Shaolin: The Legend and Lies

Despite the various purposes they serve in modern society, the martial arts first developed out of necessity. Personal safety has never been a guarantee, and so those who felt a pressing need to overcome the threats they faced within their society created systems of addressing the problems they were likely to encounter. In East Asia, myriad fighting traditions influenced one another and adapted to fit each country’s societal and social context. The oldest documented martial arts in this region developed in China, the country which, by all accounts, was linguistically, culturally, and economically more advanced.

In many ways, China was the dominant cultural force in East Asia during this historical period, and not just where Okinawa was concerned. It is generally held that “The Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan and Korean peoples share a deep respect for ancient Chinese culture.”[1] Okinawans in particular are said to have a respect for “anything Chinese”[2], and so “Anything that reflected a Chinese influence would have been highly regarded and recognized as advanced.”[3] It is a widely held belief that “Okinawans hold all things Chinese in high esteem.”[4] As a result, Chinese education, art, and fighting methods were highly coveted in Okinawa.

In order to ultimately understand how Chinese Quanfa (拳法, meaning “fist-law”, pronounced “Kenpo” in Japanese[5]) influenced the development of Karate in Okinawa, it is first important to understand how and why the Chinese martial arts were developed to begin with. And any account of the origins of Chinese boxing must begin with the mythical figure of Bodhidharma.

Motobu Choki reports that “unlike the ambiguity that plagues the local evolution of karate in Okinawa, Chinese history clearly links the development of karate to the monk Bodhidharma.”[6] Bodhidharma (also called Daruma Tashi in Japan, or Tamo in China[7]) was the 27th patriarch of Buddhism[8] in India. Bodhidharma is credited with being the first patriarch of Chan or Zen Buddhism[9].

There are conflicting reports as to exactly when Bodhidharma left his hometown of Kamchipuram[10] and began his long journey to China – one source says that he arrived in 520 CE[11], another says 527 CE[12], while another states that he did not leave until 539 CE[13] – but it is clear that Bodhidharma travelled across the Himalayas into China[14] sometime in the early 6th Century.

Upon arrival, Bodhidharma is reported to have had an address with the Emperor of China, Wu Di, in Luoyang[15], after which he proceeded to the Shaolin temple in Henan Province[16]. According to the legend, the first Buddhist monks at Shaolin were in poor physical condition, unable to maintain Bodhidharma’s signature religious practice, zazen[17] (sitting meditation). To strengthen both the bodies and minds of his followers, Bodhidharma introduced “embryonic, spiritual practices and esoteric principles [which] formed the foundation on which quanfa developed. This synthesis included ritualistic vajramukti exercises for strengthening bone, tendon, and muscle; defensive techniques from ksatreya warrior traditions; meditative breathing and yoga asana postures; acupuncture, massage, and herbal medicine; and Buddhist spiritual doctrines, all introduced by Indian monks.”[18]

The defensive techniques introduced by Bodhidharma at the Shaolin temple form the original basis for what is now known as Luohan Quan (“Monk-Fist boxing”) in China[19] or Shorinji Kenpo (少林寺拳法, “Shaolin Temple boxing”) in Japan[20]. The breakdown of Bodhidharma’s original self-defense teachings are reported to be as follows: twenty-four defensive and offensive techniques, contained in eighteen combative exercises; six quan (型 “kata” in Japanese) for striking vital points with the fists; two quan for striking vital points with the palms; one quan for striking vital points with the elbows; four quan for developing foot and leg maneuvers; and five grappling quan[21]. Nine more exercises were later developed and added to these original eighteen quan, which made a total of twenty-seven; these twenty-seven exercises were then split into two parts, which increased the total to fifty-four[22]. Practicing these exercises on both sides then created a total of one-hundred and eight[23]. These numbers are highly significant since they appear in the names of many of the kata that are practiced in modern karate, such as Useishi (Gojushiho) and Pechurrin (Suparinpe).

There are also two scrolls, the Senzuikyo and the Ekkinkyo[24], that are attributed to Bodhidharma, which were discovered either at his gravesite[25] or in the walls of the Shaolin Temple[26]. The Senzuikyo outlines his spiritual teachings, while the Ekkinkyo outlines his physical exercises[27]. The Ekkinkyo was apparently stolen and brought back to India by one of Bodhidharma’s senior disciples, who was more interested in the Quanfa than he was in the spiritual teachings[28]. Like many other classical religious and martial arts texts, it is likely that these scrolls were produced after the time of Bodhidharma, and merely credited posthumously to him.

