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Shaolin Monk Image 1

Concept art of Shaolin monk or Shàolín sēng meditating.

The 13 Cudgel Monks and the Tang Dynasty

The monks and nuns of the Shaolin Temple acted primarily to practice Ch'an Buddhism and foster spirituality and harmony within Chinese society. Over the course of China's history, though, times of strife erupted that caused the Shaolin monks and nuns to periodically take on the role of peacemakers to protect the Temple and restore harmony to society.

One such event occurred during the fall of China's Sui dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 隋朝; pinyin: Suí cháo; 581–618) in the seventh century. China was rocked by a number of nomadic invasions along its northern and northwestern borders and internal peasant rebellions erupted across its territory during the rule of Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝; r. August 21, 604 – April 11, 618), who was born as Yang Guang (楊廣; 569–618). Emperor Yang had been one of the worse tyrants in Chinese history and had subsequently left the Sui dynasty in a precarious position.

In winter 617, Li Yuan (李元; 566–635), who was the emperor's first cousin and a prestigious general from the military aristocracy that guarded the frontier of Northwest China, occupied the capital of Chang'an (長安) in Northwest China. He was greatly assisted by his daughter Princess Pingyang (平陽公主; c. 598–623; t. 618–623) and his son Li Shimin (李世民; 598–649).

Li Yuan relegated Emperor Yang to the position of retired emperor or Tài shàng Huángdì (太上皇帝). Li Yuan installed on the throne Yang You (楊侑; 605–619), who was the youngest of three sons of Yang Zhao (楊昭; 584–606), formally Crown Prince Yuande (元德太子), who had died from illness brought on by being overweight. Yan You was named as Emperor Gong of Sui (隋恭帝; r. December 18, 617 – June 12, 618). Li Yuan acted as regent to Emperor Gong who served as his puppet. When Emperor Yang was killed in a coup on June 18, 618, Li Yuan had Emperor Gong abdicate the throne to him and founded the Tang dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 唐朝; pinyin: Tángcháo; 618–690, 705–907). Li Yuan named himself as Emperor Gaozu of Tang (唐高祖; r. June 18, 618 – September 4, 626). Emperor Gaozu was later suspected of ordering the murder of Emperor Gong about a year later.

After Li Yuan installed himself as Emperor Gaozu, commanderies or districts and army generals who remained loyal to the Sui dynasty declared Yang Dong (楊侗; 600s–619), the second oldest son of Yang Zhao, as Emperor Gong of Sui (隋恭帝; r. June 22, 618 – May 23, 619) during summer 618. Wang Shichong, a non-Chinese general from the Western Regions or Xīyù (西域) in Central Asia and the Duke of Zheng (鄭公), served as regent to Emperor Gong. Wang Shichong opposed Gaozu and a number of other rebels for almost one year. He then took steps to depose the young Gong, who was the last Sui ruler, on the basis that an older emperor was needed to provide leadership during the current time of peril and instability.

Wang Shichong declared himself as emperor (r. May 25, 619 – June 4, 621) of the state of Zheng (鄭) during spring 619. About one month after his coronation, Sui loyalists attempted to assassinate Wang Shichong and put Gong back on the throne. The conspiracy failed and Wang Shichong had Gong drink poison though he had previously promised to spare Gong. When Gong survived the poison, Wang Shichong then ordered that he be strangled.

Wang Shichong appointed his nephew, Wang Renzhe (王仁則), as a senior general. Wang Renzhe positioned massive armies and built fortresses in the area of Baigu Village (白古村) in Gansu Province (甘肃省) in Northwest China. Wang Renzhe intended to halt at the start an eastern advance towards Zheng territory by Li Shimin, the Prince of Qin (秦王子). Li Shimin's base of power for his offensive campaign lay in the area.

In the third year of the era of Wude (武德), Emperor Gaozu's reign, the emperor ordered his son, Li Shimin, to lead a punitive campaign against Wang Shichong. Li Shimin sustained some defeats during the opening battles of the campaign, though.

During that time, there were 13 Shaolin cudgel* fighting monks (Shàolín gùn wǔsēng 少林棍武僧) residing near Baigu Village.

