Boxing, Chinese Shaolin Styles (Martial Arts)


By : Richard Mooney

Chinese boxing systems have commonly been understood in terms of dichotomies: hard versus soft, external versus internal, northern versus southern, Wudang versus Shaolin. Using these folk categories, the “Shaolin tradition” has been understood as covering those systems that are hard and external as distinct from soft and internal. The Shaolin arts may be further subdivided into northern and southern styles.

The distinction between northern and southern boxing reflects traditional beliefs in China that the martial systems that developed in the north (using the Chang River [also known as the Yangtze] as a point of demarcation) emphasize kicks and long-distance attacks, while southern systems rely on hand techniques and short-range combat. The source of both styles of fighting was believed to be the Buddhist Shaolin Temple. Although these traditional assumptions have been questioned recently, the power of this tradition and the related tradition of a dichotomy between internal (Daoist) and external (Buddhist) arts is demonstrated by the adoption of a variation of the traditional categories of Wudang (internal, taijiquan, baguazhang, and xingyiquan) and Shaolin (external, all other styles) for the two major branches of their Chinese boxing schools by the Nationalist government-sponsored Central Martial Arts Institute in 1927. In the 1950s, following the Nationalists’ lead, the Communists’ Physical Culture and Sports Commission integrated traditional martial arts into their physical education programs and developed standardized practice and competitive routines for boxing labeled as changquan (“long boxing”), nanquan (“southern boxing”), and taijiquan (the only one of the internal systems so enfranchised). The distinction of northern (legs) versus southern (hands) that is used as a traditional designation between the “external” (or Shaolin) arts is actually derived from a very ancient aphorism that alludes to what have been regarded as the main practices of each specific method. These differences are attributed to geographic conditions that were believed to play a role in the development of both northern fist arts, or beiquan shu, and southern fist arts, or nanquan shu.

According to this traditional theory, the people who lived in the north occupied an environment that was physically and socially different from southern China. The area in which they lived was characterized by wide-open expanses. Land transportation required skilled horsemanship. Moreover, since the cultural centers of China from approximately 2200 b.c. were located in the north, the population had greater access to education than did inhabitants of southern China. To a degree at least, the quality of a man’s education was to be seen in the quality of his calligraphy. These facts provide the raw material for the traditional theory of the north-south distinction.

The martial arts popularized in the north were called by many names, among them changquan (long fist) and Northern Shaolin. “Long fist” is a double entendre: The forms themselves were quite long, but more than that, the movements were elongated, with many acrobatic movements, particularly kicks, in them. These characteristics are believed to be due in part to the geographic area in which practitioners lived. The living conditions made their legs quite strong, and they capitalized on that through the development and use of all manner of punishing kicks. Combat on an open, stable surface encouraged the development of wide stances and high leaps and kicks. The desire to protect the hands also influenced the fighting styles. An injured hand impairs the ability to write well.

In contrast, the people south of the Chang River were relegated to very cramped living conditions. In this area of rice paddies, coastal shallows, and urbanized settings, many worked the waters in trade, commerce, and fishing. In fact, a portion of the inhabitants spent most of their lives on the boats that sailed the coasts and inland waterways. The primary demands for physical labor were placed on the muscle groups of the upper body. As another contrast, the distance from the cultural centers of the north meant in many cases that a southerner’s education was gained at home, and the vast majority of them were functional illiterates who relied on professional readers to read official decrees and personal letters and to write for them when the need arose. The factors of relatively greater upper body strength and the decreased need for fine-motor skill utilizing finger dexterity led to a reliance on punching as opposed to kicking techniques.

A 74-year-old Buddhist monk practices boxing exercises at a Shaolin monastery near Zengzhou, Henan, China, 1981.

A 74-year-old Buddhist monk practices boxing exercises at a Shaolin monastery near Zengzhou, Henan, China, 1981.

The “short-hitting” styles of the south were marked by constricted, inclose movements, ones that could be employed in tight alleyways, on the decks of boats, and in other cramped quarters. The southern fighting styles also developed, for the most part, shorter forms, although a given southern system (e.g., Hung Gar [pinyin hongjiaquan] and Choy Lay Fut [pinyin cailifoquan]) could contain a greater number of forms in its curriculum than some northern systems.

One might also surmise that the restrictions placed upon people due to the restrictions of various articles of clothing would play a role in defensive techniques as well. The cold climate of the north and the clothing adapted to such an environment would no doubt hinder the use of hand techniques, but to a lesser extent the use of the legs. The south was more subtropical, and the clothing appropriate for that environment allowed the unencumbered development of the upper-body techniques suitable for the social conditions previously described. Various weapons also saw their use dictated by their geographic location. In the north one would have the luxury of being able to use a long pole arm, such as a spear or long sword, and so those skills were more deeply researched and trained. In the south, where it was much more crowded and urbanized, the weapons that would find the most use were shorter. These included cleavers and similar chopping weapons, knives, short rods, and short swords.

The credit for the origin of both types of boxing is attributed to the Shaolin Temples and to necessity. Law enforcement during the formative period of Chinese boxing was often the province of important people with hired police forces and private standing armies. Commonly, villages were responsible for their own defenses against marauding bands of thieves, slavers, and other brigands who survived on what they could steal, whom they could sell off, and the services gained from those whom they could enslave. Other social services, particularly educational, were absent as well.

In this regard, similarities exist between European and Chinese feudal societies. In Europe during the Middle Ages, one of the only ways a person of low birth could gain an education was through the Roman Catholic Church. In medieval Europe, it was possible for a community to send the brightest of their progeny to one of the monasteries that dotted the landscape to learn Latin (the lingua franca of the era), mathematics, and rudimentary medical skills. After completing this education, the student returned home and used the knowledge to benefit the town from which he came. Also, a percentage of the monks who lived in the monasteries of that time were not merely men who had a calling from their God, but who were fugitives from the law, as well. In some cases, sanctuary from prosecution was their primary motivation. For example, those who had gained the disfavor of the nobility or had been in the ranks of a losing army might find a refuge by joining an order. Therefore, among the members of an order were former fighting men who had renounced their family ties and taken on different names. Records of thirteenth-century German monks practicing sword and buckler (small, round shield) combat as a martial sport, along with claims that knights were intimidated by the wrestling skills of medieval monks, demonstrate the availability and efficacy of fighting skills within monastery walls.

Similarly, in China Buddhist temples not only concerned themselves with the promulgation and study of Buddhism, but also served as sources of education in literacy, mathematics, and martial skills. The medical profession was also intertwined with the martial traditions. Soldiers had wounds that needed tending, training practices resulted in various injuries from blunt trauma and from weapons practice, and the monks had only themselves to rely on. Tradition maintains that the birth of acupuncture stemmed from soldiers who, upon receiving arrow wounds that were not fatal, found themselves cured or relieved of certain non-combat-related illnesses, pains, or other injuries.

Grand Master Rich Mooney demonstrates various defensive moves from Southern Shaolin Tiger Crane Fist, 2001.

Grand Master Rich Mooney demonstrates various defensive moves from Southern Shaolin Tiger Crane Fist, 2001.

The temples were impromptu banks as well as storehouses for harvested grains. Because of this, the temples were also targets of brigands; therefore, they had to have a standing army of their own to defend themselves from outside attacks.

When novitiates entered monastic life, they not only gave up their allegiance to their natural family; they also gave up their life on the outside and their allegiance to secular rulers. Those who became monks out of desperation found a new life, and those who became monks because of outside necessity kept their heads firmly attached to their shoulders. Over a period of centuries they collected various techniques that had helped the former soldiers stay alive on the battlefield, and this accumulation of knowledge gave rise to introspective researching aimed at finding the best fighting methods. These methods were then codified, and this codification, in turn, gave rise to many systems of self-defense and martial science.

