Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my 21st article, 1st for Kung Fu Wushu Qigong magazine, it is about Shattering the Myths of Chinese Martial Arts.

fu Qigong Magazine may/june 1995
Kung Fu Qigong Magazine
(May/June 1995)
Article #21

(c) 1995, reprinted by permission.

Shattering the Myths: Chinese Wushu Kung Fu Through the Ages

by Salvatore Canzonieri

Various schools, both ancient and modern, have sought to "ennoble" their origin by attributing their foundings to ancient and famous masters


Throughout the centuries, Wu-Shu Kung-Fu has been known under various names: Wu I, Wu Shu, Kuo Shu, Chung Kuo Chuan, Chuan Shu, and Chuan Fa. All these terms in one way or another stand for martial art, national art, Chinese boxing, fist/pugilist arts, or methods of pugilism, respectively. Most of these words are rarely known in the West, where the catch phrase "Kung-Fu" (which basically means "time and effort") has come to be popularly understood as "martial arts." Just as there is little agreement over which terms properly mean "martial arts," there is little agreement over its proper history. This situation exists because there are hardly any written records detailing Wu¬Shu Kung-Fu history that have not been lost or destroyed due to time and war. Instead, almost all of this information has been orally repeated from generation to generation in the various schools and family traditions of China. Obviously, it is very difficult to know what is fact and what is pure fantasy.

Legendary Origins

Various schools both ancient and modern, by virtue of human nature, have sought to "ennoble" their origins by attributing their founding to ancient and famous masters. Most people know the much repeated legend of the Indian monk Da Mo or Bodhidharma, and his later introduction of the "18 Lohan Patterns" exercises to the Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin Temple in Hunan province was built about 377 A.D., during the "Six Dynasties" (221¬589 A.D.) period of Chinese history. Legend has it that in the year 527 A.D. Da Mo or Bodhidharma came to China from India and spent many years in Shaolin Temple, during which he taught the monks the "18 Lohan Patterns" to keep them strong and fit.

Thereafter, Bodhidharma was proclaimed as the First Patriarch of Shaolin Kung-Fu, whom many consider as the founder of the Chinese martial arts. These exercises are also thought by many to be the forerunner of all the myriad of Wu-Shu Kung-Fu styles seen today, implying that the martial arts were imported into China. But few know that empty hand and weapons techniques and other martial arts had already been in use in China for centuries before Bodhidharma's appearance. Shaolin was only one of more than hundreds of boxing styles. Martial art techniques have long been indigenous to all parts of China and its various tribes. Although much of Wu-Shu Kung-Fu history has been shrouded in mystery and long years of lost communications, there are historical figures other than Bodhidharma that can also be traced to its beginnings, proving Wu-Shu Kung-Fu to be distinctly Chinese in origin.

The Birth of Martial Arts in China

Some historians trace the Chinese martial arts as far back as the Shang dynasty (16th century B.C.). It seems that about four thousand years ago, in an epoch veiled in Chinese prehistory, during the reign of the "Yellow Emperor" physician Huang Ti, there already existed a type of organized fighting known as Chiao-Ti, by which the contestants combated like bulls, butting with their heads while wearing cow horns. Also, the Chinese nobility (feudal lords), studied and practiced hand-to-combat that was highly organized and based on chivalrous protocol, much like that of the European Knights or Japanese Samurai. Martial art was, at this time, the domain of the nobility.

The first true and proper written historical records referring to the martial arts come from the period of the Chou dynasty (1122-255 B.C.). Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher who lived between the 6th and 5th century B.C. and founded the almost national religion Confucianism, invited young students to not only study classic books but to practice the martial arts. He referred in his writings to archery and chariot fighting.

Sun Tzu also lived during the Chou dynasty, his most famous book, "The Art of War," has been read, studied, and applied in China throughout the centuries on up to today. Sun Tzu referred to battle strategies and tactics that can be applied to any type of life situation as well.

Around this time, the Tao Te Ching ("The Way and the Power") was written by Lao Tzu (circa 500 B.C.) and elaborated by Chuan Tzu. The philosophy/religion of Taoism grew from out of this thought. The Tao Te Ching was to have a great effect on the martial arts, helping to wed physical strength with respiratory and psycho-physiological techniques. These techniques were to later greatly enhance the internal power of the martial arts and bring them beyond mere brute strength.

From the 5th to the 3rd century B.C., after minor feudal lords were vanquished by more powerful feudal lords, China broke up into various states that were in continuous war amongst themselves, known as the epoch of the "Warring States" (403-221 B.C.). The Chou dynasty's "Book of Rites," written during the "Spring and Autumn Annals" period (722¬481 B.C.), and literature of the "Warring States," all mention the nobility practicing such martial arts as archery, fencing, and wrestling (called Ch'ih Yu-Hsi). Among the feudal lords, there also existed numerous sword and boxing styles, called "Wu-I" (meaning "martial art") or "Chi-Chi" (meaning "adroit striking"). According to the historian Ssu Ma Ch'ien, who lived during the Han dynasty, the art of Chi-Chi had particularly developed in the state of Ch'i, whose inhabitants showed great ability in hand-to¬hand combat.

This was also the time period of the Yu Hsieh or the "roving cavalrymen," professional military men, and thus proficient in the martial arts, who put themselves in the service of whoever could afford their services. In his historical documents, Ssu Man Chien wrote that the Yu Hsieh were always true to their word and their actions always quick and decisive, keeping their promises, and never despairing over predicaments that might menace them.

In the year 221 B.C., the prince of Ch'in conquered the other Warring States, unifying China, and assumed the name of Shih Huang Ti or "First August Emperor." A cruel despot, Shih Huang Ti instituted a totalitarian political system and central monarchy that did away with all traces of the feudal lords. He commenced the building of the Great Wall, standardized weights and measures, money, and writing, but at the same time persecuted the intellectuals of his time. To prevent their comparing him to other more benevolent rulers, he commanded the burning of libraries containing books on the past and moral examination. The library burnings explain why written records about the martial arts from this epoch are so scarce.

This time period marked the end of feudalism and the martial arts went beyond the nobility as more commoners were recruited for battle. These commoners picked up the martial arts very well and enjoyed great success on the battlefields. After the death of the emperor, there was a revolt of the peasants that brought to the throne the commoner, Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty, which reigned from 206-220 A.D. The reign of Han saw a time of peace, prosperity, and cultural development. The economic, political, and cultural structure that developed during this period has functioned up to the beginning of our century. In the Han dynasty, combat and empty hands fighting were very popular and were called Chi Ch'iao, which means "ability and talent" or Shou Po, which means "hands that hit by fists," mentioned in the "Han Shu I Wen Chih" ("Han Book of Arts").

After this point in Chinese history (still before 527 A.D., the time of Bodhidharma), various great masters are known of that developed their own martial art styles. In the first century A.D., a famous master by the name of Kuo I created a style named Chang Shou, which means "long fist," that can be considered by its similarities to be the direct progenitor of what is now known as Shaolin Kung-Fu. Also in the first century A.D., the historian Pan Ku described in his book, "The History of the Han," various martial techniques then were then in vogue and their strategies for use in combat.

In 184 A.D., there was another rebellion by the peasants, known as the "Yellow Turbans," which was thought to be guided by a Taoist secret society. Various revolts were carried on for a number of years that upset the countryside and were greatly repressed by military leaders. Soon after, there started a battle for the dominion of the Empire amongst various warlords.

In 220 A.D., the Han were displaced and the political unity of China was fractured. The country was subdivided into three regions: Wei to the north, Wu to the southeast, and Shu to the west. This was known as the period of the "Three Kingdoms" (from 220-280 A.D.). The time period that goes from the repression of the "Yellow Turbans" to the end of the Three Kingdoms saw the perfection of weapons and fortifications of war and the martial arts in general. The courageous warriors and heroes of the time were immortalized in various novels and dramatic stories. One of the most popular warriors was Kuan Yu, who during the Ming dynasty was "diviniated" into a God of War, with numerous temples built in his honor. Kuan Yu was inimitable in the use of a great sword, which retains his name to this day, called the Kuan Tao. The Kuan Tao is one of the fundamental weapons of the Chinese fighting arts.

During the last years of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms, there also lived the famous Taoist physician Hua To. Hua To created a series of exercises based on the attributes of five animals: the monkey, the horse, the tiger, the deer, and the crane. Without a doubt, these techniques influenced or inspired the research that later Wu-Shu Kung-Fu masters carried on concerning the fighting styles of animals. Also, around this time, Buddhist monks began visiting China and introduced their ideas on health, based on the balance of the four elements (earth, water, fire, wind). These ideas mixed with Taoist thought (the Tao Te Ching) and formed the core of the internal martial arts systems (i.e., T'ai Chi, Ba Gua, Hsing¬I).

The Flowering of Shaolin

After a brief reunification of China under the Chin dynasty (from 280-316 A.D.), various barbaric tribes invaded China, starting numerous small tribal states within China ("the Sixteen Kingdoms" from 316-420 A.D.). The north saw much decadence befall the region among its rulers as they came under the influence of these barbaric invaders. In the south, though, a state formed that unified the people there and conserved all the traditions of the past. This period of northern barbaric invasions and political decadence, recorded in a Chinese history book named, "North and South," was characterized by a great revival of religious fervor. Buddhism spread in a grand manner throughout all of China and many temples and monasteries were built.

One of these temples was the Shaolin (meaning "young forest"). It was erected near the end of the 5th century A.D. on the pinnacles of Mount Sung in Hunan province by Emperor Hsiao Wen of the northern Wei dynasty (386-534 A.D.). Around 520 A.D., under the reign of the Buddhist Emperor Wu Ti of the Liang dynasty of southern China, Da Mo or Bodhidharma was said to have arrived to Shaolin from either India or Persia. He was the 28th patriarch of Buddhism and the founder of the Ch'an (or Zen in Japanese) sect, which later contained elements of Taoism.

