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On Shaolin History

Shaolin history is a complicated mess. A number of burnings over the course of centuries made sure of this, leaving behind barely any written record to go by. As a result, whatever one might want to call indisputable fact is most often steeped far too much in legend to be remotely definitive. One can usually find at least a handful of varying and contradictory information floating around on any given topic related to Shaolin.

Specifically, and most relevant to Shi Long Pang, it seems everybody and their “grandmaster” has a bona fide account of the second burning of the Shaolin temple, which they wholeheartedly believe and die by. Probably the most prevalent account places the destruction of the temple in the year 1647 during the reign of the first Qing emperor Shunzhi, just a few years after the Qing took control of the country. According to this account, the temple was destroyed for anti-Qing activities, harboring rebels and whatnot.

Another account places the destruction in the year 1674. The story is that the Kangxi Emperor, needing assistance against invading Tibetan tribes, enlisted the help of 128 Shaolin monks. The monks easily defeated the invaders without casualties and were offered titles, but refused them. There are several different versions of this legend, one of which says that Qing officials were humiliated by the monks’ prowess, and so persuaded the emperor to destroy the temple for fear of such great, independent power. Another says that the monks’ help was actually a ploy to hide ulterior anti-Qing motives, which we were eventually revealed by a traitor, or that there was no traitor, but the Qing decided to destroy the temple anyway.

Alternatively, many accounts place this 1674 burning at the Southern Shaolin temple in Fujian province, rather than at the original Shaolin temple in Henan province. This version is generally the same except that it includes the Five Elders, five legendary monks who escaped the destruction, some of whom being the inspiration for a bunch of southern style gong fu.

Of course, within all this, there is mixing and matching of “facts.” Some attest to both accounts: in 1647 the Henan temple was destroyed, and in 1674 the Fujian temple was destroyed, along with the possible ten or so others that may have existed (but which have no historical proof of existing.)

However, things take a turn and become extra-interesting if one acknowledges the idea that the Kangxi Emperor was actually a supporter of the Shaolin temple, and that he even wrote the calligraphy that still hangs over the temple entrance to this day.

The account that places the second destruction in 1732 falls more in line with this notion. Again, the Shaolin temple is cited as engaging in anti-Qing activities, or else the Yongzheng Emperor is said to have feared the potential power of Shaolin, whereas the Kangxi Emperor did not. Or he is simply credited for outlawing martial arts around this time.

Finally, for people who like hard evidence, the temple in Henan was never destroyed during the Qing dynasty, and the temple in Fujian never existed (the position of today’s Shaolin temple), due to the lack of historical record (although, apparently, ruins have been found…or something.) Most martial arts historians believe that the second burning was likely a myth fabricated by anti-Qing secret societies to rouse resentment during the Qing’s waning years, or similarly, that these legends are merely the products of late-Qing wu xia novels.

So, when it came down to it, somewhat irregardless of the above, I chose to explore the ramifications of the 1674 destruction story in Shi Long Pang primarily because it coincided with the Three Feudatories War, an actual, documented war, which occurred from 1673 to 1681. This interested me the most, and I thought it would make a nice juxtaposition: history in stride with legend. Hopefully I, and you, will enjoy the results.

--Ben Costa

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Ben Costa is a Bay Area resident and Moog Brother. ... full profile
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