Shaolin Kung Fu

Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 4

On our research trip to China, we visited the remote Nine Lotus Temple, located in a rugged region of the Putien district. Just getting to the base of the mountain on which the temple sits required an hour-and-a-half bus ride from the nearest town. Then came an arduous climb with an elevation gain of 4,000-plus feet. Along the way, the route was surrounded by steep cliffs and ravines that cascaded thousands of feet down to the lowlands.

At the summit, we found that the steep mountainside leveled off into what’s known as Nine Lotus Basin. A village, replete with huts and rice paddies, lay just outside the temple’s boundaries, forming a self-sustaining community. It was a perfect location for warrior monks and revolutionaries conducting operations against the Qing invaders. Supposedly, the complex was attacked by Qing forces because of its link to rebel activities.

The Chinese government claims that Nine Lotus Temple was constructed in 557 and later destroyed. The purported rebuild resulted in the current “original” Southern Shaolin Temple. Some scholars disagree, saying that Nine Dragons Temple was the original edifice and that Nine Lotus Temple was an extension of it. As stated in Part 3 of this report, we concluded that Nine Lotus Temple was the real training ground for the monks who were bent on overthrowing the Qing.

Nine Lotus Temple in the Putien district of southern China

In any case, Nine Lotus Temple was a fascinating place to visit. On display were artifacts and relics dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-906). We paid particular attention to a rack of antique weapons that included a sai and pitchfork (tiger fork). They looked like they’d been buried for centuries. There were also several bathtubs carved out of solid stone. In the past, the monks would submerge themselves in herbal/medicinal mixtures after grueling workouts or bloody battles.

Wang Bo, formerly of the Northern Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt magazine. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video lessons to your smartphone, tablet or computer anytime and anyplace. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path!

Unfortunately, the temple was in a state of disrepair. It appeared that much of it had been constructed during the past eight to 10 years but subsequently abandoned. A skeleton crew was left to run the place. We later found out that after it had been rebuilt, the Chinese government opened it to the public on December 8, 1998. Monks used to live there, and they would demonstrate their skills on a regular basis, but the temple failed economically. Perhaps it lay too far off the beaten path to attract enough tourists.

But centuries ago, being off the beaten path is just what the monks would have wanted. In fact, Nine Lotus Temple would have been an obvious choice for anyone in need of a base from which to engage Qing-dynasty forces. Whether that actually happened may never be known, but it cannot be disputed that the Shaolin tradition was firmly established in the south and was used for military operations against the Qing.

Nine Dragons Temple in southern China

One result of the Manchu (Qing) conquest was that it stimulated the proliferation of the Shaolin style throughout Asia. Monks fleeing the Manchus spread the art far and wide. They traveled to the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) and the Japanese mainland.

A monk named Chen Yuan Pin (1587-1674) journeyed to Japan and stayed there from 1644 to 1648. He taught three samurai his fighting methods, which were later incorporated into jujitsu.

Another traveler who left his mark was Zheng Cheng-gong, known in the West as Koxinga. A pirate who adopted the Ming cause, he ruled the East and South China Seas with his fleet. His crew was composed of warriors from Fujian and the surrounding provinces. In 1661 he landed in Okinawa and taught many islanders his combat techniques, which eventually influenced the development of modern karate.

The Shaolin fighting tradition lives on because of Nine Lotus Temple’s warrior monks, martial artists who practiced and trained fiercely in southern China. The kung fu styles that descended from their art tend to emphasize close-range tactics and rely mostly on the fists. They use 80-percent hand techniques and 20-percent leg techniques — which is the same ratio as Okinawan karate.

After watching and training with the Southern Shaolin monks, it became clear that many modern Okinawan and Japanese karate styles evolved from their system. The wuzuquan style that’s practiced in southern China and by the monks at Nine Dragons Temple, with its emphasis on the sam chien (Japanese: sanchin) form, is no doubt the forerunner of such Okinawan styles as goju-ryu, ryuei-ryu and uechi-ryu.

