By George W. Alexander, Ph.D.
& John Graham
Master John Graham of Mobile, Alabama invited me to go to China with him to search for the Southern Shaolin temple. The Northern Shaolin temple in Henan Province has received a lot of attention in recent years. In fact, it is now a tourist attraction. But the folklore of the various marital art styles of southern China point to the southern temple’s existence and its history. The southern temple until recently was thought to exist only in legend.
Our flight from the U.S. to China was uneventful. We arrived in Xiamen, Fujian Province a little tired but excited and took a short bus ride to the city of Qingzhou (Quanzhou). Qingzhou is the “supposed” site of the southern Shaolin Temple. I say “supposed” because there is some controversy as to which temple is the “original” southern Shaolin Temple. Southern China served as an entry point for Buddhism into China beginning in the first century B.C. Indian priests arrived in modern day Canton and spread their religion throughout China–the “central kingdom.” Therefore, temples abound in this area. The criteria for differentiating a Shaolin temple from other temples is that a Shaolin Temple embraced warrior monk culture whereas other temples were strictly religious Buddhist sects and did not. These monasteries were not associated with Shaolin and therefore were not destroyed. The term shaolin, which means young forest [young pine forest] is derived from the northern temple and is associated with the Zen sect of warrior monks of that temple. Therefore, the southern Shaolin Temple is considered an extension of the northern temple and not just another Buddhist temple in Southern China.
Also we must consider the time frame in which the southern Shaolin temple was established. Historical data indicates that there were two successive time periods in which a southern temple was established, 557 A.D. and circa 1644. Given this information the next question is, “Are there then two different southern temple sites?” According to the official government position, the temple was first established in 557 A.D. in the Putien District on top of Mount Chiulien in Fujian Province. This is known as the Nine Lotus Temple. Much later during the turmoil of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is it is said that monks from the northern temple fled south to escape the invasion of the Manchus who established the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty (1644-1911). These warrior monks established a resistance movement against the Manchus with the idea of overthrowing their regime and reinstalling the Ming. This temple has been officially designated as the Southern Shaolin Temple by the Chinese government.
However, there is some debate by the locals and many of the martial arts masters of Fujian Province that the true site is located within the city of Qingzhou and is the original Shaolin Temple. This temple is known as the “Nine Dragons Temple.” It has officially been called the Shaolin Zen Temple and cannot be called the Southern Shaolin Temple because the government has already designated the Nine Lotus Temple by this name. During our stay we visited both temples. The authors believe the original southern Shaolin Temple is the one located in Putien and is known as the Nine Lotus Temple. This is the same position as the government has taken.
According to one source the impetus for the construction of the Southern Shaolin Temple in 557 A.D. was the fact that warrior monks from the north were requested to travel to the south to provide military assistance to Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) troops who were engaged in the defense of Fujian Province against the attacks of pirates. After successfully helping to defend the region some of the monks stayed behind and established a southern Shaolin Temple.
According to Mr. Chai, a high-ranking government official, and Vice Chairman of the Southern Shaolin Wuzu Association, “The Qingzhou temple also known as the Nine Dragons Temple of Southern Shaolin is over 1,200 years old and was a monastery in ancient times. It is well maintained and includes a cadre of fifty-five monks who practice Shaolin martial arts and reside at this temple. The temple at Putien or Nine Lotus Temple (aka Lin Quan Yuan) was a shaolin school but not a monastery.” This means the Putien site was more of a martial arts school rather than solely a religious temple or monastery although Zen Buddhism was practiced there.
The temple at Qingzhou is located near the base of Qingyuan Mountain, which means ‘clear water’ and has been recently restored. The monks there practice wuzuquan or the Five Ancestor Fist of Southern Shaolin vintage in addition to other styles. Their main teacher is Mr. Chi Ching Wei who at sixty-four years old is an expert in the Chinese martial arts. While visiting their temple we talked to Mr. Chi extensively and he was very helpful and arranged for a demonstration by the monks for us. The monks who are between the ages of twelve and twenty-eight have extraordinary martial arts skills. They are adept at empty hand forms and a myriad of weapons forms especially staff fighting. During their demonstration they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt their martial heritage and skill by showing much intensity and ferocity during their performances.
The monks performed a two–man empty hand fighting set that was amazing. They also demonstrated their two-man staff fighting set, which consisted of twelve short routines of attack and defense. This is called kumi bo or bo/bo kumite in Japanese. Their performance was impressive from a combative standpoint in terms of their intensity and sophistication of techniques. We picked these up and will be practicing them soon. The other thing about the staff training I noticed immediately was at one point they asked me to demonstrate a staff form. Not a problem in that weapons training is part of the Okinawan karate style that I practice. However, when they handed me one of their staffs it was immediately noticeable that it was much heavier and much larger in diameter than I was used to. The Okinawan bo staffs are usually one and a quarter inches in diameter at the center and tapered to three quarters of an inch at the ends. These staffs were at least two inches maybe two and a half inches in diameter with no taper, a much different feeling weapon. This weapon requires much physical strength to manipulate it with the speed and power they were using. I noticed later that in one of their training rooms they had a bench press and other free weights set up, apparently used in their training.
