History of Kung Fu

A small glimpse at the rich history of Kung Fu
History of Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu is probably one of the best known martial arts styles in existence today. Overall, it is known for improving strength, agility, and overall health. Its story begins in the temple from which it takes its name. According to Shaolin tradition, it has its roots about 1500 years ago. A Buddhist teacher named Ta Mo (also known as Bodhidharma or Daruma) arrived from India in the early sixth century, and was admitted to the first Shaolin temple in Northern China. He had a problem, however, with the monks there falling asleep during his lectures. He introduced them to the 49 postures of the I Chin Ching to assist them in staying awake during meditation. These postures, believed by some to be descended from Hatha Yoga, were one of the first forms of Shaolin training.

Over the years, this training was encouraged to continue and develop, since the remote and relatively prosperous temples made an appealing target for bandits. It was also very useful for the traveling monks who gathered donations to have some martial skill, and they would frequently both teach their styles to and learn new styles from the people they encountered in their journey. Those who were not monks, but were considered worthy, could also learn kung fu in the temples, then go back to their ordinary lives. They would often continue to train and develop the styles they had learned. This is a large part of how Shaolin Kung Fu came to be so diverse, and why so many fighting styles are descended from it.

Due to some of the turbulent periods in Chinese history, some of this diversity is lost to contemporary martial arts students. The original Shaolin temple was burned three times throughout its history, once in the late 6th or early 7th century A.D., once in 1677, and again during Chiang Kai Shek's northern expedition. Many Shaolin masters also fled the country when China's communist party gained control of the government. Mao Tse Tung's cultural revolution in 1966 was responsible for the destruction of much of whatever martial traditions remained in China. As a result, Chinese martial arts masters moved to Chinese communities in other nations, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Indonesia. Now these masters and their students have spread Shaolin Kung Fu over much of the world, including the United States.

The Shaolin training of today includes a broad variety of styles, such as hand of the enlightened one, northern fist, southern fist, eight drunken immortals, bird style, monkey style, tiger style, crane style, mantis style, eagle claw, various styles of Tai Chi, Bagua, Hsing I, and the eighteen classical weapons, among other styles. In addition, within each style there are often further variations and divisions. For example, some variations in monkey style are monkey fist, white monkey, stone monkey, and ground monkey. Each style that is part of Shaolin Kung Fu has special characteristics of its own, and emphasizes different aspects of the Shaolin style. Keeping in mind that each style has greater depth and versatility than a brief note can describe, here are highlights of a few:

Hand of the enlightened one (Lohan Shou) is considered to be the original Shaolin fighting style. It includes empty hand combat, strikes, kicks, blocks, and sweeps.

Northern fist (Pei Chuan) is the style for which the northern Shaolin temples were best known. It developed from Lohan Shou, and includes many basic blocks, kicks, and punches. Since its original practitioners were built a little larger, Northern fist is known for adding techniques that emphasize power and range.

Southern fist (Nan Chuan) is the basic style which developed in the southern Shaolin temples. In addition to its basic techniques, since its original practitioners were a little smaller, it is known for using lots of high kicks, joint attacks, and movements that look big and flashy (while still being effective).

Eight drunken immortals (Pa Hsien) or drunken style has forms based on each of the Eight Immortals from Chinese mythology, as well as other forms and weapons forms. It uses staggering, stumbling, and imitations of drunken movements. Its training emphasizes flexibility, dexterity, and careful timing.

Monkey style (Hou Chuan) is known for its playfulness and cleverness. This style develops flexibility, agility, and an unpredictable fighting style. It often incorporates rolls, flips, and a broken rhythm when fighting that is aimed at confusing opponents. Monkey style is a precursor to mantis style, which uses some similar footwork.

Mantis style (Tang Lang) was developed by a man named Wang Lang. Legend has it that, after being denied entrance to the Shaolin temple, he created his own style based on observing the movements of the predatory insect. After combining similar movements with Monkey style footwork, he became skilled enough to gain the respect of the temple, and his style has been passed down to Shaolin martial artists ever since. Mantis style typically uses quick, oblique movements and precision strikes.

Bird style is one of the older styles that is still in practice. It uses many open handed strikes and finger strikes, as well as some joint attacks and tearing claws. It is especially noteworthy because it is the precursor to a number of other styles, such as crane, swallow, eagle claw, and Tai Chi.

Tiger style (Hu Chuan) is also a very old style. It typically uses claw shaped hands for palm strikes, tearing, and joint manipulations. It is known for emphasizing powerful, snapping movements, and is supposed to help strengthen the bones.

Crane style (He Chuan) is based on the graceful, powerful movements of a large bird. Like bird style, it often uses open hand and finger strikes. It is characterized by soft style blocking and big sweeps followed with quick, powerful strikes that remain very graceful and fluid.

Tai Chi is one of the internal arts that is included in the Shaolin fighting system. It is sometimes known as "meditation in motion", and includes a great variety of different forms. Generally Tai Chi training emphasizes control and sensitivity. Because of this, it can be practiced until a much later age than many martial arts styles. However, when taught properly its principals can not only improve health, but also have very devastating martial application.

Because of its great variety, it can be difficult to precisely define Shaolin Kung Fu stylistically. Depending on which styles one chooses to pursue, it can be soft or hard, internal or external, or any combination. The styles that exist today can be rooted in Buddhism, Taoism, or family styles that were incorporated into the temple. This is because the original training areas in the temples were not only a place for creating styles but also a place for gathering, trading, and learning martial arts. The Chinese Shaolin Centers, under the guidence of Grandmaster Sin Kwang Thé, continue to teach this ancient art to students in the United States.