The Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin Si) was founded in 495 AD and was built on the order of Emperor Xiaowen to promote the teachings of the Indian Buddhist master Batuo. It was built on Mount Shaoshi of the Mount Song mountain range, one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China. The name Shaolin Si literally means "monastery in the woods of Mount Shaoshi."

Tradition states that an Indian prince and Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma introduced a series of exercises to the monks through a book named Yijinjing, that he wrote after meditating in a cave for nine years. These exercises eventually evolved into what is now known in the West as Shaolin Kung Fu (Shaolin Gongfu). However, some experts dispute this version of history. There is no record of this book before or during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and martial arts were clearly being practiced in China as far back as the Shang dynasty (1766–1066 BC). Some sources indicate that Yijinjing was written by a Daoist priest named Zongheng who attributed it to Bodhidharma to add mystery and legitimacy to the book.

Despite the controversy surrounding its introduction, martial arts have been practiced at the Shaolin Monastery since ancient times, and many of the martial arts from China, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea can trace their origins to Shaolin Gongfu.

After thirteen Shaolin monks saved the life of Emperor Li Shimin of the Tang Dynasty, the Shaolin Monastery was allowed to openly train "warrior monks," and at its peak during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1655), over 1,000 monks lived and trained at Shaolin. They were often employed by the government to combat rebellions and to defend against bandits.

In 1641, warlord Li Zicheng attacked the Shaolin Monastery because of the monk's support for the failing government of the Ming Dynasty, killing many of the monks in the process. Later, in 1647, the monastery was largely destroyed as punishment for alleged anti-Qing activities, and the Qing government banned the practice of martial arts among Han Chinese. Ironically, destruction of the Shaolin Monastery by the Qing government actually increased anti-Qing activities. The practice of Shaolin martial arts was spread throught China led by the "Five Fugitive Monks" Wu Mei Da Shi, Zhi Shan Chan Shi, Feng Daode, Miao Xian, and Bai Mei.

Slowly, the Shaolin Monastery was able to recover, and towards the end of the 19th Century, the Qing government even supported Shaolin during the Boxer Rebellion, which sought to rid China of Western influence and occupation.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 , China fell into war and chaos. Around 1927, Warlord Fan Zhongxiu befriended the Shaolin monks and used their monastery as a base for his army. Chiang Kai Shek ordered an attack on Fan Zhongxiu, and one of Chiang Kai Shek's lieutenants, Shi Yousan,  became so enraged by Shaolin's support for Fan Zhongxiu that he burned down most of the monastery complex. Ten years later, the Japanese invasion of China once again saw much of the monastery burned down, and many of the monks went into hiding until after the end of World War II.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Shaolin Monastery endured incredible hardships and persecution, and many of the monks fled to the countryside or overseas. At one point, only three to  five monks remained, and even more of the monastery was destroyed or fell into disrepair.

In 1982, the movie Shaolin Temple starring Jet Li created renewed the public's interest, and restoration of the monastery started soon after. Over the next several years, tourism helped fund the restoration efforts, but it also turned Shaoin Monastery into a tourist trap.

The area immediately surrounding the monastery became overrun with shops and marital arts schools.  Many of these schools had no real connection to the monastery itself, and were just there to capitalize on Shaolin's reputation. When the current abbot Shi Yongxin was inaugurated, he ordered the destruction of these unaffiliated and sometimes illegally constructed schools in the name of beautification. Even some schools that had and maintain close ties to the Shaolin Monastery were forced to relocate to the nearby village of Dengfeng. Although this move did help restore the area immediately surrounding the monastery to its original appearance, it angered many of the school and probably all of the shop owners.

Today, much of the Shaolin Monastery has been rebuilt and restored, but it is far from complete. Once again, the Shaolin monks can practice Buddhism and martial arts, although the constant flow of tourists means it is no longer the quiet mountain retreat it was for over a thousand years. In 2008, the Shaolin Monastery submitted an application to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for consideration as a World Heritage Site. It is currently on the list of tentative sites, and given its long and storied history, the application is almost sure to be accepted.

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