Shaolin Forearm Branding

In China, separating myth from history can be difficult and Shaolin is no exception. Most Shaolin aficionados are familiar with tales of the final test for warrior monks (Wǔsēng 武僧). Such descriptions typically include some reference to, or variation on, the 108 Wooden Man Hall (Yībǎibā Mù Rén Xiàng 一百八木人巷) and the famous branding of a monk's forearms with the image of a tiger and a dragon. Such fantastic lore certainly fires the imagination and inspires the soul. Nevertheless, it leads one to question if such narratives have any basis in fact or if they're simply myth.

Variations of a Single Theme
Some claim, according to legend, the final exam for a Shaolin monk could easily cost his life. Each candidate must defend himself while passing through a labyrinth filled with mechanized wooden men, spears, darts, buckets of acid, and other various traps. The wooden men were designed to deliver brutal blows from a variety of angles. At the end of this labyrinth was an exit, blocked by a 300 pound brazier, filled with burning coals, emblazoned with a dragon and a tiger on opposite sides. The candidate must lift the cauldron using only his forearms to move it aside and clear the exit. Thus branding the dragon and tiger on his forearms, forever marking the monk as Shaolin Master. Often, one need only reveal these brands to make enemies flee in fear.

Some claim that Shaolin warrior monks were not allowed to officially leave the temple until they achieved a certain level of competency in Wǔgōng (武功). To prove that level of competency, he must navigate his way through a labyrinth while defending himself against 108 of his fellow warrior monks. At the end of this labyrinth, the only exit was blocked by a cauldron, filled with burning coals. The monk must lift this cauldron, embossed with the image of a dragon on one side and a tiger on the other,  using only his forearms to move it aside and clear the exit. Thus branding the images of a dragon and a tiger on his forearms, forever marking him as Shaolin Wǔsēng.

Some claim that prior to the Qīng dynasty (清朝), Wǔsēng who wished to leave the temple must pass five tests. The first test was to defeat the Luóhàn Táng (罗汉堂). According to this tale, the Luóhàn Táng were eighteen of the best fighters from the Five Chán Families (Wǔ Chán Jiā 五禅家). The departing disciple would have to face and defeat each of these eighteen fighters.

Upon defeating the Luóhàn Táng, the departee would face the Dámó Yuàn (達摩院). These were four fighting monks charged with protecting the abbot. After defeating the Dámó Yuàn, the departee would face the Sān Jīng Guǎn (三经馆). These were three fighting monks chosen to defend the library of manuscripts preserved at Shaolin.

After defeating the Sān Jīng Guǎn, the departee would face the Mù Rén Xiàng (木人巷). This was a hall of wooden dummies which were set to react to hair triggers. If triggered, each dummy would strike with enough force to knock a man unconscious. If the departee could navigate to the end of the hallway and past the wooden dummies, then his final trial was to carry an urn full of hot coals outside by pressing his forearms against the sides of the urn. The urn featured a dragon on one side and a tiger on the other. These images would be branded onto the forearms of that Shaolin Wǔsēng, who then was free to go.

Some claim such a testing hall with 108 mechanical attacks and the several hundred pound hot vessel, which had to be lifted and moved to open the only exit, did, in fact, exist at Shaolin. However, the endeavor was not for the unskilled or faint of heart. Only monks who voluntarily chose to test themselves requested this challenging ordeal, an ordeal which severely injured some and killed others who attempted it.

Some claim tradition tells of a monastery, in Fújiàn (福建), which contained the 36 chambers or levels of martial arts instruction and the infamous Luóhàn Hall (罗汉巷), also known as Den of the Wooden Men. Upon entering the Luóhàn Hall, the graduate student fought 108 mechanical wooden dummies armed with knives, spears and clubs triggered by the student's body movements. If the student survived, they had to make their way through an opening blocked by a 500 pound metal urn containing red hot coals. Gripping the urn in their forearms, the student had to slide the urn to create an exit. In the process, he branded his forearms with the marks of a Shaolin master, the dragon and the tiger.

Some traditions claim this possibly fatal testing of a Shaolin warrior monk, before he became a master, took place at the northern temple in Henan. Some traditions claim it took place at a southern temple, supposedly in Fújiàn. Some claim the final test was only for lay disciples. Some claim the tiger brand was on the right arm and a dragon brand on the left. Some claim the tiger brand was on the left arm and a dragon on the right. Some claim the brand was of two dragons, one on each arm. Some claim different temples used different brands, one temple used a dragon and tiger, another crane and dragon, another crane and tiger, another phoenix and a mantis.

Personal Accounts
Legends speak of a Southern Shaolin Temple in Fújiàn province that featured a unique collection of man-made warriors. According to William Cheung (張卓慶), "There was a corridor that consisted of 108 wooden dummies representing 108 different attacking techniques. The monks would move down the hall and practice their defenses and counterattacks on them."

Some claim to have "personally met two men who were among the last monks to successfully complete this test prior to the communist government closing of Shaolin Temple in 1950. Both had burn scars on their inner forearms, a tiger on one side and a dragon on the other. It was awesome to see in person! The men said the internal training and martial art skills necessary to successfully pass through the hallway, traps, mechanized attacks, and lift the urn were not normally taught to outsiders or non-tonsured monks in residence at the monastery".

In his book "Spirit of Shaolin", David Carradine states that Kam Yuen's master was Tsou Chu Kai. According to Carradine, Tsou Chu Kai's master was Mo Yuan, who "trained at the original Shangshon Mountain Shaolin Temple in Northern China and had the famous tiger and dragon brands, though not on his arms, but on his stomach - a rare mark of exceptional courage and accomplishment." Did you notice the incorrect "Shangshon" as compared to Songshan? How did that faux pas slip past the publisher's editorial staff?

In his book "The Kung Fu Book of Caine", Herbie J. Pilato states, "The impressive,and painful, scene in which Caine burns the sign of the tiger and the dragon into his flesh is, David Carradine says, "utterly historical." Shaolin monks really did walk down a long corridor near the temple's exit, and if they were able to get past the dangers of the corridor (for example, the spears sticking out from the walls and the floor, and the acid dropping from the ceiling), they really did brand themselves. In reality, Carradine says, "there was a lot more to a disciple's leaving the temple than just the branding of the arms. We left the rest of it out because we thought nobody would believe it." Indeed, at the real temple, many monks did not make it to the end of the corridor. For those who did make to the end, there were two options: to lift the urn full of hot coals with the arms or with the stomach. The former requires more strength; the latter was probably easier but the pain was greater. David Carradine's kung-fu master's teacher (that is, Kam Yuen's master) was branded on his stomach. "But," Carradine says, "you don't find too many of those people around anymore." The practice, he explains, has more or less been abandoned as barbaric." Did you notice the story changed from Kam Yuen's master's master having the brands to Kam Yuen's master having them? If anyone feels like asking Kam Yuen to set the record straight, I'd be interested to know his response.

An article, featured at USA Shaolin Temple.com, briefly discussed the subject. It's certainly worth reading. However, it's likely that Shì Yánmíng's (釋延明) response was a result of miscommunication due to the language barrier. Of course, it's possible this report is accurate. It's also possible that Yánmíng was simply amusing himself at the expense of these guǐlǎo (鬼佬).

Shì Wànhéng (釋萬恒) was one of those few monks who remained at the temple following the destruction of 1928. In 1988, Wànhéng stated the branding practice was a myth.

When questioned about the subject, Shì Xínghóng (释行鸿), 32nd generation Shaolin warrior monk, replied, "No. Why would we want to burn our arms like that? You might end up a cripple, never be able to make a fist again in your life. What kind of Gōngfū test would that be?"

In 2012, Shì Yánrán (释延然), 34th generation Shaolin warrior monk, was quick to set the record straight. "There were two legends about Shaolin exit exam," he says in Mandarin. "The other was carrying the big incense burner. Both were more from stories, from the movies."

Most present day monks laugh when presented with such folklore. Basically, each gives the same response, "Guǐlǎo watch too much television, but you foreign devils do have great imaginations!" Monks, who research Shaolin history extensively, refute these tales as pìhuà (屁話).

Technical Difficulty
The logistics of such branding would be highly improbable. An examination of historical practices reveals that branding is a very crude process. It's nearly impossible to preserve any detail in the design. Branding simply doesn't lend itself to precision.

In the early 2000's, branding and scarification became a moderately popular trend in America. However, such body modification was a popular trend only among a comparatively small percentage of the general population. Modern branding techniques and tools made some advancements during this time, but limitations remain.

For achieving a relatively detailed forearm brand, lifting some heavy metal vessel would not be a wise method. Doing so would be likely to literally "cook" muscle tissue beneath the skin. Additionally, such wounds would require considerable hygienic maintenance, until healed, to prevent possibly life threatening infection.

Credible Historical Evidence
As of yet, no such branding vessel has been discovered and no historical documentation or written account seems to reference such a practice. Moreover, no historical photographs, paintings, illustrations, or artwork exist of any person bearing such brandings. At least, so far as current academic research has been able to determine. If these conditions were to change, then it would lend credibility to such tales.

