The Roots of Wing Chun Kuen

Arrival of Buddhism in China

Anybody doing research into the history of Kung Fu will find its roots in Buddhism. This fact is still evident in many Kung Fu styles nowadays and even more so in Wing Chun Kuen. The section of ‘Sam Pai Faat’ in ‘Siu Lim Tao’ gives a clear indication of Zen Buddhism's influence by its very name of ‘Three Bows to Buddha’ and in the physical motion itself.

If there is such a thing as a common reference point in tracing the history of Kung Fu, it is the Shaolin Temple and the journey of Buddhism from India to China.

Buddhism reached China some time during the reign of the Eastern Han Ming Emperor (58 - 76 A.D.) and soon flourished. It is estimated that by 500 A.D. there were more than 10'000 Buddhist temples in China and many Emperors became devout Buddhists.

In 495 A.D. the Shaolin Temple was constructed by the Emperor's order. The Temple was built to house the teachings of a Buddhist monk named Batuo, who came to China for Buddhist teaching. The Temple was built at the foot of Shao Shi Mountain. It was named ‘Shaolin’, which means ‘Young Forest’. The new Temple derived its name from the fact that the Emperor's gardeners planted bountiful numbers of trees on the Temple grounds.

Bodhidharma, Chan and Taoism

The most influential person in the study of Kung Fu's history through the Shaolin Temple is an Indian monk named Da Mo. Da Mo, also known as Bodhidharma, had been the third son of a Brahman king in southern India. Although having been born into privilege, he wasn't content with spending an idle life. Instead he was seeking answers to the more profound questions in life. His quest eventually led him to Buddhism and he took the Buddhist vows at an early age and entered monastic life. He followed the Mahayana school of Buddhism and was revered as a Bodhisattva - an enlightened being who had renounced Nirvana so as to save others. The reputation of him having reached a state of a highly evolved being eventually even reached the ears of the Chinese Emperor Liang Wu. The Emperor wanted to meet Bodhidharma personally and invited him to come to China and Bodhidharma left his monastery in southern India to teach 'Chan' Buddhism in China. 'Chan' is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word 'Dhyana', signifying yogic concentration, which has come to be better known in the West by its Japanese interpretation, Zen.

When Bodhidharma saw the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty in 527 A.D., the Emperor asked, “What is the ultimate holy truth? ”Bodhidharma answered, “It is emptiness itself and there is nothing holy.” The Emperor then asked: “Who then is the one who at present stands confronting me?” and Bodhidharma answered: “I don't know!”

This episode was later on to become one of the Koans of the ‘Hekigan-shu’ (‘Blue Cliff Record’) in Japanese Zen Buddhism.

The Emperor disliked Bodhidharma's preaching because he couldn't grasp the meaning of the teaching and Bodhidharma withdrew to the Shaolin Temple.

The monastery had become famous for scholarly translations of immense works of Buddhist scripture into Chinese. The monks worked as scribes in shifts, day and night, translating over six hundred sacred Sanskrit books into their native language. Upon Bodhidharma's arrival, however, the Head Monk feared that the sage's reformist Chan Buddhism, which dismissed book learning as irrelevant, might disrupt the monastery's more traditional approach to Buddhism. The Head Monk therefore directed Bodhidharma to remain outside of the Temple.

The legends of Bodhidharma in Chinese mythology are elaborate, to say the least. One legend has him taking refuge in a nearby cave where he remained in meditation for nine years. After accidentally falling asleep, he became so angered with himself that he tore off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. Tea shrubs grew from the ground beneath the discarded eyelids and monks have used tea ever since to deter sleep.

During his seclusion, monks, scholars and peasants alike gradually began visiting this spiritual eccentric, although it was always a one-way conversation, since he would not let himself be disturbed in meditation, refusing to speak to anyone. They left as they had come, unenlightened, unable to discern the meaning behind his philosophy of silence. This was the Indian Master's missed point, for his was ‘a silent transmission of the seal of the mind’. By this, Bodhidharma was saying, “Put an end to all outside disturbances by going inside oneself, realize the inherent emptiness to all phenomena and thus transcend the illusion of the physical world as we perceive it through our five senses and by doing so, enter into the realm of true understanding”.

