Mount Song and Shaolin Temple

About the Chinese Mountains

In China there are many mountains. From the religious perspective, the mountains are divided into several categories: The Five Sacred Mountains of China, The Fours Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and The Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism. Mount Song belongs to the Five Sacred Mountains of China, which were celebrated as first in Chinese history. The first time this term has been recognized, was in Warring States (475 BC-221 BC), which was earlier than Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism took an important part in Chinese history, and even earlier than when China was unified (221 BC). This is why we can’t say if the mountains are Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian. Often there are many symbols and temples of all philosophical fields even though the Taoism mostly prevails. That’s why they are sometimes called Taoist. The Five Sacred Mountains are situated in all cardinal directions. In Chinese mythology there are five cardinal directions: the North – Mount Heng in Shanxi Province, the South – Mount Heng in Hunan Province, the East – Mount Tai in Shandong Province, the West – Mount Hua in Shaanxi Province and the centre – Mount Song in Henan Province. If you think you’ve never heard of them, you are wrong. The one I have visited you have heard of for sure. If you know the Shaolin Temple then you know Mount Song.

Shaolin temple
About Mount Song

Mount Song represents the earth element and it is considered to be a central mountain of all cardinal directions. It borders with two biggest summits – Taishi (1494) and Shaoshi (1512), together they have more than 70 peaks. They are situated approximately 70 km from the city Zhengzhou and 13 km from the city Dengfeng. Both cities are the entrance gates to this region – there are buses from both cities going directly to the main gate of the area. There is also a city Luoyang nearby, which was a capital city for 13 Chinnese dynasties. Which of the Sacred Mountain belongs to which cardinal direction is based on its location according to the city Luoyang.

In Mount Song there are many beautiful sights. The tourists are lured by the beautiful nature and views, but the biggest attraction of the mountains is a Buddhist temple Shaolin. There are few people who haven’t heard about this place. It is famous for all the legends and innumerable films which were shot about Shaolin. Both in China and in the Western world. And because of this reason, you have to be prepared for a heavy commercialization of the Mount Song.

Shaolin temple

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Shaolin and Kung Fu

Shaolin Temple was originally built in 495AD. Unfortunately, during frequent battles, wars and other events in the turbulent history of China, the temple has been repeatedly destroyed. Most recent time was in 1928 and than also in the sixties during the Cultural Revolution. Today the whole temple is newly restored. The temple itself is quite small and moderately decorated. Every hour monks organize a martial arts performance directly inside the are of the temple. Apart from this, there is not much to admire. Especially if you visited other temples in Beijing or anywhere in North China. What they have in common is that they have been restored in so called Ming style. It means that all of them were restored as the first sights, after the tourism perked up in China and all of them are restored in the same way. One could say that they were rebuilt in the same style, since after the Cultural Revolution, many sights in China were demolished to the ground. From the decorative and architectural perspective you won’t find, apart from the layout of the buildings, any difference between the buildings restored in eighties and nineties.

Shaolin temple

Around the main temple there are some other temples as well and also two cable cars going to the top of the mountain, pagodas forest, big martial arts practice grounds and martial art schools.

Shaolin is famous for its martial arts, it is (not so correctly) considered to be a birthplace of them all. In the beginning it was just a simple exercise so the monks could rest after meditations. But as the temple was situated in the mountains, often it became target for thieves. That’s how this exercise transformed into a self-defense martial art. The training was very difficult; you can still see the holes in the trees around the temple – allegedly after the finger strokes training. Balancing in the height, the incredible acrobatics, different styles imitating animals, breaking the iron bars on someone’s head, hanging by the neck and much more – all these things we connect with the Shaolin Kung Fu. You can find this term on YouTube or look for any Chinese Kung Fu film. Nowadays, the art of monks is an entertainment around the world; the monks organize regular tours around the world and make a spectacular hour-long show. Shaolin monks were always closer to their own profit than to the separation from a society. During the history they also served as hired warriors, the monks were officially allowed to drink alcohol and eat meat. Even today the Shaolin Temple is commercially oriented. If you want to find a spiritual experience you won’t find it here. If you want to experience a Kung Fu world, incredible shows, shops with swords and other weapons, you will be in the right place. Because no matter how I look at it, the things these monks can do are absolutely incredible.

Shaolin temple

How to enjoy the mountains?

If you want to fully enjoy Mount Song and Shaolin Temple, come here at least for two days. Directly in the mountain area there is a small village two kilometers away from the temple. You can find tens of small lovely hostels there. Coming to Mount Song for only a day is a mistake. You will be disappointed and the expensive ticket won’t be worth it. If you stay over the night, you will be thrilled. Around five in the afternoon, the tourists need to leave and the place gets empty. You will only meet the monks and martial arts students from China and all over the world. There is a huge amount of martial arts students, there are several martial arts schools in the area and their graduates serve for example in the Police Intervention Units or in Chinese army. Why to stay for two days then? Because the spiritual atmosphere with the twilight comes back. The temple gates are closed, but the canopies and outlines of these buildings are wonderful. The nearby Pagoda forest is the most beautiful at dusk. It is actually a cemetery with hundreds of beautiful pagodas, some are from the year 700. There are no tourists at dusk and you can fully enjoy the incredible outdoor Pagoda forest. It is one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen in China. The city where you can stay is very interesting as well. From dawn till dusk it is full of young Kung Fu students. To watch how they exercise practice and play together is an incredible experience. You literally feel like you are in the world where nothing else but the martial arts exists.

Shaolin temple Shaolin temple

The following day you can walk in the mountains. You can climb to the top. You can get there by one of the two cable cars although six hour hiking in the beautiful nature is surely more pleasant than queuing to get the tickets.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that Shaolin Temple is quite commercial, I wasn’t disappointed. For various reasons. I expected the commerciality of the place, I know the Chinese tourism and such a famous place can’t be without tourists. I even expected something worse so I can actually say that instead of being disappointed I was pleasantly surprised. The thing that actually won me over was the afternoon and dusk we have experienced after the gates closed. When the forests and temples got covered by mist and we wandered around hundreds of more than thousand years old pagodas, this place affected me so much, that I immediately forgot about the queuing and waiting earlier in the day. I recommend visiting the Shaolin Temple and Mount Song. It is not the place, which I would regularly visit but not to see the Shaolin is a sin!

Shaolin temple

Small esample of Shaolin Kong fu

One of the most famous Shaolin movies is on YouTube.

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