Truth Behind the Myth
So it seems, the image of a monk, after many years of training, walking down a fire lit corridor, defending himself from the onslaught of 108 adversaries, avoiding booby traps, and surviving, only to escape this mortal test by picking up a heavy cast iron pot filled with burning embers, resulting painful branding of a tiger and a dragon on his forearms, is likely to be more fiction than fact. Such practices may have been possible, but not very probable. However, this doesn't mean that Wǔsēng didn't undergo any sort of examination, historically speaking. It simply wasn't likely to be as fantastically dramatic as popular legend would lead us to believe.

So how did such tales originate? Behind every myth, there's usually some grain of truth. Behind every legend, there's usually some historical fact.

The Wooden Man Hall Did Exist!
Well, sort of. Interestingly, the wooden man hall seems to hold some truth. Research seems to suggest there was, at some point, a final exam for Wǔsēng, which involved a sort of trial by combat.

In days of old, ascent from disciple to master at Shaolin Temple required more than just snatching a pebble from the master's hand. Aspirant Shaolin Wǔsēng were required to pass a brutal rite of passage, by facing eighteen senior warrior monks and their master, as the final examination. This ritual was known as Dǎshānmén (打山门).

According to tradition, three applicants would face the Dǎshānmén together as a team. At the very least, Dǎshānmén requires two applicants versus twelve adversaries. If even one applicant succeeded in passing this test, then all applicants were permitted to leave the temple. However, such details are likely more traditional legend than historical fact.

It's important to note, this final exam would apply to Wǔsēng wishing to leave the temple. It wouldn't necessarily be required of Wǔsēng wishing to remain at the temple. Nor would it be required of non-warrior scholar monks or non-warrior lay disciples.

It's not clear precisely when the practice of Dǎshānmén ceased at Shaolin. Some sources claim there's documented evidence of the ritual as recent as 1921. Personally, I've not yet confirmed this and remain skeptical. Nevertheless, it seems logical the practice would have ended around the 1928 destruction of the temple at the latest. Of course, it could have ended much earlier. Regardless, this ceremony is no longer practiced at Shaolin.

Since the 1970's, so many movies have dramatized Dǎshānmén that it seems more like fantasy than fact. Presently, Dǎshānmén exists only as a modern group sparring exercise, a performance. Often, it serves as the standard finale in many Shaolin Wǔshù (武术) exhibitions.

Shaolin Monks Did Brand Themselves!
Well, sort of. Upon ordination or taking vows, some Shaolin monks practiced a ritual of burning scars on the crown of their heads. These are known as jièbā (戒疤).

Jièbā, "precepts scars", were placed on the head only for fully ordained monks as a part of taking Bodhisattva precepts. Chinese monasticism practiced a two part ordination ceremony combining Shòu Jiè (受戒) or accepting Buddhist monk ordination precepts and Púsà Jiè (菩薩 戒) or accepting Bodhisattva precepts, making one a Bodhisattva monk. If lay disciples received precept scars, they were usually placed on the arm or wrist.

At times, this practice was more popular than at other periods in history. The ritual was outlawed in China during the Qīng dynasty. In 2007, that ban was partially lifted by the Chinese government and the ancient ceremony was performed at Shaolin Monastery for the first time in approximately 300 years.

Jièbā Ceremony at Shaolin Monastery - 2007.

Rationally, one would suspect this tradition of jièbā is the "branding" practice Shì Yánmíng referred to in that previously mentioned article. Furthermore, this ancient ritual likely served as the primary historical inspiration for the modern branding legend.

Contrary to popular belief, Shaolin branding legends did not begin with the 1972 television series "Kung Fu", starring David Carradine. Although, the series was certainly instrumental in disseminating the tale. Suffice it to say that Shaolin branding folklore originated in southern China. Any detailed examination of it's Chinese history is quite a Pandora's box. Frankly, I'm not eager to open that.

However, it's interesting to note that traditions of tattooing in southern China were common among members of secret societies and criminal organizations such as Sān Hé Huì (三合會) or triads. Gōngfū (功夫) training was also common among secret societies and triad members. Thus, creating a link in the collective popular imagination between tattoos and Gōngfū.

Speaking of the collective popular imagination, inspiration for such lore may date back as far as the 14th century. The Chinese novel "Water Margin Story" (Shuǐ Hǔ Zhuàn 水滸傳), by Shī Nài'ān (施耐庵), features the character of Lǔ Zhìshēn (鲁智深), also known as the "tattooed monk". While characters and events from the novel are fictional, a connection to Shaolin forearm branding myths could be an instance of Chinese folklore imitating art.

