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The martial arts are a big part of human history as they were developed through the strife and discord that shaped the world we know now. Among all of the martial arts from all over the globe, few are more visible and well-known, as well as misunderstood, as Chinese kung fu. Among all the numerous styles of kung fu developed throughout 4,000 years of Chinese history, few are more fabled than Shaolin Kung Fu.
Most would associate Buddhist monks as peaceful and pacifistic, spending most of their time meditating, studying ancient texts, and chanting sutras. The only difference with the monks of Shaolin is that they apply meditation into physical movements, particularly in training their kung fu.
Overview of Shaolin
Also known as Shaolin Wushu, Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the oldest institutions of Chinese martial arts, with its origins in the legendary Shaolin Temple at Henan, China and a history that spans over 1,500 years. While China went through great change and upheaval, the Shaolin Temple still stands today as a timeless monument upon a mountain.
The Shaolin focus on the external arts—styles focused on physical strength and speed. It is said that they are the origins of most oriental martial arts, which shows how influential Shaolin kung fu had been throughout history. Indeed, there is some evidence that suggest Shaolin kung fu having been exported to places like Japan.
Much of the Shaolin’s philosophy and viewpoints are from the tenets of Chan Buddhism, the precursor to Zen Buddhism. Shaolin philosophy is all about achieving harmony between Chan (the religion) and Quan (martial arts). Chan Quan directly translates to “Chan Fist” (or “Zen Fist” in Japanese).
The spiritual and martial aspects of Shaolin are not seen as separate, but the Shaolin path to enlightenment. It seems paradoxical to combine combat with Buddhism, which is mostly seen as non-combative. However, with the unifying of these two extremes, the Shaolin achieve a state of balance through years of rigorous training and study.
History of the Martial Art
The story as to how these Buddhist monks came to include kung fu in their monastic practices is mostly disputed, but there are some facts that are agreed upon.
In 495 AD, the Indian Buddhist monk Buddhabhadra (known by the Chinese as Batuo) was the first one to preach Buddhism in the Henan provice, where the Shaolin Temple now stands upon the Song mountain. His first Chinese disciples, Huiguang and Sengchou, were well-versed in the martial arts.
Then in 527 AD, another Indian monk Bodhidarma (known by the Chinese as Damo) arrived in Shaolin, and his Chinese disciple Huike was also a martial arts expert. It is said that the three Chinese disciples were once military men before joining Shaolin to live monastic lives and may have been from whom the Shaolin’s martial tradition started.
Bodhidarma is often touted as the founder of Chan Buddhism, the school of Buddhism that the Shaolin follow, which then became Zen Buddhism in Japan. Zen would then yield great influence upon martial philosophy in East Asia, including the Samurai code of Bushido, due to how well its teachings apply to martial practice.
Meanwhile, the popular legend states that Bodhidarma as the main influence for Shaolin Kung Fu, which had then become the story that was spread about its origins. However, it turns out that the document which stated this may have been a forgery created during the 17th century.
The temple had been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, like during the Red Turban Rebellion in the 14th century and the Ming Dynasty. The best known instance was during the Qing Dynasty, purportedly during 1647, when it was razed after the Shaolin were accused of anti-Qing activities. It also endured the chaos and confusion of the Cultural Revolution, wherein the temple was purged of Buddhist material and had its monks flogged and jailed by the Red Guard.
Shaolin kung fu has since become known all over the world through demonstrations, kung fu movies, and so on. There is also evidence that it had been exported during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some styles of karate claim to have origins in Shaolin kung fu, with some through oral tradition and others through the similarities in both techniques and instruction.
Terms, Training, and Techniques
The Shaolin train in hundreds of different forms of kung fu, also known as “taolu”. Many of these forms are composed of smaller parts that can be considered as forms in themselves. They also have interesting names translated from Chinese like Arhat 18 Hands, Plum Blossom style, Through-the-Arms style, Emeror’s Long Range style, and so on.
They are also often considered the origin of the Five Animal Styles—Tiger, Dragon, Snake, Leopard, and Crane. They have been prodigiously depicted in classic kung fu movies; fighting styles derived from animals. There are also other similar ones like Mantis and Monkey, which also have their distinct characteristics and techniques. These are known as imitative styles.
They also have the famous drunken style, which is interesting since monks are supposed to abstain from alcohol. Of course, it is not necessary to be drunk to practice it. The purpose of this style is deception, using unpredictable attacks to subdue the opponent. The style also includes weapon forms such as drunken staff and drunken sword.
They follow a strict yet productive daily schedule enforced by the more senior monks who administrate the temple. They get up at 5AM and sleep at 11PM, practicing and performing duties all the way through. They do kung fu practice on average of 3 times a day; first at dawn before eating their breakfast, in the afternoon, and before going to bed.
For those who happen to visit the temple, one of the most unforgettable sights are indentations on some of the stone floors, which are from the centuries of Shaolin monks practicing their forms. Each generation of Shaolin monks who trained there would literally leave their mark on the temple itself. They are testaments to the amount of hard work they put into both their kung fu and search for enlightenment.
The Shaolin are as old school as they can get. They use training methods that are designed to push students to their absolute limit. Their focus on conditioning and training basics are such that most may find it boring and tedious, but the Shaolin kung fu demands absolute mastery of the fundamentals, which lends greatly to its reputation.
Uniforms and Rankings
Since it is a monastery, the Shaolin Temple requires students to shave their heads and don their signature robes, and they also have their work and training clothes. The most recognizable color they wear is orange, but they also wear blue, grey, and brown robes. Many sources claim these colors denote rank, but that is disputed.
There are also the burns on the forehead that many associate with the Shaolin, known as jie ban. They are made with a burning incense stick, and they symbolize the vow taken by the monk. They were banned during the Cultural Revolution, so they are not as prominent as they used to be.
The leg ties that are a big part of the Shaolin monk’s training uniform is known as bang tui. Their purpose is to provide compression on the calf like that of a good pair of boots, making sure that the pants do not snag and helps support the feet and legs of the monk as he trains.
There are plenty of organizations all over the world claiming to be genuine Shaolin schools, many of which are false. As far as a central authority, that would be the China Songshan (Song mountain) Shaolin Temple itself.
Any school opened with any name associated to Shaolin is an independent legal entity and has no real connection with the temple since no monks are dispatched to teach the public. There are some established by former monks and such, but they are not fully endorsed by the temple.
As far as authenticity goes, you will have to go to the source if you really want to train in the real deal.
China Songshan Shaolin Temple
The official website of the Shaolin Temple.