Translator’s Note: Master Xu Shiyou became a Ch’an monk at the Shaolin Temple in 1913 when he was just 8 years old. Reading the biographies of old Shaolin masters, boys entering the temple at this age was not unheard of. In 1913, the Head Monk of the Shaolin Temple was the Venerable Heng Lin (恒林) [1865-1923], and it was under this remarkable Shaolin master that Xu Shiyou’s training would have been authorised and co-ordinated. This was also the era prior to the 1928 burning of the Shaolin Temple by a pro-Christian Nationalist force commanded by Feng Yuxiang. The Shaolin Temple that Xu Shiyou trained within, was the ‘old’ incarnation of this famous Ch’an temple that was well over a thousand years old in the early 20th century. Moreover, Xu Shiyou was also resident at the temple when a group of Japanese people visited the complex in 1920, and made an extensive photographic recording of the place (these pictures are on the Ch’an Dao site). It is also interesting to note that the Shaolin Temple was officially charged by the Dengfeng County Local Authorities in 1912, with the task of policing the local area and keeping it free from banditry, using a select force of Shaolin monks wearing modern military uniforms and using equally modern fire-arms. This means that some Shaolin monks trained in fire-arm usage as part of their general and ongoing spiritual training, and there is a suggestion that Xu Shiyou also participated in this training. Master Xu Shiyou left the Shaolin Temple in 1921. ACW 11.3.2016
Xu Shiyou (1905-1985) was one of the military generals who assisted in the founding of New China. It is common knowledge that he was born in Xin County, Henan province, and that he excelled in the disciplined practice of the martial arts, developing unrivalled skill. When fighting on the battlefield, he commanded his troops from the front, personally taking the lead in any attack. Quite often he would not use modern weapons, but preferred to carry the old Chinese broad sword (大刀 – Da Dao) which he used with a total disregard for his own safety, cutting and circling with a blurring speed at all the enemies that surrounded him. This is how he came to be known as ’Ferocious Ever-extending Speed’ (猛张飞 – Meng Zhang Fei). What is less known is how General Xu attained his martial skills.
Xu Shiyou was also commonly known by the name ‘Shaolin General’ (少林将军 – Shao Lin Jiang Jun) and herein lies the truth. General Xu entered the Shaolin Temple when he was 8 years old, and stayed there for 8 years. As a Shaolin monk, he trained extensively in all aspects of martial arts and meditation – perfecting these skills to a very high degree. When he was 16 years old, he left the Shaolin Temple to participate in the Revolution. He was known even then for his fearlessness and courage when on the battlefield, and his energy astonished everyone who came into contact with him. There is no doubt that the discipline, strength, patience and understanding acquired at the Shaolin Temple gave him a calm mind and brave attitude in all situations. It was his training in the Shaolin Temple that laid the foundation of his character that gave him the necessary attributes required to excel in the military.
This connection between a successful military career and time spent in the Shaolin Temple may not be as rare as many think. For instance, General Xu Shiyou once worked alongside the Deputy Commander for the Nanjing Region – Qian Jun (钱钧) – who had spent 5 years training at the Shaolin Temple, where he also made an extensive study of martial arts. In fact, the Republic was founded by many generals who had spent time self-cultivating in the Shaolin Temple until the time was right for them to re-join society and openly participate in revolutionary activities. These individual stories are known within military circles, and sometimes found amongst the people as folklore. It is possible that the historically pure reputation of the Shaolin Temple effects the men who train there in both body and mind, and that this process changes them permanently. They become calm, virtuous, fearless and brave. Xu Shiyou was born in 1905 in Xin County, situated on the border between Hunan and Henan provinces, in the Dabie (大别) Mountain area. There are no specific reasons recorded as to why he went to live at the Shaolin Temple. One theory is that poverty played a major role in the decision, as Xu Shiyou was one of 8 children and to prevent hunger and starvation, he was sent to the Shaolin Temple to become a monk at 8 years old. Another theory is that one of his grandparents might have been ill for a longtime, and that his parents - having prayed to Buddha for blessings – offered to send their son to a Buddhist temple if the illnesses were cured. As the grandparent got better, the parents sent their son to the world-famous Shaolin Temple out of a sense of gratitude. A third theory is that Xu Shiyou was bullied by the son of a local landowner – but when the two fought, Xu Shiyou killed his attacker and then fled to the Shaolin Temple for sanctuary.
Xu Shiyou entered the Shaolin Temple at 8 years old and because he was from a poor background, he was used to a life of discipline and hardship. The fact that he was diligent in all his training earned him the respect of his Shaolin master. His Dharma name was ‘Forever Auspicious’ (永祥 – Yong Xiang). As he was young, his main initial task was to correctly pour tea for the Shaolin masters, make the beds and sweep the floor. As he sometimes made mistakes, the masters would scold him severely, but he remained happy all the time simply because the Shaolin masters also taught him martial arts every day.
What martial arts did Xu Shiyou practice? Usually most of his day was spent carrying-out his work duties, but when it was time for martial arts practice, he would closely follow the master’s instruction when practicing ‘Standing like a Stake’ (站桩 – Zhan Zhuang), ‘Throwing the Stick’ (摔棍 – Shuai Gun), ‘Running-up Walls’ (跑立砖 - Pao Li Zhuan), ‘Inserting Hands into Sand’ (插沙 – Cha Sha), ‘Qi Energy Circulation’ (运气 – Yun Qi), and ‘Standing on the Plum Flower Logs’ (梅花桩 – Mei Hua Zhuang) and much more. As Xu Shiyou was young and very hard-working in his training, he developed a very good martial foundation that strengthened day after day. It is said that he developed tremendous and extraordinary strength and power in his arms, which enable him to use swords, spears (and guns) in a remarkable manner, mastering 18 different weapons in all.
Even amongst those who were themselves considered very proficient in the practice and mastery of Shaolin Temple martial arts, Xu Shiyou’s abilities stood-out. Sometimes he trained with the ‘Heavy Body’ (重身 – Zhong Shen) or ‘Weighted Vest’ designed to create ‘lightness’ when not wearing it. One effect of this device was that Xu Shiyou could run-up a wall several meters high, and by circulating and focusing qi energy in his hands, he could smash 3 inch tiles with his palms. After 8 years of solid training, Xu Shiyou felt that it was time to bid farewell to the Shaolin Masters and his fellow Buddhist monastics, and return home. It was time to come down the mountain. Before he left, however, many people came to see him and their sincerity moved him to tears. They changed his Dharma-name from ‘Yong Xiang’ (永祥) for ‘Forever Auspicious’ to ‘Shi You’ (释友) or ‘Venerable Friend’. This was intended to secure forever the practice of Buddhism throughout his life.
In 1926, Xu Shiyou joined the Red Army, and in 1929, joined the Chinese Communist Party. During the Civil War Period – he carried-out many extraordinary martial feats. He became an army commander at the age of 29, and after the liberation of Nanjing, he became a military region commander. There is no doubt that his background in Shaolin Temple martial arts played a significant role in his military career in the Red Army. Not only this, but his time as a Shaolin Buddhist monk gave him a calm and clear thinking mind, that enabled him to be brave and yet decisive. For instance, Xu Shiyou is recorded as volunteering for, and participating in – five different suicide missions – all of which he survived after achieving the military objective. He was tough and always led his troops from the front. He would run forward into the hail of bullets and fire brandishing an old fashioned Chinese broadsword, calling his troops forward and telling them not to be afraid! Soldiers seeing this bravery could not help but be inspired and joined him in the attack. Everyone benefitted from his strength of character and refinement of being. This is why he is forever known as the ‘Shaolin General’.
After Liberation (in 1949), Xu Shiyou was very busy but he still found time to quietly train in Shaolin martial arts. The courtyard of his family’s home had a heavy – sand-filled bag hanging from a tree, and there all kinds of weapons, and sticks aligning the inner walls. Xu Shiyou practised his (Longfist) forms in the yard, and kept-up his body-conditioning up until the point of his death in 1985. Although he was then 80 years old, his body was tough and fit and nobody could beat him in sparring matches.