History: Chinese fighting arts

The legend of Bodhidharma

Tradition has it that an Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma journeyed to China sometime in the 6th century AD to establish a school of Zen Buddhism. He crossed the Yangtze river and traveled to the Shaolin temple in Honan (also spelt Hunan or Henan) province, east-central China. Bodhidharma taught a new, physically strenuous form of Buddhism that involved long periods of static meditation. Upon discovering that many of the monks were too physically weak to endure this regime and believing that the body and mind were indivisible, he developed a series of breathing techniques and exercises to build up their strength and fortitude. The exact form of training he introduced is not known but being an Indian of royal descent (the third son of a Brahman King), he would have in all probability been taught an early Indian fighting art and furthermore he may have been familiar or even an expert in Yoga.

The fighting art of the Shaolin temple is thought to have evolved from this tradition.
Although there is a great deal of doubt about the accuracy of this legend, and little is known about the original Shaolin temple, there is no doubt that the fighting art of Shaolin eventually did spread throughout this part of China. A number of Buddhist temples and monasteries arose - many claiming to be the original temple that Bodhidharma came to after his long journey from India. As the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks became widely known, many came to join the monasteries in order to learn the martial arts.

The Shaolin temple

The Shaolin monks were first called upon to use their skills by the Emperor Li Shih-Min of the Tang dynasty (618 - 960 AD). The monks were sought out first for spiritual help and later for military assistance. Their successes in combat, often against numerically superior forces, brought them prestige and an increasing demand for their spiritual and technical knowledge. This in turn ensured that their secrets could no longer be contained within the walls of the monastery. The consequent simultaneous spread of Zen Buddhism and Kung-fu led to the proliferation of many different fighting styles.
In 1644 foreign invaders swept down from Manchuria in the north, overthrew the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1643) and established the Qing dynasty which lasted from 1644 -1912. To insure against rebellion the Manchus officially discouraged the practice of martial arts - a situation which was to last in China for almost 350 years. As a result Kung-fu remained largely unknown outside the Shaolin temples.

In 1674 128 monks went to the assistance of the first emperor of the Qing dynasty, Kang-Xi to oppose the threat of marauding tribes pressing in from the West. It is recorded that the monks were able to rout a force that had previously destroyed the emperor's best conventional troops. The Shaolins returned safely to their temple without the loss of a single monk.

Unfortunately, while grateful for the help the monks had given him, the emperor was persuaded that it was dangerous to tolerate the existence of a centre of independent people with such exceptional fighting skills. He sent an army to surround the main temple and burn it down. Some 110 monks were killed and 18 survived and escaped. Of those 18, only 5 are said to have survived the subsequent manhunt and these are known as the Five Ancestors - the legendary founders of the Triads, China's notorious secret societies. In fact, many more than five monks survived the attack and together with monks from other temples wishing to avoid death or imprisonment, they dispersed and many sought refuge in Southern China. Thus, a second group of Shaolin monasteries was established in the relative safety of the Fujian province.

These Shaolin temples became centres to recruit members for the purpose of revolution against the Qing Empire. These military men in disguise became monks in name only while plotting against their Manchu overlords. Thus there were two sects of people in the monasteries - those seeking salvation of the soul and loyalists seeking the restoration of the Ming Empire through training in the martial arts.
As perfection of martial arts now became mandatory in the Southern Shaolin temples, those seeking refuge in the monasteries paid a high price for their safety. It is popular legend that students had to pass several arduous tests in order to be allowed to leave. If the tests were not passed, the students remained, regardless of the number of years it took to pass the tests.

The tests are said to have consisted of: (1) theoretical knowledge; (2) actual competition with several colleagues; and (3) a final test of negotiating the temple hallway in which 108 mechanized wooden dummies were placed. These dummies were equipped with weapons which included clenched wooden fists, staffs, knives, spears, etc. The student who walked down the corridor was unaware that the boards he walked on triggered the dummies and it was quite possible that he would be confronted by three or more dummies at once. If a student successfully survived the trip down the corridor, the last and final test was to move a 200kg urn full of boiling oil, in order to allow him freedom through the last doorway. The manner in which he was instructed to move this urn was to hug it; thus branding his forearms with two symbols - one of a dragon and one of a tiger. This, then was the diploma of a Shaolin graduate of Southern China. Wherever he went, these symbols brought him respect and honour.

Legend has it that the third Manchu emperor Qeng Sung Wat was informed in the year 1736 by his intelligence gatherers that the Southern Chinese Shaolin temples were training and otherwise assisting the rebel Ming loyalists. He sent troops to surround and storm the monasteries with orders to kill or arrest all involved. Knowing their fate, the monks fought valiantly but all but a few perished and the temples were burned to the ground. Most of those that had escaped were from Shaolin monasteries that were forewarned of the attack and many of those sought refuge in the cities of the Fujian province of Southern China - usually with new identities. It is from these survivors and previous graduates of the Shaolin temples that a large proportion of the innumerable external Kung-fu and Karate styles are believed to have developed. This development was fueled by the Manchu government having not only outlawed the practice of Shaolin Kung-fu but then passing edict after edict to disarm the general populace. This of course had the effect of giving the people no recourse but to turn to the fighting styles of Kung-fu to resist their overlords.
Kung-fu rapidly and irreversibly became the fighting style of the common people of China and from 1750 on, figured heavily in revolts led in various parts of China by opposition forces. At one point after 1850, major cities such as Nanking and Shanghai were controlled by the pro-Ming (opposition) Triad organizations. The major fighting implement of these unarmed peasant armies was a knowledge of Kung-fu and the belief that their cause was just.

Northern and Southern Shaolin styles

The introduction of the Shaolin tradition into Southern China resulted in the gradual divergence of the art into two styles, the northern and southern. Most researchers believe that this is attributable to the difference in terrain and the physical characteristics of the people in the north and south.

The land to the north consists of wide open plains where the people are accustomed to walking and riding horses over great distances. The people of the north are relatively tall and long limbed and are therefore well suited to a long range type of fighting style. South China, on the other hand is largely marshland crosscut by waterways and as result is muddy and slippery. The people are generally shorter with strong upper body development, a solid stance and steady balance due to rowing and poling themselves along the waterways.

The original (Northern) styles had very wide and open stances with both arms and legs fully extended in both attack and defence, generally from long range. There was much emphasis on acrobatic ability, fast leaps, turns, spectacular high kicks and elaborate long forms. Mainly as a result of the Hong Kong film industry, it is the northern style that the world has come to know as "Kung-fu". This is because, just as northern styles have always provided the martial basis for the Chinese Opera, the entertainment value of its spectacular and awe-inspiring athletic techniques are ideally suited for movies.

By contrast the Southern styles are more conservative with strongly rooted stances, short, fast, explosive movements delivered in a series of blows, usually from short range. Kicks when used are low and medium range. The forms of the southern style are shorter and more compact, taking up far less space than required to perform a northern form. This, again reflects the difference in terrain between the two regions as it is easy to see that the southerners would have had difficulty in finding a flat, dry training area of any size, whereas in the north, forms could be developed without any such restriction. Southern styles placed much emphasis on strength training and body conditioning methods often using equipment.
In summary, it is interesting to note that most Chinese know the phrase: "northern leg, southern fist" as this basic distinction is observable in the majority of hard Chinese boxing schools.

Internal arts

Historical sources show that internal or soft martial arts were already blossoming in China long before the journey of Bodhidharma and the subsequent development of the great Shaolin tradition of hard or external boxing. Just as the External arts developed with the spread of Buddhism throughout China, the Internal arts evolved hand in hand with China's great philosophy of Daoism.

A story that has been perpetuated over centuries tells of a brilliant doctor of Chinese medicine named Hua To (190 - 265AD) who devised a series of movements to relieve emotional tension and tone the body - the forerunner of Taijiquan . Hua To's exercises were developed by closely observing animals but rather than trying to literally imitate their movements (Xing), the goal was to learn the main idea (i) behind the movement. This concept, combined with qi (a concept central to Chinese medicine) led to the development of the Internal or Soft Arts of China.

Thus, the two original Internal arts of Taijiquan and Xingyiquan were already established as distinctive styles by the time of the burning of the Shaolin temples in the eighteenth century. Baguazhang appeared as a relative newcomer in the nineteenth century with little being known of its roots other than that it is based on the philosophy of the ancient Confucian text, the Yiqing or Book of Changes.

Whilst the development and theory of the soft arts of China is a major subject of discussion on its own, suffice it to say at this stage, that the internal arts most definitely influenced the development of all Shaolin Kung-fu and Karate styles to a greater or lesser degree.

The Boxer Rebellion

Chinese soldiers during the boxer rebellion (picture from www.answers.com/topic/boxer-rebellion)
Imperial China, in the nineteenth century was in a state of decay. Accompanied and partly responsible for the deterioration of a once powerful empire was the increasing pressure from the West and later from Japan. The Chinese had been badly beaten in the Opium wars with Britain (concluded in 1842) and were forced to open Chinese ports to foreign trade and residents. The Manchu dynasty, already ravaged by domestic rebellion, found itself powerless to resist further demands from Western Powers and between 1856 to 1898, a network of foreign control over the entire Chinese economy had been established.

The Triads resented this dilution of their entrenched power and in 1898, with the support of the dowager empress who had recently retired, seized the emperor and took control. This started a period of violent reaction that swept the country and culminated in 1900 with the Boxer Rebellion.

The Boxers were the Triads' private armies of well trained, dedicated and fanatically anti-foreign martial artists, inspired by the Shaolin tradition and with an unshakable belief in their immunity to any kind of attack. Together with the official Chinese army they initially enjoyed some success, killing hundreds of foreigners and besieging the international settlement at Peking. These successes were short lived however, as a Western expeditionary force, made up of United States, British, French and Japanese troops, arrived and lifted the siege. Large numbers of boxers, confident that their iron-shirt training would protect them, succumbed to bullets and cannon fire before the rebellion was finally crushed. The remaining Boxers faded away and no more was heard of them, although it is known that many of them took refuge in Taiwan.

The Cultural Revolution

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the activities of the Triads were a symptom of the decay of imperial China and the need for fundamental change. This was what led to the success of the Communist Revolution that overturned Chinese society and ultimately changed the role of martial arts on the mainland.

During the early days of the People's Republic of China, the practice of hard martial arts was discouraged but not illegal. However, allowing essentially independent groups of individuals to develop fighting skills outside of government control was a situation that ultimately could not be tolerated; thus during the Cultural Revolution of the sixties, martial arts practice outside of the officially sanctioned and standardized Wu-Shu exercises was banned. Those who resisted were killed or imprisoned and the Communist system of informers soon put a stop to "underground" activities.

While some traditional traditional Chinese martial arts survived by going "underground", many are no longer to be found on the mainland.  Instead these survive on its fringes, ie. in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Okinawa (albeit in modified form).

Next: Early Okinawan karate