Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my 26th article, 6th for Kung Fu Wushu Qigong magazine, it is about Contradicting a Shaolin Legend (Part 1).

fu Qigong Magazine august/september 1996
Kung Fu Qigong Magazine
(August/September 1996)
Article #26

(c) 1996, reprinted by permission.

Contradicting a Shaolin Legend (Part 1)

by Salvatore Canzonieri

Though tradition says that the Shaolin fighting arts were brought to China by the Indian Da Mo, other sources indicate that the monks' style is uniquely Chinese

The most widely known traditional Chinese martial arts are those created in or derived from the monks of Shaolin temple. Of the world's many monasteries and temples, Shaolin is probably the only one known for its martial arts. Why?

It is well known that China has had thousands of years of martial arts development. What is not easily known is just where did the monks' skills and techniques originate from. The often repeated legend of the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, or Da Mo in Chinese, states that he began teaching the Shaolin monks (around the year 600 AD) special stretching and aerobic type exercises designed to build up their health and strength for enduring long periods of sitting meditation. He is said to have initiated three sets of exercises: the Book of Muscle-Tendon Changing (Yi Jin Jing), the Book of Bone Marrow and Brain Washing (Xi Shui Jing), and the Eighteen Hands of the Lohan (Lohan Shi Ba Shou). From these three a set of self-defense techniques were developed and the Shaolin fighting arts (Quan Fa) are thought to have been born.

Contradicting a Legend

However, these legends did not appear until hundreds of years after this event was said to have occurred (and there is no mention at all from India or Persia that Da Mo even existed). There are written records that show Shaolin as having fighting monks protecting its grounds before Da Mo's said arrival (the temple being in operation since the late 300s AD). Ba Tuo, the Indian monk who founded Shaolin (30 years before Da Mo "arrived"), had two disciples, Hui Guang and Seng Chou, who were noted for their fighting skills. In fact, in recent news from China, ancient manuscripts were found by archeologists that pre-date Shaolin by many years and of which contain illustration that closely match those of the Yi Jin Jing and Xi Shui Jing! So, what/where then are the roots of Shaolin Quan Fa?

Military Reasons

In ancient times (before Shaolin), the martial arts were practiced for military reasons. Usually, only the nobility and professional soldiers were allowed to openly study martial arts. Besides empty hand sets, much attention was spent on spear and sword sets as well. This was true for almost two thousand years before the start of Shaolin. Through the various Chinese dynasties, wars, marauding mercenaries, and highway bandits made fighting/self defense a survival necessity.

One of China's oldest martial arts is that of Shuai Chiao, which involves grappling, punching, kicking, throws, and joint-locking techniques. The ancient Chinese history book, Shu Yi Ge, records the great battle between Emperor Hwang Di and King Tze Yo, ruler of a neighboring kingdom (during the first Chinese dynasty, from 2852 to 2255 BC). The book records that Tze Yo trained his army in an ancient form of grappling called Chiao De (horn locking). Practitioners of today's Shuai Chiao (in the past also known as Hsian Pu, Kwang Chiao, Liao Chiao, etc.) trace many of their techniques to this ancient martial art. Later, during the Chou dynasty (which started about 1020 BC), the history book, Chou Li, records that every soldier was required to study military strategy, practice archery, and grappling. Chiao De or Shuai Chiao wrestling was adopted by the Chinese government as a fighting and training method for the military. Other records from the Chou period tell of sword and long staff experts and of Gwan Tze, who was sent by the Chou Emperor to govern the conquered country of Chi. He was noted for being an empty hand fighting expert, who challenged all those of great strength to come forward and help him fight against anti-Chou rebels. Also, at the end of this time period, the famed military strategy book, Sun Tzu's Art of War, was written. Thus, empty hands martial arts were definitely practiced for thousands of years in China (the same holds true for other military arts such as spear, sword, and archery).

Martial Arts Growth

After the Chou dynasty came the Dzan Gwo Warlord Period (after 22 BC), a time when there were more wars than ever before. History records show that such military innovations as iron weapons, cross bows, and cavalries came into use. When the Chin dynasty came to power (221 - 206 BC), the Emperor Chin Shr Hwang Di immediately banned all martial arts except wrestling, because so many people had become experts at sword fighting. One tournament had 3,000 swordsmen fighting together in a huge field for days!

