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A Brief History of the Chinese Martial Arts

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, March 7, 2008
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The beginning of Chinese martial arts probably started long before history was recorded. Martial techniques were discovered or created during the long epoch of continuous conflict between humanity and animals, or between different tribes of humans themselves. From these battles, experiences were accumulated and techniques discovered which were passed down generation to generation.

Later, with the invention of weapons, different types and shapes of weapons were invented, until eventually metal was discovered. Following the advancement of weapon fabrication, new fighting techniques were created. Different schools and styles originated and tested one another.

Many of these schools or styles created their forms by imitating different types of fighting techniques from animals (tiger, panther, monkey, snake, or bear), birds (eagle, crane, or chicken), or insects (praying mantis). The reason for imitating the animals’ fighting was that it was believed that, in order to survive in the harsh natural environment, all the animals still maintained a natural talent and skill for fighting. The best way to learn the fighting techniques was by studying and imitating these animals. For example, the sharp spirit of the eagle was adopted, the pouncing/fighting of the tiger and eagle’s strong claws was imitated, and the attacking motions of the crane’s beak and wings were copied.

Since the martial techniques first developed in very ancient times, gradually they became part of Chinese culture. The philosophy of these fighting arts and culture has in turn been influenced by other elements of Chinese culture. Therefore, the Yin/Yang Taiji theory was adopted into the techniques, and the Bagua (Eight Trigrams) concept was blended into the fighting strategy and skills.

The Shaolin Temple


Buddhism traveled to China from Nepal/India during the Eastern Han Ming emperor period (58-76 A.D.). Several hundred years after this, as several emperors became sincere Buddhists, Buddhism became very respected and popular in China. It is estimated that by 500 A.D., there probably existed more than 10 thousand Buddhist temples. In order to absorb more Buddhist philosophy during these five hundred years, some monks were sent to India to study Buddhism and bring back Buddhist classics. Naturally, some Indian monks were also invited to China for preaching.

According to one of the oldest books Deng Feng County Recording (Deng Feng Xian Zhi), a Buddhist monk name Batuo came to China for Buddhist preaching in 464 A.D. Deng Feng was the county where the Shaolin Temple was eventually located.

Thirty-one years later, the Shaolin Temple was built in 495 A.D., by the order of Wei Xiao Wen emperor (471-500 A.D.) for Batuo’s preaching. Therefore, Batuo can be considered the first chief monk of the Shaolin Temple. However, there is no record regarding how and what Batuo passed down by way of religious Qigong practice. There is also no record of how or when Batuo died.

However, the most influential person in this area was the Indian monk Da Mo (Pu Ti Ta Mo). Da Mo, whose last name was Sardili and who was also known as Bodhidarma, was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India. He was of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and was considered by many to have been a bodhisattva, or an enlightened being who had renounced nirvana in order to save others. He is considered the 28th patriarch of Buddhism from India, and the 1st patriarch of Buddhism in China. From the fragments of historical records, it is believed that he was born about 483 A.D.

Da Mo was invited to China to preach by the Liang Wu emperor. He arrived in Canton, China in 527 A.D. during the reign of the Wei Xiao Ming emperor(516-528 A.D.) or the Liang Wu emperor (502-550 A.D.). When the emperor decided he did not like Da Mo’s Buddhist theory, the monk withdrew to the Shaolin Temple. When Da Mo arrived, he saw that the priests were weak and sickly, so he shut himself away to ponder the problem. When he emerged after nine years of seclusion, he wrote two classics: Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and Xi Sui Jin (Marrow/Brain Washing Classic).

The Yi Jin Jing taught the priests how to build their Qi to an abundant level and use it to improve health and change their physical bodies from weak to strong. After the priests practiced the Yi Jin Jing exercises, they found that not only did they improve their health, but they also greatly increased their strength. When this training was integrated into the martial arts forms, it increased the effectiveness of their martial techniques. This change marked one more step in the growth of the Chinese martial arts: Martial Arts Qigong.

The Xi Sui Jing taught the priests how to use Qi to clean their bone marrow and strengthen their immune system, as well as how to nourish and energize the brain, helping them to attain Buddhahood. Because the Xi Sui Jing was hard to understand and practice, the training methods were passed down secretly to only a very few disciples in each generation. Da Mo died in the Shaolin Temple in 536 A.D. and was buried on Xiong Er mountain. If you are interested in knowing more about Yi Jin Jing and Xi Sui Jing, please refer to the YMAA book, “Qigong - The Secret of Youth: Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/ Brain Washing”.

During the revolutionary period between the Sui dynasty and the Tang dynasty, in the 4th year of Tang Gao Zu Wu De (621 A.D., Qin King Li Shi-Ming had a serious battle with Zheng King Wang Shi-Chong ( ). When the situation was urgent for Qin King, 13 Shaolin monks assisted him against Zheng. Later, Li Shi-Ming became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and he rewarded the Shaolin Temple with 40 Qing (about 600 acres) of land donated to the temple. He also permitted the Temple to own and train its own soldiers. At that time, in order to protect the wealthy property of the Shaolin Temple from bandits, martial arts training was a necessity for the monks. The priest martial artists in the temple were called “monk soldiers” (Seng Bing). Their responsibility, other than studying Buddhism, was training martial arts to protect the property of the Shaolin Temple.

