South Shaolin Temple… Never heard of it?
If you’ve not heard of the South Shaolin Tmple, you may have heard of the North Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Monastery) in Henan. But few have heard of its little brother, the South Shaolin Temple just outside of Putian. It’s located just outside a developing city of around one million population (quite small for China).
But Putian holds its own secrets as this temple claims to be the root of all Southern Chinese martial arts. I found this claim dubious until I went to visit. And I’m glad I did, for only a few kilometres away from the blares of car horns is this idyllic retreat.
Here, you can see the sparse remains of an ancient South Shaolin Temple and immerse yourself in the tranquil spirituality of this magical and fascinating place.
Why we decided to go
I must confess that I lived in Putian for two years without taking much interest in the South Shaolin Temple. I worked at a high school there and myself and a couple of the other foreign teachers had booked a visit.
But when the car arrived to take us, there wasn’t enough room to fit us all in. I conceded and decided to return another day.
Two and a half years later, I live in Xiamen — a larger and more cosmopolitan city further south. We decided to return to Putian to visit a friend and we wanted do something we’d never done before.
Thanks to TripAdvisor, I began to research the South Shaolin Temple. History fascinates me and when I learnt about this being the original source of Southern Chinese martial arts, I just had to learn more.
My fascination also stems from another route. Over ten years ago, whilst studying for my masters, I trained for a short time in Wing Tsun. I learnt a little bit about the origins of these martial arts as I did so. How so many of these: Wing Tsun, Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee’s style) stem from the same place.
Southern Kung Fu. The Tang Dynasty. The original South Shaolin Temple.
That compelled me into action. We got in touch with a Chinese friend whose English name is Michelle. A Putian resident, she’d also never been and so wanted to join us.
Great, we had a translator and we had a plan. Now all we had to do was get there.
So, what exactly is the South Shaolin Temple?
Okay, so please be aware that the history of this is still debated. I’ve tried to piece together what I can, but I’m not a professional historian. Still, this is how I understand it.
Early in the seventh century AD, the Shaolin monk Dao Guang led 500 warrior monks into battle against pirates off the coast of South East China. The North Shaolin Temple was so impressed that its grandmaster commissioned Dao Guang with the task of building the South Shaolin temple.
“Find a mountain like this one,” he said referring to the Jiulian mountain that overlooks the North Shaolin Temple in Henan. “Build a new Shaolin temple on its foothills.” And so emerged the South Shaolin Temple. Dao Guang built it on Putian’s Linquanyuan mountain in Linshancun village (a half hour bus ride from the city).
The temple stayed true to its word, serving as a stronghold to ward off bandits. It was twice destroyed and twice rebuilt until the 18th century.
Then came the Qing Dynasty. The emperor caught wind of a toxic rumour that the Shaolin Monasteries wanted to overthrow him and so he ordered a purge of the Shaolin Temples. His soldiers burnt down many, including the South Shaolin Temple. It remained only a legend for over 200 years.
Up until the Chinese excavated remains of a South Shaolin temple in 1990. Two years later, historians declared Linshancun as the original South Shaolin Temple and the original root of southern martial arts such as Wing Chun, Wing Tsun and Jeet Kun Do (Bruce Lee’s style).
In 2001, China built a new temple on top of the excavation site. Its foundation formed the new South Shaolin Temple.
On Saturday morning, Ola and I jumped on a bus to meet Michelle in the northwest of Putian. There, we waited for another bus as a group of older Chinese men asked questions. They also wanted to visit the Shaolin temple.
Eventually, after surmising there probably wasn’t a bus we decided to take a taxi. The driver hadn’t brought his car with him (he’d ridden out in a bike) so he rode back to get him. Meanwhile, a couple of volunteers at the temple asked if they could get in the taxi with us. We agreed.
One of the volunteers, a lady who didn’t speak much English, started talking to Michelle. This lady offered to take us into the temple where we could have a free vegetarian lunch (although we did in all honesty leave a donation).
By Chinese standards, the place wasn’t busy. We passed under the stone arch that stood alone before the temple entrance. They had a few stalls selling sabres, Buddhist charms, and incense sticks but the shopkeepers didn’t heckle much, which was strange. We were used to being heckled in tourist spots.
But there was something different about this place.
It almost ended in disappointment…
We entered to the smell of burning sandalwood offset against the freshness of pine-filled air. I became immediately overcome against a sense of spiritual calm.
You see, one thing I usually notice about Chinese temples is that they’re very red. China, after all, is all about red. The roofs are red, the walls are red, the decorations are red. Although they do tend to be a little more colourful where the roof corners curve up towards the sky.
But here, the roofs were blue and reminded me of winter and snowy days. After all, it was February, although an incredibly warm day for it.