The somewhat bizarre mixture of Buddhism and martial arts became the source of a great deal of mysticism and mystery in China, especially during the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) Dynasties, when Chinese martial arts heroes became a cultural phenomenon[29], and during the Ming Dynasty (1166-1644 CE) when a number of novelists began writing about Shaolin Quanfa[30]. The initial demand for more information about these two new phenomenon led to continued contact between China and India: “With the advent of Buddhism, a growing intercourse between India and China gradually affected the growth and direction of herbal medicine and the fighting arts.”[31] Thus it is clear that Bodhidharma’s initial influence created a surge of interest that lasted well beyond his lifetime.

The Facts About Shaolin:

Unfortunately for those who like the romanticism of this myth, virtually everything that was reported in the last section has been proven to be fabricated. There is speculation even in the research of Zen Buddhism that Bodhidharma was not a real person at all, but even if he were, the reality is that Bodhidharma had nothing to do with martial arts[32]. Anyone who has read on the subject is likely to have doubts; accounts which state that after arriving at the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma “spent the next nine years facing a wall on Mt. Songshan in meditative seclusion”[33] certainly can create some reasonable doubt. The historical research of Tang Hao in the 1920s was the first to combat the myth of Bodhidharma[34]. The facts are that there really was a Buddhist temple named Shaolin, and Bodhidharma (if he was a real person) is reported to have lived there[35]. The rest of the Shaolin myth is factually false.

Bodhidharma represents ancient Chinese culture, which was well respected in neighbouring countries like Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa and Japan[36]. This makes Bodhidharma a very convenient figure – both for the martial arts and for Zen Buddhism – who lends respectability and authenticity to any tradition that can claim a link back to his heritage.

So how did this myth become so prominent, even in the minds of martial arts historians and practitioners? The truth is in the power of fiction. The details of the Bodhidharma myth were “invented” in two books: The Travels of Lao Can and Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing[37]. Both of these books were published after 1900[38].

However, myths such as these do not simply fall out of the sky fully formed. There was actually a historical precedent for the story of Shaolin. Firstly, during the establishment of early Buddhist temples in China, there was an inherent conflict in the previously dominant philosophical mindset (based largely on Confucian principles) and the new one being imported. One of Confucianism’s main tenets is devotion and loyalty towards one’s family, while a central motif of Buddhism, beginning with the Buddha himself, is separation from one’s family[39]. As a result, the wandering Buddhist monk became an archetype for being outside society, and outside of government control[40]. Criminals and bandits who wanted to escape government control and stay outside of mainstream society often adopted the guise of Buddhist monks, including shaving their heads[41]. Ultimately, the archetype of a wandering Buddhist monk also became associated with decidedly un-Buddhist behaviours, such as banditry, violence, and lechery.

However, in a monastic setting, Buddhism thrived with imperial support. Many temples became like other large secular institutions, including having a significant amount of land and even industrial production facilities[42]. It is also safe to say that not everyone who worked or lived at these temples were devout Buddhists, let alone monks. In fact, temples of this sort “organized their tenants into defensive forces and employed martial artists to train and lead these forces.”[43] So in fact, many of the “monks” that history remembers as martial artists were really just martial artists who happened to be employed at Buddhist temples.

The myth of Shaolin seems to have sprouted from such a group of individuals. After the end of the Sui Dynasty, a number of warlords were fighting in competition for lands, and one such group seized some of Shaolin’s property in 621 CE[44]. A group of “monks” (who in reality may or may not have been ordained) fought back and helped Li Shinnin, who would later become the Emperor Tang Taizong, secure Luoyang[45]. Some of the monks received military titles as a result[46]. However, “No further mention of combat or martial arts at Shaolin Monastery appears for nearly nine hundred years following this event.”[47]

The next mention of Shaolin in connection with fighting arts occurred during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty is looked upon by many martial arts historians with a kind of nostalgia reminiscent of how the U.S. remembers the 1950s – the golden era, an idyllic age. A large part of this nostalgia is the lingering result of the Ming Loyalists who idealized the past during the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty.

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the Shaolin temple had been recently destroyed. It was burned down in 1356, but rebuilt again in the early Ming Dynasty “with a much more militarized character”[48]. This character would eventually lead to its fame and reputation.

When Wan Biao initially suggested recruiting Shaolin monks to fight the Japanese wokou pirates who were plaguing the Chinese border at the time, the three provincial officers that he pitched the idea to laughed in response[49]. However, after a demonstration of their fighting prowess, the Shaolin monks were recruited to fight against the wokou pirates. They participated in four battles with the pirates, in three of which they emerged victorious[50]. The most notable of these was July 21-31st in 1553, when they killed over 100 pirates with only four monks dying[51].

