Shaolin Temple is situated at Shaoshi Mountain in the west of Songshan Mountain ranges, in Dengfeng City, Henan Province. Against the backdrop of Wuru Peak of Shaoshi Mountain, it is surrounded with forests and hills as its natural defense.
The “Shao” in “Shaolinsi” refers to “Shaoshi Mountain”; lin means “forest” and si “temple”. The name Shaolin Temple literally means “temple in the woods of Shaoshi Mountain”.
Shaolin Temple was established in 495A.D. at the western foot of Songshan Mountain, 13 kilometers northwest to Dengfeng City, Henan Province. The present Emperor at the time, Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557) had the temple built to accommodate the Indian Buddhist master Batuo.
As the first Shaolin abbot, Batuo devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and preaching doctrines to hundreds of his followers. Later, another Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at Shaolin Temple, who was said to have crossed the Yangtze River on a reed. He spent nine years meditating in a cave of the Wuru Peak and initiated the Chinese Chan tradition at Shaolin Temple. Thereafter, Bodhidharma was honoured as the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As Chinese Kung Fu also originated from the Shaolin Temple, it has been recognized as the origin of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Kung Fu and of all martial arts.
Martial arts has been known to be practiced at the temple throughout its history. A legend exists that Bodhidharma found the Shaolin monks weak and unhealthy after long periods of meditation practice. So he developed the martial arts of the day to strengthen them, which formed the basis of Shaolin Kung Fu. However the most unique aspect of the Shaolin culture is not its martial tradition alone but its combination of Shaolin Kung Fu and other physical traditions with Ch’an Buddhism.
Situated at the Song Mountain, the Central Sacred Mountain, the temple was frequently visited by generals and emperors. Until its modern renaissance, the golden age of the monastery has been said to be during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). At the beginning of the seventh century, a tiny army of 13 Shaolin monks were reputed to have saved the future Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shimin. When he took power, Li showered favours, land and wealth on the temple.
The Shaolin Temple peaked in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and began to decline in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). At its heyday, it housed more than 3,000 monks. Its long history includes destructions and reconstructions, with the most devastating one occurring in 1928 by warlord Shi Yousa. A blaze raged for more than 40 days destroying nearly all the temple’s classics and records. Upon successive renovation, most architectures of Shaolin Temple have been restored or are currently under reconstruction today.