The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts

Paperback: $29.00
ISBN-13: 9780824833497
Published: September 2008

Additional Information

296 pages | 38 illus., 4 maps
  • About the Book
  • “Written in clear and lucid style and ambitious both in scope and methodology, this book offers a fascinating window into Chinese culture, religion, and history. Ranging from historical and ethnographic documents to a wide variety of literary sources, it weaves them all into a compelling narrative. In this fashion, Shahar is uniquely able to bring together social, historical, and mythological elements, providing a demythologized account of martial Chinese traditions such as Shaolin Boxing. This is sinology at its best.”—Bernard Faure, Columbia University

    “The book clearly belongs in a new group of books challenging conventional understandings of Buddhism and violence. Meir Shahar documents with meticulous accuracy and mellifluous prose the fighting monks of Shaolin monastery in China, who appear first in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and continue to the present. Scholars of Buddhism and Chinese history will learn much from the author's scrupulous analysis of the historical record—particularly the texts on stone steles at the monastery—that documents the monastery's traditions of fighting. Anyone interested in martial arts or Bruce Lee films will find it fascinating to learn about the actual history of the monastery’s fighting techniques. I found the book a powerful and compelling read.” —Valerie Hansen, Yale University

    “Meir Shahar's book will assure that the martial arts of Shaolin take a prominent place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Shahar has mastered a prodigious amount of secondary scholarship, pored over a wealth of primary documents, and brought a critical rigor to the study of these materials that is unprecedented in any language. Throughout, his analysis is cogent and clear. The result is a delightful tour of one of the most enigmatic and compelling stories of Chinese religion: the emergence and development of martial arts at Shaolin Si. Entertaining as the book is, it delivers as well a meditation on the sources of Chinese religion, and how fiction and scripture, myth and history combine to produce novel traditions. The Shaolin Monastery will appeal not only to scholars of Chinese religion, but to those interested in military history, self-cultivation, martial arts, and popular culture.”—John Kieschnick, University of Bristol

    The Shaolin Monastery charts, for the first time in any language, the history of the Shaolin Temple and the evolution of its world-renowned martial arts. In this meticulously researched and eminently readable study, Meir Shahar considers the economic, political, and religious factors that led Shaolin monks to disregard the Buddhist prohibition against violence and instead create fighting techniques that by the twenty-first century have spread throughout the world. He examines the monks’ relations with successive Chinese regimes, beginning with the assistance they lent to the seventh-century Emperor Li Shimin and culminating more than a millennium later with their complex relations with Qing rulers, who suspected them of rebellion. He reveals the intimate connection between monastic violence and the veneration of the violent divinities of Buddhism and analyzes the Shaolin association of martial discipline and the search for spiritual enlightenment.

    Shahar’s exploration of the evolution of Shaolin fighting techniques serves as a prism through which to consider martial-art history in general. He correlates the emergence of the famous bare-handed techniques of Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Shaolin Quan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the social, political, and religious trends of that age. He then goes on to argue that these techniques were created not only for fighting, but also for religious and therapeutic purposes. Thus his work fills an important gap in the understanding of Chinese religion and medicine as well as the martial arts.

    The Shaolin Monastery is the most exhaustive study to date on the topic and the most systematic introduction to the history and the religious context of the Chinese martial arts tradition. It will engage those interested in Chinese religion and history and martial arts, illuminating for specialists, martial artists, and general readers alike the history and nature of a martial tradition that continues to grow in popularity in its native land and abroad.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Meir Shahar, Author

      Meir Shahar is associate professor in the Department of East Asian Studies, Tel Aviv University.
  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • This expert and readable distillation of several aspects of Chinese martial arts history sums up, definitively in English for the present, the verifiable facts and intriguing legends about the Shaolin Temple in North China . . . The book’s scholarship is impeccable. . . . Both the graduate student and the kung fu aficionado can learn from this work
      The Historian
    • The Shaolin Monastery is experiencing an incredible renaissance as it moves into the twenty-first century, this time into a global society, based strongly on perceptions of its relationship with Chinese martial arts. Meir Shahar is to be commended for successfully weaving together the numerous threads of this complicated and fascinating story in an admirable combination of serious scholarship and popular readability. Not only is the body of the book an exciting reading experience, but the comprehensive notes, glossary, Chinese-English bibliography, and index, which constitute nearly one third of the book, provide an invaluable source for further research. This book is truly a rare gem.
      China Review International
    • [Shahar] brilliantly demonstrat[es] the complex ebb and flow of the Shaolin monastery’s political and economic fortune in relation to its monks’ voluntary and compulsory battles. . . . This highly readable book is a welcomed edition for scholars and students of Chinese Buddhism, religion, history, and martial arts.
      Journal of Religion
    • This book is a serious and fascinating cultural history of the multi-layered historical links between the Shaolin Temple and the martial arts traditions that have been associated with, and sometimes attributed to, the temple. The book reads like a detective story, as Meir Shahar ventures into the often-murky waters of martial arts legend and Buddho-martial fantasyland.
      China Journal
    • The Shaolin Monastery represents a major breakthrough in its blending of historical, ethnographic, and literary sources to produce a compelling narrative that is eminently readable yet also overturns mythologized accounts of China’s martial arts traditions while also enhancing our appreciation of the role of violence in Chinese culture.
    • A real gift to martial arts enthusiasts and historians alike. Combining scholarly caution and respectful appreciation, Shahar shows how much and how little can be learned about the origins of the monastery in the fifth century, its close relationship with the Tang emperors (618–907), its flowering as a religious and military institution in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and the suspicion with which it was regarded by the Qing state (1644–1911). . . . This refreshingly original study is indispensable for understanding both the history and the hype.
    • A long-awaited, in-depth look into the complex political, military, and hygienic factors surrounding the monastery’s involvement in martial arts. . . . This is clearly a pioneering book, and Shahar, a qualified scholar, has documented his material in a manner that will allow others to pursue the provocative questions he raises.
      Journal of Asian Martial Arts
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