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Understanding the past helps one understand the present. If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it — for good or for bad.

Few dispute the saying, “All martial arts under heaven originated from Shaolin.” The Shaolin Temple is the spiritual and technical source of all modern martial arts. The Shaolin Arts has a long and rich heritage going back to the beginning of modem civilization. This history is a mixture of legend and fact. The common practice of each new ruling Dynasty was to destroy all information of past rulers, and what information could not be destroyed, other “politically correct” names were given credit. Therefore, documented information of many past periods is limited. In this brief summarized history, we will document the facts and point out the legends, or accounts, handed down through generations. Please note that the storyteller usually tells the version of the story that is in their best interest.

Asian martial artists trace their roots back 5,000 years to India and the Greek martial arts of Pankration. The invading armies of Alexander the Great brought this brutal art of boxing and wrestling to India in 4 BC. Historians also credit the Greeks for organizing the firat professional boxing matches 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Ancient China
Ancient Map of China


The Chinese credit Chinese physician Dr. Hua T’o as the founder of the first martial style and the first doctor to use anesthesia during surgery. Around 220 AD, T’o devised a series of exercises modeled on the deer, bear, bird, Tiger, and monkey long before the Shaolin Temple began instruction in the martial arts. T’o designed these exercises to relieve stress, tone the body and provide a means of self-defense.

Chinese historians dispute India’s claim to being the cradle of Asian martial arts. They point to military manuals and documents dated from 206 BC to 220 AD, which prove that Han emperors actively funded the study and refinement of Kung-Fu far beyond any fighting system known in India during this period.

Records exist dating back to 5 BC crediting an Indian named Han Lo-Ming for creating Chi Hsuan Men, or ‘Unusual Style’. This art used the defensive scissors techniques of the White Jade Fan to trap swords and spears, and pressure point strikes with the fan’s tip.

The arrival of Ta Mo

Legend states that the Zen Buddhist patriarch Ta Mo, or Da Mo (Bodhidharma to the Chinese and Daruma Daishi to the Japanese), whose real last name was Sardilli, was a prince of a small tribe in Southern India. Ta Mo arrived in China after a brutal trek over Tibet’s Himalaya Mountains, surviving the elements and bandits.

Heritage 4

The Buddha—The enlightened one, made a vow that he would never be content with his achievements until he shared his wisdom with all beings.

Some historians dispute the date, but legend states Ta Mo settled in the Shaolin Temple of Songshan in Hunan Province in 526 AD. We know the first Shaolin Temple of Songshan was built in 377 AD for Pan Jaco’ “The First Buddha”, by order of Emperor Wei on the Shao Shik Peak of Sonn Mountain in Teng Fon Hsien, Hunan Province. The temples were for religious training and meditation only. Martial arts training did not begin until the arrival of Ta Mo in 526 AD.

Ta Mo sought peace and converts to help him spread Chan Buddhism, later known as Zen in Japan, throughout China. Legend states that Ta Mo found that his meditation method caused sleepiness among the monks. The monks at that time also lacked stamina and the ability to defend themselves against warlords and bandits.

Ta Mo, a member of the Indian Kshatriya warrior class and a master of staff fighting, created a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises. These movements found their way into print in 550 AD as the Yi Gin Ching or Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic. We know this today as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements, the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts.

Ta Mo’s introduction of martial arts to the Shaolin Temple was purely self-interest. He saw the monks as solitary types content to live their lives within temple walls. He dreamed of developing mobile, fearless warrior missionaries able to spread Chan Buddhism throughout the world. According to legend, Ta Mo developed a simple self-defense system to train Japanese Shorinji (Shaolin) Monks who traveled between Shaolin Temples in China, Formosa, Japan, and India. Yamabushi (Ascetic Hermits) referred to this art of the staff, spear, and empty hand as Goshin-Jutsu, the basis of Aikido, Judo, Jujitsu, and Ninjutsu.

Ta Mo died in 539 AD at the Shaolin Temple at age 57, before completing his life’s mission. However, Ta Mo created the basis of Shaolin Quan Fa, an art that evolved into Sil Lum Kung-Fu, Shaolin 5 Animal Style, and Chung-Kuo Quan.

To the Shaolin, religion and martial arts were separate ideals. They walked a thin line between self-defense and non-violence. Being vegetarians, monks would not eat meat or even ride a horse for fear of burdening the animal. On pilgrimages, monks carried staffs tipped with jingling metal rings to scare away insects in their path they might harm. However, a monk would kill to defend his life or protect the weak.

