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Why Martial Arts at Shaolin?


Shaolin Si (chin.: 少林寺) was a critical state/public monastery (chin.: Shifang Conglin 十方叢林) since ancient times. The character "Lin" (Chin.: 林) means 'forest,' a term only attached to the names of Imperial Monasteries. Monks who resided in these official establishments were appointed by Imperial decree and required higher qualifications. Their supervisory clergy were appointed by the Imperial throne and accountable to it. These monasteries were also required to perform ceremonies for the Emperor, such as those for the military dead. 


In great centers like Luoyang and Buddhism close to Imperial capitals, Buddhism tended to be more orthodox and stable. A further important distinguishing feature of monasteries like Shaolin was that they were designated official places of worship. These monasteries also received their name via Imperial decree, displayed images of the Imperial Five-Clawed Dragon on their roofs, received land, money, servants, subject families, known as "Seng Zhi Hu" (Chin.: 僧祇戶), and rights to maintain certain industries which generated profits. The number of official monasteries known as Shifang Conglin tended to be small and stable throughout dynastic history. 


There were other significant reasons for Imperial patronage, which largely accounted for Buddhism's success in China. To expand cultivation to arid regions, monasteries were granted land and given to families who farmed under supervision. The monasteries stored grain and, in return, supplied implements, oxen, and, in those times of chronic famine, relief. This role in famine relief helped Buddhism to gain converts.


Historical evidence points to pragmatic reasons for developing martial arts expertise at the monastery. The principal factors were:

 1. Buddhist monasteries, particularly the large public ones, contained large granaries and other provisions. These supplies made them attractive targets for robbers and renegade bands of rebels and invaders, who had plagued Henan Province for centuries.
 2. Monasteries often held incredible wealth in gold, silver, and copper ritual objects, jewels, and cash reserves.
 3. Important state/public monasteries like Shaolin Si were situated in more remote, unprotected areas, making them susceptible to attack.
 4. Anti-Buddhist suppressions and lawless conditions during dynastic changes contributed to martial arts development among some Buddhist clergy groups.
 5. Chinese Buddhist monasticism was intimately connected with mendicant monks who traveled great distances alone and on foot (See image below of a mendicant monk with his weapons of self-defense - photo c. early 1930s by J. Prip-Moller)
 6. A decree by Emperor Tang Taizong provided the 'legal framework' that made the long-term development of martial arts at Shaolin possible.
 7. There was continuous interaction between the military and the monks. Military officers and senior clergy came from the same well-educated class and were often posted to the same remote regions. Eventually, martial arts (read military combat) at Shaolin, under the influence of Chan Buddhist practice, absorbed Buddhist terminology and methods of self-cultivation connected to longevity. For more information see this article on Shaolin Wushu.

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