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The Shaolin MonasteryHistory, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts$

Meir Shahar

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824831103

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824831103.001.0001

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History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts

History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts

(p.197) Conclusion History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts
The Shaolin Monastery

Meir Shahar

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter asserts that the history of the Shaolin Temple is not identical to the evolution of the Chinese martial arts. Even though, the monastery made important contributions to the development of late imperial fighting—armed and unarmed alike—and its military history mirrored trends that have transformed the martial arts in general, the history of the martial arts itself is larger than the temple's. The fighting techniques such as Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Shaolin Quan emerged during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries by a combination of economic, religious, and political factors that far exceeded the monastery's reach. In addition, these techniques drew on an ancient gymnastic tradition that had matured centuries before the monastery's founding.

Keywords:   Shaolin Temple, Chinese martial arts, Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, Shaolin Quan

THE HISTORY OF the Shaolin Temple is not identical to the evolution of the Chinese martial arts. The monastery made important contributions to the development of late imperial fighting, armed and unarmed alike, and its military history mirrored trends that have transformed the martial arts in general. Nevertheless, the history of the martial arts is larger than the temple’s. The fighting techniques with which we are familiar today—such as Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Shaolin Quan—emerged during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries by a combination of economic, religious, and political factors that far exceeded the monastery’s reach. At the same time, these bare-handed styles drew on an ancient gymnastic tradition that had matured centuries before the monastery’s founding. Hand combat is in some respects the remote descendant of daoyin calisthenics that had flourished prior to the arrival of Buddhism in China.

From another angle, the history of the Shaolin Monastery involves questions that, despite their interest for the Buddhologist, are not necessarily pertinent to the martial arts historian: How could Buddhist monks ignore a primary tenet of their faith that forbade violence? Did some aspects of the Buddhist religion of compassion lend themselves to a military interpretation? These questions are irrelevant to fighting techniques such as Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Bagua Zhang that evolved in a non-Buddhist environment. Even though these martial styles are intimately related to religion, their spiritual vocabulary largely derives from native traditions. Contemporary hand combat is couched in the rich terminologies of the Daoist religion and of Chinese philosophy. Bare-handed styles integrate the culture’s conceptions of immortality with its cosmology of the Supreme Ultimate, the yin and the yang, and the eight trigrams.

It might be useful, therefore, to sort out our principal findings, those related (p.198) to Buddhism and violence on the one hand, and those that concern martial arts history and its relation to native religion on the other.

Buddhism and Violence

“Throughout East Asia,” wrote Frederick Mote, “the Buddhist religion of compassion that regards the taking of any life as a great evil has often appealed to warrior societies.”1 The circumstances under which the Indian-born faith had been involved in violence—across cultures, historical periods, and geographic regions—doubtless differed. Nevertheless, the Shaolin military tradition might shed light on other instances of Buddhist involvement in warfare. At least some of the elements that had fashioned the temple’s martial history might have figured—in diverse combinations and varying degrees—in other cases of monastic violence.

Two factors stand out in the early history of Shaolin monastic warfare: economic power and strategic significance. The temple’s vast holdings required military protection, and its commanding position on a road leading to the imperial capital embroiled its monks in a battle with nationwide consequences. The monastery’s military history was thus a reflection of institutional wealth as well as geographic proximity to the nexus of political power.

These initial reasons for the monks’ military activities were quickly joined by a third: sanction by the political authorities. Even though it likely had not been the Tang emperor’s intention, Li Shimin’s letter of thanks proved to be a momentous event in the history of the Shaolin Temple. His approbation protected the monks’ military activity from the intervention of the political authorities, arguably even from the wrath of the Qing rulers a millennium later. For despite their stubborn suspicion of it, Qing officials refrained from annihilating the temple. The emperor’s approval, moreover, licensed their military occupation to the monks themselves. In the Chinese cultural context, a political sanction could outweigh a religious prohibition. Even if they did not explicitly admit it, Shaolin warriors likely relied on the emperor’s mandate in their violation of their faith’s proscription of killing. In this respect Li Lianjie’s (Jet Li) portrayal of the emperor as a religious authority was faithful to the monks’ understanding of the Tang ruler. In his 1982 blockbuster Shaolin Temple, Li attributed the Shaolin transgressions of Buddhist dietary laws to the emperor’s absolution.

Imperial authorization was joined by divine sanction. The history of the Shaolin Temple betrays an intimate connection between Buddhist violence and the veneration of Buddhist violent deities. In this respect, the Shaolin military tradition reflects the age-old contradiction between Buddhism as an ethical philosophy and Buddhism as a religion of salvation. It was in the latter—in the mythological realm of martial gods—that Shaolin monks sought an excuse for their military practice. They did not resort to the sophisticated arguments (p.199) of Buddhist thinkers who had explained that killing was in certain circumstances merciful. Rather, they found in Vajrapāṇi’s muscular physique a self-evident and tangible proof that the religion of compassion required military protection. The iconography of the military gods left no doubt that the Buddha himself had sanctioned the armed defense of his faith.

Soliciting the military might of the Vajrapāṇi, Shaolin monks employed spells (mantras) and hand symbolisms (mudrās). This leads us to an aspect of Buddhist warfare that we have not touched upon: the role of Tantric ritual in the protection of the state. Medieval Chinese rulers—like their counterparts throughout Asia—commissioned Buddhist monks with the performance of elaborate rites that were meant to assure their victory in battle. Tantric masters such as Amoghavajra (705–774) conjured an entire panoply of warrior deities, who accompanied the Tang armies on their military campaigns. The Heavenly King Vaiśravaṇa (Pishamen), for example, was repeatedly said to have revealed his divine powers, subduing the dynasty’s foes.2

In their fifteen-hundred-year evolution, the Shaolin martial arts gradually absorbed other aspects of the Buddhist religion. By Ming times, Shaolin monks had chosen as their quintessential weapon a Buddhist emblem: the staff. Their choice of the instrument was probably related to its role in monastic life. Buddhist regulations instructed monks to carry the staff, which by metonymy came to signify its clerical owner. The same weapon had also been wielded by fictional fighting monks such as the heroic simian Sun Wukong, protagonist of Journey to the West. The legend of the divine monkey resembled that of the Shaolin tutelary god Vajrapāṇi. The two Buddhist warriors had been equipped with the same magic staff that changes its dimensions at will.

Those who trained within a monastic environment came to regard their martial practice as a religious discipline. By the sixteenth century, Shaolin disciples—lay and clerical alike—hardly distinguished the mastery of their fighting technique from the mastery of mind that led to liberation. Martial artists such as Cheng Zongyou expressed both the exertion of physical practice and the exhilaration that followed it in Buddhist terms. Significantly, the association of martial practice with spiritual liberation extended beyond the monastery’s walls. Late Ming poetry suggests that practitioners of styles other than Shaolin sometimes invested their techniques with a Buddhist meaning. At least some martial artists employed the vocabulary of enlightenment to describe the mastery of their art.

Religion and Martial Arts History

The martial arts historian is confronted by a methodological problem. To the degree that the fighting techniques of individual warriors—as distinguished from the training methods of regular armies—had evolved among the unlettered masses, their evolution might have escaped the writings of (p.200) the literary elite. Whereas the strategic maneuvering of armies—the so-called “art of war” (bingfa)—had been investigated by Chinese authors as early as the Zhou period, the humble techniques of the individual peasant had rarely been deemed worthy of documentation. Our history of the martial arts is strictly speaking a chronicle of the scattered literary references to them. New information, deriving from archaeological discoveries or textual revelations, may alter our understanding of martial arts evolution.

Bearing this reservation in mind, the available sources do indicate that the traditions of hand combat underwent a significant transformation during the late Ming and the early Qing. This development was twofold. First, during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the quan techniques of bare-handed fighting grew in popularity, becoming more prevalent than they had ever been. Shaolin monks, who had trained for generations in the arts of the staff, began turning their attention to hand combat in the sixteenth century. Secondly, those bare-handed styles with which we are familiar today—such as Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Shaolin Quan—can be traced back to the Ming-Qing transition period. We have seen that their emergence in the seventeenth century was accompanied by the creation of a novel martial arts mythology. The new bare-handed styles were attributed to obscure Buddhist and Daoist saints who had supposedly created them centuries earlier.

Thus, in the case of many late Ming martial artists—Shaolin monks included—specialization in unarmed fighting had followed the mastery of armed techniques. New bare-handed styles emerged during a period when the manipulation of weapons, including firearms, had already been highly developed. That bare-handed fighting should follow armed warfare contradicts not only the accepted mythology of the martial arts (itself a product of the seventeenth century) but also common sense. The natural progress of warfare, we would assume, would be from less dangerous to more dangerous, from bare-handed fighting to armed combat. Why did Shaolin monks, who had successfully tested their weapons in battle, turn their attention to bare-handed techniques, useless in battle?

The answer suggested by this book lies in this seeming contradiction itself. Late Ming hand combat was not created for fighting. The bare-handed styles with which we are familiar today had not been narrowly designed for warfare, but had been broadly conceived for healing and spiritual realization. They were created by integrating calisthenic and breathing techniques—originally intended for therapeutic and religious goals—into unarmed combat. The result was a synthesis of fighting, healing, and religious self-cultivation. Shaolin monks did not study hand combat because they considered it militarily effective. They were intrigued, rather, by the therapeutic benefits and religious horizons of the novel bare-handed styles.

Transforming hand combat into a self-conscious system of thought, late imperial martial artists drew on diverse sources: Daoist manuals of gymnastics, medical treatises of acupuncture, cosmological interpretations of the Classic of (p.201) Changes and, in some cases, Buddhist scriptures. The result was a unique amalgamation of physiological and spiritual vocabularies. Beginning with the seventeenth century Sinews Transformation Classic, fighting manuals simultaneously employed diverse religious terminologies to articulate their spiritual goals. The imagination of Daoist immortality, the cosmology of the Supreme Ultimate, and the vocabulary of Buddhist enlightenment were equally harnessed to describe the practitioner’s mystical experience.

Why the late Ming? Why was a martial arts synthesis created at that period? The sixteenth century witnessed remarkable economic and cultural creativity, from the growth of domestic and international commerce to the spread of women’s education, from the development of the publishing industry to the maturation of new forms of fiction and drama. Hand combat evolution could be seen as another indication of the vibrancy of late Ming society. More specifically, the integration of Daoist-related gymnastics into bare-handed fighting was related to the age’s religious syncretism. A climate of mutual tolerance permitted Shaolin practitioners to explore calisthenic and breathing exercises that had been colored by Daoist hues, at the same time it allowed daoyin aficionados to study martial arts that had evolved within a Buddhist setting. Intellectual trends were joined by political traumas as the Manchu conquest of 1644 convinced literati of the necessity to explore the folk martial arts. As scholars trained in bare-handed techniques, they rewrote them in a philosophical parlance. The broadening of the martial arts into a self-conscious system of thought was largely due to their practice by members of the elite.

The spiritual aspect of martial arts theory was joined by the religious setting of martial arts practice. Temples offered martial artists the public space and the festival occasions that were necessary for the performance of their art. Itinerant martial artists resided in local shrines, where the peasant youths trained in fighting. The temple’s role as a location for military practice leads us to a topic we had only briefly touched upon: the integration of the martial arts into the ritual life of the village. Future research, anthropological and historical alike, would doubtless shed much light on peasant associations that combined military, theatrical, and religious functions. Preliminary studies of such local organizations as lion-dance troops and Song Jiang militias (named after Water Margin’s bravo) reveal that their performances have been inextricably linked to the village liturgical calendar. The very names of some late imperial martial arts troops betray their self-perception as ritual entities; in the villages of north China, congregations of Plum Flower martial artists are called “Plum Flower Fist Religion” (Meihua quan jiao).3

This is not to say that all martial artists were equally keen on spiritual perfection. The traditions of hand combat are extremely versatile, allowing for diverse interpretations and emphases. Whereas some adepts seek religious salvation, others are primarily concerned with combat efficiency; whereas some are attracted to stage performance, others are intent on mental self-cultivation. Various practitioners describe the fruits of their labors in diverse terms.

(p.202) What this book reveals, then, practitioners have already known: The Chinese martial art is a multifaceted system of physical and mental self-cultivation that has diverse applications, from health and well-being to theatrical performance, from competitive sport to religious self-cultivation, from self-defense to armed rebellion. It is this versatility that has accounted for the tradition’s vitality in the face of dramatically changing social and political conditions. The martial arts’ unique combination of military, therapeutic, and religious goals has made them attractive to the young and the old, women and men, rebels and scholars, the affluent and the needy, in diverse societies around the globe.