Shaolin kung fu is one of the most renowned martial arts to emerge from China. The fearsome reputation the Shaolin fighting monks carved out during China's turbulent history of violent wars and conflict have touched millions of people across the globe.
Song Shan Mountain
Real Wushu Scholar visited Dengfeng in Henan province, the nearest town to the Shaolin Temple at Song Shan mountain, in 2004 and 2005 to find out more about the martial arts practiced in and around the Shaolin temple. This is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Shaolin kung fu who wants to find out more about the martial arts practiced today in Shaolin, and throughout you can view the unique videos, images and articles we recorded during these trips.
Read on to find out more about:
- The hundreds of Shaolin kung fu styles, with in-depth analysis
- Advanced internal cultivation methods
- The rigorous training regime of the monks
- How you can arrange a Shaolin training course in China
In and around Shaolin today
Enter Dengfeng by road and you will be overwhelmed by the sight of school after school lining the side of the road, housing thousands of students and all teaching a Shaolin branded form of wushu. The draw of the Shaolin name is huge, especially within China, and there are hundreds of wushu schools all providing a dream for young Chinese children - to be the next Jet Li or Zhang Ziyi.
The original Shaolin Temple was left derelict after it was proscribed during the cultural revolution, but enjoyed a revival after the 1979 movie Shaolin Temple was released in 1978. Many of the former monks, expelled in the 1950's, were invited back to Shaolin to teach and reinstate its heritage.
Now, despite a failed UNESCO World Heritage bid, the current custodians have succeeded in removing the multitude of wushu schools from around the temple walls and partially reversing the trend for base exploitation of the Shaolin brand. Martial arts are no longer taught inside the temple grounds and the wushu schools relocated to nearby Dengfeng or Zhengzhou.
Da Fa Wang Temple
Our research into Shaolin kung fu took us to a sister temple of Shaolin at the base of Song Shan mountain, where the only surviving 'fighting monks' reside. In the Da Fa Wang temple, the 2nd oldest Buddhist temple in China, a number of young monks live in the temple and train in Shaolin kung fu. The temple has been in restoration since 1978 and plays a threefold role - as a Buddhist temple, a traditional kung fu school and a growing tourist attraction.
Foundation training, flexibility and strength
Crawling down stairs
A fighting monk's foundation training at Da Fa Wang is strict and demanding. Well before dawn, the young monks start their gruelling morning exercises by running, crawling and hopping up and down a mountain path. After this, they continue with other stationary exercises like sit-ups, knuckle bounces and, interestingly, tree-hugging. No, this isn't a strange religious ritual - traditionally, a monk would start begin his training against a small sapling, every day hugging it and trying to lift it from the ground. After many years, the child and the tree would mature and the core body strength of the monk would be immense.
The monks return to the temple grounds after an hour of this exercise and split into two groups. Junior students are coached by a senior monk, drilling through basic punching and kicking movements, while senior students (more than 1 or 2 years training) will be taught by the head fighting monk, and will focus on more advanced movements and patterns.
Both groups pay attention to flexibility. Flexibility is a key feature of Shaolin kung fu, and both groups of students stretch extensively to achieve this suppleness. Although much of it is concentrated on the legs and hips, back and shoulder flexibility is just as important. In Shaolin patterns, the head is held upright and the back kept straight, allowing the hands and arms to complete the fast and wide attacking movements. It is essential for the monks that they do not have a hunched back or tight shoulders to be able to achieve this.
After two hours of this gruelling exercise, the monks break for the first meal of the day. Later on they will reconvene for a few hours of similar training and in the evening, senior students are granted further tuition from the head monks.
Shaolin is often thought of as an external style, but the little known side of the art is its internal cultivation and fighting methods.
There are three elements to the internal aspect of Shaolin. The Yi Jing Jing (Sinew Metamorphosis Classic), the Ba Duan Jing (Bone Marrow Washing Classic), and seated Buddhist meditation. Handed down through the generations from the founders of the Shaolin temple, the Yi Jing Jing and Ba Duan Jing were both said to have originated with Da Mo, who created these movements to rejuvenate and strengthen his tired students. Buddhist meditation is part of daily temple life and this is what distinguishes these temple monks from the lay stylists who practise a few miles away in the town.
We were lucky enough to see an internal fighting pattern performed by a senior monk of the Da Fa Wang temple. The pattern is characteristic of internal styles - slow and smooth movements, gradually building to explosive releases of energy - but not typically associated with Shaolin.
Shaolin Qi gong methods fall into two categories - healthy qi gong (like the Yi Jing Jing and Ba Duan Jing methods) or hard qi gong. Hard qi gong is used to develop power and internal vigour. As one of the monks explained to us, Shaolin practitioners us hard qi gong in their patterns to develop power and also to give them courage and strength, a deciding factor against an opponent.
Shaolin patterns, fighting drills, fundamental movements and Qin Na
Literally hundreds of patterns, routines and fighting drills make up the body of Shaolin martial arts. It is almost impossible for anyone to master them all, and many of the senior monks will specialise and focus on one particular branch of the Shaolin tree.
There are 72 Shaolin Major Arts - incorporating freehand patterns (such as the famous Luo Han Hands, Cannon Fist and Big/Little Hong patterns), two-person patterns, weapons, drunken styles, and animal styles. Supplementary to these are the hundreds of specific methods for cultivating a particular skill or technique. Not as long as patterns, they contain the most advanced skills of Shaolin kung fu such as light body techniques, iron body conditioning and soft bone skills.
Shaolin Hand Positions
The major hand positions are:
- Shaolin Palm
- Shaolin willow palm
- Shaolin V palm
- seven stars palm
- Eagle palm
- Hu Xin Fist (heart protection fist)
- seven stars fist
- long boxing fist
Stances in Shaolin are low to the floor and mobile. The principal stances are:
- Bow and arrow
- Creep step
- Resting step
- Seven stars step
Throughout history, the monks of the Shaolin temple lived in close harmony with their natural surroundings, and the monks, observing how animals used their movements for health or self-defense, incorporated some animal characteristics into their patterns. Animal styles are a traditional hallmark of the Shaolin style and there are a range of animal patterns practised by the monks, such as tiger, snake, crane, scorpion and monkey.
Shaolin has been known throughout history as one of the most devastating and effective martial styles in China. Proven time and time again during wars and conflicts, Shaolin monks regularly tested and improved their skills through conflict.
These skills are initially developed using two person fighting drills. Traditionally free-sparring was reserved for the most advanced students, due to the implicit danger involved. By using two person drills the monks could train their distancing and coordination, and learn how to give and receive blows.
Monks pushing hands
While many of the two person drills are designed to condition and toughen the practitioners, the monks also use pushing hands methods to develop their understanding of soft force. By practising this, they learn how a weak force can overcome a strong one. This image shows how the monks use their low stances to avoid losing their balance to their opponent.
Qin Na application
Qin Na, the art of joint locking and manipulation, features strongly in Shaolin martial arts. As with many other forms of kung fu, the use of carefully thought out body dynamics to twist and knot an opponent is present in most Shaolin patterns.
The main aim of Qin Na, as explained to us by the head coach Wang Hong Yin, is to move a joint against its natural flow of movement. It is referred to in Shaolin as 'one move to win' because if done properly it should utterly immobilise an opponent.