It is mentioned in nearly every fiction on Shaolin Temple, but did it really exist? Wikipedia didn't mention it at all the last time I read, so I assume it's all fiction. But I haven't had a chance to read any serious literature on the Shaolin yet. And if it's purely fiction or legend, maybe you know how the legend started?

This post here pretty much sums up the widespread belief (or "claim") about the Shaolin Wooden Men labyrinth.

To be a Shaolin monk and learn the secrets of kung fu, you had to pass through a labyrinth filled with skilled warriors, creatures, and traps. At the end, they had to lift a 500 or so pound urn out of the way of a door, and while lifting it, their arms were branded with the symbols of twin dragons to symbolize that they had gotten through "initiation".

Once in the labyrinth, there was no way out but to get past the urn. Many died to become bona fide Shaolin monks.

Did such a labyrinth ever exist or is it just fiction?

  • I once read a somewhat similar story, but it lacked any mechanical aspects. The wooden men were actually wooden statues in various attack poses. The examinee had to perform the correct block or counter-attack and was graded by some Procter. If he performed well, he passed. If he did poorly he failed.
    – user27427
    Aug 4, 2015 at 22:11

1 Answer 1


The Chinese LoHan of Kung Fu

As legend goes the Shaolin Temple has a hall known as the LoHan Palace where 36 wooden figures were set up [...] These spring loaded dummies would then swing or slide down in the direction of the startled monk with wooden fists or weapons aimed to do damage.

Should the kung fu man be lucky and skillful enough to reach it, the next phase of the test involved a sloped ramp bordered with twenty-four wooden horses. The only thing to do was reach the bottom of the slope while dodging these two dozen run away steeds.

If not historically accurate at least these were the tests devised by novelists writing about the monastery in the Ming Dynasty. A more reasonable possibility was that the disciple who wanted to return to the outside world and yet retain his connection with the Shaolin community was required to traverse a gauntlet of 36 living monks.

The movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the TV-Series Kung Fu might have helped in disseminating this "legend".


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