm. On the inside, however, it is very active." Conversely, in the practice of martial routines, "movement on the outside is accompanied by inner stillness."

Bodhidharma nevertheless remains a quasi-mythical figure and most stories that revolve around his time spent at Shaolin are often legendary. Nonetheless, martial arts played an important role at Shaolin and in China prior to Bodhidharma's alleged codification and systemization of movements.

Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE)
    During the tumultuous end of the Sui dynasty, the Shaolin Temple came under attack from powerful peasant armies. The (often staff-wielding) armies ransacked the monastery and burnt it to the ground leaving but one pavilion untouched. After this disastrous incident, officials at the monastery decided to train a group of monks to defend Shaolin from future raids. Historical records relate that the monk-soldiers successfully fought off a number of peasant troops following the initial attack.

ca. 600 CE
    In accordance with the court's growing interest in Buddhism, monastic economies swelled after the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-581 CE). Emperor Wen Di of the Sui (581-618 CE) for example is reported to have given Shaolin 1,648 acres for the sustenance of its residents. As Shaolin's wealth and prestige grew, the monastery found itself involved in political intrigues and in the inevitable position of defending its property and riches. After the "thirteen staff-wielding monks" participated in a military campaign on behalf of Li Shimin in 621 CE (who issued an edict for them to "pacify the land") Shaolin was accorded forty hectares of land and the unprecedented right to retain a standing army of monk-soldiers.

Previous to this event, much of the martial arts training might be argued to have been a matter of personal predilection and taste loosely based on Bodhidarma's 18 movements and considerably expanded according to the influence of various folk schools of martial arts. After 621 however, a cohesive style and school of Shaolin martial arts was formed. This system now possessed generic training methods and systematized techniques as well as marque postures and movements. Generation after generation, the monk-soldiers' ranks increased in numbers and fame, producing illustrious Tang heroes such as Shan Wu, Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, Tan Zong, Shan Hui, Ming Gao, Ling Hui, Shen Sheng, Zhi Shou, Dao Guang, Zhi Xing, Feng Man, Jue Ren, Jue Yi and Tou Hong (3).

As Shaolin's martial reputation grew, Tang generals were sent to the monastery to exchange techniques with the fighting monks. Generals Cheng Yaojin, Luo Cheng, Gao Huaide, and the Yang family members for instance were frequent visitors, teachers and students at the monastery. After years of exchange and research, Shaolin developed a unique fighting style and a unique manipulation of weapons (originally, eighteen weapons were selected to compose the Shaolin arsenal).

Song and Southern Song Dynasties (960-1279)
    The benefits of martial expertise were clear to Tang Shaolin monks for it had brought them prestige, wealth, and imperial patronage aside from the obvious physical improvements. Song monks sought to continue their predecessors' efforts by promoting and emphasizing martial training at the monastery. Fu Ju, abbot of Shaolin during the Song invited masters and experts from the eighteen most prominent styles of martial discipline (wu gong) at the time for an exchange of skills. Most of them remained for over three years, compiling the Shaolin Boxing Manual (Shaolin quan pu) (which described 280 routines) as the culminating product of their exchange. Later, during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE), monk Jue Yuan is said to have traveled West to Luoyang and Lanzhou where he met experts Li Shou and Bai Yufeng respectively. He returned with them to Shaolin in order to exchange martial skills and learn from each other. As a result, seventy-two routines of Shaolin boxing (known as the seventy-two consummate skills) were developed on the basis of the eighteen routines of luohan boxing (which were further expanded to included 173 routines). Following Hua Tuo initiative of over a thousand years earlier, Jue Yuan devised the "Five boxing arts" comprised of the dragon, leopard, tiger, snake, and crane boxing styles.

These are just a few of the documented events that might indicate the regular practice of martial training as part of the daily regimen at Shaolin before the 1500 or 1600's. Indeed, the Ming dynasty witnessed an explosion of documents relating Shaolin martial practice. Many of these documents were written in the context of a flourishing genre of literature, namely the military encyclopedia. However, the widespread exposure of Shaolin martial skill from the Ming dynasty onward may also be explained by another, often overlooked factor: political unrest in the late Ming and early Qing (1644-1911 CE) repeatedly impelled monks to leave the temple and return to secular life, thus spreading the knowledge of Shaolin martial practice beyond the temple walls and the pages of military documents. This trend reached its zenith in the Qing, when the government outlawed the practice of any martial art and banned military training at Shaolin.
    (1).This would seem to constitute an account of the earliest use of the xizhang-the Shaolin staff's martial predecessor-as a weapon.

(2).Martial culture was obviously thriving long before that. Interestingly, the staff, which was later to become the most eminent symbol of Shaolin martial skill, was used as a weapon by the peasant rebels of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang at the end of the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE).

(3).Incidentally, Fu Ju, Fu Shi and Li Cheng were among the most renowned and semi-legendary fighting monk icons of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) and those of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE) included Fu Su, Ju An and Ling An.
Dominic  received his degree from McGill University and is currently working on his Master's degree at Harvard University in Regional Studies: East Asia. He has lectured at McGill University and has received many academic awards and scholarships. More importantly, he has trained in Shaolin gong fu for many years. As you can tell, he's smarter than the average bear. Why he hangs out with me is just one of those vague mysteries of life. doc