Children Of Shaolin: Is Their Harsh Training Discipline Or Child Abuse?

Children Of Shaolin: Is Their Harsh Training Discipline Or Child Abuse?

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

The lives of the children within Shaolin Temple are not easy, which raises the question: is their training a case of true discipline or, rather, a kind of child abuse?

In Henan province, in Dengfeng, China, there is an ancient site shrouded in the near-mystical aura of spirituality and monastic life: the Shaolin Monastery. Within the temple's walls, generations of Buddhist monks have been trained throughout the centuries, many mastering the art of Wu Shu, also known as Kung Fu.

In order to become warriors and masters in these widely respected martial arts, the monks must begin their training from an early age—often as young as 6 years old. The training involves rigorous physical conditioning and arduous tests in strength, dexterity, flexibility, and pain resistance, as shown in the video below.

The hardships of this training and the young age of the Shaolin students have led many to worry whether this should be considered child abuse. Some argue that it clearly is, whereas many others take the context and cultural nuances of Buddhist communities as important factors to conclude that it isn't abuse at all.

These types of disagreements give rise to important questions about our moral concepts, standards, and principles, as the limits of our moral evaluation is challenged whenever gray areas are concerned. So, we must ask, can we reasonably count cases like Shaolin training to be intrinsically violent towards children, or is there an important difference between discipline and violence?

children of shaolin training discipline or child abuse

children of shaolin training discipline or child abuse

A gray area for a vague notion

The concept of abuse is tricky to pin down. We have clear, obvious examples of paradigmatic abuse—gratuitous violence for the sake of pleasure on the part of the abuser. But then there are plenty of gray areas, and we often have to tread a difficult line between cultural nuance and outright abuse. In many cases, what seems like abuse to outsiders is a profoundly significant custom for certain peoples. Conversely, there are also cases where violence is disingenuously justified in the name of tradition. It's strikingly difficult to tell the difference between these two through a general principle. 


The moral problem

When we judge other cultures, we run the risk of committing a quite different but equally dangerous form of violence: a simplistic and imperialistic imposition of one-sided values onto something we don't necessarily understand. Morality is a very difficult topic to figure out, and different societies have had different approaches with how to deal with it. Consider Spartans believing glory in battle was the most admirable goal in life, or Japanese generals thinking it was their duty to kill themselves after a defeat in the name of honor. People in Medieval England, on the other hand, thought that suicide was a damning, dishonorable sin, and that not hitting your children made you a bad parent.

However, if we were so bold as to generalize our contemporary, Western understanding of morality, pretty much all traditional societies have had it wrong in some sense or another—so what makes us suppose it is us who've finally gotten it right to the point of having the right to police the entire world based on our precarious assumption? It's dangerous to try and generalize what one culture has determined to be good without understanding the nuances of other traditions.

children of shaolin training discipline or child abuse

But here's the problem: it's also dangerous not to. There comes a point where, in spite of moral disagreements throughout history, we must draw lines—and if these lines are valid in one culture, we should expect they would be valid in all of them. That's the whole point of morality: if it's not universal, then it's hard to prescribe it at all. Many people recoil—and rightly so—from the thought that slavery, for example, is morally good in some societies. 


There's something very odd and terrible with the idea that in Roman times slavery was good and today it simply isn't. We tend to think, to the contrary, that slavery has always been, and always will be, wrong. The same for human sacrifices, ethnic-based genocides, or rape: these things are all bad no matter the time, place, or culture. And if we don't generalize these ideas, then nothing would prevent these evils to plague many parts of the planet based on arbitrarily drawn lines. That's clearly not okay. 

children of shaolin training discipline or child abuse

A case of abuse?

So, it's clear that if we had a paradigmatic case of child abuse, we'd say it's wrong—no matter in what period or culture it took place. But determining whether certain treatment qualifies as child abuse or not is another matter entirely. 

Though the moral principle seem clear, how and when to apply it is obviously where we run into problems. Let's consider the Shaolin students once again. The physical strain their training demands is certainly not a case of gratuitous violence randomly inflicted upon them. There's plenty of profound cultural meaning behind their training. 

So we could talk about consent instead. But here too we run into a bit of an issue. Suppose they consented to undergo their training because they really thought it was the right thing to do, based on their parents' desires. Would that make it wrong or okay? And what if the kid simply did not consent and was forced to do it, until eventually he or she submitted to the fact that they had no choice? 

children of shaolin training discipline or child abuse

Consider that many of us often do a similar thing with our own kids when we force a certain education upon them. That may or may not involve physical burden, but it often involves high psychological and cognitive strain. Parents regularly send their kids to athletic classes from a young age—way before they have the capacity or the will to refuse. We send them to school regardless of whether they consent to it or not. These comparisons are meant to point out one thing only: consent is not the standard for how we treat our children. 


And perhaps that's wrong, but it usually appears to be inevitable: most are of the view that adults have to take some decisions for their children, for their own good. So the line can be hard to draw. 

A life of discipline

Shaolin monks live a life of discipline and dedication. Young students wake up as early as 4:30 am in order to meditate, train, eat, and train some more. They practice to become Kung Fu masters, which requires a lifetime of hard work and commitment—much like any high-level athletic enterprise. This level of physical dedication that necessitates starting at a young age is comparable to certain ballet companies or gymnastics groups whose elite athletes have been training since early childhood. Reaching the highest levels in these sports or activities demands no less.

As Shaolin warriors see it, this kind of physical conditioning makes students hardy and strong, as dealing with discomfort sooner rather than later allows them to better handle it with the passing of the years. There's a deep level of spirituality involved in their lives as well, which adds another dimension to their education that's hard to understand for people who look at the culture from the outside.

Perhaps it's all about consent. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps it's about having a choice in later life, regardless of whether it was imposed at first. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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