We ate a vegetarian soup and spring rolls served up by kind Chinese dinner ladies. After that, we took some time to explore the grounds. The Buddha’s awed us, the architecture astounded us.
We saw the child students in red robes have a lecture up at the school before they marched inside (no fighting displays unfortunately). There a couple more volunteers answered some questions and let us take some photos.
We glanced back at an old stone building and didn’t have a clue what it was. Then we looked at more architecture, gazed over the bridge to the main hall for a moment and snapped photos of the turtles.
The problem we find with smaller Chinese temples is that we can’t understand the Chinese. When we see churches, we understand at least some of the art, even if not the language, because we know the stories. But none of this translates to us in a culture so different to our own. We often leave wishing we knew more.
So, we got ready to go and although I thought the temple beautiful I felt a little disappointed. Where was the original Shaolin Temple, the alleged root of all Southern Chinese martial arts?
We walked towards the exit…
But then Michelle received news…
Michelle took a phone call and we paused a little while she spoke in Chinese to someone on the other end. After she’d finished talking, she turned to me and asked: “Do you want to see the original South Shaolin Temple?”
You can imagine how I lit up.
The volunteers we’d met at the school had offered to show us around. Remember that old hut like building I mentioned? We met them there.
Turns out that this tiny building, called the Zifu Monastery, was the only to survive the Qing Dynasty purge. They told us the shrine is around 500 years old, so unlikely part of the original temple. Also, it looks as if it has a concrete façade, so I’m a little dubious about this.
But in front of it you can see stones that apparently came from the excavation.
There are also two slabs with Chinese writing on them that I believe to point to suggest to historians that this is the original South Shaolin Temple.
The two volunteer ladies invited us into the shrine and explained some of the icons and rituals. Left and right, it seemed are important here. If you enter or exit on your right, you put your right foot first. On the left, you put your left foot first.
We knelt to perform some bows as well. We kind of had to crawl up the kneeling cushion with our right, left, then right hand before prostrating three times. Alas I learnt it’s not so comfortable to do this while wearing a backpack.
Later, one of the volunteers took her leave and the other asked if we wanted to go for a walk. She took us along a narrow dirt path up the hill towards where the students train.
A very different kind of world
We passed some narrow poles in the ground that the students perform balancing acts on. I had a go, managed to walk across them slowly. Then later we came across some taller poles. I didn’t dare go on those, but our guide showed us some impressive monkey play. “I’m not as good as the students,” she said.
Finally, she took us to the top of the hill which gave us stunning views over the snowy rooftops of the temple. Around us, the ground had been stripped bare to prepare for the temple’s expansion.
The guide pointed to another bare patch of sandy land on a distant mountain. She told us that they planned to build a huge bridge across there, erect a giant Buddha and expand the temple grounds to three times its size. On the mountain the sunlight shimmered off the tin foil that had been wrapped around the loquats to protect them from the winter.
It seems that the Putian South Shaolin temple is going to be the next big thing.
On the short walk, back we encountered these strange long ferns. Grass like, the way they shot out of the ground. But as thick as a finger and they spiralled in on themselves at the top. I’d never seen anything like them, anywhere on my travels. I wondered if indeed we’d entered another world.
After buying souvenirs we found the South Shaolin Temple bus to take us home. All through the half hour journey the driver blared his horn to signal our coming. It was time to return to familiar China.
How to get there
Travelling in developing cities isn’t always easy. Make sure you plan your trip first (we recommend Baidu maps) and if you don’t speak Chinese have the place names printed out with Chinese symbols.
It helps to have someone with you who speaks Chinese.
To get there, you can take the number 23 from the train station or the number 10 from the bus station to 市卫生局/Shiweishengju. From there either take the dedicated bus to 南少林/Nanshaolin (may involve waiting) or negotiate a taxi.
Putian is on the East Coast between Shanghai and Shenzhen and so trains go there regularly. If you can’t use the Chinese booking services, ctrip.com offers the best commission as far as I’m aware.
Xiamen, Jinjiang, and Fuzhou are nearby airports from where you can connect to the train lines.
Note: if you do visit the South Shaolin Temple, please respect their wishes not to take photographs of any religious statues or murals inside the buildings. Photos of the temple grounds, the turtles, and the people (so long as they agree) are okay. I took plenty of these.
I don’t want to feed out lies on this blog and so I can’t promise you this is the original South Shaolin temple. I’ve ploughed through the internet to try and find the truth, but the best I can find is this article.
But this gives us a new mission. We’re making plans to find the other two South Shaolin temples in Fujian. Perhaps this will help us shed some light on the mystery of the original South Shaolin Temple.