The ghost-faced warrior monks of the Shaolin Monastery

Shaolin Wushu Monk
Section of a mural depicting Shaolin warrior monks training with their weapons. From 'Shao Lin Wu Seng He Lian Tu (《少林武僧合練圖》)',  Shaolin Monastery, Henan province.
Althouh the fabled Shaolin Temple has been renowned for its warrior monks for ages, it was during Ming period that Shaolin Temple established its reputation as the bastion of martial study. Ironically, the warrior monks that helped Shaolin Temple to gain this reputation looked nothing like their modern counterparts. These warrior monks were a practical lot, soldiers first and monks second. They were not afraid of taking lives, and shouted war cries instead of chanting rites. They also wrapped their heads in red cloths and painted their faces with indigo paint (in imitation of Jian Zhai Pu Sha, not actual ghost) in order to terrify their enemies.

Jin Na Luo Pu Sha
Section of a Ming period painted scroll from Hexi corridor depicting a red-haired, blue-skinned Jian Zhai Pu Sha (監齋菩薩), less commonly known as Da Shu Jin Na Luo Wang Pu Sha (大樹緊那羅王菩薩) or Druma Kinnara Raja Bodhisattva. While normally associated with music, Da Shu Jin Na Luo Wang Pu Sha is honoured as kitchen god and supervisor of Buddhist diet in Chinese Buddhism. He is also the patron guardian of Shaolin martial arts tradition.
Not all Shaolin warrior monks came from Henan Shaolin Temple. Warrior monks from local Shaolin branches were also grouped together with true Shaolin monks.

As warrior monks were often recruited on an ad hoc basis, they did not have any standardised equipment. Most warrior monks wielded iron Shao Lin Gun (少林棍) reinforced with copper coins, a weapon they were most familiar with. However, they certainly did not limit themselves to quarterstaves, and would happily pick up sabresglaives, long spears, Gou Lian Qiang (鈎鐮鎗) and Tang Pa (钂鈀) whenever available. They also had no qualms about employing bows, crossbowsfirearms, or even incendiaries. Warrior monks also fought as cavalry.

Ironically, warrior monks did not seem to use monk's spade.

Most warrior monks probably fought unarmoured, but at least some were known to wear bamboo armour on top of leather armour.

Organisation and tactics
Warrior monks were few in numbers, and usually did not require any organisation beyond platoon level. They were attached to other Ming armies, but deployed in independent, monk-only detachment led by their own commander. Contrary to the stereotypical image of an acrobatic kung fu monk, warrior monks fought in orderly formation.

Shaolin warrior monks used an aggressive column formation known as Chang She Zhi Shi (長蛇之勢, lit. 'Long snake formation'). The formation consisted of two pikemen positioned at the front rank, one Gou Lian Qiang positioned between them, alternating iron quarterstaves and glaives behind those three, and mixed archers, crossbowmen and firearm troops protecting both flanks. During battle, pikemen and missile troops would attack simultaneously while the monk armed with Gou Lian Qiang attempted to hook the legs of his enemy. Any unfortunate enemy that was felled by the hooked spear would be quickly finished off by iron quarterstaves. While warrior monks on foot engaged their enemy at the front, mounted warrior monks would attempt to outflank or encircle the enemy.

Even though warrior monks usually fought in formation, they still occasionally demonstrated terrifying level of training in martial arts. In one occasion a Shaolin monk named Yue Kong (月空) leaped over the head of a charging Wokou (倭寇) from sitting position, then smashed the Wokou's skull with one swing from his iron quarterstaff.

Shaolin against rōnin
While warrior monks received no formal military training, their monastic lifestyle had make them unusually hardy and disciplined. As ascetics, warrior monks were generally uninterested in looting or taking trophies (both were main sources of indiscipline among Ming troops), and the combat prowess of a warrior monk could easily match or surpass that of a Wokou. In fact, warrior monks were among the first to score a victory against Wokou after a long string of humiliating defeats. However, they were few in numbers, did not mix well with regular Ming troops, had no say in strategic planning, and were highly distinctive on the battlefield. The ever-cunning Wokou soon learned to exploit these weaknesses, employing deception and ambush to counter them. As such, warrior monks faced increasingly higher casualty rate, even though they still won most of their engagements with Wokou.

While warrior monks were in no position to truly shake the foundation of Wokou incursion, their victories helped the Ming army to regain confidence, and paved the way for future Ming generals such as Yu Da You (俞大猷) and Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光) to finally turn the tide against Wokou.

Non-Shaolin warrior monks
While warrior monks from minor monasteries were often grouped together with Shaolin warrior monks, there were other large monasteries that produced their own warrior monks. Notable examples include warrior monks from the now-defunct Yunyan Temple (雲岩寺) of Funiu Mountains that often fought violent illicit miners and mountain bandits, as well as warrior monks from various temples of Mount Wutai, famous for their long spears.


  1. Regarding your last section, Shaolin against Ronin... Wokou aren't really Ronin as they are bandits and not masterless samurai.

  2. @Jayson Ng
    Wokou was a multi-national congregation of pirate-smugglers that consisted of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and even Portuguese. It certainly included Ronin or ex-Samurai in their ranks.

    Wang Zhi (汪直) that introduced Tanegashima to the Japanese was a Wokou leader. (More properly, Portuguese crewmen on his ship introduced matchlock gun to the Japanese). He even set up his base of operation in Gotō Islands.

  3. Hi, this is an interesting blog.

    I have question though, did the Shaolin monks participate any fight against the Manchu army?

    1. Good day and welcome to my blog.

      I heard that Southern Shaolin(s?) actively participated in anti-Qing activities, and got burned to the ground as a result. Other than that, I know little about them.

  4. The (southern) Shaolin temple being burned down was a myth that sprung up in the Qing period because of a wuxia novel Wan Nian Qing and Triads adopting the myth. There was no evidence of a southern Shaolin temple, neither did the original Shaolin in Songshan ever participated in any serious rebellious activity against Qing. The reason is because by the formation of the Qing, Shaolin's fighting forces are already wiped out or at least decimated beyond recovery (rebels associated with Li Zicheng were involved). After Ming fell, Shaolin was in ruins with only few monks remaining, afterwards they somewhat recovered after receiving handouts from Kangxi, YongZheng, Qianlong. They were distrusted by the Qing regardless because the monks still have nostalgia for the Ming more or less, but Shaolin was never a serious threat to the Manchus. In fact one might even argue if it wasn't for the Qing patronage, Shaolin might not have survived on its own and be just a footnote in history considering the damage they suffered at the end of Ming dynasty. I highly recommend Meir Shahar's book "The Shaolin Monastery". There's a wealth of fact and history in the book that debunks a lot of myth and legends surrounding Shaolin. Also a lot of interesting stuff on monk-soldiers in the Ming period.

    1. I will not be too quick to come to that conclusion, since there are many finds and ruins that point to the existence of Southern Shaolin, particular the one at Fuqing. Whether they really did participate in anti-Qing activities or not is another story though.

    2. Meir Shahar's book was published in 2008, so he should be able to inspect the evidence of Southern Shaolin already. How or why he decided to dismiss these evidences as myth is anyone's guess.

      While it is sad that "Southern Shaolin" hype had already turn into a tourist attraction arm race between multiple claimants, the existence of Ming and even Song period textual records and findings at temple ruins shouldn't be dismissed out of hand either.

    3. By the way, there's also a "Northern Shaolin" at Tianjin, that is officially recognised by Songshan Shaolin.

    4. I'm not sure if one should take anything from the modern "official" Shaolin establishment with other than a grain of salt. We have to remember that the Shaolin temple has suffered calamity after calamity even in the modern period. After the Cultural Revolution, even Jet Li mentioned when filming his 1980's movie Shaolin temple, the temple grounds was nearly abandoned and there were just a few old monks living there (no martial arts practiced IIRC). Then after the Kung Fu movie boom, suddenly there's thousands of monks today?? That's literally building up from the ashes, how much of it now is "true Shaolin" is debatable.

      Regarding the southern Shaolin temple, Meir Shahar mentions a Changlin temple in Fukien in passing. But its significance and relations with Shaolin is unclear. Fuqing not sure if it was mentioned in the book, i'll have to reread thru.

      Is there any websites with more info on the Fuqing ruins? I also hear Putian, and Quanzhou are locations as well. I think the problem is that a lot of people from these various places that have actual temple ruins, they'll somehow find a way to link to somewhere/something famous to get in on the tourist attraction. If they have some definitive evidence then that's truly interesting.

    5. The Tianjin one is at least relatively well-documented in the Hena Shaolin records.

      Fuqing Shaolin is also mentioned in Meir's book, at least in the appendix section. Out of all Southern Shaolin claimnants, Fuqing is the only one to have textual supports (from Song and Ming texts), a confirmed name of "Shaolin", and a ruin large enough to be considered an organised monastery (instead of some random temple in the middle of nowhere that happened to share the same name). Nevertheles, more evidences are required to establish its connection to the Henan Shaolin, or, at the very least, to proof that it had its own branch of martial arts and warrior monks.

  5. Also interesting fact, despite being technically monks...the monk-soldiers regularly eat meat and drink wine, get into fights, basically act like laymen. I guess there's two general types of monks: true clerics that practice the faith (and may or may not also practice martial arts), and the then fighting monks who are basically mercenaries who are there to protect the temple lands and occasionally offered to assist on military campaigns.

  6. is there any truth behind the legend of Bodhidharma by that I mean was there an exchange of Martial techniques from India.

    1. Extremely unlikely. For starters, we don't even sure if he ever went to Shaolin Temple (some records suggest that he died before Shaolin temple was founded...) and even if he did, there's no record of him passing down any martial arts.

    2. I use a very poor choice of words, what I meant in my first comment was there any transferred of Martial techniques by a series of exchanges that inspired the legend.

    3. I think that's very unlikely as well. There's little evidence of Indian influence on Chinese martial arts/weapon design, unlike say Mongolian wrestling or Japanese katana, or European sabre during Qing/Republican period etc.

      Also, I personally think that Chinese and Indian weapons are too radically different from each other to the point that martial arts do not transmit well between them. For example, one can use a katana as a stand-in for Chinese sword and do a Taiji sabre routine with it (in fact, the founder of Yang Taichi style did just that), but I can't even imagine doing the same with a Tulwar.

  7. Hi, I wanted to know what did you meant by renforced with copper coins? Like the currency or some kind of metal cap ? Was it on both end? I'm asking this because I'm currently trying to draw a accurate version of a shaolin warrior

    1. I've seen some of your artworks for FOR HONOR, and will be very hyped to see your take on Shaolin monk.

      Do you know that ancient Chinese coin has a hole in the centre? The monks simply slotted the quarterstaff through multiple old coins. The text doesn't mention how many coins were slotted (presumably iron quarterstaff is thinner than wooden staff, and there are some rather large coin back then) but it's logical to assume that both ends of the staff were reinforced this way.

    2. On a unrelated note:

      The Pahlawan faction idea is pretty nice.

      Personally I'd want a Malay guy in there too, and the Cambodian dude probably want the Mak used by the Vietnamese guy. The Thai can have the mae sun sawk, while maybe a Burmese guy can use the double dha.

      “Soldier” in Nias language (the "Indonesian" guy)is something like "Saradadu", if English-Nias online dictionary is to be trusted. Pendekar is a Malay word.