|Section of a Ming period 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.|
|Section of a Ming period painted scroll from Hexi corridor depicting a red-haired, blue-skinned Jian Zhai Pu Sha (監齋菩薩), also 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 in Chinese Buddhism. He is also the guardian of Shaolin martial arts tradition.|
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) on the battlefield, a weapon they were most familiar with. However, they certainly did not limit themselves to these quarterstaves, and would gladly equip sabres, glaives, pikes, Gou Lian Qiang (鈎鐮鎗) and Tang Pa (钂鈀). They also had no qualms about employing bows, crossbows, firearms, 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, Japanese coastal pirates) 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 heads (both were the main causes of indiscipline in other Ming armies). 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, the 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 the Wokou.