Front gates of the Shaolin Temple prior to the 1928 destruction. This photo was part of a Republic of China era survey of the temple grounds.


Welcome back to the second installment of the Book Club.  In this series of posts we will be taking a more detailed look at some of the most important works in the field of Chinese martial studies.  Our first selection is The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts by Prof. Meir Shahar.  Two weeks ago we reviewed the first section of the book here.  Today we will be discussing chapters 3-4. On Wednesday December 5th we will tackle chapters 5-6.

By going through these works in a slow and detailed way we hope to better grasp the nuances of each author’s argument.  I also hope to give each one of you a chance to read along and participate in the discussion.  No special background or language skills are necessary and we are aiming to keep our review at about the level of an undergraduate class discussion.  If you are curious about Chinese martial studies and want an easy way to get acquainted with the field, this series of posts is for you. If you have a book that you would like to suggest for review shoot me an email or put a note in the comments below.

Reviewing the Reading: The Myth and the Realities of Chinese Monastic Violence in the late Ming Dynasty, Shahar chapters 3-4.

Before delving into the details and implications of Shahar’s chapters I want to briefly summarize them as a way of grounding our discussion and better understanding how he develops his argument. Chapters 3-4 are in many ways the two most important sections of his book. These chapters are the linchpin that connects the early origins of the Shaolin Monastery with the much later Qing era civilian practices that were the direct precursors of the temple’s modern martial arts tradition.

We have very little to go on other than speculation and informed guesswork when discussing the military aspect of the Shaolin Temple during the Tang dynasty. It seems as though there may have been some level of military training at the temple to ward off bandits, but this was probably standard military drill and not a unique “martial art.”  Shaolin was known mostly for its cultural achievements during this period.

Almost no solid information exists about what comes next (at least in the martial realm). The Song and Yuan dynasties see an uptick in stories about martial monks in general, but Shaolin doesn’t appear to be part of this trend. Nor do we have any period account of their involvement with the state on military matters.

An interior picture of the renown library at Shaolin. Prominently displayed in the center are copper plated Buddhist scriptures. Researchers on the expedition also noted that this library contained illustrated manuscripts and a collection of staffs from historically important monks.  All of these artifacts were destroyed in the 1928 fire.

Chapter 3: Defending the Nation

All of this changes suddenly in the Ming dynasty. The era begins inauspiciously with the destruction of the Shaolin temple by “Red-turban” bandits.  Things are quiet after the new government finances the restoration of the Temple. Then, almost without warning, by the start of the 16thcentury the Temple is suddenly regarded as a military academy. Throughout the 16th century military officers, civilian experts and other warrior monks would travel to Shaolin to train and to discuss military matters.   These figures left a rich literature of travelogues, monographs, manual and poems, dozens of which still exist.  These texts provide scholars with an unprecedented window into the development of Ming-era “martial arts.”

While the monks of this period were now practicing and teaching their own unique martial traditions, these were still a far cry from the sorts of arts that are popular today. Unarmed hand-combat (boxing) was not all that popular in this period, and most monks exclusively taught and practiced with weapons. Further, they used the same weapons that were employed by the official Ming armies.

Even the monkish staff, which earned Shaolin great renown, was closely tied to military training. The pole was the first weapon taught to new recruits as it was simple, cheap, easily replaceable and allowed them to transition to any number of more specialized weapons later on.  Pole fighting was a platform that many other weapon skills were based on.  So to say that the Shaolin monks specialized in pole training is really to say that they specialized in developing the sorts of “basic training” routines that were used throughout the empire. Needless to say, other critical military skills such as horsemanship, archery, fencing and spear fighting were also taught by monks and lay instructors at the temple.

Nor was Shaolin the only temple where such activity was common during the late Ming.  Wudang, Emei, Funiu and multiple locations in Fujian were all known for their martial monks. Additionally these monks occasionally traveled from temple to temple seeking training or employment, just as other itinerant martial artists of the period did.  Shaolin is so interesting to us precisely because it represents an actual place where the larger world of warrior monks, civilian martial artists and professional soldiers intersected and came together to exchange ideas and compete for economic patronage.

Shahar reviews the extent sources that describe these interactions in Chapter 3.  He starts by introducing us to three historically important individuals who left significant accounts of what the martial arts were like at Shaolin and how other people thought of them. The first of these individuals was a scholar and member of a prominent gentry class family named Cheng Zongyou.  Cheng was concerned with security and, later in life, raised a private militia to guard his estates.  He actively encouraged other gentry members to do so as well.

