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Monks in Media

The monk - a master of mind and body, a follower of the Buddha, and inheritor of a long legacy of meditation and martial prowess. For centuries, tales of these legendary figures have captured people’s attention - and for good reason. While not all monks practice martial arts, they remain paragons of discipline and internal strength. Here’s a list of monk characters from popular stories that have captured our imagination, and fueled our collective obsession with this archetype.

Jue Yuan - Shaolin Temple
Set between the Sui and Tang dynasties, in the seventh century, Shaolin Temple tells the story of Jue Yuan, a novice of the titular Shaolin Temple. After the rebellions that ended the Sui dynasty, a brutal warlord takes the throne. Jue Yuan and his father, a practitioner of kung-fu, are prisoners forced to do hard labor. After Jue Yuan’s father is slain personally by the Emperor and he, himself, is heavily injured in an attempt at revenge, Jue Yuan makes his escape to the Shaolin Temple. There, he recovers and makes a decision that will forever change his life.

Released in 1982, Shaolin Temple was directed by Chang Hsien Yen and was the first film acclaimed actor Jet Li starred in. By virtue of having actual, trained martial artists in the cast, the fight scenes in Shaolin Temple are a must-see for any wuxia enthusiast. This movie was so well-received, it’s even credited for reigniting public interest in the Shaolin Temple which, at the time of its release, did not even have an abbot.

San Te - The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Liu Yide was a student who worked to rebel against the harsh Manchu Government. Before they could put plans into motion, their uprising was discovered and put to an immediate, bloody end. Anyone related to the rebellion was slain - even if they were merely friends or family to those involved. Liu Yide, injured in his escape, desperately makes his way to the Shaolin Temple, swearing to learn kung-fu and take vengeance on the oppressive government. Despite any initial resistance to accepting outsiders, the temple abbot takes pity on him and he begins his journey through the training chambers of the Shaolin Temple with a new name - San Te.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, or Master Killer, as it was titled in the West, was originally released in 1978 and directed by Lau Kar-leung. It has since become one of the best-known kung-fu movies of all time. San Te’s journey through the titular chambers of the Shaolin Temple is a treat to watch. While many of the lessons each chamber teaches are physical, his growth is just as much spiritual. At the beginning, his inexperience leads to many comedic moments, but as he improves, the challenges he faces become much more exciting.

Lee - Enter the Dragon
Enter the Dragon tells the story of a martial arts tournament, held on a private island where only the best of the best compete. Han, the host of this tournament, is suspected to be at the helm of an insidious crime ring involving themselves in abduction, drug trafficking and prostitution. Lee, an instructor at the Shaolin Temple, enters at the behest of an international intelligence agency to find proof of Han’s involvement. He and the other contestants slowly uncover the truth behind Han’s operations - even as the threat of death if they’re discovered looms over them.

Lee, played by Bruce Lee, was by far his most successful role. Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s fourth movie and final role, released in 1973. The movie premiered a month after his death, a fact that, paired with the incredible action work and narrative of the film, created a legacy of near-legendary status.

Xu Zhu - Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils
The plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is somewhat less linear, due to it telling the story of three protagonists simultaneously. Xu Zhu, one of these three protagonists, is a Shaolin monk with a soft, kind personality and a strict adherence to Buddhism. He lives a quiet life at his monastery until, by accident, he gains possession of a precious treasure which causes his martial arts to suddenly progress leaps and bounds. Finding himself thrust into new dangers and heavy responsibilities, Xu Zhu longs for nothing more than to return to his previous life.

Having been adapted from a novel by legendary author Jin Yong into multiple movies and live-actions, it’s difficult to provide a singular release date. Its most recent adaptation was released in 2021, its oldest released in 1977, while the original novel itself was published in 1963. Despite its age, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils remains popular to this day! Those with an interest in characters with strong morals and those that enjoy grand, complex adventures will definitely enjoy this story.

Tang Sangzang - Journey to the West
Tang Sangzang is a buddhist monk tasked by Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, to journey to the west and retrieve precious buddhist scrolls. Faced with a China full of greed and hedonism, the Tang Sangzang and his disciples, including the famous Sun Wukong, travel through perilous mountains and demon-infested lands to complete his mission. The story is told in something of an episodic monster-of-the-week fashion, for the most part.

Journey to the West is a classic of Chinese literature, its roots dating back to the 16th century. Decades of dramas and movies have retold the story, and other tales - such as Dragonball - reference it very strongly. In English, it has several notable translations, with varying levels of scholarly language. The most well-known of these is an abridged version by Arthur Waley which is sometimes published as “Adventures of the Monkey God”. Tang Sangzang is by far one of the most popular monks to have existed in fictional media.

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Image Source: The INCspot
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