Also included within the Shaolin …

Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 3

The Northern Shaolin Temple in Henan province has received a lot of attention in recent years. In fact, it’s now a tourist attraction. But the folklore of the martial arts of southern China points to a Southern Shaolin Temple. Until recently, it was thought to exist only in legend.

The flight from the United States was uneventful for John Graham and me. We arrived in Xiamen, Fujian province, tired but excited, after which we boarded a bus for Qingzhou (also spelled Quanzhou). The city is supposedly the site of the Southern Shaolin Temple. I say “supposedly” because there’s controversy as to which temple is the original Southern Shaolin.

Buddhist monks practice at the Nine Dragons Temple in Southern China.

Southern China served as an entry point for Buddhism beginning in the first century B.C. That’s when Indian priests arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) and spread their religion throughout the Middle Kingdom. Therefore, temples abound in the area. The difference between a Shaolin temple and other temples is that a Shaolin temple embraced the warrior-monk culture, whereas other temples were strictly religious establishments. They weren’t associated with Shaolin and therefore weren’t destroyed when it was. (Note that shaolin, which means “young forest,” was originally associated with the northern temple and the Chan sect of warrior monks that trained within its walls. Therefore, the Southern Shaolin Temple is considered an extension of the northern temple and not just another Buddhist monastery located in southern China.)

It’s important to consider the time frame in which the Southern Shaolin temple was established. Historical data indicate there were two years around which it was built: 557 and 1644. The logical question then becomes, Are there two southern temple sites?

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According to the Chinese government’s official position, the temple was established in 557 in the Putien district on top of Mt. Chiulien in Fujian. It was also known as the Nine Lotus Temple. During the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), monks from the northern temple supposedly fled south to escape from the Manchus, who founded the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Those warrior monks created a resistance movement with the goal of overthrowing the Qing and restoring the Ming. It’s this establishment that the Chinese government has officially designated as the Southern Shaolin Temple.

However, the locals, including many martial arts masters of Fujian province, disagree. They claim the true site is the Nine Dragons Temple, located within the city of Qingzhou. However, it’s officially called the Shaolin Zen Temple and thus can’t be called the Southern Shaolin Temple because the Chinese government has already chosen the Nine Lotus Temple.

We visited both institutions, and it’s our conclusion that the original Southern Shaolin Temple is the one located in Putien, aka the Nine Lotus Temple. We agree with the position taken by the Chinese government.

According to one source, the impetus for the construction of the southern temple in 557 was the warrior monks from the north, who were requested to travel to the south to provide military assistance to Tang-dynasty troops engaged in the defense of Fujian against pirates. After helping defend the region, some of the monks stayed behind and founded the southern temple.

“The Qingzhou temple, also known as the Nine Dragons Temple of Southern Shaolin, is over 1,200 years old and was a monastery in ancient times,” said Mr. Chai, a high-ranked official and vice chairman of the Southern Shaolin Wuzu Association. “It is well-maintained and includes a cadre of 55 monks who practice Shaolin martial arts and reside at the temple. The temple at Putien, or Nine Lotus Temple, was a Shaolin school but not a monastery.”

In other words, the Putien site was more of a martial arts school than a temple or monastery, even though Zen Buddhism was practiced there.

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The temple at Qingzhou is located near the base of Qingyuan mountain and has been recently restored. The monks practice wuzuquan, or five-ancestor fist, in addition to other styles. Their main teacher is Chi Ching Wei, a 64-year-old expert in the Chinese arts. While visiting the complex, we spoke with him extensively, and he proved helpful in arranging a demonstration by the monks. The monks, who are between the ages …

Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 2

In the latter part of the 19th century, when the Ming revolutionaries were still active and many secret societies had been formed, an Okinawan named Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915) arrived in Fuzhou. He eventually found a martial arts teacher named Ryuryuko (Chinese: Xie Zhongxiang, 1852-1930), who taught at his house and claimed to have studied at a temple in the Fujian mountains. After spending a number of years in China, Higashionna returned to Okinawa and founded the naha-te tradition.

