Shaolin temple history

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Birthplace of Kung Fu martial arts


The history of Shaolin monastery and temple  is very interesting. In the early period,  this was an important monastery, but  then it declined  until 1982, when a film came out called ‘Shaolin Temple’. This was all about kung fu and martial arts and was hugely successful and spawned a whole spate of films about kung fu. As a result the temple revived and the whole town has exploded with numerous Kung Fu academies thronged by students hoping to become film stars, but mostly ending up as recruits to the Chinese army.

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The Shaolin Temple,  famed for the practice of kung fu martial arts,  has been totally restored following the success of the film ‘Shaolin Temple’

The monastery was originally founded in 527 by an Indian monk, Bodhidhirma, founder of the Zen School of Buddhism. He tried to persuade the emperor that all the Emperor’s good works would come to nothing without an understanding of the nothingness of everything, and having, not surprisingly, failed to persuade the emperor, he rejected textual study in favour of meditation, and Kung Fu was practiced initially by monks to help their concentration when meditating.

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The Daxiong Hall (?) burnt down by a warlord in 1928, reconstructed in 1985

The monastery was repeatedly destroyed, notably in 1735 and 1928, and again in the 1960s during the cultural revolution when the teaching of Kung Fu was banned.

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Two of the demons on display in the entrance hall

But after the film, the government realised that the temple was better exploited as a tourist location than left to rot, and following its restoration, there is now an impressive set of temples and a fine pagoda, though one couldn’t help suspecting that actually there is little of archaeological interest.

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A Bixi tortoise, a traditional Chinese demon, carrying a pillar on his back

But we saw a terrifying theatrical display of the student activities which soon persuaded me that Kung Fu was not for me. But remember, Kung Fu is not just an athletic sport, it is also Zen Buddhism. I had better not become a Zen Buddhist.






The Pagoda forest

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This is the  ‘Pagoda Forest’ at Shaolin, – essentially the cemetery 300 yards away from the main Temple. Most of the pagoda-like monuments are in fact comparatively modern.

The other major attraction at  Shaolin is the ‘Pagoda Forest’ which lies some 300 yards away from the main Temples.


This is essentially a cemetery containing  some 248 miniature pagodas, each marking a burial place. Although some of them are ancient, many of them are comparatively modern, one of them even showing a motorcar among its decorations. But it gives a good idea of what a typical Buddhist cemetery was like in the Chinese Empire.


On to: Wutaishan – Monasteries and temples


18th January 2015