Book Review: A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity by Lu Zhouxiang


Martial History Team member Dr. Jonathan Clements is the author of today's book review. For more posts featuring Dr. Clements' work, please see this label.

The Abrupt Appearance of Martial Arts

True to the historical record, Lu Zhouxiang’s A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity (Routledge, 2019) has relatively little to say about the Shaolin monastery’s connection to the martial arts before the 16th century. His early chapters are thick with detail on the various ebbs and flows of Buddhist traditions at the temples, and come with meticulous genealogies of the various leading monks. Shaolin, after all, is a prime site in the history of Chan (i.e. Zen) Buddhism, but Lu points out that it was also an important and respected institution in several other sects, which co-existed peacefully with the one that made it famous.

Then, suddenly, we see the temple’s public image radically transform. Lu quotes Cheng Shao, who wrote in 1620: “Taking a rest at Shaolin / and watching the warrior monks demonstrating their amazing skills with iron staffs and various weapons / Tough and strong, they are able to beat devils / Fast and flexible, they can fight off tigers.”

The jarring change in tone ably reflects the problem that all historians have with documentary evidence of the history of the martial arts. Shaolin is suddenly renowned for its fighting monks, and the tone of the coverage suggests that everybody is aware of this, that we are coming late to a party that has been underway for a long time before we rang the doorbell.

Lu discusses this transformation in the light of the troubled formation of the Ming dynasty as a resistance movement to the Mongols, and in its many decades of doldrums and decline. He reports on “at least five” large-scale rebellions in the 14th century, two successive child-emperors whose enthronements were oblique signs of courtly corruption, and further revolts in Sichuan in 1508 and 1509 that spread like cancers to neighbouring provinces and took two years to quell. Even then, the fact that Shaolin monks are called upon to aid in suppression of these revolts implies that they already had a reputation that would warrant it.

Grounding the Myths

Nor are these airy myths about kung fu daring. Lu smartly relates the stories of monks fighting pirates and quelling bandits to the inscriptions on the pagodas in Shaolin’s own graveyard, and accounts of their martial prowess as recorded by grateful government officials.

Lu’s grasp of the inscriptions in place at the temple itself offers tantalising interpretations of Shaolin’s nature. They suggest that if we follow the money, or rather, the various tax-breaks that the Temple acquired for services rendered, that the Shaolin Temple embraced the usefulness it could offer as a military contractor for the Ming government, by blowing the dust off a martial reputation that had effectively lain dormant for six centuries.

Lu acknowledges that Meir Shahar’s landmark The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts (University of Hawaii, 2008) covers similar ground, and argues that his own work focusses on the Temple’s philosophical development in the dynasties before the Ming. Shahar, he writes, “does not offer a full picture of the history of Shaolin,” which may be true, but Shahar’s concentration on Shaolin and the martial arts will continue to make Shahar’s work far more likely to speak directly to the interests of readers of this blog.

However, Lu’s interest in Shaolin as a religious institution offers some interesting contexts for readers interested in the temple’s history, not the least an entire chapter on the support it received from the Qing dynasty – hardly the oppressed institution claimed by an entire cycle of Hong Kong movies. If anything, the worst damage that the Qing did to the Shaolin Temple was in abolishing the poll tax in 1723, thereby removing the incentives for farmers to “donate” their land to the temple to avoid paying it. 

Carrying the Story Forward

He also carries the temple’s story in far greater detail into the present day, turning the latter part of his book into a welcome companion to Shahar. Whereas Shahar’s narrative effectively ends in 1900, Lu continues the story of the temple through the tumultuous 20th century, in three chapters that outline its struggles with warlords and early Republicans, its suppression in Mao’s China and its renaissance since the 1970s. In this, he winningly clings to his use of temple inscriptions as documentary evidence, seeing a wry melancholy in some of the injunctions not to cut down trees or steal fruit, plainly written in times of national poverty. He even finds meaning in absence – between 1860 and 1912, there were simply no new pagodas erected, a true sign of the temple in decline with more pressing priorities.

When it comes to Shaolin’s position in 19th century martial arts tradition, Lu hunts down commentary from pulp fictions and travelogues, and delves deeply into those revolutionary groups that cited, truly or otherwise, a connection to the temple. In the 20th century, he chronicles the literal drafting of Shaolin monks into the military, with the formation of the Shaolin Guard Regiment, which performed a constabulary function and bandit suppression in the area around Mount Song. “The military”, of course, assumes a unifying government, and the SGR eventually found itself having to pick sides between rival warlords, fatally backing the wrong one, which led to the temple’s destruction (again) in 1928. 

In a fascinating section, Lu delves deeply into the many modern mythologies of Shaolin, including the huge number of folktales about its activities that arose from a single, sprawling potboiler novel in the 19th century. This has been covered elsewhere, in John Christopher Hamm’s Paper Swordsmen (University of Hawaii, 2005), but Lu makes fluent and enlightening use of Chinese resources to show just what a mess kung fu legend really is. In particular, he patiently outlines the massive shift in allegiances that accompanied the regime-change from Qing to Republic, with novelists of the 1930s suddenly declaring that the many Shaolin Temple bad-guys of 19th century fiction were in fact heroes whose true nature had been reversed to elude the censor, as if Star Wars were remade with Darth Vader as the hero.

The Communist Era (and Beyond?)

Lu follows the money again in the Communist era, when as one of the largest land-owners in Henan, the Shaolin Temple becomes one of the greatest victims of the agrarian and religious reforms. A year later, in 1951, the Communist Party begins backpedalling, recognising that while religion might be the opiate of the masses, it was also a huge component of Chinese culture, and that hence its material manifestations might be worthy of cultural preservation. A series of predictable (well, chillingly unpredictable) flip-flops soon ensues, as the temple is caught up in the madness of the Great Leap Forward, and its true nadir, the Cultural Revolution, after which the monks do not even dare to wear their robes.

Sportification, and the involvement of Shaolin advisers in the commission to establish broad national paradigms for “wushu”, helped save but also sanitised its martial arts tradition. But even that could not be shielded from the spiteful anarchies of the Cultural Revolution, which saw so many students turning on their teachers. Wushu, however, also had its purposes. “Jet” Li Lianjie, the gold-medal winner at the 1975, 1977 and 1978 wushu championships parleyed his victories into a role in Shaolin Temple (1982), the film that restored the institution’s fortunes and multiplied its tourist traffic by a factor of ten. Again, following the money, the temple’s newfound status as one of China’s top tourist attractions, an iconic site for both Buddhism and martial arts, brought a series of restoration initiatives and tourist-focussed improvements. 

Lu’s closing chapter discusses the paradox of Shaolin’s growth as a brand, which has led to both praise and criticism of its current abbot Shi Yongxin. He finishes by suggesting that Shaolin’s symbiotic relationship with various dynasties, including the Communist regime, make it a veritable canary in the coalmine for assessing the state of contemporary culture and freedoms. “Shaolin has not only contributed to the construction of a national identity among the Chinese,” he writes, “but has also played its part in cultural exchanges between China and the international community. It has served and will continue to serve the building of China’s national image.”

About the Reviewer

Jonathan Clements (Ph.D.) is the author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts: East Asian Fighting Styles from Kung Fu to Ninjutsu (Robinson, 2016).

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