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Shaolin Five Elders

Bak Mei and the Shaolin Five Elders

Legendary Shaolin Five Elders

Bak Mei (Traditional Chinese: 白眉; pinyin: Bái Méi; Wade–Giles: Pai Mei; Cantonese Yale: Baahk Mèih; lit. "White Eyebrow"; c. 1700) is known as one of the legendary Shaolin Five Elders who survived the razing of the Shaolin Temple by the Manchu Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun; 1644–1912). In some accounts, he is portrayed as having betrayed the Shaolin Temple to the Qing imperial government. His story is clouded in mystery and conflicting tales of honorable intentions, deceit, treachery, and power. The Southern Shaolin style of Bak Mei Pai (White Eyebrow School 白眉派) is named after him.

Bak Mei

Bak Mei

In 1644, Manchurian invaders from the north of China completed their conquest of the country. The Han Chinese Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644) was brought to an end and the Qing Dynasty was established.

The Shaolin monks and nuns at first attempted to be neutral, but Ming Dynasty loyalists took refuge in Shaolin temples and monasteries across China. They often assumed identities as false Shaolin monks and nuns and plotted against the new Qing government.

  

  

  

  

  

Henan Shaolin Temple 河南少林寺

At different times in China's history, the Songshan Temple in Henan Province has been burned down due to political turmoil and rebuilt many times. The Shaolin Temple was variously recorded as being destroyed in 1647 by the Shunzhi Emperor (順治帝; r. 1643–1661), in 1674, 1677, or 1714 by the Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝; r. 1661–1722) or in 1728 or 1732 by the Yongzheng Emperor (雍正帝; r. 1722–1735).

Shaolin Temple Destruction

Destruction of Shaolin Temple

Fuqing Shaolin Temple

Fuqing Shaolin Temple 福清少林寺

Multiple folk traditions also refer to a Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian (Fukien) Province. The Fujian Temple is sometimes called the Changlin Temple (Chánglín Sì 長林寺; lit. "Eternal Forest Temple") located in the city of Fuqing. It is associated with accounts of the burning of a Shaolin Temple by the Qing Dynasty and with stories of the Five Elders. It is claimed to have been the target of Qing attacks and a refuge for Shaolin monks and nuns who sought to reestablish the Ming Dynasty. Whether this temple has a connection to the Henan Shaolin Temple or a martial tradition is unknown. Two other temples in Fujian that are also considered to be possible Shaolin monasteries are found in the localities of Putian and Quanzhou.

Putian Shaolin Temple

Putian Shaolin Temple 莆田少林寺

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

Chinese secret revolutionary societies called the Tiandihui (Traditional Chinese: 天地會; pinyin: Tiāndì huì; Cantonese Yale: Tīndeih wúi; lit. "Heaven and Earth Society") or "Triads," aka Sam Hop Wui (Traditional Chinese: 三合會; pinyin: Sān Hé Huì; Cantonese Yale: Sāam Hahp Wúi; lit. "Triple Union Society," "Three Harmonies Society," or "Three United Association"; referring to the union of heaven, earth and humanity), were started as well. Other secret society names include Sam Dim Wui ("Three Dots Society" 三點會) and Hung Mun ("Hung Sect" 洪門). Present day Cantonese speakers know the Triads as Hak Sh'e Wui ("Black Societies" 黑社會). Conflicting stories say that Bak Mei and another Five Elder, the Shaolin nun Ng Mui, as well as a folk hero named Fong Sai-yuk from Zhaoqing City in Guangdong Province helped to establish the Tiandihui. The Triads began as patriotic societies that maintained strict control over the behavior and activities of their members. The followers viewed themselves as blood brothers and blood sisters and they were expected to be loyal and upright. The Tiandihui later became organized crime syndicates, though.

Fong Sai-yuk

Fong Sai-yuk

Tiandihui Certificate

Certificate given to new Tiandihui member.

Bak Mei's life prior to joining the Shaolin Temple is unknown. He was first named Chu Long Tuyen (朱龍圖恩). Like the other Five Elders of Shaolin, he likely came from a prominent family. Information is gleaned from unreliable and contradictory oral history and wuxia (武俠; lit. "martial heroes") novels like Wan Nian Qing (万年青; lit. "Green All Year Round").