The monasteries in the West did not maintain the study of the arts of war in the same fashion as those in the East, although religious military orders such as the Knights Templar attest to the strong links between the martial and the religious, at least in the European medieval period. Some attribute the eventual neglect of the martial arts in European monastic tradition to the development of military technology, namely the development of firearms and artillery. Social factors were of course major factors, as well. In the East, however, warfare continued to be associated with the monastic life. In China, the most famous and well known of these temples came to be known as “Shaolin.” Tradition maintains that there were actually five of these temples over a period of many hundreds of years. One of these temples, located in Henan province, in northern China, has been restored.

Grand Master Rich Mooney demonstrates various defensive moves from Southern Shaolin Tiger Crane Fist, 2001.

Grand Master Rich Mooney demonstrates various defensive moves from Southern Shaolin Tiger Crane Fist, 2001.

According to tradition, in the Henan temple there was a cadre of religious monks and also a cadre of fighting monks. The sole duty of the fighting monks was to train and to ensure the safety of the temple in the event of attack. The wealth of martial arts skills became systematized, and various curricula were developed under the guidance of the warrior monks. Moreover, many of the religious monks also gained an interest in personal self-defense. When their duties took them outside the temple walls, they were easy targets because of a prohibition against carrying weapons. Therefore, they had to rely on the various skills that they could develop within the monastery. Tradition states that in time these monks became known for their fighting prowess, and also for the marks that were branded into their arms, the famed Dragon and Tiger of Shaolin.

The mere exposure of these marks to an attacker was reputed to end confrontations on the spot. It has been surmised that in the villages they visited, not only did they expound the path of the Buddha to those who had an interest, but they also instructed locals in boxing and the use of weapons.

Written history notes the prowess of the monks in an antipirate campaign in the sixteenth century, and the written record agrees with the legends of Shaolin staff techniques. Thus, it is correct to assume that the Shaolin Temple was a repository of fighting knowledge. It is incorrect, however, to assume that the development of martial arts was a primary function of the Shaolin Temple, and that all fighting arts of China may be traced back to the Shaolin arts. In fact, at this time, the People’s Republic of China recognizes only two forms as being authentic Shaolin fist methods: the Xiao Hing Quan (little red fist) and the Da Hong Quan (big red fist). In contemporary usage, the appellation “Shaolin” functions primarily to establish credibility for the lineage and therefore the efficacy of a given style.

Other arts that did not claim to originate in the temple were no less effective or devastating. In fact, other arts, especially the “internal arts,” such as xingyiquan, baguazhang, liu ho ba fa, and taijiquan, are regarded as being diametrically opposed to the Shaolin arts. These arts make up the “internal” martial arts, while the arts of Shaolin are thought of as “external” martial disciplines. The internal methods primarily seek to cultivate the esoteric inner strength known as qi. The external methods have traditionally been seen as relying mostly on building up muscle and bone strength. On the other hand, the famous five animals of Shaolin—the Dragon, Tiger, Crane, Snake, and Leopard—were said to develop not only physical but mental attributes. The Dragon forms were practiced to develop an indomitable spirit, the Tiger to develop bone strength, the Crane to develop the tendons, or sinews, the Snake to develop the qi, and the Leopard to develop speed. The origins of both the internal and external styles are similarly the subject of traditional narrative, which is subject to distortion. In fact, Stanley Henning claims that both the origin legends (of the external styles in Shaolin and the internal arts at a site on Wudang Mountain) are derived from a single political allegory.

In time, and based upon the geographic location of the various temples, tradition maintains the styles were modified to suit their respective environments. As noted earlier, the stylists of the north became extremely skilled in kicking techniques, and those in the south devoted themselves to striking techniques. The major feature of northern styles of Chinese boxing is that the techniques avail themselves of greater acrobatic methods and a wider variety of kicking techniques. These types of movements can be found in styles such as Mi Zhong Lo Han (Lost Track Lohan [Buddhist disciple]), Tanglangquan (Praying Mantis Boxing), and Bei Ying Jow Pai (Northern Eagle Claw; pinyin Bei Yingzhaoquan). The major features of the southern methods are the lower stances and a greater emphasis on punching techniques and close-range methods, including qinna (grasp and seize) and dianxue (spot hitting), in Cantonese called dim mak (death touch). This emphasis can be seen in such arts as Nan Shaolin Hu Hao Quan (Southern Shaolin Tiger Crane Fist); yongchun, better known by the Cantonese term wing chun (Eternal Spring); various Hequan (Crane Boxing) styles; and Choy Lay Fut Boxing (pinyin Cailifoquan). The Southern Shaolin arts have quite a diversity of short-range weapons, but also train in long-pole weapons, though not to a greater extent.