The Spread of Shaolin Temple Boxing

Shaolin Temple Boxing became famous as the finest martial art system and was revered all over China. So great was its reputation that martial artists from other countries also wanted to study this system. Shaolin monks realized that great power was inherent in these teachings and were very reluctant to permit the teaching outside the temple walls. With the fall of the Ming dynasty (c. 1644 AD), outsiders were allowed to enter the temple and learn the boxing art to drive out the invading Manchurians. Thus Shaolin boxing left the temple and started to spread throughout China. Later in history, portions of this highly evolved art spread to Okinawa, where it was called Shorin Ryu, meaning Shao-lin fighting style. In Japan, it was called Karate, meaning Chinese empty-hand fighting.

Tang su do, the precursor of Tae Kwon do, translates to ‘China Hands’. Even Jujitsu was based upon a style of Chinese boxing called Chin Na and Shuai Jao, which emphasized locks and throws. Chinese Temple Boxing was the mother system that gave birth to the other martial arts in Asia.

Invasion of the Manchurians

In 1644, Manchurians from Mongolia invaded China to conquer it and set up the Ching Court. Legend tells of 108 Shaolin monks, Seng Bing (Priest Soldiers), who met and defeated 10,000 Manchurians in a single afternoon without suffering a single injury. Now national heroes, the monks unknowingly attracted members of Chinese secret societies such as the northern White Lotus Society and southern Hung Family League, eager to learn a fighting method to drive the Manchus back to Mongolia.

By royal decree, only the Chinese Emperor and Masters of Shaolin Temples could possess complete martial arts systems. The martial arts flourished due to the efforts of revolutionaries, bandits, and rebels who resisted the Manchus and often sought asylum in Shaolin monasteries. Eager to fight, secret societies created a network of martial arts schools in Chinese monasteries and villages with the goal of driving out the invading Manchus.

Manchu Invader of China
Portrait of Manchu Ruler

Shaolin monks Gok Yuen, Lee Sau, and Bak Juk Fung enlarged the original ‘Lohan 18 Hands’ to 170 movements to make Sil Lum (Shaolin) Kung-Fu a more effective fighting system. A student began the study of the light staff before tackling a series of progressively heavier staffs. This strengthened the muscles and loosened the ligaments. In 1662, the Manchus gained complete control of China. While the Manchus feared the Shaolin priests and the revolutionary activities connected to them, they refused to harm them largely because the Manchus were mainly Buddhists and the Shaolin priests were their spiritual leaders. The Shaolin priests were also valuable to the Manchu Ching Court as advisors and healers, and harming the priests would make them martyrs and cause the people to fight harder to dethrone the tyrannical Manchu overlords.

By 1736 the leadership of the Manchus had forgotten the services the Shaolin Monks had rendered to everyone, including the Manchus themselves. The Manchus decided to rid themselves of the original Songshan Shaolin Temple and thwart the plans of Taiwanese rebel commander Cheng-Cheng Gong. Gong had sent troops to the temple to seek refuge with Abbott Chi Tong and his 128 warrior monks. Fearing this alliance, two Manchu officials bribed Ma Linger, ranked seventh among the 128 monks, to spy for them and help destroy the temple.

At night. Ma Linger opened a secret temple passageway to the two Manchu officials, who set quick moving fires. Realizing that 10,000 Manchu troops were no match for the 128 warrior monks. Ma Linger placed sleeping potions in the monks’ food supplies. Drugged, helpless monks died in their beds. Only 5 monks escaped the monastery. They formed the Hung Family League, the chief resistance movement against the Manchus. They set up a new monastery in the village of Ch’uan Chow in Fukien Province to keep the Shaolin traditions alive and continue political pressure on the Manchus.

Five Animal Kung Fu and its Descendants

It was at Fukien that the Five Shaolin Ancestors: Wu Mei, Chi Shan, Bok Mei, Feng Daode, and Miao Chian, gained prominence as masters of the martial arts. Shaolin martial arts became known as Sil Lum in Cantonese or Shorinji in Japanese. The study centered on the moves and attributes of the Tiger, Dragon, Snake, Leopard, and Crane, the Five Shaolin Animals.

From the Crane came the Praying Mantis style, from the Tiger came the Eagle style, and from Tiger and Crane, the Hung style evolved. Snake and Crane gave rise to Wing Chun, and the list continued to grow.

Each animal form represented one of the “Five Essences” the Five Shaolin Ancestors felt all people possessed. The Dragon fuels the spirit; the Tiger trains the bones to resist heavy blows; the Leopard develops strength and footwork; the Crane loosens the sinews and ligaments; and the Snake builds Chi, internal strength.

Life Studying Kung Fu

Shaolin priests spent an average of 10 years behind Temple walls in a strict regimen of work, mediation, practice, and study. Their day started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Graduation from the Temple consisted of three tests. The first was a difficult oral examination of Chinese history, martial arts theory, philosophy, and healing. The next was full-contact sparring matches with several Kung-Fu masters, and the last was the Ordeal of the Lohan Hall.

The Fukien Province monastery contained 36 chambers or levels of martial arts instruction and the infamous Lohan Hall (also known as Priest-Scholar Hall and Den of the Wooden Men). Upon entering the Lohan Hall, the graduate student fought 108 mechanical wooden dummies armed with knives, spears, and clubs triggered by the student’s body movements. If the student survived, they had to make their way through an opening blocked by a 500-pound metal urn containing red-hot coals. Gripping the urn in their forearms, the student had to slide the urn to create an exit. In the process, he branded his forearms with the badges of the Shaolin master, the Dragon, and the Tiger.

In 1768, the Manchus again saw the need to destroy the second Shaolin Temple. They sought the allegiance of Chang Sanfeng, a Sung dynasty scholar and outstanding student of the Fukien Temple. His superior physical and mental abilities allowed him to graduate from the temple a full-fledged master in less than two years.

Creation of Tai Chi Quan

A Taoist, Chang Sanfeng, left the temple to start a monastery in Hubei’s Wu Tang mountain range. Here he created Wu Tang Martial Arts, merging the hard Shaolin arts with the mystical Chi Kung (Internal Power) arts. This led to the creation of Tai Chi Quan, “Supreme Ultimate Fist,” of which, one account reports, Chang Sanfeng was the acknowledged founder. Sanfeng created Tai Chi Quan as a combat art after seeing a snake defeat a hawk, later discovering its health and fitness benefits.

Sanfeng’s revolutionary internal power-building techniques and promise of increased fighting ability caused many Shaolin students to defect to him. Manchu officials encouraged the rivalry between the Wu-Tang disciples and the Shaolin. After many clashes, the more peaceful Shaolin monks left, looking for areas of peace to live, study, and teach. The Fukien Temple was eventually burned to the ground.

The Diaspora

Shaolin monks moved to India and Southeast Asia. Some remained, posing as tradesmen, farmers, and artists. Certain Shaolin monks started the infamous Triad Society, a group that began as a political movement and later fell into criminal activities. Others settled on Emi Mountain in Szechuan Province, an area that developed many martial styles.

Shaolin monks were responsible for creating China’s three major southern Shaolin styles. Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut and Wing Chun.

One of the most spectacular acrobatic styles, Shantung Black Tiger was created in China’s Northern Hunan Province to defend against multiple opponents on rocky terrain. It is the basis of Kun-Tao, an art popular in Southeast Asia.

Gee Sim, a Shaolin Monk and Master of the Tiger Fist, taught his art at the seaport of Canton after the destruction of the Temple. Gee Sim’s innovations aided the development of Shaolin Quan.

Choy Fook, another Shaolin monk, moved to Kwantung in South China to his mountain retreat at Law Fo Shan. Here he taught disciple Chan Heung the entire Shaolin Kung-Fu system and four internal Lohan Qigong (chi kung) forms. This became the popular Chinese art of Choy Li Fut and the beginning of wooden dummy training. Chan Heung recorded Choy Li Fut’s 138 forms in the Kuen Po or Manual of Fist Work.

During this period, the Chinese people rarely used the term, “Kung Fu”, a generic term for a skill of any kind. They often lumped all fighting arts together as Wushu, the Mandarin expression of Kou-Shu, or “National Martial Arts.”

The United States

Hawaii was one place where Shaolin Quan masters found the perfect environment to develop and refine their arts. Chinese coolies, restricted from marrying or owning property, fled the harsh treatment in Hawaii for California. Here they found dangerous work in gold mines and building America’s Transcontinental Railroad. This is the period in which the popular Kung-Fu television series featuring the Shaolin monk Caine was set.

William Pitt stated, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The history of martial arts had similar problems. Chinese clans whose members spoke the same dialect created Hui Kuan or associations for protection. Hui Kuan and secret Chinese societies clashed in a struggle for total supremacy. Americans dubbed these blood purges, ‘Tong Wars.’ Tong is American slang for Tang, the Chinese word for hall, or meeting hall of a Hui Kuan association.

Tang enforcers were given the name ‘Hatchet Men’ for their skill with meat cleavers. Unfortunately, they became the oppressors of the people they were sworn to protect. Law-abiding Chinese found it necessary to import Chinese Wushu masters to strengthen their Tang clans as teachers and bodyguards. Traditional weapons played a part in many Tang battles. American blacksmiths in Trinity County, California, had a booming business manufacturing tridents, spears, pike poles, scythes, swords, and bamboo shields for Tang warriors.

At the turn of the century, the generic terms Chinese Boxing, Boxing, and Chinese Temple Boxing became popular with Westerners after news reports of Kung Fu fighters using bare feet, fists, and bladed weapons against firearms during the bloody “55 Days at Peking” we know as The Boxer Rebellion.

The Chinese persisted in their refusal to teach Kung Fu to anyone who was not Chinese. In 1957, T.C. Lee, a naturalized citizen from China, gave the first public demonstration of Tai Chi Chuan. This allowed other Chinese masters to come forth and reveal their martial arts secrets to anyone, regardless of race. Although Kung Fu flourished in Hawaii among the Chinese community, it was confined to Oriental inner circles who referred to it as Ch’uan-shu and taught it in secret.

Our Generation

From the 1950s to the present, the martial arts in China have been largely influenced by its Communist Party government, dictating what, where and who would teach and practice. Wushu means “martial arts”. We would often use the term ‘Kung Fu’. In ancient times it was primarily a system used for health and self-defense.

Starting in 1976, the Chinese governmental committees began to revise the old traditional Wushu forms by combining them with the Peking Opera, gymnastics, and acrobatics to create a contemporary art form that is aesthetically pleasing, visually exciting, and physically demanding. These new forms are commonly referred to as ‘Modem Wushu’. While these new forms still contain kicks and punches, emphasis is now on developing the physical abilities of the performer and on interpreting the flavor and spirit of each particular style of Wushu. 

For many Chinese martial artists, these government-motivated changes were resisted due to the loss of applications for health, self-defense, and overall practical function. With the government controlling finances and (where they could) the ‘official’ title of master, many famous traditional Chinese Martial Artists have left China to practice their arts in a freer environment, immigrating to Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, any of the British Common Wealth Countries. During this period of emigration, many of the older traditional forms of Chinese arts became more available in North America. 

In Asia, many great Martial Art Systems were often maintained through family lines. This was due, at times, to the Martial Arts being against the law to teach or practice and travel being difficult, if not impossible, during different political periods. As the Chinese and Asian peoples immigrated to North America, sacrificing for increased opportunities, their family or Gar arts came with them.

Although having had the opportunity to study with a number of Masters from North America, Master Gracey also has been fortunate to be influenced by the traditional five animal Gar or family systems. Master Wang Xuchuan studied what he termed the central system of Shaolin, having both Northern and Southern Shaofin influences. A system that had remained in his family for generations. He taught his own family members and those they recommended.

Master Wang’s family system included the classic Shaolin animal styles, namely the Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Crane, and Dragon. Each animal style had its own method of movement with an external and internal energy flow that corresponded to each. Understanding and being able to apply it all would take a lifetime – a lifetime of fun and adventure.

His students were encouraged to start at all ages. All were taught to the levels of their strivings and maturity. Formal education was encouraged to develop the mind, spirit, and body. Traditional family system values were taught by example: I respect you and you, by my example, likewise respect me. Respect was always given to the aged since age meant experience and hopefully wisdom. Respect continued to increase in relationship to the individual abilities to do and to teach – to use and share the knowledge, thereby increasing the honor of his or her position, rather than the position itself or an artificial rank attempting to create that honor. In traditional five animal Gar systems, all were required to learn to heal any injury one could inflict. Anytime more than this was necessary it was felt the instructor had failed on his/her part. There was no such thing as bad students, only poor instructors. The goal was to create an environment where the next generation could be better than the one before.

Sometimes, the best Martial Artists are not known in Hollywood, nor do they wish to be. In fact, many times, the stunt men are better martial artists than the star of a movie. Often one would learn a family or Gar system by invitation only, being invited into the Gar system after an apprenticeship was served. These apprenticeships could vary in activities and time needed to demonstrate dedication to the instructor and arts. Some family systems do not use their own name but just give the system of martial arts the credit. This habit may have developed to protect the family and/or to keep ‘egos’ out of the arts.

These have been a few examples of masters in our generation. Each is individual, each different, and each having influenced the arts and having been influenced by them. Although great masters deserve great admiration, they are just a reflection of how wonderful a Martial Art can be. The art itself is always greater than the individual artist. A great martial art system will have the principles and tools to pass that greatness on to all so dedicated to embracing it.

Today, Masters from North and South America travel to the countries of the “East” to teach and share the arts once developed there.

A school and temple using the Shaolin name exist today in Songshan, China, utilized by both religious and fighting monks. But the modern Chinese government continues to influence its country’s Martial Arts for its own purposes, according to some for bad and others for good. Masters are leaving this temple to teach and practice elsewhere. Martial Art organizations have come and gone through time, but good arts themselves always endure.

The I Ching states:

The Town may be changed,

But the well cannot be changed.

The martial arts is like a well with archetypal springs feeding it from deep within the unconscious mind of its people.

All martial arts under heaven originated from Shaolin.

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