Ch'an Buddhism (which comes from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning "meditation"), considers meditation to be the way towards illumination and spiritual enlightenment. Ch'an has had enormous influence on the development of the martial arts in both China and Japan. Shaolin martial arts were developed in this Ch'an temple environment and, once it was eventually imported into Japan, Zen also became the religious philosophy of the Japanese Samurai. Martial arts became not just a means for fighting but for mental and spiritual development.

Bodhidharma was said to have taught a series of exercises for the physique and respiration that were designed to bring vigor to the monks after their long hours of meditation. The exercises were also meant to unite the spiritual body with the physical body and were probably derived from Yoga. These were: I Chin Ching - movements of the tendons and Hsi Sui Ching - movements for washing the bone marrow. Bodhidharma is also attributed with having developed a series of exercises, Sho Pa Lo Han - "The 18 Hands of the Buddhist Disciples." These 18 exercises were considered to have concealed in them empty hand combat techniques that are the nucleus for the Shaolin martial arts.

However, the exercises are of static postures, calisthenic in nature and function. They seem far removed from boxing. Because of this, some conclude that he did not indeed introduce boxing to the monks or, if he did, that the form was lost over time. Some believe that the fighting monks Hwei Kueng and Sung Chou were the true developers of the Shaolin arts, preceding Bodhidharma by many years. Other say that the monks of Shaolin collected various styles from visitors and from wandering the countryside and collectively created their own system as a synthesis of their learnings.

Also, as we have seen, many types of martial arts had already existed throughout China's many centuries of warring times. Such boxing styles as Wah Ch'uan, Fan-Tzi, Chuo Jiao, Chang Chuan, Pao Ch'ui in the north and Tzuran¬Men, Zhilang-Men, Pan Ying Juan in the south, all developed among the various Chinese peoples just before this time period, outside of the walls of Shaolin. Thus, many people now doubt the veracity of these legends concerning Bodhidharma and that he taught any martial applications to the yogic exercises. One thing certain though is that by the 6th century A.D. written records show that the monks at Shaolin were teaching and practicing the martial arts and that by the following century the Shaolin monks were already famous for being invincible in combat. At its peak, Shaolin had a force capacity of 5,000 monk-soldiers. Over the years, the monks were used as a military taskforce for the prevailing government. In the year 522, 40 monks were used to stop Japanese invaders from attacking the coastline.

Probably the first Shaolin monk-soldiers were warriors and martial arts masters that converted to Buddhism and became temple monks. These types of people were predisposed both physically and mentally towards the type of training that was demanded by the Shaolin monastery and brought their own martial art techniques to the temple, enlarging the amount of martial arts knowledge available there. Self defense techniques were invaluable to those monks that lived and traveled in these isolated temple areas that were infested with roving bandits and highway robbers. Long years in isolation and practice, away from the attentions of the world, transformed the monks into formidable combatants. Their superiority was not only physical, but thanks to the Ch'an meditations, also spiritual and mental. Here, the high-caliber reputation that is demanded of practitioners of the martial arts was first instilled, making them a true art in every sense of the word.

Wu-Shu Kung-Fu During the T'ang and Sung Dynasties

Near the end of the 6th century A.D., China was once again unified under the Sui dynasty, which lasted only for a brief time (from 589-618 A.D.). It was led by Sui Wen Ti, a Buddhist scholar-statesman, who overcame the other rival northern and southern dynasties. The next dynasty, the T'ang, lasted about three centuries (from 618-907 A.D.). It was started by Li Shin and 6,000 loyal troops he culled from the common people. He brought to the country a new level of prosperity, more than ever before. This era was considered the golden age of Chinese chivalry and a time during which the martial arts enjoyed a high level of technical development and high popularity among the people. Few young men were ignorant of the martial arts during this era.

A famous master by the name of T'an Tsung, along with another thirteen Shaolin monks, helped the Emperor Tai Tsung to overcome his nemesis, Wang Shih Ch'ung, who desired the throne. This event helped to further spread the reputation of Shaolin throughout China. Other heroic monks of this time period were Chih Ts'ao, Hui Yang, and Szu K'ung P'ei, who created the so-called "Boxing of the Fake" or "Shang Hsia Kou Ch'uan," which literally means "high blocking and low combinations boxing." Thanks to Shaolin's reputation, interest in boxing spread throughout China.

During the T'ang dynasty the first soft forms of Shaolin were also created, which were named Mien Ch'uan, meaning "cotton fist," or Rou / Jou Ch'uan, meaning "soft fist." These forms later helped give origin to the some of the techniques in the internal styles of Wu-Shu Kung-Fu.

During the 800s, the Emperors supported Confucianism and Legalism as the state religions and started persecutions of the Buddhists. Many temples were burned down. In the year 907, a revolt of the peasants caused the T'ang dynasty to crumble. What followed was a period of much confusion and disintegration, with the breakup of the Empire into various kingdoms, until the end of the year 960, during which the General Chao K'ung Yin once again reunited China to start the Sung dynasty (from 960-1279).