Chinese staffs

Illustration of three primary Chinese martial arts gùn. Public Domain, Link

* Cudgel is a reference to a Chinese staff weapon called a gùn (approximate English pronunciation: /ɡuən/ gwən, Traditional Chinese: 棍; lit. "rod, stick"). The gùn was one of the four major weapons of Ancient and Imperial China along with the qiāng (槍 spear), dāo (刀 single-edged saber), and the jiàn (劍 double-edged straight sword). It is called "The Grandfather of all Weapons" (Suǒyǒu wǔqì de zǔfù 所有武器的祖父). The typical gùn is crafted with a thick end as the base and a thinner end at the tip, and is cut to be about the same height as the average person (1.8 meters; 6 feet).

As part of their mind/body training, the cudgel monks or gùn wǔsēng practiced Shaolin martial arts or Shaolin Quan (少林拳; Shàolín Quán); more precisely, Shaolin Chuan Fa, or Quan Fa (Traditional Chinese: 少林穿法; pinyin: Shàolín Chuān Fǎ; Wade–Giles: Shao Lin Ch'üan Fa; literal: "Shaolin fist technique"). The term chuan is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit term mukti (मुक्ति; "clasped hand"). The suffix fa is the Chinese transcription of the Sanskrit word dharma (धर्मा; "teachings of the Buddha"). When reverse translated back into Sanskrit, Chuan Fa means Dharmamukti (धर्मामुक्ति; "closed hand of the Dharma"). Shaolin Chuan Fa is part of Ch'an martial arts (Traditional Chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: Chánzōng wǔshù) which combines Ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple.

Chief among the cudgel monks were Tan Zong (昙宗 or 譚宗), Zhi Cao (智曹), and Hui Yang (惠陽). They opposed Wang Shichong because of the latter's invasion of the appointed fief of the Shaolin Temple within the area.

The gùn wǔsēng led the local people in an attack on Wang Renzhe's army, defeated the army, and captured Wang Renzhe. The cudgel monks sent their prisoner to Li Shimin. The captive Wang Renzhe eventually helped to persuade Wang Shichong to surrender to Li Shimin as the campaign wound down.

Shaolin Monk Image 2

Concept art of Shaolin cudgel warrior monk or Shàolín gùn wǔsēng practicing in the mountains with a three section staff, the sānjiégùn (三節棍; lit. "three-sectional stick") or sānjié biān (三節鞭; lit. "three-sectional whip").

The young Tang dynasty went on to establish itself and unify China. Li Shimin deposed his father and succeeded him in 626 as Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗; r. September 4, 626 – July 10, 649). Taizong was a powerful supporter of the Shaolin Temple and one of the greatest emperors in the history of China. His reign was seen as the model against which future emperors measured themselves.

Taizong lavishly awarded the Shaolin Temple and the cudgel monks. 40 Qin (approximately 266 hectares) of land and a water-driven mill were awarded to the Shaolin Temple. He also named it Zhìzūn shèng diàn (至尊聖殿; lit. "the Supreme Temple" or "the Most Honorable Temple") in China. The 13 gùn wǔsēng received numerous prizes and titles. The monk Tan Zong in particular was appointed a senior general. The cudgel monks were thereafter known as the Chuánshuō zhōng de shàolín shísān zhàng wǔsēng (傳說中的少林十三杖武僧; lit. "Legendary Thirteen Shaolin stick fighting monks") and the Shísān gùn sēng jiù Táng wáng (十三棍僧救唐王; lit. "Thirteen stick monks rescued the king of Tang"). Later in his reign, Taizong approved the foundation of a Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province (福建省).

Shaolin Monk Image 3

Concept art of Shàolín gùn wǔsēng going on the offense with a gùn.

The tale of the 13 cudgel monks is one of many in the history of the Shaolin Temple. Though not soldiers and warriors, generations of monks and nuns from the Shaolin Temple dedicated their lives and service to China and the pursuit of justice. The principles of Shaolin culture and practical fighting techniques are taught in martial arts classes held by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

 

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