The Southern Shaolin Monastery : between myth and reality


This post follows that of the Shaolin Monastery in Henan, which deals with the historical outlines of this mythical monastery known throughout the world.

The Southern Shaolin Monastery is much more mysterious and less known to the general public. It is however deeply rooted in the martial arts culture of southern China. He was first staged by many epic Wuxia-type Chinese novels 武侠 and later in Hong Kong cinema with these countless Kung Fu movies.

Poster of “Invincible Saholin” by Chang Cheh, 1978. In this movie, we can see masters of the Northern Shaolin Monastery confronting masters of the Southern Shaolin Monastery.

For my part, it was by reading the origins of Wing Chun from Ip Man [1] that I wanted to take a closer look at its History. As Ip Man quotes in his manuscript, this mysterious monastery is mainly known through the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin ; written in pinyin mandarin Shaolin Wu Zu, however I prefer the script in jyutping cantonese Siulam Ng Zou, since this legend is well attributed to the south of China. No matter what romanization is used, in Chinese the Shaolin 5 elders is written 少 林五祖.

In broad outline, the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin tells that the Qing (the Manchus) destroyed the Southern Shaolin Monastery because they suspected the monks of betraying the emperor. Following the destruction of the Monastery, only 5 survivors escaped from the Manchu. Before separating, the 5 survivors made the pact to “overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming”, the famous Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明 doctrine was born.

The origines of Wing Chun by Ip Man circa 1965/66. Source : www.vingtsun.org.hk

Note that Ip Man indicated in his manuscript that it was the Shaolin Monastery in Henan province. However, most of the other martial arts in southern China relate this legend to the Shaolin Monastery in Fujian province, in south of China [2].

Both of this, the mention of the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin, survivors of a Shaolin Monastery destroyed by the Qing, and the Fan Qing Fu Ming doctrine, indicate an undoubted link with the secret society Tiandihui 天地 會 which developed in southern China from the end of the 18th century.

Regarding the Tiandihui, I highly recommend reading The Origins of the Tiandihui, by Dian Murray (see Sources). I will give here some brief elements to clarify our point. I will certainly write a more detailed post on the Tiandihui because there is much to be said for the influence of this secret society on the martial arts of southern China.

 

Southern Shaolin Monastery, a myth behind the Tiandihui secret society

First concerning the term “secret societies”, it was given by 19th century European scholars who were the first to study it. They assimilated these Chinese organizations to the European secret societies of the time, such as Freemasonry. Chinese scholars use another term, Hui 會, which has no real equivalent in English, it is most often translated as “society” or “association”. [3]

Under the Qing (1644-1911), secret societies were increasingly present. Two of them were very powerful and dominate China ; to the north the Bai Lian Jiao 白蓮教 “the White Lotus Society” and to the south the Tian Di Hui 天地 會 “the Heaven and Earth Society”. [4]

Tiandihui was created in 1761/62 in Fujian [5]. By spreading in the south of China, the Tiandihui has sometimes been designated by other names like, Sandianhui 三點 會 “the 3 dots Society”, Sanhehui 三合會 “the 3 units Society” or by the term Hung Mun 洪門 “the Great Gate” used more particularly by the Cantonese [6]. Concerning the latter, the character 洪 refers to the surname Hung 洪, of the first Ming emperor, Hungwu 洪武 [7]. It was a way to signify the allegiance of this secret society to the ancient Chinese Ming dynasty.

Certificate given to the new member of Tiandihui. Source : The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association

There are several historical documents recounting the legendary origins of the Tiandihui. The legend of the 5 Shaolin monks is said to originate from the creative myth of the secret society.

In these texts, the authors told an extraordinary story, which specialists like Dian Murray called the Xi Lu legend, depicting the surviving monks of Shaolin after the destruction of their Monastery by the Qing. The adoption of this legend gave the Tiandihui a more political way with a strong anti-Manchu feeling. The first trace of this legend appeared at the beginning of the 19th century [8]. There are seven versions of this legend relatively close to each other (they are all transcribed in The Origins of Tiandihui by Dian Murray).

