Friday, April 13, 2012

Attack on South Shaolin

The Shaolin temple gate. Photo copyright: Yaoleilei/Wikimedia Commons

If you're a fan of Shaolin kung-fu and southern Chinese folklore, you probably know that one of the biggest tragedies for Shaolin kung fu was the attack on the South Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou in Fujian province, China by the Qing (Manchu) army. This attack is widely agreed to have taken place in 1647, but others say it may have taken place in 1674 or 1732. It was during this attack when the South Shaolin Monastery was burned to the ground and many of the monks were slaughtered.

Why did this tragedy happen? Shaolin had become a hotbed for anti-Qing revolutionary activities and posed a serious threat to the Qing Dynasty. Many anti-Qing and Ming rebels took shelter at Shaolin, and Shaolin had always been allied to the Emperor. Also, it has been said that after Shaolin offered to send monks to support the new dynasty in power, Emperor Yong Zheng started seeing Shaolin as a threat to the new order.

It was for these reasons that Yong Zheng decided to attack and dismantle Shaolin. To this end, he mobilized an army and recruited some Tibetan lamas who, according to legend, were not only trained in kung fu, but also in the fearsome secret weapon known as the "flying guillotine" (血滴子,also known as 'xuèdī zǐ'/'hyut dik zi', or "blood-dripper"). In case you haven't seen the movies, the flying guillotine is said to be a weapon that looked like a bell-shaped hat attached to a chain. This "hat" was filled with razors that fastened around a victim's neck and literally ripped their head off.

The day came when the Qing launched their attack. Thanks in large part to the Tibetan mercenaries and the flying guillotines (again, according to legend since no flying guillotines remain in existence), the Shaolin suffered heavy losses and the loss of their monastery. In addition, all records kept at South Shaolin were destroyed by the Qing and much history was lost.

Fortunately for Shaolin, five Shaolin monks were able to escape the carnage and made their way to Jiulian Mountain, where they rebuilt South Shaolin. These monks were known as the Five Elders and out of the Five Elders, Gee Sin was particularly influential. It was his students (who are also sometimes called the Five Elders) who founded the five different styles of Southern Chinese kung fu. These martial arts styles were created in absolute secrecy as the Qing authorities banned any forms of martial arts from being practiced in open view.

Unfortunately, the monastery at Jiulian Mountain was also destroyed by the Qing in due time, but not before South Shaolin could carry on and new styles of kung fu could be born and flourish.

For more about South Shaolin, Southern Chinese styles, and more, be sure to check these websites out:

- (Article from the Han Wei Wushu newsletter on the various Southern Chinese martial arts styles.)
- (Chinese martial arts website about the history of South Shaolin.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Shin Don: Reformer of the Goryeo Dynasty

If you've seen the 2005-06 drama "Shin Don" from South Korean broadcaster MBC or if you're an avid fan of Korean history, chances are you are probably familiar with the story of Shin Don (신돈, also 'Sin Ton'). If not, now's the time to learn a little about this monk turned politician from the Goryeo (Koryo) Dynasty!

Shin Don (1322-1371) was a Buddhist monk whose Dharma name was Pyeonjo (편조). Pyeonjo was a fairly obscure monk, but he managed to catch the attention of the Goryeo King Gongmin at a time when Goryeo was in chaos following the disintegration of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. At that time, Mongol-favored officials, landlords, and wealthy aristocrats in Goryeo amassed the kingdom's wealth, land, and slaves. Following the disintegration of Yuan, King Gongmin wanted to dislodge the power from the kingdom's elite and set up a more centralized government where the powerful families had little influence..

King Gongmin appointed Pyeonjo as head of his reform program and gave him the name Shin Don. Shin Don would set up and head the Jeonmin Byeonjeong Dogam (전민변정도감), which was a government office responsible for reforming the kingdom's bureaucracy and dismissing those government officials who were corrupt. He also reformed the examinations system for government officials, returned land that was unlawfully seized by corrupt officials, returned slaves to their rightful owners, and in some cases, freed slaves altogether.

