|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:
-http://www.bgtent.com/naturalcma/CMAarticle14.htm (Article from the Han Wei Wushu newsletter on the various Southern Chinese martial arts styles.)
-http://www.kungfu-taichi.com/servlet/kungfoo/Action/Resource/ResourceKey/1961 (Chinese martial arts website about the history of South Shaolin.)