Saturday, December 8, 2012

Visit to the Shaolin Temple

A few weeks ago I had the chance to go on a trip to Henan province. I went there to attend a conference and then stayed on a couple of days to do some sight-seeing. One of the places I went to see was the Shaolin Temple, the place of origin of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Although I usually travel alone, this time I decided to join a tour group arranged by my hotel in Zhengzhou, Henan's capital city. I was the only foreigner in the group, and an object of curiosity for everyone else. The guide spoke incessantly into the microphone practically the whole way to the temple, going on and on about Henan’s history, having a happy trip, Zhengzhou’s traffic problem etc etc… The volume of her microphone was far too high and it gave me a headache. Of course none of my Chinese travelling companions were at all bothered. When you join Chinese tour groups, this is the sort of thing you can expect.
The Shaolin Temple's "pagoda forest"

The Shaolin temple is a Chan Buddhist temple (Chan Buddhism gave rise to Japanese Zen Buddhism, better known in the West. The character for Chan is pronounced Zen in Japanese). The temple is mainly famous as the place of birth of Shaolin Kungfu. The term Shaolin Kungfu is popularly used as a synonym for all of the Chinese external martial arts, as opposed to the internal arts. Not all Shaolin Kungfu styles are really connected to the Shaolin temple, but the temple is historically the most important center of Shaolin. It is supposed to have been founded in 495 CE, and its first abbot was an Indian master of Buddhist meditation known as Batuo.

Although Buddhism contains strong prohibitions against violence, Chinese martial arts were originally developed mainly by Buddhist monks like the ones who resided in the Shaolin temple. Since Buddhist monasteries were sometimes incredibly wealthy, and controlled large estates, they were important economic actors which might clash with the local authorities, and which needed protection against thieves and opponents. Martial arts were thus necessary for fighting and self-protection.

An interesting aside is the legend of Southern Shaolin, another Shaolin Temple which is supposed to have existed somewhere in Fujian province, or anyway somewhere in Southern China. It was supposedly razed by the Qing government in the eighteenth century when it became a base for people who wanted to reinstate the Ming dynasty. Popular legend has it that only five monks escaped, and they later established the Heaven and Earth Society (天地会), a secret society devoted to overthrowing the Qing regime.

After the overthrow of the Qing in 1911, this secret society (or some branches of it) allegedlly turned to crime and merged with the Chinese triads. While in Hong Kong it is still illegal, in the PRC the Heaven and Earth Society eventually turned into the Zhigong Party (致公党), one of the eight minor political parties which are allowed to function outside of the Communist Party (but "under its leadership"). The party is used by the government to strengthen ties with overseas Chinese and as a convenient intermediary with certain foreign governments, apparently.

The actual Shaolin Temples lies at the base of Mount Song, one of China’s five great mountains which have been worshipped throughout history. According to Chinese mythology, the five mountains originate from the body of Pangu, the first being who created the world. Mount Song was believed to have been formed out of Pangu’s belly, and thus to be the center of the world. It is holy in both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.

Typically for China, the Shaolin temple was destroyed numerous times throughout its history, and the buildings you can see there now are mostly of recent reconstruction. A devastating recent bout of destruction came about in 1928, when the troops of Warlord Shi Yousan burnt the Temple for 40 days, destroying most of the building and manuscripts. During the Cultural Revolution more damage was done to the site, and the few remaining monks were victimized.

Shaolin Kungfu enjoyed a great revival of popularity in China in the eighties thanks to a 1982 Hong Kong film called “the Shaolin Temple”, starring Jet Li. After the film was released, thousands of youngsters apparently ran away from home to study Kung Fu at the Temple, and had to be sent back. At the time there was only one Kung Fu school which had recently opened in Dengfeng, the town next to the temple, and it was quickly overrun with applicants. Since then, numerous Kung Fu boarding schools have sprung up in the town. The students are usually children or young adolescents. As well as Kung Fu they are also supposed to learn other subjects. The best ones may one day join the Shaolin performance troupes that stage shows around the world. Others may end up in the military, the police or as Kung Fu teachers. My own San Da teacher in Beijing studied in one of these schools.

As my tour bus drove through the town, I saw courtyards full of young students practicing their Kung Fu moves in unison (on the right you can see a photo I took of practicing students).The actual Temple grounds did not look dissimilar from other collections of Chinese temples I have seen, and it was of course heavily commercialized and packed full with Chinese tour groups like the one I was part of (even though it was the low season). What gave the place a bit of authentic atmosphere were the hordes of students training all over the place, some of them wearing the grey robes of Shaolin monks. Our group was taken to see a Kung Fu show which was decent, although far from amazing. All the performers were young students, sometimes children. Some of them demonstrated their skills by braking thin slabs of metal using their heads.

An interesting site was the Pagoda forest, an area full of pagodas which each commemorate a different Shaolin monk of the past. The higher a pagoda, the more good deeds the monk performed in his lifetime. The Shaolin temple also includes a hall with a statue of the Buddha and a series of depressions on the stone floor, supposedly made by monks practising Kung Fu. I made friends with two rather nice girls in my group who were from Henan province themselves, but had never been to the temple before. When they knelt down and started prostating themselves to the Buddha in one of the temples, I knew that they were most likely not expressing any serious religiosity, but just doing it because it seemed amusing and fun, in the spirit of a tourist who tries to do something unusual while on holiday. I have even seen tour guides lead groups of Chinese tourists in "prayer" in Buddhist temples, telling them what to say and when to bow.                                  


Tang Xiaoyan said...

Before the end of the world, I read this blog. It is very informative. I admire that you are rich of knowledge of Chinese history. I only know a little bit of Heaven and Earth Society (天地会).I try to understand the difference of Buddhism among Chinese, Japanese, Indian and southeast countries religion. And what is Buddhism for western country? I have no idea until now.

Ji Xiang said...

"Before the end of the world, I read this blog."

I like that, it should be the motto of this blog.

In any case, I am no expert on Buddhism, but as far as I know the biggest distinction is between Theravada Buddhism (上座部佛教), practised mainly in the South-East Asian countries and Sri Lanka, and Mahayana Buddhism (大乘佛教), practised mainly in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism and Zen/Chan (the kind Shaolin monks follow) are subsets of the Mahayana tradition.

The Theravada tradition is closer to the original Buddhism, and emphasizes personal liberation, while the Mahayana tradition puts more emphasis on Boddhisatvas (菩萨) and on helping others.

In Western countries most people naturally have little idea about Buddhism. I suspect much of what passes for Buddhism in the West probably has little relation to original Asian Buddhism, and more with New Age quackery. And some(although not all) of the Westerners who claim to be Buddhists have little knowledge of the religion/philosophy. A bit like those Chinese who claim to be Christians.

Scottie said...


It sounds like you had a good time at Shaolin. Good for you. As for martial arts in China, I believe it was developed before the Shaolin, though I must admit I am no expert in this area.

Btw, regarding our last conversation, while it is true that internet censorship is extremely prevalent in China, you can still find discussions of sensitive topics online, you just have to really look for them in messsage boards and other places. does have more leeways than many other Chinese sites out there, though. One can find articles on there that talk about sensitive topics such as June 4th 1989, which as you know, is still a major taboo today.

Also, I believe there was an earlier discussion about whether Chinese characters contributed to China staying unified as a country throughout the ages. I think it does. While there have been quite a few dialects in China, they were primarily in spoken forms, not written forms. I must confess that I don't think I've read a classical Chinese document in a dialect form yet. Though it could be that I have not read enough classical documents at this point. As for the Cantonese written forms, I believe it is a product of the 20th century, so it is relatively recent. I don't think it has a major effect on Chinese history per se.

Finally, I do want to stress that I enjoy reading your blog. I've been on a few expat sites recently and it seems they are filled with China bashers, for whatever reasons. I've also seen you engaged with these people, only to be totally out-numbered. It's really good to see a person like you who tries to understand China instead of bashing her on a constant basis. On that note, keep up the good work!


Ji Xiang said...

Hi Scottie,

thanks for that! I hope I can keep on trying to understand China, rather than just bashing it. I do notice that the longer you stay in China, the more you become cynical and jaded about the place, but you have to try and remain objective and open-minded. Engaging with the China-bashers on expat websites is a rather pointless pass time though, I should probably stop doing so.