We also visited the Nine Lotus Temple located high in the mountains in a remote area of the Putien District. This temple is about an hour and a half bus ride out of town. And that’s just to get to the base of the mountain. The journey up the mountain to the Nine Lotus Temple (Mount Chiulien Temple) was challenging. There is a road and you can get there by bus but it is an arduous and long climb. It’s best not to look down. The change in elevation between the bottom and the top of the mountain is between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. Along the way steep cliffs and ravines that cascade thousands of feet down to the base of the mountain greet you. If you had to make this journey on foot it would require several days. Once at the top of the mountain the steep mountainside levels off into a large basin known as Nine Lotus Basin. At this point the landscape is relatively flat. We noticed immediately the topography of this basin makes for an effective and well-protected enclave or stronghold. There is a village up there just outside the temple grounds with huts and buildings and rice paddles. One could easily imagine a self-sustaining community there. In fact, there is one. It provides an ideal defensible position. It was obvious that this site would serve as a perfect location for warrior monks as well as a stronghold for revolutionaries conducting subversive operations against the Qing invaders. Supposedly this temple was destroyed by Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty for its participation in rebel activities.
The government claims that the Nine Lotus Temple was built in 557 A.D. and that it was later destroyed and then rebuilt again and that this is the ”original” Southern Shaolin Temple. Some critics disagree and say the Nine Dragons Temple was the “original” and that the Nine Lotus Temple was an extension of the Nine Dragons Temple. We confirmed from another source that the Nine Lotus Temple was in fact the training ground for warrior monks with the mission of overthrowing the Qing.
In any case, this was a fascinating temple to visit. It had on display many artifacts and historically significant relics dating as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-906) such as pottery shards and ancient roof tile ends. It had a display of antique weapons that had been unearthed such as the sai and pitchfork (tiger fork) that looked like they had been buried for centuries. There were also several bathtubs carved out of solid stone. The monks used these for herbal or medicinal baths after training or to cure those wounded in battle. Unfortunately, the Nine Lotus Temple was in a state of disrepair and showed much deferred maintenance. It appeared that much of the temple and grounds were built within the last eight to ten years. But it looked abandoned and only a skeleton crew was running the place when we got there. In fact, we found out that the government had rebuilt the temple and it was opened to the public on December 8, 1998. There used to be monks living there and they would demonstrate on a regular basis. We learned the government began rebuilding it in 1993 and turned it over to the monks but it then failed economically and that is why it was abandoned. Perhaps it was just too far off the beaten path for tourists to visit.
As to which one is the “original” it seemed obvious to us that if you were going to conduct operations against the government you would need a secure location. The Nine Lotus Temple would be the obvious choice in a clash with the Qing Dynasty. But the Nine Dragons Temple would be a better logistical location for operations against the incursions of pirates to the coastline. Whatever the case and whichever is the exact location, there is no doubt the shaolin tradition was established in the south and their fighting traditions were used for military operations against invaders, either from the sea in the early centuries or from foreign invaders from the north during the Qing Dynasty.
A result of the Manchu conquest of China was that it stimulated the proliferation of the Shaolin style throughout Asia. Monks fleeing the Manchus spread the Shaolin fighting style far and wide. They traveled to the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa and mainland Japan. A monk named Chen Yuan Pin (1587-1674) migrated to Japan to escape the Manchus. He stayed in Japan from 1644 until 1648 and taught three samurai his fighting [striking] methods, which were later incorporated into jujitsu. Another traveler who was definitely not a monk known as Koxinga in the West or Zheng Chenggong was a pirate who adopted the Ming cause and ruled the East and South China Seas with his pirate fleet. Some say he was an ex-official of the Ming Dynasty. In any case, his crew was made up of warriors from Fujian and surrounding Provinces. In 1661 he landed on Okinawa and taught many islanders his fighting methods that later influenced the development of modern karate.
The Shaolin fighting tradition lives on today in the heritage of Shaolin’s warrior monks who practiced and trained so fiercely in southern China. The kung fu styles that prevailed in the south of China have a propensity to emphasize close range fighting tactics and rely mostly on fists. The southern style uses about eighty percent hand techniques and twenty percent kicking techniques. This feature is also the same in the karate styles of Okinawa. It is clear after watching and training with the Shaolin monks in southern China that many modern Okinawan and Japanese karate styles today evolved from the southern Shaolin fighting tradition. The wuzuquan style that is practiced today in Southern China and by the monks at the Nine Dragons Temple with its emphasis on the sam chien or sanchin form as a building block set is no doubt the forerunner of such Okinawan styles as Goju Ryu, Ryuei Ryu and Uechi Ryu. Included within the Shaolin fighting arts are local village traditions such as white crane style (peiho), dog, and tiger and hung styles, which were indigenous to the area and the five ancestor fists of Shaolin or wuzuquan. These southern Chinese styles all blended together to form the basis of the Okinawan and Japanese styles of today. These styles all constitute the roots of modern karate. With a richer and broader understanding of the roots of karate we concluded our journey and our quest–In Search of Shaolin.
About the authors: George W. Alexander, Ph.D. is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation. He is the author of Okinawa: Island of Karate, The Bubishi Martial Art Spirit, The Japanese Martial Arts Dictionary and Warrior Jujitsu. To contact him write to ISKKF Honbu Dojo, 180 Yellow Jacket Drive, Reliance, TN. 37369. Or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
John E. Graham is Vice President of the International Nan Shaolin Wushu Federation and Chief Instructor at the United Academy of Kung Fu in Mobile, Alabama. He can be contacted at 1121 Dawes Road, Mobile, Alabama 36695 or email at email@example.com