The Legend of Shaolin

The history and meaning of the famous king-fu fighting monks of the secret Shaolin Temple.

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There has, throughout Chinese history, been a persistent tradition of the wanderer, the outsider, the knight-errant, the individual unwilling to be bound by the rules of society and, so, one who prefers the life of jianghu – the life of the outsider. Although the practitioner of jianghu remains outside the life and laws of society, he (and it has nearly always been a he) is bound by a different code of laws – yiqi – a code of honour in which a person’s word is as good as a bond, in which a favour is always repaid (and a debt always pursued) and in which respect is paid to those to whom it is due. Sometimes, people within society can be forced to become outsiders, to follow jianghu, because of the perfidy of dishonest officials.

This is the basis of the legend of Shaolin, which is a temple famous located within the nine mountains of Fujian Province. The monks of Shaolin became renowned for their ability with kung fu – a martial art that both offers protection for the unarmed against brigands and also offers physical and spiritual awakening through adopting its highly stylized positions. During the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty (1644-1911 CE), monks of the Shaolin Temple came to the rescue of the emperor, who was threatened by rebels and, by virtue of their fighting skills, routed the enemy. However, rather than rewarding the Shaolin monks, the emperor listened to the forked tongues of dishonest mandarins who claimed the monks represented a military threat to the throne. Consequently, he had his troops descend on the temple and put it to the flame.

The monks were scattered and, subsequently, reunited to form the Heaven and Earth League, which was one of an innumerable series of secret societies that have stood up for the rights of honest people against unfair leadership. The members of these societies were obliged to follow the jianghu lifestyle and to abide by the yiqi code of honour (older readers might remember the television series ‘Kung Fu’ starring the late David Carradine, which adopted this tradition as its premise). They became folk heroes who had attached to them all kinds of good but unexpected deeds. So, anytime a damsel in distress was rescued from wrong-doers, a Shaolin monk might be credited and every time a bad person brought down from on high, then it was reckoned that one of the jianghu was acting secretly behind the scenes. Although this tradition has migrated largely to the realm of popular culture and, especially the cinema, there are still Chinese who wait for the arrival of honest outsiders to right the ills of the day. The idea that such people wait to rescue us from misfortune is a persistent and powerful one.

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1 Comment
  1. Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    An excellent short summary! Thanks for taking the time to write this.

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