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A History and Style Guide of Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu Introduction


Before we begin talking about the history of Shaolin Kung Fu, we should note what the term kung fu means in China. You see, despite popular opinion, it's really a term that refers to any individual accomplishment or refined skill that is achieved after hard work. So for example, if you really work hard to drop a sparring partner with a spinning back kick, that's kung fu.

Seriously, though. Despite its specific definition in China, the term is widely used to describe a significant portion of the Chinese martial arts. Therefore, when we speak about Shaolin Kung Fu, we're really talking about the Chinese martial arts styles that started with and continue to be tied to the Shaolin monks and monastery.

The Shaolin Temple

It is believed that a Buddhist monk from India named Buddhabhadra, or Ba Tuo in Chinese, came to China during the Northern Wei Dynasty period in 495 A.D. There he met Emperor Xiaowen and gained his favor. Though Ba Tuo turned down the emperor's offer to teach Buddhism at the court, he was still given land to build a temple on. This land was located at Mt. Song. And that's exactly where he built Shaolin, which translates to "small forest."

The Early History of Shaolin Kung Fu

During the years between 58-76 A.D., Indian and Chinese relations began to grow. In accordance with this, the concept of Buddhism became more popular in China as monks were sent to and fro between India and China. An Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma may have played a significant role in the development of the Chinese martial arts. You see, it is believed by that he eventually preached to the monks at the newly formed Shaolin Temple in China (see 'The Shaolin Temple' above for when this was built). While there, it appears that he may have actually taught the monks martial arts movements, which served as the basis of Chinese and therefore Shaolin Kung Fu. Though Bodhidharma's role in martial arts history is disputed, the fact remains that after his legendary arrival the monks became famous martial arts practitioners that worked extremely hard at their style of fighting.

Famous Use of Shaolin Kung Fu In History

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) saw thirteen warrior monks help the Tang emperor rescue his son, Li Shimin, from an army of soldiers looking to overthrow the ruling party. When Li Shimin was eventually named emperor, he called Shaolin the "Supreme Temple" in China and fostered learning exchanges between the imperial court, armies, and the Shaolin monks as a result.

Destruction Of Shaolin Temple and Its Effect On Shaolin Kung Fu

Qing rulers had the Shaolin Temple burned to the ground due to the Ming loyalists residing there. Along with this, as seems to be the case with nearly all historical martial arts texts in Asia from that general time period, a lot of history and treasures were lost. Further, the practice of Shaolin Kung Fu was deemed illegal.

The effect of this was interesting, however, because it caused monks to disperse amongst the world. And when the art was again allowed to be practiced and made its comeback, though valuable historical texts were lost, the mingling with other martial arts styles may have, in some cases, added to the style.

Shaolin Kung Fu Today

Shaolin Kung Fu is practiced by the monks today. In fact, they have become world famous entertainers, as their art is beautiful to watch. Interestingly, as the Shaolin style has morphed and taken on many different substyles/names, many believe that its hardcore self-defense core has lost out, to an extent, to the more showy styles like Wushu.

Many believe that the original kung fu devised by the monks was much more powerful, though perhaps less aesthetically pleasing, than the majority of Shaolin Kung Fu practiced today.

The 72 Shaolin Martial Arts Training Methods

Despite a change toward the more theatrical, in 1934 Jin Jing Zhong published a book entitled Shaolin 72 Shaolin Arts Practice Method or Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin. Zhong lists, by his own account, only authentic Shaolin training methods in this book. In other words, those designed for more self-defense oriented practice. In fact, the work professes that learning the methods can produce extraordinary abilities, and that he learned the skills from a scroll given to him by Shaolin Abbot Miao Xing.

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