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The Fundamentals of Shaolin Kung Fu

By: Scott Elledge & David Stubblefield

History of the Shaolin Temple Breathing & Meditation Conditioning & Stretching Internal Styles External Styles Weapons

History of the Shaolin Temple

The word Shaolin is derived from Shaoshi Mountain and lin, the Chinese word for forest. This describes the geographic area of the first temple built in the Henan Province around 495 A.D.

32 years later, an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma came to the temple, but was turned away by the head abbot, Fang Chang

Bodhidharma was determined and went to a nearby cave and meditated

Nobody knows exactly why, but Bodhidharma was then allowed into the temple and he soon noticed that the monks were in poor physical health

He began teaching them moving exercises designed to enhance Chi flow and build strength. They consisted of 18 actions known as the 18 Lohan movements or forms.

These 18 forms later evolved into 54 forms and then into 108 forms. These movements were the start of Shaolin Chuan or Shaolin Fist, later know as Kung Fu.

Over the years, due to repeated attacks and periods of inactivity due to reigning Imperial and regional leaders who feared the monks, other temples were incorporated into Shaolin.

The 5 main temples were:

The Henan Temple, the original temple and the one seen in Chinese Kung Fu movies.

The Fukien Temple, know as the headquarters during times when Henan was either destroyed or under threat.

The Kwangtung Temple, known as the snake temple.

The Wutang Temple, known as the Tiger temple.

The O Mei Shan Temple, known as the Crane Temple.

Breathing and Meditation

Meditation is the essence of Chan Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu and it is the soul of Bodhidharmas teachings

Meditation simply means to be fully aware of the moment.

It is done in a number of different postures such as sitting, standing, head stand, and Iron Bar, which is stretching out between two benches with your head on one and your heels on the other.

These postures were usually held for several hours at a time and some monks achieved such high levels of sitting practice that they would meditate for a week straight with no break for sleep.

Some monks have skills so high that they abstain from lying down ever again and at the highest level, some even die in state, which means to pass on in seated meditation with out falling over.

Breathing is an important part of meditation and there are two basic types of breathing.

The first is Hou Tien Chi, the breath after your birth. It is used to relax the mind and body, and heighten sensitivity. It involves positive breathing in which the abdomen expands when inhaling and contracts when exhaling.

The other is Hsien Tien Chi, the Breath before birth. It is referred to as negative breathing and involves contracting the abdomen when inhaling and expanding while exhaling.

Conditioning and Stretching

Conditioning and stretching are essential to all Martial Arts, including Kung Fu. But the Shaolin conditioning and stretching training system is too vast, deep, and numerous to account for in full detail, but the following are some aspects of the system.

I Chin Ching: These are basic stretching exercises based on the 49 postures of the I Chin Ching or Muscle-Tendon-Change Classic that Bodhidharma is attributed to have initiated.

These 49 postures are designed to develop a balance of strength and flexibility by working on the muscles and tendons and each posture is usually practiced for 49 breaths each.

Yin/Yang Conditioning: The Human body has 434 voluntary muscles composed of two types of fibers, white and red. This form of conditioning helps in part to develop a balance of the slow twitch or red fibers as well as fast twitch or white fibers. It is referred to as postive/negitive conditioning

Endurance punching and kicking: This was carried out indoors in the winter. It consisted of a set of exercises that are designed to develop endurance and stamina.

Outdoor Conditioning: This was carried out outdoors in the fall. It was designed for endurance and strength as well as balance on uneven outdoor surfaces.

Iron Bone Training: This is probably the most famous of the training done by the Shaolin. Its carried out to densify the skin and bones by mechanical vibration or controlled stress caused by impact of the forearms, legs, and palms on either a punching bag, tree, water, or into hot sand.

Internal Styles

There are numerous Internal Styles, but the two most well known are Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong.

Tai Chi Chuan: means the Grand Ultimate Fist and is often referred to as meditation in motion. It is one of the more popular internal styles that is practiced by the general public in China and the West.

Although it is commonly considered to be a slow gentle form that is like meditation in motion, in actual it is the most devastating of all martial arts when trained for that purpose

Although it is commonly considered to be a slow gentle form that is like meditation in motion, in actual it is the most devastating of all martial arts when trained for that purpose

Yet, because of its subtlety, fluidity and the decades of practice that it requires to truly master it, few people care to pursue it for more than exercise and holistic purposes

Tai Chi training, when carried out with the martial aspects in mind, enhances sensitivity, yielding ability (like a snake), rooting, fluidity of motion (swimming in air, reeling silk), and counterstrikes that involve returning the opponents energy.

The ancient masters of the art were so skilled that a fly landing on their arm would set their entire body into motion, a sparrow sitting on the palm of the hand was unable to fly, every punch or kick thrown in their direction were brushed away effortlessly and they delivered the devastating earth-shaking strikes by sinking, rooting and discharging their chi.

Qigong is the art of developing vital energy, particularly for health, vitality, mind expansion and spiritual cultivation.

It is a major part of Shaolin kung fu and is intertwined into every external style.

It involves the building of Chi and directing it to parts of the body for prevention from injury or to an opponent with the intent to injure.

All great kung fu makes use of energy training to develop internal force, without which it remains at its external, mechanical level, considered by Chinese martial artists as rough and low-class.

Hence, a kung fu master may look, and actually is, gentle, yet with his internal force he can cause much damage to his opponent if he wishes.

Hence, a kung fu master may look, and actually is, gentle, yet with his internal force he can cause much damage to his opponent if he wishes. His internal force does not diminish with age, and he can apply it for peaceful use in his daily living

External Styles

These kung fu styles may generally be divided into 3 classes: Shaolin Temple styles, Temple-derived non-temple styles, and Family styles and there are two major divisions in Shaolin kung fu. External styles vary into the hundreds and the majority of them are based on animal movements.

The Southern Shaolin styles, which are predominantly hand technique oriented, consist of Southern Praying Mantis and the 5 animals that make up the Five Animal Fist: Tiger, Dragon, Leopard, Snake and White Crane.

And the Northern Shaolin styles, which put more emphasis on kicks and foot techniques. It consisted of Northern Praying Mantis, Black Crane, and Black Tiger.

Southern Praying Mantis rarely emphasizes one type of technique. The Mantis hook is employed, but so are numerous other trapping and controlling maneuvers.

The typical closed fist of other styles is absent from the southern sect, which instead favors the mantis fist, a modification of the leopard punch, but concentrating all of the striking force through a single finger.

Stances are low to moderate, but firmly anchored to the ground and there is tremendous use of the knees, elbows and low, powerful kicks.

Southern Tiger utilizes a hard, external approach to combat that meets force with force and is very likely to maim or kill an opponent because of the nature of the counterattack.

Its primary hand weapons are the closed fist and tiger claw.

While kicking maneuvers are usually low to middle range kicks of great power.

One studies Tiger to develop bones, muscles and tendons. The emphasis is on strength and dynamic tension, culminated in short, hard, snappy moves.

The Dragon represented two of the ancient elements, earth and water, endowing the creature with powers of elusion and power.

Dragon style relies heavily upon evasion as a tactic and evades primarily by rotation of the upper or lower torso with little or no stance movement.

It employs pinpoint strikes to vulnerable targets and also heavily uses tiger-like punches and clawing techniques, snake-like stance shifts, and leopard-like hit and run strikes to weaken a physically superior adversary.

Leopard style is construed as a soft subsystem and is used to develop speed and strength, for it is the fastest of the tiger family.

The main weapon is the leopard fist. The fist is formed in such a way that it can jab, rake or crush on any surface without alteration, striking soft points in the anatomy and structural weak points.

The back of the hand is often used in breaking while a variation with the first two fingers extended is used for attacks to the eyes.

Southern Snake style is distinguished from most of the other animal styles by the introduction of circular movements in its parries and attacks.

This introduction of circles characterizes the transition to a higher style. The circles themselves can be compared to the dynamics of Yin and Yang in Taoism.

Circular attacks (viewed as Yin) are countered by direct attacks (Yang).

Similarly, straight techniques are countered by circular ones.

The emphasis on snake style is hitting weak points along the Chi meridians as in acupuncture.

It has been suggested by some practitioners of acupuncture, that the meridian routes were mapped based on preferred sites for mosquito bites. Many bites induced discomfort in distant parts of the body.

The modern snake kung fu style is a collection of older styles which have now died out. Its range of techniques, however, reflect the influence of three different styles.

Viper consisted of intimidating strikes that could inflict heavy psychological damage by drawing lots of blood without causing life-threatening damage. Its trademark was the tongue strike two fingers aiming often at arteries and veins.

Cobra, which did not emphasize highly recognizable or showy techniques, but rather very serious strikes to nerves and pressure points. Its characteristic hand technique was an open hand with the thumb curled underneath in order to maintain dynamic tension.

Python relied on the leopard fist for its pin point strikes and included grappling.

The two universal aspects of snake techniques are pin point openhand strikes and twisting arm postures to disguise ones line of attack.

Most snake kung fu practitioners use an upright, mobile stance which allows for rapid advances and sidestepping footwork.

Using fast, alternating hand jabs, the practitioner drills at an opponent, sidesteps, counterattacks and drives home his attack.

One day an old man was meditating near a pond when he observed a beautiful white stork, when out of the forest came a gorilla. He feared that the ape would destroy the bird, but was amazed by the birds elusiveness and ability to peck vital parts of the gorillas anatomy.

