Shaolin Kung Fu refers to a collection of Chinese martial arts that claim affiliation with the Shaolin Monastery.
Of the multitude styles of kung fu and wushu, only some are actually related to Shaolin. After the loss of records during the 20th Century Cultural Revolution it would be almost impossible for a particular style to conclusively establish a connection to the Temple, aside from a few very well known systems, such as Xiao Hong Quan, the Da Hong Quan, Yin Shou Gun, Damo Sword, etc.
Internal and external arts
Huang Zongxi described martial arts in terms of Shaolin or “external” arts versus Wudang or internal arts in 1669. It has been since then that Shaolin has been popularly synonymous for what are considered the external Chinese martial arts, regardless of whether or not the particular style in question has any connection to the Shaolin Monastery. Some say that there is no differentiation between the so-called internal and external systems of the Chinese martial arts, while other well-known teachers have expressed differing opinions. For example, the Taijiquan teacher Wu Jianquan:
Those who practice Shaolinquan leap about with strength and force; people not proficient at this kind of training soon lose their breath and are exhausted. Taijiquan is unlike this. Strive for quiescence of body, mind and intention.
In 1784 the Boxing Classic: Essential Boxing Methods made the earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery as Chinese boxing’s place of origin. Again, this is a misconception, as Chinese martial arts pre-date the construction of the Shaolin Temple by at least several hundred years.
Legend of Bodhidharma
According to the Jingde of the Lamp, after Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from South India, left the court of the Liang emperor Wu in 527, he eventually found himself at the Shaolin Monastery, where he “faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time”.
According to the Yì Jīn Jīng,
after Bodhidharma faced the wall for nine years at Shaolin temple and made a hole with his stare, he left behind an iron chest. When the monks opened this chest they found two books: the “Marrow Cleansing Classic,” and the “Muscle Tendon Change Classic”, or “Yi Jin Jing” within. The first book was taken by Bodhidharma’s disciple Huike, and disappeared; as for the second, the monks selfishly coveted it, practicing the skills therein, falling into heterodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating the Real. The Shaolin monks have made some fame for themselves through their fighting skill; this is all due to their possession of this manuscript.
The attribution of Shaolin’s martial arts to Bodhidharma has been discounted by several 20th century martial arts historians, first by Tang Hao on the grounds that the Yì Jīn Jīng is a forgery. Stele and documentary evidence shows the monks historically worshiped the Bodhisattva Vajrapani’s “Kimnara King” form as the progenitor of their staff and bare hand fighting styles.
Huiguang and Sengchou were involved with martial arts before they became two of the very first Shaolin monks, reported as practicing martial arts before the arrival of Bodhidharma. Sengchou’s skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon.
Records of the discovery of arms caches in the monasteries of Chang’an during government raids in AD 446 suggests that Chinese monks practiced martial arts prior to the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery in 497. Monks came from the ranks of the population among whom the martial arts were widely practiced before the introduction of Buddhism. There are indications that Huiguang, Sengchou and even Huike, Bodhidarma’s immediate successor as Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, may have been military men before retiring to the monastic life. Moreover, Chinese monasteries, not unlike those of Europe, in many ways were effectively large landed estates, that is, sources of considerable regular income which required protection.
In addition to that, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, the Bibliographies in the Book of the Han Dynasty and the Records of the Grand Historian all document the existence of martial arts in China before Bodhidharma. The martial arts Shuāi Jiāo and Sun Bin Quan, to name two, predate the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery by centuries.
Tang Dynasty (618–907)
The oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat is a stele from 728 that attests to two occasions: a defense of the monastery from bandits around 610 and their role in the defeat of Wang Shichong at the Battle of Hulao in 621.
Like most dynastic changes, the end of the Sui Dynasty was a time of upheaval and contention for the throne. Wang Shichong declared himself Emperor. He controlled the territory of Zheng and the ancient capital of Luoyang.
Overlooking Luoyang on Mount Huanyuan was the Cypress Valley Estate, which had served as the site of a fort during the Jin and a commandery during the Southern Qi. Sui Emperor Wen had bestowed the estate on a nearby monastery called Shaolin for its monks to farm but Wang Shichong, realizing its strategic value, seized the estate and there placed troops and a signal tower, as well as establishing a prefecture called Yuanzhou. Furthermore, he had assembled an army at Luoyang to march on the Shaolin Temple itself.
The monks of Shaolin allied with Wang’s enemy, Li Shimin, and took back the Cypress Valley Estate, defeating Wang’s troops and capturing his nephew Renze.
Without the fort at Cypress Valley, there was nothing to keep Li Shimin from marching on Luoyang after his defeat of Wang’s ally Dou Jiande at the Battle of Hulao, forcing Wang Shichong to surrender.
Li Shimin’s father was the first Tang Emperor and Shimin himself became its second.
Thereafter Shaolin enjoyed the royal patronage of the Tang.
Though the Shaolin Monastery Stele of 728 attests to these incidents in 610 and 621 when the monks engaged in combat, it does not allude to martial training in the monastery, or to any fighting technique in which its monks specialized. Nor do any other sources from the Tang, Song and Yuan periods allude to military training at the temple.
According to Meir Shahar, this is explained by a confluence of the late Ming fashion for military encyclopedias and, more importantly, the conscription of civilian irregulars, including monks, as a result of Ming military decline in the 16th century.
Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
From the 8th to the 15th centuries, no extant source documents Shaolin participation in combat; then the 16th and 17th centuries see at least forty extant sources attest that, not only did monks of Shaolin practice martial arts, but martial practice had become such an integral element of Shaolin monastic life that the monks felt the need to justify it by creating new Buddhist lore. References to Shaolin martial arts appear in various literary genres of the late Ming: the epitaphs of Shaolin warrior monks, martial-arts manuals, military encyclopedias, historical writings, travelogues, fiction, and even poetry.
These sources, in contrast to those from the Tang Dynasty period, refer to Shaolin methods of combat unarmed, with the spear, and with the weapon that was the forte of the Shaolin monks and for which they had become famous, the staff. By the mid-16th century military experts from all over Ming China were travelling to Shaolin to study its fighting techniques.
Around 1560 Yú Dàyóu travelled to Shaolin Monastery to see for himself its monks’ fighting techniques, but found them disappointing. Yú returned to the south with two monks, Zongqing and Pucong, whom he taught the use of the staff over the next three years, after which Zongqing and Pucong returned to Shaolin Monastery and taught their brother monks what they had learned. Martial arts historian Tang Hao traced the Shaolin staff style Five Tigers Interception to Yú’s teachings.
The earliest extant manual on Shaolin Kung Fu, the Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method was written in around 1610 and published in 1621 from what its author Chéng Zōngyóu learned during a more than ten year stay at the monastery.
Conditions of lawlessness in Henan—where the Shaolin Monastery is located—and surrounding provinces during the late Ming Dynasty and all of the Qing Dynasty contributed to the development of martial arts. Meir Shahar lists the martial arts T’ai chi ch’uan, Chang Family Boxing, Bāguàquán, Xíngyìquán and Bājíquán as originating from this region and this time period.
In the 1540s and 1550s, Japanese pirates known as wokou raided China’s eastern and southeastern coasts on an unprecedented scale.
The geographer Zheng Ruoceng provides the most detailed of the 16th century sources which confirm that, in 1553, Wan Biao, Vice Commissioner in Chief of the Nanjing Chief Military Commission, initiated the conscription of monks—including some from Shaolin—against the pirates. Warrior monks participated in at least four battles: at the Gulf of Hangzhou in spring 1553 and in the Huangpu River delta at Wengjiagang in July 1553, Majiabang in spring 1554, and Taozhai in autumn 1555.
The monks suffered their greatest defeat at Taozhai, where four of them fell in battle; their remains were buried under the Stūpa of the Four Heroic Monks (Si yi seng ta) at Mount She near Shanghai.
The monks won their greatest victory at Wengjiagang. On 21 July 1553, 120 warrior monks led by the Shaolin monk Tianyuan defeated a group of pirates and chased the survivors over ten days and twenty miles. The pirates suffered over one hundred casualties and the monks only four.
Not all of the monks who fought at Wengjiagang were from Shaolin, and rivalries developed among them. Zheng chronicles Tianyuan’s defeat of eight rival monks from Hangzhou who challenged his command. Zheng ranked Shaolin first of the top three Buddhist centers of martial arts. Zheng ranked Mount Funiu in Henan second and Mount Wutai in Shanxi third. The Funiu monks practiced staff techniques which they had learned at the Shaolin Monastery. The Wutai monks practiced Yang Family Spear (楊家槍; pinyin: Yángjiā qīang).
Influence outside China
Some lineages of Karate have oral traditions that claim Shaolin origins. Martial arts traditions in Japan and Korea, and Southeast Asia cite Chinese influence as transmitted by Buddhist monks.
Recent developments in the 20th century such as Shorinji Kempo practised in Japan’s Sohonzan Shorinji still maintains close ties with China’s Song Shan Shaolin Temple due to historic links. Japanese Shorinji Kempo Group financial contributions to the maintenance of the historic edifice of the Song Shan Shaolin Temple in 2003 received China’s recognition.
In popular culture
Shaolin, in popular culture, has taken on a second life. Since the 1970s, it has been featured in many films, TV shows, video games, cartoons, and other media. While much of this is a commercialized aspect of Shaolin, it is also widely credited as keeping the 1500-year-old temple in the consciousness of the world, and from vanishing into obscurity like many other ancient traditions. The Abbot of Shaolin, Shi Yong Xin, has decided to embrace modern day pop culture and has used it to the advantage of the temple to keep the temple prominent on the world stage. Shaolin monks have been featured on Fight Science, a National Geographic television series, performing feats of strength, endurance, and martial arts.
The 1970s television series Kung Fu starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk on the run in the Wild West whose Zen (Ch’an) training is tested along his journey. Carradine’s part was originally to be played by Bruce Lee but Lee was pulled at the last minute before airing for looking “too Chinese” for an American public accustomed to white actors portraying ethnic minority characters for a mainly white audience. However, the character of Caine was supposed to be of mixed Chinese and European ancestry – a fact which may have also had an influence on this decision. In the 1990s, Carradine starred in the series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which followed the grandson and great-grandson of the original Caine in a large modern city.
In 1977, the cult classic Shaw Brothers film Shaolin Temple was released and in 1982 a film by the same name starring Jet Li is credited as a major reason for the revival of the Shaolin Temple in China after the Cultural Revolution. The film’s story tells the legend of the Shaolin Temple. This film is followed by countless other films, including another Shaw Brothers film entitled The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which depicts the training of the legendary Shaolin monk San Te.
In the 1990s, American hip-hop group The Wu Tang Clan arose, often making frequent references to Shaolin, sometimes as a name for their home, Staten Island, New York. The references arise from the group growing up in Staten Island in the late 1970s, and being influenced by movie theaters playing and advertising Kung Fu movies based on the Shaolin fighting style. Video games and cartoons begin to also feature Shaolin, such as the cartoon Xiaolin Showdown. Liu Kang, the main character in the Mortal Kombat series, is a Shaolin monk, and Kung Lao from the same series, is also a Shaolin monk who seeks to avenge the temple’s destruction, (led by Baraka in Mortal Kombat‘s story), they were so popular, they were turned into their own video game, Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks. Krillin, a character in the Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z universe, is also a Shaolin monk, though he abandons the Shaolin fighting style in favor of Muten-Rôshi’s Turtle technique.
In 2000’s, Shaolin gets pop-culture recognition by appearing on The Simpsons (TV series), where they visit the Shaolin Temple in the episode Goo Goo Gai Pan, which first aired in 2006. That same year, the Abbot of Shaolin invites the K-Star martial arts reality TV show to film a TV series of foreigners competing to survive Shaolin style training.
Two prominent publications about Shaolin were published in 2007, including the first ever photo documentary on the temple entitled Shaolin: Temple of Zen, published by the non-profit Aperture Foundation, featuring the photos of National Geographic photographer Justin Guariglia. The Shaolin Abbot, Shi Yong Xin, has written the foreword attesting the authenticity of the project. These became the first photographs seen of monks practicing classical kung fu inside the temple. American author Matthew Polly, also has written a book recounting his story of his two years living, studying, and performing with the Shaolin monks in China in the early 1990s. A third, more academic book, is “The Shaolin Monastery; History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts,” published by the Israeli Shaolin scholar Meir Shahar in 2008 about the history of the Shaolin Temple.
While some of these are clear commercial exploitation of the Shaolin Temple and its legends, they have helped make Shaolin a household name around the world, and kept the temple alive in the minds of many young generations. To date, no other temple in the world has achieved such wide spread recognition.