A brief history of Shaolin Monastery in Henan

The Shaolin Monastery represents a strong symbol for the martial arts community, especially for those who follow Chinese styles, of which I am one. Chinese Wuxia-style novels 武侠 and later post-war Hong Kong cinema helped to spread myths and legends around the famous warriors of the Shaolin Monastery. Nowadays, the troops of Shaolin monks are still very active and give performances around the world. They strongly maintain the image of the disciplined Buddhist warrior monk and being capable of extraordinary physical prowess, so that in the common culture when a person hears about the term Kung Fu, he very often assimilates him to the shaved head monk, dressed in orange or blue, having a very dynamic and athletic fighting technique.

Shaolin monks demonstration at Cultural Diversity Week at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, 2009. Source : UNESCO via commons.wikimedia.org

However, it is quite different for certain styles of Kung Fu, including Wing Chun which I practice. Indeed, there is a very wide variety of practice in the Chinese martial arts and certain styles of Kung Fu are not alike at all.

Concerning the Shaolin Monastery in Henan, it was by reading the origins of Wing Chun [1] of Yip Man that I wanted to pay more attention to its history. Yip Man cited the Shaolin Monastery in Henan in his manuscript as the origins of Wing Chun. He indicated in particular that under the reign of Emperor Kwangxi (1662-1722), the second emperor of the Manchu dynasty (the Qing), the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province, represented a powerful military organization which aroused the fear of Manchu. Shaolin was therefore burnt down and the monks were exterminated, to avoid any movement of rebellion.

There are other versions of this legend, known as the 5 Shaolin monks, the 5 Shaolin survivors or the 5 Shaolin elders 少 林五祖. This legend will be the subject of a future post.

Without going into chronological details, I will present in this post the main historical facts in order to distinguish them from the legendary facts that are attributed to the Shaolin Monastery in Henan. In fact, the history of the monastery is quite well known because there are still official historical sources, despite the considerable loss of precious documents following the last destruction of the Monastery in 1928.

Manuscripts in the “Dharma Hall” destroyed in 1928. Source: photo of Japanese visitors (names unknown), 1920. http://shaolin-monastery.blogspot.com/

For more details on the Shaolin Monastery in Henan, I highly recommend the great work of Meir Shahar in his book The Shaolin Monastery (see Sources), which I will cite several times in this post.


The Shaolin Monastery, a military center to serving the Emperor

The Shaolin Monastery is located in Henan province, on Mount Song, one of the 5 sacred mountains of China, the Wu Yue 五嶽. These 5 mountains correspond to the 5 cardinal points; North, South, East, West and Center. Mount Song represents the center (“Song Shan” on the map below) [2]. At the time of the various Chinese dynasties, these mountains symbolized by themselves the whole Chinese Empire and the emperors or their emissaries visited them regularly during their reign.

The 5 Sacred Mountains (red dots) and the 5 Buddhist Mountains (purple stars) of China. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Already in the 1st century, Mount Song was an important place for the Taoist religion. In the 5th century, the first Buddhist missionaries saw there a strong religious potential and gradually settled there. Emperor Xiaowen 孝文 (471-499) allowed Indian Buddhist monk Batuo 跋陀 to build the first Buddhist monastery in China : Shaolin ; shao 少 meaning small and lin 林 meaning forest, the monastery of the small forest [3].

“The Mountain Gate” of Shaolin Monastery. Source: photo of Japanese visitors (names unknown), 1920. http://shaolin-monastery.blogspot.com/

In the 6th century the Indian monk Bodhidharma 菩提 達摩, sometimes simply called Damo 達摩, went to Shaolin and stayed there for several years to transmit Chan Buddhism. According to legend, he also transmitted to the monks his knowledge of martial arts.

During the reign of Emperor Yang 煬 of the Sui dynasty (581-618), monks had to regularly face raids by brigands and to do this, they used martial arts, in particular simple sticks, to repel their aggressors. The stick technique of the Shaolin monastery quickly acquired an important reputation  [4].

The martial prowess of the Shaolin monks quickly took on an important dimension, so much so that in 621, General Li Shimin 李世民 enlisted the Shaolin monks to defeat his adversary General Wang Shishong 王世充. On the stele of 728, the names of 13 Shaolin monks in particular are cited : Dean Shanhu 善 护, Abbot Zhicao 志 操, supervisor Huiyang 惠 玚, General-in-Chief Tanzong 昙 宗 and the monks Puhui 普惠, Mingsong明 嵩, Lingxian 灵 宪, Pusheng 普 胜, Zhishou 智 守, Daoguang 道 广, Zhixing 智 兴, Man 僧 满 and Feng 僧 丰 [5].

Stele of the Shaolin Monastery built in 728. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

In 626, Li Shimin succeeded his father and became the 2nd emperor of the Tang dynasty. It took the name of Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (626-649). To thank the monks for their participation in the struggle against General Wang Shishong, Emperor Taizong offered the 13 Shaolin monks positions of responsibility. However, the monks declined the offer of the Emperor [5].

Under the Tang, the capital of the Empire was transferred to Luoyang, which is some 30 mi from Shaolin. The Monastery then became a geostrategic point and more and more militarized. The Tang were not very favorable to the development of Buddhism but they encouraged the military development of the Monastery in memory of the support of the Shaolin monks to the Emperor Tang Taizong [6].


From Buddhist monks to warrior monks

The practice of Chan Buddhism at Shaolin Monastery, like all other Buddhist currents, had to respect the 5 main precepts which are : do not kill, do not steal, do not have illegitimate sexual relations, do not lie and do not use substances altering the mind. The development of the military activities of warrior monks therefore seems to be quite contradictory with the precept do not kill, which implies, do not use violence. Indeed, the concept of non-violence, called Ahiṃsā in Sanskrit is very widespread in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism [7].

Detail from the fresco in Shaolin Monastery (see above at the beginning of the post), showing 2 monks practicing martial arts. Source: painting from Shaolin monastery, around 1800.

How did these Buddhist monks become warrior monks?

Shaolin monks worshiped several Buddhist deities early on, known as the Bodhisattva in Sanskrit. In the 8th century, under the Tang, there are references to the Indian deity Vajrapani, whom the Chinese call Jingangshou 金剛 手. Vajrapani is originally the caretaker of Siddhartha Gautama, who will become the Buddha. The deity protects him armed with his varja, hence his name Vajrapani; vajra meaning both lightning/diamond and pāni meaning in the hand [8].

In 1351, the Monastery was attacked by brigands belonging to the Red Turbans*. A legend tells that Vajrapani was incarnated using kitchen utensil to protect the monks from the attack of the Red Turbans raid. Others claim that he was an eccentric, sometimes scabies, monk who defended the Monastery and was the reincarnation of King Kinnara [9].

*The Red Turbans Rebellion was a set of rebellions that disrupted China for 20 years in the 14th century. These rebellions ended the Yuan dynasty in 1368. Note : the Red Turbans Rebellion of the 14th century should not be confused with the Red Turbans Rebellion of 1854-56 in Guangdong (this event will be the subject of next post).


In a way the character of Wudao, interpreted by Jackie Chan, in the film Shaolin (whose story takes place in the 1920s), refers to this legendary cook of the 14th century.

Wudao (Jackie Chan) armed with his shovel prepares to defend the Shaolin Monastery. Source: Shaolin, by Benny Chan, 2011.

Subsequently Vajrapani appeared armed with a stick, which became the emblematic weapon of the Shaolin monks. From the 16th century appeared other deities (Narayana or Kimnara) who, like Jingangshou, were other names which always referred to the same Buddhist deity : Vajrapani [10].

Vajrapani or Kimnara. Source : Shaolin Monastery Annals 少林寺志, by Yè Fēng 叶封 and Jiāo Qīnchǒng 焦钦宠, 1696. http://shaolin-monastery.blogspot.com/

The martial practice of the Shaolin monks was linked to the veneration of Buddhist deities [11]. The worship rendered to these deities enabled the Buddhist monks of Shaolin to justify their martial practice and their acts of violence.

On the other hand, Buddhists, like others, have found ways to justify the violation of their own principles. For instance, in Mahayana Buddhism, from which Chan Buddhism from Shaolin Monastery originated, one can admit murder by compassion. That is to say, when there is no other way to prevent a crime, it is best to kill the criminal before he commits his act. By this fact, the criminal avoids generating bad Karma and punishments in the beyond [12].


Shaolin acquires legendary reputation under the Ming (1368-1644)

During the 16th century, the Ming’s army fell into decline. Rebellions in the North of the country and raids in the East coast put the Chinese Empire in great difficulty.

Shaolin monks gave considerable support to the Ming in the face of rebellion and piracy. However, the fame of the fighting monks took all its importance during their engagement against the terrible Japanese pirates, the Wokou 倭寇, which cracked down on the Chinese coasts [13]. The Wokou had their base on the island of Kyushu in Japan and were made up of marginal people from Japanese society. They undertook raids in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian from 1553 [14].

Some generals very famous for having fought against the Wokou, such as Yu Dayou 俞大猷 (1503-1579) or Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 (1528-1588) benefited from military training in Shaolin Monastery [15].

An illustration taken from the manual “Shaolin Staff Method 少林 棍法”, Cheng Zongyou, 1621. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Shaolin monks were not the only ones used to serve the Ming. There were also the monks of Funiu 伏牛 and Wutai 五台. All of these warrior monks were brought to travel to exchange and enrich their martial practice. For example in the 16th century, Biandun 匾 國, a Shaolin monk expert in stick fighting, went to the temples of Mount Emei to transmit his art [16]. Far from the pious and exemplary image that one can get, itinerant monks escaped the usual monastic rules and consumed, for the most part, meat and wine, which was normally prohibited by Buddhist precepts [17].


The Shaolin Monastery loses influence under the Qing (1644-1912)

On the eve of the Manchu (Qing) takeover, the Shaolin Monastery was destroyed. In 1641, an army of thousands of peasants led by Li Zicheng 李自成 invaded Henan Province and destroyed the Shaolin Monastery. During the first decades of the Qing, the Monastery was abandoned [18]. Gradually the Manchu emperors tried to rehabilitate the Monastery by reintegrating monks and undertaking major reconstruction work : Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) offered two calligraphies to the Monastery and Emperors Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796) undertook the restoration of the monastery buildings [19].

Plaque of Emperor Kangxi from “The Mountain Gate” of the Shaolin Monastery. It is written 林 少 literally “the Shaolin Monastery”. Source: photo of Japanese visitors (names unknown), 1920. http://shaolin-monastery.blogspot.com/

In the origins of Wing Chun [1], Yip Man said that the Shaolin Monastery in Henan was destroyed during the reign of Kwangxi. This event did not actually take place.

However, it is important to clarify that unlike the Ming, the Qing did not encourage the military activities of the Shaolin monks, quite the contrary. Emperor Yongzheng destroyed all the sanctuaries annexed to Shaolin, known as fangtou 房 頭 [20], to break the network of monks and prevent the development of their military activities [21]. There was indeed a strong suspicion of rebellion by the monks against the Manchu government. In 1739, a senior Manchu official wrote a letter to Emperor Qianlong and warned him about the military activities of Shaolin Monastery in Henan: “The sturdy youths of Henan are accustomed to violence, many studying martial arts . For example, under the pretext of teaching the martial arts, the monks of the Shaolin Temple have been gathering worthless dregs. Violent criminals types willfully study evil customs which become a fashion. Heterodox sectarians target such criminals, tempting them to join their sects (secret societies), thereby increasing their number” [22].

The myth that the Manchus destroyed the Southern Shaolin Monastery was probably inspired by imperial operations of this type, like that of the Emperor Yongzheng, aimed at controlling or suppressing certain monasteries deemed defective or rebellious.


The Shaolin Monastery nowadays, a tourist hotspot for martial culture

In 1928, Shaolin was destroyed by a Kuomintang general, Shi Yousan 石 友 三 [23], and left in a state of ruin. From the 1950s onwards, Hong Kong cinema promoted the Chinese martial arts and the Shaolin Monastery, resulting in the emergence of a strong craze around the mythical Monastery.

In July 1978, the Henan authorities decided to open the Shaolin Monastery and the other historic sites of Dengfeng to foreign tourists. Doshin So, the founder of Shorinji Kempo, visited the Monastery twice, accompanied by a Japanese delegation. He made a donation to the Monastery of the statue of Bodhidharma and 5 million Yen which have enabled major renovations to be carried out [24]. Indeed, the Monastery was severely damaged and left almost abandoned since 1928. When Master Yongxin discovered the Monastery in 1981, to become a disciple of Master Xingzheng (1914-1987) [25], an old master who became a monk at the age of 6, he indicated that : “The Shaolin Monastery was on the verge of disappearing. He and his Kung Fu were practically forgotten by everyone, except for a few followers who frequented him intermittently. Everything was falling apart. Only a dozen monks remained, including nine very old monks who cultivated less than two hectares to support themselves.” [26]

In 1982, the movie Shaolin Temple with Jet Li, raised an extraordinary craze for Shaolin martial arts. Attendance at the temple then exploded and went from 200,000 visitors per year on average, reaching 2.6 million in 1984 and stabilizing around 1.5 million in the 1990s.

The reconstruction of the Monastery was completed in 1984 [27] and since the city of Dengfeng has witnessed the proliferation of many martial arts schools. Each year, there are more than 70,000 practitioners in the many schools of the city [28].

In 2010, as part of the historic monuments of the city of Dengfeng, the Shaolin Monastery and its “pagoda forest” were inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites [29]. The Monastery is today a must-see tourist place in China, like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City of Beijing. It is also a place of “pilgrimage” for many martial arts enthusiasts around the world.



The Shaolin Monastery in Henan is a Buddhist temple whose origins date back over 1500 years. The proximity with the power and the skill of its fighting monks allowed the Monastery to develop and to take a considerable scale in China, more or less important according to the times. Many stories circulate about the Shaolin monks, fueled by popular stories, operas, and more recently maintained by movies, as well as the tourist attraction around the Monastery since the 1980s. We must therefore clearly distinguish the historical facts , myths and legends.

The origins of martial arts in southern China are often linked to the Shaolin Monastery. In Wing Chun, Shaolin techniques would have influenced unarmed combat techniques but also weapon combat with the long pole. Indeed, in the legend of Wing Chun it is said that the Shaolin monk Gee Sin 禪 禪 would have transmitted the Luk Dim Bun Gwan 六點 半 棍 to the members of the Red Junk Opera and it is through this that the pole would have been integrated into the system. However, keep in mind that the handling of the Wing Chun’s long pole, which appears more like the handling of a spear, is very different from the stick handling that can be seen in Shaolin.

However, concerning the stick technique of the Shaolin Monastery, it has evolved a lot over time. As we have seen above, it began during the reign of Emperor Yang (604-619), of the Sui dynasty (581-618) where the monks used the stick to defend themselves against the brigands. The practice of the Shaolin stick became famous from this time. The handling of the stick was composed of 18 techniques executed in “natural grip” (both hands reversed from each other, like taking a spear) and had as measure 8 to 9 feet long. In fact, this corresponds more to the use of the long pole in Wing Chun, notably through the Luk Dim Bun Gwan 六點 半 棍 form and fighting techniques [4].

Then during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, the monks decided to shorten the length of the stick so that it reached the height of the eyebrows (about 5 feet) and thus maked easier its handling. This change allowed the creation of another grip of the stick called “downward grip” (both hands are oriented in the same direction, downward, if the stick is held horizontally) [4].

Eventually, at the end of the Ming dynasty, the art of the Shaolin stick was known throughout China and the techniques diversified from 18 to 32 and finally 64. The legacy of Shaolin stick is still very rich nowadays. There are many forms such as : Shepherd’s Staff (Qun Yang Gun 羣羊 棍), Eyebrow-Height Staff (Qi Mei Gun 齐眉棍), Crazy-Demon Staff (Feng Mo Gun 疯魔 棍), Wandering Monk’s Staff (Xingzhe Gun 行者 棍), Three-Line Staff (Sanlu Gun 三 路 棍) and Six-Line Staff (Liulu Gun 六 路 棍) [4].

In the origins of Wing Chun [1], Yip Man indicates that the Shaolin Monastery of Henan was burnt down during the Manchu reign. As we saw above, the Qing emperors did not destroy the Henan Monastery, on the contrary, they contributed to its renovation. In fact, the legend of the destruction of the Shaolin Monastery by the Manchus is more attributed to the Southern Shaolin Monastery in the province of Fujian (this will be detailed in a future post). Many of Yip Man students refer to Shaolin Monastery in Fujian, such as Leung Ting or Ip Chun to name a few [30]. Why did Yip Man mention the Shaolin Monastery in Henan in his manuscript ? Did he mistake it for Shaolin Monastery in Fujian? This is a question that will undoubtedly remain unanswered.

As far as the Southern Shaolin Monastery is concerned, its origins are very mysterious. Its alleged existence may be related to the Shaolin monks of Henan. Some were nomade and traveling all over the country. Presumably, at some point they would have settled in an annex monastery in Fujian, somehow affiliated with the Shaolin Monastery in Henan. Perhaps following the victories against the Wokou pirates, along the Chinese coasts in the 16th century. The monks could have settled in Fujian to secure the region and to be able to respond faster in the event of new raids. On the other hand, we know that during this same period, some Shaolin monks stayed for several years in Fujian, alongside Yu Dayou, the famous General Ming, known for his fight against the Wokou. Aside from these direct links to the Shaolin Monastery in Henan, it would seem that the origins of the Southern Shaolin Monastery are much more obscure and to be linked to the creation of secret societies at the end of the 18th century in Fujian.


[1] www.vingtsun.org.hk

[2] The Shaolin Monastery : History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, p12, SHAHAR Meir, ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009

[3] Ibid, p9

[4] An Authentic Description of Shaolin Staff Methods 寫真少林棍法, JIANG Rongqiao 姜容樵, 1930

[5] The Shaolin Monastery, p33-34, SHAHAR Meir

[6] Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p19-23, LEUNG Ting, ed. Leung Ting Co, 2000 and The Shaolin Monastery, p34, SHAHAR Meir et www.shaolin.org

[7] Encyclopédie universalis – article « ahiṃsā » de Anne-Marie ESNOUL

[8] Etude de sculpture bouddhique [article], Bulletin de l’école française de l’Extrême-Orient, tome 9, p523-527, VOGEL Jean Philippe, 1909, [www.persee.fr]

[9] The Shaolin Monastery, p83-85, SHAHAR Meir et An Authentic Description of Shaolin Staff Methods 寫真少林棍法, JIANG Rongqiao and A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity, LU Zhouxiang, ed. Routledge, 2019

 [10] Ibid, p87 and http://www.shaolin.org.cn/templates/EN_T_newS_list/index.aspx?nodeid=294&page=ContentPage&contentid=5959

[11] Meat,Wine and Fighting Monks (article de www.kungfumagazine.com) et The Shaolin Monastery, p91, SHAHAR Meir

[12] The Shaolin Monastery, p91, SHAHAR Meir

[13] Ibid, p68-71 and Piety over Piracy: The Shaolin Monks’ Victory against Wokou, Saber and Scroll, volume 3, Issue 4, p6, LANCASTER Ryan, 2014

[14] Pirates des mers de Chine, MEYER Charles dans Vues sur la piraterie, des origines à nos jours, sous la direction de JEAGER Gérard A. , TALLANDIER, 1992

[15] The Shaolin Monastery, p63-65, SHAHAR Meir

[16] Ibid, p75

[17] Meat,Wine and Fighting Monks (article de www.kungfumagazine.com)

[18] The Shaolin Monastery, p182-185, SHAHAR Meir

[19] Ibid, p190-191 and Hung Kuen part2 – p29-30 and www.shaolin.org et Meat,Wine and Fighting Monks (article de www.kungfumagazine.com)

[20] The Shaolin Monastery, p47, SHAHAR Meir

[21] Ibid, p191 and Meat,Wine and Fighting Monks (article de www.kungfumagazine.com)

[22] The Shaolin Monastery, p49, SHAHAR Meir

[23] Ibid, p27 et www.shaolin.org

[24] A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity, LU Zhouxiang, ed. Routledge, 2019

[25] http://www.shaolin.org.cn/templates/EN_T_newS_list/index.aspx?nodeid=379&page=ContentPage&contentid=2150

[26] https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/2005/08/04/destin-kung-fu-pour-les-moines

[27] The Shaolin Monastery, p88, SHAHAR Meir

[28] Ibid, p9

[29] www.whc.unesco.org

[30] Roots and Branches of Wing Tsun, p34 and p55, LEUNG Ting and Wing Chun Kung Fu, traditional Chinese kung fu for self defense & health, p17, TSE Michael et IP Chun, ed. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998


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