As a younger man Cheng studied at Shaolin for approximately one decade and in 1610 published a book titled Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method.  This work helped to popularize and spread Shaolin pole techniques and appears to have been fairly widely available to military minded scholars in the late Ming dynasty.  It was subsequently quoted in a number of sources and included in at least one military encyclopedia.

The second individual is General Yu Dayou. Best remembered for his role in putting down the mid 16th century pirate insurgency near what is now Shanghai, Yu was interested in the mechanics of raising and training troops. In 1560, he traveled to the Shaolin Monastery hoping to see the monk’s famed staff method. Unfortunately he was not overly impressed with what he found.  He did however leave a remarkable record of his interactions with the monks.

It should be remembered that General Yu Dayou was from the south, and (still today) southern Chinese pole fighting forms tend to be parsimonious and powerful.  Anyone familiar with the “six and a half point pole” (more of a concept shared by many southern styles than an actual routine) can attest to that.  Apparently this is what Yu Dayou expected to find at Shaolin as well.  Instead the monks demonstrated a set of very intricate pole styles (described in detail by Cheng Zhongyou) that did not appeal to the General’s more practical sentiments.  An exchange of knowledge took place and eventually Yu Dayou’s much simpler southern pole fighting system was added to the curriculum at the venerable temple.

I have always liked this story as it demonstrates the sorts of martial exchanges that could and did happen between northern China and the south. Note that the information does not always flow in one direction. Shahar also noted that Yu Dayou treated and addressed the monks as military professional, not as occasional and reluctant citizen soldiers. This is quite an important fact to remember when discussing Shaolin in the Ming dynasty.

The next critical account was left by Wu Shu.  This individual was a noted scholar and poet turned military writer.  Wu Shu was interested in the spear.  The spear was the single most important battlefield weapon in the 16th and 17th centuries, so this was what he dedicated his study to.  He recorded his insights in a book called Arms Exercises, which has survived to the present.  It provides us with a third detailed opinion about Shaolin in the late Ming. Cheng Zongyou worshiped Shaolin, and Yu Dayou accepted them as brothers in arm and worked with them in developing better troop training methods, but Cheng Zongyou didn’t particularly care for the monastery and its martial tradition.

Nor was this simply a rivalry about “whose Kung Fu was better.” Instead it all got down to the critical question of how you trained troops. We should take a moment to stop and ask ourselves why this suddenly became such a critical question.  Its not the sort of thing that Confucian scholars normally write about, but from 1550-1640 dozens of surviving books were written on the topic and all of them mentioned Shaolin.

The answer appears to revolve around the disintegration and collapse of the Ming army. The Ming state was chronically underfunded and the military was particularly hard hit.  By the early 16th century most of the national military structure had simply dissolved just as border incursions and internal revolt were becoming a real problem.  Generals like Qi Jiguang and local scholars like Cheng Zhongyou suddenly discovered that if they wished to protect the nation, or even their own estates, they had to learn how to raise and train large groups of men from the local peasantry.  The state was no longer capable of doing that for them.  A ready made market for private military schools and the publication of military encyclopedias and manuals just exploded into existence.

This massive shift in military and economic power was probably what encouraged Shaolin to specialize as a military academy in the first place. It also reinforced the natural primacy of the pole or staff in the traditional Shaolin arts.  It was perceived as the ideal weapon for both the new recruit and the warrior monk.  For Wu Shu this was the crux of the issue.

The single most important infantry weapon on the 16thcentury battlefield was not the pole or the sword, it was the spear. Many military instructors in China saw the pole as a good weapon to train future spear-men, but Wu Shu strongly disagreed with this sentiment. In his view the spear or the pike had its own unique capabilities and challenges. The monks of Shaolin conflated these two distinct weapons in their training program and, in Wu Shu’s estimation, turned out inferior spear-men.

Yet even a rival as hostile to Shaolin as Wu Shu could not snub the temple entirely. While he did not care for the traditional Shaolin staff method that so captured the imagination of Cheng Zhongyou, he did republish General Yu Dayou’s much simpler pole form that had been added to the Temple’s curriculum, thus preserving it for generations.

These three sources, along with a number of other briefer accounts reviewed in chapter 3, constitute the bulk of our current knowledge about Shaolin and the monastic martial arts in the 16th and 17thcenturies. They are very important and students would be well advised to read each of them multiple times. Pay special attention to the social status of each author and their relationship to other important actors in society. You must understand the basic vision of Shaolin that these three authors provide before the other sources that Shahar introduces can be properly framed and interpreted.

After reviewing the critical literature, Shahar demonstrates what all of this looked like in practice by discussing the now famous involvement of the Shaolin monks in the “Japanese piracy crisis.” Shaolin’s high profile involvement here led to increased political patronage and more requests for military assistance in the future. In fact, it was this tight alliance between the Ming state and Shaolin that probably doomed the order.

Zheng Ruoceng, an academically trained geographer and military aid, provides us with the best overview of the role of monastic troops in this conflict. Once again readers should carefully study and consider the passages from his 1568 essay “The Monastics Armies’ First Victory” provided by Shahar.

These passages are invaluable because they point to three previously neglected sets of relationships. The first of these is Shaolin’s subordinate position to the state’s military bureaucracy. It is clear that they did not volunteer their army, but rather were sent by a higher authority.  While the monastic armies fought under the immediate command of one particularly renown Shaolin monk, it is clear that they were under the ultimate authority of the local military officers.  Nor were all of these officers has receptive to monastic troops as General Yu Dayou.  Some had to be convinced on their abilities in the field.

The second set of relationships that Zheng comments on is the relationships between the warrior monks themselves. Apparently they were not one big happy Buddhist family.  He relates stories and incidents that would seem to indicate that there was actually substantial tension between the monastic soldiers from Fujian, and the more professional troops sent by Shaolin.  Shaolin’s leadership of the “monastic army” was only “accepted” after armed clashes between the various factions of warrior monks.  This is a less than ideal way of running an army and organizing a chain of command.  It also hints that while the Ming state could mobilize monastic armies, they may have had real trouble controlling them in the field.

The last relationship that Zheng illuminates is the link between monastic troops and the Buddhist “dharma” or law. In summary, there does not appear to have been any at all.  While Shaolin may have developed its own martial arts, it did not have a coherent, or even remotely “Buddhist,” approach to warfare.  Its actions were often criticized by other, more pious, monks who took their religion’s prohibition against violence seriously.

Shaolin’s “warrior monks” in the 1920s. When discussing monastic violence it is often necessary to abandon preconceived notion of who warrior monks were or what they fought for.  This picture nicely illustrates the disjoint between our romanticized notions of the Shaolin and the gritty reality of life inside the Temple.

This probably suited the Chinese officials just fine as most of them were not Buddhists but hardened professional soldiers who might have harbored doubts about whether the monks would actually be willing to close with the enemy and slay them.  Zheng reassures his readers that the Shaolin monks were not squeamish about taking lives.  In fact, he even relates a story where Shaolin monks murder unarmed retreating civilian women with apparent approval.  Other sources relate lawsuits against the Temple over reports of Shaolin monks pillaging and brutalizing the countryside in ways that were comparable to the worst bandits.

While Cheng Zongyou claimed that Shaolin had developed its own unique “Buddhist art,” the subsequent actions of its soldiers would seem to indicate that this was more of a technical claim than a theological one.  In actual fact Shaolin did have a unique way of training troops.  But once in the field China’s monastic troops did not always seem to conduct themselves all that differently from any other army, militia or bandit hoard. The arts of Shaolin were “Buddhist” in an administrative sense, but not a religious or ethical one.  This is a critical point to remember when confronting modern revisionist claims that there is an inherent link between the study of the Chinese martial arts and Chan or Zen Buddhism.

Chapter 4: Staff Legends

In chapter four, Shahar steps away from the historical sources that he just introduced looks to a different branch of literature.  Rather than resolving all of our questions, our exploration of the historical literature actually creates an entirely new set of puzzles. For instance, why do we hear nothing about the Shaolin, or monastic troops in general, between the Tang dynasty and the Ming? Were there monastic troops in the Yuan? Why did no one talk about them?  If these things were an Ming era innovation why did General Yu Dayou and Qi Jiguang regard Shaolin’s military tradition as hundreds of years old and of “divine” origin?

There is also another puzzling fact. At the start of the Tang dynasty there is no evidence that the troops from Shaolin, or any other temple, looked or fought differently from any other military force. Other than an odd attachment to Indian cultic deities, the “fighting arts” of Shaolin seem to have been unremarkable.

By the time you get to the 16th century all of that has changed. Shaolin has developed a unique set of weapons based arts. These aren’t the sorts of martial arts that modern students might recognize.  Instead they are all focused on training troops and surviving on a military battlefield. But they are both technically and aesthetically distinct from what other people are doing.  They require special study and are not easily adopted even by skilled outsiders.  Shaolin has become a hub of military innovation and generals and scholars alike are descending on the Abby to see what they are doing and to contribute to the conversation.

This is the great era of the Chinese warrior monk, armed with his iron pole and loyal to the state. When did all of this happen?  When was it decided that the pole was the weapon par excellence of the monk?  That certainly wasn’t true in the Tang dynasty.  And how did this strong image of the ideal warrior-monk come to be established in the public’s mind?

Unfortunately the archeological record is of limited value here, though Shahar does note that is only after the start of the Ming era that Vajrapani is shown armed with a pole in Shaolin iconography.  Nor are the official records of much help.  All of the accounts of Shaolin reviewed above originate after this transition.

In this case period fiction may actually be a great help.  Accounts of staff wielding warrior monks start to show up and are popularized in epic tales like Journey to the West and Water Margin. The literary roots of these stories reach back into the Yuan dynasty, and that may be when the image of the staff wielding warrior monk first emerged.  Interestingly none of these early fictional characters are associated with Shaolin, but two are said to hail from Wudang.

While Shahar can’t really prove it, the implication seems to be that Shaolin didn’t have much of a military program up through the end of the Yuan dynasty (popular lore notwithstanding). It was only after the destroyed temple was rebuilt at the start of the Ming dynasty that it started to invest heavily in a military program, re imagined Vajrapani as a staff wielding guardian, and began to rebuild their military expertise. It may have followed a pattern already established at other temples.   The Temple’s famous association with monastic violence during the Tang dynasty probably aided this transition, providing an ethical constitution for rejecting the principal of non-violence.  The growing demand for private military instruction in the late Ming hastened this specialization.  By the early 1500s the Temple was once again known primarily for its military prowess.

My guess would be that there wasn’t a lot of military activity at Shaolin during the Yuan, though there might have been some.  The highly specialized military program that Shahar discusses was instituted at the start of the Ming dynasty, first to protect the Temple after its devastating destruction, and it was later expanded in an effort to profit from the Shaolin order’s close association with the state.  Ming era military training at Shaolin may have been more of an (economically motivated) revival of the past rather than the seamless continuation of an “ancient tradition.”

Standing in Snow Pavilion before the 1928 fire.  Note that Temple was already in an advanced state of disrepair.

Critical Discussion: What is missing and where are we going?

Many historians are very interested in the Ming-era flowering of the martial arts.  From an academic perspective these years are interesting because they have provided us with a rich collection of manuscripts and texts that can actually be studied.  While the martial arts were an overwhelmingly working class phenomenon, scholars (such as Wu Shu and Cheng Zhongyou) started to take interest in the subject and recorded the lives and accomplishments of their often unlettered teachers.  We simply do not have a comparable body of literature from the Yuan dynasty or any earlier period.

Students of the Chinese martial arts are also infatuated with this same period.  In modern Kung Fu lore the Ming dynasty is held up as the “golden age” of all that was good and wholesome. The weak, underfunded government, decaying economy and frequent security crisis that plagued the empire are usually left out of these starry-eyed reminisces.  Martial artists seem to regard the Ming as the apex of Chinese achievement simply because it is not the Ching.  Additionally, there is an odd belief that older things are “closer to the source” and are therefore “better.”  Since, in the popular imagination, many of our modern martial arts date to the Ming the period generates a lot of enthusiasm.

Shahar gives us one of the best discussions of the Ming era “martial arts” that we have. He uses all of the source material and paints a fascinating and lifelike picture, especially with regards to the use of monastic troops.  Yet this obsession with the Ming era bothers me. From a scholarly standpoint it ignores the fact that we are examining this period only because we have so many records.  But without a comprehensive view of the past how can we really tell what was new or innovative? How do we draw causal inferences from the data without a baseline for comparison?

Martial arts students are probably in an even weaker position than historians when it comes to understanding this era of Chinese history. People try very hard to make direct comparisons between what we do now, and what we see in the historical record. Students are forever examining the illustrations in Qi Jiguang or Cheng Zhongyou’s books to see which modern school most directly descended from this or that master.

This is a dangerous exercise.  It is problematic not only because it is extremely subjective (after all, an artist can draw only a pose, not “motion”). Rather, these exercises tend to happen in a context free zone.  Most of the existing Chinese martial arts date from the early 20th century and look back to roots in the late 19th century. China was already in the throws of modernization and fully exposed to global economic pressures when these arts started to come together.  In a very real way the martial arts that we have today are a product of the modern commercial world and globalization. They have a much more complex relationship with “traditional” Chinese culture and history than a casual student might suspect.

What General Qi Jiguang taught with his 32 forms was not really a “martial art.”  It was “boxing” yes.  But this was hand combat as part of a military training program to produce 16th century soldiers. That’s vastly different from a modern civilian martial art that is designed to teach rudimentary self-defense skills and “build character” in 11 year olds.

Likewise what Cheng Zongyou found at Shaolin was not really a modern martial art. The temple operated as an autonomous military academy. Different monks taught different subjects. Each subject was a skill needed by a professional soldier.  If you could get an introduction and negotiate a price you could join the monk,s “class.”  Pole fighting was the most popular course at Shaolin because it was central to military training in the 16th century.

What Cheng records is that five different “styles” of pole fighting were taught by a large number of different teachers.  Each one of these was a complete fighting art with its own approach to the subject.  Each pole style was transmitted through a number of forms that were in turn comprised of an assortment of 53 different “postures.”

There was no ranking and no “progression” in this system. One simply followed your master until you were done. Pole fighting was not linked to anything else. One did not first have to master boxing, nor did you go on to study other weapons such as the spear or sword. While individual teachers and subjects were important, Cheng doesn’t even indicate that there was much in the way of “lineage” other than a vague notion of what was, or was not, “Shaolin.”

What he describes bears little resemblance to a modern Chinese martial art. As a matter of fact, I would not even describe what Shaolin taught during the Ming as being a “martial art.”  It seems to me that the mpdern martial arts are really more of a social system than simply a body of knowledge. While we probably owe some of our current technical knowledge to 16th century Shaolin, it is clear that they operated under a very different set of constraints and expectations than we do today.  To call both what they did, and what modern practitioners do, “martial arts” seems to privilege advertising and marketing over an admission of how very different these two worlds actually are.

If you want to study Chinese military history, or monastic violence, that’s great. By all means, study the end of the Ming dynasty. But if you want to know where your own “martial art” came from, it would probably be better to start with the mid 19th century and work your way up to the present.  Of course Shahar is very much aware of this, as we will see in chapters 5 and 6.  So pay attention to how society, the economy and the meaning of the “martial arts” evolves as the Shaolin Temple moves into the Qing.

My one real regret for this section was that there was not a chapter on the religious and institutional history of Shaolin between the Tang and Ming.  We don’t have much military knowledge about this era, but lot of other interesting stuff was happening. The Shaolin Temple transitioned from being a collection of monks who all studied different sects, to an exclusively Chan sanctuary. Then Chan faded from popularity, before being restored in the late imperial period.  Personally, I would have loved it if Shahar had looked more at the religious and institutional life of the temple.  I think all of this could have provided some interesting context for the rest of the book.  I suspect that he may have wanted to do this as well.  However, at 200 pages of text his book is at exactly the length that most academic presses will accept.  Longer manuscripts are more expensive to print and tend to get rejected.  Still, these are topics that readers should go out and research on their own.

In terms of monastic violence and Shaolin, where do we go from here? Was chapter 3 the last word on the subject? I don’t think so. I noticed while reading Shahar that Shaolin took part in putting down at least five uprisings in Henan before it was finally destroyed in 1644.  Between 1522-1566 they fought a group known as the Liu Bandits, Wang Tang and his bandit army and the “rebel” Shi Shangzhou.  Local gold and silver miners were also a problem for both Shaolin and Funiu.  In fact, incursions from hostile miners was probably the reason why Funiu turned to Shaolin for assistance in establishing their own martial monk tradition.

Shaolin’s involvement with the piracy crisis was an extraordinary reaction to an extraordinary event. The fact that it was well documented is of great value to us, but it doesn’t tell us much about the day to day world of monastic violence.  Most temples did not train warrior monks to fight Japanese pirate. They trained warrior monks to defend the temple, its estates and its economic influence in the region. So how did Shaolin understand its place in the local economy? How did local unrest and economic uncertainty play into the temple’s decisions to take up arms against some bandits, but not others?

These are questions that need to be carefully investigated. Each of the four or five 16th century crises that Shahar lists should be carefully investigated.  Unfortunately that work lays outside the scope of the present volume.  However, if you are a graduate student looking for a research project or thesis, this would be a great place to start.  I suspect that the Shaolin Temple still has a lot more to teach us about the history of monastic violence in China.

We will be reviewing the next two chapters of this book (5 and 6) on Wednesday, December 5th.  So there is still plenty of time to catch up before the final exam!

Unknown small structure on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple supporting historically important inscribed stone steles. This picture was taken prior to the 1928 fire.