Quanzhou Shaolin Temple

Quanzhou Shaolin Temple 泉州少林寺

Quanzhou Monks

Quanzhou Temple Shaolin Monks

In the annals of Năm Anh, a Vietnamese Wing Chun Kuen master, it is recorded that one of the Five Elders, Ji Sin was chosen to succeed Hong Mei ("Red Eyebrows" 紅眉毛), who was the abbot of the Southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou City in Fujian Province. The selection occurred during the establishment of the Qing Dynasty. Chu Long Tuyen was said to have opposed the selection. He believed that the Ming had become corrupt and he preferred to serve the rising Qing.

In 1647, Qing forces attacked and destroyed the Southern Shaolin Temple. Chu Long Tuyen and the other Five Elders fled during the attack and survived.

Ji Sin established another temple at Mount Jiulian (Traditional Chinese: 九连山; pinyin: Jiǔ lián shān; Cantonese Yale: Gáu lìhn sāan; lit. "Nine Lotus Mountain") in Fujian province, where the rest of the Five Elders and other survivors sheltered. Chu Long Tuyen declined to reveal his true name in order to protect his family and students from retribution by Qing authorities. Ji Sin provided him with the Dharma name of Bak Mei.

In some accounts, Bak Mei betrayed Ming loyalists by informing the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661) about their plot to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. After the second temple was destroyed, Bak Mei and his training brother Fong Toh Tak (方卓德), who created Bak Fu Pai (White Tiger School 白虎派), departed on separate paths to study Taoism.

In other accounts, Bak Mei trained an anti-Qing force. He and his force were captured, though. He was then compelled to train and lead a Qing army of 50,000 troops in an attack that saw the second Shaolin Temple destroyed. Bak Mei also killed the "invincible" Ji Sin in single combat by breaking his neck. Bak Mei claimed his actions were done in order to save those captured with him from being tortured and executed.

According to the tradition of Sifu Jie Kon Sieuw (師父余官秀), a master of Bak Mei Pai, the seeds for the destruction of the Shaolin Temple were laid during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722) when the Revolt of the Three Feudatories (三藩之亂) broke out. The Revolt occurred from 1673 to 1681. It was led by three lords who were awarded fiefdoms in Yunnan, Guangdong, and Fujian provinces. The lords were Han Chinese Ming generals who had defected to the Qing Dynasty and aided in its establishment. Each defector was given the Manchu title of Wang (王), king or prince.

The former Ming general who controlled the southwestern province of Yunnan was Wu Sangui (吳三桂). The revolt of Wu Sangui was called the Xilufan (Western Barbarian 西路番) Rebellion. The warriors of Wu Sangui were especially feared for their mercilessness and were known for beheading captured enemies. Two ministers who were ordered by the Kangxi Emperor to quell the Xilu warriors fled China rather than take on their task. In 1673, a force of 128 monks from the Southern Shaolin Temple defeated a Xilu army in a campaign that lasted three months. The monks took no casualties.

A number of embarrassed Qing government officials and army officers became enemies of the Fujian Shaolin Temple. They waged a long-running campaign of innuendo that cast the Shaolin monks as a threat to the Qing Dynasty even after the Revolt of the Three Feudatories was quelled in 1681.

The Kangxi Emperor disregarded the rumors. The campaign to discredit the Shaolin monks had its intended effect on his successor, the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722–1735), though. The new emperor raised an army in secret to attack the Shaolin Temple.

  

Anonymous Tibetan Dobdo Monks

Dobdobs-Lhasa-1938

Unknown Dobdo Monks at Lhasa City, capital of Tibet, 1938

Dobdo Monks

March 6, 1937. Tibetan dobdobs, monk policemen, outside the entrance to the Shira gate on the south side of the Jokhang, Tibet's most sacred shrine, in the heart of old Lhasa town. The dobdobs wore padded clothing and wielded long wooden staves and branches to control the crowds during a Monlam Torgyap ceremony. The ceremony marked the end of the Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, held to celebrate the New Year. A group of lay officials stands in the background at the entrance to the Jokhang.

The attack force assembled by the Yongzheng Emperor included a contingent of specially recruited Tibetan lama dobdos (ldab-ldob) or "fighting monks." Many dobdos were Khampa monks from the Tibetan province of Kham. The dobdos sometimes acted as self-appointed policemen for monasteries in Tibet. They were also personal guards for the successive Dalai Lamas. They were often the less academic and pious monks of the Tibetan monastic order who had interests in sports, fighting, and other "worldly" matters. Many dobdos entered the Tibetan monastic order to escape the hardships of village life or they were enrolled by their families regardless of their wishes for the honor of having clansmen being ordained monks rather than from genuine piety. They served as peacemakers within the Tibetan monasteries, but were also liable to be disruptive influences and were thus prone to adventurism. The Tibetan dobdos were expert in unarmed combat as well as the use of the lethal "flying guillotine" (Traditional Chinese: 血滴子; pinyin: xuèdī zǐ; Wylie Tibetan Transliteration: hyut dik zi; lit. "blood-dripper"). The Tibetan flying guillotine was shaped like a bell-shaped hat connected to a chain. The "hat" was loaded with razors that wound around a foe's neck and ripped the foe's head off.

Flying Guillotine

Flying Guillotine

  

Portrayal of dobdo master wielding hyut dik zi from 1967 film "Master of the Flying Guillotine."

In 1723, on the 6th day of first new moon of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the Fujian Shaolin Temple was attacked by Qing forces. The attackers were aided by a group of renegade Shaolin monks led by Ma Ning Yee (馬寧怡). Ma Ning Yee and his conspirators allegedly sided with the Qing for pay.

Ma Ying Yee supplied the Temple plans with its secret passages to the Qing government. When the Temple was attacked by Qing forces, Ma Ning Yee and the conspirators caused a diversion by setting the mostly wooden Temple aflame with a barrage of fire arrows. The traitors attacked their fellow monks as well.

Qing vs Shaolin

Qing army attacks Quanzhou Shaolin Temple 泉州少林寺

110 of 128 Shaolin monks and nuns were killed that day. The Great Shaolin Purge that followed took place for 70 days as Qing forces hunted down the remaining Shaolin clerics.

The 18 survivors inflicted great casualties on their pursuers, but the odds against them were too great. Eventually, Bak Mei and the other Five Elders were all who remained.

Bak Mei and the others disguised themselves as Taoist clergy since Taoists still enjoyed immunity from the Qing government. After traveling independently for about two years, they each made their way to Mount Emei, alternately Mount Omei, (Traditional Chinese: 峨眉山; pinyin: Éméi shān; Cantonese Yale: Ngòhmèih sāan) in Sichuan (Szechuan) Province in Southwest China. Being the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, Mount Emei was home to about 70 temples and monasteries where the Five Elders could blend in.

The Five Elders held a council. They agreed that Bak Mei would insinuate himself into the imperial court to gather information about the Qing. The rest would travel throughout China to create an alliance of Ming loyalists to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. As Bak Mei learned more about the Qing, though, he came to the conclusion that efforts to rebel against the imperial government would fail. Bak Mei decided to withdraw from the rebellion, which was seen by the other Five Elders as a betrayal.

Bak Mei was hunted over several years by Ming loyalists. Most would-be assassins wound up slain at his hands. He was eventually killed, but the accounts contradict one another. Some traditions say he was put to death. Other records say he was poisoned.

Bak Mei's reputed killers included Ji Sin and Fong Sai-yuk. Fong Sai-yuk was the son or grandson of Miu Hin depending on the source. Bak Mei had supposedly known Fong Sai-yuk since the latter's boyhood.

Hoong Man Ting (洪文婷) and Wu Ah Phiew (吳阿飛) are also credited with killing Bak Mei in a joint effort. They were masters of the Tiger and Crane Style (虎鶴形), which was originated by Ji Sin at the Fujian Shaolin Temple. The two masters wished to avenge the destruction of the Fujian Shaolin Temple and the death of Ji Sin, their sigung (师公 or 師公; lit. "teacher's teacher"), at the hands of Bak Mei.

Shaolin martial arts or Shaolin Quan (Traditional Chinese: 少林拳; pinyin: Shàolín Quán; Cantonese Yale: Siulàhm Kyùhn); 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; Cantonese Yale: Siulàhm Chyūn; lit. "Shaolin fist technique") was taught at the Fujian Temple in the Eternal Spring Hall (Traditional Chinese: 長春殿; pinyin: Zhǎngchūn Diàn; Cantonese Yale: Coengceon Din; Mandarin: Changchun Dian; Cantonese: Wengchun Dein). 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").

Bak Mei Pai is characterized by explosive power. It incorporates the essence of five animal styles: the ferocious and powerful strikes of the Changchun Tiger (長春老虎); the lightning-quick reflexes of the Changchun Leopard (長春豹); the accurate attack of weak points by the Changchun Snake (長春蛇); the pointed beak strikes of the Changchun Crane (長春起重機); and the powerful coil of the Changchun Dragon (長春龍).

A Bak Mei Pai maxim goes as follows:

神魔內隠龍蛇鶴
白眉潛宗虎豹形

"Ancestors teach us dragon, snake, and crane
Master passes us the forms of tiger and leopard."

Weapons are also widely used by Bak Mei Pai stylists. The primary weapons are:

  • Staff (Gwun 棍) – A hefty coneshaped stick
  • The Broadsword (Dan Dao 單刀) – Lit. "Single Knife," the Chinese version of a saber
  • The Tiger Fork (Dai Pa 大虎巴) – A triple pronged weapon for hunting tigers
  • Dragon Head Wooden Bench (Lung Tau Baan Dang 龍船木凳) – A wooden bench used as a specialized striking and control weapon
  • Double Butterfly Swords (Wu Dip Seung Dao 蝴蝶双刀) – A pair of single edged swords with short blades

Like many Southern Shaolin styles, Bak Mei Pai uses the internal strength (neijin 內進) Four Energies (Say Ging Gong 四能功): Floating (Fou 浮), Sinking (Chum 沉), Swallowing (Tun 呑), and Spitting (Tou 吐). More uniquely, it also employs the external strength (waijin 外勁) Six Energies (Luk Ging 六勁) from six sources of strength or power: Teeth (Ngaa 牙), Neck (But 脖), Shoulder (Gin 肩), Hands (Sau 手), Waist (Jiu 腰) and Feet (Goek 腳).

Bak Mei Pai emphasizes deadly close range hand strikes. The Eight Methods or Actions (Baat Ging 八勁) of using the hand are: Draw or Pull (Waan 挽); Cut (Got 割); Rope or Jolt/Search (Sok 索); Collide (Jong 撞), Rush or Charge (Chung 沖), Whip (Bin 鞭), Spring or Bounce (Tan 彈), and Rotate or Cycle (Pun 盤). One example of a hand strike is the Phoenix-Eye Fist (Fong Ngaan Kuen 鳳眼拳), an attack with an extended knuckle. Bak Mei Pai techniques often emphasize trapping an attack while simultaneously striking. Tiger Claw (Fu Jow 虎爪) and Eagle Claw (Jing Jow 鹰爪) ch'in na (擒拿) joint locks are also widely used.

According to the legends of Bak Mei Pai stylists, Bak Mei is said to have gone to Mount Emei at some time after his escape from the destruction of the Temple. There he taught his style to the Chan (Zen) master Gwong Wai (光威), who took on Juk Faat Wan (竹發旺) as a disciple. For a number of generations, the Bak Mei Pai style was kept a secret. It was passed down through a small number of family lineages until the 19th century when it was widely disseminated by three masters: Pak Ree Wong (黃柏麗), So Qyin Chaun (蘇秦川), and Lee Fat Chan (李發燦). Master Cheung Lai Chuen (張麗泉) promoted the spread of Bak Mei Pai during the 20th century. These men allowed the circulation of Bak Mei Pai across South China. Their disciples spread it further in neighboring countries like Vietnam and as far away as England.

Bak Mei Salute

Bak Mei Salute 白眉手碼 "Five Lakes Four Seas"

Bak Mei Pai has its own characteristic salute, the Bak Mei Salute (白眉手碼; pinyin: Báiméi shǒu mǎ; Cantonese Yale: Baahk Mèih sáu máh; lit. "White Eyebrow Hand Code"). In addition to being used by Bak Mei Pai students and masters to greet one another, it was also utilized by some Ming loyalists and members of the Tiandihui, particularly the secret Hung Mun society, during the Qing Dynasty. Variations of the salute are performed at the start and end of all Bak Mei Pai Chuan Fa forms. The open right hand signified the Buddhist origins of Bak Mei Pai and the left fist symbolized its Taoist roots.

A general translation of the Bak Mei Pai salute is "From 5 Lakes and 4 Seas, All Men are Brothers" (Traditional Chinese: 五湖四海,人是兄弟; pinyin: Wǔhúsìhǎi, rén shì xiōngdì; Cantonese Yale: Ńghwùhseihói Yàhn Sih Hīngdaih; lit. "From all corners of the country/world, people are brothers"). In the Hakka dialect spoken in Southern China, the starting salute is called Ng Fu Si Hoi Koi Chung (Traditional Chinese: 五湖四海開樁; pinyin: Wǔhúsìhǎi kāi zhuāng; lit. "Opening piles (Raising foundation columns) from all corners of the country/world"). In Hakka Chinese, the ending salute is named Ng Fu Si Hoi Siu Chung (Traditional Chinese: 五湖四海收樁; pinyin: Wǔhúsìhǎi shōu zhuāng; lit. "Collecting piles (Gathering foundation columns) from all corners of the country/world"). In ancient times, China was called the Middle or Central Kingdom (Traditional Chinese: 中國; pinyin: Zhōngguó; lit. "Middle Country"). Before the Chinese learned of high civilizations in the West, they believed their kingdom was at the middle of the Earth, surrounded by barbarian tribes. The term Wǔhúsìhǎi (lit. "all corners of the country/world") can be further broken down as (five 五), (lakes 湖), and sìhǎi (four seas 四海). The five fingers of the open hand symbolized the Five Lakes or Wu Hu (五湖) of China and the four fingers of the closed fist symbolized the Four Seas or Sihai (四海) surrounding China. The Four Seas can also be described as being represented by the four cavities in between the knuckles of the closed fist.

The Five Lakes are: Lake Tai (太湖) in Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province in the center of China's east coast; Hongze Lake (洪澤湖) in Jiangsu Province; Chao Lake (巢湖) in Anhui Province in East China; Poyang Lake (鄱陽湖) in Jiangxi Province in East China; and Dongting Lake (洞庭湖) in Hunan Province in South Central China.

The Four Seas symbolically represented the boundaries of ancient China. A sea was named for each of the four cardinal directions. The West Sea is Qinghai Lake (青海) in Qinghai Province in Northwest China. The East Sea is the East China Sea (東海) offshore from East China. The Northern Sea is Lake Baikal (Traditional Chinese: 贝加尔湖; Mongolian: "Байгаль"; Transliteration: Baigali; lit. "Nature") in the region of Siberia on China's northern border with Russia. The Southern Sea is the South China Sea (南海) off the shores of South China.

In ancient times in China, the expression of "5 lakes 4 seas" was used to say that all Chinese (Han 漢) are members of the same family. In the present day, the saying is used to express the idea that all people, regardless of ethnicity, who are influenced by Chinese culture are considered to be brothers and sisters.

Bak Mei has been portrayed in a number of martial arts films as an indomitable white eyebrow antagonist. Most of the films tell a story of how he was eventually defeated and killed. The Hong Kong films in which he has been featured include: The Shaolin Avengers (1976), Executioners from Shaolin aka Shaolin Executioners (1977), A Slice of Death aka Abbot of Shaolin (1979), Avenging Warriors of Shaolin aka Shaolin Rescuers (1979), Clan of the White Lotus (1980), and Wu Tang vs. Ninja (1987). In the West, he was fictionalized as a character called Pai Mei in the Hollywood film Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004).

Pai Mei

Pai Mei from the film Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the Shaolin monks and nuns in martial arts classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

 

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