The next dynasty, the two Hans period (Western Han: 206 BC to 8 AD and Eastern Han: 25 AD to 222 AD), also placed an emphasis on martial arts. During the Spring of 108 BC, a great wrestling tournament was held in an area of about 100 square miles! Also, records show that a wrestling and empty hands fighting competition was held at a huge hall (Ling Ping Hall). A thirty volume book, the Yi Wen Tze (Records of Art & Literature), of the Eastern Han had 199 chapters exclusively devoted to thirteen separate military strategy systems. Six chapters were on empty hand fighting, 38 were for sword techniques, and others for kicking techniques (kicking at this time and before was done mainly for a type of Chinese soccer ball-game). The Book of Zhuang Zi lists unarmed combat as a highly developed skill by the end of the Han dynasty, and it contained many methods of attack, defense, counter-attacks, and feints.

Shuai Jiao Popularity

The next time period saw China break into three kingdoms (from 221 - 277 AD): the Su Han (211 - 263 AD), the Wei (220 - 264 AD0, and the Wu (222 - 277 AD). Each kingdom had their kings, other nobility, and generals that were renowned in the history books for their sword, archery, and empty hands fighting techniques. During this time, the great general Kuan Kung developed the Kuan Do weapon, a long-handled cutting saber of which its use is still taught today by many systems including Shaolin.

China was again united during the subsequent Jin (Chin) dynasty (277 - 419 AD). The book, Jin Shou, records people throughout China practicing a wrestling style called Shau Li. This style (now renamed Shuai Chiao) was the art of choice among the military, the nobility, and others who practiced martial arts. During the preceding centuries, Chinese wrestling had evolved from a primitive and basic means of self defense into a superior, comprehensive and highly developed martial art, sharply contrasting it from anything the common folk might have practiced.

Shuai Chiao (literally meaning "throwing horns") by this time was (and still is) a self-defense arts based on the natural, physical laws of force and balance. Its purpose is to keep one's own balance while upsetting that of the opponent for a takedown. Its methods and techniques are characterized as attacking, defending, and countering. The art has many throws, joint-locks and elusive maneuvers.

The philosophy and principles of Shuai Chiao are very close to that of Tai Ji Quan and other soft internal styles, except Shuai Chiao uses stronger force when executing certain techniques. It also emphasizes the harmony between Yin and Yang forces, with yielding energy being able to overcome hard energy. In fact, many of the grabs, strikes, kicks, and joint locks of Shuai Chiao and Tai Ji (especially the Wu style, since its founder practiced wrestling) are very similar. Also similar are the countering methods of Shuai Chiao and Tai Ji, both of which rely on highly developed sensitivity and coordinated body movement that is waist centered. Both work on using body mechanics and energy flow to control and disrupt the opponent's balance and both borrow (absorb) the opponent's oncoming moving force, combine it with one's own, and redirect it to best the opponent.

Those Who Came Before

Between the beginning and end of the next dynasty, the Wei (420 - 534 AD, the Shaolin temple and monastery was built, and Da Mo was alleged to have left his mark. While there are no physical records that prove that the exercises attributed to him actually created Shaolin Quan Fa, there are ample records that martial arts were taught at Shaolin by the year 600 AD. During the 6th century, Shaolin records tell of such fighting monks as Hwei Kueng and Sung Chou, among others, who preceded Da Mo by many years. One thing is certain, by the next dynasty, the Tang (618 - 907 AD), written records show that the monks of Shaolin were practicing and teaching Quan Fa and, by the 7th century, the monks there were already famous all over China for being invincible in combat. So much so that, at the request of the Tang Emperor Tai Tsung, the monk Tan Tsung and thirteen others used their training to help the government overcome its political enemies and restore its rule. This event was later recorded on a stone monument (circa 734 AD) and erected on the Shaolin grounds, solidifying Shaolin's place in martial arts history.

Pacifist Warriors

Somehow and somewhere between the 5th and 7th centuries, the pacifist Buddhist monks of Shaolin (who were of the Chan sect, which practiced a mixture of Indian Dhayana Buddhism and Ancient Chinese Taoism, and of which emphasized tolerance, personal enlightenment and meditation instead of religious dogma and ritual for salvation) became known as China's greatest martial artists. The question is how did they become so? Before Shaolin, the martial arts were truly that, being militaristic in nature. professional soldiers and the nobility were the only people who were allowed by law to openly practice organized fighting arts (with a heavy reliance on weapons training. But, with Shaolin, no other place in the world was such a center of institutionalized boxing.

