The Shaolin Temple was destroyed in 1723, on the 6th day of the first new moon of the lunar calendar, by Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735) with the help of Shaolin traitor Ma Ning-Yee. The Qing army was able to kill all but five of the Shaolin Monks. This destruction helped spread Shaolin martial arts through China by means of the five fugitive monks.
During the reign of the Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722), the warriors of the Xilufan rebellion were so feared that the two ministers whom Kangxi ordered to quell the revolt fled China rather than face the mercilessness of the Xilu warriors, which often involved beheading. In 1673, over a period of three months, the 128 monks of the southern Shaolin Temple defeated the Xilu army without suffering a single casualty. However, by doing so they had made enemies some Qing officers who were embarrassed by how easily the Shaolin monks had succeeded where they had failed.
Rumors soon began to spread about the threat posed by a power so great that it defeated the entire Xilu army with a force of only 128 monks. This campaign of innuendo was wasted on Kangxi, who remained grateful to the monks, but the rumors had their intended effect on his successor, the Emperor Yongzheng (1722–1735). He began his reign by plotting the temple's destruction and was said to have secretly recruited a band of renegade warrior monks from Tibet to carry out his plan.
In 1723, on the 6th day of the first new moon of the lunar calendar, a former Shaolin disciple named Ma Ning-Yee aided Qing forces to launch a sneak attack on the southern Shaolin Temple. They began the assault by bombarding the largely wooden monastery with a relentless deluge of burning arrows. Between the surprise attack, the fire, and the overwhelming number of Qing soldiers, 110 out of the 128 monks were killed that day. The Great Shaolin Purge took 70 days as Qing forces hunted down the 18 survivors. The surviving monks of Shaolin inflicted massive casualties on their Qing pursuers but, in the end, their numbers were too great. Soon only five remained. Their identities vary but they are generally accepted as the following:
- The Chan Monk Jee Sin
- The Shaolin Abbess Ng Mui Si Tai
- The Chan Monk Bak Mei
- The Daoist Fung Do-Duk who later created the white tiger style
- The "unshaved" (lay) disciple Miu Hin
After two years of running and hiding from the Qing army, these fugitives of the cloth regrouped at Mount Emei in Sichuan Province. As one of the sacred mountains of China, Mount Emei was home to about 70 monasteries and temples where the five clerics could blend in easily.
It was decided that Bak Mei would infiltrate the Qing court as a spy while the others travelled throughout China to establish an alliance of anti-Qing rebels. The more Bak Mei learned, the more he realized that his allies' efforts would never be enough to overthrow the Qing. He decided to give up on the rebellion, which was seen as a betrayal. Over the years, the rebels sought to punish Bak Mei for his withdrawal. Almost all who made an attempt on his life ended up dead at Bak Mei's hands. This included Jee Sin and Miu Hin's son, Fong Sai Yuk , whom Bak Mei had known since Sai Yuk was a small boy. Sai Yuk was, however, avenged by his mother and Bak Mei was killed.