Japan's warrior-monks and the monks of the Shaolin Temple are at least as famous for their fighting arts as for their faith. European monks are commonly remembered as pacifistic, but early medieval monasteries only admitted members of the nobility -many of whom took their vows after receiving martial training. By the 12th century, some dispensed altogether with the veneer of pacifism and created military orders, such as the Knights Templar. Later monks penned several fechtbucher and appeared in the illustrations of many more, demonstrating sword-and-shield play and wrestling moves. The Far East hardly had a monopoly on the fighting monk.
A monk might practice the martial arts for several reasons. One is that many traditions deem physical exercise vital to spiritual health: a fit body helps a monk spend hours meditating without discomfort. As well, monks sometimes had to fight to protect their monasteries from bandits, raiders, and unhappy governments that saw them as targets. And as previously noted, not every monk chose the monastic life as a youth. Former members of the warrior class often kept their martial skills sharp after taking their vows - whether due to a desire to defend the monastery, out of devotion to their art, or in anticipation of a return to the world of politics.
Manchu. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the world's colonial powers - primarily European nations, but also Japan and America - were steadily carving up and trampling down China. The secret societies came to oppose the foreigners and to regard the Manchu as the lesser of two evils, if not the legitimate government.
The most famous of these societies was the I Ho Chu'an, or Righteous and Harmonious Fist, dubbed the "Boxers" by the colonial powers. They claimed that kung fu could defeat guns - that through special rituals and unblinking faith, practitioners would be immune to bullets. This wasn't a new idea; the White Lotus and the Native American Ghost Dancers also believed this. The Boxers rose up and murdered Europeans and Christian Chinese. On June 17, 1900, they besieged the hastily fortified foreign consulates in Beijing. Despite their kung fu skills and magical rituals, the boxers were unable to crack the consulates before a relief force fought its way to Beijing. Modern firepower quickly dispersed the Boxers. Shortly thereafter, the Imperial government fell.
In the chaotic post-Imperial period, secret societies such as the Triads largely degenerated into criminal gangs. Drug smuggling, gambling, extortion, and prostitution became their main sources of income. Feuds between societies over criminal territory were common. The societies' martial-arts skills became the weapons of gang warfare . . . alongside modern firearms.
Eventually, the links between secret societies, martial-arts schools, and the Shaolin Temple led to all three being tied to revolutionary and antigovernment activities. The stigma remains to this day, and helps explain some of the policies of the People's Republic of China toward the martial arts.
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