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January 22, 2017

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Shaolin kungfu

SHAOLIN kungfu is undoubtedly one of the most popular and widely recognized styles of Chinese martial arts, thanks not only to its long history and wide influence, but also numerous Shaolin-themed movies.

According to Chinese media reports, nearly 300 movies with “Shaolin” in their title have been produced to date, and most of these are about kungfu. Some of these, such as “Hand of Death” (known as “Shaolin Gate” in Chinese), “The Shaolin Temple,” “Shaolin Soccer” and “Shaolin,” starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bingbing and many other well-known Chinese actors are popular among Western action movie lovers.

Shaolin is the name of an ancient Buddhist temple located in Mount Songshan, in central China’s Henan Province. Built in AD 495, the temple, now on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, is best known for its unification of Chan (a school of Buddhism) and quan (“kungfu” or “boxing”).

Some scholars and historians believe that this martial arts tradition was started by an Indian monk named Buddhabhadra, called Batuo by the Chinese.

According to local historical records, Batuo came to China from India or Greco-Buddhist Central Asia in AD 464 and later became the first abbot of the Shaolin Temple to teach Chan Buddhism there.

Batuo had several outstanding disciples. Among them, Sengchou and Huiguang were highly reputed for their martial arts skills even before they became followers of the Indian monk.

In AD 527, another Indian monk, Bodhidarma, or Damo in Chinese, came to Shaolin. He also had a disciple, Huike, who was a highly trained martial arts expert.

Because of their renown, many mistakenly believe that Sengchou, Huiguang and Huike were the originators of the Shaolin tradition of martial arts.

Others say that in the temple’s early years, Shaolin monks were required to learn martial arts to fight off wild animals and bandits in the desolate mountains where the temple was located.

But historical documents indicate that it was during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) that Shaolin monks began to create their own fighting system. By the end of this dynasty, Shaolin monks helped Li Shimin, duke of the State of Qin, defeat his enemies in a civil war.

After Li was enthroned as the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), he named Shaolin monk Tan Zong as his chief general and granted large amounts of land and money to the temple.

The temple was also allowed to organize an army of monk soldiers. During this period, Shaolin kungfu became an institutionalized style of Chinese martial arts featuring strength, vitality and flexibility.

Today, visitors to the Shaolin Temple can see dozens of large, round indentations in the bricked floor of the Thousand-Buddha Hall, said to be left by generations of monks practicing kungfu there.

According to Cheng Chongdou, a famous martial artist of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shaolin monks were best known then for their dazzling pole fighting skills. It was also said that Ming General Yu Dayou, a hero who battled Japanese invaders, once personally taught pole fighting in the temple. Later, Shaolin monks also developed their own powerful fist fighting techniques.

Over more than 1,500 years, Shaolin kungfu has become a comprehensive and versatile system of martial arts. It comprises internal and external kungfu; hard, light and soft kungfu; and qigong, or cultivation and balancing of life energy.

Internal kungfu emphasizes control of breathing, posture, relaxation, thought and qi, or life energy; while external kungfu usually develops muscles and strength in a particular part of the body.

Shaolin kungfu has developed more than 100 martial arts techniques. In terms of using weapons, besides pole fighting, Shaolin monks are also known for their facility with swords, spears and sabres.

Meanwhile, their fist fighting techniques are exceptional and versatile. The best-known techniques include:

– Zuiquan, or “Drunken Boxing,” in which boxers falter, waddle, fall and sway like a drunkard in order to confuse their opponents.

– Luohan Quan, or Arhat Boxing, the oldest style of Shaolin boxing, which is also called 18 Arhat’s Hands.

– Tanglang Quan or Mantis Boxing, one of the animal-imitating styles of fist play.

– Yingzhao Quan, or “Eagle Claw Boxing,” another traditional animal-imitating style of fist fighting in which boxers form their hands into the shape of an eagle’s claw.

– Meihua Quan, or “Plum Flower Boxing,” a sparring set featuring fast and deceptive movements.

Shaolin kungfu has influenced martial arts not just in China, but also in South Korea, Japan and some Southeast Asian countries. One could easily notice Shaolin’s impact on karate, Shorinji Kempo and other kick-boxing practices.

Today, there are numerous martial arts schools all around the world teaching Shaolin kungfu and Shaolin monks themselves frequently stage shows of their fighting skills both in and outside of China.

In 2006, the Chinese government included Shaolin kungfu on its first national list of intangible cultural heritage.

And in the past few years, both the Shaolin Temple and the Chinese government have been helping Shaolin kungfu kick its way into the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Editor's Note:

Living Cultural Heritage

China boasts a very long history and a rich cultural heritage. Many ancient traditions are still very much alive today. Some of those, such as taichi and Chinese Chess, are ubiquitous around the country. Others, like Suzhou embroidery and Thangka art, are preserved in specific regions or practiced by different ethnic groups. In this column, writer Peter Zhang and arts editor Chen Jie will offer readers insight into some of the most popular living cultural practices in the country, as well as some of the fascinating stories behind each of them. This series of articles is also intended to help readers obtain a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture and the people who helped create it. 


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