While there is a tradition of martial arts in China dating back to at least 2,674 BCE, for many, modern day Kung Fu began when an Indian monk known as Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province around 527 CE.
He came to spread the concept of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and noticed that though learned, many of the monks were physically unfit. In a bid to help with this, he introduced a series of exercises to them through two books, the Yin Gin Ching and the Shi Sui Ching.
While it is uncertain how much of the Bodhidharma story is real and how much are legend, it is true that people did travel between India and China. The journey would have been dangerous so many rich merchants and monks would have hired bodyguards or learned to fight to protect themselves from wild animals and bandits.
Over time, these fighting monks adapted the moves taught by Bodhidharma into early versions of Chinese martial arts techniques that developed through the early history of the Shaolin into rudimentary forms of Kung Fu.
As their fighting prowess grew, their skills began to be called upon by leading political figures to take action in times of war. One famous example of this happened sometime in the 7th century when Emperor T’ai Tsung asked the Shaolin monks to aid him in retrieving his son, who had been kidnapped by his enemy General Wang-Shih-Chung.
Legend has it that the temple sent 13 monks, who aided the emperor’s army in defeating the rebellious general and in rescuing his son; as a reward they were given 600 acres of land and their main temple in Henan was given the title Number One Temple.
Over the years, the monks allied with other leaders involved in conflicts but were not always on the winning side which sometimes led to them seeking refuge in other areas. As they did so, they took their religious and martial arts teaching with them and many other temples became a part of the Shaolin sect, most notably; The Fukien Temple. The Kwangtung Temple. The Wu-Tang Temple. The O Mei Shan Temple.
The temples were, in many regards, like universities and students would have to learn many subjects in order to graduate such as religion, philosophy, medicine and of course martial arts.
Geological Factors – Many different styles of fighting have evolved in China and exactly how this happened was often dependent on geological factors. In the South it is often wet and muddy which has given over to greater emphasis on hand to hand combat and in crowded areas such as the seaports, grappling techniques are more common. In the north, it is dryer and tends to be more open so longer range techniques such as jumping kicks prospered, though this is very general and there is a large amount of overlap.
Chueh Yuan & Pai Yu-Feng – At the beginning of the 10th century, the history of Shaolin Kung Fu saw important developments when a young monk by the name of Chueh Yuan reformed the martial arts being practiced there when he created the 72 Movements. They focused on both internal and external fitness and once devised, Chueh Yuan began a journey to teach his new style and to learn from others.
While on his travels, Chueh Yuan met a master named Pai Yu-Feng who was knowledgeable in the body’s pressure points; the two teamed up and combined their knowledge to create 170 exercises that became the basis of modern Shaolin Kung Fu.
This also began a tradition of monks leaving the temple to learn from outsiders once they attained a certain level of mastery in the martial arts. This was done so that they could bring back new skills and teachings when they returned to the temple to which they belonged.
Chang Sanfeng – In 1417, a monk connected to the Wu-Tang temple by the name of Chang Sanfeng is believed by some to have developed a style that was more reminiscent of the Taoist philosophies of a bygone era. It focused on internal energy and harmony and was inspired, so the legend goes, when he watched a fight between a snake and a bird.
It is hard to know how much of this story is true and how much fabricated later, but it seems a system was developed at the time that would evolve into modern day Tai Chi Chuan (Mind Fist).
The 5 animal styles
Another major development that came out of the Shaolin Temple happened in the 16th century when Zhue Yuen, Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng developed the Five Animal Styles.
These new systems combined the hard and soft aspects of Chinese martial arts and were not only fighting techniques but showed ways to handle situations in everyday life. They were devised to represent different aspects of human development through metaphor, they were; Tiger – To developed tough bones. Leopard – To build strength. Snake – To develop internal energy (chi). Dragon – To cultivate spirit. Crane – To strengthen the sinews
The end of an era
Shaolin Kung Fu styles continued to develop and be handed down from one generation of monks to the next until in 1644, China saw a regime change. After almost 300 years of rule, the Ming Dynasty was overthrown by the Ching (Qing) Dynasty, who did not favor the monks of the Shaolin or their teachings.
A short time later, they destroyed the temple in the Henan Province killing most of the monks in the process, however a few grandmasters did survive. They went into hiding and some found students to pass on their Kung Fu knowledge to.
This now had to be done in secret and from these masters, several new styles emerged that would form the basis of the main types of martial arts practiced in China today. According to Kung Fu legend they included; Bok Fu. Pak Mei. Wing Chun. Hung Gar.
Shaolin in the modern era
During the nineteenth century, the monks of the shaolin were accused of violating their monastic vows by eating meat, drinking alcohol and even hiring prostitutes. Many saw vegetarianisms as impractical for warriors, which is probably why government officials sought to impose it upon Shaolin’s fighting monks.
The temple’s reputation received a serious blow during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 when Shaolin monks were implicated — probably incorrectly — in teaching the Boxers martial arts. Again in 1912, when China’s last imperial dynasty fell due to its weak position compared with intrusive European powers, the country fell into chaos, which ended only with the victory of the Communists under Mado Zedong in 1949.
Meanwhile, in 1928, the warlord Shi Yousan burned down 90% of the Shaolin Temple, and much of it would not be rebuilt for 60 to 80 years. The country eventually came under Chairman Mao’s rule, and monastic Shaolin monks fell from cultural relevance.
Shaolin under communist rule
At first, Mao’s government did not bother with what was left of Shaolin. However, in accordance with Marxist doctrine, the new government was officially atheist.
In 1966, the cultural revolution broke out and Buddhist temples were one of the Red Guards’ primary targets. The few remaining Shaolin monks were flogged through the streets and then jailed, and Shaolin’s texts, paintings, and other treasures were stolen or destroyed.
This might have finally been the end of Shaolin, if not for the 1982 film “Shaolin Shi” or “Shaolin Temple,” featuring the debut of Jet Li (Li Lianjie). The movie was based very loosely on the story of the monks’ aid to Li Shimin and became a huge smash hit in China.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, tourism exploded at Shaolin, reaching more than a million people per year by the end of the 1990s. Shaolin’s monks are now among the best known on earth, and they put on martial arts displays in world capitals with literally thousands of films having been made about their exploits. If you ever get chance to attend one of these shows, do so, as they’re spectacular to say the least.