The Northern Shaolin Temple is now a tourist attraction in Henan province, China. The Southern Shaolin Temple was located in what is now Putian County in the Fujian province, and went by the name Lingquanyuan Temple. The other temples that called themselves Shaolin were in Wudang, Guangdong, and Er Mei (also spelled Emei), each with its own unique brand and flavor of martial art culture and discipline. Yang Jwing-Ming and Jeffery Bolt in their traditionally based brief history of the Shaolin systems set the number at ten.

At certain times in the history of China, various emperors called upon the monks to defend the state against foreign incursion. One spectacular event is a well-chronicled one, in which a group of monks went to the aid of the Tang emperor Li Shimin (a.d. 600-649), also known as Emperor Taizong. Although the narratives of Li Shimin have been submitted to the distortions of oral tradition and popular vernacular literature (telling of intervention by celestial dragons, for example), the traditions surrounding his reign chronicle events in which thirteen monks helped to save his life. He tried to reward them with official court posts, probably in an effort to keep them under his surveillance and control. They decided to refuse the honor, but the emperor authorized them to build a force of warrior monks in case their services were needed again.

According to the legends of the Hong League (better known as the Triad Society) summarized by Fei-ling Davis in Primitive Revolutionaries of China, in the late seventeenth century (around 1674) the Shaolin monks of Fujian Monastery were called upon by the Qing emperor Kangxi (1664-1722) to defend against invading tribes of Eleuths. According to some sources, a former Ming patriot named Cheng Wan Tat led the monks. They were successful in their mission, and again they were offered high court postings, which they politely refused. This was a major mistake, for the emperor’s ears were filled with the idea that such a group, so small yet so powerful, must pose a threat to national security. As a result, the emperor ordered the Shaolin Temples razed and all in them slaughtered.

Luckily efforts to exterminate the monks were unsuccessful. According to legend, five survived, which hardly seems a large enough number to have perpetuated the Shaolin arts, but this aspect of the story is far more credible than the magical yellow clouds, grass sandals turning into boats, and wooden swords sprouting from the ground that permitted the successful flight (Davis 1977, 62-64).

The vested interest of the anti-Qing/pro-Ming secret societies in Shaolin traditions becomes apparent in the narrative of the subsequent exploits of the Five Ancestors (as the fugitives came to be called). Many of the monks went underground and formed patriotic societies determined to overthrow the unjust regime that had almost wiped them out. In support of this tradition, many commentators (e.g., Yang and Bolt) argue that the traditional Shaolin salute, the right fist covered by the left palm, originated as a secret society symbol. The Chinese character for the Ming dynasty is composed of the symbols for sun and moon, which together mean “bright.” The positions of the hands in that salute formation fairly closely resemble that pictograph. By the use of that salute, people came to know each other as supporters of the same cause, to restore the Ming and overthrow the Qing. Many of the refugee monks went to work at a variety of occupations, such as opera, which always featured martial scenes. Many opera companies would ply the waters and travel in their trademark red boats.

In time, tradition maintains, these boats played two important roles in the history of the external Shaolin arts. They served as crucibles for blending the combat arts of north and south, and the plays that were acted out came to embody subtle messages for resistance members about meeting places and anti-Qing activities. The oral traditions of many external systems, which look to Shaolin as their point of origin, maintain a link between Shaolin anti-Qing sentiments, martial arts, and elements of popular culture. The Lion Dance, for example, is performed at auspicious events, such as the openings of new businesses, and New Year festivals. At the end of a Lion Dance the lion goes up a pole to catch a head of lettuce to eat. Lucky money in a red envelope was given to the lion dancers, and it may be surmised that these funds were used to support various rebel causes that were popular at the time.

The transmission of fighting arts also took place along trade routes that crisscrossed China, including the Silk Road, which led all the way to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire. There is no doubt that practitioners of both northern and southern styles, internal and external systems, met as members of caravan guards assigned to take loads of merchandise to their destinations. Exchanges of information for both armed and unarmed techniques ensued, for the length of one’s life often came down to the combat skills developed in as many areas as possible. A good northern stylist learned to use fists as effectively as feet. A good southern stylist learned that one had to be an effective kicker as well as excelling at close-quarter conflict. The same held true for the use of weapons, and in this context all manner of them flourished, including maces, clubs, whips of leather and chain, darts, dirks, daggers, swords, and pole arms.

Time went on, but the Ming dynasty was never restored. However, there continued to be an association between secret societies, radical religion, and the martial arts. The results of this materialized in the activities of the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” at the turn of the twentieth century, which culminated in the Boxer Rebellion (1900). In 1911, the Triads played a role in the overthrow of the Qing in the Republican Revolution. Afterwards, however, the once patriotic groups became less and less beneficent, and became more concerned with criminal activity, slavery, drug running, and other socially detrimental activities. Throughout the history of these groups, martial arts had had a greater ritual than practical significance in their activities. As with the boxing systems mentioned earlier, a Shaolin association served a need for validating and legitimizing and was not necessarily a genuine point of origin.

The Shaolin hard-fist styles played an influential role in the development of martial arts outside China as well. Trade and diplomacy allowed for the dissemination of the Shaolin external tradition throughout East and Southeast Asia. Okinawan and Japanese martial arts can serve as examples. After the Battle of Sekigahara (a.d. 1600), the Shimazu clan, despite opposition to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), was allowed to remain in charge of Satsuma on the island of Kyushu. Further, in 1609 the Shimazu were given the shogunate’s permission to launch an invasion of Okinawa. Some have suggested that the invasion was allowed in order to dissipate Shimazu energies in directions other than the Tokugawa shogunate. Ruling the islands from their base on Satsuma and through the Ryukyuan monarchy, the Shimazu forbade the practice of native martial arts. Also, most weapons were confiscated under a weapons edict, originally passed by Oki-nawan ruler Sho Shin (who was in power from 1477 to 1526), forbidding the wearing of the swords and the stockpiling of arms, and eventually banning the import of bladed weapons in 1699.

The Okinawans, however, had developed a long-term relationship with the Chinese, particularly with the Fujian province, and tradition holds that during this period some of their best fighters traveled to China to learn martial arts and thus build upon an exchange initiated in 1393 with the settlement of the “thirty-six families” who emigrated from China to Kuninda (Kume village) in the district of Naha. One art in particular, Sukunai Hayashi Tomari Te (Shaolin Small Pine Tomari [a village in Okinawa] Hand), manifests the influence of Chinese Crane styles. Contemporary systems maintain the Chinese influence. For example, Uechi-ryu, the ryuha (style) founded by Uechi Kanbun, was based on the Pangai Noon (pinyin banyingruan, hard-soft) of Zhou Zihe (Chu Chi Wo; Okinawan Shu Shi Wa), a Fujianese teacher suspected of having ties to the Ming secret societies that are alleged to have played a central role in the history of the external Shaolin styles.

Also, during the Ming dynasty, a monk by the name of Chen Yuanpin (Gempin in Japanese) was sent to the court of the Japanese emperor, ostensibly to teach pottery. It was also surmised that the monk fled to Japan after arousing the ire of an official at the Chinese court. After a time, Chen befriended a few samurai who lived in the area where he was staying. He taught these three samurai “methods of catching a man.” Those methods are also known as qinna (or ch’in na in the Wade-Giles method of roman-ization). Qinna means “to grasp and seize,” and elements of the art of grasping and seizing are a facet of many Chinese martial arts. The methods Chen taught to these samurai were to later take on a life of their own and were collectively christened Kito-ryu, a form of jujutsu.

