The Real Shaolin Temple

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The Real Shaolin Temple

Postby HanshiClayton » Sun May 16, 2010 11:01 am

Everybody loves the Shaolin Temple and wants to claim that their karate/chuan fa is the "original" art from the famous temple. For instance, I have seen a respected modern sensei claim, in print, that Shotokan's heian katas originated in the Shaolin temple and have not changed in a thousand years. (See the Three Standard Lies about Karate.)

People of my generation know the Shaolin temple as the childhood home of Kwai Chang Caine, hero of the Kung Fu TV series. The episodes of that series had frequent flashbacks to life in the temple. We all admired the saintly Master Po, who coined the term "Grasshopper" for his reluctant student. Here's a snapshot from the Web:

Image ... ter_Po.jpg

You'll find a pretty good book on the real Shaolin temple here: Shahar, Meir, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, University of Hawaii Press, 2008. I used this book as the basis for the following passage in Shotokan's Secret, Expanded Edition:
Most of the chuan fa “origin stories” are simple folklore, recycled by various teachers to explain the lost history of their arts. For instance, proponents of multiple styles of chuan fa tell a very similar origin story in which a Buddhist nun, Ng Mui, one of five survivors of a massacre at the Shaolin temple, invented a new style of fighting. Ng Mui must have been very busy because she gets the credit for inventing at least five martial arts.

This folklore has a basis: the Manchu Qing Dynasty displaced the Ming government in the mid-1600s. The Shaolin monks were Ming loyalists, so the Manchus sacked the Shaolin temple multiple times between 1640 and 1674. There were repeated massacres, and hundreds of “murdered” monks. The myths of a refugee nun fighting back bare-handed against Manchu invaders date from this period.

The point is that the "real" Shaolin temple was sacked, crushed, and exterminated in the 1600s, at just about the same time that Satsuma was consolidating its hold over the Okinawan people. The very earliest scrap of Shotokan that we can identify is Empi kata, which was first seen in 1683. If you insist, you may claim that Empi came from the Shaolin temple, but the case is extremely thin and rests on the dates alone. There is no evidence of any link between any modern art and the fabled temple, except, of course, that they all claim such a link.

It is interesting to note that the Kung Fu TV series was set in the 1870's, which was some two centuries after the temple was crushed by the Manchus.

In the meantime the reputation of the temple lives on, and so do efforts to crush it. The Japanese sacked the temple in 1941, and the Chinese Red Guards did it again during the “cultural revolution” of 1966.

Today the Shaolin temple operates as a tourist attraction run by the Chinese communist government. There are no saintly monks involved, just circus performers. You could view that as yet another example of "sacking" the temple. Certainly Master Po would not recognize anything that we see there today.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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