Shaolin Temple is probably the most famous temple in China, not only because of its long history and its role in Chinese Buddhism, but also because of its martial arts or Wushu Chan. Shaolin Temple is situated in the beautiful Songshan Mountains, which is only eight miles of Dengfeng and about 50 miles southwest of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province.
Shaolin Temple was established in 495 during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). Batuo, an Indian monk, came to Luoyang, the ancient capital, for spreading Buddhism at that period. Emperor Xiaowen was a believer of Buddhism so he decided to build the temple in the Songshan Mountains to house Batuo, who translated many Buddhist works and had a few hundred followers there.
Damo (Bodhidharma), the legendary Indian monk, came to Shaolin in 517, who was the creator of Chinese Zen. There are many legendary stories about him. One of the well-known stories says he was meditating in a cave for nine years. The cave is now called Damo Cave. Many people believe he wrote the famous 'Yijinjing,' the base of Shaolin martial arts or Gongfu. But there is no record about the book before and during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) so experts think Damo has little to do with Shaolin Gongfu. Zongheng, a Taoist priest of Tiantai Mountain, wrote 'Yijinjing' in 1624, but to add mystery to it, he made up a story saying 'Yijinjing' was originally written by Damo.
Shaolin does have a long tradition of Chinese martial arts, as the saying goes 'All martial arts (gongfu) are from Shaolin.' This is partly because Shaolin was located in a strategic area so they had to protect the temple themselves from wars or any invading, and partly because of the support of most emperors from different dynasties, which came after the 13 Shaolin monks once saved Li Shimin, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since then Shaolin was allowed to have solider-monks. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shaolin housed over 1,000 solder-monks at its peak and they were often used by the government to combat rebellions and Japanese bandits. But martial arts were forbidden during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Even with the protection of solder-monks, Shaolin was severely damaged by fire a few times. The largest fire set by the army of Shi Yousan in 1928 destroyed most of the buildings of Shaolin Temple.
There are many noted relics at Shaolin. There are over 300 ancient stone inscriptions, some of them by famous calligraphers. The large mural of 500 arhats in the Qianfo Hall was from the Ming Dynasty. There are 232 pagodas from different dynasties, known as the forest of pagodas. The oldest one was from the Tang Dynasty. The pagodas are the tombs of the celebrated Shaolin monks. The Shaolin martial arts are an important part of the relics.
History of Chinese Wushu
Wushu (or Kungfu) appeared in ancient China as early as 2,500 years ago. During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods (770 - 221BC), a method called Daoyin was evolved to promote health.
In a tomb of Western Han Dynasty (206BC - 24AD), discovered near Changsha in Hunan Province, a silk scroll was found on which figures were drawn in different postures -- sitting in meditation, bending, or squatting. At the end of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220AD), a renowned medical doctor, Hua Tuo, created a set of exercises called Wuqinxi (Five Animals Play), mimicking the movements of animals. One of Hua's disciples, also a devotee of Wuqingxi, was said to have lived over 100 years. Wu Pu, another Hua's follower, was reputed to have sound teeth and acute hearing and sight at his late 80s. Hua Tuo's inventive work has a far-reaching influence on the history of Chinese Wushu.
During the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty, there appeared a large number of exercises, including Baduanjin (an eight parts exercise), Yijinjing (a system of muscular exercise), Taijiquan (also called Chinese shadow boxing), and Qigong (breathing exercise).
Today, both in China and around the world, millions of people are fascinated by Chinese Wushu and benefit from it. It is believed to be effective in preventing and curing some diseases like cold, indigestion, and eyestrain.
Among the many forms, Taijiquan may enjoy the highest popularity. Characterized by gentle, rhythmic movements, natural breathing, physical and mental coordination, it is of particular good to the old and weak, and those suffering from chronic diseases.
History has it that Taijiquan first derived in Henan Province some 300 years ago, in the late Ming Dynasty. It conforms to the principles of "the vigorous subdued by the soft," and "overcome a force of 1,000 pounds with one of four ounces." Having undergone significant changes, its movements become more relaxed and graceful. When practicing Taijiquan, you need to be tranquil but alert in mind and coordinate vigor and gentleness. In 1956, a set of simplified Taijiquan of 24 forms was developed to stimulate its popularization.
Shaolinquan is one of the well-known forms of Wushu with a long history. Situated in Henan Province, the Shaolin Temple can be dated back about 540. An Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma (Damo in Chinese pinyin) traveled to China. When he arrived at the temple, he was refused to get in the door. So Damo went to a nearby cave and meditated until the monks recognized his religious prowess. Legend says that he bored a hole in the cave with his constant gaze. Later he taught the monks a set of exercises, which derived from Indian Yoga. And it is believed to be the origin of Shaolin Gongfu. The Shaolin gongfu is mainly used to protect the temple. It complies with the Buddhist principles of non-violence.