Warrior Monks of Shaolin

Shaolin Monks With Mala Beads
A warrior monk of Shaolin Temple displays his Kung Fu skills at the Pagoda Forest of the temple.

Cancan Chu / Getty Images

Martial arts films and the "Kung Fu" television series of the 1970s surely have made Shaolin the most famous Buddhist monastery in the world. Originally built by the Emperor Hsiao-Wen of northern China ca. 477 CE—some sources say 496 CE—the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.

Early in the 6th century, the Indian sage Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) arrived at Shaolin and established the Zen (Ch'an in China) school of Buddhism. The link between Zen and the martial arts was forged there as well. Here, Zen meditation practices were applied to movement.

During the cultural revolution that began in 1966, the monastery was sacked by Red Guards and the few remaining monks were imprisoned. The monastery was an empty ruin until martial arts schools and clubs around the world donated money to refurbish it.

Although kung fu did not originate at Shaolin, the monastery is connected to the martial arts in legend, literature and film. Martial arts were practiced in China long before Shaolin was built. It's possible even "Shaolin" style kung fu developed somewhere else. Nevertheless, there is historic documentation that martial arts have been practiced at the monastery for centuries.

Shaolin Kung Fu Monks in History

Qing Dynasty Painting Shaolin
Defenders of Buddhism and China A Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) fresco mural at Shaolin Monastery depicts monks practicing kung fu.

BOISVIEUX Christophe / Getty Images

The many legends of the warrior monks of Shaolin emerged from very real history.

The historical connection between Shaolin and martial arts is many centuries old. In 618, thirteen Shaolin monks are said to have supported Li Yuan, Duke of Tang, in an uprising against Emperor Yang, thereby establishing the Tang Dynasty. In the 16th century the monks fought bandit armies and defended the coasts of Japan from Japanese pirates (see History of the Shaolin Monks).

The Shaolin Abbot

Shaolin Abbott
At the center of controversy, delegate Shi Yongxin, Abbot of Shaolin Temple, arrives at The Great Hall Of The People to attend the opening session of the annual National People's Congress at Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Shaolin Monastery's commercial enterprises include a reality television program that searches for kung fu stars, a touring kung fu show, and properties around the world.

The photograph shows Shi Yongxin, Abbot of Shaolin Monastery, attending the opening session of the annual National People's Congress at Great Hall of the People on March 5, 2013 in Beijing, China. Called the "CEO Monk," Yongxin, who has an MBA degree, has been criticized for turning the venerated monastery into a commercial enterprise. Not only has the monastery become a tourist destination; the Shaolin "brand" owns properties all over the world. Shaolin is currently building a huge luxury hotel complex called "Shaolin Village" in Australia.

Yongxin has been accused of financial and sexual misbehavior, but so far investigations have exonerated him.

Shaolin Monks and the Practice of Kung Fu

Sparring Shaolin Monks
Two monks sparring on the Shaolin monastery grounds.

Karl Johaentges / Getty Images

There is archaeological evidence that martial arts have been practiced at Shaolin since at least the 7th century.

Although Shaolin monks didn't invent kung fu, they are rightfully known for a particular style of kung fu. (See "A History and Style Guide of Shaolin Kung Fu.") Basic skills begin with the development of stamina, flexibility and balance. Monks are taught to bring meditative concentration into their movements.

Preparing for a Morning Ceremony

Shaolin Monks Light Candles
Monks of Shaolin Temple prepare for a morning ceremony at the main hall of the temple.

Cancan Chu / Getty Images

Morning comes early in monasteries. Monks begin their day before dawn.

It is widely rumored that the martial arts monks of Shaolin practice little in the way of Buddhism. However, at least one photographer recorded religious observances in the monastery.

A Multitasking Monk

Shaolin Monk Reads Book
A monk reads a book as he practices kung fu.

China Photos / Getty Images

During the cultural revolution, which began in 1966, the few monks still living in the monastery were shackled, publicly flogged, and paraded through the streets, wearing signs declaring their "crimes." The buildings were "cleansed" of Buddhist books and art and left abandoned. Now, thanks to the generosity of martial arts schools and organizations, the monastery is restored.

Martial Arts at Songshan Mountain

Shaolin Monks on Mountain
Monks demonstrate Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple on Songshan Mountain in Dengfeng of Henan Province, China.

China Photos / Getty Images

Shaolin was named for nearby Mount Shaoshi, one of the 36 peaks of Songshan Mountain. Songshan is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China, venerated from ancient times. Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen, is said to have meditated in a cave in the mountain for nine years. The monastery and mountain are in Henan Province of north central China.

Stars of the London Stage

Shaolin Monks Perform in Australia
Shaolin Monks perform scenes from 'Sutra' at the Sydney Opera House on September 15, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. Choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the show is intended to allow the audience to experience both the pacifist beliefs and the Kung-Fu fighting skills of the Zen Buddhist monks.

Don Arnold / Getty Images

Shaolin is going global. Along with its world tours, the monastery is opening martial arts schools in places far from China. Shaolin also has organized a touring group of monks who perform for audiences around the world.

The photograph is a scene from Sutra, a theatrical work by the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui featuring actual Shaolin monks in a dance/acrobatic performance. A reviewer for The Guardian (U.K.) called the piece "powerful and poetic."

Tourists at Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple Courtyard
Tourists linger in a courtyard of the Shaolin Monastery complex.

Christian Petersen-Clausen / Getty Images

Shaolin Monastery is a popular attraction for martial artists and martial arts fans.

In 2007, Shaolin was the driving force behind a local government plan to float shares in tourism assets. The monastery's business ventures include television and film productions.

The Ancient Pagoda Forest of Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Monk Pagoda Forest
A monk shows off his kung fu skills in the Pagoda Forest of Shaolin temple.

China Photos / Getty Images

The Pagoda Forest is about a third of a mile (or half kilometer) from the Shaolin Temple. The forest contains more than 240 stone pagodas, built in memory of especially venerated monks and abbots of the temple. The oldest pagodas date to the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty.

A Monk's Room in Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Monk's Room
A monk sits on his bed in the Shaolin Temple.

Cancan Chu / Getty Images

The warrior monks of Shaolin are still Buddhist monks and are required to spend part of their time in study and participating in ceremonies.