- The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts
Shaolin Monastery is experiencing an incredible renaissance as it moves into the twenty-first century, this time into a global society, based strongly on perceptions of its relationship with Chinese martial arts. Meir Shahar is to be commended for successfully weaving together the numerous threads of this complicated and fascinating story in an admirable combination of serious scholarship and popular readability. Not only is the body of the book an exciting reading experience, but the comprehensive notes, glossary, Chinese-English bibliography, and index, which constitute nearly one third of the book, provide an invaluable source for further research. This book is truly a rare gem.
The story of Shaolin Monastery and its involvement in martial arts is complex and, until now, inadequately covered in Chinese, not to mention English. Thus, this book is a significant contribution to our knowledge of what has become a major icon in modern global culture. While I will point out some areas that I believe worth highlighting or deserve further consideration, I am awed by the extent of information Shahar has covered. In the end, Shahar is frank to admit that the history of martial arts is larger than the temple's (p. 197). They are quite multifaceted and their practitioners variously motivated, as he duly notes.
The first three chapters ("The Monastery," "Serving the Emperor," and "Defending the Nation") bring together various factors that combine to support martial arts practices in Shaolin Monastery and other monasteries. They begin with its geographical location in the middle of ancient Chinese culture near several ancient capitals and on the central axes of China's five sacred mountains. Over the centuries, the area experienced wars between a mixture of feudal states and dynastic changes, banditry during periods of famine and unrest, and invasion by nomadic peoples from the north. Around 120 years from the monastery's founding in 495, the monks are known to have resisted marauders as the Sui dynasty collapsed (ca. 605-616) and, in 618, they were requested, and favorably responded, to help the son of the first Tang emperor chase down an opponent to the new dynasty. Their success resulted in long-standing imperial support in maintaining their lands and a reciprocal long-standing obligation to the imperial system, which they finally met in the mid-sixteenth century by sending volunteers to assist in the anti-Japanese pirate operations in the Chinese coastal provinces. Their fighting fame stems primarily from these operations, between 1553 and 1555, in which the largest participation of monks did not exceed 120. They were used in addition to locally trained peasant volunteers and others (p. [End Page 423] 69). Among the others was a large contingent of local militia from Guangxi, led by a woman of the Zhuang nationality called Madam Wa (Wa Shi Furen 瓦氏 夫人), who was not only a spectacular leader of troops, but was also known for her skill in wielding double broadswords in combat. The Guangxi force played a major role in defeating a concentration of more than four thousand pirates, annihilating more than three thousand of them, in the battle of Wang Jiang Jing (王江涇, outside Shanghai in 1555.1 I mention this not to criticize Shahar, but to expand readers' perspective when viewing the Shaolin martial arts phenomenon, which seems at times to divert attention from the bigger picture.
In chapter 3, Shahar describes the monk, Bian Dun (匾囤) (d. 1563) as exemplifying the role of itinerant monks in spreading monastic fighting. He graduated from the monastery's military program, supposedly taught by a Tibetan monk, and likely taught Shaolin fighting techniques at Mount Emei (p. 75). All of these are assumptions. The only direct mention of Bian Dun learning staff fighting from a Tibetan monk is in Cheng Zongyou's preface to his Elucidation of Shaolin Staff Methods. This is not to deny that Bian Dun may have had and used such skills, but we really have only...