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Shaolin Monks Versus Pirates

The lives of Shaolin Buddhist monks and nuns are normally marked by peaceful simplicity, contemplation, and meditation. The Ming dynasty (Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo) ruled China from 1368 to 1644. During its later years, China was beset by numerous problems. China faced corruption and civil war within, attacks by Mongols in the north and by Turks in the west, and raids by pirates along China’s eastern and southeastern coastline. The pirates were mockingly called wokou (倭寇; "Japanese Pirates” or “Dwarf Bandits") by the Chinese. The pirates did include masterless Japanese ronin, who wielded long sabers called nodachi that they used to great effect. The pirates also included some Portugese and other assorted brigands, but were mostly made up of disenfranchised Chinese (fishermen, peasants, and adventurers), who ransacked the coast of China for over 100 years. Pirate raids grew to a massive scale during the 1540s and 1550s. The wokou fielded vast armies of up to over 10,000 men that raided coastal areas and even ventured deeply inland on occasion. Warrior-monks were called upon by Ming authorities to face this pirate menace.

During the rule of Emperor Zhengde (1505-1521), a Shaolin warrior-monk named Blanched served against the wokou pirates in numerous battles. On one occasion, he was surrounded by a dozen or so pirates. He fended off their sword and spear strikes and used the "light body" technique to jump out of the circle and capture two pirates simultaneously. The other pirates took a defensive posture and retreated.

During the rule of Emperor Jiajing (1521-1567), another Shaolin warrior-monk named Yuekong answered the call of a local governor. He led over 30 warrior-monks to Songjiang to oppose the pirates in a series of successful battles. When leading a rescue attempt of local people, though, Yuekong and his band were ambushed and killed.

During the time of Emperor Wanli (1572-1620), the Shaolin warrior-monk Xiaoshan led an army against the pirates in three battles. Other noted Shaolin warrior-monks were Changong and Sanqi.

Chinese geographer Zheng Ruoceng wrote a contemporary chronicle, “The Monastic Armies First Victory”, about the campaigns against the wokou. He chronicled how in 1553, Wan Biao, Vice Commissioner in Chief of the Nanjing Chief Military Commission authorized the recruitment of warrior-monks. Monks from three temples answered his call: Wutaishan in Shanxi Province, Funiu in Henan Province, and Shaolin in Fujian Province.

Zheng Ruoceng wrote the following about the Shaolin warrior-monks:

"In today's martial-arts, there is no one in the land who does not yield to Shaolin. Funiu [in Henan] should be ranked as second. The main reason [for Funiu's excellence] is that its monks, seeking to protect themselves against the miners..., studied at Shaolin. Third comes Wutai [in Shanxi]. The source of the Wutai tradition is the method of the "Yang Family Spear" (楊家槍; pinyin: Yángjiā qīang)..., which has been transmitted for generations in the Yang family. Together, these three [Buddhist centers] comprise hundreds of monasteries and countless monks. Our land is beset by bandits inside and barbarians outside. If the government issues an order for [these monks'] recruitment it will win every battle."

The warrior-monks chronicled by Zheng took part in at least four battles: the Gulf of Hangzhou in spring 1553, the Huangpu River delta at Wengjiagang in July 1553, Majiabang in spring 1554, and Taozhai in fall 1555.

They experienced their most severe defeat at Taozhai, where four died in battle. Their remains were interned beneath the Stūpa (dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) of the Four Heroic Monks at Mount She near Shanghai.

The monks won their greatest victory at Wengjiagang. On July 21, 1553, 120 warrior-monks led by the Shaolin monk Tianyuan defeated a band of pirates and pursued the survivors for over ten days across twenty miles. Over one hundred casualties were inflicted on the pirates at a loss of four monks.

Rivalries developed between the different monk sects who battled at Wengjiagang, though. Zheng recorded that up to eighteen other monks challenged Tianyuan for leadership of the entire monastic force. The challengers picked eight from among their number to face Tianyuan.

The eight men attacked him with empty hands, but he defeated them. When they wielded swords, he seized a long iron bar that locked the gate of the hall they resided in. Using the bar as a staff, he defeated the other monks at once and was acknowledged as the head of the monastic forces.

Zheng’s account (written about 1568) records:

Tianyuan said: “I am real Shaolin. Is there any martial art in which you are good enough to justify your claim for superiority over me?” The eighteen [Hangzhou] monks chose from amongst them eight men to challenge him. The eight immediately attacked Tianyuan using their hand combat techniques. Tianyuan was standing at that moment atop the open terrace in front of the hall. His eight assailants tried to climb the stairs leading to it from the courtyard underneath. However, he saw them coming, and struck with his fists, blocking them from climbing.

The eight monks ran around to the hall’s back entrance. Then, armed with swords, they charged through the hall to the terrace in front. They slashed their weapons at Tianyuan who, hurriedly grabbing the long bar that fastened the hall’s gate, struck horizontally. Try as they did, they could not get into the terrace. They were, on the contrary, overcome by Tianyuan. Yuekong (the challengers’ leader) surrendered and begged forgiveness. Then, the eighteen monks prostrated themselves in front of Tianyuan, and offered their submission.

Zheng also described how a warrior-monk used an iron staff to strike down the wife of a pirate following the battle at Wengjiagang. During those lawless times, renegades were able to join and leave the monastic ranks as they wished.

A high level Ming government official named Wang Shixing wrote:

"Henan monks never obtain ordination certificates. Today they shave their heads and become monks; tomorrow they let it grow and return to the laity. They are allowed to do as they please. Therefore, whenever the White Lotus Teaching emerges, there are thousands upon thousands who join it, and the government has no way of investigating. Bandits. .. also frequently shave their heads, change their appearance and join the monastic order. Once their troubles are over, they return to the laity. No matter whether they are sedentary or itinerant, you won't find one monk in a hundred who does not drink wine or eat meat."

Nevertheless, the contributions of the Shaolin warrior-monks against the wokou pirates redounded to the fame and identity of the Shaolin Temple in China for years to come. 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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