The Origins of Shaolin Kung Fu
Written by Lydia   
Wednesday, 03 August 2011 22:10


The story goes that in 495AD, during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen during the Northern Wei Dynasty, a Buddhist monk named Buddhabhadra (Ba Tuo) came to China from India. The Emperor liked Buddhabhadra and offered him support to teach Buddhism at court which he declined. Instead he was given a piece of land to build a temple on Mount Song. The temple was named Shaolin, which translates to ‘Little Forest’.

In 520AD, another Buddhist monk travelled across the Himalayan ranges from India to China known as Bodhidharma (Tat Moh). Born a prince in Southern India, he renounced his royal heritage to take up the lifestyle of a monk and became a devoted Buddhist. He travelled throughout China to teach Yogic concentration (also known as Zen Buddhism in Japanese) and eventually arrived at the Shaolin monastery.

Some records say the abbot at Shaolin, Fang Chang, refused to accept him when he asked to be admitted to the temple. After which he climbed into the mountains and resided in a cave where he meditated for nine years before the abbot granted Boddhidharma entrance to Shaolin. Others suggest that he was disappointed when he found the monks living at the monastery were very weak and was unable to withstand the austere ways of Buddhism which consists of long fasts and frugal living and as a result decided to retire into a cave to meditate in isolation in order to find a solution for the problem. After nine years he had devised a set of exercises for the monks similar to Yoga mainly to regulate and strengthen the monks’ chi flow. It is said that as Boddhidharma sat facing the wall of the cave for nine years, his shadow became imprinted on it. The cave is now considered a sacred place and the wall has been moved to the temple compound for visitors to see. The exercises that he devised successfully built the monks’ vigour and increased their health and vitality and are still practised to this day. Martial arts were quite widespread in China and many of the monks were retired soldiers. The existing martial arts exercises were combined with Boddhidharma’s teachings to form the basis of Shaolin Martial Arts. As Shaolin grew more developed, a total of five temples were built which later gave rise to the Northern and Southern styles of Chinese martial arts. These two styles were mainly different as they were developed to suit the physiology of the locals and the terrain upon which they practiced in. The Northern people tended to be taller and favoured kicking while the shorter Southerners preferred punches.

Originally used as exercise to keep fit, the martial arts practices eventually had to be used against attacking assailants and bandits after the monastery’s assets. A system of fighting was developed called the ‘Lohon’ style (developed by a monk named Lohon) to protect themselves but they were bound by a set of principles called martial ethics, Wude, including prohibitions such as “do not betray your teacher” and “do not fight for frivolous reasons” as well as the eight “hit” and “do not hit” zones to ensure the opponent will not be too seriously injured.

The monks of the Shaolin temple practiced diligently to increase their martial arts skills and were constantly striving to improve their art. A great step forward came with the evolution of the third Shaolin style (from the Fukienese temple), called the Tiger style of Kung Fu - Tai Chor in Chinese. This was developed by a Chinese emperor, who had relinquished his royal position to adopt the austere ways of Buddhism. He finally settled at the Shaolin temple where he studied the martial arts, eventually developing the Tai Chor style. For this reason, Tai Chor is sometimes also known as the Emperor's style.

Tai Chor uses the strong but mobile stance which we use in the Tiger-Crane combination, and which we call the 'walking stance'. It also emphasizes a very strong twisting punch. This straight punch which ends with a twist of the fist has become a hallmark of Shaolin Kung Fu. The Tai Chor style develops great power and was, therefore, able to defeat the Lohon style.

No style is unbeatable. Every move has a counter. Inevitably, another style of Kung Fu was later developed which could counter the Tiger style. This was the Monkey style, known in Chinese as Tai Sheng.

Monkey is a very fast, deceptive style. The Monkey tends to close in on his opponent, strike and retreat all in one rapid sequence. Hence, the powerful Tiger may be unable to hit his tricky, constantly moving opponent. If the Monkey misses with a strike, he will still move away from his opponent so as not to allow them the chance to counter him. The Monkey's strikes are more accurate than powerful and are delivered with fingers or the open palm. Grabbing is also a favourite Monkey technique. The Monkey likes to crouch and often attacks the lower body. He especially favours targeting the groin. For male opponents this can result in serious loss!

Because the Monkey style of Kung Fu consists of much crouching and rolling, it is best suited to people who are short. It is often considered one of the most entertaining styles to watch. As the Monkey was constantly moving and running around, it countered the power of the Tiger style of Kung Fu with manoeuvrability and became the fourth generation of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu style.

The Monkey style was later superseded by the White Crane style. The White Crane style of Kung Fu was the last and most technically advanced style to be developed in the Fukien Shaolin Temple. Even to this day, the White Crane style is regarded with great respect and is shrouded in secrecy by its masters. Hence it has been one of the last Kung Fu styles which the Chinese have 'let go' to Westerners.

The White Crane style is able to counter the Monkey style because the White Crane sticks. As soon as the Crane is attacked it establishes touch contact. If its opponent tries to land the attack, the Crane deflects it: if the opponent withdraws, the Crane follows; never releasing its touch until it finds a certain opportunity to strike - which it does with no mercy. As the Monkey tries to dart away the Crane will follow, sticking to him until the chance presents itself to strike. The White Crane style of Kung Fu represents the pinnacle of the Shaolin martial arts.

Not long after Boddhidharma entered Shaolin, Emperor Wudi banned Buddhism in 574AD and Shaolin was destroyed. Later, under Emperor Jingwen in the Northern Zhou Dynasty Buddhism was revived and Shaolin rebuilt and restored.

During turmoil early in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), thirteen warrior monks helped the Tang emperor rescue his son, Li Shimin, from an army aiming to overthrow the Tang. In recognition of their help, Li Shimin, once emperor, named Shaolin the "Supreme Temple" in all of China and fostered learning, teaching and exchange between the imperial court and armies and the Shaolin monks. Over the next few centuries until Ming loyalists used Shaolin as a refuge, Shaolin Temple and its style of martial arts enjoyed a flourishing of development and advancement.

As a haven for Ming loyalists, Qing rulers finally destroyed Shaolin Temple, burning it to the ground and destroying many of its treasures and sacred texts in the process. Shaolin Kung Fu was outlawed and the monks and followers, those who lived, were dispersed through China and to other, lesser, temples following Shaolin teachings. Shaolin was allowed to reopen again about one hundred years later but rulers were still distrustful of Shaolin Kung Fu and the power it gave its followers. It was burned and rebuilt several times over the following centuries.

Today, Shaolin Temple is a practicing Buddhist temple where adaptations on the original Shaolin Kung Fu are taught. According to some sources, the original Shaolin Kung Fu was too powerful so was replaced by Wu Shu, a less aggressive form of martial arts. Whatever is practiced today, it is still a place of dedication and learning, as can be seen by the hundreds of youngsters practicing outside on a given morning. There are now over eighty Kung Fu schools around Mt. Song in Dengfeng where thousands of Chinese children are sent to study, as young as age five. Shaolin Temple and its teachings remain impressive.

Some videos which may be of interest :)

A gibbon taunting two tiger cubs, you can imagine how the Monkey style would go against the Tiger style

National Geographic fight science investigates the balancing capabilities of the White Crane style Kung Fu

Article was compiled from two main sources: