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The Origins of Shaolin (The Original Kung Fu)

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Read of to learn about Shaolin, its history, near-destruction, and rebirth.

Read of to learn about Shaolin, its history, near-destruction, and rebirth.

Around 480 BC, a wandering Buddhist teacher from India named Batuo (aka Buddhabhadra) arrived in China. He brought with him a fighting art known as Shaolin and established a monastery at holy Shaoshi Mountain where Buddhist monks could learn to master their bodies and mind.

Despite many threats to its existence, Shaolin has been kept alive throughout 1500 years of history and given birth to other forms of Kung Fu. A Chinese saying claims, "All martial arts under heaven originated from Shaolin".

Shaolin was originally intended to aid meditation.

Shaolin was originally intended to aid meditation.

The Purpose of Shaolin

Batuo believed that Buddhist teachings could be passed down from master to student without requiring the study of ancient texts.

But Buddhism promotes pacifism, so how could it give birth to a fighting form?

The answer lies in how Shaolin monks practice the art. They fight mostly in silence, using the forms to calm their mind and aid meditation. Shaolin was never intended for aggressive action but rather as a means of promoting stillness through graceful movement.

The Pagoda Forest is a cemetery for Buddhist monks at the Shaolin temple in Henan, China.

The Pagoda Forest is a cemetery for Buddhist monks at the Shaolin temple in Henan, China.

The Evolution of Shaolin

  • 496 AD: The Northern Wei Emperor Xiaowen hears of Batuo's wisdom and offers him a place in his palace. Batuo declines and asks instead for a plot of land far away from any human settlements, where he establishes the first monastery. Batuo then devises a series of movements and records them in two books: The Yin Gin Ching and the Shi Sui Ching.
  • 10th century: A rich young noble joins the Shaolin monastery, taking the name Chueh Yuan. He develops a technique known as "72 fists", which Shaolin Monks adopt and use to hone their fitness and skill. Chueh Yuan also establishes a tradition of Shaolin Monks leaving the temple to learn from outsiders.
  • 1417: A Taoist monk known as Zhang Sanfeng observes a fight between a snake and a bird. The bird flaps angrily at the snake, which remains calm and waits for its opportunity to strike. This inspires him to devise a style of Kung Fu that focuses on channelling inner energies and overcoming aggression with calm. This new form is known as Tai Chi.
  • 16th century: Three monks known as Zhue Yuen, Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng develop the five animal styles: Tiger, snake, dragon, panther and Crane.
As the fame of Shaolin monks spread, their skills were increasingly sought after by military commanders.

As the fame of Shaolin monks spread, their skills were increasingly sought after by military commanders.

Shaolin Monks as Soldiers

Although Shaolin was intended as a peaceful art form, it was inevitable that the skills of Shaolin Monks would draw the attention of Chinese emperors seeking to bolster their armies.

  • 618 AD: The House of Li overthrows the Sui government and establishes the Tang Dynasty, which favours the Shaolin monks and recruits them in a battle against the rebellious warlord Wang Shichong.
  • 7th century: Emperor T'ai Tsung requests the aid of the Shaolin monks in rescuing his kidnapped son. Thirteen champions are chosen by the temple to carry out the mission. They retrieve the emperor's son and help the army defeat the rebellious general. The emperor rewards the Shaolin temple with a grant of land and royal protection.
  • 1553–1555: The monks, famous for their staff fighting skills, assist the government in dealing with a series of raids by Japanese pirates.
  • 1620: A group of rebellious monks leave the monastery and form a mercenary organisation known as White Lotus, specialising in assassination
Buddhist statues were defaced during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which sought to eradicate all semblance of traditional Chinese culture.

Buddhist statues were defaced during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which sought to eradicate all semblance of traditional Chinese culture.

Attempts to Destroy Shaolin

The martial art has been preserved despite many attempts to destroy it throughout history. The temples were burnt down and the practice of the art forbidden by various regimes.

The First Burning of Shaolin (6th century BC)

Shaolin faces the first significant threat to its existence, as bandit raids destroy the monastery.

The temple is eventually rebuilt with the aid of the Tang Dynasty. The Shaolin monks learn from this experience and incorporate self-defense into their teachings. Over the centuries, several new temples are founded throughout China.

The Second Burning of Shaolin (18th century BC)

The Manchu-led Qing Dynasty overthrows the Ming Dynasty. The Shaolin monks attempt to remove themselves from politics but cannot ignore the needs of Ming loyalists seeking shelter at their temples.

The Shaolin temples become a focal point of resistance to the new rulers, but the Qing put an end to this when they destroy several temples with cannons, slaughtering their defenders. Surviving monks form secret resistance organisations known as "Triads".

The Third Burning of Shaolin (1927)

One of the few temples that survived the Qing Dynasty is destroyed during a civil war between rival warlords.

The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)

The communist government sets out to eradicate all semblance of traditional culture. Buddhist and Christian institutions are among the targets. Shaolin temples are destroyed, texts burnt, and monks arrested and flogged in the streets.

The Shaolin Monastery, Dengfeng county, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China.

The Shaolin Monastery, Dengfeng county, Zhengzhou, Henan province, China.

The Rebirth of Shaolin

During the 20th century, Shaolin experienced a renaissance thanks to its popularity in Western films. Shaolin temples became lucrative tourist attractions, and the government began to see Shaolin as an asset rather than a threat.

The Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province is a focal point of this resurgence. Boys and girls from all social classes flock to the temple to be trained in the ancient art.

Thus, Shaolin remains alive not just as a martial art but as a way of life.

References

Kallie Szczepanski. 20 April 2019. The Legend of Shaolin Monk Warriors. ThoughtCo.com

General Information. Yin Yang Chi Kung Fu: Martial Arts Research & Development Association.

Vibrant Dot Staff. 2 January 2019. Zhang Sanfeng (张三丰), Founder of Tai Chi: The Extraordinary Story of a Mysterious Hero. Vibrant Dot.

China's Kung Fu Revival. BBC.