Photos of the Amazing Shaolin Monks

The Shaolin Monastery was founded at the foot of Mount Song in Henan Province, China in 477 CE.

Although Buddhist tenets emphasize peace and non-harming, the monks of Shaolin found themselves called upon to defend themselves and their neighbors many times during China's tumultuous history. As a result, they developed a world-renowned form of martial arts technique, known as Shaolin kung fu.

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Shaolin Monk Demonstrates Kung Fu Kick

Monks at the Shaolin Temple study Buddhism and the martial art of kung fu.
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The practice of Shaolin kung fu began as a series of conditioning exercises, similar to yoga, that was designed to give the monks strength and stamina enough for rigorous meditation. Because the monastery came under attack so many times during its history, the exercises gradually were adapted into a martial art so that the monks could defend themselves.

Originally, kung fu was a bare-handed fighting style. The monks likely used any object that came to hand, though, when they fended off attackers. Over time, different weapons came into use; first the staff, simply a long piece of wood, but eventually also including various swords, pikes, etc.

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Tourists Visit the Shaolin Temple

Sunset at the entrance gate to Shaolin temple, birthplace of Kung Fu martial art

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Since the 1980s, Shaolin has grown ever more popular as a tourist destination. For some monks, this influx of tourists is almost unbearable; it's very difficult to find peace and quiet for meditation when there are literally millions of extra people hanging around.

Still, the tourists bring cash - gate tickets alone total about 150 million yuan per year. Much of that money goes to the local government and the tourism companies that contract with the government, however. The actual monastery receives only a small share of the profit.

In addition to regular tourists, thousands of people from around the world travel to Shaolin to study martial arts at the birthplace of kung fu. The Shaolin Temple, so often threatened by hate in the past, now seems to be in danger of being loved to death.

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A Meal at Shaolin

Monks dining at Shaolin temple
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The kitchen at Shaolin Temple is the site of one of the monastery's most famous legends. According to the story, during the Red Turban Rebellion (1351 - 1368), rebels attacked the Shaolin Temple. To the raiders' surprise, however, a kitchen servant grabbed the fire poker and leaped into the oven. He emerged as a giant, and the poker had turned into a martial arts staff.

In the legend, the giant saved the temple from the rebels. The simple servant turned out to be Vajrapani, a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Shaolin's patron supernatural being. The monks' adoption of the staff as their primary weapon supposedly dates from this incident as well.

However, the Red Turban rebels actually destroyed Shaolin Temple, and the use of staves also predates the Yuan Dynasty era. This legend, while charming, is not at all factually accurate.

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A Shaolin Monk Demonstrates Kung Fu Technique

This young monk displays intense focus.
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A monk performs bare hand kung fu moves while holding Buddhist prayer beads. This photo illustrates an interesting paradox of the monks of Shaolin Temple and other Buddhist warrior monks. In general, Buddhist teachings oppose violence.

Buddhists are supposed to cultivate compassion and kindness. On the other hand, some Buddhists believe that they are obligated to intervene, even militarily, to fight against injustice and oppression.

In some times and places, unfortunately, that has translated into Buddhist monks instigating violence. Recent examples include nationalist monks who fought in Sri Lanka's civil war ​and some Buddhist monks in Myanmar who have taken the lead in persecuting the Muslim minority Rohingya people.

The Shaolin monks generally have used their fighting skills for self-defense, but there have been instances when they fought offensively on behalf of the emperors against pirates or peasant rebels.

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Shaolin Monk Defies Gravity

A Shaolin monk seems to defy gravity as he demonstrates sword technique
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Visually impressive kung fu moves like this one have inspired a number of kung fu movies, many of them made in Hong Kong. Some are specifically about the Shaolin Temple, including Jet Li's "The Shaolin Temple" (1982) and Jackie Chan's "Shaolin" (2011). There are other, sillier takes on the theme as well, including "Shaolin Soccer" from 2001.

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Shaolin Monk Shows Off Flexibility

A Shaolin monk displays the incredible flexibility needed to master Shaolin kung fu
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Starting in the 1980s, dozens of private martial arts schools opened on Mt. Song around the Shaolin Temple, hoping to profit from their proximity to the world-famous monastery. The Chinese government outlawed that practice, however, and now the unrelated kung fu schools are centered in nearby villages instead.

