Some stories are remarkable, while others are so filled with hyperbole that, despite how amazing they might be, a small part of you can’t help but question their factual value. Other stories, though they might be written like real history, are clearly more legend than they are truth.
This is one of those stories.
Why? Because it concerns a werewolf (狼人 lángrén) who could do kung fu.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am compelled to admit that the protagonist of this tale is never actually stated to be a werewolf. Our hero was a man, surnamed Su (苏), who—if he even truly existed—is said to have suffered from a very real, very serious genetic disease called hypertrichosis, which caused the hair on his body to grow out of control.
Su’s legend begins with his birth in the mid-19th century. His was a world with neither Wikipedia nor the joys of Internet self-diagnosis, and as such, his parents misunderstood his condition, denounced him for a demon and abandoned him as a baby in a forest. And there he might well have died, had things not taken a turn so common to kung fu movies that it’s practically a cliche.
He was discovered by some wandering Shaolin monks.
Being the righteous, honorable guys that Shaolin monks tend to be, the first thing they did was try to find an adoptive family for the young Su. The locals of the region, however, wouldn’t take him in either, so at a loss, the monks accepted Su into their temple and set about fulfilling another kung fu movie cliche: turning him into an unstoppable martial arts machine.
Even Shaolin monks without hypertrichosis are pretty darn impressive
Most likely aware that if he left the temple, he’d probably be burned alive by an angry mob with torches and pitchforks (think Frankenstein), Su had little else to do with his time other than study the ways of Shaolin. Normally, a student chose just one art to which they dedicated themselves, but Su chose all of them, learning from each of the Shaolin masters in turn. Over the years, he learned more than 200 empty-hand fighting techniques and mastered 140 weapon types. Supposedly, he even learned the infamous Dian Xue (点穴), or “Death Touch” (for a visual example, go watch “Kill Bill”).
So incredible was Su, that the other monks appointed him as Su Gong (苏公, Grandmaster Su). From there, the accounts of his skills become increasingly fantastical.
At a meeting with 12 Shaolin masters from across China, Su entered the room and was greeted with customary bows from all of the gathered. He did not bow in return. Instead, Su pulled out a knife and hurled it into the ceiling. An assassin plummeted to the ground, the knife embedded in his heart.
We can go ahead and assume that there was a dramatic pause between the knife being hurled and the infiltrator dropping down.
Su had realized the assassin was hiding in the rafters when, upon entering the room, he could hear 13 people breathing, rather than just 12. How he managed that with all that hair around his ears is beyond me, but then I’m not a quasi-legendary Shaolin Grandmaster…yet.
When Su wasn’t discovering assassins with echo-location, he was fighting bears in the forest for practice. In fairness, the bears may well have taken him for a skinny second-cousin and then were completely blown away when he came at them with kung fu moves. Even a bear would have been caught off-guard by that.
And when he wasn’t fighting bears, Su was leading his fellow monks in the defense of Fujian Province’s coastline against Japanese pirates, which they did to great success. That the monks succeeded isn’t that surprising, however. After all, even pirates will shriek like little girls and turn tail when confronted with a hair-covered Shaolin Grandmaster. And those that didn’t run…well, it’s unlikely Su wasn’t putting that Death Touch technique into practice.
The story goes that Su’s success against the pirates, and the subsequent love it earned him and his fellow monks from the common people, garnered him the attention of the Imperial government, who saw the monks as potential rebels.
So a force was dispatched to “deal” with the monks—armed with gunpowder weapons. That already made it an unfair fight, because as awesome as these quasi-mythical monks were, they probably couldn’t dodge cannon fire.
And just to make sure the monks didn’t try to pull any “mystical kung fu stuff”, a renegade Shaolin Master was sent to strengthen the attackers.
Now I know what you’re thinking: you reckon you know exactly how the battle went down. The monks dealt with the cannons and the missiles using only their skill and guile, while Su and the Shaolin Master faced-off in an epic, hand-to-hand, flying through the air, backflipping, frontflipping, sideslipping, high-kicking, one-on-one battle.
Well they didn’t.
Warned of the impending attack and realizing that, in actuality, they were no match for a superior force armed with modern weaponry, the monks chose to take all the valuables out of the temple and then burn it down before the bad guys arrived.
But before you condemn the decision as cowardly—going against all the rules of kung fu courage and honor that you remember from your diligent research into Shaolin lore (read: watching kung fu flicks)—bear in mind that the monks didn’t relocate to a cushy back-up temple, they went to live in the mountains. It takes a pretty tough bunch of guys to just “go live in the mountains.”
Su died in 1928, at the age of 71, leaving a legacy that—as you can see—is far, far more legend than it is reliable history.
We can only hope that perhaps, out there somewhere in confusion of time, there is some tiny kernel of truth to it all. Why else would a legend about a hairy Shaolin Grandmaster exist? No one would make that up out of the blue. Compared to other Chinese myths, it’s not even that inspired.
It wouldn’t even make a good film. Can you imagine, a movie about a super-skilled, hyper-athletic, backflipping werewolf? That would never make it to the big screen.
Illustration courtesy of Huang Shuo （黄硕）
Photo by Dennis Kruyt on Flickr