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The Shaolin Temple (少林寺)

The 1982 Jet Li movie, “Shaolin Temple,” was really something out of this world. As a boy, I was mesmorized by the feats of these kungfu monks. Never have I ever seen anything like it in my life. One of the scenes showed monks practicing the horse stance in a training hall in unison, with punches and feet pounding the brick floor, shouting out, “ha, haha” in rhythm. Where the monks held their stance, the brick floor gave and deformed into the ground. Dusts stirred at each strike. The monks were molding their bodies into instruments of force while nature gave way, more visibly from generations of monks pounding against it.

(Pictures I took within post below)


Since watching the movie, I have longed to see the real temple itself. I wanted to see the monks in person. I wanted to witness qigong with my very own eyes.

Over the years, I would be drawn closer to the temple by television series of the wuxia genre, many of which derived from famed Hong Kong-based novelist Jin Yong. In those stories, Shaolin Temple stood for righteousness, honor, and Budhist values. Shaolin monks epitomized kungfu power and detachment from politics.

The Shaolin Temple is steeped in history as well. The school of Budhism that is now known in Japan as Zen originated from Shaolin’s Chang. During heights of Chinese dynasties, the Japanese were avid students of Chinese culture.

Budhism itself, however, came from India. In fact, one of the most famous Chinese classics, called, “Journey to the West” is about a monk and his desciples venturing to India to fetch Budhist scriptures. Some real scriptures have been lost over the years.

During the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Li Shimin received assistance from Shaolin monks in fending off his opponents. The temple has received patronage by Li as well by subsequent emperors.

Shaolin Temple is situated in Songshan, one of the five sacred mountains in China. The province where it resides, Henan, is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. The Yellow River flows through it, enriching the area with fertil soil for thousands of years. The province boasts the most number of ancient capitals, including Luoyang.

At the base of Songshan. Entry into large area where the Shaolin Temple compound is located. In it, there is a kungfu boarding school, a hotel, and a large theater hosting daily performances. Shops, restaurants, and other amenities are also on site.

Same entry gate looking from inside out.

Our beautiful guide. Perhaps a descendant from the Tang emperor’s family line?

Another gate along the path towards the temple compound.

Pagodas. Resting place for revered monks.

Gate into the Shaolin Temple compound. The character, shi, was actually burnt during the 1927 “二七大罢工.” When looked at carefully, one can tell that the character is slightly smaller than the other two characters.

A visiting group from Kentucky, USA.

A stone tablet with writing by 李世民 (Li Shimin), the Tang dynasty emperor. Li granted the Shaolin monks five privileges, among them the right to eat meat and drink wine. Obviously that privilege is not exercised.

Writing by Emperor Qian Long, boasting his greatness for upon visiting, the region finally received much needed rain.

A hallway with ancient writings carved into stone tablets.

Writing by famed Hong Kong based wuxia author, 金庸 (Jin Yong).

Mystical creature guarding one of the rooms.

In AD464, Buddhabhadra came to Shaolin Temple via India to spread Budhist teachings. He was the first abbot at the temple.

Songshan, one of the five sacred mountains in China. Place where the Shaolin Temple is situated.

At Songshan, the monks grow tea. Chinese leaders bringing foreign dignitaries to the temple are served this tea, freshly brewed. Visitors who like it could purchase it for enjoyment at home. The proceeds help maintain Shaolin Temple.

Monks dazzling the crowd with their kungfu feats.

Monk duel-wielding while leaping into the air.

Monk demonstrating kungfu.

Monk demonstrating kungfu.

Monkey fist style with a staff.

Audience invited unto stage to learn some kungfu forms.

Qigong preparation

Another monk showing audience a slab of metal.

After qigong prep, where the monk focuses his qi (inner energy) towards his head, he is ready to take on that metal slab.

The metal slab breaks into multiple pieces after struck with his bald head.

Another monk demonstrates qigong. Note the needle held in his right hand. He will focus enough energy into puncturing a piece of glass with that needle.

Monk strikes glass with needle with enough force to puncture it as well popping a balloon on the other side.

Balloon pops.

A hole in the glass is visible.

A souvenir shop outside the temple compound.

Students marching to kungfu class.

Some local villagers peddling Budhist inspired accesories.

Our tour guide brought us to a makeshift restaurant at a villager’s home. We had yecai (wild vegetables), stir-fried with shredded pork. One of the best meals we had in China.

  1. JJ
    July 29th, 2012 at 22:56 | #1

    Great pictures!

    And didn’t Buddhism come from Nepal?

  2. July 30th, 2012 at 03:31 | #2

    It’s a pity a place of buddhism looks totally commercialized and tourisy… To begin with, it was located there because the monks wanted to meditate in seclusion. Now, this happens.

  3. pug_ster
    July 30th, 2012 at 08:45 | #3

    @silentvoice

    I would disagree. If Buddhism were old fashioned and non-tourisy, people would not be interested in it, and eventually less people would embrace it. My wife’s family goes to this traditionalist Buddhist temple that is losing membership. They could not attract younger monks into their monastery and only a few older 60+ year old monks are there. Younger Monks running their monasteries has to conform to society in order gain acceptance of the public, and if commercialization will help it, so be it.

  4. August 21st, 2012 at 02:51 | #4

    @silentvoice

    In addition to your gripe, I’d like to add that many temples (少林寺 excepted?) actually lack a viable society of monks. Many temples have been rebuilt, but Buddhism definitely has not made a real comeback. People (not accusing them in any ways) are too much into money these days…

    Still, I see everything as a cycle. Buddhism will play a central role in Chinese culture, society going forward. I am sure of it.

    As for temples being made into touristy places, that has always been a challenge.

    Monks move off to the mountains to focus on self study; they want to avoid the distractions of real life, but those who remain hermits end up contributing little back to society. Buddhism is not about isolation, neither is it about a prize. It’s part of culture, and as culture, its role within greater society will always be evolving.

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