Shaolin Kung Fu

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Shaolin Kung Fu (Chinese: 少林功夫; pinyin: shao lin gong fu), also called Shaolin Wushu (少林武术; shao lin wu shu) or simply Shaolin quan (少林拳), is believed to be the oldest institutionalized style of kung fu and is one of the most famous martial arts.[citation needed] Shaolin kung fu originated and was developed in the Buddhist Shaolin temple in Songshan mountain, Henan province, China.[citation needed] During the 1500 years of the development of Shaolin kung fu, it became one of the biggest schools of kung fu, and besides, numerous other styles were created or inspired on the base of Shaolin kung fu.[citation needed] One Chinese saying is: "All martial arts under heaven arose out of Shaolin." Shaolin kung fu has various barehanded and weapon styles, every style with a few routines for health, and fighting.

Besides the core style of Shaolin temple, the name Shaolin is used as a brand for the so-called external styles of kung fu. There are many such styles outside of Shaolin temple, mainly in southern and northern China, that use the name Shaolin.


Southern and Northern dynasties (420-589 AD): Shaolin temple established[edit]

Chinese historical records, like Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, the Bibliographies in the Book of the Han Dynasty, the Records of the Grand Historian, and other sources document the existence of martial arts in China since thousands years ago. For example, the Chinese martial art of wrestling, Shuai Jiao, predates the establishment of Shaolin temple by centuries.[1] The establishment of Shaolin kung fu is, however, the most important one of these stories. Since Chinese monasteries were large landed estates, sources of considerable regular income, monks required protection. Historical discoveries indicate that, even before the establishment of Shaolin temple, monks have had arms and have also practiced martial arts.[2]

In 495 AD, Shaolin temple was built in the Song mountain, Henan province. The first monk who preached Buddhism there was the Indian monk Buddhabhadra (佛陀跋陀罗; fo tuo ba tuo luo), simply called Batuo (跋陀) by the Chinese. There are historical records that Batuo's first Chinese disciples, Huiguang (慧光) and Sengchou (僧稠), both had exceptional martial art skills. For example, Sengchou's skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon. After Batuo, another Indian monk, Bodhidarma (菩提达摩; pu ti da mo), simply called Damo (达摩) by the Chinese, came to Shaolin in 527 AD. His Chinese disciple, Huike (慧可), was also a highly trained martial arts expert. There is implications that these first three Chinese Shaolin monks, Huiguang, Sengchou, and Huike, may have been military men before entering the monastic life.[3]

Myth almost always comes with reality in the whole history of Shaolin and its kung fu. A popular myth is that it was Bodhidharma that first created Shaolin kung fu. Indeed, Shaolin monks knew martial arts even before Bodhidharma. Besides, no historical record mentions Bodhidharma as a practitioner of martial arts. Like other myths of Shaolin, this myth [4][5] has, after all, some roots in reality. Bodhidharma was the founder of Chan Buddhism. This made the concept of martial arts part of Chan Buddhism. This was the birth point of religious martial arts, a unique style which was the first institutionalized style of kung fu.

Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 AD): Shaolin soldier monks[edit]

During the short period of the Sui dynasty (581-618), the building blocks of Shaolin kung fu took an official form, and shaolin monks began to create martial art systems of their own. The 18 methods of Luohan with a strong Buddhist taste were practiced by Shaolin monks since this time, which was later used to create more advanced Shaolin martial arts. Shaolin monks had developed very powerful martial skills, and this showed itself until the end of the Sui dynasty.

Like most dynastic changes, the end of the Sui Dynasty was a time of upheaval and contention for the throne. The oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat is a stele from 728 that attests to two occasions: a defense of the monastery from bandits around 610 and their role in the defeat of Wang Shichong at the Battle of Hulao in 621. Wang Shichong declared himself Emperor. He controlled the territory of Zheng and the ancient capital of Luoyang. Overlooking Luoyang on Mount Huanyuan was the Cypress Valley Estate, which had served as the site of a fort during the Jin and a commandery during the Southern Qi.[6] Sui Emperor Wen had bestowed the estate on a nearby monastery called Shaolin for its monks to farm but Wang Shichong, realizing its strategic value, seized the estate and there placed troops and a signal tower, as well as establishing a prefecture called Yuanzhou.[6] Furthermore, he had assembled an army at Luoyang to march on the Shaolin Temple itself.

The monks of Shaolin allied with Wang's enemy, Li Shimin, and took back the Cypress Valley Estate, defeating Wang's troops and capturing his nephew Renze. Without the fort at Cypress Valley, there was nothing to keep Li Shimin from marching on Luoyang after his defeat of Wang's ally Dou Jiande at the Battle of Hulao, forcing Wang Shichong to surrender. Li Shimin's father was the first Tang Emperor and Shimin himself became its second. Thereafter Shaolin enjoyed the royal patronage of the Tang.

Though the Shaolin Monastery Stele of 728 attests to these incidents in 610 and 621 when the monks engaged in combat, it does not allude to martial training in the monastery, or to any fighting technique in which its monks specialized. Nor do any other sources from the Tang, Song and Yuan periods allude to military training at the temple. According to Meir Shahar, this is explained by a confluence of the late Ming fashion for military encyclopedias and, more importantly, the conscription of civilian irregulars, including monks, as a result of Ming military decline in the 16th century.[7] Stele and documentary evidence shows the monks historically worshiped the Bodhisattva Vajrapani's "Kimnara King" form as the progenitor of their staff and bare hand fighting styles.[8]

Ming dynasty (1368–1644)[edit]

From the 8th to the 15th centuries, no extant source documents Shaolin participation in combat; then the 16th and 17th centuries see at least forty extant sources attest that, not only did monks of Shaolin practice martial arts, but martial practice had become such an integral element of Shaolin monastic life that the monks felt the need to justify it by creating new Buddhist lore.[7] References to Shaolin martial arts appear in various literary genres of the late Ming: the epitaphs of Shaolin warrior monks, martial-arts manuals, military encyclopedias, historical writings, travelogues, fiction, and even poetry.[7]

These sources, in contrast to those from the Tang Dynasty period, refer to Shaolin methods of combat unarmed, with the spear, and with the weapon that was the forte of the Shaolin monks and for which they had become famous, the staff.[7][9] By the mid-16th century military experts from all over Ming China were travelling to Shaolin to study its fighting techniques.

Around 1560 Yú Dàyóu travelled to Shaolin Monastery to see for himself its monks' fighting techniques, but found them disappointing. Yú returned to the south with two monks, Zongqing and Pucong, whom he taught the use of the staff over the next three years, after which Zongqing and Pucong returned to Shaolin Monastery and taught their brother monks what they had learned. Martial arts historian Tang Hao traced the Shaolin staff style Five Tigers Interception to Yú's teachings.[citation needed]

The earliest extant manual on Shaolin Kung Fu, the Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method[10] was written in around 1610 and published in 1621 from what its author Chéng Zōngyóu learned during a more than ten year stay at the monastery.

Conditions of lawlessness in Henan—where the Shaolin Monastery is located—and surrounding provinces during the late Ming Dynasty and all of the Qing Dynasty contributed to the development of martial arts. Meir Shahar lists the martial arts T'ai chi ch'uan, Chang Family Boxing, Bāguàquán, Xíngyìquán and Bājíquán as originating from this region and this time period.[7]


In the 1540s and 1550s, Japanese [pirates] known as wokou raided China's eastern and southeastern coasts on an unprecedented scale.

The geographer Zheng Ruoceng provides the most detailed of the 16th century sources which confirm that, in 1553, Wan Biao, Vice Commissioner in Chief of the Nanjing Chief Military Commission, initiated the conscription of monks—including some from Shaolin—against the pirates.[7] Warrior monks participated in at least four battles: at the Gulf of Hangzhou in spring 1553 and in the Huangpu River delta at Wengjiagang in July 1553, Majiabang in spring 1554, and Taozhai in autumn 1555.[7]

The monks suffered their greatest defeat at Taozhai, where four of them fell in battle; their remains were buried under the Stūpa of the Four Heroic Monks (Si yi seng ta) at Mount She near Shanghai.[7]

The monks won their greatest victory at Wengjiagang.[7] On 21 July 1553, 120 warrior monks led by the Shaolin monk Tianyuan defeated a group of pirates and chased the survivors over ten days and twenty miles.[7] The pirates suffered over one hundred casualties and the monks only four.[7]

Not all of the monks who fought at Wengjiagang were from Shaolin, and rivalries developed among them. Zheng chronicles Tianyuan’s defeat of eight rival monks from Hangzhou who challenged his command. Zheng ranked Shaolin first of the top three Buddhist centers of martial arts.[7] Zheng ranked Mount Funiu in Henan second and Mount Wutai in Shanxi third. The Funiu monks practiced staff techniques which they had learned at the Shaolin Monastery. The Wutai monks practiced Yang Family Spear (楊家槍; pinyin: Yángjiā qiāng).

Patron saint[edit]

1517 stele dedicated to Narayana's defeat of the Red Turban rebels. Guanyin (his original form) can be seen in the clouds above his head.

In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Tel Aviv University professor Meir Shahar notes that the bodhisattva Vajrapani is the patron saint of Shaolin Monastery. A short story appearing in Zhang Zhuo's (660–741) Tang anthology shows how the deity had been venerated in Shaolin from at least the eighth century. It is an anecdotal story of how the Shaolin monk Sengchou (480–560) gained supernatural strength and fighting ability by praying to Vajrapani and being force-fed raw meat.[11] Shaolin abbot Zuduan (祖端禪師) (1115–1167) erected a stele in his honour during the Song Dynasty.[12] It reads:

According to the scripture Lotus Sutra, this deity (Kimnara) is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin).[13][14] If a person who compassionately nourishes all living beings employs this [deity's] charm, it will increase his body's strength. It fulfills all vows, being most efficacious. ... Therefore those who study Narayana's hand-symbolism (mudra), those who seek his spell (mantra), and those who search for his image are numerous. Thus we have erected this stele to spread this transmission.[15]

— Stele re-erected (chong shang) by Shaolin's abbot Zuduan

Shaolin believes Vajrapani to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, rather than a stand-alone deity. The Chinese scholar A'de noted this was because the Lotus Sutra says Avalokitesvara takes on the visage of whatever being would best help pervade the dharma. The exact Lotus Sutra passage reads: "To those who can be conveyed to deliverance by the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra (Vajrapani) he preaches Dharma by displaying the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra."[16]

He was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method by the monks themselves. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows the deity's vajra-club had by then been changed to a Chinese staff,[17] which originally "served as the emblem of the monk".[18] Vajrapani's Yaksha-like Narayana form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding "Kimnara Kings" from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to "Kimnara King".[19] One of the many versions of a certain tale regarding his creation of the staff method takes place during the Red Turban Rebellion in the Yuan Dynasty. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realise that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kimnara King in disguise.[20] Shahar notes the part of the kitchen worker might have been based on the actual life of the monk Huineng (638–713).[21] In addition, he suggests the mythical elements of the tale were based on the fictional adventures of Sun Wukong from the classical novel Journey to the West. He compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.[22]

Statues and paintings of Kimnara were commissioned in various halls throughout Shaolin in honour of his defeat of the Red Turban army. A wicker statue woven by the monks and featured in the center of the "Kimnara Hall" was mentioned in Cheng Zongyou's 17th century training manual Shaolin Staff Method. However, a century later, it was claimed that Kimnara had himself woven the statue. It was destroyed when the monastery was set aflame by Shi Yousan in 1928. A "rejuvenated religious cult" arose around Kimnara in the late twentieth century. Shaolin re-erected the shrine to him in 1984 and improved it in 2004.[23]

The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is often popularly considered to be the creator of the monastery's arts. An example is provided by Wong Kiew Kit, who writes: "It was during this time that the Venerable Bodhidharma came from India to China to spread Buddhism. In 527 CE, he settled down in the Shaolin monastery in Henan province, and inspired the development of Shaolin Kung Fu. This marked a watershed in the history of Kung Fu, because it led to a change of course, as Kung Fu became institutionalised. Before this, martial arts were known only in general sense."[24] Wong cites the "Sinew Metamorphosis" as being a qigong style that the Buddhist saint taught to the monks to strengthen their bodies.[25] All of these claims, however, are generally not supported by martial arts historians because the idea of Bodhidharma influencing Shaolin boxing is based on a forged qigong manual written during the 17th century. This is when a Taoist with the pen name "Purple Coagulation Man of the Way" wrote the Sinews Changing Classic in 1624, but claimed to have discovered it. The first of two prefaces of the manual traces this qigong style's succession from Bodhidharma to the Chinese general Li Jing via "a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes."[26] The work itself is full of anachronistic mistakes and even includes a popular character from Chinese fiction, the "Qiuran Ke" ("Bushy Bearded Hero)" (虬髯客), as a lineage master.[27] Literati as far back as the Qing Dynasty have taken note of these mistakes. The scholar Ling Tinkang (1757–1809) described the author as an 'ignorant village master'."[28]

Bodhidharma is traditionally said by Buddhists to have meditated at the temple and the important early Ch'an practitioner Shenhui locates it as the site at which Bodhidharma's disciple Hui-ke cut his own arm off to obtain the ineffable dharma. The collection of works attributed to Bodhidharma is called "The Six Gates of Shaoshi Collection" (少室六門集 Shǎoshì liùmén jí) [29] and consists of the six treatises or discourses of relatively brief but different lengths traditionally said to be authored by Bodhidharma. Each work is considered a gateway to the Buddhist dharma, making the "Six Gates" of the title. Shaoshi, the peak where Shaolin Temple is located on Mount Song, means "little hall" and thus the name of the peak becomes a play on words for the six gates or doors by which the reader may enter the little hall on Mount Song and find enlightenment. The actual authorship by Bodhidharma is disputed, but the Third Gate titled "Two Kinds of Entrances" (二種入) is considered by one of its translators, Red Pine (Bill Porter), to be the one most likely actually from Bodhidharma.[30] That work is also found in the Buddhist Canon as a separate treatise with the longer title of "Great Master Bodhidharma's Outline For Discerning the Mahayana and Entering the Way By Four Practices and Contemplation" (菩提達磨大師略辨大乘入道四行觀).[31]

Shaolin kung fu contents[edit]

Shaolin temple has two main legacies: Chan (), which refers to Chan Buddhism, the religion of Shaolin, and Quan (), which refers to the martial arts of Shaolin. In Shaolin, these are not separate disciplines and monks have always pursued the philosophy of the unification of Chan and Quan (禅拳合一; chan quan he yi). In a deeper point of view, Quan is considered part of Chan. As late Shaolin monk Suxi said in the last moments of his life, "Shaolin is Chan, not Quan."

Internal and external kung fu[edit]

Huang Zongxi described martial arts in terms of Shaolin or "external" arts versus Wudang or internal arts in 1669.[32] It has been since then that Shaolin has been popularly synonymous for what are considered the external Chinese martial arts, regardless of whether or not the particular style in question has any connection to the Shaolin Monastery. Some say that there is no differentiation between the so-called internal and external systems of the Chinese martial arts,[33][34] while other well-known teachers hold the opinion that they are different. For example, the Taijiquan teacher Wu Jianquan:

Those who practice Shaolinquan leap about with strength and force; people not proficient at this kind of training soon lose their breath and are exhausted. Taijiquan is unlike this. Strive for quiescence of body, mind and intention.[35]

In 1784 the Boxing Classic: Essential Boxing Methods made the earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery as Chinese boxing's place of origin.[9][36] Again, this is a misconception, as Chinese martial arts pre-date the construction of the Shaolin Temple by at least several hundred years.[34][37]

Training at Shaolin temple[edit]

Training schedule in shaolin temple varies from lineage to lineage, and has also varied from era to era. However, the main streamline of daily training is well defined. Since the ancient times to the date, daily life of the monks at Shaolin temple have included to study and practice Chan Buddhism, to study and practice kung fu, and doing the temple affairs, like cleaning the temple, working at the farms, guarding the area, etc. The typical daily training schedule is:[38]

5:00 am: rising from bed,

5:15-5:30: breath control practice,

5:35-6:30: morning kung fu practice: warm-up and basics.

6:40-7:40: morning Buddhist lessons,

7:45-8:30: morning meal,

9:00-11:30: doing temple affairs, like working at farms, chopping wood, commercial affairs; elder and kid monks attend Buddhist classes.

11:30-12:30: lunch,

12:40-14:00: noon rest time,

14:00-17:00: afternoon kung fu practice: martial exercises and learning combat methods.

17:10-18:40: evening (Buddhism) lessons,

18:50-19:30: dinner,

21:00-23:00: 1 hour of night kung fu practice: reviewing and every kind of exercise.

23:10: going to bed.

At the morning training session, the basic skills (基本功; ji ben gong) are practiced. Basic skills include the exercises that develop the body abilities in doing martial maneuvers. These include stamina, flexibility, and balance. In Shaolin kung fu, the flexibility and balance skills are known as Childish skills (童子功; tong zi gong), which includes 18 postures that are to be mastered. Morning training begins with empty stomach, by warming up, which includes loosening up the body via rotating the joints and then by stamina training via endurance exercises such as various kinds of running, jumping, push-ups, etc., for 15–30 minutes. Then Childish skills (flexibility and balance) are practiced for about a half hour. Flexibility training is done via stretching exercises, and balance training is done via keeping the body balanced in different postures for a while. Usually, morning training takes 1 hour, but monks may train themselves another more hour by doing more basic exercises and other exercises such as practicing combat drills and routines, etc.

Afternoon training session usually begins at about 14:00-14:30, and may even begin at 15:00 at hot summer days. At this session, mostly the combat (散打; san da) skills are practiced. These include various barehanded, weapon, and barehanded vs. weapon routines and their combat skills. These are usually practiced for 1–2 hours. In between, they may have 15-20 minute rest times, and may do other kinds of exercises at this session, which make the session to last for 2–3 hours.

Shaolin kung fu styles[edit]

Shaolin Kung fu has more than hundreds of extant styles. There is recorded documents of more than a thousand extant routines, which makes Shaolin the biggest school of martial art in the world. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Shaolin monks chose the best 100 styles out of these styles. Then they chose 18 famous styles out of those 100. However, every lineage of Shaolin monks have always chosen their own styles. Every style has one or a few routines. Every routine teaches new methods for health and fight. To learn a complete system, Shaolin monks master a number of styles each. Shaolin kung fu also has various weapons. The most famous styles of the kung fu of Shaolin temple can be listed as:

and many other styles.

Each of these styles has one or a few routines which teach its special methods for actual combat (散打; san da) and keeping health.

List of styles currently taught at the temple[edit]

Influence on other martial arts[edit]

Some lineages of Karate have oral traditions that claim Shaolin origins.[39] Martial arts traditions in Japan and Korea, and Southeast Asia cite Chinese influence as transmitted by Buddhist monks.

Recent developments in the 20th century such as Shorinji Kempo (少林寺拳法) practised in Japan's Sohonzan Shorinji (金剛禅総本山少林寺) still maintains close ties with China's Song Shan Shaolin Temple due to historic links.[40] Japanese Shorinji Kempo Group financial contributions to the maintenance of the historic edifice of the Song Shan Shaolin Temple in 2003 received China's recognition.[41]


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