Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my eighth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the general history of the traditional martial arts. Part 1 is about the time period from 16th cent. BC to 5th century AD and the time period from 5th century AD to 14th Century AD.

Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(February 1996 issues #21)
Article #8

The Story of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (from 16th Century BC to 1368 AD)

By Salvatore Canzonieri, NJ

(from 16th cent. BC to 5th century AD)

The roots in most traditional Chinese Wushu Kungfu styles can be traced back to at least about 2,500 years. By this time, the art of Shuai Chiao had fully developed. This was an internal/external style that involved complete martial arts: punching, kicking, joint locks, grappling, throws, falls, redirecting, evading, etc. Basically everything the martial arts have to offer.

Shuai Chiao (or Shuai Jiao) developed from such influences as the grappling maneuvers of Mongolian wrestling; the footwork of Chiao Ti (horn butting); simple empty hands loose boxing techniques (practiced by the feudal nobility), such as the Ch'ih Yu-Hsi, Wu I, and Chi Chi. It took from the Shang dynasty (16th century BC) to the Han dynasty (206-220 AD) for Shuai Chiao to develop into some type of standard techniques (with variations from different regions of China). Shuai Chiao became a national pastime that was widely practiced by the nobility and the military. What a martial artist practiced was Shuai Chiao. Martial Arts and Shuai Chiao were synonymous.

Also, by this time (period of the Warring States 403-221 BC), military generals were developing boxing systems (collection of loose techniques for combat using empty hands or weapons) to use, out of necessity because of the heavy fighting going on between rival empires and tribal invaders from the north. General Sun Bin created what became later Sun Bin Quan in the early 400s BC. General Wu Ji-Zhe created the Wu Jia Long Fong Quan techniques.

The main belief structure at the time was Taoism, a uniquely Chinese religious, spiritual, philosophic, and scientific system. Martial Arts systems at this time in history were both internal and external in that they practiced qigong, meditation, and physical development as a whole system, not separated. The philosophy of yin and yang, force and counterforce, balance and counter balance (this was especially true of Shuai Chiao), and later the philosophies of the Eight Trigrams (Ba Gua) and the Five Elements (Wu Xing) and how they shape matter and actions were both incorporated into people's martial arts.

From the Taoist philosophies and studies in Traditional Chinese medicine (massage, accupuncture, herbalism, etc.), Taoist priests worked to develop qi gong and nei gong methods and moving and standing meditation methods. Taoist Circle Walking is an example.

Thus, by the start of the Han dynasty, Shuai Chiao, Military Quan Fa, and Taoist Nei Gong had developed in parallel and had begun to merge towards each other.

During the Han dynasty, other people in the nobility developed simple boxing styles. The most important was Chang Shou - long hand fighting, which was developed by Kuo I. This style developed the distinctive long range boxing that helps to characterize Northern Wushu Martial Arts.

(5th century AD to 14th Century AD)

Mahayana Buddhism entered China and was vastly accepted, first by the Emperors and later by the people, during the early part of the 4th century. In the late 300s AD, the Shaolin Buddhist Temple was opened. By 495 AD, it became of the Ch'an Dhyana Buddhist Sect, which was a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and other Classical Chinese beliefs (Buddhism itself reached a peak and then made a strong decline over the next two centuries, to where there was mass destruction of Buddhist temples all over China).

By 500 AD, Shaolin monks (through the influence of body guards, temple guards, military generals, and ex-soldiers visiting Shaolin and of monks who came from poor backgrounds, who already knew how to fight) created a set of loose techniques and staff fighting methods (these are based upon sword fighting techniques from Tong Bei system, which was the main one practiced by the military). This was an internal and external style that was based on the I Chin Ching Qigong (muscle/tendon changing), the Hsi Sui Ching (Bone Marrow/Brain Washing) Qigong, and the Shi Ba Luo Han exercises (18 Luohan) Qigong, coupled with self defense techniques that were prevalent among the professional martial artists of the time, such as Shuai Chiao, and the various other military quan fa. This is the case because of who the earliest inhabitants of the Shaolin Temple were, besides monks doing strictly religious study there. The official position of the Shaolin Temple and Chinese Government historians today is that the original monks were retired military men and robber barons looking to live out the remainder of their lives in a tolerant setting with others of their kind. In other words, the original Shaolin Temple possessed martial arts experience from its inception. In any case, it is concluded that Buddhidharma / Damo is not the founder of Shaolin martial arts.

Eventually, many years later, Shaolin created a style of health and self defense movements called Rou Quan (a very soft and slow type of martial arts with sudden explosive movements that moves like Taijiquan but steps like Xin Yi or Xing Yi Quan), and from that the slow/fast Luo Han Quan was later created that emphasized combining qigong with marital movements. Shaolin Rou Quan was said by some to be passed down by the Monk Chou Chen-shi, one of the earliest martial monks from the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Others says that it was supposedly developed by Master Hui Ke, the second Patriarch of Songshan Shaolin Temple. It consists of a few sets, which were considered "Closed Doors" Forms, taught only to Senior Monks. There is a 18 posture set, a 36 posture set, a 108 posture set, and some otheres. The sets are done slowly like in Taijiquan, one suppposed "to punch as though a monk is lighting incence mindfully, kick as though a cat is steping over a hump gingerly, and move as though a woman is walking onto a floating bridge steadily." These were supposed to have been restricted to higher level monks for their health, self-cultivation and personal transformation. They are used to practice working the qi and internal power of the breath combined with external movement. Like qi gong this is achieved through control by the mind. Rou quan is similar to chen taiji in that it combines slow soft movements with occasional 'explosive' ones. Rou quan is executed on a straight line, at varying speeds. When practicing Rou Quan one learns how to control the direction of the opponent's internal power. The practice of the movements also helps to keep the body healthy as the pressure from the qi and inner power are increased. This improves circulation and removes toxins and waste though the breath and perspiration. The purpose of Rou Gong is to cleanse the internal organs. Rou Quan was originally composed of 13 qigong postures and movements, later these were expanded into various martial movements. The postures and techniques seen in Rou Quan can also be seen in these later Shaolin forms: Xiao Hong Quan, Tai Tzu Chang Quan, Pao Chui, and 18 Luohan Quan. The most interesting thing about Rou Quan is that the individual movements are the same as movements and takedowns from the Tong Bei style! Also the movements can be done with the staff with no modifications to them.

If one looks at the techniques practiced by the various forms of the Luo Han style, they make use of takedown techniques identical in function, if not form only, to that of Shuai Chiao. All the techniques of Shuai Chiao are embedded in the forms of the Shaolin Luo Han style. Originally, the first Lohan forms contained 18 techniques. Soon after the 27 move Small Lohan and the 54 move Big Lohan forms were created. Later, the 108 move form was created. When Lohan boxing, the strikes are soft and then turn hard at the moment of impact, like a whip. The fighting is done in a straight line, but the movements within the line are all done circularly, with complex footwork. Lohan's techniques are the source of all modern Shaolin and ancient Shaolin-derived martial arts and even a source of Okinawan karate and Japanese Shorin Ji Kempo. Lohan techniques include kicks, punches, palm strikes, elbow strikes, joint locks (chin na), and throws. The Lohan style also contains the 108 move San Da two man fighting techniques and the 108 move La Shou (pulling hands) fighting techniques.

After 540 AD (which was the Liang Dynasty), the use of Qi became emphasized to develop speed and power. Shaolin was the center of these teachings (but it cannot be proven that they were the originators of the Qigongs or the boxing techniques that they used) and they popularized Qi's use for martial development. This made many people from all over China come to visit Shaolin and learn of its Qigong and martial arts combination. Before this time period, most Chinese boxing arts developed speed and power through hard conditioning & continued training of muscular power. Shaolin Monks perfected combining Qi training (the coordination of breath with internal body mechanics - the Yi Jin Jing/ Xi Sui Jing) with traditional conditioning and self defense techniques. The result was vast improve vitality, stamina, and physique (during the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550-577 AD, the monks were recorded to be able to lift hundreds of kilograms in weight). From these ideas many types of martial arts were developed over time.

These Buddhist ideas about combining Qigongs and martial arts spread to the Taoists in a short amount of time. They knew that the use of Qi countered a stiff, muscular only body,. and that to build up Qi and circulate it smoothly, the body must be relaxed and the mind focused. They took the Shaolin martial arts and put even more of an emphasis on a softer body that made use of internal energy as the foundational root of physical strength.

By 550-600 AD, two internal styles developed: Hou Tian Fa (Post-Heaven Techniques) and Xiao Jiu Tien (Nine Little Heavens). Hen Kon Yu developed the Nine Little Heavens style, which has 14 movements that are similar to those now seen in the Yang Tai Chi style. Some moves have different names but they are identical and other moves have the same names: Lift hands, Single Whip, and Grasp Sparrow's Tail). Hu Chin Tzu developed the Post-Heaven Methods, which has 17 postures (such as ward off, roll-back, press, push, pull, etc.) similar to corresponding moves in the Yang Tai Chi style again. These two styles were called Long Boxing, because of the lengthy forms and are considered as the original sources for the Wudang Internal Boxing arts. These are the oldest Taoist internal boxing styles known. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, Hsa Suan Ming developed the San Hsi Chi (37) Movements style, which has movements similar to the 13 postures in Chen Tai Chi Quan today. Also, during this time, Li Tao Tze created the Hsien Tien Quan (Pre-Heaven Boxing) style. These styles were the roots of Wudang Taoist Boxing.

Shaolin continued with the Lohan style for hundreds of years and many military leaders now went to Shaolin to learn its techniques and forms. By the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) Shaolin's fighting methods became so famous that they were known about throughout the whole of the Chinese Empire, inspiring many people to be martial artist and to study at Shaolin. The first Tang Emperor Li Shimin chartered the Shaolin Temple to organize a monk army, most likely because Shaolin monks had helped him to establish his power and might be needed for similar action in the future. It laid the groundwork for Shaolin monk soldiers to become China’s ‘special forces’ for meeting specific military needs. This explains the difference between the Shaolin Temples and other temples in China: Shaolin legally trained armed Monks who were proficient with Kung Fu, and only Shaolin could legally maintain an army of Monk Soldiers. Other Buddhist temples did not have this same privilege.Shaolin had hundreds of monks soldiers in service of the various Tang Emperors and eventually reached 5,000 monk-soldiers in number.

Shaolin Quan became the general name for the styles taught at Shaolin. Following is a description of the fighting characteristics of Shaolin Quan, which have gone on to influence almost all martial arts today.

1. Use of hands and feet to attack simultaneously, executed very fast so that the opponent has no chance to counter-attack.

2. Many circular motions whose purpose is to try to counter opponent's attack, disturb opponent's vision, or trick the opponent.

3. Escaping maneuvers in case one is losing the battle, might also be done purposefully to create an illusion of losing in order to trick opponent and trap them.

4. Many low style movements, having a low root (center of gravity), with attacks to multiple section of the body.

5. Ability to fight multiple attackers. Attack and defense can proceed simultaneously and be combined in a linear direction, to front and back (body is in circular motion, attack and defense proceeds in a linear direction).

Next came the diversification of styles within Shaolin. During the Tang time period, Shaolin Monk Szu Kung Pei developed the Shang Hsia Kou boxing style, based on the use of feints (faking maneuvers) in order to to trick the opponent and of fighting with high blocks and low combinations of strikes. Also, the Mein or Jou ('cotton') boxing style was developed at Shaolin as the internal boxing techniques were separated from the external (marking the beginning of practicing internal and external KF separately). Many other styles were developed at Shaolin, such as the Xin Yi Quan (heart mind boxing), Jin Gang Quan (Buddha's Warriors Boxing), etc. The main forms practiced at Shaolin then were the 18 Lohan Hands, 8 Section Sash, 18 Lohan Palms, Rou Quan, and the Long Life Fist.

Also during the Tang time period, Wah (or Hua) Quan (China-style boxing) originated in Jining of Shandong Province. Sometime during the Kaiyuan reign (713-741 AD) a Mount Wah knight named Cai Mao killed a noble from the Chang'an family and he fled to Jining. There he went into hiding and stayed to live, with his family. He taught his offspring his martial arts style and over the next 400 years they developed his techniques into forms and formed the Wah Quan style, one of the five main Northern martial arts styles besides Shaolin. Wah Quan is known by its continuous movements, great speed, rock-still stances and use of deep breathing to spread air flows throughout the body and body movements that result from deep mental activity.

By the Tang dynasty, Moslems had entered China and begun to settle there and mix with the Chinese peoples. These Moslems freely accepted the Chinese martial arts and later developed their own styles (from combining Shuai Chiao, Shaolin, and other northern Chinese fighting styles. Hua Zongi developed the Hua style (not to be confused with other styles named Hua, which use different Chinese characters) and Cha Yuanyi eveloped the Cha Quan style. The two were combined and the style became one of the major northern martial arts styles. See this article for more information on Chinese Hui martial arts.

The next major development in Chinese martial arts history is the the creation of boxing styles that were influenced by those of Shaolin and that were developed outside of the temple, during the Five Dynasties (907-960 AD) and Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). Sometime during the two time periods, the Tong Bei Quan style developed, some say by General Han Tong, one of the 18 ancient boxing masters. Others say it was created by Chen Tuan, who lived in seclusion on Mount Wah. The essence of Tong Bei is that power is generated from the back to pass through the shoulders and then out the arms.

In this way, heavy strikes can be delivered at arm's length. The style then makes use of the Five Elements theory as its core inner foundation. The Five Elements Theory correlates the relationship between the five elements and how they affect each other (metal, wood, water, fire, earth) with five human organs (lung, liver, kidney, heart, spleen) and five boxing methods (exploding, pushing, piercing, chopping, and drilling).

Around this time, the Taoist priests at various temples such as Omei, Wudang, and others continued to further develop Nei Chia Quan, which were various forms of boxing based on Taoist internal boxing principles.

The most famous of the Song period boxing styles is the Tai Tzu Chang Quan style, which is the 32 posture long fist boxing style created by the Emperor Chao Kuang Yin or Zhao Kuangyin (called 'Song Tai Tzu' or great Song ancestor). He was a military general and master of Shaolin fighting forms and condensed his knowledge into 36 postures (or techniques). From these he created forms that he called Way of the Ambush forms. This style and its forms are still practiced today in China. Shaolin adopted his Tai Tzu forms, and also his 6 Step, Monkey Boxing, and China Boxing forms.

Zhao Kuangyin had unified China from the situation of separatist warlord regimes and established the great Song Dynasty. It was very beneficial to the prosperity and growth of the country and its cultures. The steady economy and political policy of the Song Dynasty promoted the development of Buddhism. Instead of oppressing Buddhists, the Dynasty protected and encouraged them. They ceased Confucian driven destruction of Buddhist temples and supported the study of 157 Buddhist monks in India. Zhao Congcin, the Emperor’s Secretary, went to Chengdu personally to carve “ The Great Buddhist Scriptures”. The dissemination and development of Buddhism was expanded. Many temples, including the Shaolin Temples, benefited from these new policies. The Manuscript of Shaolin Boxing said that the Great Song Emperor visited the Shaolin Temple and sent famous generals to Shaolin to teach monks about the art of war and at the same time learn Shaolin Martial Arts. In essence, the military and Shaolin were still learning from each other. The Shaolin Annals of Martial Arts Monks records “The Great Emperor of Song Dynasty, Zhao Kunyin, as a grandmaster of Kung Fu. He supported the head abbot of the Shaolin Temple and helped organize 3 National Competitions of Martial Arts for monks, his generals, and folk martial experts.” This represents the first time in history that a national level tournament combined the talents of Shaolin, the military, and civilian martial expertise. In total, 18 formal systems came together and competed.

Zhao Kunyin’s son, Zhen Zong, continued to protect Buddhism and built 72 worship stations along the roads to the Capital and in the Capital. He increased the quota of monks and nuns. In 1021 A.D., the number of monks and nuns increased dramatically. This policy remained unchanged for at least 34 years. Therefore, Buddhists at this time were not only fully protected, but also the Monk Soldiers of Shaolin were given great responsibility and privileges. “Song History” records that the Emperor called the Monk Soldiers a “Victory Army”. These historical facts prove that in Jiayou Year of Song Dynasty, Monk Soldiers not only existed, but also occupied important positions in the dynasty. Monks interviewed in 1927 that report an oral tradition that the fist techniques that now comprise Shaolin kung fu were brought into the temple during the Song and Yuan dynasties. Before that, Shaolin techniques were reported limited to staff fighting.

According to legends, but not any verifiable facts, during the later Southern Sung dynasty, General Yueh Fei studied Shaolin Liu He (Six Harmony) methods under Zhou Tong and developed many fighting styles and exercises, called the Yueh Jia Quan (or Yue family boxing) style, among others. Most importantly he was said to have developed the original version of Xing I Quan by mixing his Shaolin arts with the Five Elements Theory and with spear fighting methods. This he taught to his soldiers, who were undefeated in battle. There are many Yue Fei Jia Quan styles in China, with the Six Harmony, Five Elements, and spear being what they all share in common.

Also according to legend, Chuo Jiao (feet poking) boxing was developed during the early Song Dynasty period by Deng Lian on the basis of 18 different basic feet maneuvers. He formed chains of feet fighting techniques that incorporated 108 tricks. The story is that he passed the style on to Zhou Tong, who passed it to General Yueh Fei, who perfected and popularized the style.

The Di Tang (ground tumbling boxing) style developed that was entirely based on groundfighting, all of its techniques are practiced today in some form by people who practice ground fighting. It started in Shantung Province. It uses groundfighting, tumbling, falls, complex kicks, complex strikes, and trapping.

Also, Chin Shi I developed the Liu Ho Quan (6 Harmonies or Ways Boxing) at Wah Mountain from Shaolin techniques. The styles mixes the movements of animals with that of the eight diagrams. During the Song era, Ying Ching developed the Mi-Tsung I Quan style. He combined Shaolin fighting techniques with ideas of his own, which included fast and complex fighting maneuvers and ever changing footwork patterns that confused the opponents and caused the practitioner to be suddenly behind the opponent. These are two very important styles that are still studied today.

By the end of the Sung Dynasty, there were 170 empty hands forms and 130 weapons forms developed that were based on the original 18 Lohan Hands form. By the Ching Dynasty, most of these forms disappeared. Only about 100 are still practiced. Some have had their names changed over time as they were embedded into various family styles and thus may still exist unbeknownst to all.

In 1114 A.D., the Mongolians invaded China. The Chinese Emperor ordered the Shaolin Temples to dispatch Monk Soldiers to fight back. Over 500 monks intercepted the Mongolian army at the bank of the Yellow River. They were not successful, but history records that they were there at the order of the Song Emperor. The Mongolians took over China during the Yuan dynasty period (1279 - 1368 AD).

(Continue in next issue with Part 2)

Information revised 2/7/2007

Bibliography here.

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(c) 1995 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri