Southern Shaolin, where are you?

Updated: 2007-09-26
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Practically everyone knows about the Shaolin martial arts in China. Did you know that there is not one, but three temples in Fujian that claim to be the true historical home of Southern Shaolin?


Read on...............


It's not often that early mornings and I coincide. However, I was up bright and sleepy at 6:3o am in order to catch the 8:30 bus from Songbai bus station to Putian. From Putian, my companions and I planned to travel to Quanzhou, and be back in Xiamen by evening.


Why were we on this little jaunt, you might ask? Well, I used to watch a lot of kungfu movies. Hearing about no less than three temples in southern Fujian that claimed to be the historical home of Southern Shaolin had me imagining monks clambering up walls and flying across rooftops - I simply had to check these places out.



A little history


A saying goes, The world's martial arts originate in Shaolin. There is little debate over the location of the northern representative of Shaolin - it's in Henan province, on Song Mountain. When it comes to its brother in the south, however, that's when the arguments begin. Some dispute that a Southern Shaolin temple ever existed, but archaeological and historical research has shown that there are three known locations with possible traces of Shaolin: Putian (built in 557 AD), Quanzhou (built in 874 - 879 AD), and Fuqing (whose date of construction remains unknown, but is placed some time during the Song dynasty).


When the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty, lovalists (the Southern Shaolin amongst them) rallied to restore the Ming government - this is the reason for the popularity of the term si ming (思明), or remember the Ming. As part of the fight, even their monastic greeting changed. In the Northern Shaolin monastery, monks greeted each other by clasping their palms together, as if in prayer. In the south, monks brought their right fist toward their left palm in front of their chest (if you can't picture it, watch any kungfu movie - period or contemporary). The combination of the right fist / left palm symbolised the Chinese character for Ming.


The Qing emperor never forgave nor forget the Southern Shaolin's treasonous ways and ordered the complete destruction of the temple, with instructions that it was never to be rebuilt. The Southern Shaolin thus faded into the mists of history, and it's only been in recent years that there has been renewed interest in pinpointing its actual location.


Putian's Lin Quan Yuan



Putian is approximately a two-plus hour journey from Xiamen. We emerged from the bus station only to be approached by several motorcycle taxis offering (the three of) us a ride. Seeing as the temple here was about 17 kilometers from the city centre, and quite far up a mountain, it was quickly agreed that motorcycle taxis were not the preferred mode of transport, even if they were comparatively cheap at 7RMB per trip,


Instead, we negotiated a one-way fare with a taxi driver (meter? What meter?) - 40RMB to the temple and if he was still there when we were finished, he would take us back to the city centre for the same rate. And off we went!


At 500 metres above sea level and only the occasional bus service, Putian's Southern Shaolin temple on Jiulian Mountain (九莲山) is not very accessible, Our taxi driver joked that the students who learned martial arts at the temple school couldn't get into any trouble, because there was no trouble to be found this high up.


As we motored up the mountain, I was struck by the exceptional view. It reminded me a little of the countryside we passed on our way to the Nanjing roundhouses, and despite the cabbie's warnings that the temple was "boring", I was optimistic that we would find something special.


I really hate it when I'm wrong. Partly Because it was a hot day (and hot days make me grouchy) and partly because there was no one else there but three employees and a few stray dogs, the lonely silence that greeted us as we walked through the temple complex was a little depressing.


Excavations in 1986 unearthed some ancient building remains and pottery shards, along with some stunningly well-preserved stone baths (that were determined to be for medicinal use). They bore the names Lin Quan Yuan (林泉院), Si Shan Jie (寺山界), and most importantly, one of the stone baths was also inscribed with a sentence describing its origin. To Putian, this was clear evidence that their city was home to the fabled Southern Shaolin temple.


These precious historical artefacts - heralded to be proof of Putian's claim to kungfu greatness - are laid out on the floor or behind poorly secured glass cabinets that line one wall, in an unguarded room with no climate control. Questions put to gift shop employees about other historical evidence was answered With a shake of the head.


In fact. the archaeological finds do indicate that there was a temple at this location, known as Lin Quan Yuan. Unfortunately for Putian, province-level archaeologists were not convinced that Lin Quan Yuan had any direct links to the Shaolin monks.


The temple, completely rebuilt with no real historical evidence remaining, is clearly not visited very often. The neglect shows, with spiders' webs joining stone lions to plants and bells to columns. If there were any monks living and using the temple, they must certainly be extremely careful not to touch anything, and we did not see much activity beyond employees napping on tables and counters.


Sadly, we were finished with our unguided tour of Putian's Southern Shaolin temple in less than 40 minutes. Fortunately, our cabbie was still there (where was he going to go, I suppose) as there was no sign of a bus, and the driver of the minibus that was parked under the main entrance completely ignored our "Hello"s.


Putian Southern Shaolin Temple, Lin Shan Village, Jiulian Mountain, Xitianwei town, Putian (莆田县西天尾镇九莲山林山村)




Quanzhou's Zhen Guo Dong Chan Temple


After that disappointing trip, we were less-than-enthusiastic about getting on another bus to take us to Quanzhou, home of another alleged Shaolin temple. However, I had a map of Quanzhou, and it was clear that Quanzhou's Zhen Guo Dong Chan Temple was close to the city centre and accessible via public bus.


Bus service number 41 is a non air-conditioned bone rattler. We were surprised to see such a decrepit vehicle, but it all became clear when we drove through a small factory area and went bumping our way over mountain roads - a short journey, but airborne for much of it!


It was clear from the moment we entered this second claimant to the Southern Shaolin throne that there had been a lot more money lavished on this temple. There were youths who were summering there as kungfu students, a few monks could be seen going about their daily lives, and even a young man who volunteered to be our guide. He was more than happy to tell us the history of the temple.


According to the Qing-era publication, Records of the Western Mountain (西山杂志), the Quanzhou Shaolin Temple was first built in the year 611, more than 1,300 years ago. None of the original temple stands, as it had been destroyed and subsequently rebuilt three times. In 907, Wang Shenzhi, a rebel who created the 'Min Kingdom' during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (and was responsible for trying to eradicate the surname Shen), razed the temple to the ground as the monks opposed his rule. It was rebuilt during the Northern Song dynasty. In 1236, it was destroyed again, under orders of the Southern Song Dynasty government. Its final destruction occurred in 1763. The monks in the temple supported the Qing against the Ming (see above), and Emperor Qianlong ordered the complete destruction of the temple (and the murder of all who lived there) in vengeance He also forbade the rebuilding of the temple.


Most unfortunately, although our guide was extremely convincing with his sincerity and eagerness to show us around, some additional digging showed that Records of the Western Mountain - the primary piece of evidence in proving Quanzhou's claim - isn't exactly the most reliable record of history. The number of mistakes made in this publication is enough to plant a very large seed of doubt with respect to its veracity.


There is no denying, however, that Quanzhou's Southern Shaolin temple is in a picturesque location, and is well worth a visit if you're in the area. Just don't expect to see anything historical in nature - reconstruction began in 1992, and a 'second phase' is under works.


Quanzhou Southern Shaolin Temple, Dongyue Mountain, Quanzhou (泉州市东岳山少林寺)




Fuqing's Shaolin Temple


Most ironically (and perhaps fortunately), it is the most convincing aspirant to the throne of Southern Shaolin that we visited last. The temple in Fuqing is where there are direct historical references to the Shaolin monks. Unlike the temples in Putian and Quanzhou, it is named in 12th, 15th, and 16th century publications and excavations produced Song era pottery with the Chinese characters for Shaofin (少林). The national Cultural Relics Bureau eventually determined that there had truly been a Shaolin temple in that location.


It took me a week get around to make my way back to Songbai bus station in order to catch a bus to Hong Lu (宏路), a small town where we were going to be picked up and driven through the mountains to Fuqing Shaolin Temple. We were a lot more organised this time; I had arranged a driver, a Fuqing native, to show us around (through Mr Fu of Apple Foreign Connections, see our listings for their address and telephone number).


As we sat (and napped, for it was a 6:00 am start this time) through our three-hour bus journey, then waited a few minutes in the hot Fujian sun for our driver, Mr Wei, to appear, I began to worry that this temple would also be a letdown. Mr Fu had said more than once that this temple was rather remote, and expressed surprise that I even knew of its existence.


The physical location of Fuqing's Shaolin temple gave us a good feeling from the start. Secondly, as only the middle section of the temple has been rebuilt (according to the woman manning the gift counter, the local government does not have the money to rebuild the rest), some ancient foundations remain. They are marked and untouched (and unprotected against the ravages of time and inclement weather). I actually felt joy at seeing these ruins, whether it was a wall, support columns, or the monks' toilet block - here was history, real history, not something that had been demolished and rebuilt as a replica of the original.


This time, I was grateful that the temple grounds were practically deserted; I had the opportunity to clamber among the ruins, furiously taking snapshots using both my digital and film cameras with no one getting in the way of my viewfinder. There was even an ancient grave in the top corner - graves are of some personal interest to me, and to find one that could have been the final resting place of a real Shaolin monk? What a treasure!


It saddens me that there is a real possibility of these ruins being covered over and a brand new temple built in its place - once there is enough money. Being a big fan of history, it is my fond hope that the Fuqing local government understands the value of preserving, net replacing, these monuments, as they are an important part of China's long history. Building replicas just doesn't leave visitors with a real sense of what has been.


Fuqing Southern Shaolin Temple, Dongzhang Township, Fuqing County (福清县东张镇少林寺)


And now, lunch


Definitely in a much better mood after being able to survey some real antiquity, I was keen to have some lunch at a nearby(as nearby as mountain villages get to each other) seafood restaurant, Shi Yah Tang (狮岩堂餐厅). Located within the Shizhu Mountain tourist park (石竹山风景区) and on the banks of a reservoir (it supplies drinking water to the surrounding villages), the fish on the menu are all caught in said body of water. Mr Wei took care to order dishes unique to Fuqing, and everything even the fish head soup (and I am not a fan of fish head). We tried a local deep fried fish (you can eat it from shredded tofu skin stir-fried with vegetables and a little pork (it was just like eating noodles, only better), and a treat know as guang bing (光饼).


Guang bing has a long history in Fujian, primarily in the Fuzhou area. In 1563, Qi Xuguang (戚继光) - invented a biscuit that could be strung around the neck and eaten as needed, making military life (and prosecuting war) much easier for his soldiers. The biscuit soon became popular amongst the citizens, even making its way onto tables of offerings to long-dead ancestors. The 'guang' in guang bing is in honour of Qis memory.


Our guang bing, which was baked rather more recently, was to be eaten wrapped around a stew of fatty (layered) pork and tofu. Absolutely tantalising!


The verdict? If you're not fussy about your temples and you don't have a lot of time, visit Quanzhou's Zhen Guo Dong Chan Temple. It may be lacking in real historical character, but it is a very peaceful and well-maintained site. My vote, however, is for Fuqing's Southern Shaolin, especially if you're a history buff. There, old toilets are wonderful things.


SOURCE: Andrea See;  Fang Fang and

Wang Jing contributed to this article

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