Why the Shaolin Temple was Burned in 1928
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Translator’s Note: This is an English translation of the original Chinese language text entitled ‘1928年冯玉祥为何命石友三率部下火烧少林寺’ – which can be rendered into English as ‘Why Feng Yuxiang Ordered Shi Yousan to Burn the Shaolin Temple in 1928’. This is an authoritative Chinese historical text, the factual content of which, appears far and wide across the Chinese language internet. In the West it is often stated that the Shaolin Temple suffered destruction under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) – this is incorrect and is not found within Chinese academic sources. The photographs of the Shaolin Temple from 1920 not only record Qing Dynasty accolades for the temple, but clearly show that the temple buildings, statues, library and other structures were not only intact – but also centuries old with no signs of repair either recent or historical. A second misconception prevalent in the West is that the Shaolin Temple was destroyed because its Head Monk – Venerable Miao Xing – sided with the Warlord Cause. Again, this is incorrect. The Venerable Miao Xing did indeed join the warlords, but he was killed in fighting in early 1927 – and the Shaolin Temple was not destroyed until over a year later, in 1928. Although Buddhist assert a ‘karmic’ connection between the actions of Miao Xing and the burning of the Shaolin Temple, in reality these two events are not militarily connected. The third misconception in the West is that ‘warlords’ destroyed the Shaolin Temple. This appears to be an attempt by Republican propaganda sources to distance the Nationalist government of China from its act of destruction of an iconic, national and cultural treasure. The attack on the Shaolin Temple has been perceived by many as a direct attack on the heart of Chinese Buddhism itself, by a pro-Western regime that was on very friendly terms with missionary Christianity in China, and there is some merit in this view. The Nationalist government had pursued an aggressive policy toward both Buddhist and Daoist monastic institutions (premised upon the dubious idea that these groups owned or possessed excessive or undeserved wealth), the incumbents of which were either banished out of their temples to an impoverished existence in the countryside, or involuntarily defrocked and returned to lay life. Temples were either destroyed to clear land for modern buildings, or converted into non-spiritual usage. Monastic lands were confiscated and turned into farms, or used for other activities. Although perceived as ‘progressive’ at the time, this policy was not applied to the Western, Christian missionary groups, their established churches, or their congregations of Chinese Christian converts. The leader of the Nationalist Movement – Chiang Kai-Shek – was a committed Christian convert, as was his subordinate Feng Yuxiang. The Shaolin Temple was destroyed because of a deliberate anti-Buddhist policy pursued by the Nationalist regime in China. Venerable Miao Xing joined the Warlord Cause – because the warlord faction was often traditionally minded, and respectful toward religious institutions – therefore the warlord faction did not, and would not have attacked the Shaolin Temple, as every Buddhist knows that the killing of Buddhist monks attracts the most dire of karmic retributions. Where the confusion on this matter originates is in the fact that Feng Yuxiang had once been a member of the Warlord Cause before defecting to the Nationalists. His subordinate – Shi Yousan – although historically renowned for his duplicity and ease of changing sides when it suited him, nevertheless was a loyal follower of Feng Yuxiang in 1928 – and it was his troops that attacked and destroyed the Shaolin Temple under the direct orders of Feng Yuxiang himself. However, this entire incident occurred because of the actions of Fan Zhongxiu – another ardent Nationalist who was on friendly terms with the Shaolin Temple. He had ‘invaded’ the Dengfeng (and other) areas of Henan province that were under the control of Feng Yuxiang. This resulted in two Nationalist armies fighting one another for dominance in the Dengfeng area – with the Shaolin monks actively deploying in military formation outside of their temple to confront the forces of Shi Yousan. Feng Yuxiang interpreted these actions of the Shaolin monks as ‘taking sides’ against him, and ordered Shi Yousan to kill the monks and burn the temple to the ground for daring to resist his political (and military) power in the area.
Many people still believe that the Qing Dynasty also burnt the Shaolin Temple, but this is not historically correct. In fact the exact opposite is true, as is obvious from extant historical records, that the emperors of the Qing Dynasty were very concerned and showed respect toward the Shaolin Temple. This can be seen by the fact that they authorised the writing of plaques praising the temple, and on occasion even visited the temple in person. During the 15th year of his reign (1720), the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (乾隆) visited the Shaolin Temple, where he spent the night in the Head Monk’s room. Whilst there, he composed a hand-written poem and authorised the engraving of a stone tablet. The fact that the Shaolin Temple flourished under Qing Dynasty rule can be seen from the paintings and inscriptions that exist on the inner walls of the White Gown Temple (白衣殿 – Bai Yi Dian) or ‘Guan Yin Temple’ - situated in the grounds of the Shaolin Temple. This demonstrates the high esteem with which the Shaolin Temple martial arts were held in Qing times.
In 1928, China was undergoing many battles involving the Republican Government and warlords. At this time, The Republican (and Christian) warlord Feng Yuxiang (冯玉祥) [1882-1948] ordered his subordinate - Shi Yousan (石友三) - to attack and destroy the Shaolin Temple situated on Mount Song, Henan province. This destroyed the Devaraja Hall (天王殿 – Tian Wang Dian), the Great Hall of Heroic Strength (大雄殿 – Da Xiong Dian) i.e. the ‘Main Hall’, the Dharma Hall (法堂 – Fa Tang), the building housing the Bell Tower (钟楼 – Zhong Lou), through burning. As around 90% of the ancient Shaolin Temple library was also destroyed, a large number of precious Buddhist sutras were lost, together with texts that recorded the history of the Shaolin Temple itself. This destruction of books included very rare texts recording various martial arts styles (and related subjects) either practiced in the temple, or known as existing in other places. The consequence of this Republican attack on the Shaolin Temple was that a great Buddhist treasure was lost to humanity, forever.
Therefore, it can be truthfully stated that Feng Yuxiang – whilst making use of a Republican Chinese military force armed with modern Western weaponry - inflicted the most ruthless and efficient campaign of destruction upon the Shaolin Temple. This being the case, it is historically important to assess ‘why’ Feng Yuxiang decided to take this action. The answer is simple and straight-forward. The then Head Monk (i.e. ‘Abbot’) of the Shaolin Temple was named ‘Miao Xing’ (妙兴)[1891-1927]. At a time of highly destructive, internecine fighting between military forces of the different factions of the Republican Government, and between the Republican Government and the various warlords that still controlled parts of China, the Head Monk Miao Xing took the decision to side with the warlord Wu Peifu (吴佩孚) [1874-1939], whose forces were operating in the Henan area. He took this decision in an attempt to secure the peace and harmony of the Shaolin Temple and its inhabitants. This was not only a theoretical taking of sides by Miao Xing, but was a practical decision to take action, as he physically volunteered to join the forces of Wu Peifu – who immediately promoted him to the rank of regimental commander (团长 – Tuan Zhang). Feng Yuxiang and Wu Peifu had once been allied warlords – until Feng Yuxiang deserted Wu Peifu at a vital moment on the battlefield. Miao Xing’s decision to break the neutrality of the Shaolin Temple and side with Wu Peifu, eventually brought destruction down upon the temple by Feng Yuxiang – who was now the sworn enemy of Wu Peifu.
In the July of the 15th year of the Republic (1926), the (Republican controlled) Guangzhou Revolutionary Army (also known as the ‘National Revolutionary Army’) began its Northern Expedition to wipe-out the warlord powerbase in north China. During that September, Feng Yuxiang announced his intention to change sides, and defected from the Northern Warlord faction. After this he (and his men) were immediately welcomed into the ranks of the Republican armed forces, and deployed against Feng’s previous allies. This led Wu Peifu to join forces with Zhang Zuolin (1875-1928) with the intention of attacking Feng Yuxiang – but this warlord’s offensive was defeated by the Northern Expedition forces. In the spring of 1927, Feng Yuxiang attacked and secured Xi’an, before joining with the Northern Expedition forces to attack Henan. In the meantime, the Shaolin Head Monk Miao Xing – who was in command of the 1st Regiment – was ordered to move his men firstly to Zhengzhou, and then to Wuyang (both in Henan). On March 6th, the forces led by Shaolin Head Monk Miao Xing clashed with those of Republican Commander Ren Ying Qi (1892-1934), and during this battle, Miao Xing was killed – he was 37 years old. In June the body of Miao Xing, after being identified by his disciples, was transported back to the Shaolin Temple for burial on the northeast hillside of the temple grounds.
