Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my 27th article, 7th for Kung Fu Wushu Qigong magazine, it is about Contradicting a Shaolin Legend (Part 2).

fu Qigong Magazine october/november 1996
Kung Fu Qigong Magazine
(October/November 1996)
Article #27

(c) 1996, reprinted by permission.

Contradicting a Shaolin Legend (Part 2)

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.

Zhue Yuen

During the Ming dynasty, the Shaolin monks (2,500 monk-soldiers) were used by the Empire to help in cases of national defense. One such event was duly recorded by many. In 1553 AD, 40 monks were sent to the eastern and southern coastlines to fight off Japanese invaders and pirates. Such books as the Tour of Mount Song and the Dossier of Shaolin Cudgel Fighting reported many of the monks' exploits, especially with their renowned staff fighting. In the later half of the Ming dynasty, the monks worked on their fist fighting techniques extensively. There were many famous fighting monks from this era.

A martial arts expert by the name of Zhue (also spelled Jue)Yuen joined the Shaolin temple as a disciple. After entering the temple, he too grew dissatisfied with the monks fighting arts style -- he felt that Shaolin Quan Fa was too external and used too much force against force. He diligently analyzed the original techniques of the 18 Lohan system (under the instruction of head fighting monk, Hung Wan). Before him, most monks became experts of particular techniques, mastering one or two of them thoroughly. They rarely perfected a complete system. Hence, the only routines practiced at this time were the ones based on the 18 techniques of the Lohan system. The rest of the time they practiced actual a large variety of two-man sparring routines (for example, the Lohan Pulling Hands, and many others). Solo routines were still relatively rare, a person practicing only a small few. Styles were best known for their techniques rather than their routines, in contrast to today's kung fu styles.

Instead, Zhue Yuen was determined to improve the whole Shaolin system! He added his own discoveries and fighting principles and succeeded in expanding the 18 into 72 techniques. (These 72 techniques and any subsequent routines developed from them are considered as lost today -- though they may still be practiced under different names, effectively cloaking their origin.) News of this Yuen's feat spread and students came from all over the western part of China to learn from him. But, Zhue Yuen felt his art still was not up to standards enough to be taught on a large scale. He asked for permission to travel and interview the best martial artists from all over China. He visited such places as San, Jya, Kan, Chow, Chou, etc., which were famous for their fighting schools. Also, on the road, he learned from many different teachers.

When he entered the town of Lan Zhou, he met an old retired martial artist named Li Sou. After a while, Li took Zhue Yuen to meet a monk from Loke Yong Tung Huck Seng monastery, named Bai Yu Feng ("White Jade Peak"). After a year, they all returned to Shaolin. Bai Yu Feng practiced an internal art. Together they altered their styles and combined them with the internal and external aspects of the newly expanded Lohan/ Shaolin Quan system.

The system they developed became known as the Five Form (Animals) System (Wu Xing) and it became the new standard for the Shaolin fighting arts. The Five Animals system was composed of 172 (or 173) techniques. These techniques were classified and grouped based on their commonalties into five separate areas of concentration or styles. Each was named after a different mentor animal and had both internal and external aspects (Dragon, Tiger, Crane, Snake, and Leopard) that were distinctive from each other. Also, the forms were to be practiced as a moving meditational Chi Gung. All five used various distinctive hand forms to explicitly damage the opponent's external body tissues and to subtlety attack one's internal pressure points. The Dragon style was fluid and powerful like the wind, made to cultivate focus and direct energy (chi) by the will into all the body through the spirit (Shen). It used the dragon claw to clutch, rip, and destroy. The Tiger style was hard, powerful, and quick, made to focus chi into the external form, strengthening the muscles, bones, and sinews. It used the tiger claw to grab, crush, and tear. The Crane style was more relaxed and swift, relying on balance, made to cultivate the jing (libido) energy in the body. It used the crane beak to strike, peck, and block. The Snake style was soft, sly, and swift, made to move to move the chi itself so that it could be concentrated into small areas. It used the snake palm to strike, poke, and attack. The Leopard style was soft and hard, fast, and forceful, made to transform the body into a fierce, cunning instinctive animal.

Shaolin soon regained its reputation once the monks there were able to perfect and master these internal/external principles of balanced force and energy. A monk named I Quan mastered the system and taught it in the surrounding areas. It became very popular and saved Shaolin's fighting arts from extinction and returned its internal/external, soft/hard aspects. The Five Animals system was able to compete with the internal arts of Wu-Tang and it essentially covered the same concerns and issues. The Shaolin monks had arrived at the same conclusion as the Taoist monks of Wu-Tang and solved the problem in their own unique assimulationist way by blending Shaolin Lohan and Bai Yu Feng's internal style.

Also, during the Ming dynasty period, a monk named Pai Chin Tou created the Mei Hua Quan (Plum Flower Boxing) style from the various Shaolin techniques. It was a style that was practiced on wooden piles or stakes of various heights driven into the ground in a five pointed fashion. Also, Li Sou helped to create new Shaolin boxing routines, he is credited with developing the important Xiao (Small) and Da (Big ) Hung (Flood) Quan routines. These became one of the first boxing routines that new monks are taught. Many other forms (about 300!) were developed during the later Ming dynasty at Shaolin temple. These new routines inspired many new styles to form outside of Shaolin's walls. (The Wah, Hua, Pao, and Cha styles developed but contained aspects of other, non-Shaolin teachings from other sources.) Around 1644 AD, in the nearby Zhou and Chen Villages, the Hung Quan, Sung Tai Zu Chang Quan, Pao Choi, and other routines (Tong Bei Tai Ji) were combined to help develop the Chen family boxing system, leading to modern Tai Ji Quan (Chen, Wu, Yang, etc., styles).

Manchu Invasion

In 1640 AD, another revolt occurred, and in the midst of the confusion and upheaval, the northern Manchu tribe invaded Beijing and took over the Empire. The Ching dynasty started and lasted from 1644 to 1911. Soon after, a patriotic resistance movement developed all over China against the Manchu Ching Empire (who, by the way, were Buddhists by religion). Secret societies sprang up all over china and most of these emphasized martial arts training to fight against the Manchu soldiers and guards. The Manchu at different times practiced such martial arts as Shuai Chiao, Yang Tai Ji, Bai Mei, Lama Pai, etc., which they picked up from the Chinese people. even though unwelcomed, the Manchu tried to assimilate into the Chinese culture.

Due to their long time allegiance to the Chinese Emperors (especially those of the Ming), the monks allied themselves with the patriotic rebels, even though the Manchu were Buddhists also and China by this type was quite secular. These rebels brought with them countless folk martial arts routines, later mixing into the Shaolin curriculum. The Northern Seven-Star Mantis (Tong Long) style was developed by Shaolin to bring the best of 17 different styles together to form a "super" style to fight the Manchu. At this time, the style was called Lohan Mantis and consisted of three routines, the first being the famous Bong Bu (Crushing Step) routine, created by Wang Lang (the monks created the next two).

A string of Shaolin affiliated schools (but not true Shaolin Buddhist temples) were developed that made a direct line of communication from the north to the south of China, where the rebels had the strongest foothold. Shaolin was now used as a safe haven for the rebel operations. The Manchu caught word of this and destroyed the Honan Shaolin temple sometime in the 1700s. In 1727, the Ching Emperor made it illegal for the people to practice martial arts.

Many monks escaped and went south, where two true Shaolin temples had been built (one in Fukian and one in Jian Shi). Here the monks and rebels sought to shorten the time it took to master Shaolin Quan Fa, from 10 years to 3 years maximum. They developed kung fu fighting styles that were faster to learn, based on close range assassin-like fighting, with different breathing patterns (less tan tien holding, more upper body emphasis, and quicker expelling of air), meant to overcome a martial art skilled opponent with fast, powerful movements that left no time for counter-attacks. Such styles as Southern Chow Gar and Jook Lum Mantis, Five Ancestors, Hung Gar, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Crane, Fut Gar, etc., were developed or used from previous times for such fights against the Manchu soldiers and Imperial Guard.

Many Monks Left Alive

While the Northern Shaolin temple was being slowly rebuilt, the southern temple's plans were again exposed in the late 1700s to the Ching Empire for its covert operations and destroyed. The monks left alive spread (many more than the legend of five) though the south and taught their Shaolin arts in secret. Sometime in the 1800s, the internal style of Ba Qua was developed, which was based on circular walking patterns and movements. It too had a connection to Shaolin, in that its early founders had their students learn Lohan routines first in preparation for learning Ba Qua. The founders of Ba Qua felt that the Lohan system was a good starting point in teaching a person proper mechanics and the essential ideas of martial arts.

Through the emerging legends of the temple burnings, Shaolin's monks were eventually to enter the folk tales of the people and cherished by those loyal to the Ming dynasty; Shaolin symbolizing to them the now lost traditions of the past. Eventually, Shaolin's teaching spread all over the world. Revolts after revolts happened (including the famous anti-western colonialist Boxer Rebellion) and eventually to Ching Empire ended in 1911, when China became a republic under San Yat Sen. Warlords soon fought all over China and were slowly eradicated by government troops by 1928. At this time, the remaining warlord hid out at the northern Shaolin temple. Fighting caused the temple to burn again, destroying many Shaolin Quan manuals and temple artifacts. Most hand illustrated records of the 300 plus Shaolin Boxing routines were lost, only about 100 of these routines are remembered and practiced today. The remaining monks worked hard to restore the place.

China Republic

During the years of the China Republic, many martial arts associations and schools were started that carried on the traditions and routines of Shaolin (such as the Jing Wu association, among others). Many routines would have been lsot for good, if not for the efforts of such associations. By 1945, the People's Republic Communist Party took over China's rule via another revolt. Eventually, this government (after terrible persecutions during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s) grew to support the martial arts and helped to rebuild the original northern Shaolin temple. Great efforts were made to preserve and rediscover Shaolin's styles and routines. An extensive survey was done through all of China, cataloging all known traditional Chinese kung fu styles. Also, an encyclopedia of Shaolin martial arts was published, illustrating and explaining most of the still known routines practiced by the Shaolin monks. The forms in the book are between 800 and 1,000 years old. They are given in the order that they are generally taught in Shaolin.

A National Treasure

Most of what is known today of Shaolin's true history and fighting methods have been discovered through artifacts found by Chinese archeologists and historians, which have proven Shaolin Quan Fa to be uniquely Chinese in origin and composition, and making Shaolin martial arts a national treasure, enjoyed both in China and all over the world. A survey of these written records seems to point in the direction that the Shaolin martial arts had their origin (as many of China's other martial arts styles also do) in the thousands of years old Chinese fighting style of Shuai Chiao, making it the mother system of most of today's traditional Chinese martial arts. Over the centuries, many people and styles continued to influence the Shaolin marital arts and it continually adapted and improved itself, allowing it to exist today as a viable and living martial arts system, itself being the mother system to many other styles, including Tai Ji Quan and Ba Gua.

That's it for this issue! Click here to read article #28

Sal Canzonieri -

(c) 1996 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri