Apart from playing the role of a leading righteous sect in the wulin in wuxia novels, Shaolin is also featured in popular culture and martial arts films such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Shaolin Temple (1982), and Shaolin (2011). It is also synonymous with Chinese martial arts as it is mentioned in wuxia stories as the origin of all Chinese martial arts. It is best known worldwide for the Shaolin Kung Fu associated with the monastery.
The sect's members are predominantly Buddhist monks with a minority of non-monks known as "secular students" (俗家弟子). Apart from training in martial arts, the monks also follow Buddhist customs, and practices.
The Shaolin Sect was founded in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma founded the sect for Buddhist followers to practise martial arts, with the aims of improving health, training in self-defence, upholding justice and helping the weak. As such, Shaolin students were expected to behave ethically in addition to having a good mastery of martial arts.
The sect is led by the abbot, or fangzhang (方丈), of the monastery. Ranked below him are the elders of the sect.
Shaolin students are ranked by generation. Each member of a certain generation has a prefix before his Buddhist name to indicate his position in the Shaolin hierarchy. In Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, the most senior generation is the Xuan (玄) generation. The abbot is Xuanci (玄慈) and several elders such as Xuanji (玄寂), Xuannan (玄難), Xuandu (玄渡) and Xuanku (玄苦) also have a "Xuan" prefix in their names. One of the novel's three protagonists, Xuzhu (虛竹), is from the Xu (虛) generation, which is two generations below the Xuan generation.
In The Legend of the Condor Heroes, the Xianxia Sect (仙霞派) is a branch of Shaolin. Its base is at Yunxi Monastery (雲棲寺) in southern China. Its members include Reverend Jiaomu, Reverend Kumu, and Kumu's apprentice, Lu Guanying.
The following is a list of generation ranks in different eras:
- Song dynasty: Ling (靈), Xuan (玄), Hui (慧), Xu (虛), Kong (空)
- Yuan dynasty: Du (渡), Kong (空), Yuan (圓), Hui (慧), Fa (法), Xiang (相), Zhuang (莊)
- Qing dynasty: Da (大), Jue (覺), Guan (觀), Hui (晦), Cheng (澄), Jing (靜), Yan (嚴), Hua (華)
The sect is also subdivided into several different branches and clusters (or halls), which take charge of different aspects of the sect's daily activities. They include:
- Abbot's living quarters (方丈精舍)
- Bodhidharma Hall (达摩院/达摩堂), the martial arts training grounds for only Shaolin martial arts.
- Arhat Hall (罗汉堂), the meeting grounds with challengers from other sects.
- Prajñā Hall (般若院/般若堂), another martial arts training grounds, where other sects' martial arts are also practised.
- Discipline Hall (戒律院), in charge of maintaining law and order in the sect.
- Bodhi Hall (菩提院), the place where the Yijin Jing is kept.
- King of Herbs Hall (药王院), the hospital wing where the sick and injured are attended to.
- Śarīra Hall (舍利院), the crematorium for cremating deceased members.
- Guest Hall (知客院), the reception grounds for guests.
- Library (藏经阁), the place where Buddhist scriptures and martial arts manuals are kept.
The Shaolin Sect is hailed as the origin of all Chinese martial arts and as a leading orthodox sect in the wulin (martial artists' community). In Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, it is said to house 72 powerful forms of martial arts and no one has managed to master all of them since the founding of the sect. These martial arts have Buddhist-style names, such as Bodhidharma's Palm (達摩掌) and Arhat's Fist (羅漢拳).
It is also home to the Yijin Jing (易筋經), a manual instructing the user how to master a certain technique that improves the user's prowess in all types of martial arts. It has also powerful healing properties if the user manages to master the skill. In Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, You Tanzhi acquires the manual by chance and uses its skills to purge poison in his body after he is bitten by venomous creatures. The sutra also increases his inner energy and stamina, allowing him to deliver an ordinary palm stroke with a force several times the original impact. In The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Linghu Chong uses the skills in the manual to heal his internal wounds.
- Note: Although the skills listed here are entirely fictional, some are based on actual martial arts.
Discontinued use of the name "Shaolin" in television series
The term "Shaolin Sect" is no longer used in television series adapted from Louis Cha's wuxia novels. In The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (2009), an adaptation of the novel of the same title, the Shaolin Sect is referred to as the "Monks' Sect" (僧人派). In Swordsman (2013), an adaptation of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Shaolin Monastery is referred to as "Lingjiu Monastery" (靈鷲寺; lit. "Divine Eagle Monastery"). Although some viewers have expressed dissatisfaction over the changes, the reasons behind the renaming are not made clear to the public. Some people believe that the producers wanted to avoid trademark infringement, since Shaolin Monastery has officially registered its name "Shaolin" as a trademark and has been involved in lawsuits with commercial companies over the use of "Shaolin" as a brand name or trademark.
- Cha, Louis. The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖). Ming Pao, 1967.
- Cha, Louis. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部). Ming Pao, 1963.
- Cha, Louis. The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (倚天屠龍記). Ming Pao, 1961.
- Cha, Louis. The Deer and the Cauldron (鹿鼎記). Ming Pao, 1969.
- http://game.163.com/special/jianzheng_52/"Shaolin temple fights to protect trademark". timesofindia-economictimes.