During March of the 17th year of the Republic (1928), with Miao Xing already dead - Fan Zhongxiu (who had been a lay-disciple of Heng Lin [恒林] the former Head Monk of Shaolin and also the teacher of Miao Xing) out manoeuvred Feng Yuxiang’s ‘National Army’ in Henan, and took control of Gong County and Yanshi County. However, these areas were soon recaptured by Shi Yuosan (石友三) [1891-1940] – a loyal subordinate of Feng Yuxiang. After this, Fan Zhongxiu turned southward and attacked Dengfeng County – establishing his command centre in the Shaolin Temple itself. Shi Yousan took his army southward in pursuit, with the intention of driving Fan Zhongxiu and his men out of the area, but when he reached the Shaolin Temple – he was met by a force of armed monks (who had decided to support Fan Zhongxiu because of his connection with the former Head Monk Heng Lin, and by association – Miao Xing). In the ensuing battle around 200 monks were killed (nearly all those resident at the temple at the time) and the resistance of the Shaolin Temple was broken. The following morning, Feng Yuxiang’s National Army was in complete control of the Dengfeng area. Brigade Commander Su Mingqi (苏明启) ordered a sergeant to have his men soak the temple in kerosene and then set it alight. This destroyed the Devaraja Hall, the Main Hall, the Dharma Hall, the Bell Tower, the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖殿 – Liu Zu Dian), the Kinnara Temple (紧那罗殿 – Jin Na Lou Dian), the King of Hell Temple (阎王殿 – Yan Wang Dian), the Dragon King Hall (龙王殿 – Long Wang Dian), the Fragrant Store Kitchen (香积厨 – Xiang Ji Chu), the Storeroom (库房 – Ku Fang), East-West Meditation Hall (东西禅堂 – Dong Xi Ch’an Tang), the Imperial Throne Room (御座房 – Yu Zuo Tang) and many other places. All was put to the torch to vent the anger felt by Feng Yuxiang and Shi Yousan toward the monks of the Shaolin Temple for daring to resist their political power in Henan. This is the true story of how the ancient Shaolin Temple (which had stood for over a thousand years, and was a building of immense historical importance) became doomed to its own destruction and reduced to mere ruins. When the Head Monk joined the Northern Warlords he became directly involved in worldly matters, and this was interpreted as a violation of the Vinaya Discipline that all Chinese Buddhist monastics are sworn to uphold without exception. It is believed that because the Head Monk Miao Xing violated the Vinaya Discipline, the resultant negative karma produced cost him his life, and led directly to the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. After this, the Shaolin Temple was managed by a pure and simple monk (originally from the Hui Guo Zhen area of Gong County) named Zhen Xu (1893-1955). His lay-surname was ‘Li’ (李) and he came from South Village (南村 – Nan Cun) in Lu Zhuang (鲁庄) Township, situated in Gong County, Henan province. He (and others like him) only protected the Mountain Gate (山门 – Shan Men) and nothing more. After 1982, the Shaolin Temple was fully repaired and re-developed to serve as a centre for international cultural exchange. This has become one of its main functions that ensures that it now survives in the modern era. All the inner temples, rooms, library and other places have now been reconstructed so that the ancient Shaolin Temple shines with a renewed vigour.
Feng Yuxiang can only be held in high regard, if his motives and behaviour are not analysed properly. For instance, he ordered the attack on the Shaolin Temple (which resulted not only in the death of the monks, but also the wholesale destruction of the ancient temple and all its invaluable contents) as part of a general attack upon Buddhism which was not a one-off event. This was an incalculable loss to Chinese (and world) culture, not only for Buddhism but also for martial arts and traditional medicine. It was a wanton act of destruction that must be perceived for what it is. Furthermore, a year earlier in 1927, the devout Christian Feng Yuxiang had Buddhist monks and nuns expelled from the temples in Henan and driven into the wilderness, and he had the Daxianggou Temple (大相国寺 – Da Xiang Guo Si) turned into a market-place. This was part of his province-wide policy of the persecution of Buddhist monks and nuns. This was in fact a country-wide policy of persecuting Buddhist temples carried-out by the Republican (or ‘Nationalist’) government of China, which saw Buddhist temples and monasteries forcibly acquired and turned into schools, almshouses, libraries, or places of entertainment. The success of Feng Yuxiang’s anti-Buddhist policies in Henan were viewed as so important by the Republican government, that it initiated similar campaigns attacking Buddhism all over the country. This inevitably led to a system-wide decline of Buddhism at the time throughout China. When viewed from this perspective, the destructive actions ordered by Feng Yuxiang against the Shaolin Temple are clear to discern.
The Shaolin Temple was destroyed because of Feng Yuxiang’s personal aversion toward Buddhism, probably motivated partly by the fact that he was a devout Christian convert, and partly from the fact that the Republican government tended to associated ‘tradition’ with backwardness, and possibly resistance to its rule. This mixture of personal prejudice, religion and political power led directly to Feng Yuxiang’s destruction of the Shaolin Temple and murder of its monks in 1928.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.