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With Flair, Shaolin Monk Demonstrates Kung Fu Stance

This monk stands in a kung fu Shaolin pose.
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In 1641, the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng and his army sacked the Shaolin Monastery. Li disliked the monks, who supported the fading Ming Dynasty and sometimes served as a sort of special forces for the Ming military. The rebels defeated the monks and essentially destroyed the temple, which fell into disuse.

Li Zicheng himself only lived until about 1645; he was killed in Xi'an after declaring himself first emperor of the Shun Dynasty in 1644. An ethnic Manchu army marched south to Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1911. The Qing rebuilt the Shaolin Temple in the early 1700s, and monks returned to revive the monastery's traditions of Chan Buddhism and kung fu.

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Shaolin Monk With Twin Hook Sword or Shang Guo

This Shaolin monk wields the shang guo or twin hook sword
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The twin hook sword is also known as the qian kun ri yue dao, or "Heaven and Sun Moon Sword," or the shang guo, the "Tiger Hook Sword." There is no record of this weapon ever being used by the Chinese military; it seems to have been developed exclusively by martial artists such as the Shaolin Monks.

Perhaps because it is both difficult to wield and flashy-looking, the twin hook sword is very popular with present-day martial arts aficionados and appears in many movies, comic books, and video games.

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Shaolin Monk Leaps With Sword

Flying through the air with a sword and a grimace, this Shaolin monk shows his fighting prowess.
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The famous Shaolin Temple where this monk lives and the nearby Pagoda Forest were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The forest includes 228 regular pagodas, as well as a number of tomb pagodas that contain the remains of former monks.

The UNESCO site that includes Shaolin Temple is called "The Historic Monuments of Dengfeng." Other parts of the Heritage Site include a Confucian academy and a Yuan Dynasty-era astronomical observatory.

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Two Shaolin Monks Sparring

Two Shaolin monks demonstrate Shaolin style kung fu sparring
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Shaolin kung fu originated as a physical and mental strengthening regimen for the monks so that they would have the endurance to meditate at length. However, in periods of turmoil, which cropped up every time a Chinese dynasty fell and a new one arose, the Shaolin monks used these practices for self-defense (and at times, even for combat away from the Temple).

The Shaolin Temple and its monks sometimes enjoyed the generous patronage of pious Buddhist emperors and empresses. Many rulers were anti-Buddhist, however, favoring the Confucian system instead. On more than one occasion, the Shaolin monks' fighting prowess was all that ensured their survival in the face of imperial persecution.

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Shaolin Monk With Polearm Weapon or Guan Dao

Shaolin monk wields guan dao or polearm weapon
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The guan dao is a heavy blade affixed to a 5-6 foot long wooden staff. Often the blade is notched on the top surface; the notch is used to disarm the opponent by catching their blade.

In the background, the majestic Songshan Mountains create a perfect backdrop. This mountain range is one of the characteristic features of Henan Province, in central China.

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On the Watch: Shaolin Monk Balances on Staff

A Shaolin monk balances on his staff to scan the horizon
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This monk is demonstrating a technique learned from the Monkey King, a legendary master of the staff. Monkey style kung fu has many subvariants, including Drunken Monkey, Stone Monkey, and Standing Monkey. All of them are inspired by the behaviors of other primates.

The staff is probably the most useful of all martial arts weapons. In addition to being a weapon, it can be used as a mountain-climbing aid or a vantage point, as shown here.

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Shaolin Monks Spar With Guan Dao and Staff

Shaolin monks demonstrate fighting technique, staff versus guan dao or polearm weapon
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There is some debate about when the Shaolin Temple was first built. Some sources, such as the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (645 CE) by Daoxuan, say that it was commissioned by Emperor Xiaowen in 477 CE. Other, much later sources, like the Jiaqing Chongxiu Yitongzhi of 1843, claim that the monastery was built in 495 CE. In any case, the temple is more than 1,500 years old.

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Shaolin Monk Wields Sword

Shaolin monk wields single straight sword
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Although Shaolin kung fu started out as a bare-handed fighting style, and for a long time included only a simple wooden staff, more traditional military weapons such as this straight sword came into use as the monks became more militarized.

Some emperors called upon the monks as a sort of special militia in times of need, while others viewed them as a potential threat and banned all martial exercises at the Shaolin Temple.

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Monk Poses at Foot of Songshan Mountain

A Shaolin monk poses on a mountainside with twin hook swords
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This photo shows off the dramatic mountainous country around the Shaolin Temple. Although filmmakers have embellished considerably on the cliff-clinging skills of traditional Shaolin monks, some historic texts do include drawings of them fighting from such positions. There are also paintings of the monks appearing to hover in the air; evidently, their leaping style has a long pedigree.

