There are few historical entries that fuel as much debate, confusion and acrimony as the nature of the reality of Shaolin. We have heard distinguished university professors categorically deny the existence of Shaolin, and that only authenticated accounts by the communist Chinese government are to be trusted; or that the temples are fictitious, based on stories in old novels.

The following accounts are taken from sources who:

  1. Practiced the specific styles to Master Level from the supposed temples,
  2. Learned their arts at those temples before the temples were destroyed, or
  3. Were taught by practitioners from the temples.

The Masters have declined to be named for the reasons that:

  1. They do not wish to engage in controversy,
  2. They have assumed new names after leaving China, because as refugees, did not want their families to suffer for their actions.

The Shaolin order dates to around A.D.540, when an Indian priest, Boddhidharma (Tamo in Chinese) travelled to China to see the Emperor. At the time, the Emperor had started local Buddhist monks translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, with the intention of allowing the general populous the ability to practice the religion. This was a noble project, but when the Emperor believed this was the path to Nirvana, Tamo disagreed. Tamo believed you could not achieve your goals just through worthy actions performed on your behalf by others. At this point, Emperor and Tamo parted ways and Tamo travelled to a nearby Buddhist temple to meet with the monks. The temple had been built years before in a forest remains, the Emperors gardeners had planted young trees and thus the temple had been named “Young or New Forest”, Shaolin in Mandarin, Sil Lum in Cantonese.

Arriving at the temple, Tamo was refused admittance, perceived as a meddler by Fang Chang, head abbot. Rejected by the monks, Tamo meditated in a nearby cave until his religious prowess was recognized by the monks. Legend has it that Tamo bore a hole through one side of the cave with his constant gaze. In fact, the accomplishment that earned him his recognition is lost in history.

When Tamo joined the monks, their physical condition was poor. Most of their routine paralleled that of Irish monks of the middle ages, who spent hours a day hunched over tables where they transcribed hand written text. The Shaolin monks lacked the physical and mental stamina to complete even the most basic of Buddhist meditation. Tamo countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises designed to assist the flow of Ch’i and build strength.

The sets, modified from Indian Hatha and Raja Yoga, were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Chinese Indo Chinese iconography (e.g. tiger, dragon, crane, monkey, leopard, snake, deer, etc.) and were to the beginnings of Shaolin Gung Fu.

The secluded location of the Shaolin Temple meant it was vulnerable to attack from bandits or wild animals. Although it is believed the martial art side of the temple was derived in order to fulfill self defence needs, the movements were later codified into a complete self defence system. In time, the Buddhist sect became more distinctive as a result of martial art. It is not to say that Tamo invented martial art, for these had existed in China for thousands of years, however, within the temple confines, it was possible to develop the martial art into a distinctively Shaolin style. One of the problems facing many Western historians is the supposed contradiction of Buddhist principles on non-violence. In fact, the Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she dispatch the most devastating defences in any situation. The study of Gung Fu leads to a greater understanding of violence, and how to avoid conflict. The Gung Fu expert may choose to parry an attack, but if an assistant is both skilled and determined to cause harm, a more definitive solution may be required, from a joint lock to knockout or even death. The more violent an assault, the greater the return of the attack on the attacker. Therefore the individual is not perceived as hurting anyone, simply refusing delivery of the intended harm.

The Shaolin philosophy is one that started from Buddhism and later adopted many Taoist principles to become a new sect. Thus, even though a temple may have been Taoist or Buddhist at first, once it became Shaolin, it was a member of a new order, an amalgamation of the prevailing Chinese philosophies at the time.

Other temples sprung from Honan, due to the original temple suffering from repeated attacks and inactivity as the reigning imperial and regional leaders feared the martial powers of the not always aligned monks. Refugee Shaolin practitioners would leave the temple to teach privately in Pai or other Taoist temples, in rare cases, a new Shaolin temple would be erected (Fukien, Kwangtung) or converted from a pre-existing temples (Wu-Tang O Mei Shan). Politically and militarily involved monks such as the legendary White Eyebrow and Hung Tze Kwan would be sources of trouble for the temporarily aloof monks.

In 1901 boxer rebellion was the beginning of the end for the Shaolin temples. Prior to that, China had been occupied by Western and Japanese governments and business interests. The British had the imperial family into a puppet regime through sale and import of Opium and general drug devastation inflicted upon the poor population. This lead to the advance of other powers including USA, Russia, Holland and France. By the 1800’s, China was divided into national zones controlled by outside powers and likened to post World War 2 Berlin, but on a much greater scale. Long standing animosities between China and Japan worsened and extended to all ‘foreign devils.’ Coupled with disdain by the Chinese for their Empress, a Nationalist movement with nationwide grass roots was born. Among the front-line soldiers were many near-legendary Shaolin martial artists known as Boxers (in many of his films depicting these times, Bruce Lee referred to himself as a Chinese Boxer).

Although initial assaults on the government were unsuccessful, temporary defeat lead to a modern reformation that included adopting modern military weapons and tactics. Withdrawal of western forces was prolonged over many years. By the end of World War 1, China was in a state of near feudal civil war. Not only were national troops fighting loyalists, but both were fighting the Japanese who still held Northern Manchurian China. By 1931, virtually all non-Asian occupants had been successfully driven out (with the exception of The Flying Tigers, volunteer American airmen who assisted in repelling Japanese forces prior to WW2). Both sides displayed the typical jingoistic attitude, if you aren’t with us, then you’re against us. Neutrality meant only the possibility of a later enemy. Consequently, Shaolin and other monks were routinely murdered by soldiers from both sides.

One result of this program of murder was the exodus of many monks into the hills, or abroad, with the hope that Shaolin knowledge might survive even if the temples themselves did not. The temples were unfortunate victims of war in a land that abandoned its historical practices of respecting posterity and ancestors. All were ransacked and looted by various armed groups. O Mei Shan temple in Szechuan province, was situated on a mountain top and deemed by Chinese officers as a fitting target for artillery practice. It was shelled by Nationalist and Communist forces. This one time site of medical and natural history, was rebuilt by the communists in the mid 1970’s and now stands as the National Park and Research centre for Panda preservation.

Various stories have come out of China referring to the history of Shaolin, particularly over the past 300 years. Many are suspect, with the more commonly “authenticated” accounts versions apparently coming from Government sources, suspect. The prevalent Wu-Shu styles originated as a result of compromise between post WW2 governments and the national need and history of having a martial arts tradition. Wu-Shu however, was not designed as a martial art and, claims to the contrary, date back only a decade or so, following on the popularity of Kung-Fu.

Dragon Style

Long before St. George and his legendary beast, the dragon played an influential and beneficial part of Chinese culture. An amalgam of several creatures including monitor lizards, pythons and Chinese alligator, the polymorphic dragon was a water spirit, responsible for bringing rain, thus ensuring crop survival. The dragon was a symbolic guardian to the gods (and a source of true wisdom). This latter feature most likely derived from the observations of living reptilian counterparts who when at rest, appear to be in a near constant state of contemplation.

The dragon represented two of the ancient elements, earth and water. A Yang symbol, the Taoist saw the dragon as a personification of the Tao itself. “The dragon reveals himself only to vanish.” Shaolin Buddhists saw him as a vision of enlightened truth, to be felt, but never to be held. Certain very old men were called dragons, these being well versed in life-supporting skills of herbal medicine, agriculture and Gung Fu. In early China, these skills were a matter of life and death, and those educated in these areas were held in high esteem.

The original stretching and twisting movements associated with (Lung Chuan) dragon, were part of Boddidharmas exercises. The true emergence of a martial discipline can be traced to about A.D.1565, but its origins are somewhat uncertain. One suggestion is that the Shaolin nun, Wu Mui created the style using moves of deception and melding with an opponent. The other credits monk Mui Fa San Yong, with contemplating his Gung Fu training and daydreaming about countermoves, when he became inspired by the twisting movements of the dragon. The Yow Keung Moon style was advanced by Yang’s Abbott, Tit Yang sum Si. Both stories place Dragon origin at Honan Shaolin Temple.

Dragon Gung Fu has evolved into two distinct styles, Southern (1565) and Northern (1680) and consist of non-temple variations, which in essence are incomplete instructions taken from Shaolin and moulded into family variations. Dragon is essentially an internal Ch’i cultivating method, but initial training is more similar to a hard, eternal style rather than a soft reptilian approach. Students will strike hard, block hard and stomp into position, with the idea of learning the proper place to be when each move is complete. Eventually, the method of transmitting power is retained and the physically strengthened body is able to make transitions in the correct manner. Blocking is dispensed with and replaced by parries and simple strikes. At this point, novice and advanced students show very little in common. On the highest level, the opponent is allowed to tire himself out, evasion becoming the dragons key defence. Ch’i control is highly developed and the degree to which the body must be allowed to redirect or avoid impact is under greater control.

Tiger Style

The tiger plays a great role in Chinese history and mythology, so it is only fitting that the beast should be chosen as one from which to develop a fighting art. Ferocity, wisdom and tenacity are the creatures main attributes, and those studied by Gung Fu practitioners.

Tiger dates back to the time of Dr Hua T’o and constituted some of the original Gung Fu exercises taught for health, as fighting art, it traces to Burma and the ancient methods of Bandasilat. Among the Shaolin, tiger was a necessity for study because it encompassed all aspects of armed and unarmed combat. For the most part, tiger utilizes a hard, external approach to combat that meets force with force and is very likely to maim or kill an opponent because of the nature of the counter attack. Its primary hand weapons are the closed fist and the tigers claw, while kicking manoeuvres are usually low to middle range with great power. One studies tiger to develop bones, muscle and tendons. The emphasis, as befits the beast, is on strength and dynamic tension, culminated in short hard snappy moves. As in all styles of Gung Fu, one becomes the animal. The Tiger family, although a low system, encompasses a number of sub family systems that are incorporated within San Chia Chuan, they include:

Tiger, Crab, Leopard, Monkey and Drunken

In Tiger, we encounter the concept of time and system – that is, which system is best suited for when. For example, monkey and leopard are useful at night when the blinding hand and foot movements are invisible. Movement is accomplished far faster than the eye can compensate for in reduced light.

Tiger is useful during daylight but is difficult on wet ground. Tiger itself is best suited to shorter more muscular. Applying Tigers Claw is likened to that of grabbing a bag of ball bearings. All fingertips strike first, then the Claw grabs so that the area between the fingertips and first knuckle break the target. Ch’i projection will allow you to explode a target by putting masses of energy into five small areas.

Crane Style

This is a Tibetan style in origin. The legend of its beginnings is with an old man who would contemplate daily near a pond. One day he was observing a beautiful white stork, when out of the forest came a gorilla. He feared that the ape would destroy the bird, but was amazed by the bird’s action. One day, two armed robbers attacked him, and without thinking, he defeated them both. When he meditated on his actions, he realized he had mimicked the movements of the crane. He then set about studying and preserving the knowledge, which today is called the White Crane System. Major characteristics of this system include wide armed, wing like movements, high kicking, and the cranes beak, a hand weapon made by joining the fingertips firmly. While in traditional form, the white crane system is rather impractical for modern use, it has undergone a number of modifications throughout the centuries, and is today, one of the major, revered schools. White crane is probably the oldest “classical” style aside from snake, and in the repertoire of Shaolin Chuan.

White crane follows a direct linear path from Lamaistic origins, dispersal through Boddidharma and finally the Shaolin temples. Crane is generally regarded as an internal system, though initial training is extremely demanding. Although difficult to learn because of these physical demands, it is in a fact highly effective combat system, once the method of the Emperor of China’s bodyguards. There are only six original forms although modern schools have devised numerous variations.

The white crane is one of several birds related to storks found in Southern Asia. All are tall, long necked, long legged birds that are quite frail in appearance. The beak is long, pointed and strong and is used as a defensive weapon. However the morphology of these birds is not such that a stand and fight strategy would be practical against most potential predators, so an evasiveness developed, to remove the body from the line of direct assault. Wings are used to parry incoming force or act as weapons when opened quickly, while long talons are also effective for defence. The Gung Fu practitioner following this school, uses two basic hand techniques, the cranes beak, formed by contacting all four fingers and the thumb together to enable pinpoint striking, and the cranes wing, a finger rake. The Sun Punch is also employed, used by beginners more often than by Masters. As the defender physically evades an assault, the torso turns with force, which accelerates the force of the strike, making even minor contacts painful to the antagonist. Cranes wing parries use the whole of the body of the opponent. Properly executed, these parries shift the point off balance, forcing him to open up a vulnerable target area. Frequently they are executed with enough force to double as a palm or backhand strike whilst parrying. From an interception with the arms may come many throws (Ch’in Na), pushing or warding off or back, which uproot the opponent and hurl him forcefully backwards, or a direct counterstrike.

Footwork in white crane is legendary, with targets being anything from head to groin. Bottom of the foot kicks are effective as are those generated at close range with great speed. Evasion is the primary goal, to allow the opponent to tire, perhaps withdraw, or at worse, open up for a minimal, decisive counter. Traditional white crane is highly dependent on long range strikes.