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The Qui Dynasty is not the beginning of China’s history, but its emperor Chin united many of the warring states and joined many parts of the Great Wall (built in parts against marauding Hans and Mongolians) entombing up to 300,000 Chinese workers into the wall in the belief that it will be stronger against attackers and invaders. The workers spirits were believed to strengthen the great Wall with their bones and their spirits. (Remember, this is the emperor who created the Terra cotta Warriors at the expense of 700,000 workers)!

So it is considered that the Emperor Chin united most of China into one nation during this time of the Qui Dynasty.  In an attempt to lengthen his life, Emperor Chin tried many potions and lotions and slowly poisoned himself with a mercury based longevity drug.

About 700 years later, in 497 AD at the time of the Southern & Northern Dynasty that the first Shaolin Temple was built.

The Establishment of Shaolin
Toward the end of the 5th Century AD Ba Tuo, an Indian Buddhist monk, was traveling through China, teaching Buddhism, helping and guiding. His great wisdom and kindness became known to the Emperor who summoned Ba Tuo to come to him.

Exact details of what happened at this meeting is not entirely clear but is seems that Ba Tuo was offered a place in the palace and riches.  He was encouraged to continue his teachings. Ba Tao politely declined this offer and asked for a piece of land far away from any civilized place in the province of Henan on the side of the Song sang Mountain. He was given a large piece of land and resources to build a monastery in an area called 'Wooded Hill or Small Forest which translates to Sil-Lum in Cantonese or Shaolin in Mandarin.

Introduction of Physical Exercise

A holy man named Bodidarma (later called Ta Mo by the Chinese) left his monastery in Southern India to spread the Buddhist faith to China, later called Ch'an Buddhism, in about 539 AD. (Ch'an is the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit word "dhyana" meaning Yogic concentration, also known as Zen in Japanese to where it moved from China.). After wandering hundreds of miles to reach Northern China and crossing the Himalayan mountains and the Yangtze River, he journeyed North to Loyang, the capital of Henan Province.

There of course he discovered the Shaolin Ssu (Temple). It was 40 years after it was founded, and had become famous for scholarly translations of Indian Buddhist scripture into Chinese. Bodidarma sought entrance to Shaolin but the abbot at that time, Fang

Chang would not permit him entry into the temple (as many sought entrance for various reasons).

Bodidarma was determined to see the Shaolin Ssu. He waited in a nearby cave on the side of a mountain (this cave can be visited when in Henan/Shaolin as well as climbing to the top where a 40 foot Buddha is erected in honour of Ta Mo), where he sat in meditation facing a stonewall. From this event many versions exist including;

  • That he sat facing a wall for most of the next nine years at the end of which Bodidarma’s deep blue piercing eyes had apparently drilled a gaping hole in the cliff wall. (we did not find such a hole but we did find what seemed to be a permanent shadow)
  • That he fell asleep meditating and when he awoke, he was so distraught that he cut of his eye lids so that this would not happen again (but this would be against Buddhist teaching and he was a devote Buddhist!).
  • That he was visited by monks (initially secretly as they were interested in the 'foreigner') and was even supplied with food and water; and that he in this way was able to demonstrate his knowledge and skill of Buddhism to such a degree that he was finally admitted into the temple.

No mater which story you believe, it is clear that Fang Chang at some time relented and allowed Bodidarma entry into the temple Shaolin.

Upon gaining entrance to Shaolin, Ta Mo (as he was now called by the Chinese) saw that the monks were weak and could not perform rigorous meditation.  He expected that Buddhist Monks should be practicing more strenuously. While meditating they often fell asleep or were very restless and were not achieving inner calm.

He spent some time in seclusion thinking on the problem. Considering the amount of time and health awareness at the time, Ta Mo came to a staggeringly accurate conclusion, that the monks were not fit enough to meditate. With this in mind he created three treaties of exercises.

These in-place exercises were later transcribed by monks as:

  1. "The Muscle Change Classic" or "The Change of the Sinews,"
  2. "The Marrow Washing"
  3. "The Eighteen Hand Movements later named The Eighteen Lohan Shou (Lohan meaning enlightened)

They marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple Kung Fu (meaning hard work and perfection). Ta Mo later devised some self-defense movements based on his knowledge of Indian fighting systems (Bodidarma was born an Indian Prince and was well versed in Yoga and Indian Kung Fu).

Shaolin Kung Fu

Many of the Shaolin priests were retired soldiers thus Ta Mo's teachings were enriched and refined by these martial art masters and thus it slowly developed in to a martial art of the hands also known as Shaolin Ch'uan [Shaolin Fist] or Shaolin Ch'uan Fa [Way of the Shaolin Fist]).

Shaolin was not a poor temple by this time and was regularly attacked by peasant armies (since individuals had no chance to penetrate Shaolin defenses and walls). Often to enrich its knowledge Shaolin would invite wandering healers, scholars and now also martial art masters into its walls to learn from these by sharing knowledge and skills!

Shaolin became very apt at kung fu and repelled the attacking bandits. The Shaolin became renown for their martial arts prowess and fighting ability. It is to be noted that not all Shaolin Monks were warrior monks but that monks choose to specialize in areas of expertise. Although at this time all practiced kung fu, not every on was totally focused on the practical aspect of the art, only the Warrior Monks. It is also interesting to note that Shaolin preferred not to harm their assailants as this would have ramifications for their spirituality in this life and the next!

Only 30 years later Shaolin was closed and forbidden.  It took some 30 years before it was reopened, around 600AD.

The Second Temple

Constructed around the same time as the Henan Temple, the Fukien Temple was integrated into mainstream Shaolin around 650 AD.  It became the 'Second Temple" of Shaolin. It was a much larger temple than the one in Henan and served as the second main temple in times where Henan was destroyed or occupied by non-Buddhists or Shaolin.

The 13 Champions

Emperor T'ai Tsung of the Tang dynasty, in 698 AD, called upon the fighting monks of Shaolin to aid him in his war against General Wang-Shih-Chung, who had gathered a large militia in an attempt to oust the Tang emperor from the Imperial throne. Li Shimini, the Emperors son, was leading the army against Tang. Tang captured the Emperors son and was inflicting great damage to tangs army.

Tang sent a message to the Shaolin temple to aid him and save his son. 13 monks were sent to answer their emperor's plea, although in fact it may have been a much larger force (113 monks or so). Even though the amount of Shaolin monks sent was small (the enemy's army counted 10,000 men) the remaining Tang army was victorious. The enemy was beaten back and decimated and the Emperors son was saved.

In recognition of their great achievement T'ai Tsung awarded the monks land, and

bestowed upon the temple the title, 'Number One" temple in China.

Later the son, Li Shimini, succeeded his father and a very strong bond was forged between the Imperial court and Shaolin. Regular interchange and training between high ranking soldiers and graduate Shaolin Warrior Monks saw further development of Shaolin Kung Fu and the integration of the secret Imperial (Eagle) Kung Fu into Shaolin knowledge and skills.

72 Movements

A couple of hundred years later a rich young noble and experienced martial artist, entered the Shaolin Monastery. He assumed the name of Chueh Yuan. Devoting all his studies to the further development of Shaolin kung fu and fitness training, he revised the 18 Fists of Lo Han and created what he called the 72 Styles or Movements. His methods and teaching were so successful that all Shaolin monks adopted his 72 fists in short order. The 72 movements were very effective for internal and external fitness. They incorporated much of what is taught today. But Chueh Yuan was still not fully satisfied with this. He went out to teach and learn, looking for Masters of other styles.

This become common practice for Shaolin. Shaolin.  Adepts were sent out to share Buddha's teaching and help the poor, much like the founder of Shaolin. It was also a test though as many would be Shaolin were tempted by worldly pleasures and never returned. Those that did became the Priests and brought many new skills, knowledge and wisdom from their travels!


The Third Temple

It is around this time that the third temple was integrated into the Shaolin order. The Wutang Tiger Temple was positioned in the politically unstable area near Manchuria and the Korean Peninsular. It was often being attacked, and the monks there were very well-versed with the practical aspect of war, weaponry and defense. The Wutang temple was very old and was integrated into Shaolin around 800 AD.

170 Movements

On his travels, Chueh Yuan witnessed how a bandit was attacking an old man. He saw how the attacker landed a very strong kick to the body of the traveler with very little or no effect. And yet the old man only used two fingers against the bandit's leg sending the attacker to the ground, seemingly unconscious, by the time Chueh reached the old traveler.

This defense obviously impressed Chuan enormously and he introduced himself to the senior. Much to his amazement, the old man did not know much of martial arts and what little he knew was taught to him by the local master Pai Yu-feng.

Pai Yu-feng was a friendly 50 year old and Chuan convinced him to travel with him back to his temple. Using the 18 fists, the 72 movements and these 'pressure point techniques' redeveloped Shaolin Kung Fu into the 170 exercises that became one of the foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu as we know it (and is still taught first before the 5 Animal Styles are taught).

The Time of the Ming Dynasty

The time of the Ming Dynasty was a golden area in China's arts history. During this time the Shaolin Temples also prospered becoming the centre for teaching, philosophy, history, Buddhism, mathematics, poetry and of course martial arts. Many monks, wise persons and traveling martial artists would gain admission to Shaolin and share their knowledge in return for Shaolin knowledge and shelter.

At this time, Shaolin reached its pinical. Each Temple was a university of Buddhism, health and the finer arts. Every temple had several Shaolin Masters who were experts or specialists in a particular area of training, well-being or philosophy. Rich Chinese would send their sons to Shaolin to become students and learn from the best in every field.

Shaolin adepts would also take on a rigorous test before they were considered ready to leave the temple on their journey years. In order to graduate from the temple, they would have to exhibit phenomenal skills and pass through 18 testing chambers in the temple which were possibly more symbolic in nature as no evidence was found in any of the Shaolin Temples of any such rooms. Although it is dramatized in movies, Shaolin would actually be brought to the brink of exhaustion through a series of 18 tests, 6 each physical, mental and spiritual.  Thus the 18 chambers. It is even possible that one of these physical tests was the lifting of a hot cauldron with their bare forearms (each temple had traditionally such a cauldron, unique for each temple). This cauldron would the raised relief of symbolic animals, which would thus be burnt into the graduating monks arms as a reminder to them of their trials. Accounts suggest that these cauldrons may have had the following symbols on them;

  • Wutang Temple- A Tiger and Dragon for Martial Art Prowess
  • Henan Temple- Dragon and Phoenix for universal balance/Yin Yang
  • Kwan Tong Temple - Two Dragons for their clones to the Emperor
  • O Mai Shan Temple - Two Cranes as they were close to the Tibetan border and a healing temple
  • Fukien Temple - (no record or anything found for this temple)

These marks were the symbol of a Shaolin graduate. Not all who entered Shaolin graduated in the full 18 chambers, many were only lay priests or guests, especially towards the end of the Ming Dynasty.

This is the time when the original 170 movements were redefined into the 5 Animal Style, Ng Ying Ga Kung Fu.

5 Animal Styles

Zhue Yuen, a martial art expert, joined the Shaolin. He noticed that the kung fu practiced in Shaolin was unbalanced, tending strongly to the hard, external style. Zhue Yuen travelled China in search of martial art styles and found many.

Li Sou introduced Zhue Yuen to Bai Yu Feng, another famous martial artist practitioner. Zhue Yuen was able to convince them to come back with him to Shaolin to develop kung fu. Together they redeveloped Shaolin kung fu into the 5 animal styles (Tiger, Snake, Dragon, Leopard and Crane).

Over the next few hundred years the Shaolin were able to develop the 5 Animal Style system to become metaphors for human situation handling, interaction, problem solving, planning and much more.  Much of this was lost with the second burning of Shaolin and only the external kung fu aspect was cultivated and maintained.

The 4th temple

It is around this time that the 4th temple was added to the order of Shaolin. The O Mei Shan, Great White Mountain, was a devoted library and medical temple. It was positioned in a very inaccessible area of Szechwan province. The O Mei Shan temple imported healers, much like the other temples used to import kung fu masters.

O Mei Shan was in close contact with the Crane Temple in Tibet.  It was a major medical temple with books, tombs and scrolls from east and west. It is probably the temple that burnt in the symbols of 2 Cranes on to the forearms instead of having the traditional Dragon like the other three temples in the 18th Chamber principle!

The Invaders

The Great wall and Chinas army was mostly successful in repelling invaders but around mid 17th century, invaders led by the Ching Family from Manchuria, ended China's Golden area, and the Ming Dynasties’ reign. They slowly and brutally took control of China and systematically eradicated all resistance. Many Chinese nobles, warriors and commoners were forced underground.  There they sought to oust the invaders and reinstate the prosperous Ming Dynasty.

There were many factions among the Chinese who aided the Manchu's against Ming loyalists in large part because the Manchu's held to the same ideology, governmental patterns, and social organization as the Ming. The Ming dynasty was significantly weakened by the early 1600's.

An internal rebellion was the direct cause of the downfall of this dynasty.  Chinese rebel Li Tzu-ch'eng seized Peking in 1644. That the Dutchmen were able to capitalize on this by being invited to stop the rebellion of a frontier general is largely coincidental.


Thus the Manchu's found the entrance to China and slowly conquered China. Those that did not wish to conform had to either leave or go underground.  Some also sough refuge in the Shaolin temples.

Shaolin initially only offered passive resistance against the invaders seeking to remain separated from the political matters. It helped anyone who sought refuge and thus unintentionally became a safe haven for refugees and resistance fighters. The Manchu's also had 5 classes of people clearly defined;

  1. The Manchu Ruler and his family
  2. The Manchu Nobles and their families
  3. Manchurians in general
  4. Northern Chinese
  5. Southern Chinese

Many Ming loyal soldiers and nobles found refuge and help in Shaolin. Shaolin, although themselves passive, became a center of resistance. This was dangerous to the invaders and needed to be dealt with drastically.

The 2nd Burning of Shaolin

Shaolin was strong, their reputation awesome and their support from commoners even stronger. In 1647 AD, through betrayal of an insider and large amounts of Ching loyal troops, armed with cannons, the original Shaolin temple in Henan was destroyed. The monks who remained to defend were slaughtered.  Many fled to the Fukien Temple and for 30 years continued their resistance and their support of resistance fighters. This in turn led to the destruction of the Fukien temple, the remaining major temples and most of the lesser temples as well as the destruction of Shaolin texts. These events have inspired many 'Shaolin Temple' movies including Shaolin Mystagogue!

From this time onwards Shaolin were outlawed.  Any practice of Shaolin Kung Fu was punishable by death. Much was lost. Most of the priceless scrolls of Shaolin Kung Fu and teachings and many treasures of knowledge and wisdom. Shaolin monks and laypersons were now split, all initially operating in secret. They;

  • continued their resistance and taught Kung Fu for the main purpose of fighting and defeating the Chins. They were the fathers of secret resistance organizations know as the 'Triads', so named after a gift of the Ming Dynasty Emperor to the Shaolin of a jade triangle.
  • were devoted to the art. They passed down their learning from father to son or most apt student. In this process, much was lost but some was maintained. None of these styles are all of Shaolin but each have key elements.
  • reverted to being  Buddhist priests.
migrated to many other countries including the US, and many Asian countries
  • including Malaise, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, etc...

Many great Chinese Fighting Martial Artists came to be famous during this time of strife and resistance.  This was the mid 17th Century to 1899.  Some of these Chinese Fighting Martial Artists gainied great notoriety   Among these were Hung Hei-Kwun and his teachers from the temple, the Abbot Chi Zin and the Monk Sam Tak. But Shaolin monks were now outlawed by the new government. They had to go into hiding and could no longer be 'Shaolin' monks publicly. This is a time when Tai Chi styles flourished, a way of secretly teaching Kung Fu. The techniques were masked, movements slowed, stances and toughness hidden.

The Reopening of Shaolin

Around a century or more afterwards, around the start of 19th Century, the Shaolin Temples were reopened and included the 5th Shaolin Temple Kwantung, located around 200 km's southwest of Fukien.

But the rulers of the day were still afraid of the power of the Fighting Shaolin Monks. They only permitted Shaolin to be used as purely religious purposes without allowing any Kung Fu or other martial art training. The underground, no longer Shaolin but Ming loyalists, were still very busy making life difficult for the Chings. The final overthrow was to be the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 AD.

The Boxer rebellion was an attempt at overthrowing the Ching Dynasty and reinstating the original descendant of the Ming Dynasty. The Boxer rebellion was a total failure. The Manchu's, now armed with handguns and rifles, totally destroyed the Boxers, who were armed only with their Kung Fu.  The British called this 'funny' style of fighting Boxing and it stuck!

This was the death of the Chinese resistance. Some triad members escaped to other countries, including the US, Korea, and others.  This caused another influx of Chinese martial arts into the Orient, the US, and the new continent, Australia.

The 3rd Burning of Shaolin

As with the previous times, Shaolin influence, power and Kung Fu, although officially forbidden and punishable by death, was still forbidden. This may have led to the 3rd Burning of Shaolin in 1927 AD during Chiang Kai Check's reign.

Chiang Kai Check himself was a great believer in Kung Fu and although he forbade all martial art practice he surrounded himself with Kung Fu fighting masters for his body guards. When he was being threatened and ousted by the new forming Chinese Republic, he packed up as much of Chinese treasure as he could, took his wife, who recently died in the US aged 105, and 100 masters and moved to Taiwan. His arrival had a great influence on that country

Cultural Revolution

The cultural revolution was against all form of religion and martial arts or anything that would allow individually, resistance or free thought. If you were seen to be preaching or teaching anything other than Mao's' words, you were immediately re-educated or imprisoned.

This was more disastrous to Shaolin Kung Fu than any of the other times. It attacked Shaolin teachings and style on all fronts not just Kung Fu but also Buddhism and any type of organization other than Mao's. This was the final death for Shaolin!

3rd Area of Shaolin

After many successful Chinese Kung Fu movies by Bruce Lee opening Kung Fu to the world, and Jacky Chan introducing the concept of Shaolin and in particular Jet Li in the movie Shaolin Temple, officials in Beijing started to realize the potential of Shaolin as a marketing tool but also as heritage!  The fear and distrust of Shaolin, its Kung Fu and power, was deep. They knew though that they needed some type of replacement. Some type of martial art other than Tai Chi and Chi Kung that was hard, external and athletic to fill this emptiness. This was the 'popular' birth of Wu Shu.

A respected Chinese official was tasked with breathing life back into Shaolin. As with many Chinese decisions it was a pragmatic decision as well as a financial and historical one. The key was to have an art that was dynamic and in the spirit of Shaolin, but not Kung Fu. Wushu was ideal for this.  It embodied the spirit of Shaolin by providing all the requirements for health and wellness.  It focused more on flow and athleticism rather than technique and fighting. Wu Shu has grown and developed and with the many versions and adaptations of kung fu. In some cases there is very little difference between the two.

There was a problem as Shaolin and its idea was already occupied by a whole thriving industry called Shaolin Village and many “so called” Shaolin temple training Schools. The reopening of the Shaolin temple by the "Grand Abbot" Master Su Xi, who's kindness and dedication seem so much similar as the original founder of Shaolin, gives hope to a new era of Shaolin teaching and Spirit. But for all his good teaching and kindness, he was also being used.

Animal Wu Shu is being practiced, but not the Shaolin 5 Animals.  A new breed of modern, very athletic and well developed Animal styles including;

  • Monkey
  • Eagle
  • Crane
  • Snake
  • Mantis
The current Abbot of Shaolin has been in place for 10+ years now. He or the Chinese

government have recently cleared all the schools and the village surrounding Shaolin allowing only one to be there, the official Chinese Government Shaolin Temple training School. All schools, some numbering up to 8000 students, have been moved to a nearby major city. 

There are possibly many other styles and flavors emerging in this new era of martial art Renaissance. Also a new era of Shaolin has started again with many martial artists, tai chi, kung fu and chi kung practitioners traveling to Henan where they can study modern Shaolin Wu Shu!


Golden Era

Shaolin's 1st Golden Era began with the ascension to the throne of the Tang Dynasty son whom they saved.  The Ming Dynasty was the second Golden era of Shaolin with much cooperation between the Emperors Palace and Shaolin. Now with the Chinese Government behind them, efforts to have Wushu in the Olympics and over 1 billion people training Wushu, Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Chi Kung we can consider this the third golden era not only for Kung Fu and Wu Shu but for all peaceful martial arts.


Sources for this account are not limited to the listed below, however we would like to credit the following sources:

  • Kung Fu - Michael Mink
  • Monkey Kung Fu - P Zink & M Gonzalwez
  • Shaolin Chin Na - Y Jwing-Ming Shaolin 5 Animals
  •  F Wong & J Hallander
  • Shaolin Long Fist - Y Jwing-Ming & J A Bolt
  • Drunkard Kung Fu - Leung Ting
  • http://www.webcom.com/~shaolin/home.html
  • http://www.webcom.com/shaolin/temple.html
  • Martial Arts Companion - John Corcoran
  • 60 minutes report on the 'reawakening' of Shaolin
  • ABC documentary on Shaolin Kung Fu
  • Martial Arts - Peter Lewis
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Chinese Martial Arts - Morning Glory Press