The Shaolin Monks

Warriors of the Chinese Monastery

Shaolin monks train in both empty-hand kung fu and weapons fighting.
Shaolin monks demonstrate fighting technique, staff versus guan dao or polearm weapon. Cancan Chu / Getty Images

The Shaolin Monastery is the most famous temple in China, renown for its kung fu fighting Shaolin monks. With amazing feats of strength, flexibility, and pain-endurance, the Shaolin have created a worldwide reputation as the ultimate Buddhist warriors.

Yet Buddhism is generally considered to be a peaceful religion with an emphasis on principles such as non-violence, vegetarianism, and even self-sacrifice to avoid harming others — how, then, did the monks of Shaolin Temple become fighters?

The history of Shaolin begins about 1500 years ago, when a stranger arrived in China from lands to the west, bringing with him a new interpretation religion and spans all the way to modern-day China where tourists from around the world come to experience displays of their ancient martial arts and teachings.

Origin of the Shaolin Temple

Legend says that around 480 A.D. a wandering Buddhist teacher came to China from ​India, known as Buddhabhadra, Batuo or Fotuo in Chinese. According to later Chan — or in Japanese, Zen — Buddhist tradition, Batuo taught that Buddhism could best be transmitted from master to student, rather than through the study of Buddhist texts.

In 496, the Northern Wei Emperor Xiaowen gave Batuo funds to establish a monastery at holy Mt. Shaoshi in the Song mountain range, 30 miles from the imperial capital of Luoyang. This temple was named Shaolin, with "Shao" taken from Mount Shaoshi and " lin" meaning "grove" — however, when Luoyang and the Wi Dynasty fell in 534, temples in the area were destroyed, possibly including Shaolin.

Another Buddhist teacher was Bodhidharma, who came from either India or Persia. He famously refused to teach Huike, a Chinese disciple, and Huike cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity, becoming the Bodhidharma's first student as a result.

The Bodhidharma also reportedly spent 9 years in silent meditation in a cave above Shaolin, and one legend says that he fell asleep after seven years, and cut off his own eyelids so that it could not happen again — the eyelids turned into the first tea bushes when they hit the soil.

Shaolin in the Sui and Early Tang Eras

Around 600, Emperor Wendi of the new Sui Dynasty,  who was a committed Buddhist himself despite his Confucianism court,  awarded Shaolin a 1,400-acre estate plus the right to grind grain with a water mill. During that time, the Sui reunified China but his reign lasted only 37 years. Soon, the country once more dissolved into the fiefs of competing warlords.

Shaolin Temple's fortunes rose with the ascension of the Tang Dynasty in 618, formed by a rebel official from the Sui court. Shaolin monks famously fought for Li Shimin against the warlord Wang Shichong. Li would go on to be the second Tang emperor.

Despite their earlier assistance, Shaolin and China's other Buddhist temples faced numerous purges and in 622 Shaolin was shut down and the monks forcibly returned to lay life. Just two years later, the temple was allowed to reopen due to the military service its monks had rendered to the throne, but in 625, Li Shimin returned 560 acres to the monastery's estate.

Relations with the emperors were uneasy throughout the 8th century, but Chan Buddhism blossomed across China and in 728, the monks erected a stele engraved with stories of their military aid to the throne as a reminder to future emperors.

The Tang to Ming Transition and Golden Age

In 841, the Tang Emperor Wuzong feared the power of the Buddhists so he razed almost all of the temples in his empire and had the monks defrocked or even killed. Wuzong idolized his ancestor Li Shimin, however, so he spared Shaolin.

In 907, the Tang Dynasty fell and the chaotic 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdom periods ensued with the Song family eventually prevailing and taking rulership of the region until 1279. Few records of Shaolin's fate during this period survive, but it is known that in 1125, a shrine was built to the Bodhidharma, a half mile from Shaolin.

