The Five Holy Mountains             

On the northern China plains there are five holy mountains: Mt. Tai, Mt. Hua, Mt. Heng, Mt. Heng (different mountain), and Mt. Song. Mt. Song, in Dengfeng county, Henan province, is in the center of the hly mountains so it is also known as the Middle Holy Mountain. Emperor Wu Di of the Han dynasty visited this mountain in 110 BC. Since then emperors of succeeding dynasties either came in person or sent special envoys to pay homage to Mt. Song. Many memorial halls, Buddhist and Daoist temples, stone arches and inscribed tablets were erected over the years.

At the foot of Mt. Song is the Shaolin monastery.

Mt Song, with marble statue of Da Mo seen on the top. Shaolin Village is down to the right.



In 496 AD Emperor Wen Di of the Northern Wei dynasty built the Shaolin monastery for an Indian Buddhist monk by the name of Batuo so he could preach the Lesser Vehicle Buddhism, an early sect of Indian Buddhism advocating self-extrication. In 527 AD another Indian monk, Boddidharma, arrived at the Shaolin monastery to spread the Greater Vehicle set, which practiced deep meditation in a sitting posture, keeping the mind as tranquil and unaffected as a wall. He promoted meditation that included sitting for a long period of time. This made the limbs of the monks grow numb, so Boddidharma developed a set of exercises that helped the monks to limber up. Over many generations, other monks improved these exercises by combining them with the Wushu of the local county fold. Thus was born the art of Shaolin Wushu. Later followers worshipped Boddidharma as the founder of the sect in China. Under him and his successors, the Shaolin monastery expanded and flourished.

Yang Jian 9581-601), founder of the Sui dynasty, was a devoted Buddhist follower. He conferred on Shaolin monastery around 583 AD 700 hectares of land so the temple became a big land owner. At the end of the Sui dynasty, Zhi Cao, Tan Zong and eleven other Shaolin monks rescued the prince of Qin, Li Shimin. After Li Shimin became Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang dynasty in 627 AD, he granted three articles of reward:

1. The Shaolin monastery was to be allowed to train five hundred fighting monks, to assist in defending the country.

2. The thirteen monks were all commended, and some promoted. Shan Hu was promoted to Abbot, Zhi Cao was made in charge of monastery affairs, Hui Chang was promoted to the position of Director of Worship, and Tan Zong was promoted to general. The remainder of the thirteen - Shan Hui, Ming Yue, Pu Sheng, Zhi Shou, Dao Guang, Zhi Xing, Man and Feng, all received citations for meritorious service.

3. The monastery was given one thousand mu (a mu being 0.0667 hectares for a total of 300 hectares) of land, one water powered grain roller and one hundred kasayas

But more importantly, the emperor granted one other reward, but it came about in an indirect way. As the emperor had prepared a large feast which included wine, meat, onions, garlic, chives, and mustard, items which were contrary to a Buddhist's monks diet, he felt at a loss when several of the monks decided to not show up for the feast. He therefore proclaimed that from then on, the Shaolin Temple monks could eat meat and wine, along with the onions, garlic, chives and mustard. To this day, Shaolin monks, without hesitation, eat a relatively non-Buddhist monk diet.

Actual stone tablet, from Emperor Tai Zong, bestowing rewards, and naming Shaolin monks

 Shaolin monastery became even more famous. Many prominent preachers gathered there. The monastery enjoyed it's heyday through the following dynasties of Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. But at the end of the Qing dynasty, the abbot was not competent enough to restrain the monk's behavior. People around it became disgusted with the monks and the temple fell into disrepute.

After the 1911 Revolution which overthrew China's last feudal dynasty, Wushu masters were regarded as hatchet men of officials and wealthy people. Although sometimes they were asked to hold a contest or a performance, it was merely a show for fun. Under such circumstances, Shaolin wushu, like all other schools, couldn't develop.

