Shaolin Temple, hometown of Chinese Kongfu
By Tian Xiuzhen, Shanghai Star. 2002-06-06
Amazed at Jet Li's performance? Zhengzhou in Henan Province
reveals the origins of Chinese Buddhism and martial arts A suspension
bridge between high mountains.
PEOPLE, native or foreign, are easily amazed by Chinese Kungfu
performed by Jet Li, a film star now active in Hollywood, or
that is shown in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
Anyone interested in Kongfu has heard of Shaolin Temple (Shaolin
Si), which is worshipped as the birth place of Kungfu.
Shaolin Temple, located on the south foot of Songshan Mountain
(one of China's five most famous mountains), is 76 kilometres
away from Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province.
Origins of the myth
Founded in 496 during the period of the Northern Wei (386-534),
the temple is full of history.
In 527, an Indian monk, Bodhidarma (known to the Chinese as
Da Mo), founded the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, which is known
as Chen (or Zen).
He stayed there till his death in 535, and the temple has become
the centre of Chinese Buddhism. Pagoda forest
It is said that Da Mo, seeing monks becoming fat and lazy from
long hours sitting in meditation, came up with the idea of walking
meditation, which imitated the natural motions of animals and
birds. Eventually, the imitation evolved into a form of unarmed
combat or martial arts, which is known as Kungfu.
Unlike other temples such as Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou or Ta'er
Temple in Qinghai, Shaolin Temple enjoyed much fewer worshipers
with burning incense.
I was told that this was because people had shifted their expectations
from meditation to physical martial arts practicing.
The layout of the temple is quite similar to other Chinese Buddhist
temples. However, there are some differences. One of these variations
is the numerous stone steles that line the main roads of the
temple on which there have been left important records.
On the high stele in front of the Bell Building, people can
see the carved autograph of Li Shimin, a Tang Dynasty (618-907)
Li granted the temple the status of "No.1 temple on earth",
and gave the monks a high rank, after 13 martial monks saved
him from the enemy - this is the plot of the movie "Shaolin
Afterwards, the temple became famous and attracted a lot of
lay people to study Kungfu. In other areas of China, other schools
were established with names such as Emei Shaolin and Guangdong
At present special organizations for imparting Shaolin Kungfu
have been set up in more than 10 countries including the US,
Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, and Switzerland.
People from more than 30 countries and regions have come to
the Shaolin Temple to receive Kungfu training. And delegations
of Shaolin monks have visited many countries for cultural exchanges
in Kung Fu.
Quietly wandering in the temple, you are sure to learn more
about Shaolin Kungfu while listening to the monks practicing
in the yard.
But to watch their performances, you have to pay 20 yuan ($2.5).
For the price of a very small donation, you can beat the big
bell by the side of Bell Building nine times as the most sincere
and effective prayer for blessings.
In another part of the temple, you can see the unique "Forest
of Dagobas" (Pagoda Forest), with its 243 stupas or dagobas
each containing the remains of an abbot from the Shaolin Monastery.
They were built of either stone or brick. The first stupa at
this site was built in 791 and the last in 1803. They range
from seven stories (14.6 metres) to just a metre in height with
many different styles.
Against the deep and far mountains, this forest looks more like
a holy place. But most of the trees are badly weather beaten
and require maintenance.
Somethings can be maintained, but not history. In past centuries,
the temple has suffered repeated sackings as Shaolin monks liked
to right wrongs. The most recent round of destructive visits
was in 1928 by a local warlord, and then again in the early
1970s by bands of Red Guards during the "cultural revolution"
The temple is not alone. Longmen Grottoes, which enjoy the same
fame as Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang of Gansu Province, make people
choke as they see so many finely carved figures chopped headless.
Situated on the mountainside of the hills along the banks of
the Yi River in the south of Luoyang, a city famous for its
peonies, the grottoes have become a place for people to rethink
their lives and contemplate what they should leave to future
The carving of Buddha, which is said to have originated in India,
began in 494 also during Emperor Xiaowen's reign, when the capital
was moved from Datong in Shanxi Province where Yungang Grottoes
are located to Luoyang.
The work continued over the next seven dynasties. Now there
are more than 2,300 caves and niches, 10,000 Buddhas, 2,800
inscriptions, and 80 pagodas.
Listed as one of the world's unique cultural heritage sites,
these caves were entirely hollowed out by man and have suffered
a great deal of deterioration due to natural causes and through
acts of vandalism, particularly by antiquarians collecting for
museums and private collections before 1949. Many precious pieces
were removed and are now on display at well-known museums around
Along the steep hill, you can easily see visitors bemoaning
the desecration of many splendid vivid figures.
The central figure is a huge Buddha which is believed to be
Vairocana, the supreme, omnipresent divinity. It is almost 60
feet tall. The head alone is about 15 feet high and the ears
are about 7 feet long.
The facial expression conveys a sense of peace and tranquillity,
particularly in the eyes. It is said that it was modeled after
the face of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Zhou Dynasty.
On either side of the Buddha stands the two disciples Kasyapa
and Ananda and two Bodhisattvas with crowns. On the side walls
are a Celestial Guardian and a defender of Buddha.
The guardian on the north wall holds a pagoda in his right hand
and with his left foot is trampling an evil spirit. He wears
an angry expression with a frowning brow.
There are frequent trains from Shanghai to Zhengzhou where you
can take a bus or taxi to sightseeing spots. Recommended trains
are K282, which runs between 7:48pm and 8:32am, (K376 which
runs between 9:11pm to 9:35am or 1396 which runs from 8:48pm
to 10:26am. For more information on trains, call (021) 6317-9090
For information on flights to Zhengzhou, call (021) 6268-3659.