For nearly three hundred years, the Shaolin Temple legally owned its own martial arts training organization, and continued to absorb martial skill from outside the temple into its training system.

During the Song dynasty (960-1278 A.D.) Shaolin continued to gather more martial skills from outside of the Temple. They blended these arts into the Shaolin training. During this period, one of the most famous Shaolin martial monks, Jueyuan traveled around the country in order to learn and absorb high levels of martial skill into Shaolin. He went to Lan Zhou to meet one of the most famous martial artists, Li Sou. From Li Sou, he meets Li Sou’s friend, Bai Yu-Feng and his son.

Later, all four returned to the Shaolin Temple and studied together. After ten years of mutual study and research, Li Sou left Shaolin; Bai Yu-Feng and his son decided to stay in Shaolin and became monks. Bai Yu-Feng’s monk name was Qiu Yue Chan Shi. Qiu Yue Chan Shi is known for his barehanded fighting and narrow blade sword techniques. According to the book Shaolin Temple Record, he developed the then existing 18 Buddha Hands techniques into 173 techniques. Not only that, he compiled the existing techniques contained within Shaolin and wrote the book, The Essence of Five Fist. This book included and discussed the practice methods and applications of the Five Fist (Animal) Patterns. The five animals included: Dragon, Tiger, Snake, Panther, and Crane. This record confirms that the Five Animal Patterns martial skills already existed for some time in the Shaolin Temple.

From the same source, it is recorded that in the Yuan dynasty, in the year 1312 A.D., the monk Da Zhi came to the Shaolin Temple from Japan. After he studied Shaolin martial arts (bare hands and staff) for nearly 13 years (1324 A.D.), he returned to Japan and spread Shaolin Gongfu to Japanese martial arts society. Later, in 1335 A.D. another Buddhist monk named Shao Yuan came to Shaolin from Japan. He mastered calligraphy, painting, Chan theory (Zen), and Shaolin Gongfu during his stay. He returned to Japan in 1347 A.D., and was considered and regarded a “Country Spirit” by the Japanese people. This confirms that Shaolin martial techniques were imported into Japan for at least seven hundred years.

Later, when Manchuria took over China and became the Qing dynasty, in order to prevent the Han race (pre-Manchurian) Chinese from rebelling against the government, martial arts training was forbidden for a long period of time (1644-1911 A.D.). In order to preserve the arts, Shaolin martial techniques spread to layman society. All martial arts training in the Shaolin Temple was carried out secretly during this time. Moreover, the Shaolin monk soldiers had decreased in number from thousands to only a couple of hundred, all trained secretly.

After 1911, the Qing dynasty fell in a revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. At this time, the value of traditional Chinese martial arts was re-evaluated, and the secrets of Chinese martial arts were revealed to the public. From the 1920’s to the 1930’s, many martial arts books were published. However, this was also the Chinese Civil War period, during which Chiang Kai-Shek tried to unify the country. In 1928, there was a battle in the area of the Shaolin Temple. The Temple was burned for the last time by Warlord Shi You-San’s military. The fire lasted for more than 40 days, and all the major buildings were destroyed. The most priceless books and records on martial arts were also burned and lost.

It was also during this period that, in order to preserve Chinese martial arts, President Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the establishment of the Nanking Central Guoshu Institute at Nanking in 1928. For this institute, many famous masters and practitioners were recruited. The traditional name “Wushu” (martial techniques) was renamed “Zhong Guo Wushu” (Chinese martial techniques, ) or simply “Guoshu” (country techniques). This was the first time in Chinese history that under the government’s power, all the different styles of Chinese martial arts sat down and shared knowledge together. Unfortunately, after only three generations, World War II started in 1937 A.D., and all training was discontinued due to the war.

After the second World War in 1945, mainland China was taken over by communists. Under communist rule, all religions were forbidden. Naturally, all Shaolin training was also prohibited. Later, under the communist party, Wushu training was established at the National Athletics Institute. In this organization, the communist party purposely deleted portions of the martial training and applications in order to discourage possible unification of martial artists against the government. Performance was the goal of this organization. This situation was not changed until the late 1980’s. After the communist government realized that the essence of the arts - martial training and applications - started to die out following the death of many traditional masters, the traditional training was once again encouraged. Unfortunately, many masters had already been killed during the so-called cultural revolution, and many others had lost their trust of the communist party, and were not willing to share their knowledge.