The temple was burned down three times in its history. The last fire was set by warlord Shi Yousan in 1928. The fire burned for over forty days; the immense establishment was almost wiped out, along with highly valued records and works of literature. Literature on Shaolin wushu such as the "Orthodox Shaolin Skills,", "Secrets of Shaolin Boxing" and "The Essence of Shaolin Boxing" were lost in the fire. Now this historical spot is fully renovated, with the majority of the repairs being finished last year. Only the Hall of the Thousand Buddhas is left to undergo complete restoration. As for the literature, most of it has been forever lost. However, various specialists over the past years have collected materials from monks, wushu masters, and local common people, and have compiled over 170 routines of boxing and weapon combat.  There were a few pieces of literature saved, though these documents are considered sacred, and not all monks can see them. One of these pieces of literature describe all of the ancient Shaolin gong fu maneuvers. One of the monks, Shi De Yang, whom I met, took this ancient book and transcribed a great deal of it into what is now published only in Chinese. Basically, they call it the Wushu Dictionary, four very large volumes, all in Chinese, which describe a great deal of the ancient and present day Shaolin wushu.

After the founding of the new China, the government allocated large sums of funds to restore the monastery. Now the halls, pavilions and corridors have regained their former grandeur. Above the front gate hangs a sign in 'Emperor Kang Xi's handwriting: "Shaolin Monastery." In front of the entrance gate is a pair of stone lions. Entering the gate, one sees two rows of stone tablets, which are various dedications to the Shaolin Temple from various organizations around the world. In the second, third, and fourth courtyards are the Heavenly King Hall, the Daxiong Hall and the scripture depository. The abbot's room is in the fifth courtyard. Emperor Qian Long stayed a night there when he came to visit Mt. Song, thus the room is also called "Dragon Hall. " There is a pavilion that has a story: Monk Hui Ke stood deep in the snow outside the cave in which monk Boddidharma sat in deep meditation. the young  monk pleaded to be taken as the sage's disciple. The old monk said, "Not until the Heaven makes the snow red." Monk Hui Ke cut off one of his arms and the blood dyed the snow red. Needless to say, Boddidharma took him as a disciple. Later he succeeded monk Boddidharma as the abbot. This pavilion was built to commemorate his devotion. This story is also the reason why Shaolin monks bow with only one hand elevated in front of them, as opposed to the usual "praying hands" posture other monks use.

Temple entranceway                                         
In the seventh courtyard there is the Hall of One Thousand Buddha's. In the old days, monks practiced martial arts here. Long years of practicing in a squatting position caused the monks' feet to rub 48 pairs of footprints in the brick floor. A mural describes five hundred Luohan Buddha's paying homage to Buddha. East of the Hall of One Thousand Buddha's is the White-Garment Hall, also known as the Hall of Wushu Charts. In it are two murals, one describing the thirteen monks rescuing Prince Qin and the other showing monks drilling.

One Thousand Buddha Hall, with "footprints" forever stamped into stone floor

Flanking each hall are the wing houses. Along both sides of the Stone Tablet Forest a covered corridor was recently built to house the more important stone inscriptions on the east and a boxing chart hall on the west in which 14 groups of 215 life-size clay figures demonstrate Shaolin Wushu and legends of monks.

 The last thirty years:

What is really not discovered in the local history books are the events of the last thirty years, most probably more a result of communist government influence than the inadequacy of the local historians. In the early 1960's, the Shaolin Temple was the only structure in the valley. A few people lived outside the monastery, but on the whole, the Temple was the main structure. Monks not only lived completely in the Temple, but practiced their wushu there, and tended to many of the fields in the surrounding area to grow food for sustenance. Donations of food from the local townspeople also occurred, as it had for the previous thousand years; the monks being seen from era to era as being not only protectors of their huge estate of land, but also protectors of the local townspeople, protecting them from local warlords and foreign invaders (Japanese).  Children and adults would travel to the Shaolin Temple to become monks. This occurred for various reasons, whether it was poverty or escape from accused criminal activities, the range of reasons was large and diverse. A variety of peoples ended up on Shaolin's doorstep, to be taken in, and to enter the monk hood. Wushu was a major component of all of the monk's lives, as was the daily cleansing, repair, and expansion of the Temple. Not too many repairs were done to the Temple, as the fires of 1928, which had destroyed many of the structures in the front of the Temple complex, left charred remains of those structures, none to be repaired until the late 1970's. The monks basically lived in the structures to the rear of the Temple complex.


Shaolin village, from Mt. Song. The Shaolin Temple is center, right.

It all changed in 1967, when Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward turned into one large Great Leap Backward. The Cultural Revolution, from I think, 1967 to 1976, saw many roving bands of devoted communist party groups, rummaging through the countryside, looking to destroy all vestiges of previous religious and traditional life. The Shaolin Temple, being at a higher altitude in a mountainous valley a distance from neighboring Dengfeng, initially was protected by its isolation: the roving bands of devoted party members had no desire to travel the distance higher up into the mountains. So, for the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, nothing much changed at the Temple, with the exception of the locking of the main gates. No newcomers were taken in, as being a monk at that time, was not "in vogue".  In fact, many monks, feeling threatened for their lives, left the Temple to return to a regular life.

However, after the first few years, revolutionary fervor spread, and the monks found themselves to be in danger at the Temple. Gangs of revolutionary zealots entered the Temple with the goal of destroying all aspects of previous traditional life. Their main targets were the icon statues in the Temple; the Temple, still partly in ruins from the 1928 fire, and the late 1930's invasion of the Japanese (which did not damage the Temple as much as it caused loss of life to the monks) was not badly damaged. The monks felt threatened by this adverse behavior towards their statues, and therefore decided to  scatter into the mountains, some leaving the monk hood altogether and taking on a regular life (called su jia di tz, "custom monks", a term which is used today). Some lived not far from the Temple, but higher up in the surrounding mountains. Some took on the clothing of regular local people and mingled with the local (and sometimes distant) populations, all the while planning to eventually return to the Temple when it was safe. Eventually, the majority of the remaining monks settled into a small area, far up in the mountains, through grueling narrow trails and stairs (the Chinese Stairmaster), into what has now become a small monastery past the hanging rope bridge.

When it was all over, sometime in 1976, thirteen or fourteen of the original monks returned. Four of them still exist today (see The Four Tops), though one is expected to die soon (Shi Su Xi, master of DeQing, and DeCheng). These thirteen monks found the Temple and their fields in absolute disarray.  Lacking any sort of finances, or ability to farm, they grasped upon the idea of taking on students, to teach wushu for money. And thus was begun the training of non-monks for financial gain.

Students from all over the local region started flocking to the Shaolin Temple in order to learn this traditional (and sacred?) art of Shaolin wushu. No longer did one have to dedicate oneself to a life of monk hood to learn this art. To accommodate all of the incoming students, three monks left the Temple to open private schools of their own in the surrounding area. At this time, again, the major structure in the valley was the Temple complex, with a great many of its buildings charred and in ruins from the fires of 1928.

But  it all exploded in 1982, when a Hong Kong feature film "Shaolin Temple", starring Jet Li, was released on the Chinese mainland. Due to its popularity the number of visitors to Shaolin monastery to learn wushu increased exponentially. The Temple was flooded with children from all over China, some from wealthy homes, most from poverty, all with the idea of bettering their life. Avoidance of being a peasant farmer, and becoming a policeman, body guard, or even a movie star, all filled their minds. By 1985, over forty wushu schools opened in the surrounding area, some being head mastered by monks who left the Shaolin Temple, but surprisingly, most being taught by commoners with either an expertise or an interest in wushu. The quality between the schools was terribly inconsistent.

In early 1986, the county government coalesced these forty schools into five to try to maintain consistency in the quality of wushu training.

Soon thereafter, in 1989,  the government decided to open the Shaolin Temple wushu guan, with its associated hotel. Most probably, there was a profit motive involved in the opening of this school, with its alleged ties to the Shaolin Temple.


Wushu guan training area and hotel. (Not the Holiday Inn...)

 But the Shaolin Temple wanted nothing to do with it. Initially, the wushu guan could not get Shaolin monks for instructors. The training there was lacking. It wasn't until the early 1990's, after the government started taking more "direction" in the functioning of the Temple, that Shaolin monks were separated from their beloved Temple, and moved to the wushu guan. Initially, only a few left to teach, and live, at the wushu guan.

But as restoration and tourism increased at the Temple, more and more monks found it distasteful to live at the Temple. No longer could they train in their temples or halls; their living quarters were eventually moved farther and farther away from the major buildings in the Temple, and they were reduced to living in smaller and smaller quarters on the periphery of the complex. As tourism increased, privacy, and training, decreased. The monks at the Temple no longer took children on for training and potential future monk hood, as the responsibility, with all of the tourists around, got out of hand.

So the monks split along two lines. The martial monks, those who had decided to devote their lives to the training and perpetuation of wushu, left the Temple and lived in the nearby wushu guan, to teach, and train, younger students. The wushu guan was a school, not a repository for monks to be. Students were trained in Buddhism, along with English, Chinese, and mathematics. Those who showed exceptional skill were offered the monk hood at the age of 18; then, further training was undertaken. At that time, they had the opportunity to live in the Temple, and continue training there, under the tutelage of one of the remaining Temple wushu masters, but only to train and live in the far rear areas of the Temple complex, far from the maddening tourism. The Buddhist monks (a misnomer, as they are all Buddhist monks), largely stayed at the Temple. In reality, they really had no where else to go. No longer did they have to undertake the daily chores of cleaning and repairing the Temple, now, due to government intervention, workmen and janitors take care of those duties. The Buddhist monks stay at the Temple to study, and to entertain visitors. They may have partaken in wushu studies years ago, but do so no longer. There are a few monks who live at the Temple and who continue to practice wushu on a daily basis, and who also take in new monks, largely hand picked from various other schools if they show "promise" to be a wushu master. These few monks continue the training and the heritage of the Shaolin Temple, as we have commonly been led to believe.

The martial monks, as part of their new found duties, not only train the students, but give performances, sometimes on a daily basis at the wushu guan.  They have traveled world wide, giving performances and demonstrations of their skills, in most every major country on the planet. This unfortunately has given the Shaolin Temple monks an almost circus like moniker, as they are viewed by the unknowing more as performers than as experts of wushu. This is an unfortunate chain of events for the Shaolin monks, who see their separation from the Temple, and thrust into the "demonstration arena", as the end of Temple life as they previously knew it.  But it gets a little more complicated here, and this is one of the reasons why the Shaolin Temple monks have so many detractors in the United States.  When one sees these performances, a large majority of the wushu performers are really not monks, even though they are advertised as such; they are students of the wushu guan who have excelled to be permitted to be on the Wushu Team. Some of these students plan on entering the monk hood at the age of 18, if they are chosen. Some of the performers are actual monks, who either live at the Temple or at the wushu guan, and who live a life of monk hood as they have chosen. Performances for them are more a responsibility than a desire; most of these monks would prefer to teach gong fu and Buddhism.

However, over time, the martial monks eventually discovered that life was better outside the wushu guan, than it was "working for the government". With an average monthly sustenance award of 300 Yuan a month (about $35), teaching at the wushu guan left a little to be desired. Especially since the monks had been taken on world wide tours, and had been given the opportunity to see how the rest of the world lived. This exposure basically "opened the eyes" of many of the monks. People have been quick to criticize this behavior as being very un-Buddhist like; when asked to explain, most of the monks just liken the desire to make more money as an effort to improve their lives, or to improve their ability to teach wushu. They feel that there is nothing un-Buddhist about having these desires. Some of the monks, in their effort to continue the practice and teaching of wushu, have opened their own private schools in the village and in neighboring Dengfeng. Again, these activities are not Temple arranged or oriented, but they are not prohibited. Private enterprise is starting to emerge.

Shi Xing Hong's private school. And, the much beloved minivan...

 And where does leave us? The Shaolin Temple no longer trains large amounts of its own monks inside the Temple grounds, as most of these monks do not live in the Temple anymore. Temple masters travel the various local schools looking for "talent", much in the same way college recruiters will roam the high schools looking for the best "shooter". Those students with talent, and desire, are given the opportunity to become part of the Temple, after which, they obtain masters (usually those still living in the wushu guan), and are given further training in wushu and in Buddhism. Unfortunately, some of the best masters have left the Temple because of the increased tourism. The result in subsequent quality has yet to be seen.

No matter how one looks at it, the government, the revolution, and tourism has forever changed the fifteen hundred year tradition of the Shaolin Temple, and not necessarily in a positive light. But ironically, wushu, the child of the Shaolin Temple, grows in strength on a daily basis, as it is being taught, and usually taught well, throughout China. The government has encouraged wushu as a national sport, and from what I've seen during my travels throughout China, wushu is still held in the highest regard.

And regardless of what the government or modern times has or will do to life at the Shaolin Temple, it is still held in the highest reverence, all throughout China. From my travels, it has been hard to ignore the looks of undeserved pride and reverence when people discover that I've trained with the Shaolin Temple monks.

Click to see photo gallery from 1995 Shaolin temple area