Why the martial arts were used at Shaolin is easy to uncover. Historical records show that Shaolin was burned down and rebuilt many times over the centuries (even before the Tang dynasty - 618 AD). In fact, troops were billeted at Shaolin from the year 528 AD on. Religious temples were a target of robbers and warlords, because of the riches that were stored there in the form of artifacts made of precious metals and gems. Also, there was plenty of food stored at monasteries to feed their habitants. Furthermore, monks traveled along the silk trading route between China and India to make religious pilgrimages.

Along this silk route there traveled many merchants that were involved in the large and profitable intercountry trading, which even reached the Arab and the Roman Empires. Most of these merchants employed bodyguards - who were either ex-military men or well-versed secular masters of close range fighting tactics and weapons techniques. Bodyguards and monks most likely mingled along the route and some came to visit Shaolin's much fabled great beauty and tranquillity. It is very plausible that these people taught some interested monks self-defense techniques. It is known that some ex-military personnel became converted to Shaolin Chan Buddhism and stayed on there. In a land and era were poverty and war was commonplace, temple life that brought one peace, solitude, devotion, and free room and board in a beautiful mountain setting must have seemed very enticing. Many families sought to have at least one son in the monastery, representing the family.

Since tolerance was a basic tenet of the Chan sect, the monks were open to dealing with outsiders. Monks were able to absorb the experience of those they met while traveling or those that visited Shaolin. At this time, Shaolin had many monks on its premises (of various types and ranks). Those monks of the lower level mostly came from the secular society and some of these knew some type of self defense techniques before entering Shaolin. Those that knew martial arts soon taught and helped each other to improve their skills. More than likely, these secular people practiced some form of Shuai Chiao, since it was considered a basic military requirement and a popular national pastime among many people. By this time period, there were Shuai Chiao tournaments and exhibitions held throughout China for centuries now, employing many people, some of whom did feats of strength exhibitions.

Together, information from these secular military arts masters, army generals and soldiers, and the insightful wisdom of the temple monks (with their Buddhist/Taoist theories of energy, movement, balance, and the nature of the elements) gradually combined out of necessity to form a unique Shaolin school of the martial arts. Between Shaolin's start in 495 AD and the beginning of the Tang dynasty in 618 AD, the monks discovered how to combine such things as physical conditioning, breathing techniques, the cultivation of bodily energy, and proper body mechanics with their religious theory, philosophy, scriptural teachings, and devotional prayer curriculum.

Written records from the Northern Qi dynasty (550 - 577 AD) describe the Shaolin monks as being able to lift hundreds of kilograms and were very good at boxing and horse riding. Written descriptions of early Shaolin Quan Fa depict it as an art that contained grappling, throws, joint-locks (Chin Na), and few kicks and punches. The monks were also proficient in the staff as a self defense weapon. Their fighting practice is described as both soft and hard in execution, using evasion and counter-balance to push or pull an opponent into submission, via curved motions, and finishing with joint-locking submission holds.

Besides this type of soft, close range, wrestling-like fighting, Shaolin had early on developed a harder, long-range boxing style. In it, punches, open-hand strikes, elbows, and some kicks were used much more. Countermoves were initiated by redirecting (blocking-like) movements meant to stop or defeat incoming strikes. Powerful attacks were done rapidly by shooting out the punch or kick with great momentum put behind the blow. The force was often delivered in a straight line, while the boxer walked in a linear manner. But, for both types of fighting, and what makes Shaolin Quan Fa distinct from military martial arts, breathing exercises were incorporated in tandem with the physical movements. These breathing techniques were meant to promote the cultivation of energy during the fighting practice, increasing one's health and vitality through aerobic as well as calisthenic means.

The monks experimented, developed, and perfected their fighting and breathing techniques for many years, until they took on characteristics that were unique to Shaolin. The characteristics that developed into Shaolin Quan Fa are:

1) Use of arms/hands and legs/feet to attack simultaneously, executed very fast so that the opponent had no chance to counter-attack or fight back in any way.

2) Many circular motions, for countering an incoming strike and for disturbing an opponent's defense or vision. These were executed in an evasive, "tricky" fashion.

3) Contain escaping maneuvers in case one was losing the encounter, or to purposefully create an illusion in order to trick and trap the opponent.

4) Ability to fight attacks by two or more people. Attack and defense can proceed simultaneously and continue in a linear direction, front and back (with body in circular motion, attack and defense linear).

5) Many low-style movements. Attack multiple sections of the body.

After helping the Tang Emperor to overcome his enemies, the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks became famous. Many people were inspired by the heroic stories of the monks and gravitated to the temple. The Tang Emperor allowed the monks to build a force of 5,000 monk-soldiers.

Seperate Boxing Styles

During the Tang period, Shaolin Quan had begun to differentiate into specific boxing styles. Routines (sequences of prearranged movements) were developed from copying the fighting stances depicted by the temple statues of the 18 Lohan guards (Myths say that these 18 were fighting bandits that had converted and become guards for the Buddha. They professed a path to salvation that involved delaying one's entrance to Nirvana because of helping others to achieve salvation also. This is in contrast to the concept of the Buddhisativa, a path where one withdraws from the world and seeks the path to salvation alone by entering Nirvana via "sainthood". Both paths are part of the Chan sect, and monk-warriors can take either paths.). Tang dynasty records (600s - 700s AD) describe five different Shaolin Boxing routines: Lohan 18 Hands Boxing; 8-section Sash Boxing; 18 Palm Boxing; Rou (soft) Boxing; and Long Life Boxing.

Some of these routines have been lost over time or have been renamed and are unidentifiable. In its initial stage, Shaolin Boxing (Quan Fa) was solely represented by the Lohan Boxing style. It was the nucleus and origin of all the various Shaolin Boxing routines (sometimes called "forms"). To defend against wild animals, Shaolin monks also developed a routine called Xin Yi (heart and mind) Ba, but it was rudimentary as it aimed to mimic the actions of animals and human labor and did not become an integral system of Shaolin Boxing routines. The 18 Lohan routine (and style) is probably one of the oldest organized boxing routines that Shaolin has (and it is still in use), being almost 1,200 years old. The Lohan system is very basic, direct, and powerful, with the fighter continually advancing with a series of techniques that change from punches to kicks to joint-locks to throws and back to punches and kicks until the opponent is completely incapacitated. The Lohan system combines both the circular, internal techniques of Shuai Chiao grappling with linear, external speed/power based boxing.

While Lohan boxing puts a greater emphasis on direct hand techniques, Rou or Soft Boxing emphasizes the softer, more flowing, and circular aspects, while still being a basic mixture of grappling and boxing. It has some resemblance to Tai Ji Quan, and is often referred to as Shaolin Tai Ji. Sometimes it is referred to as Mein or Cotton Fist, and is thought to have been a direct influence on the original versions of the Wu-Tang internal boxing routines. Almost every style of Asian martial arts in existence today that is derived from Shaolin shows techniques and influences from these early styles of temple boxing routines (such as Okinawan Karate, Japanese Shorin-Ji Kempo; Ju-Jitsu, Vietnamese Kung Fu, Malaysian Kung Fu, Philippine Kung Fu, and Korean Tang Su Do).

The monks were used by the Tang and later emperors to protect the countryside, allowing them to polish their fighting skills. Thanks to Shaolin's reputation, interest in boxing spread throughout China. Many men and women trained in the martial arts, archery, and horsemanship. A system was inaugurated in 702 AD for selecting military officers by examination. Those highly skilled in the martial arts were given honorary titles as various ranks of "knights". This system stimulated the practice of martial arts even more in Chinese society. Fighting routines developed rapidly as people innovated on the Shaolin routines and on family-style routines. Even the emperors of the Tang dynasty were also required to become proficient in the martial arts.

Eventually, the Tang dynasty disintegrated due to rival warlord activity by the year 907 AD. China was divided into the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms Period, which lasted until 959 AD. During this time, Shaolin Quan Fa spread to outsiders and there were many famous wrestlers and boxers. Shaolin was again destroyed during this time and various monks roamed the country (further influencing the kung fu practiced in the provinces around Shaolin).

In 960 AD, China was again reunited under the Sung dynasty, which lasted until 1279 AD. Its first Emperor, Sung Tai Zu, was an avowed martial artist and helped Shaolin to be rebuilt. Sung Tai Zu learned the Shaolin 18 Lohan style boxing routines and from these he developed his own style of boxing, recombining the movements into new routines. He developed the 18 core techniques into the 36 techniques or "postures" (which were a later direct influence on Chen family Tai Ji Quan). He invented four styles of boxing: Sung Tai Zu Chang Quan (long fist); Six-Step Boxing; Monkey Boxing; and Wah (China) Boxing. His long fist styles became very popular and his routines were taught at Shaolin. It is considered to be one of the "founding fathers" of present day Northern Long Fist Kung Fu styles. His Wah routines later became the base for modern Chinese Government sponsored Wu Shu routines.

During the Sung dynasty, long staff routines were also heavily taught by Shaolin, partly because they caused less bloodshed than swords, spears, and knives. Chan Shi I founded the Liu Ho Quan (Six Harmonies Boxing) style based on Shaolin techniques. Also, in 1103 AD, a famous general, Yue Fei's soldiers practiced Yue San Shou and Yu Chia Quan. It is also during this Sung period that the Xing I (mind boxing) styles was invented by combining the Taoist five elements theory with animal-imitating boxing techniques.

Secret Societies

Sometime during the Sung dynasty, secret societies began to be formed, such as the White Lotus of North and West China. Members began to frequent Shaolin temple and used its cover for clandestine operations. Such people helped to make martial arts flourish at Shaolin. many styles of Shaolin derived boxing were soon developed through Northern China as non-monks who studied at Shaolin left and traveled around, sharing what they learned, and developing their own routines and styles (such as Mi-Tsung, Tong Bei, Duan Quan, Duan Dah, Pao Choi, etc.). During the Sung period, Fu Ju, then Abbot of Shaolin, invited experts from 18 martial arts schools to exchange skills with those of Shaolin's. They stayed three years and wrote the Shaolin Boxing Manual, describing 280 routines.

A Different Shaolin Quan

By the later Sung period, various warlords endangered the countryside as they vied the Sung Emperor for power. In 1279, in the midst of China's inner quarrels, the Mongols invaded China and started the Yuan dynasty, which lasted until 1368 AD. To cope with the dangerous times, Shaolin fighting techniques became more of a hard style that primarily used speed, aggressiveness, and power. It began to emphasize economy of technique and promoted defense through first-strike offense power blows. It was extremely effective for its time, but it was not as subtle as earlier Shaolin Quan. Also, it was not as perfected as later versions of Shaolin Quan; it did not resemble neither in execution nor in philosophy what modern Shaolin kung fu is like today. During the thirteenth century, this type of Shaolin boxing that the monks developed exemplified early kung fu. About 300 forms (170 empty hand and 130 weapons routines) were developed from the original 18 Lohan form. The well known Shaolin Jin Gang style was developed at this time that sought to preserve the original elements of Shaolin Quan.

After violent nationalist revolts, the Mongols were defeated and Chu Yuan Chan, a Buddhist monk, founded the beloved Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644 AD. During this time, many changes occurred in Shaolin's fighting methods, altering its course for the better. By the Ming dynasty, Shaolin style kung fu was based on the techniques embedded in the 18 Lohan styles and forms. But, its execution over the past two centuries had lost its softer, internal properties as it constantly mixed with outsiders and became entwined with military politics. (The Shaolin monks also collected outside styles and routines and taught these there as well.) Thus, Shaolin Quan Fa had become less fluid and circular and more rigid and linear, relying on feats of strength and body conditioning for results. It started to be reliant on brute strength, losing its original grace and agility.

Return to Soft Style

During this time, the internal arts were developed, which later led to the development of Tai Ji Quan and other such internal arts. Legend has it that Zhang San Feng grew disillusioned with Shaolin's use of brutal, tense force for delivering self defense. He felt that practitioners over exerted themselves, profusely sweating and becoming breathless and weakened after a workout. He sought to return the martial arts to its previous softer state, believing that present conditions were against good health principles and Taoist practices.

The Rou or soft Quan routine was reinvestigated (now called Mien or Cotton Fist Boxing) and Taoist Chi/Nei Gung exercises were combined with techniques from the original internal aspects of the Lohan style into softer, free flowing exercises designed to develop the internal organs and condition the joints, muscles, and bones. Relaxed, yielding movement was the new emphasis. It was believed that both internal and external training should be combined into one complete art. Soft inner strength was used for defense purposes and hard striking fists were used for offensive purposes. Whether it was indeed Zhang San Feng who developed these ideas or a group of unknown people, the fact is that such internal arts came into use around this time.

Many martial artist in China readily accepted these soft boxing techniques and quickly made them part of their training. within a short period, the hard Shaolin moves were no longer enjoyed and practiced outside of Shaolin and they became almost extinct as these soft internal systems became very popular.

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

Sal Canzonieri -

(c) 1995 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri