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The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts Hardcover – January, 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 281 pages
  • Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (January 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0824831101
  • ISBN-13: 978-0824831103
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,709,101 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Meir Shahar documents with meticulous accuracy and mellifluous prose the fighting monks of Shaolin monastery. The book is a powerful and compelling read." - Valerie Hansen, Yale University. "A delightful tour of one of the most enigmatic and compelling stories of Chinese religion." - John Kieschnick, University of Bristol"

From the Publisher

"Written in clear and lucid style and ambitious both in scope and methodology, this book offers a fascinating window into Chinese culture, religion, and history. Ranging from historical and ethnographic documents to a wide variety of literary sources, it weaves them all into a compelling narrative. In this fashion, Shahar is uniquely able to bring together social, historical, and mythological elements, providing a demythologized account of martial Chinese traditions such as Shaolin Boxing. This is sinology at its best."--Bernard Faure, Columbia University

"The book clearly belongs in a new group of books challenging conventional understandings of Buddhism and violence. Meir Shahar documents with meticulous accuracy and mellifluous prose the fighting monks of Shaolin monastery in China, who appear first in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and continue to the present. Scholars of Buddhism and Chinese history will learn much from the author's scrupulous analysis of the historical record--particularly the texts on stone steles at the monastery--that documents the monastery's traditions of fighting. Anyone interested in martial arts or Bruce Lee films will find it fascinating to learn about the actual history of the monastery's fighting techniques. I found the book a powerful and compelling read." --Valerie Hansen, Yale University

"Meir Shahar's book will assure that the martial arts of Shaolin take a prominent place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Shahar has mastered a prodigious amount of secondary scholarship, pored over a wealth of primary documents, and brought a critical rigor to the study of these materials that is unprecedented in any language. Throughout, his analysis is cogent and clear. The result is a delightful tour of one of the most enigmatic and compelling stories of Chinese religion: the emergence and development of martial arts at Shaolin Si. Entertaining as the book is, it delivers as well a meditation on the sources of Chinese religion, and how fiction and scripture, myth and history combine to produce novel traditions. The Shaolin Monastery will appeal not only to scholars of Chinese religion, but to those interested in military history, self-cultivation, martial arts, and popular culture."--John Kieschnick, University of Bristol

The Shaolin Monastery charts, for the first time in any language, the history of the Shaolin Temple and the evolution of its world-renowned martial arts. In this meticulously researched and eminently readable study, Meir Shahar considers the economic, political, and religious factors that led Shaolin monks to disregard the Buddhist prohibition against violence and instead create fighting techniques that by the twenty-first century have spread throughout the world. He examines the monks' relations with successive Chinese regimes, beginning with the assistance they lent to the seventh-century Emperor Li Shimin and culminating more than a millennium later with their complex relations with Qing rulers, who suspected them of rebellion. He reveals the intimate connection between monastic violence and the veneration of the violent divinities of Buddhism and analyzes the Shaolin association of martial discipline and the search for spiritual enlightenment.

Shahar's exploration of the evolution of Shaolin fighting techniques serves as a prism through which to consider martial-art history in general. He correlates the emergence of the famous bare-handed techniques of Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan, and Shaolin Quan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the social, political, and religious trends of that age. He then goes on to argue that these techniques were created not only for fighting, but also for religious and therapeutic purposes. Thus his work fills an important gap in the understanding of Chinese religion and medicine as well as the martial arts.

The Shaolin Monastery is the most exhaustive study to date on the topic and the most systematic introduction to the history and the religious context of the Chinese martial arts tradition. It will engage those interested in Chinese religion and history and martial arts, illuminating for specialists, martial artists, and general readers alike the history and nature of a martial tradition that continues to grow in popularity in its native land and abroad.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 18 customer reviews
In that task he has done an exemplary job.
Jeffrey K. Mann
This is a deep and throughly researched book detailing the true aspects of Shaolin history and it's strange but interesting link between religion and martial arts.
Sal Canzonieri
It is a must have for true martial artist enthusiast.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dr. E. M. Cohen on April 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I came to this work as both an academic and a practitioner of a Shaolin style of pushing hands. The evolution of the Shaolin arts from staff fighting to unarmed styles is explored in great detail from a variety of sources (many of which are primary and have been translated here for the first time).

This is one of the first books I've read that makes a scholarly attempt at explaining how the Buddhist monks of Shaolin successfully negotiated the cognitive dissonance caused by commitment to Buddhist principles of non-violence on one hand and mastery of martial arts on the other.

The book also succeeds in recognising and clarifying the role of Daoist thought and cultivation practices (namely the Dao Yin) in the development of Shaolin Gung Fu.

Some of the conclusions (especially in relation to the unarmed styles) lend some support to Nathan Johnson's (2000) thesis 'Barefoot Zen'. After long and careful study of the forms of Shaolin Gung Fu and Karate Kata, Johnson contended that these arts were never intended for fighting (whereas Shahar would likely contend that fighting was not their sole purpose, p.180 and p.200).
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Ghostexorcist on August 7, 2009
Format: Paperback
Here are some of the more interesting points covered, including the slaying of commonly held martial arts myth:

1) Although he is not sure when the monks began to learn how to wield weapons, Shahar states they were practicing the use of military weapons (sword, spear, bow, etc.) as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The monks chosen to learn these skills protected the monastery from mountain bandits that regularly laid siege to the complex. However, these monks were not apart of the religiously devout vegetarian body that lived within the monastery proper. They lived in small clusters located outside of the monastery and regularly broke the Buddhist precepts against eating meat, drinking alcohol, and killing. They were allowed to do this because of their distance from the monastery and the protection they provided. The allowances for killing were also connected to their religious beliefs.

2) The martial monks worshiped a Buddhist guardian deity called "Vajrapani," one of the Buddha's body guards. Legends tell how he regularly killed demons and other evil creatures that threatened the Buddha or Buddhism in general. Hence, this was all the justification the military monks needed to kill. This deity was always portrayed in Indian art with a club, but the Chinese eventually changed it to a staff (contemporary stelae located on the Monastery grounds attests to this). Vajrapani figures in Shaolin legend as the progenitor of their legendary staff method. Hence, he was connected to Shaolin arts CENTURIES before Bodhidharma.

3) Chinese fiction had a great influence on Shaolin legends. For instance, the Monkey King from the tale Journey to the West influenced the aforementioned staff legend. The legend takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion of the Yuan Dynasty.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Eightfish on March 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Meir is the foremost expert outside of China (and possibly even within China) on the history of the Shaolin Temple. An academic book by an amazing scholar, and a must read for anyone serious about learning the in-depth history of Shaolin, and martial arts, as he traces the history back 1500+ years. Scholarly, well written, peer reviewed, with loads of annotations...

A great book if you're seeking insight of the origins of Kung Fu If you are not seriously interested in martial arts, and their Shaolin China roots, this book is probably not for you.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey K. Mann on September 25, 2009
Format: Paperback
Unfortunately, quality academic work on subjects related to martial arts is in very short supply. With the appearance of Shahar's book, however, we have a first-rate addition to current scholarship. It is most welcome.

Having earned his doctorate at Harvard, Shahar currently teaches at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The Shaolin Monastery is his third book related to the intersection of Chinese history and religion, following Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Culture (1998) and his work as co-editor of Unruly Gods: Divinity and Society in China (1996). In this most recent work, Shahar traces the history of the famous Shaolin Temple from the 6th century to the present day. With a remarkable grasp of the historical materials, he presents the early development and mythology surrounding the monastery's military exploits during the Tang Dynasty, its evolution during the Ming, disintegration through the Qing, and recent revival in the last fifty years. Along the way, historical misperceptions and legends are dealt with critically. In doing so, however, Shahar avoids the tendency of too many historians to giddily deconstruct popular beliefs with an iconoclasm that betrays a snooty elitism on the part of the researcher. Shahar prefers to uncover, explain, and clarify, not gleefully tear down.

This book should put an end to those arguing that Bodhidharma did indeed introduce physical exercise of any sort to Shaolin. As Shahar points out, the Shaolin monks did not even sell that story until the mid-Qing dynasty (c. 18th century). Likewise, he demonstrates that empty-handed fightings styles, both historical and contemporary, that claim to have originated at Shaolin are equally dubious.
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