In order to bring Chinese Wushu into Olympic competition, China had expended a great deal of effort to promote Wushu. With this motivation, the Shaolin Temple again received attention from the government. New buildings were constructed and a grand hotel was built. The Shaolin Temple became an important tourist location! In addition, many training activities and programs were created for interested martial artists around the world. Moreover, in order to preserve the dying martial arts, a team called the “Martial Arts Investigation Team” was organized by the government. The mission of this team is to search for surviving old traditional masters and to put their knowledge in book or video form.

This situation was different in Taiwan. When Chiang Kai-Shek retreated from mainland China to Taiwan, he brought with him many well-known masters, who passed down the Chinese martial arts there. Traditional methods of training were maintained and the arts were preserved in the traditional way. Unfortunately, due to modern new life styles, not too many youngsters were willing to dedicate the necessary time and patience for the training. The level of the arts has therefore reached the lowest level in Chinese martial history. Many secrets of the arts which were the accumulation of thousand years of human experience have rapidly died out. In order to preserve the arts, the remaining secrets began to be revealed to the general public, and even to western society. It is good that books and videos have been widely used both in mainland China and Taiwan to preserve the arts.

If we look backward at the martial arts history in China, we can see that in the early 1900’s, the Chinese martial arts still carried the traditional ways of training. The level of the arts remained high. From then until World War II, the level of arts degenerated very rapidly. From the War until now, in my opinion, the arts have not even reached one-half of their traditional levels.

All of us should understand that martial arts training today is no longer useful for war. The chances for using it in self-defense have also been reduced to a minimum compared to that of ancient times. This is an art whose knowledge has taken the Chinese thousands of years to accumulate. What remains for us to learn is the spirit of the arts. From learning these arts, we will be able to discipline ourselves and promote our understanding of life to a higher spiritual level. From learning the arts, we will be able to maintain healthy conditions in our physical and energetic bodies.

This subject is also explored in the DVD "Shaolin Long Fist Basic Sequences".

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.


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COMMENTS

Thank you
kim – April 4, 2008, 3:49 pm
I would like to begin by saying that I think that it is wonderful to find a resource on traditional martial arts like this one on the internet. Also, I think that it is equally great that the general public is encouraged to comment on the articles that they read here.
Next I would also like to agree that it seems as if martial arts has degenerated in both quality and tradition over the past century. This is evident in MMA circles where the practitioners are in a hurry to learn whatever they can, from form whomever they feel can offer them the most to benefit their carreers as sport fighters. Many of them do this with total disregard for the spirit of the martial arts and as a result learn to become fighters in meat market spectacles, and not true martial artists. Futhermore, this mentality in the students is fostered by instructors who tend to be looking to make a quick buck and teach very dangerous techniques to people with little or no regard to their students level of maturity and dedication. Students are encouraged to enjoy hurting people in these environments and it is sad that they deviate from traditions of honour and empathy.
However I am sure that there are many martial artists out there that would agree that martial may not be the same as they were a century ago because they have changed to suit a more modern world and they have (in the right circles) grown as a result. This is evident all around us. Military tactics continue to change and become more effective; Nobody will disagree with the notion that a modern army would destroy any army in WWII. Chess enthusiast know the game is not played in the same manner it was a hundered years ago, yet todays players all agree that the modern day game is superior to the way it was. Advancements in Science over the last hundered years leave no doubt that we are further ahead in all diciplines of Science than we were a century ago.
In addition to all the good techniques, ideals and principles found in traditional martial arts; There are many tradional techniques that don't stand up to scutiny anymore.
This is not because of any error in following tradition, but beacause modern advancements in comunication have made it easier for different traditions to meet and discuss variations in technique and grow in mature environments at a rate never seen before.
I do not want to be misinterpereted as someone who is against tradition, there continues to be much merit to be found in it; Nor do I want to to be a vigilante in a battle for change. Merely I wish to point out that both tradition and change have there appeals. It is up to the individual to ensure that the appeal for either one is warranted.
I really enjoyed this article Dr. Yang. Thank you once again for posting it. I know that what I wrote expresses a different oppinion than yours, and it is not my intent to offend anyone, just to open the lines of communication between all martial artists, for the advancement of my own understanding and the understanding of others.

Scincerely

Jake
Jake – April 6, 2008, 8:45 pm
Dr. Yang,
Bodhidharma is not the author of the I chin-Ching, which is itself a forgery. There's no evidence to link Bodhidharma with this pre-modern document. The exercises are not Indian. It's a Taoist text. It is not the basis of Chinese boxing. Frankly, I enjoyed your work on Chin Na--and I am surprised that you did not do your homework on this. This document was known as a forgery in the 1920s. Teachers, such as yourself, should abandon this tired, romantic and false view of the origin of Chinese martial arts. The Chinese were practicing martial arts about 700 years before the arrival of the famous monk. Bodhidharma is not the founder of Shaolin martial arts. The Bodhidharma/Shaolin story is a myth.

Sincerely,
Mehmet S. Tekbas
Anonymous – December 7, 2010, 5:23 pm



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