Naturally, the wealthy landowners, elite military officers, and aristocrats whose wealth and power were being threatened by Shin Don's reforms were not happy. Without their Mongol allies around to back them up, Shin Don became their number one enemy. In 1371, under pressure from this clique, King Gongmin dismissed Shin Don on falsified charges of wasting state funds on elaborate Buddhist ceremonies. Not long afterwards, the clique - with tacit approval from King Gongmin - had Shin Don murdered.

Shin Don's death spelled the end of King Gongmin's plans for creating a more equal society and centralized government in the Goryeo kingdom.

For more information about Shin Don, be sure to check out the websites below:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Non-Gae: The Korean Heroine

Portrait of Non-Gae at the Non-Gae Shrine near Chokseongnu, South Korea.
One of Korea's most well-known heroines is without a doubt the Joseon-era kisaeng Ju Non-Gae, or Non-Gae (논개) as she's commonly known. Non-Gae has been the subject of many stories, movies, and even some manhwa (Korean manga), especially since the 1950s and 60s. But the story of Non-Gae is one that is not well-known in the West, and is one that has possibly been romanticized and fictionalized over the centuries.

According to most accounts, Non-Gae was born into extreme poverty during the 16th century in Jangsu, Jeolla province in modern-day South Korea. She grew up without a father and, like many other girls at the time, was destined for arranged marriage. She was, however, raised to be one thing and that was a kisaeng. Just like their geisha counterparts in Japan, kisaeng were trained to sing, dance, and entertain.

When Non-Gae and her mother were arrested in Jinju (in modern-day Gyeongsang province, South Korea), she was bequeathed to a court official who would become the man she loved: Choe Gyeong-hoe.

In 1593, Korea had been invaded by the forces of Japanese shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi and was struggling to expel the invaders. This war is known as the Seven Year's War. Hideyoshi's forces, under the command of the famous general Keyamura Rokusuke, laid siege to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul) and Choe led a small group of 3,000 Korean guerrillas at the Jinju fortress who were determined to repel Keyamura's 93,000 strong army.

After nine days of fierce fighting, the Japanese forces managed to kill every last defender, including Choe. After declaring victory, they had a celebration during which all the kisaeng of Jinju, including Non-Gae, were summoned to Chokseongnu Pavilion.

The grief-stricken Non-Gae chose to entertain none other than General Keyamura himself. She took him to an overhanging rock on the cliffside, put her arms around him, and locked her fingers together with her karakchi rings. Non-Gae then avenged the deaths of her brothers and sisters by throwing herself over the cliff with Keyamura, killing them both.

To this day, Non-Gae's sacrifice is remembered and honored by the Korean people. The Nongae Festival is held every May at the Jinju Fortress and a reenactment is held on the Uiam rock (의암, or "righteous rock") of Non-Gae's plunge with Keyamura Rokusuke. Near Chokseongnu, there is also a shrine dedicated to Non-Gae. She is upheld to this very day as an example for all Koreans to follow of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and duty.

Since the late 1950s, the story of Non-Gae has been the subject of a number of movies, TV dramas, books and manhwa. The first known movie made about Non-Gae is the 1956 movie "Nongae" starring Kim Sam-hwa, Choi Seong-ho, and Seong Su-min. In 1973, another movie about Non-Gae titled "Nongae the Kisaeng" was released. This movie starred Kim Ji-mee, Shin Sung-il, and Choi Bool-am. In recent years, the 2007 movie "Resurrection of the Butterfly" ('그림자'/Geurimja in Korean) starring Lee Moo-saeng, Jeong Bo-yeong, and Myung Seung-hoon also deals with the story of Non-Gae.

Non-Gae's story is a tragic one, but one that has captivated the Korean public for many centuries.

For more about Non-Gae, be sure to check out these sites:

Photo of Non-Gae copyright: kangbyeongkee/Wikimedia Commons