The Sung dynasty ushered in another period of cultural and artistic flowering. At the same time, the era was also characterized by grave political and military crisis. But, also at this time, thanks to the work of great masters, the martial arts continued to be perfected and the name of Shaolin became still more famous. Even the Emperor Chao K'uang Yin, founder of the dynasty and nicknamed T'ai Tzu ("Great Ancestor"), was a famous martial art master and developed a style known as T'ai Tzu Ch'ang Ch'uan (or "T'ai Tzu's Long Fist"). The Chang Ch'uan style is still known today and continues to be practiced, albeit maybe in a different form.

Another noted master of the time, Chen Shi I, was the founder of the Liu Ho Ch'uan style ("Six combination boxing"). The six combinations refer to the six relationships that parts of the human body, mind, and Ch'i (internal energy) must have present during the execution of the techniques: 1) hands and feet; 2) elbows and knees; 3) back and waist; 4) technique and thoughts; 5) thoughts and Ch'i; and 6) Ch'i and strength.

Yet another great master of the Sung dynasty was General Yueh Fei (1103-1142), who was a great expert of combat with the spear. He has been written about as one of the most famous Chinese heroes. He successfully fought back the Jirchen tribe, who had invaded northern China. During battle with the enemy, he was recalled, accused of treason, and put to death by the prime minister, who was jealous of his fame, and had trumped up fake charges.

Legends say that Yueh Fi had put together for his soldiers the traditional eight gymnastic exercises, Ba Tuan Chin, which is still practiced today by many Wu-Shu Kung-Fu martial artists. He also created the style Yueh Chia Chuan ("chia" meaning clan or school), which is known for powerful and fast techniques. This style is practiced mostly in northern China; in the south it has been changed by other masters and has taken the name Yueh Chia In Ch'ao. In the southern version, the techniques are executed with the hands semi-open and not with closed fists, as in the north. Yueh Fi, according to legend, also put together an internal soft style, which was changed over the course of time to develop Hsing-I Ch'uan. But no one knows if this is true or not.

During the Sung dynasty, the Mi Tsung-i Ch'uan style (the "lost without a trace" style, also called Yen Ch'ing Ch'uan, after its founder) was developed. The style is known for its rapid and circular techniques that cause the adversary to lose track of its sudden changes in direction and movements.

Wu-Shu Kung-Fu During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

In the year 1279, after numerous territorial battles, the Mongols, led by Kubla Khan - nephew of Genghis Khan, overpowered the last Sung Emperor's forces. The Emperor committed suicide in desperation. The Mongols conquered China, and Kubla became the Emperor, founding the Yuan dynasty (from 1279-1368). This was the time period that the European voyager Marco Polo visited China and wrote of it in his book, "Il Milione."

Also during this era is supposed to have lived the famous Taoist monk Chang San Feng. According to some historians, Chang San Feng lived in the Sung dynasty and some say during the Ming dynasty. Expert in Shaolin martial arts, he grew disheartened by how hard and offensive the Shaolin martial arts were becoming as they mixed with the fighting techniques of people outside the temple. He was said to have developed a soft, defensive method, the nei-chia or "internal system." It is characterized by its soft, fluid, continuous, and circular motions. The movements are meant to make fluid one's internal energy for better health and self-defense. The name is meant to signify the union of yin and yang, the principal forces of the universe. Chang San Feng's existence is said to be as much of a legend as that of Bodhidharma. Some think he reordered existing internal styles to create T'ai chi Ch'aun. Others think that the early Taoist practitioners of T'ai Chi Ch'uan attributed him to be the founder to compete with the Buddhists and their legends that Bodhidharma founded the Shaolin martial arts. These legends have been proven wrong. See this article, click here for more information.

Between 1341-1351, a violent nationalist revolt erupted, led by an army of peasant insurgents, the "Red Scarves." The Mongols were forced out of power and Chu Yuan Chan, a Buddhist monk, became the founder of the Ming dynasty. The people called him, Hung Wu or "Son of the Heavens" (Emperor).

During the Ming dynasty (from 1368-1644), a master by the name of Pai Chin Tou created the Mei Hua Ch'uan or "Plum Flower Fist. The Plum Flower is often used as a symbol for Shaolin. Mei Hua Ch'uan is very dynamic, with continuous, uninterrupted body movements that use circular techniques to attain maximum centrifugal force.

In this time period, it is also thought that the Ba Ji Ch'uan or "Eight Direction Boxing" style was developed, although the name of its true founder has been long forgotten. It is an extremely powerful style in which attacks predominate. The style is still practiced in northern China.

Sometime in the 17th century, the monk Chueh Yuan reordered the Shaolin empty hands techniques into 72 fundamental techniques. But, he was little satisfied or convinced that it was necessary to renovate or improve the system, because it was based on the research of many of China's greatest masters. During Chueh Yuan's travels, he encountered an old man by the name of Li Sou and was struck by Li Sou's extraordinary martial arts abilities. Li Sou introduced Chueh Yuan to a great master by the name of Bai Yu Feng. According to legend, Chueh convinced Li and Pai to come to Shaolin and together they organized a new system that was subdivided into 170 different techniques and 5 exercises. They named this style Wu Hsing Ch'uan or "Five Form Boxing," and based the movements on five animals: the Dragon, Snake, Tiger, Crane, and Leopard. This in one of Shaolin's most famous styles.

The five exercises were: 1) The Dragon (Lung) ¬characterized by both fluid and powerful movements that were internal and external in nature. 2) The Snake (She) ¬characterized by soft internal movements interspersed with quick attacks. 3) The Tiger (Hu) - characterized by large, hard, and quick movements that were very powerful. 4) The Crane (Ho) - characterized by movements that were small, swift, and alternated between soft and hard, while relying on balanced footwork. 5) The Leopard (Pao) - characterized by small movements that were at the same time, sudden, rapid, and powerful.

Many of these animal forms have become whole styles in of themselves. The tiger forms have given origin to the present day Fu Jow Pai, Hung Ch'uan, and Hung Gar styles. The dragon forms have developed into the Lian Shi, Pai Lum, Lung Ying, and Lung Ch'uan styles. The crane forms were later developed during the Ch'ing dynasty into the Ho Ch'uan and Pai Ho Ch'uan or "White Crane Boxing" style, which are still practiced. The snake and leopard also have their own styles today, although they are rarely seen.

In the 17th century, other famous masters contributed to perfecting the Shaolin martial arts. There was Ch'eng Chung Tou, who was an expert in the spear, and General Ch'i Chi Kuang, who developed a sword form that is still practiced today, known as Ch'i Chia Chien or "the sword of the Ch'i family."

Also, during the Ming dynasty, Shaolin was "exported" to the island of Okinawa. Traveling monks had entered into Okinawa and taught their Shaolin arts there. The inhabitants later incorporated these movements into their own empty hands techniques and from there later developed their martial arts into what is now known as Karate.

During the Ming dynasty, Chinese boxing was called K'uai Chiao or "rapid projecting". By now, Chinese martial arts had become much more advanced because they were not only based on brute strength but on intelligence and agility. The Ti Tang (or Ti Kung) Ch'uan style developed from this time period and was based on ground fighting and leg techniques.

Wu-Shu Kung-Fu During the Qing / Ch'ing Dynasty

In 1640, another revolt occurred. Beijing was conquered by the insurgents. One of the Emperor's generals asked the Manchu tribe for aid. The Manchu agreed, dominated over the rebels, and occupied Beijing. But instead of leaving the area, as was in the pact made, they put a Manchu Emperor in place to rule over all of China. Thus, the last Chinese dynasty ended, as the last Ming Emperor hung himself, and a Manchu Ch'ing dynasty began (from 1644-1911).

Soon after, a patriotic resistance movement began against these foreign invaders who were now the rulers of China. A resistance movement was led from the Pirate-Prince Chen Ch'eng Kung, who conducted a fierce fight against the Manchu by land and by sea . To have a more secure base, he took over the island of Formosa (Taiwan), which was then a Dutch colony, and established it as an independent state. Thousands of boxers joined secret societies in the hopes of returning the Ming dynasty to power. These boxers retreated to south China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and disseminated their skills all over China as they went.

Even the Shaolin temple became a center of resistance. The fighting monks joined in the battles against the Manchu and gave political asylum to the those that were persecuted by them. In 1659, a master by the name of Ch'en Yuan Pin traveled to Japan, in the hopes of getting Japanese aid against the Manchu. The Japanese did not want to get involved in a situation that could prove dangerous to their own independence and declined. While there, various Samurai had discovered that Ch'en was a formidable martial artist and begged him to stay and teach them the techniques of Shaolin. Ch'en stayed till his death in 1670, with his instruction helping to later give birth to the art of Ju Jitsu.

Meanwhile on the continent, the Manchu, good warriors in their own right, had been able to put down all the various resistance movements. They next decided to destroy the Shaolin Temple because of their taking part in the rebellions. Thus, after thousands of years, the temple was burned to the ground during a fierce battle. Legend has it that the remaining monks fled to southern China at Fukien province, where Chen Ch'eng Kung's band controlled some territory.

A second temple was constructed, and this too after so many years was burned down by the Manchu. Emperor K'ang Hsi's (1662-1723) imperial troops had been defeated by bandits in the western borders. About 128 Fukien Shaolin monks volunteered to fight and won without a single casualty among them. Local Manchu governors convinced the Emperor to send a force against the temple for fear of the potential power the monks may have, saying that the monks were loyal to the Ming and were secretly planning an insurrection against the Manchu.

According to some reports, the various temples were probably reconstructed and destroyed two or three more times. But, Shaolin never again enjoyed the splendor and magnificence it once had. Historically, it is known that one of the destructions was ordered by Yung Cheng, third Emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty (ruling from 1723-1736). It was then rebuilt by Emperor Ch'ien Lung (1736-1795).

Any Shaolin monks still alive dispersed throughout southern China and in secret formed their own martial art schools. These monks were forced to operate in secret societies (such as the Hung League) because the name of Shaolin became synonymous with being enemies of the Manchu empire. Tragically, after this time period, much of the knowledge held within the Shaolin system became lost and forgotten. But, the teachings of the remaining monks continued to spread and develop into new styles as techniques were innovated to help its practitioners fight in secret.

But, some people believe that all these events concerning the temples are only stories, generated to drum up anti¬Ching government feeling and have no real proof of existence. This is especially since the Hung League is documented to have started in 1674, years before the temple was said to have been burned. It is known that the temples went into disuse and the monks spread throughout the country, but know really knows how or why. One of the many legends that came out of this time period involves the Bak Mei or "White Eyebrow" style of Kung-Fu. Legend has it that a Taoist priest (Bak Mei) was a member of an anti-Manchu revolutionary group plotting to overthrow the Ching dynasty. He was to act as a spy and infiltrate the royal palace. The group's activities were discovered and Bak Mei was found out. In order to escape certain death, Bak Mei became a traitor to the cause and joined the Ching. He taught his kung-fu style, named after him, to the Ching royal family. Bak gained followers in the north, while the southern revolutionaries turned against him for betraying them. The truth is that this story was originally found in a fictional novel and, because many in China were not well¬educated, this story was accepted as being historical. Because of this situation, Bak Mei earned an unwarranted reputation as a traitor and his style was forced to be taught only in secret, known by a few Taoist and Buddhist monks. Also, there is often a rivalry between the Buddhists and Taoists that goes back hundreds of years. So, it is thought that this legend arose to defame the Taoists. Eventually, Cheung Lai Chuen became the first non-monk to learn the style and he spread it throughout southern China. Being Taoist in origin, the Bak Mei style has many internal elements, based on soft movements that end with sudden explosive impact. It is famous for its Phoenix Eye Fist punch.

Many other styles that are practiced today also developed out of this time period and created the large separation now seen between northern Chinese martial arts, which continued on as they originally were developed, and southern martial arts, which were created much later and for a different purpose. The newer, southern martial arts had to be easier to learn and quick to be mastered because of their use by rebel secret societies. These people no longer had the luxury of many years practicing in isolation at a monastery. They had to fight the Manchu in sneak attacks in the dark or in alley ways. Out of this climate such styles were formed as: Hung Gar (founded by Hung Hei Gung), Lau Gar (founded by Lau Soam Ngan), Tsoi or Choy Gar (founded by Choy Gau Lee), Li Gar (founded by Li Yao San), and Mok Gar (founded by Mok Ching Giu) -- together known as the five families; Fut Gar, Hung Fut, Choy Lee Fut; Wing Chun; and Pai Ho Ch'uan.

Also, some styles that originated before the Ch'ing dynasty were further developed during this time period, such as: Hung Ch'uan (formed in the 17th century); Ho Ch'uan; Lung Ch'uan; Lung Ying (an internal Dragon style that originated at the same time as Bak Mei and both of whose grandmasters were close friends), Ts'ui Pa Hsien (Drunken Immortals style); Hou or Ta Sheng Ch'uan (Monkey style) -- which was first developed a century before by K'ou Szu, a Shaolin expert who watched monkeys from his jail cell and used their movements to create this style; C'ha Ch'uan, a style that was popular among the Moslem peoples of western China; P'i Kua Ch'uan ("Axe Splitting" style), Lo Han Ch'uan ("Buddhist Disciples" style); and T'ang Lang (Norhtern Praying Mantis style), which was developed by a Shaolin master named Wang Lang, based on the movements of the insect and the footwork of the monkey.

Also during the Ch'ing dynasty, the internal martial arts were developed, such as T'ai Chi Ch'uan and Ba Gua Ch'ang. It is during this time period that the internal martial arts distinguished themselves fully from the external martial arts. These arts are erroneously thought by some to have had nothing to do with those of Shaolin, that they are Taoist rather than Buddhist in origin. But the truth is that both Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Chang have deep roots in Shaolin martial arts.

One theory states that the Taoist monk Chang San Feng learned T'ai Chi Ch'uan in a dream during the Yuan dynasty, developed from observing a snake and a sparrow fighting. A second theory says that it was developed in the T'ang dynasty through four schools: Hsu, Yu, Ch'eng, and Yin. A third theory has it that the Ch'en family practiced their T'ai Chi for hundreds of years (since the Ming dynasty) in their village, Ch'en Chia Kou in Hunan province. The fourth theory claims that Wang Tsung Yueh (from Shanse province) introduced it sometime between 1736-1745 during the Ching dynasty. He showed it to the Chen villagers and they incorporated it into the boxing they already practiced. Later, near the middle of the 1800s, the family of Yang Lu Ch'an practiced their own form of Yang Tai Chi, derived from the Ch'en style. At the beginning of our century, Yang Ch'eng Fu, spread the practice of T'ai Chi for health throughout most of China. But, its martial aspects were practiced in secrecy.

Hsing-I is thought by some to have been derived from a "soft" style developed by General Yueh Fei, as mentioned previously. Hsing-I means "mind form" and is characterized by direct linear "soft" moves that became "hard" strikes on impact, combined with half-step footwork and secure stances. The forms are based on the Chinese five elements (earth, metal, wood, water, and fire) and twelve animals (dragon, tiger, monkey, horse, chicken, hawk, snake, tai bird, lizard, eagle, and bear). The true creator of this style is unknown; the first written records relating to it come from the 17th century, which state that sometime between 1637 and 1661, Chi Lung Feng (from Shanxi) was taught Hsing-I by a stranger.

Even the origin of Ba Gua Ch'ang ("Eight Trigram Palm") is unknown. In the 19th century, a master by the name of Tung Hai Ch'uan popularized the style after learning it from an unknown Taoist monk in Kiangsu province and spread it in the Beijing area. Ba Qua is characterized by eight-step and eight-palm combinations with flowing, circular movements, often walked in a circle, with emphasis on the palm rather than the fist. Records show that in 1796, Feng Ke Shan learned something also called Ba Gua from a Wang Hsiang, and in 1810, learned more from a person named Niu Liang Ch'en.

Other internal styles that came about during this time are: T'ai I Ch'uan or "Great Mind Boxing," which is similar to T'ai Chi Ch'uan, but its movements are shorter and its techniques are smaller. Many feel that this style is very ancient and was created much earlier than the Ch'ing dynasty. Liang I Ch'uan or "Two Directional Boxing," which is also similar to T'ai Chi Ch'uan, but involves defense against two adversaries at the same time. Szu Hsiang Ch'uan or "Boxing of the Four Cardinal Points," similar to the above, but is used against four adversaries at the same time.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, many Wu-Shu Kung-Fu practitioners continued to venture out to Okinawa and the other Ryu Kyu islands. Also, many Okinawans traveled throughout China to learn more about Chinese martial arts. As we have seen, Kung Hsiang Ch'uan's visit to Okinawa in the 1700s led to the development of Kempo and Karate, from which Shorin-Ji Kempo ("Shaolin Empty Hands") developed. Shotokan Karate later developed from here. In 1860, Kanyryo Higashionna went to southern China and studied with the Liu family. He returned and developed a style known as Naha-Te and which later developed into today's Goju Ryu style. Near the end of the 1800s, Kanbun Uechi also studied in southern China and learned the Pan Ying Juan or Pan Gai Nun ("Half Hard/Half Soft") style. From this, the Uechi Ryu style of karate developed.

For more than 12 years in the mid-19th century, Hung Hsiu Chuan held the Yangtze River valley against the Manchu. In the Taiping Revolt, Hung and his followers fell; the Manchu being assisted by the British. This event set the stage for the anti-foreigner rebellion at the end of the century.

In the late 1890s, the "Boxer Rebellion" occurred, which was a terrific revolt against the Westerners (Dutch, German, British) that the Manchu had allowed to exploit China and turn it almost into a semi-colony. The Boxer rebellion was led by many secret societies that were martial arts practitioners. They hoped that by their skills and pure belief in what is right that they would be able to overcome the foreign invaders. But, their skills and noble intentions were no match for western guns and a great loss of life occurred. The Martial Arts lost much of its reputation from this failure, and when to a semi-underground status.

During the Boxer Rebellion time period, Choy Li-Fut (founded in 1831 or 1836 by Chan Heung), Hung Gar (founded by Hung Hei Gung), Wing Chun, Chow Gar (Southern Mantis), and other styles were either developed or further used to do such secret battles against the Manchu imperial army and foreigners. These styles were practiced in secret and were meant for quick killing power. They had to be efficient and powerful for close range assassinations.

Southern Mantis was actually not a Mantis style at all. It was a style developed and practiced by the surviving members of the Ming royal line. It was called "Mantis" to confuse the Manchu guards in case they spied the people practicing their art. Since Mantis was a northern style, the Manchu ignored its practice. In reality, the Southern Mantis style was used to overpower and kill any Manchu guards that came too close to discovering the whereabouts of the Ming survivors. The style is based on dynamic tension and sudden close range strikes to the pressure points of the body. The odd footwork is meant for wrapping oneself around the opponent in tight spaces, such as alleyways. There are many non-withdrawing quick strikes made with the Phoenix fist.

Wing Chun, Choy-Li-Fut, and Hung Gar were also used to fight with Manchu guards under similar conditions of tight quarters and quick destruction. Wing Chun was developed to best fight opponents who already knew martial arts. It was created to quickly bypass an opponent's tactics with a minimum of movements. The opponent's hands are either deflected or trapped and then their centerline is penetrated with a devastating punch or kick. Choy-Li-Fut and Hung Gar techniques were already long in existence and were developed from Fukien Shaolin. Choy-Li-Fut was used to fight with a barrage of both long and close range fist and leg attacks, overpowering the opponent with techniques that were ready for any situation. Hung Gar instead destroyed its enemies with Tiger and Crane based movements that were fast and tenacious. The opponent's attacks are overcome or absorbed by sheer power and then smashed with aggressive techniques that tear with great damage.