In Zen stories it is related that at the end of the nine years Bodhidharma's large, deep blue piercing eyes did exactly that; his powerfully steady gaze had drilled a gaping hole into the wall of the cave wall. After seeing the eye-riveted orifice, the stunned Shaolin Head Monk could no longer resist Bodhidharma's obviously superior authority. - Bodhidharma entered the Shaolin Monastery gates to become the first patriarch of the Zen sect in China.

Bodhidharma found many monks to be sick and weak upon arriving at the Temple. He realized that their flaccid and emaciated bodies could not stand the test of prolonged mental austerity. Although Buddhism is aimed specifically at the salvation of the soul, Bodhidharma explained to the monks that body and soul are inseparable. This unity must be invigorated for enlightenment. The legend continues that physical fitness became a part of Shaolin life with his introduction of systematized exercises to strengthen the body and mind. Not only was health perfected, but self-defense movements were devised later from Bodhidharma's knowledge of Indian fighting systems. These early exercises marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple Boxing. Bodhidharma transmitted orally his exercise forms which were transcribed by later monks as: 1) The Muscle Change Classic or The Change of Sinews, 2) The Marrow Washing and 3) The Eighteen Hand Movements of the Enlightened One (The Eighteen Lo Han Shou). These classics taught the priests how to build their Qi to an abundant level and use it to improve their health. When this training was combined with the already existant martial art forms, the priests found a remarkable improvement of strength and power in their martial techniques. The method that emerged from the Shaolin Temple, which is representative of the northern Chinese styles in general, was called ‘Wai Jia’ or external family of Chinese boxing. Shaolin strove to increase the speed, strength and elasticity. It was a form of vigorous callisthenics and became the basics from which Karate in Okinawa (‘Toudi’) and the Korean martial arts were derived.

‘Shaolin Quan Fa’ (Way/Technique of the Shaolin Fist) rapidly gained recognition by people from all walks of life and it was not before too long that word of its benefits spread to members of another famous Chinese faith, Taoism, which taught avoidance of force through contemplation and reason. Taoist priests became increasingly attracted to the Shaolin system because of its peaceful and nonoffensive philosophical foundation.

Unlike Buddhist tenets, Taoism does not promise Nirvana at the end of the spiritual pursuit. Neither does it offer salvation that delivers men from misery and death. On the contrary, the Taoists treasure life because to them living is supremely sweet and enjoyable after having realized nature's rhythms.

The approximate literal translation of the ‘Tao’ is the ‘Way’ or ‘Path’, although, according to the Taoist classic literary work ‘Tao Te Ching’, its meaning is inexpressible in words, “The Tao that can be named is not the everlasting Tao”. The eighty-one chapters of the Tao Te Ching (meaning ‘The Way and Its Power’) are attributed to Lao Tzu, the traditional father of Taoism who is believed to have lived about 580 - 480 B.C. It must be mentioned in this context that certain Taoist ideas were considered long before the appearance of Lao Tzu. If we examine the 'I Ching', known as the ‘Book of Changes’ in English, we will discover many Taoist concepts. In this classic book of divination, dating perhaps as far back as the sixteenth century before Christ, we see the first mention of Tao and Yin and Yang, dealing with the duality of nature: "Yin and Yang, together they are called Tao". Therefore, we may safely assume that Lao Tzu did not originate his entire philosophy. He absorbed what he felt to be the best thoughts of his country's intellectual heritage, distilled them, added to them and founded the first organized school of Taoism.

Some of the sayings in the Tao Te Ching which might be of particular interest for martial purposes, are:

Chapter 10

Chapter 28

Chapter 64

Chapter 81

Besides Buddhism and Taoism, there were also two more major philosophical schools, the Confucians and Legalists; these were promulgated for sociopolitical problem-solving through regulations and laws. Whereas the anarchistic Taoists advocated that "The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the law books, the more thieves and bandits there will be." Taoist thinkers felt it best to transcend earthly suffering by withdrawing from society, meditating and realizing and joining the natural forces of life. The followers of Taoism, along with the Chinese people in general, felt that the cosmos was composed of five elements or forces: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. Each element produces or changes another in cyclical succession. Matter and energy are indestructible; they can change their forms but can never be destroyed.

Depending on the level of sophistication of any of the literally hundreds of martial arts styles, the above-mentioned philosophies, theories and principles were gradually incorporated into the martial systems. In some to a very high degree whereas in others to a lesser extent.

Shaolin Temple and its Warrior Monks

Very quickly the Shaolin monks would become revered for their fighting prowess. Towards the end of the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618) Li Shi Min, Prince of Qin, was leading his troops against Wang Shi Chong at Luoyang. Li, having heard of Shaolin Temple's famous warrior monks asked them to help. The monks responded and captured Wang's nephew thus, resulting in the defeat of Wang and the founding of the Tang Dynasty by Li Shi Min. Li Shi Min rewarded the Shaolin Temple with approximately 600 acres of land. He also granted the Temple the right to train its own soldiers and inscribed a stele (inscribed stone pillar) stating the achievements, which is housed today within the temple grounds.

Such were the riches of the Shaolin Temple that martial arts training became a necessity to protect its wealth from bandits roaming the countryside.

For three hundred years the Shaolin Temple enjoyed a golden period in which it legally owned its own martial arts training organisation. The Temple also remained open to outside martial influences, absorbing what it could and incorporating these techniques and training methods into its own system. It was during this period that some of the warrior monks travelled the country learning martial art techniques and working with other famous martial artists. This finally resulted in the compilation of the book ‘The Essence of the Five Fists’, which discussed the methods and applications of the ‘Five Fist (Animal) Patterns’ for which Shaolin Kung Fu is most famous for. The Snake, Dragon, Crane, Tiger and Leopard make up this system. The character of each creature is expressed which conveys an idea and feeling for training in that form.

The Dragon develops and unites inner spirit, the Tiger develops and strengthens the bones and tendons, the Snake develops and improves the internal energy, the Crane develops vitality and essence and the Leopard develops strength. Besides these main animal styles there are also other animal forms such as Praying Mantis, Eagle Claw, Monkey, Dog and Scorpion just to name a few. Shaolin Kung Fu is a complex art that has evolved over the last 1500 years. It utilises all aspects of martial practice: punching, kicking, striking, throwing, grappling, weaponry, point striking and Qi cultivation. The Shaolin system contains both ‘Wai Gong’ (External Skill) and ‘Nei Gong’ (Internal Skill) in its methodology. It is a common misunderstanding that Shaolin Kung Fu is only an external style of Kung Fu. Shaolin Kung Fu cultivates Qi, Jing and Shen and promotes the development of the muscle, bone and skin. Moreover, Shaolin practice is also a pathway to Zen as described earlier and thus essentially goes beyond just the physical motion of the numerous forms in its curriculum.

The Shaolin Temple was also responsible for spreading the Chinese martial arts to Japan. In the year 1312 A.D. the monk Da Zhi came to the Shaolin Temple from Japan. He studied the Shaolin martial arts (barehands and staff) for 13 years and returned to Japan to spread Shaolin Kung Fu to Japanese martial arts society. In 1335 A.D. a Buddhist monk named Shao Yuan ventured to Shaolin from Japan. During his stay he mastered Kung Fu and returned to Japan in 1347 A.D. The golden era of the Shaolin Temple ended 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 outlawed between 1644 and 1911 AD. This was also the time when the Northern and Southern Shaolin Temples were burned down by government troops. This period was also the time when the new martial system of Wing Chun Kuen was created as we will see in the next article of ‘Stories of Wing Chun Kuen’.

Revival of Shaolin

In 1911 the Qing Dynasty fell in a revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. The value of Chinese martial arts was re-evaluated and for the first time the secrets of Chinese Kung Fu were permitted to be openly taught to the public.

During the civil war, Chiang Kai-Shek tried to unify the country. The battle spilled into the Shaolin Temple in 1928 and the Temple was burned down by the Warlord Shi You-San's soldiers. The fire lasted for forty days, destroying all major buildings and priceless books and records. Many of the monks fled but those who stayed maintained Shaolin history, culture and skills to the present day. In order to preserve the Chinese martial art, President Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the establishment of the Nanking Central Guoshu Institute in Nanking in 1928. For the first time in Chinese history, by rule of the government, all the major martial arts exponents came together to share their knowledge. Unfortunately, at the outbreak of World War II all efforts became futile and training was largely abandoned.

China was taken over by the Communists following the Second World War. All religions and all martial art practice was prohibited under Communist rule. Instead, Wushu training was established at the National Athletics Institute. This was not Kung Fu in the traditional sense, but rather performance based with major portions of martial training and application of martial techniques eradicated by the government to discourage possible unification of martial artists against the government.

It was not until the 1980's (unfortunately after several of the traditional martial arts masters had passed away already) that the Chinese government realised the value of traditional martial arts training and so started to encourage it.

back to top