Other similarities are also to be seen in Okinawan kenpo in the practice of methods called kyusho and tuite. Kyusho is essentially the striking of vital points, much in the same way as it is practiced as dianxue, better known by the Cantonese name dim mak. Tuite is virtually the same art as qinna. Qinna and dianxue are usually performed together. When applying a joint lock, one also attacks pressure points, with the goal of weakening an opponent’s ability to fight, controlling movement through limiting the range of motion, and sapping the will to fight through inflicting pain in sensitive areas. Kyusho and tuite methods were popularized in the 1990s through the efforts of men like Grand Masters Rick Moneymaker and Tom Muncy of the Dragon Society International. Therefore, although an art may utilize Japanese gi (uniforms) and Japanese terms, the history of the method may well reveal a Chinese connection.

The role of Shaolin Boxing was reoriented when the Communists came to power in 1949. The government of the People’s Republic undertook many reforms. One area toward which reform was directed concerned plans for improving the health of the citizens. Famine, plagues, and war had sapped the vitality of many of the people who had survived from the first Japanese incursion in the 1930s to the time when Chiang Kai Shek (pinyin Jiang Jieshi) and thousands of others fled to Taiwan. A group of martial artists and government officials came upon the idea of popularizing the practice of taijiquan.

The goal was to create a healthy populace without encouraging sophisticated martial abilities. The relationships between the Triads, martial arts, and antigovernment activity remained in the memory of the bureaucrats as well. Mao Zedong’s first writings were replete with exhortations to empower the mind and make savage the body, but efforts were made to make the practice of martial arts benefit the party in its quest for total domination of the people. Later, the Red Guard took this to heart during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 through 1976, when the practice of the ancient ways was forbidden as being antiquated and superstitious.

In order to accomplish the goals of a healthy populace and to create a new orientation for martial arts suitable to the new Communist China, a two-faceted program came into being: a standardized form of taijiquan and the concept of wushu. Taiji was promoted as a few simple and standardized routines, the Yang twenty-four-section form, and the five-section form. All instruction was geared toward improving and maintaining health, and practical application was discouraged. Wushu originally meant “martial,” or “military,” arts, and as such this is the proper term for those systems designated kung fu in contemporary popular culture. In the postmodern sense of the Communist Party, however, the term designated acrobatic martial gymnastics.

This program gave the people what they wanted, but only in a form modified by the Communist Party. Many of the wushu forms seen today are replete with high leaping kicks and fast and furious punches. There are also flips, somersaults, and other acrobatic maneuvers best performed by the young. Weapons forms have been developed as well, but only using what are called thunder blades, very light and very thin blades that fold and bend and make a loud noise, but that are far easier to handle than real combat-quality weapons. Wushu has its merits as a sport and art form, but the current system is not a traditional combat art.

There was a push in the last few years of the 1990s to promote what is called san da (loose hit) or san shou (loose hand). These are martial sports reminiscent of kickboxing, which allow various throws, locks, and sweeping techniques. The bouts have been compared to the earlier Lei Tai form of contest in which combatants, sans protective gear, would fight on a raised platform to see who had the better skills. A contestant tossed off the platform would be declared the loser. The no-holds-barred spectacles popularized in North and South America, Europe, and Japan during the 1990s undoubtedly gave impetus to san shou.

The state-sanctioned forms of boxing developed within the People’s Republic of China may have eclipsed the traditional fighting arts, but they did not eradicate them. Even outside the mainland, practice of the traditional external (and internal) arts survives with refugees who fled after the Communist victory of 1949 to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, the United States, Canada, Europe, and particularly Taiwan. Many external arts, in fact, have enjoyed a renaissance in new settings. Yongchun (more commonly known as wing chun), for example, can easily be found in most big cities in Europe and America, due probably to popularization by the late Hong Kong film actor Bruce Lee. The motion pictures of Jackie Chan (trained in Hong Kong opera), wushu great Pan Qingfu, wushu-trained actor Jet Li, and others from the 1990s through the turn of the twenty-first century have continued to popularize hard-style boxing and perpetuate the legendary connection of the Shaolin Temple to these styles.

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