After the Song fell to invaders, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty ruled until 1368, destroying the Shaolin once more as its empire crumbled during the 1351 Hongjin (Red Turban) rebellion. Legend states that a Bodhisattva, disguised as a kitchen worker, saved the temple, but it was in fact burned to the ground.

Still, by the 1500s, the monks of Shaolin were famous for their staff-fighting skills. In 1511, 70 monks died fighting bandit armies and between 1553 and 1555, the monks were mobilized to fight in at least four battles against Japanese pirates. The next century saw the development of Shaolin's empty-hand fighting methods. However, the monks fought on the Ming side in the 1630s and lost.

Shaolin in the Early Modern and Qing Era

In 1641, rebel leader Li Zicheng destroyed the monastic army, sacked Shaolin and killed or drove away the monks before going on to take Beijing in 1644, ending the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately, he was driven out in turn by the Manchus who founded the Qing Dynasty.

Shaolin Temple lay mostly deserted for decades and the last abbot, Yongyu, left without naming a successor in 1664. Legend says that a group of Shaolin monks rescued the Kangxi Emperor from nomads in 1674. According to the story, envious officials then burned down the temple, killing most of the monks and Gu Yanwu traveled to the remains of Shaolin in 1679 to record its history.

Shaolin slowly recovered from being sacked, and in 1704, the Kangxi Emperor made a gift of his own calligraphy to signal the temple's return to imperial favor. The monks had learned caution, however, and empty-hand fighting began to displace weapons training — it was best not to seem too threatening to the throne.

In 1735 to 1736, the emperor Yongzheng and his son Qianlong decided to renovate Shaolin and cleanse its grounds of "fake monks" — martial artists who affected monks robes without being ordained.

The Qianlong Emperor even visited Shaolin in 1750 and wrote poetry about its beauty, but later banned monastic martial arts.

Shaolin in the Modern Era

During the nineteenth century, the monks of Shaolin were accused of violating their monastic vows by eating meat, drinking alcohol and even hiring prostitutes. Many saw vegetarianism as impractical for warriors, which is probably why government officials sought to impose it upon Shaolin's fighting monks.

The temple's reputation received a serious blow during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 when Shaolin monks were implicated — probably incorrectly — in teaching the Boxers martial arts. Again in 1912, when China's last imperial dynasty fell due to its weak position compared with intrusive European powers, the country fell into chaos, which ended only with the victory of the Communists under Mao Zedong in 1949.

Meanwhile, in 1928, the warlord Shi Yousan burned down 90% of the Shaolin Temple, and much of it would not be rebuilt for 60 to 80 years. The country eventually came under Chairman Mao's rule, and monastic Shaolin monks fell from cultural relevance. 

Shaolin under Communist Rule

At first, Mao's government did not bother with what was left of Shaolin. However, in accordance with Marxist doctrine, the new government was officially atheist.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out and Buddhist temples were one of the Red Guards' primary targets. The few remaining Shaolin monks were flogged through the streets and then jailed, and Shaolin's texts, paintings, and other treasures were stolen or destroyed.

This might have finally been the end of Shaolin, if not for the 1982 film "Shaolin Shior "Shaolin Temple," featuring the debut of Jet Li (Li Lianjie). The movie was based very loosely on the story of the monks' aid to Li Shimin and became a huge smash hit in China.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, tourism exploded at Shaolin, reaching more than 1 million people per year by the end of the 1990s. Shaolin's monks are now among the best known on Earth, and they put on martial arts displays in world capitals with literally thousands of films having been made about their exploits.

Batuo's Legacy

It's hard to imagine what the first abbot of Shaolin would think if he could see the temple now. He might be surprised and even dismayed by the amount of bloodshed in the temple's history and its use in modern culture as a tourist destination.

However, to survive the tumult that has characterized so many periods of Chinese history, the monks of Shaolin had to learn the skills of warriors, most of important of which was survival. Despite a number of attempts to erase the temple, it survives and even thrives today at the base of the Songshan Range.