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Shaolin Five Elders

Ji Sin (second from right) and Legendary Shaolin Five Elders: Ng Mui (far left), Bak Mei (second from left), Fung Dou Dak (center), Miu Hin (far right)

Ji Sin – Venerable Shaolin Five Elder

China during the 17th century was wracked with oppression, civil unrest and rebellion. The Han Chinese Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644) had come to an end and was overturned by the foreign Manchu Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun). The Qing Dynasty was founded in 1636 and ruled China proper from 1644 to 1912. The Qing Dynasty dealt with resistance and rebel activities by the Han Chinese throughout its reign. One renowned person who was part of the popular resistance was Ji Sin, a Shaolin monk and a member of the Shaolin Five Elders.

Little historical information is available on the life and exploits of Ji Sin (Gee Sin) (Traditional Chinese: 至善禪師; Simplified Chinese: 至善禅师; pinyin: Zhì Shàn Chán Shī; Cantonese Yale: Ji Sin Sim Si; c. 1700). His name is also transliterated as Ji Sin Sim Si, literally, "Ch'an (Zen) teacher." He may also be called Chi Thien Su (齊天蘇). Ji Sin is said to be one of the Five Elders of Shaolin (Traditional Chinese: 少林五祖; pinyin: Shàolín wǔ zǔ; Cantonese Yale: Siulam ng zou), also called the Five Generals, who survived one of the razings of the Shaolin Temple or Monastery (Chinese: 少林寺; pinyin: Shàolín Sì; Cantonese Yale: Siulam Zi) by the Qing Dynasty. The Shaolin Temple was variously said to have been 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 martial arts are called Shaolin Quan (Traditional Chinese: 少林拳; pinyin: Shàolín Quán; Cantonese Yale: Siulàhm Chyūn); 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 Faat; 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 became part of what came to be called Ch'an (Chinese Zen) martial arts (Traditional Chinese: 禪宗武術; pinyin: Chánzōng wǔshù; Cantonese Yale: Sìhmjūng móuhseuht) which combined Ch'an philosophy with the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple.

Ji Sin and the other Shaolin Five Elders likely came from prominent families before beginning their training under the warrior monks of the Shaolin Temple. Learning traditional Northern Shaolin Chuan Fa styles like Yuejiaquan (岳家拳) took as long as ten to fifteen years, though. Ji Sin and the others developed a number of Southern Shaolin Chuan Fa styles that were taught within two to three years to Ming loyalists who were fighting Qing forces. The new systems were centered around two animal forms and one weapon. The new systems let the Ming loyalists specialize in certain areas of Chuan Fa that suited different body types at an accelerated pace. Southern Shaolin Chuan Fa can also be called Nanquan (Traditional Chinese: 南拳; pinyin: Nán quán; Cantonese Yale: Nàahm kyùhn; lit. "southern fist") or Nan Pai (Traditional Chinese: 南派; pinyin: Nán pài; Cantonese Yale: Naam paai; lit. "southern school"). Ji Sin is associated with many southern Chinese martial arts styles including the Five Families/Five Animals Quan Fa or Five Family Fist (五家拳) styles of Hung Ga (洪家), Lau Gar (劉家), and Choy Gar (蔡家), Lee Gar (李家) and Mok Gar (莫家), Ng Ga Kuen (吴嘉拳), and Wing Chun Kuen (詠春拳).






Henan Shaolin Temple 河南少林寺

The various stories of Ji Sin contradict one another as to whether he survived the destruction of the original Shaolin Temple in the northern Henan province or the Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian province on the southeastern coast of China. Some accounts say that when the Henan Temple was destroyed, Ji Sin escaped to the Fujian Temple but had to run off again when the latter temple was also leveled.


Anonymous Tibetan Dobdo Monks


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.

Numerous accounts say that the attack force assembled by the Qing against either the Henan Temple or the Fujian Temple 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."

Quanzhou Shaolin Temple

Quanzhou Shaolin Temple 泉州少林寺

Quanzhou Monks

Quanzhou Temple Shaolin Monks

Some traditions say that Ji Sin and the other Five Elders fled the razing of the Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou in Fujian. Ji Sin and the rest went their separate ways. Ji Sin went on to found a Shaolin Temple at Nine Lotus Mountain or Jiulian Shan (九蓮山) in Fujian. From this location, Ji Sin continued his revolutionary activities against the Qing. Two of the Five Elders, Bak Mei (白眉道人) and Fung Dou Dak (馮道德), sided with the Qing, though. They joined a Qing army that outnumbered the monks at Ji Sin's temple 10 to 1. As the temple was destroyed, Ji Sin, who was the abbot, fought a duel with Bak Mei and was killed.

Qing vs Shaolin

Qing army attacks Quanzhou Shaolin Temple 泉州少林寺

In another tradition, Bak Mei couldn't agree with the other Five Elders on the number of followers they should each teach nor the amount of political involvement their followings would have. Bak Mei and Ji Sin therefore decided on a match to settle the dispute. Bak Mei was renowned for both his internal and external skills and was considered a formidable fighter. He was distinguished for being able to light high lantern fires along the walls of the Fujian Temple by whipping his legs and back joints to raise his body to twice his height.

Bak Mei

Bak Mei

In their match, Ji Sin used well-honed Long Fist techniques to strike Bak Mei many times. But Bak Mei's crouched Tiger stance was an effective defense against the attacks of Ji Sin. Bak Mei defeated Ji Sin with a series of Phoenix Eye punches that gravely wounded the latter. Ji Sin died following the match.

Miu Hin (苗顯) challenged Bak Mei to another match. Bak Mei emerged victorious again, but Miu Hin died during the second match.

Fung Dou Dak, the most senior of the Five Elders and Bak Mei's training brother, challenged Bak Mei next. Having observed the first two matches, Fung Dou Dak evaded injury from Bak Mei's favorite techniques. Bak Mei avoided harm from Fung Dou Dak's opening attacks as well. The decisive strike came during a close quarters clash when Fung Dou Dak dealt a crushing kick to Bak Mei's foot. Bak Mei died shortly afterwards from the resulting compound fracture.

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

Ng Mui and Shaolin Five Elders

The two surviving Five Elders, Fung Dou Dak and Master Ng Mui (五梅大師), parted ways to teach on their own. Fung Dou Dak passed much of his last years in remote western China, where he taught his Bak Fu Pai (百福派) style and other Shaolin martial arts to his followers. Ng Mui taught her martial arts skills to her followers in southeastern China.

Red Boat

Model of the type of Red Boat that ferried Wing Chun "Opera Rebels" across southern China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Wing Chun tradition, Ji Sin was the abbot of the Southern Shaolin Temple. When the temple fell to treachery from within and was destroyed by Qing forces, Ji Sin escaped on a "Red Boat" disguised as an elderly cook. Traveling Cantonese opera singers were part of the Red Boat Opera Company (Traditional Chinese: 紅船歌劇團; pinyin: Hóng Chuán Gē Jùtuán; Cantonese Yale: Hung Syun Go Kek Tyun) or Red Boat Secret Body (Traditional Chinese: 紅船黑班; pinyin: Hóng Chuán Hēi Bān; Cantonese Yale: Hung Syun Hak Baan). Red Boat opera troupes traveled on theater boats with bows that were painted red. They journeyed through much of southern China between the Guangdong and Guanxi rivers and had permission to move freely to coastal regions to entertain the population as Chinese opera performances were widely popular.

One day, a gangster named Tiger Wong (黃虎) who was one of the most brutal fighters of the day, extorted the troupe that Ji Sin traveled with for money. He demanded that the troupe pay him a sum of money by a deadline or else he would destroy the boats of the troupe.

Wong Wah Bo (黃華寶), the leader of the troupe, and the other members despaired as they had no fighting skills to protect themselves and no money to pay Tiger Wong as he demanded.

When Tiger Wong came to collect his money, Ji Sin stepped forth as the old crazy cook of the troupe to thwart him. Tiger Wong held the cook lightly and attempted to push the cook aside and beat him.

The fight between Tiger Wong and Ji Sin is passed on differently by the separate Wing Chun families. But they all agree that Ji Sin trounced Tiger Wong and protected the troupe from his demands for money.

The troupe members were ecstatic and wished to learn the outstanding Quan Fa of their cook. Ji Sin revealed his identity and freely taught the members. In order to learn in a relatively short time while living on narrow boats, Ji Sin helped to develop Wing Chun Kuen, including the sub-style of Sam Pai Fut (三排佛; lit. "3 Prayers to Buddha"). It included the three open-hand forms of Wing Chun: Siu Nim Tao (小念頭); Chim Kiu (尋橋); and Biu Jee (標指).

Wong Wah Bo was a talented and dedicated disciple of Ji Sin. His first students were San Kam (新錦), Leung Yee Tai (梁怡泰), and Leung Laan Kwai (梁嵐葵).

The red boats were a favorite hiding place for anti-Qing rebels and resistance fighters to hide. They served as the perfect platform for organizing opera rebels and passing secret messages from place to place under the surveillance of Qing authorities.

The Red Boat Opera Company was key in forming and leading popular revolts against the Qing Dynasty, using Wing Chun to defeat government soldiers. The troupes of Red Boat opera rebels toured China during the late period of the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s and early 1900s, though.

Though little is known about the life of Ji Sin, he is a popular figure who has been widely portrayed in Chinese literature and film.

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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