I studied two sources that deal with Tiandihui and the Xi Lu legend :

  • The first dating from 1866, written by Gustave Schlegel, a Dutch naturalist and sinologist, from the books of the Hung Mun raided in Batavia (currently Jakarta in Indonesia) ; 天地 會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India
  • The second from 1900, written by William Stanton, a Hong Kong Police detective ; The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association

Here is a brief summary of the Xi Lu legend, synthesized from the texts of Gustave Schlegel and William Stanton which according to Dian Murray, both belong to the same version of the legend :

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Qing were put in difficulty by a Mongolian community, the Xi Lu 西魯 or Eleuth, to the west of the empire. The Qing asked for help from the Shaolin monks to repel the enemy. The monks emerged victorious from this conflict and greatly impressed the imperial power, so much so the emperor Yong Zheng 雍親 (1722-35) feared an uprising of the Shaolin monks against the Qing. In 1734, the emperor decided to destroy the Shaolin Monastery, in order to avoid a possible insurrection of the monks. He plotted with a corrupt monk named Ma Yi Fu 馬儀幅 [9], who burned down the Monastery from the inside, while Manchu troops stormed the building from the outside. More than a hundred monks were killed, 13 managed to flee but only 5 of them escaped the Manchu: Choy Tak Chung 蔡德忠, Fong Tai Hung 方大洪, Ma Chiu Hing 馬超興, Wu Tak Tai 胡德帝, Li Sik Hoi 李式開 [10].

Qing army attacks Shaolin Monastery. Source: drawing telling the story of Shaolin Monastery in Quanzhou, Fujian.

The 5 survivors decided to form an alliance to take revenge on the Manchus and created the formula which became famous afterwards Fan Qing Fu Ming 反清 復明, meaning “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming” [11].

So here it is an anti-Manchu feeling deeply rooted in this myth which appeared only at the beginning of the 19th century. The result is a strong political will which legitimizes Tiandihui‘s actions towards the Manchu authorities [12].

Many styles in southern China evoke a filiation of their martial art in the Southern Shaolin Monastery through this myth of the 5 monks of Shaolin, with variations according to the stories. It seems, moreover, that the Shaolin Monastery has survived solely in the martial arts folklore for more than two centuries. I will return in detail to the legend of the 5 elders of Shaolin in a future post.

 

Several scholars, Western and Chinese, presented their research and their reflections to try to highlight the tangible proofs of the existence of the Southern Shaolin Monastery. Among them, in 2010, Scott Buckler exposed in his thesis, six possible localities in the province of Fujian [13]. In the rest of this post, I will review three of them : Putian 莆田, Quanzhou 泉州 and Fuqing 福清. In these three localities, monasteries were (re)built in the 1990s, and claim to be the so-called Southern Shaolin Monastery.

 

Southern Shaolin Monasteries nowadays

Most scholars and intellectuals in the field agree that the Southern Shaolin Monastery is just a myth. It never physically existed. In the seven versions of the Xi Lu legend, the Southern Shaolin Monastery is located in different places. Mainly in Fujian province in Fuzhou [14] and Pulong. However for Pulong, Dian Murray indicated in his work that it is not a real place [15]. We also find in one version of the Xi Lu legend, the province of Gansu as being the place where the Shaolin Monastery is located [16].

However, in the 1990s, three monasteries were (re)built in Putian, Quanzhou and Fuqing. These three localities are located in the province of Fujian. The communities of each of these localities claimed the authenticity of their monastery. They highlighted archaeological evidence, however criticized, to assert their legitimacy like stones with old inscriptions, pottery and archaeological excavation sites.

The monasteries of Putian, Quanzhou and Fuqing also convey their history which can be discovered on the internet, from numerous travel blogs and vlogs of people who have visited these monasteries. For example you can check out the articles from kungfumagazine.com written by Professor Gregory Brundage. The paragraphs below dedicated to each monastery will mainly be based on it.

 

Putian 莆田

Shaolin Monastery of Putian. On the door at the top left, it is written Naam Siu Lam Zi 南 少林寺, meaning “the Southern Shaolin Monastery”. Source: Google Maps.

Putian Monastery was originally called Linquanyuan Temple, it was founded in 557. During the reign of Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (626-649), Shaolin monks from Henan were sent to Fujian to fight pirates plundering the Chinese sides. These monks are said to have been led by one of the 13 famous Shaolin warriors who protected the emperor (see my post on Shaolin monastery in Henan for this fact). The monks would then have founded the Southern Shaolin Monastery. Then, the Monastery was said to have been destroyed under the Qing and left in ruins for more than 200 years. In the 1980s, these ruins were rediscovered and decided to rebuild the monastery which opened its doors to the public at the end of the 1990s [17].

Here is the summary of Gregory Brundage, written in October 2014, about the Shaolin Monastery of Putian : “There is ample historical evidence that this Putian monastery was associated with Shaolin for centuries ; however, it appears little effort is invested in proving or communicating its historical authenticity. Instead, it appears to be a (rather small) monastery devoted to Buddhism and propagation of Shaolin martial arts, in that order. Perhaps if more of the Shaolin monks had been there it might have been different.”

Note that Putian is the place where the Shaolin Monastery is located in the Xi Lu legend by William Staton [18].

 

Quanzhou 泉州

Shaolin Monastery in Quanzhou. On the door at the top left and the sign at the bottom right, it is written Siu Lam Sim Zi 少林 禪寺, meaning “the Buddhist Shaolin Monastery”. Source: Google Maps.

According to Quanzhou Monastery, the Southern Shaolin Monastery was founded in the 7th century under the Tang dynasty, by one of the 13 Shaolin monks from Henan who had protected the emperor Tang Taizong 唐太宗 (626-649). Originally it was called Zhenguo Dongchan Shaolin Monastery 鎮 國 東 禪 少林寺. Quanzhou Monastery is said to have been destroyed three times, the last of which was in 1763, during the reign of Qianlong 乾隆 (1733-1796), a Qing emperor. The Monastery was rebuilt from 1992 and the first buildings were rehabilitated in 1997.

In Quanzhou, there also existed a large Buddhist monastery, destroyed during the Revolution. Since then, the territory has been redeveloped and a prison has been built on the remains of the old temple cemetery. However, no archaeological research has confirmed the existence of a monastery known as Shaolin [19].

 

Fuqing 福清

The Shaolin Monastery of Fuqing. On the door at the top left, it is written 南 少林寺, meaning “the Southern Shaolin Monastery”. Source: Google Maps.

Fuqing Monastery is the most rural of the three Fujian monasteries. It is also this one who has a larger collection of archaeological artifacts and whose ruins are still visible. It would have been founded in 627. The Monastery was rebuilt in the 1990s and is the last to have completed its renovations.

Gregory Brundage explains that the most likely reason why Fuqing has a large collection of artifacts is that it is in the countryside, far from an urban center, which has allowed it to better protect its ancient treasures during the unrest encountered in recent centuries in China, unlike Putian and Quanzhou.

Other scholars agree that Fuqing may appear to be the most plausible of the three monasteries to be the so-called Southern Shaolin Monastery [20]. Especially since the monastery of Fuqing is located near Fuzhou, one of the localities cited in one of the seven versions of the legend Xi Lu. Indeed, in the version of Gustave Schegel, the Southern Shaolin Monastery is located in Fuzhou [14].

 

Conclusion

Despite the ruins uncovered and archaeological evidence, particularly for the Fuqing Monastery, which has many artefacts, researchers are controversial about the authenticity of the three Shaolin Monasteries in Fujian.

The problem may be the cruel lack of crossover of historical sources. Unlike the Henan Monastery, there are no official documents that testify to this monastery. No dynasty, from the Tang (618 to 907) to the Qing (1644 to 1912), made any mention of any Shaolin Monastery in Fujian. No scholars of these times testified of this monastery, not even Yu Dayou 俞大猷 (1503-1579), the famous general having fight against the pirates wokou 倭寇 in Fujian and having been trained at Shaolin Monastery in Henan [21].

The three Fujian monasteries were (re)built in the 1990s, after the effervescence that resulted in the rehabilitation of Shaolin Monastery in Henan in the 1980s, which then had more than 1 million visitors per year [22]. It is important to specify however that the monasteries of Putian, Quanzhou and Fuqing are not considered as contemporary sub-temples linked to the Shaolin Monastery in Henan. All this can lead us to doubt the authenticity of the historical and archaeological sources of these buildings, given the significant tourist attraction [23] and therefore economic potential that such monasteries can bring [24], like the Shaolin Monastery in Henan.

 

The fact that there are three monasteries claiming to be the famous Southern Shaolin Monastery necessarily leads to a legitimate question : why are there three ? Various stories and legends about this monastery have always referred to a single Southern Shaolin Monastery. From there, we can therefore establish three hypotheses :

1 / Only one of the three monasteries is the so-called Southern Shaolin Monastery and therefore the other two are fakes.

2 / The three monasteries have been in their history, perhaps at one point, one in place of the other two, the Southern Shaolin Monastery.

3 / None of the three monasteries was the Southern Shaolin Monastery. The monastery never existed physically. It is just a symbol.

 

For the first hypothesis, the future may reveal it to us, if an infallible archaeological source will agree with the community of researchers in the field.

Still for the first hypothesis, as well as for the second, we can assume that Shaolin monks from Henan could have stayed in a Fujian monastery, for a more or less long period, in order to fight against the wokou pirate raids. It is known that in the 1550s, Shaolin monks from Henan, among other combatant monks, fought and defeated pirates in the golf of Hangzhou (near Shanghai) [25]. In the 16th century, it was not uncommon for Ming armies to be replaced by warrior monks to fight against enemies of the Empire. A contingent of Shaolin monks could have settled in Fujian as a preventive measure to fight against wokou and possibly change places several times. On the other hand, these three localities are close to the coasts, therefore well located to respond to a raid of pirates from the sea. The monasteries that hosted the Shaolin monks could have been renamed in turn “Shaolin Monastery”, or if it is not the case, to be in any case deeply impregnated by the presence of these warrior monks.

For the latter hypothesis, it is certain that the Southern Shaolin Monastery was a strong symbol in the circles of martial arts and secret societies in southern China from the end of the 18th century. Robert Chu and Rene Ritchie suggest that the Monastery could be a code of recognition between members of the secret society on the one hand, and martial arts practitioners on the other hand [26]. The Xi Lu legend was revealed during the initiation ceremony for new members of the Tiandihui (see below). This legend is based on popular elements sometimes inspired by the novels Water Margin and The Three Kingdoms, two of the four classic Chinese novels, by local cultural beliefs and stories, as well as events that took place at the Shaolin Monastery in Henan [27], like the extraordinary story of the 13 Shaolin monks who saved Li Shimin, the future emperor Tang Taizong [28]. The Xi Lu legend mainly developed from the beginning of the 19th century to further justify the political causes and the very existence of the Tiandihui.

Below an extract from the initiation ritual of a new member of the Tiandihui from the writings of Gustave Schlegel [29], the questions (Q) are asked by “the master of ceremonies” while the answers (A) are given by the “vanguard” who speaks on behalf of the new members :

Q : How did you obtain your knowledge of military art ?

A : I learned it at the convent Shaolin.

Q : What did you learn firstly ?

A : I firstly learned the art of boxing of the Hung-brethern.

Q : How can you prove that ?

A : I can prove it by a verse.

Q : How does this verse run ?

A : The fists of the brave and valiant Hungs are known through all the world.

      Since the Shaolin convent it has been transmitted.

     Under the whole expanse of heaven we all are called Hung.

    Afterwards we will assist the prince of the house of Ming.

To conclude this post, I would like to quote Dian Murray who perfectly sums up the impact of the Southern Shaolin Monastery in popular culture [30] :

“Within the realm of popular culture, the [Southern] Shaolin temple, reputed by Triad [or Tiandihui] foundation accounts to have been the site of the first Triad association, is cashing in on its simultaneous reputation as the legendary origin of the Chinese martial arts to become a place of pilgrimage for both Chinese and Western practitioners as well as the setting for numerous potboiler novels and film”.


Sources

[1] www.vingtsun.org.hk

[2] Hung Kuen part two, p29-30, Leung’s Publications, 1981

[3] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p1 and p4, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[4] Les sociétés secrètes en Chine, p31, CHESNEAUX Jean, ed. Julliard, 1965

[5] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p17, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[6] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p2, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994 and Stangers at the Gate, p118, WAKEMAN Frederic, ed. University of California press, 1966

[7] Myth in the Shape of History: Elusive Triad Leaders (Chinese Triads: Perspectives and Histories, Identities, and Spheres of Impact), p20 and p24, TER HAAR Barend, ed. Singapore History Museum, 2002

[8] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p37, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[9] The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association, p31, STANTON William, ed. Kelly & Walsh. 1900

[10] The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association, p31, STANTON William, ed. Kelly & Walsh. 1900 and 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p15, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866

[11] 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p7 to p19, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866

[12] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p89, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[13] Sects and violence : development of an inclusive taxonomy to hermeneutically explore the histo-philosophical motivators for the inception and development of the martial art, Wing Chun Kuen, p144 to p148, BUCKLER Scott, Coventry University, 2010

[14] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p204, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994 and 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p8, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866

[15] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p212, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[16] The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History, p198, MURRAY Dian, QIN Baoqi, ed. Stanford University Press, 1994

[17] Origin of Wing Chun an Alternative Perspective, p10, BUCKLER Scott, Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Issue 6, winter 2012

[18] The Triad Society or Heaven and Earth Association, p29, STANTON William, ed. Kelly & Walsh. 1900 William Staton

[19] Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads: Creating an Identity, p405, TER HAAR Barend, ed. Brill, 1998

[20] The Shaolin Monastery : History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, p234, SHAHAR Meir, ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009

[21] Ibid, p63-65

[22] Ibid, p9

[23] Origin of Wing Chun an Alternative Perspective, p14, BUCKLER Scott, Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Issue 6, winter 2012

[24] journals.openedition.org et Hung Kuen part two, p30, Leung’s Publications, 1981

[25] The Shaolin Monastery : History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, p69, SHAHAR Meir, ed. University of Hawai’i Press, 2009

[26] Complete Wing Chun: The Definitive Guide to Wing Chun’s History and Traditions, p106-107, CHU Robert, RITCHIE Rene, ed. Tuttle Publishing, 1998

[27] Origin of Wing Chun an Alternative Perspective, p11-12 and p169, BUCKLER Scott, Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Issue 6, winter 2012

[28] Origin of Wing Chun an Alternative Perspective, p14, BUCKLER Scott, Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Issue 6, winter 2012 and Stangers at the Gate, p119, WAKEMAN Frederic, ed. University of California press, 1966

[29] 天地會 Thian Di Hwui, The Hung League or Heaven Earth League, a secret society with the chinese in China and India, p65, SCHLEGEL Gustave, ed. Lange & Co., 1866 and Les sociétés secrètes en Chine, p31, CHESNEAUX Jean, ed. Julliard, 1965

[30] China Review International : A Journal of Reviews of Scholarly Literature in Chinese Studies, Vol 7, No 1, p37, MURRAY Diane, University of Hawai’i Press, 2000


 

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