in the Songshan Mountains, a little more than 50 miles southwest of
Henan's provincial capital,
Zhengzhou, Shaolin Temple is famous not only
as one of China's important Buddhist shrines, but also as the ancient
center of Chinese kung-fu.
Built in 495, the
temple was originally designed to house Batuo, a celebrated Indian monk,
who, after many
years of spreading Buddhism, was later known as Fo Tuo, or Grand Monk.
In 537, another famous Indian monk, Boddhidharma, settled in the temple,
and as legend has it, created a sort of primitive bare-hand combat
routine called “xingyi
after he had sat meditating in a cave for nine years.
That started the
kung-fu tradition at the temple. At the beginning of the seventh
century, a tiny army of 13 Shaolin monks were reputed to have saved
future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shimin, by defeating an entire division
of the ruling Sui Dynasty's army and helping him break out of prison.
When he took power, Li showered favors, land and wealth on the temple. Shaolin then thrived as a center of kung-fu masters from around the
country. At its heyday, it housed more than 3,000 solider-monks.
Always a center of
rebellion, Shaolin was badly damaged by fire three times, most seriously
in 1938, when a blaze raged for more than 40 days, destroying nearly all
the temple's classical literature and records.
The present buildings
at Shaolin Temple are spread out over an area of about 10,000 acres. The
most interesting relics are the murals in the Eastern Hall, which depict
groups of boxing monks.