site design by Simplify iT Innovations.

History of Kung Fu

Although evidence of Chinese martial arts dates back to the Neolithic Age (approximately 4000 years ago), physical inscriptions have been found dating back to the Shang dynasty (c. 1523-c. 1027 B.C.).

As the history of kung fu is so shrouded in legend, being initially passed from Master to student, it is often mixed with fable and has many varying and contradicting versions. The fact that human memory and each practitioner's personal interest in learning history has affected the accurately of records through the years also adds to the difficulty in accounting the past. The truth of history prior to written documentation may probably never be ascertained. Rather than attempt an impossible critique, the most accepted history will be recounted.

Undisputedly, the most famous kung fu icon is the Siu Lam (Shaolin) monastery, built on Mt. Sung in Honan province in approximately 495 A.D., by Emperor Hsiao Wen of the Northern Wei dynasty (A.D. 386-534). The term Shaolin translates to Young Tree, for only a young tree can survive the violence of wind and storm, because it bends and sways, whilst a 'tree that is unbending is easily broken'. This survival capacity is certainly true of this temple, which was destroyed and rebuilt many times during the sixteenth century. There existed many hidden corridors and tunnels that made it difficult to attack. The skills of the Shaolin priests became part of the mythic experience of ancient China.

The Shaolin Temple was first famed for its scholarly translations of Buddhist scripture and later became the home of Indian monk Bodhidharma (known to the Chinese as Putitamo), founder of Ch'an Buddhism and an enigmatic twenty-eighth Indian patriarch exalted by orthodox Ch'an tradition. Although it is highly questionable that Bodhidharma was responsible for even inchoate versions of kung fu, he has been accredited as being the first to introduce breathing and other physical exercises to the monastery. His book of exercises was not published until 1624 A.D., over one thousand years after his own death.

One of his many interests (and possibly his main contribution to the art), was the cultivation of intrinsic human energy known as Chi. Chi represents the vital body element, which can be energised through breathing techniques, producing stamina, endurance, power and well-being. Similar to how one can feel the wind, but not see it, and breathe the air, yet not see it, so too is Chi, although the feeling of its presence can be achieved.

Where does the Yin Yang symbol come from?Another famous Chinese icon is that of the Yin and Yang symbol that represents two interrelated forces. They both contradict and complement one another. Yang is said to represent things associated with male, strength, light, active etc, whereas Yin represents their opposites of female, weakness, darkness and quiet. Together, they are called Tao (pronounced Dow), which translates as the way or path. Tao can be seen at the head of the School's emblem.

There is often reference to five earthly elements or forces: metal, water, wood, fire and earth. Each element can produce or change another, ultimately recognising that energy can not be destroyed, only changes form (as later proven by Western science).

yytitleAfter the fall of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century, the Shaolin temple became part of a centre for revolutionary activities against the hated Manchu Emperors. Even the Shaolin greeting, a bow used by many kung fu schools today, had a symbolic and political meaning (the open left hand is placed over the right fist). The open left hand signifies the moon, whilst the clenched fist denotes the sun. In Chinese, these characters represent Ming.

In 1729, the Manchu Emperor passed a decree that prohibited the teaching of kung fu, based on his fear of martial arts prowess being used against the army, but the Shaolin priests did not obey and continued practicing their forms and techniques in the dim light of the early morning hours. At first, the Emperor decided to move indirectly against the monastery and said that he had heard about the Shaolin temple’s sad condition and that it was badly in need of repair. In 1735 the Governor of Honan received a command to demolish and reconstruct the temple. The organic structure of the temple made it difficult to control; thus the Emperor consolidated old buildings around the temple when he had the monastery rebuilt. Nevertheless, a number of secret passages remained, providing an advantage over any potential Manchu attack.

The Emperor finally decided to move directly to destroy the temple, but the army could not breach the monk's defences. Eventually the temple did fall, but only through a traitor Shaolin monk turned renegade called Ma Ling Er. Legend has it that during an accident, Ma Ling Er damaged an ancient lamp while cleaning it. Although he was given the regular, but severe, monastic disciplinary measure for his carelessness, he felt that the punishment was unjust. His resentment festered into hatred and he left the temple and joined the Manchu army, offering his services to a high-ranking official named Chan Man Wai. After devolving the secret plans of the Shaolin complex and its fighting techniques, Chan Man Wai succeeded in razing the Shaolin monastery about the year 1768.

According to tradition, there were only five survivors, often referred to as the Venerable Five or Five Elders of Shaolin. They were Buddhist Abbess Ng Mui, Abbot Gee Sin (Chi Shin), Abbot Pak Mee (Pak Mei), Master Fung Do Tak (Fung To Tak) and Master Miao Hin (Miu Hin).

As the traitor, Ma Ling Er, had passed the techniques of the Shaolin martial arts to the Manchu army, there was a need for each survivor to develop new techniques. Each of the Five already had a specialty; Maio Him excelled with knives, Gee Sin with sticks and the Buddhist nun, Ng Mui possessed the greatest boxing skills. With the Manchu close on their path, the five scattered and went their own ways. One settled on a mountain in Szechwan, another established a Shaolin temple in Fukien, a third lived on Wudang Mountain, a fourth on Mt. Tai Leung, while the other led a peripatetic existence.

Later, fighting techniques patterned after animal forms eventually became a basic part of monastic discipline training. There existed 5 main animal forms, each designed to develop a different essence: the dragon (spirit), the tiger (bones), the leopard (power), the snake (breath), the crane (energy).

As systems has been passed through the generations, new techniques and movements were added, often influenced by the particular individual's ideas, physical build, strengths, beliefs and attitudes, as well as environmental and societal differences. As a result, there exist today main variations on single systems carrying the same name.


Related information: