The Shaolin Temple

Few places are the subject of as many myths and legends as the Shaolin Temple. It's credited with being the wellspring of all martial arts. Its monks are reputed to be masters of mystical powers, yet free of worldly desires and ambitions.

The Shaolin Temple was built at the end of the 5th century A.D. There was more than one Buddhist temple in the same geographical area; legends of the Temple likely borrow from tales about all of these to some degree. All were occupied and abandoned several times.

The most famous Shaolin monk was Bodhidharma, who journeyed to the Temple from India. Tradition has it that he noticed the monks lacked the fitness needed to meditate for long periods, so he introduced martial arts to strengthen them. While these events are the legendary origin of Chinese martial arts, they actually would have post-dated many documented combative styles.

The military prowess of the Shaolin monks was first noted in 728, when a small handful of them helped win a war. A stele was erected to memorialize the staff-fighting monks. Legends spread of their ability. The Temple became a place to go and train, but spiritual development - not schooling warriors - remained its focus.

After the rise of the Manchu, the Shaolin Temple became famous as a symbol of resistance to government rule. It gave sanctuary to rebels and revolutionaries, and the Temple as a whole occasionally meddled in outside political events. This involvement was sometimes pro-government: the Temple was credited with aiding Manchu soldiers in several campaigns. In the end, playing politics led to the Temple's downfall. An army was dispatched to besiege the Temple. It fell in 1735, scattering the few survivors across China.

Legend claims that five masters survived the suppression of the Shaolin Temple. They went their separate ways, training select students met during their travels in the secrets of the Temple's martial arts. Along the way, they also founded cells of resistance to the Manchu Dynasty - the first Triads.

Monks reoccupied the Temple - and abandoned it or were driven out - several times. In 1928, it was burned. Later, the Communists came to regard it as reactionary and shut it down. The People's Republic of China eventually realized its potential as a historical attraction and rebuilt it. The modern Temple still offers training in the martial arts, and is a popular destination for tourists and martial artists alike.

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