The Shaolin Temple or Shaolin Monastery (which means "Young Forest") refers to a set of Buddhist monasteries and 228 stone or brick pagodas (known as "Pagoda Forest") located in the province of Henan, China. Popularized by various martial arts films, the place is famous for its association with Chan Buddhism (Zen) and martial arts.
It is located at the sacred mountains of Song Shan, and was founded around 497 AD. Legend has it that in the 5th century Indian monk Bodhidharma settled down and taught monks the fundamentals of Chan (Zen) meditation and respiratory exercises with meditation. These exercises evolved into self defense techniques through the observation of movements of animals and gave rise to Shaolin Kung Fu. These techniques were necessary because Henan was a remote place where monks were subject to attacks by bandits.
Besides practicing meditation for several hours per day, the monks were also initiated from childhood to a daily rigorous physical training of 5 hours. Only after 20 years of training, they could be considered as Kung Fu masters. The monks had to observe a moral code which implied that they should use their skills only in case of self defense.
The monks, however, went beyond those limits and in some cases they assisted Chinese emperors. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), they helped the future emperor Li Shimin in his fight against renegade forces. As a reward, after being enthroned, he extended the compounds of the temple and allowed the monks to pursue a military career. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), hundreds were given military status and weapons were supplied for their trainings. Some monks led campaigns against rebels or bandits. They developed at this time their own fighting style known as shaolinquan.
It was supposedly in the 13th century that the Five Animals martial arts were developed at the Shaolin Temple, represented by the dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane. This fighting style is based on the idea of five basic systems to achieve a perfect state of health.
The Manchu dynasty invaded and destroyed the temple in 1647 (other alleged years are 1674 and 1732), killing nearly all the monks. Of this episode, a legend says that only five monks survived and fled, including Ng Mui, woman master considered the legendary founder of Wing Chun. Those "Five Elders" would later spread Shaolin martial arts through China.
The site would only be reoccupied and rebuilt again around 1800. By 1928, the warlord Shi Yousan burn down the buildings and manuscripts. During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was plundered and the monks forced to work in the field while Kung Fu teaching was banned.
Since 1980, the site is reopened to tourism. Although the monks at Shaolin are highly skilled fighters, they are actually not genuine monks. There are still genuine Shaolin monks in China, but they keep a low profile and are not to be found at Shaolin.
The Shaolin Temple is since 2010 inscribed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.