The Wandering Sage

In this periodic column, martial arts enthusiast and old China hand Shannon Roxborough explores the claims depicted in kung-fu cinema, putting them into historical, cultural, philosophical, martial and common-sense context.

Photo courtesy of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Cambridge University Press)
The Manchus. Courtesy of The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Cambridge University Press)


I enjoy kung-fu films as much as anyone (maybe more). Like many of you, I spent much of my childhood watching every martial arts movie I could I lay my eyes on. Through weekend TV airings and trips to B-movie double and triple features at the local theater, I grew up in a world dominated by badly dubbed English dialogue, over-the-top sound effects and stylized fight scene choreography. And I wouldn’t change one minute of it. Not only did it provide countless hours of viewing entertainment, but it also shaped the direction of my personal path.

As a longtime student of the arts and a serious history buff with a passion for China’s rich past who was fortunate enough to visit the then-neglected Shaolin Monastery in the late ’80s—before it began to morph into a full-blown Disney-style tourist trap teeming with acrobatic warrior “monks”—reading the recent review of Hand of Death, I couldn’t help but start to ponder a common theme in many kung-fu films: Shaolin Temple versus The Manchus of the Ching Dynasty.

Think about it. Does it really make any sense that monks, who led lives, first and foremost, devoted to spiritual matters and peaceful isolation, would be swept up in a secret war, actively perpetrating acts of revenge or violence? Or, that an imperial power with a large professional army at its disposal would allow a relatively small band of revolutionaries with a fixed address to mount ongoing opposition to their rule without crushing them? (Even if one buys the stories that there were as many as 1,000 to 2,000 “soldier” monks at Shaolin during its renegade peak, the Manchus at a similar point in time had an army of more than half a million men.) Add to the mix anecdotal evidence that suggests martial study was only a sideline for some at Shaolin and that many resident men of the cloth didn’t practice at all and it sounds even more like a kernel of truth stretched to the limit.

In fact, as heartbreaking as it is for those who want to believe, most of the widespread prevailing views about Shaolin are myths shaped by kung-fu films, martial oral traditions and fantasy novels that scholars specializing in Chinese history completely dismiss—due, in large part, to a lack of any supporting historical or archeological proof.

So, although the movies make for colorful, action-packed storytelling, the reality is likely much less romantic. Even so, that doesn’t take away from the nostalgia, excitement and inspiration those visual tales of adventure and heroic legends offer fans everywhere.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters most?

—Shannon Roxborough

About the Author

Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung-fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former magazine correspondent and popular newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his news shorts have appeared in Inside Kung-fu and Black Belt while his articles have been published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Alternative Medicine (now Natural Solutions magazine) and the defunct New Age Journal, among others. He also wrote a regular column for the now-ceased “The Okinawan” magazine exploring various aspects of Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures—from martial arts and traditional art forms to history, philosophy, etiquette and travel.