"Self-cultivation of the nature is merit, Self-cultivation of the body is virtue."
-Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Chapter 3


Yongtai Monastery || The Shaolin Nunnery

Three major events took place upon the transmission of Chan Buddhism in China. The first was Bodhidharma's wall meditation, the second, Shenguang severing his arm, and the third was Princess Yongtai leaving home to become a Buddhist Nun.

Yongtai Monastery was the first imperial Buddhist Nunnery in China following the arrival of Chan Buddhism. Located Northwest of Dengfeng City (登封) on the Western foothills of Taishi Mountain (Chin.: Tàishìshān 太室山) facing the Shaolin Monastery, it was first built during the Northern Wei Dynasty (Chin.: běiwèi 北魏, 386-534), with the original name Minglian Monastery (Chin.: Míngliànsì 明练寺).

Three Princesses

The history of the Yongtai Monastery follows the stories of three princesses. The first is Princess Zhuanyun (Chin.: Zhuǎnyùn Gōngzhǔ 转运公主), the daughter of Northern Wei Dynasty Emporer Wencheng (Chin.: Wénchéng Dì 文成帝, 440-465). Princess Zhuanyun became the first Chinese Buddhist Nun and built a small hut where she could practice the Dharma. This small hut, later named Zhuanyun Convent (Chin.: Zhuǎnyùn Ān 转运庵), was the forerunning site of the present day Yongtai Monastery.

During the period of Southern Dynasties (Chin.: Náncháo shíqī 南朝时期, 317-589), Emperor Wu of Liang (Chin.: Liáng Wǔdì 梁武帝, 464–549) made great contributions toward the prosperity of Buddhist Culture in China, establishing monasteries throughout the land. Influenced by her father, Emperor Wu's daughter, Princess Minglian (Chin.: Míngliàn Gōngzhǔ 明练公主) developed an interest in the Dharma and subsequently followed the First Chan Patriarch, Bodhidharma, to Shaolin Monastery were she became one of his four closed-door disciples. She received the Dharma-name Zongchi (Chin.: fǎmíng Zǒngchí 法名总持). However, because she was a woman, practicing together as renunciates in the same monastery with men would be very inconvenient. Emperor Wu then constructed for her a nunnery beside Zhuanyun's hut where she could practice as a Buddhist nun (Chin.: nísēng 尼僧). It was hence named Minglian Monastery (Chin.: Míngliànsì 明练寺).

The third princess was Northern Wei Dynasty Emperor Xiaoming's (Chin.: Xiàomíng Dì 孝明帝, 510-528) younger sister, Princess Yongtai (Chin.: Yǒngtài Gōngzhǔ 永泰公主), who became extremely discontented with the irresponsible control of power and mistreatment from her mother, Empress Dowager Hu (Chin.: Hú Tàihòu 胡太后), and thus decided to abandon her high position and great wealth as princess. She made her way to Minglian Monastery where she took tonsure as a Buddhist nun and concentrated on cultivation of the Buddhist path (Chin.: xiūfó 修佛).

Princess Yongtai used her imperial position to supply relief aid of money and food to the suffering commoners, and was therefore held in very high esteem for her kindness and generosity to those around her. More than 1,000 nuns were living and practicing Buddhism in the monastery at that time. For this she is loved and respected for spreading Dharma in the female monastic community of China.

To commemorate the merits and virtue of Princess Yongtai, during the Tang Dynasty (Chin.: Tángdài 唐代, 618-907) the monastics of Songyue Monastery (Chin.: Sōngyuèsì 嵩岳寺) on Song Mountain invited the emperor to present a memorial and reconstruct the site at Minglian Monastery. In dedication to Princess Yongtai, the monastery's name was changed to Yongtai Monastery (Chin.: Yǒngtàisì 永泰寺).


After the Northern Song Dynasty (Chin.: Běisòng 北宋, 960-1127) people began to become influenced by the Cheng-Zhu School of neo-Confucian idealist philosophy (Chin.: ChéngZhū Lǐxué 程朱理学). The general public attitude of men being more honorable than women gradually began to take shape. There was even such sexist views held among Buddhist monastics that called nuns "second monks" (Chin.: èrsēng 二僧), meaning they were a rung below male monastics. To combat this sort of prejudice, the nuns of Yongtai Monastery changed its name in the Jin Dynasty (Chin.: Jīndài 金代, 1115-1234) to Yongchan Monastery (Chin.: Yǒngchánsì 永禅寺) to indicate that they were part of the Chan School (Chin.: chánzōng 禅宗) which is a collection of teachings intended to point one directly to the Buddha-nature (Chin.: fóxìng 佛性) that is beyond all duality, such as male and female.

Shaolin Sister

After the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Yongtai Monastery was once again renamed Yongtai. During this time the nuns of Yongtai Monastery began to adopt the generation naming system begun by Yuan Dynasty Shaolin Abbot, Ven. Fuyu (福裕, 1203-1275), based on his 70 character poem. Yongtai Monastery was subsequently referred to as a branch of Shaolin, i.e. the "Shaolin Nunnery", and the nuns of Yongtai Monastery would also be buried in the Shaolin Pagoda Forest (Chin.: Shàolínsì Tǎlín 少林寺塔琳).

Present Day

The Yongtai Monastery has had a considerably long and deep relationship with the Shaolin Monastery, from the time of Princess Minglian becoming a disciple of Bodhidharma until present day. The tradition of Shaolin Wugong has also been developed and passed on through the generations of Shaolin nuns at Yongtai Monastery. Princess Yongtai herself was known to have mastered the martial arts of the Shaolin monks, making her legacy all the more profound.

The Yongtai Monastery was also destroyed as the Shaolin Monastery had been. However, it too rose from the ashes. In the 1980's it was rebuilt and today is a fully functional nunnery. The abbess- Ven. Shi Yanjun (Chin.: Shì Yánjūn Fǎshī 释延君法师).

Yongtai Monastery Female Wushu School

Today Yongtai Monastery is also the home of the only all-female Shaolin wushu school nationwide- the Yongtai Monastery Female Wushu School (Chin.: Yǒngtàisì Nǚzi Wǔshù Xuéxiào 永泰寺女子武术学校). It is formally approved and established by the Physical Culture and Sports Commission and the Educational Commission of China. The school is entirely comprised of female students who are instructed by female coaches. Nuns, coaches and students have traveled abroad to spread the culture and awareness and to strengthen the female involvement in Shaolin Wugong and Chan Buddhism.

-少林禅城 Shaolin Chan City

Discuss this article on the forum....

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weifeng said...

What about Chuzu àn (初祖庵) ? And are there any relations between both monasteries?

SCC said...

It's history is not as clear as Yongtai Monastery. From earliest records on stone steles there, it is not quite as old.

I plan to do a series of articles introducing the various sites in the Shaolin area, including Chuzu'an. This article on Yongtaisi is part of that idea.

Soul said...

I have an old picture of shi xingzhen with several nun uncles in it which I can send you.

SCC said...

The group photo with a young Yongxin in it, as well as Yanming (USA)?

Geschichtsfreak said...

I am looking for more information about the foundation of the Yongtai-Monastery. Where can I find more (and foundet) Information? I am looking for articles since weeks and found a lot of bad-non based information. Can you help me, please?

SCC said...


That's partially the reason this article was written- to provide accurate information in English.

Searching elsewhere you'll probably have to read Chinese. The Yongtai Nunnery has a Chinese website: www.yongtaisi.com

Hope that helps!