Major characteristics of this system include wide-armed, wing-like movements, high kicking, and the cranes beak, a hand weapon made by joining the fingertips firmly.

As the defender physically evades an assault, the torso turns with force that accelerates the force of a strike, making even minor contacts painful to the attacker.

And evasive footwork forces the opponent to work harder to target in on the kung fu practitioner, who in turn has the opportunity to tire his opponent before launching a definitive counterattack.

Footwork in the White Crane is legendary, targets being anything from the head to groin. Bottom of the foot kicks are effective, as are crushing stomps, generated at close range and with great speed. Other kicks are designed to dislocate or unbalance opponents.

The founder of Northern Praying Mantis was the boxer Wang Lang, who developed the method of combat around 1600 A.D. He took the basic movements of a praying mantis and incorporated the erratic footwork of the monkey style.

Northern Mantis splinters off into different styles like Seven Stars or Plum Blossom Praying Mantis, but common to all Northern Mantis kung fu styles is the use of the mantis hook.

The hook is used for striking, blocking and parrying. Advanced practitioners learn to lock onto the opponent to employ sticking or leading techniques, but never maintain a strong grip. Mantis further employs breaking of joints, particularly at the elbow.

Black Crane kung fu constitutes the hand sets of the Shaolin Crane and provides a short range style for boxing useful to tall boxers. It includes throws and locks but is missing the intricate forms so that it could be studied by the general populace or military personnel.

The movements are a collection of the ancient crane style, some tiger and the motion of snake. Because the exercises were intended to teach character and spirit, the style inherited the stork stance long before white crane kung fu itself was introduced into China.

Black Tiger kung fu originated in the Henan Shaolin Temple.

It has more emphasis on footwork than the Southern Shaolin kung fu forms and bears some resemblance to Eagle style.

The list of animal styles goes on and on, one for just about every animal imaginable, such as dog style, monkey, frog, and eagle.

There are also other styles attributed to the Shaolin such as Wing Chun.

Wing Chun is arguably the most famous single style within the Shaolin system. It was made known to the west by Bruce Lee and James Lee in the late 1960s in what was the single most influential introduction of Chinese kung fu outside China

Despite Lees rapid evolution of a personal style away from traditional Wing Chun, his association with that style was a major factor in its continued success over the years.

Wing Chun was developed by a Shaolin nun and there are three different forms.

The first requires use of his or her imagination in the practice and application of techniques.

Most moves are repeated 3 times, the primary attack is a sun fist (thumb facing upward on impact), and a variety of arm parries and blocks employed. There is no footwork employed.

The second adds a few new moves to the techniques from the first form, but adds more sticky-hands and bridge techniques. Bridge techniques are extended arm moves that intercept and redirect incoming attacks without using the brute power required in blocking. These techniques take advantage of the physics of swinging objects.

The third form is primarily an offensive form, using finger thrusts or spearhands in a variety of ways. There is more footwork, including a sweep, low kicks, and stance shifts.

Drunken Style kung fu is a well known style and is often incorporated into animal styles and use of weapons.

The secret behind drunken kung fu is the sudden release of power from awkward positions.

The footwork enables the user to confuse his opponent by swaying, falling, and move as if he were drunk.

A common hand form is positioning the hands as if holding a small Chinese rice wine cup or a jug.

The use of weapons was skillfully mastered by the Shaolin fighting monks.

After repeated practice and research, the monks developed many different weapons and their unique styles. The variety of Shaolin weapons eventually increased to over 120, but the basic 18 are:

Shaolin Fork

Tri Point Double Edged Sword


Shaolin Iron Pen

Shaolin Hand Dart

Straight Sword


Ta Mo Cane

Flying Dart

Monks Spade


Shaolin Thorn



Zhuihun Sword

Nine Section Whip

Chunqiu Sword

Iron Flute

All of these weapons were usually mixed into different animal and drunken styles, but some styles were based on the weapon itself.

One of the oldest Shaolin philosophies is that one who engages in combat has already lost the battle and the Shaolin practitioner is never an attacker, nor does he or she dispatch the most devastating defenses in any situation.

Rather, the study of kung fu leads to better understanding of violence, and consequently how to avoid conflict.

Overall, the early phases of Shaolin training involved a lot what we would call grammar school, for most students entered the order under the age of ten.

Long days were spent learning to read and write.

Students also learned math, history, manners and customs, Taoist and Buddhist philosophies, painting, music, textile work, agriculture, pottery, and cooking.

Older students and disciples would often write books of history, poetry, or natural history, while others would form musical ensembles, paint, or learn medicine.

It was ones development of the cultural side of life that mainly marked ones standing in the Shaolin community.

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