Out of curiosity, how long have you lived in China?

About the character discussion, I was taking issue with someone who repeated the often heard argument that "the Chinese characters means that Chinese who speak different dialects can understand each other's writing." I think it's a myth. It's not like people who speak other dialects automatically understand written Putonghua. They understand it because they've learnt it in school, as an essentially different language (although similar to their own).

If anything using characters instead of a phonetic alphabet just creates a divide, because it encourages speakers of other dialects not to learn how to pronounce putonghua properly, but to just continue pronouncing the characters how it comes most naturally to them. I'm not suggesting doing away with the characters, it's not workable, but still there is no point crediting the Chinese writing system with advantages it doesn't actually bring.

You are right that written classical Chinese unified China, just like written latin "unified" medieval Europe, but it doesn't really change the point. By the way, according to Wikipedia Cantonese writing developed much earlier than the 20th century, am I wrong?

Scottie said...


I am a Chinese who is currently working on my Ph.D in the United States. I totally get your point about the longer you stay in China, the more frustrated you become. Many Chinese do agree that Mainland China is not a very civilized place these days. One can only hope things can get better. We shall see.

Regarding languages, there has been more or less one official written form of the Chinese language after the Qin-Han period. Of course, this official written Chinese did not stay the same, as it also underwent changes throughout history. Nonetheless, people usually write in this standard language, while they talk in their local dialects. The educated of course also have to learn how to communicate in official and standard Chinese, which is not the same at different times. But I think the point is, it is much more difficult to create new, different words, grammar structures and so forth with Chinese characters than with Western alphabets. Even when people do pronounce characters differently, in general, they still understand the language’s structures the same way. Regardless of the dialects, the grammar is in general the same as the standard Chinese, although some dialects do contain some small differences in their grammars. When Chinese learn their writings, they learn the standard writings anyway, for regional dialect written forms have never been a part of the standard education curriculum. This has been more or less the case after the Qin-Han era. Overall, the differences between classical, literary Chinese in its written forms and written Chinese vernaculars have been and are much smaller than the differences between Latin and English, German, or even French and Italian (As you know, the latter two are certainly much closer to Latin than the other languages). This does have a lot of influence in keeping China together as a single polity. FYI: Putonghua didn’t become the standard language until maybe the Ming-Qing era. As for Putonghua’s origin, I need to do more research on that.

Regional dialect literature has never been very mainstream. I also suspect many writers (not all) in China’s long history couldn’t write in dialect forms at all, whatever these people’s local dialects are. Also, only a selected few dialects managed to have their own "language" and “literature”. Even there, most of the times (not all), it is possible that an outsider can understand these writings, simply because these regional dialects never really managed to produce a brand new system of writings. Even with written Cantonese, I believe its grammar is not that different from Putonghua. Of course, the words themselves can be quite challenging for an outsider. As for written Cantonese’s origins, I might have misspoken somewhat earlier. It was there before the 20th century, but I believe it didn’t really become fully developed and established until the 20th century. As for wikipedia, I am generally quite leery toward that website, given the fact anyone can edit it. So use it with caution.

Chinese languages, whether standard or dialects, whether in spoken or written forms have all undergone changes over the course of China's history. Therefore it is a very complicated subject. This conversation does pique my interest quite a bit, so here is what I’ll do: I will try to get a hold of an acquaintance of mine, who is a professor in Chinese linguistics at a good American university. I will ask him about this topic, and if I find anything new, I’ll let you know.

Ji Xiang said...

Thanks for you long explanation.

So you're infact Chinese? I assumed you were a foreigner living in China.

In any case, Putonghua only became the official language in 1909, right at the tail end of the Qing dynasty.

But yes, I realize that most people in China learn to read Putonghua at school, and that written versions of local dialects have never been too important. I am also aware of the importance of a single written language in keeping China unified.

My issue is will this argument that "thanks to the system of Chinese characters, people with different dialects can understand the same writing." It doesn't work like that. They understand the same writing, because they've learnt the same writing at school, not because of some great property which characters have, and phonetic alphabets don't.

About wikipedia, I don't mind using it, I find that the English wikipedia is a great source of information, and it's usually accurate too. If anyone writes something crazy, someone else will correct it immediately.