Again, the term “monk” here is misleading. In Peter Lorge’s words, these were “men of violence who work[ed] for monasteries and dress[ed] as monks.”[52] This meant as well that these fighting “monks” were not bound by Buddhist monastic restrictions; they drank wine, ate meat, had sex, and fought[53]. However, it is during the Ming Dynasty that the Shaolin temple’s reputation was established. General Gi Ji Guang, who was seminal in defeating the wokou pirates, mentions Shaolin staff techniques in his 1561 training manual, New Manual on Military Efficiency[54]. The Shaolin Temple’s success against the pirates led to imperial patronage, tax exemptions, and a reputation for martial prowess[55]. However, just because it was a temple did not make it unlike other wealthy and powerful local institutions: “Like any other powerful landowner or institution, Shaolin occasionally put its security force in the service of the state in return for state confirmation of its local power.”[56]

Despite its enduring legend, the Shaolin Temple fell on hard times as the Ming Dynasty collapsed. The temple had suffered large military defeats and was attacked by a local warlord who looted the temple and killed most of the monks[57]. The incoming Qing Dynasty was highly suspicious of the Shaolin Temple because it had supported and been supported by the Ming Emperor[58]. Without imperial support, the temple struggled significantly for the next several hundred years.

A number of people visited Shaolin looking for martial arts. Gu Yanwa visited in 1679 and couldn’t find any trace of martial arts at Shaolin; later visitors, including Ye Feng, Zhang Siming, and Shen Quan all visited Shaolin and found it destroyed[59].

The temple was restored in 1735, and received the Emperor in 1750, but it hadn’t had a Head Abbot since 1661[60]. The next Head Abbot wasn’t appointed until 1999[61]. Between those two points, the temple burned down again in 1928[62]. Jet Li went there to film the 1981 movie called Shaolin Temple, but even at this time, the temple was “run down and defunct.”[63] However, the movie’s success helped reignite the Shaolin myth in popular culture. Ironically, much like the original situation in the Ming Dynasty, a number of skilled martial artists began showing up at the temple with only a tenuous connection to it[64]. The Shaolin Temple took advantage of its reputation and fame, with the “monks” reinventing themselves as performance artists and reinforcing inaccurate assumptions about the relationship between Buddhism and martial arts for the purpose of commercial enterprise. The result has been staggeringly effective.

So, the truth about the Shaolin temple can be summed up as follows: at a few points in its history, some of the temple’s non-religious, peripheral figures were skilled martial artists who served as a security force and were occasionally borrowed by the state. For most of its recent history, the Shaolin temple has been struggling to survive as a Buddhist institution. In the past four decades, a number of martial artists with no interest whatsoever in Buddhism and no previous connection to the temple have flocked there to take advantage of the Shaolin order’s reputation and make some quick money exploiting the public’s misconceptions about the history of the temple. They appear to have been quite successful in doing so.


[1] Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004. Pg. 33.

[2] Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 8.

[3] Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 10.

[4] Hokama, Tetsuhiro. History and Traditions of Okinawan Karate. Masters Publication, 2013. Pg. 30

[5] McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 23.

[6] Motobu, Choki. “Watashi no Karate-jutsu”. Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group. 2002. Pg. 80.

[7] McCarthy, Patrick. Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate. Ohara Publications, 1987. Pg. 15.

[8] Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

[9] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[10] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[11] Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 8.

[12] Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 411.

[13] Wilder, Kris. The Way of Sanchin KataThe Application of Power. YMAA Publication Center, Inc. 2007. Pg. 1.

[14] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[15] Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo”. Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society. 2006. Pg. 60.

[16] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 8.

[17] Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 8.

[18] McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 96.

[19] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[20] Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text. Second Edition. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 7.

[21] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[22] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[23] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[24] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[25] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

[26] Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 9.

[27] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[28] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[29] Miyagi, Chojun. “Karate-Do Gaisetsu; An Outline of Karate-Do.” Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 46.

[30] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[31] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 79.

[32] Lorge, Peter A. Chinese Martial Arts. Cambridge University Press. 2012. Pg. 108.

[33] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

[34] Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals. Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 48.

[35] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 70-71.

[36] Clayton, 2004. Pg. 33.

Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[37] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 69-70.

Cook, 2009. Pg. 411.

[38] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 69-70.

[39] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 105. 

Strong, John. S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oneworld Publications, 2001. Pg. 53-60.

[40] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 106.

[41] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 106.

[42] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 107.

[43] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 107.

[44] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[45] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[46] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[47] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[48] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 174.

[49] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 172.

[50]Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[51] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[52] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[53] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 174.

[54] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 72.

[55] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[56] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[57] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 202.

[58] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 202.

[59] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 204.

[60] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 205.

[61] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 205.

[62] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 225.

[63] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 230.

[64] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 230.

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