An iconic image of a Japanese “Warrior Monk.” Notice the nagamaki he holds in his left hand, the trademark weapon of the Sohei in much the same way that the long pole became the signature weapon of the Shaolin order.


I have noticed a persistent tendency by some to strive to maintain an artificial barrier between the physicality of martial arts practice one the one hand, and the myriad ways it is discussed in literature, film and popular culture on the other.  Typically this is articulated as a frustration with the inability of the public to separate authenticity from “fantasy.”  When scratching the surface of these discussions what you often discover is a furious attempt to maintain the respectability or legitimacy of one’s personal martial practice by separating it from from other perceived marginal social discourses.

It is understandable that students and instructors might feel this way, especially when their livelihoods depend upon such perceptions.  And more academically inclined scholars are free to draw their research questions as narrowly or broadly as they wish.  Still, these efforts are fundamentally misplaced as they are premised on the assumption that “real martial arts” are somehow distinct, and set apart from, trivial questions of popular culture.  In fact the practice of martial arts, at least since the time of the Sengoku period in Japan and the Song dynasty in China have been part of, and have existed within the realm of, popular culture.

We would all do well to remember that actual military training, while occasionally taking advantage of some aspects of martial arts practice, is a very different animal with its own concerns and problems.  As I have noted perviously, Japanese Bushi were cutting their foes down with ruthless efficiency long before the first stirrings of the oldest fencing schools ever came together on that island.  The ryu were a response to social and political upheavals at  specific moments in time.  And in any case, there are quicker and easier ways to train actual soldiers.  While some generals might adopt martial arts for pedagogical purposes (Qi Jiguang’s writings on boxing being the classic example), this material was always seen as supplemental.

When viewed from a more holistic cultural (or even economic) perspective, all of those myths and fantasies suddenly become more interesting.  Throughout history people have conformed their ideas of what martial arts training should be to the popular narratives of the time, and innovations in training have given rise to new types of stories and myths.  It is certainly true that what most of do in the training hall cannot be reduced to the plot of a kung fu film. But its also pretty clear that ideas within popular culture shape our understanding of what sorts of values the martial arts are supposed to convey.  Reality and fantasy have always been locked in a recursive embrace.

This brings us to the topic of Week 7’s reading, Buddhism’s relationship with the martial arts.  On the one hand, most popular ideas about the relationship between Zen (or Chan) and the martial arts are simply historically inaccurate.  When discussing practically any of these questions we seems to have a clear case of popular myths vs “real” practice.  And yet the success of these myths has had a profound shaping effect on the evolution of many martial arts communities.  For better or worse, it is no longer possible to discuss the history of the Chinese martial arts without the terms “Shaolin” coming up in all sorts of contexts.

There is no actual way to separate the history of martial practices from the history of the ideas that surround them.  The two are inexorably tied.  This is particularly evident when we take a close look at the very different role that stories about Buddhist warriors played in Chinese versus Japanese martial culture.  Before we can do that, we must begin by investigating the rich tradition of warrior monks and temple sponsored military troops that actually emerged at different times in both countries.


Required Readings



Kung Fu training at the Shaolin Temple. Source: Global Times.



Notes on the Readings

The readings for Week 7 are fairly straight forward.  All students should begin with the two main secondary pieces.  Meir Shahar’s “Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice” functions, in many ways, as a convenient summery of his more extensive book.  Within its pages readers will find a well developed discussion of the Shaolin martial arts as they existed at the end of the Ming dynasty.  It should be noted that this particular discussion focuses predominately on weapons skills and the military work of Shaolin’s warrior monks during this period.  Our reading for last week was more relevant to the rise of unarmed boxing during the Ming-Qing transition era.

In contrast, Prof. Bodiford provides a sweeping historical overview of the evolving relationship between Japanese religion and that nation’s martial arts.  While an encyclopedia article, this piece must be considered mandatory reading for anyone interested in the topic. Bodiford does a nice job of laying out the various ways in which older religious practices were intentionally disrupted, erased and rewritten during the Meiji era and through the 1940s. Note in particular the role of Western ideas about both religion and sociology in the construction of new understandings of both martial arts and religion during these decades.  Even such core concepts as “Bushido” are largely late inventions which were easily popularized in the West as they drew extensively from Western, rather than ancient Japanese, culture. He also provides important cautionary tales as to how overly eager Western martial arts students, such as Donn F. Draeger and Eugen Herrigel, helped to spread and then normalize these changes in both Western and Japanese martial arts communities.

Mikael S. Adolphson’s reading is short and provides a counterpoint to Shahar’s discussions of monastic troops in China.  His main object is to explain how monastic warriors came to be so widely vilified in Japan.  Readers might also stop to consider why stories of fighting Buddhist monks tended to evolve very differently in China.

Cheng Zongyou is one of the most interesting and important martial artists to emerge in China during the 16th century.  Born to a gentry family he (and a number of other family members) dedicated themselves to military pursuits during the perilous years of the late Ming.  In addition to leaving us with a number of important early manuals, Zongyou also gifted later generations with a rich account of his martial arts training at the Shaolin temple during its peak.  Still, the assigned reading is hard to get access to without a University library.  I would suggest that students wanting to know more about him simply by a copy of Shahar’s Shaolin Monastery and read the more detailed discussion that can be found there.

In case anyone is wondering, the deeply recursive relationship between buddhist myths and martial practices was in no way confined to the 16th and 17th centuries.  If anything, the processes explored by Shahar and Bodiford accelerated as we moved into the current era.  While it falls outside the time period of this week’s readings, anyone interested in the modern development of Shaolin Kung Fu should take a look at Su Xiaoyan’s “Reconstruction of Tradition: Modernity, Tourism and Shaolin Martial Arts in the Shaolin Scenic Area, China” in the International Journal of the History of Sport (2016, Issue 9).


Review Questions


  1. Buddhism unambiguously prohibits the taking of any sentient life. How, then, did monks become involved in warfare, and come to practice martial arts?
  2. What did they bring to martial arts practice? In what ways did the historical dynamics behind monastic violence differ between the Ming and Japan?
  3. In what ways did stories about Buddhist warriors influence the actual development of warrior traditions in China and Japan?  Why were warrior monks eventually vilified in Japan (with one very notable exception), while being held up as popular culture heroes in China?
  4. Consider Cheng Zongyou’s autobiography and the discussion in Shahar.  In what ways were his experiences training with the Shaolin monks similar to modern martial arts practice?  Where do we see differences?


Next week is my first guest lecture in this class and I will be tackling the topic of lineages in the Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Rather than providing my own hot take on one of these questions I need to dig into the background readings for that.  Needless to say, I will post the guest lecture as soon as I give it.  But if I were a reader of Kung Fu Tea, I would probably think long and hard about question 4….