Wu-Shu Kung-Fu in the 20th Century

In 1911, a revolution led by Sun Yat Sen and insurrection by provincial armies saw the defeat of the Ch'ing dynasty and the birth of China as a Republic (January 1st, 1912). But, the republic was weak and easily fractured. Without a strong central government, the provincial army leaders took over large areas of China as warlords. From 1917 to 1927, warlords devastated much of China. Boxers tended to gather around the more than 1,500 military chieftains. The depredation that the warlords brought led to counter movements, which finally overcame them by 1927.

From 1920 to 1930, the martial arts enjoyed some renewed popularity and spread throughout the populace. In 1928, a national institute was founded, The Institute for the Study of Traditional Martial Arts (which people called Kuo Shu or "National Art"). The best martial arts masters were commissioned and they developed a simplified form of Wu-Shu Kung-Fu called Lien Bo Ch'uan or "Boxing for Positioning Exercises." This form was used to start teaching school children the martial arts. National and provincial tournaments were held with much success.

This positive era continued until World War Two, when the Japanese invaded and occupied China, which halted the formalization of boxing on a national scale. The martial arts were again used by secret societies to wage guerrilla type activities against these invaders. Communism began making inroads as a political system among many disgruntled with the weakness of the Republic. Within these secret societies, nationalist and communist political sympathies developed, which soon caused a split among its members.

After gathering support from thousands of the peasants, in 1949 the communists were able to wrest control of the government and became the new leaders of China, under Chairman Mao Tse Tung. Many changes were implemented that greatly changed China, giving more power to the peasants and to women's rights. China continued to adjust under communist rule, until the 1960s, when some people voiced their dissatisfaction with the slowness of Chinese progress. Mao felt that the youths growing up in China then needed to taste what revolution was like. In order to maintain control over the people and prevent any opposing ideologies, the Red Guards were started among the high school and college age youths, whose job it was to turn in anyone considered "reactionary." As a result, 100 million people were killed on the whims of children's anti-tradition, anti-parent, anti-teacher, anti¬intellectual adolescent anger. Among the persecuted, practitioners of the martial arts were also arrested and put to death during the "cultural revolution" (which lasted from 1966-1976). In this way, China tragically lost some of its great masters and tremendous traditional knowledge was lost. Some martial artists escaped into the isolated regions of China or to Hong Kong, Taiwan (where the Nationalists held their base), or the rest of the world.

In 1976, the "cultural revolution" was finally denounced after Mao's death and a new leadership came into effect that was more dedicated to modernizing China and bringing it into the world economy. In the last twenty years, with the eventual modernization of China and its greater involvement in world economic affairs, there has been a change of heart. The martial arts have been seen as a national treasure that China could exhibit to foreign visitors. Thus, government sponsored Wu-Shu was developed, which emphasizes the gymnastic and exhibitionist aspects of the Chinese Martial Arts, rather than only the fighting aspects. From here, Chinese Wu-Shu became a national sport, with the hope that it will be recognized in the Olympics. The Shaolin temple has even been rebuilt and restored for people to see. In this more lenient climate, the traditional martial arts are also seeing some sort of a comeback and can be found if one looks hard enough.

By the late 1960s, Wu-Shu Kung-Fu spread throughout America, Australia, and Europe, as well. Since 1848, Chinese immigrants moved to the Western United States to help build the railroads. Many Chinese communities developed within the larger American cities as well. With them came the Chinese secret societies, such as the Tongs. Each of these communities had people who maintained a knowledge of martial arts. Eventually, Westerners were taught the martial arts and its popularity grew to the point where it is today. People like Bruce Lee, Wing Lum, Alan Lee, Ark Yueh Wong, T.Y. Wong, Tinn Chan Lee, and others have helped to enrich the Western world with the wondrous knowledge of Chinese Wu¬Shu Kung-Fu. By 1972, Wu-Shu Kung-Fu was featured in all manner of books, magazines, films, and television programs.

Preserving the Future

Today, Wu-Shu Kung-Fu continues to grow in popularity and enjoyment. Much wisdom has gone to the grave and only now, after centuries of secrecy, is information being revealed in the hopes that they will become part of posterity and continue to be preserved in the future. Hidden wisdom is wasted treasure when it never sees the light of day.

1. Fassi, Roberto & Chang Dsu, Yao; Enciclopedia Del Kung Fu Shaolin, Editzioni Mediterranee Publishing; Rome, Italy; 1986.

2. Draeger, Donn F. & Smith, Robert W.; Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts; Kodan Sha International Publishing; Tokyo, Japan; 1969.

3. Corcoran, John & Farkas, Emil; Oriental Martial Arts Encyclopedia; Pro-Acting Publishing; Los Angeles, Ca; 1993.

4. Hungtington, Madge; A Traveler's Guide to Chinese History; Henry Holt and Co.; New York, NY; 1986.

5. Latourette, K.S.; The Chinese: Their History and Culture; Macmillan Co.; New York, NY; 1971.

That's it for this issue! Click here to read article #22

Sal Canzonieri -

(c) 1995 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri