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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
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
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).
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
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.
exercises were later transcribed by monks as:
- "The Muscle Change
Classic" or "The Change of the Sinews,"
- "The Marrow
- "The Eighteen Hand
Movements later named The Eighteen Lohan Shou (Lohan meaning
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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
- 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
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
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 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;
- The Manchu Ruler
and his family
- The Manchu Nobles
and their families
- Manchurians in
- Northern Chinese
- 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
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.
migrated to many other
countries including the US, and many Asian countries
- 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
- 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,
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
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
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
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;
The current Abbot of
Shaolin has been in place for 10+ years now. He or the Chinese
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!
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
- Monkey Kung Fu - P
Zink & M Gonzalwez
- Shaolin Chin Na -
Y Jwing-Ming Shaolin 5 Animals
- F Wong & J
- Shaolin Long Fist
- Y Jwing-Ming & J A Bolt
- Drunkard Kung Fu -
- Martial Arts
Companion - John Corcoran
- 60 minutes report
on the 'reawakening' of Shaolin
- ABC documentary on
Shaolin Kung Fu
- Martial Arts -
- Chinese Martial
Arts - Morning Glory Press