The Genesis of Shaolin

by Tony Francis on October 12, 2009 · 1 comment in Buddhist Blog

Woshi Shanren (pseudonym for Chen Jin) wrote a whole series of popular Wong Fei Hung novels and his stories were a fixture of Cantonese newspapers. The Wong Fei Hung writings aside, his work has historical reference points and examines beloved figures brought to life in the classic Shaw Brothers movies.  Woshi Shanren provides a particularly evocative description of the monk’s surroundings in his novel ‘The San De Monk’s Three Visits to the Xichan Monastery’:

“The Shaolin Monastery was largely self-sufficient and had no need to fall back on the offerings of worshipers.  Every effort was devoted to training in the martial arts, and the number of students who entered the monastery was virtually limitless.  But many were discouraged by the arduousness of the training, and some, after a year or so, sought to leave without permission.  Such abscondees were a great source of embarrassment to the monastery, since they were incapable of meeting challenges from other martial artists.  Zhi Shan therefore devised a system of metal figures (each in the form of a luohan, or a favored disciple of Buddha) to stand outside the building.  Anyone attempting to make an unauthorized exit would activate these mechanical figures and be attacked by them.  Only the most expert martial artists could fight their way past these figures.”

Zhi Shan appointed his senior disciple Xing Yin (the Qingcao Monk) as the monastery’s chief instructor in charge of the legendary 36 chambers, and created the Luohan Hall as a final test for student monks. This contained 108 wooden figures that could be controlled to attack those who chose to enter the chamber.  This could be a traumatic ordeal for students and those without great ability sustained quite serious injuries.  Student monks were not permitted to leave the Shaolin Monastery until they had passed through the Luohan Hall and this wasn’t even the final obstacle in their path.  Zhu Yuzhai wrote in his book ‘Heroes of South China’ (1950):

“The student was still not considered a graduate from Shaolin even after he had fought his way through the corridor of wooden dummies.  He then had to make his way through a side door, so narrow that only one person might pass through it at a time.  However, this door was blocked by a large copper urn, and the student had to move it to make his way out.  The urn weighed 100 pounds and contained smoldering incense; the student had to clasp it firmly in order to move it.  In the process, the dragon and tiger motifs on the sides of the urn were indelibly branded on to his forearms.”

The brands from the urn were a sign of graduation for Shaolin students and the ritual was famously depicted in the ‘Kung Fu’ TV series (1972 – 1975).  ‘Shaolin Wooden Men’ (1976) and ‘The 18 Bronzemen’ (1976) also look at the graduation process and the journey students eventually take.  The Five Elders of Shaolin appeared during Zhi Shan’s era  and were Wu Mei, Zhi Shan, Bai Mei, Feng Daode and Miao Xian.  They all contributed to the development of Southern Kung Fu but later became involved in bitter feuding, with some defecting to the internal Wudang style. (Feng Daode and Bai Mei were amongst those who turned against Shaolin).
Woshi Shanren’s ‘The San-De Monk’s Three Visits to the Xichan Monastery’ examines this turn of events:

“Neither the most valiant general in court nor the most dauntless frontier commander can match the masters of Shaolin. This is a fact well grasped by Emperor Qian Long. That is why the court seeks to rally the support of Wudang disciples – it wishes to rid itself of the Shaolin school.”

Ten individuals are said to have escaped the burning of the Shaolin monastery but only five of them survived.  These were Cai Dezhong, Fang Dahong, Ma Chaoxing, Hu Dedi and Li Shikai who formed the anti-Qing league and became known as the five ancestors of Shaolin.  Woshi Shanren described how the anti-Qing struggle continued in ‘Two Tigers of the Martial Arts World’:

“Numerous masters appeared as the techniques were passed on from generation to generation.  In the middle years of the Qing Dynasty, ten eminent martial artists appeared in Guangzhou, known variously as the Mad Tigers’ or as the Ten Tigers of Guangdong.”

San De/San Te (born Lau) was a Shaolin Disciple who achieved folk hero status during the Manchu Dynasty and became synonymous with teaching everyday people the Kung Fu skills he acquired as a monk.  The details of his life can be found in Woshi Shanren’s ‘Monk San De’s Three Visits to the Xichan Monastery’, which Lau Kar Leung utilized as part inspiration for the classic Gordon Liu films.  Variations on the character can also be found in other films such as Chan Sing’s portrayal in ‘The Iron Fisted Monk’ (1977).

San De was already well versed in Kung Fu before arriving at Shaolin and was known for his power with Iron Rings, gaining the nickname ‘Iron Rings’.  He took refuge at the monastery after killing a Manchu soldier in self defense and eventually attained monk status, being given the name San Te which means ‘three virtues’.  He was sadly killed in Xichan by Qing invaders after founding his own monastery to teach the general public Kung Fu.   His father was a tea merchant in Guangzhou and his shop was located in the Shuangmendi district. Coincidentally this was an area where a great deal of Qixia Lao (Manchus) resided and it’s reported that San De was aged 16 towards the end of Emperor Yong Zheng’s reign (1723-1736). In addition, he was was a student of Zhi Shan who’s linage can also be traced.

San De later traveled to the Xichan Monastery in Guangzhou and was actively involved in anti-Qing activities. Wudang disciples and Qing soldiers managed to locate the monastery and he was tragically killed.  There is no definitive account of the San De story, however I personally believe that the main facts have been covered in literature and on film.  It’s a given that Lau Kar Leung added elements and perhaps so did Chen Jin.

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