This monk poses with the twin hook blades, also known as the shang guo or qian kun ri yue dao.

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Kung Fu Shaolin Sparring Grip

Two Shaolin monks come to grips in a kung fu sparring stance.
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Two Shaolin monks come to grips in this kung fu sparring stance.

Today, the Temple and surrounding schools teach 15 or 20 martial arts styles. According to Jin Jing Zhong's 1934 book, called Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin in English, the Temple once boasted many times that number of techniques. The skills illustrated in Jin's book include not only fighting techniques, but also pain-resistance, leaping and climbing skills, and pressure-point manipulation.

The monks in this photo seem well-poised to attempt a pressure-point trick on one another.

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Trio of Shaolin Monks Pose on a Steep Mountainside

Three Shaolin monks strike fighting poses while standing on a steep mountainside
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These Shaolin monks seem to be auditioning for a kung fu movie with their cliff-clinging skills. Although this move seems more flashy than practical, imagine the effect on regular army troops or attacking bandits! To see one's opponents suddenly run up a mountain face and adopt fighting stances - well, it would be quite easy to assume that they were super-human.

Shaolin Temple's mountain setting offered the monks some limited protection from persecution and attack, but they quite often had to rely on their fighting skills. It's actually a miracle that the temple and its martial arts forms have survived for so many centuries.

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Shaolin Monks Spar With Swords and Staff, in Silhouette

Shaolin Monks from the spar using twin swords versus staff
Cancan Chu / Getty Images

Shaolin monks demonstrate the use of a wooden staff to defend against an attacker with twin swords. The staff was the first weapon introduced into the Shaolin Temple arsenal. It has perfectly peaceful functions as a walking-stick and look-out post, as well as its uses as an offensive and defensive weapon, so it seems most appropriate for monks.

As the monks' fighting skills and the books of martial arts technique expanded, more explicitly offensive weapons were added to the bare-handed kung fu and staff styles of fighting. At some points in Shaolin history, the monks also flouted the Buddhist proscriptions against eating meat and drinking alcohol. Consumption of meat and alcohol were considered necessary for fighters.

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Silhouette of a Soaring Shaolin Monk

A Shaolin monk soars through the air in a kung fu stance
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It's a miracle that Shaolin's monks continue to soar despite centuries of persecution. Rebel forces during the Red Turban Rebellion (1351 - 1368), for example, sacked the temple, looted it, and killed or drove out all of the monks. For several years, the monastery was deserted. When the Ming Dynasty took power after the Yuan fell in 1368, government troops retook Henan Province from the rebels and restored the monks to Shaolin Temple in 1369.

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A Shaolin Monk Flies Among the Spires of the Stupa Forest

A Shaolin monk flits among the forest of stupas that honor famous monks of the past
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The Stupa Forest or Pagoda Forest is one of the significant features of the Shaolin Monastery site. It contains 228 brick pagodas, as well as a number of stupas containing the remains of famous monks and saints.

The first pagodas were built in 791 CE, with additional structures added up through the Qing Dynasty's reign (1644 - 1911). One of the funerary stupas actually predates the regular pagodas; it was built earlier in the Tang Dynasty, in 689 CE.

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Human Pretzel - An Extremely Flexible Shaolin Monk

A Shaolin monk demonstrates his incredible flexibility
Shi Yongxin / Getty Images

Shaolin style wu shu or kung fu obviously requires strength and speed, but it also incorporates a huge degree of flexibility. Monks do flexibility exercises, including doing the splits while two of their fellow monks press down on their shoulders, or doing the splits while balancing across two chairs. Daily practice results in extreme flexibility, as shown by this young monk.

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Triumph Over Pain: The Five Spears Demonstration

A Shaolin monk displays his mastery of pain in the "Five Spears" demonstration
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Besides strength, speed, and flexibility exercises, the Shaolin monks also learn to overcome pain. Here, a monk balances on the points of five spears, without even grimacing.

Today, some of the monks and other martial artists from Shaolin Temple tour the world giving demonstration performances like that pictured here. It's a break from monastic tradition, as well as an important source of revenue for the temple.

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Older Shaolin Monk in Contemplation

An older Shaolin monk in contemplation. Temple life includes more than just martial arts training
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Although Shaolin Temple is justly famous for the invention of wu shu or kung fu, it is also one of the primary centers of Chan Buddhism (called Zen Buddhism in Japan). Monks study and meditate, considering the mysteries of life and existence.