Among Wong Kiew Kit's techniques of Southern Shaolin Gōngfū, there is one movement called "Single Tiger Emerges from Cave" and another called "Dragon and Tiger Appear". If one is familiar with these movements and imagines the sleeves of a monk's robe as caves, it's easy to form a rational connection to the Shaolin forearm branding myth. Perhaps, this is an illustration of how deeply the tale has permeated Southern Shaolin culture.

Additionally, ancient Daoist (Taoist) traditions depict the dragon and the tiger together. Their two opposed and contrasting natures representing concepts of Tàijí Tú (太極圖). The dragon is symbolic of yielding, subtle, and passive qualities of yīn (陰). While the tiger is symbolic of assertive, direct, and active qualities of yáng (陽).

Spreading the Fame, Sharing the Blame
Today, Shaolin Temple and its mythos are just as much the product of its actual 1,500 year history as they are the product of modern cinematic storytelling. Here are just a few influential cinematic sources responsible for propagation and popularization of such Shaolin lore.

  • 1972 television series titled "Kung Fu", starring David Caradine.
  • 1975 film titled "18 Bronzemen", starring Carter Wong.
  • 1976 film titled "Return of the 18 Bronzemen", starring Carter Wong.
  • 1976 film titled "Shaolin Wooden Men", starring Jackie Chan.
  • 1977 film titled "The 8 Masters", starring Carter Wong.
  • 1986 film titled "Kung Fu: The Movie", starring David Caradine.
  • 1991 film titled "American Shaolin", starring Reese Madigan.
  • 1993 television series titled "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues", starring David Caradine.

Truth be told, Shaolin and it's reputation have long been the product of intertwined history and storytelling. This is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, most of China and its culture has long been the product of combined history, myth, legend, and folklore. Then again, this is true of all nations and cultures to one degree or another.

Before individual cultures developed a systematic written language, all history was oral tradition. Stories, legends, and myths passed from generation to generation. Even after each culture adopted a written language, such tales were recorded and preserved. These storytelling traditions continued, albeit in a slightly different form. Today, storytelling traditions continue in the dominant forms of cinematography.

Conclusion: Smoke and Mirrors
With all the incense smoke and fēngshuǐ (風水) mirrors, sincere academic study of Shaolin's factual history can be very complicated. Myth and legend has been woven into Shaolin culture for over a millennium. Many commonly accepted expressions of Shaolin culture are based upon hazy notions.

What is true and what is false? What's fact and what's fantasy? What's history and what's fiction? That is something each must decide for oneself.

Perhaps more importantly, what's the difference between reality and the illusion of reality? What's the difference between reality and the perception of reality? Does it really matter? For philosophers and academic historians, it probably does. However for most of us, it probably doesn't.

At its heart, Shaolin Monastery is an institution of Chán Buddhism (禅佛教). Chán Buddhism, like any long-standing religion, has integrated history, myth, and legend with modern practice. While academic historians may object to such apocryphal tales, they've become an inseparable standard component, representing the essence, of modern Shaolin mythos. In that sense, one could understandably accept such lore as a vital part of Shaolin culture.

Honestly, one must admit that it all makes for one hell of a great story. "Separating myth from history be damned," we say. After all, it's the mystique of Shaolin mythology and legend that most of us found attractive, fascinating, and inspiring in the first place! 


Unknown said...

Thank you shibarifan

Unknown said...

This Answered Many Of My Questions That Have Been In My Head Since As Early 1970. Early in My Life, Not Close To Decades And Generation's Of History And Mystery Of Shaolin And The Art's...THANK YOU.....

Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Steve Cronin .. Scorpio croninsteve930@gmail.com. Info for Above Comment"s

Nobody said...

I asked Shi Guo Lin (through a translator), when he first came to America, about the branding and he had never heard of it, but that he had heard that long before his time there, if a criminal became a monk they received a tattoo on their forearm to distinguish them from the other monks.

Unknown said...

I'm going to get my tiger/ dragon on my forearms.

Anonymous said...

Chang Chuan. SHAOLIN Gung Fu

Shane said...

They are so badass, i wish i could be like them

Luis J said...

It's interesting to see how the swastika, an ancient mystic symbol, was copied by the nazis and then demonized forever

Anonymous said...

To use common sense, if you was to lift a cauldron full of hot ashes and the tiger and dragon were glowing red hot, with the strength you would have to put into it, it would burn to the bone.