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Kung Fu History



This text covers the development of Shaolin Temple boxing rather than Chinese martial arts in general. The exact historical origins of Shaolin Kung Fu are unknown. Most of what is passed down from instructor to student is legend.

The basic tale is that sometime around 525 A.D. the Indian monk Bodhidharma traveled from India to China. Bodhidharma, called Daruma by the Japanese, was the 28th patriarch of Buddhism. He was supposedly concerned that Buddhism in India had become too orthodox and hierarchical. Bodhidharma traveled to China to revive the spirit of Buddhism.

After a long sea journey and travels overland, Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Monastery (Shorinji in Japanese) and began to institute his program. The training he proposed required long periods of sitting meditation. Evidently, the monks at Shaolin were not physically prepared for this kind of training, so Bodhidharma incorporated a series of exercises into the monks� routine.

These exercises were a mixture of breathing exercises, stretching, and fighting technique Bodhidharma had brought with him from India. In any case, these exercises were intended to help the monks unify their minds with their bodies by strengthening both. The system of martial training that is called Shaolin has expanded greatly, but its original purpose of mind/body conditioning for purposes of physical and mental health as well as personal protection has not changed.

Of course there were skills of warfare and fighting in China before Bodhidharma. Nevertheless, in legend at least, Bodhidharma�s influence is central to Chinese martial arts.

In establishing this system of training, Bodhidharma became not only the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, but the 1st patriarch of Zen, which we will discuss in more depth later in this section.

The system or conditioning that is believed to have originated in the Shaolin Temple has come to be called �Kung Fu.� Kung Fu is a general term that literally means �time and effort. � It can be applied to anyone who is an expert in his field. Since martial artists have gained a reputation as the embodiment of physical and mental expertise, the art they practice is considered the quintessence of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu is characterized by circular, flowing movements arranged in combinations of multiple and often concealed strikes. These combinations can include joint attacks that are derived from a subsystem of training called Chin Na (literally �Grab Take� or grappling). Kung Fu is predominantly, but not exclusively, circular in its style of movement. Linear movement is also incorporated.

The system is divided into Northern and Southern styles, and the saying is, �Northern legs, Southern hands.� This saying comes from the fact that in the Southern Kung Fu the moves are tight and close in. Hand technique dominates due to the crowded, urban, and sometimes maritime combat environment. In the wide North, long sweeping leg movements, leaps, jumps, and flying kicks are used to chase opponents over terrain.

Some of the major styles of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu are:
Hung Gar
Choy Li Fut
Wing Chun

Some of the major sytles of Northern Shaolin Kung Fu are:
Tien Shan Pai
Northern Mantis

The variety and cross influence of the Chinese fighting arts cannot be understated. With this in mind, students should pay more attention to the common origin and purpose of the art, rather than the particular differences of its many and changing manifestations.


In the Shaolin arts, the training can be (though this is not uniform throughout China) divided into different skills. These skills are: Punching (Da (to hit) Chuan Fa literally �Fist Method� in Mandarin or �Kenpo� in Japanese), Kicking (Ti), Grappling (Chin Na, literally �Grab Catch�), and Throwing (Swai). The skills are developed through physically performing and otherwise practicing the five components. These components are: Basics, Technique, Form, Sparring, and Philosophy. The Shaolin system, Kung Fu, is a system, and as such its component parts overlap and reinforce one another. Yet each of these parts teaches something that the others do not teach, or at least that the others do not teach as thoroughly.

For this reason, a person who only studied philosophy but who never put it to the test of hard work and risk that the other components offer, could not be called a martial artist who has studied a system.

Similarly, a person who only studied sparring, and who did so exclusive of the lessons offered by form and philosophy, has not studied a system. In Kung Fu, we study a system of training that offers broad insight through multiple perspectives. Each component of the training is a view from a different angle, and any student who avoids certain parts of the training has missed out on the skill that component teaches.

Reading the following will help students know about these aspects of the art, but only long, dedicated, and sincere experience will allow the student to know about these aspects of the art.

Keep in mind, the Shaolin temple was a Zen temple. In Zen, only experience is real. As the Tao Deh Ching begins �The way that can be spoken is not the true way.� That is, words aren�t real, experience is real. This is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something.

The components are as follows:

All training in the martial arts, both physical and mental, begins with basics. Physically, the basics consist of stances, blocks, punches, and kicks. Mentally, the basics are willingness to set one�s own point of view aside or �empty your cup� and begin fresh by learning through effort and experience. Basics teach power, coordination, concentration, speed, balance, breathing control, patience, persistence, and an appreciation of simplicity. Most mistakes are basic mistakes, since basics are the building blocks of martial arts movement. Basics primarily develop punching and kicking skills.

Techniques are combinations of basics. In this area of the training, the student is introduced to self defense options. Techniques are classroom exercises that are designed to give the student an idea of what to do if X happens. Techniques also teach students rules of movement (such as rotation, momentum, leverage, hidden movements, circularity, and linearity, to name just a few) and how to use these rules to maximum effectiveness. In later training, the student should be able to apply and modify techniques according to the situation. Fluid, flexible thinking is emphasized. In a larger sense, techniques teach us to be resourceful in using what we have to solve problems.

Techniques should be performed with an emphasis on self defense effectiveness. They teach all four of the skills.

Form is basics and techniques combined. Form in Kung Fu and/or Kenpo can be regarded as libraries of movement. A form may introduce a student to a set of techniques grouped according to a theme or a style of movement employing a particular motif, such as high kicks, indirect angles, or counterholds. Form can be used to train agility, speed, and strength. Or it can focus more on grace and �presence��that is, the aesthetic element of the martial arts. It can also train endurance. And it can develop spirit � which is to say, focused energy, intention, �heart,� and will.

In form, techniques can be stylized to enhance beauty or physical training, whereas in technique, movements are performed first and always for self-defense training effectiveness.

Form should be performed with a mind toward all of the above, but these aspects should be mixed in a proportion that allows the student to develop and display � eventually � an intuitive and spontaneous expression of martial spirit. Form is not only self defense techniques performed in a series, it is movement as art and as an expression of the subconscious. Of the five components, form is the most esoteric and contains a cultural element. When we say a cultural element, we mean traditional, classical Asian culture. Form drills all four skills but is mainly an aesthetic demonstration.

Sparring is the sport component of the art. Unlike basics, techniques, and form, sparring is freestyle movement rather than predetermined movement. Sparring is both planned and reactive. There are many benefits to sparring. They include excellent endurance training, developing a grasp of where the student�s talents and aptitudes lie, and the ability to �think on one�s feet.� Sparring is practiced both standing to delivery punches, kicks, and grappling moves, or on the ground for finishing. Finishing or ground fighting developed initially in Japan and Mongolia. One theory explaining the origin of Japanese ground technique is that the Samurai, when thrown to the ground and disarmed, wore such heavy armor that they were unable to quickly regain their feet and had to learn to fight on their backs. Whatever the origins of the art, Japanese Jiu Jitsu is a highly developed and effective fighting method that emphasizes leverage over strength. It provides a much needed development of our Chinese Kung Fu finishing skills, and all White Birch Schools are encouraged to hold regular Jiu Jitsu practices. Pursue sparring to develop a sense of strategy, reflex, and spirit. Sparring should be based on skill rather than power, and even though sparring is competitive, you should spar with and not against your partner.

There are several reasons.
1) An instructor should be able to relate to the needs and interests of all his students. Some students will want to spar.
2) Self defense is part of the martial arts, and sparring (even though it is mainly a sport) does provide insights into the construction of the system that other areas of training (form, technique) cannot.
3) Never sparring encourages an overemphasis on theory. Instructors and students who never spar tend to be defensive on this point, and they will often become indignant and even self-righteous when explaining why they do not spar � �It�s useless,� �I don�t need to prove myself,� �I don�t want to reveal my secret techniques,� �Sparring has nothing to do with the real art,� etc., etc.

Sparring is not something that every beginning student needs to know, but it is something that every advanced student should have knowledge of, and which every instructor should understand and be skilled in. that includes both standing up sparring, grappling, and finishing, thus teaching all of the five components.

The final component is history, traditions, and philosophy:

Many students who take up martial arts do so because it is not simply exercise, but also a type of mental training. This mental training, which can include stress reduction, concentration, and personal insight, is the final component of the system. Just as we discussed earlier that all the components of the system overlap, we need to understand that in this final component, we learn this side of the art through every other aspect of the training.

There is a saying in the martial arts that �Without form, there is no content.� This is exactly the case with the spiritual side of the martial arts. If philosophy, attitude, and �spirit� are the content and substance of the martial arts � then what is its form?

Its form is physically doing something in order to develop the above, that is, physically practicing the other four components in order to gain a personal understanding of the philosophy through personal practice.

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