Building on his teachings, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) established goju-ryu and introduced the Okinawan practice of using closed fists when performing the sanchin kata. He also made several trips to China after Higashionna’s death to further his study of the Chinese arts and to find Ryuryuko. Miyagi supposedly located Ryuryuko’s grave, but many of the notes he took during his trips were lost as a result of World War II.

A Buddhist monk practices his martial art at China’s Nine Dragons Temple.

The other martial art practiced in Okinawa was shuri-te, which means “hands of Shuri.” Today, it’s called shorin-ryu, or “Shaolin style.” Some Okinawan authorities claim it’s a combination of the northern and southern styles, which is why it looks unique and has a different set of forms.

That doesn’t seem likely, however, because most of Okinawa’s contact with China was through Fujian province. Naha-te was more influenced by the southern Shaolin style, and shuri-te is a combination of the original Okinawa-te and the southern Shaolin tradition. Their seafaring adventures and maritime trade gave Okinawan sailors plenty of opportunity to bring back kicking methods from Thailand, which may have influenced their own kicks and strikes long ago. Keeping in mind that Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands have had contact with many other Asian countries, it’s safe to say that shuri-te is a more eclectic Okinawan karate style and a composite martial art with a long history.

Wang Bo, formerly of the Northern Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt magazine. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video lessons to your smartphone, tablet or computer anytime and anyplace. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path!

Matsumura Soken (1809-1898) is considered a pioneer of the Okinawan martial arts. However, many generations before him, the arts were influenced by Chinese immigrants known as the Saposhi. Ming-dynasty officials sent 36 families to Okinawa to help with the island’s development and relations with China. They taught the martial arts to the Okinawans as early as 1393 in a Chinese settlement called Kumemura, but how extensive the blending of Okinawan and Chinese martial arts actually was is unknown.

Other teachers of karate in Okinawa preceded him, but Matsumura is widely regarded the organizer of the kata system and the nomenclature of modern karate. As the king’s bodyguard and royal envoy, he traveled to Fuzhou several times, and it’s believed that he studied at or at least visited one of the Shaolin Temples in Fujian. What’s most interesting is that Matsumura brought a Shaolin white-crane master named Iwah back with him to Okinawa in the 1860s. Together, they taught the art to many locals.

Mural from the Northern Shaolin Temple in Henan/Photo by Robert W. Young

To truly know Okinawan karate, you must understand the roots of the martial arts of southern China, and their migration to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands. Okinawa was a satellite or vassal nation of China for more than 300 years, and that close geopolitical and cultural relationship led to the migration of the southern Shaolin style that so strongly influenced the Okinawan martial arts. That relationship and the findings presented so far will be further discussed in the next installment of this series.

Read Part 1 of this article here.

Nine Dragons Temple Photo by George W. Alexander

George W. Alexander, Ph.D., is a ninth-degree black belt and president of the International Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation. John E. Graham is vice president of the International Nan Shaolin Wushu Federation and chief instructor at the United Academy of Kung Fu in Mobile, Alabama.

Southern Shaolin Temple: Searching for China’s Real Contribution to Karate, Part 1

Shaolin Temple is regarded as the birthplace of many Asian martial arts, but how did it influence the development of modern karate? Before delving into that question, it’s important to first state that two Shaolin Temples existed: a northern temple and a southern temple.

The northern one is most often heard about and has even become a tourist attraction. The southern one, however, is less well-known even though it had the greatest influence on the development of karate.

The folklore of various southern Chinese arts points to the southern temple’s existence, but until recently there was little in the way of hard facts. Consequently, when John Graham, a Mobile, Alabama-based kung fu master recognized by the International Southern Shaolin Wushu Federation, invited me to accompany him to China on a fact-finding tour, I jumped at the opportunity.

The martial skills that blossomed at the Northern Shaolin Temple (above) are believed to have spread to the Southern Shaolin Temple early in the Qing dynasty and ultimately influenced karate. (Photo by Robert W. Young)

The adventure began before the actual journey started. Researching the legend of the Southern Shaolin Temple and sifting through facts and legends were just the beginning. I learned that during the waning years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), China experienced economic decline. In 1644 the Manchus invaded from the northeast, toppled the Ming and set up the Qing dynasty. As the Manchus pushed their way south, many Chinese fled in the same direction until they arrived in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) and Fuzhou. Monks from the Northern Shaolin Temple fled south, as well, and they eventually established a Southern Shaolin in Fujian province.

According to legend, the Southern Shaolin Temple was located in the Putien district near the city of Qingzhou (Quanzhou) in Fujian province. The southern Shaolin style that developed there consists of 80-percent hand techniques and 20-percent kicking techniques. Another distinguishing feature is its emphasis on using the hands for thrusting and chopping. Most martial arts historians believe that the techniques of the southern Shaolin tradition were exported to Okinawa, where they influenced the development of karate.

Wang Bo, formerly of the Northern Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt magazine. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video lessons to your smartphone, tablet or computer anytime and anyplace. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path!

The southern temple became a center for revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the Manchurian hegemony and preserve the last vestiges of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, the Qing emperor personally infiltrated the monastery under the pretense of learning the Shaolin arts, and that led to its demise because the Qing army was subsequently called in. More likely, the emperor was persuaded by Manchu officials to send in spies, and later an expeditionary force was dispatched against the monks. In any case, the temple was burned, and only five monks survived. As a result, the Anti-Manchu Triad Society (the Hung League) was formed, and its battle cry was, “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming!”

The monks were scattered throughout Asia, leading to the further proliferation of the Shaolin style. The exact location of the temple, however, remained unknown. It’s only because of research recently conducted by several groups, including the Fujian Province Archeologists Association, that the mystery has been solved.

The tiger was an inspirational animal for martial monks at the Northern and Southern Shaolin Temples. Monk Wang Bo, from the northern temple, demonstrates. (Photo by Peter Lueders)

At the Southern Shaolin Temple, monks practiced numerous fighting systems, including the crane, dog, tiger, five ancestors and hung styles. All emphasized close-range tactics using the fists. A style called wuzuquan, or five-ancestor fist, was developed by a master named Bai Yi Feng during the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368). It originated when Bai invited a number of masters, all of whom had graduated from Shaolin, back to the temple to display their skills. Of those invited, five were deemed to have the highest proficiency, and Bai combined their best moves into one style. It eventually became popular in Fujian even though it originated in the north.

Strong arm movements, elaborate hand techniques, low-level kicking and solid stances characterize wuzuquan. Another distinguishing feature is a form known as sam chien (Japanese: sanchin). The name means “three battles” or “three conflicts,” and they’re often equated with the unification of body, mind and spirit. The same form can be seen in the Okinawan styles of goju-ryu and ryuei-ryu, as well as in many Japanese arts.

Wuzuquan is still practiced by the International Nan Shaolin Wuzu Federation in Fujian. A master named Lin Xian taught it to Chee Kim Thong (1919-2001) of Putien, and he passed it on to …

15 Popular Beliefs About Training at Shaolin Temple — Are They True or False?

During my annual visits to Henan, China, the head abbot of Shaolin Temple instructs one of the older monks to teach me what he thinks I need to know about the famed monastery and its style of kung fu. After 17 years of such treatment, I’ve been “enlightened” on a number of popular beliefs that Western martial artists hold. I offer the following to set the record straight.

Popular Belief No. 1: The Indian monk Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese) created Shaolin kung fu.

Not necessarily true. The senior monks don’t know whether he studied the animal movements and devised the fighting art himself or simply brought the skills with him from India.

building at Shaolin Temple

Entrance to one of the main buildings at Shaolin Temple, 1986

Popular Belief No. 2: When Bodhidharma came to China, his first stop was Shaolin.

Nope. He traveled first to the city of Nanjing because he was invited there by the emperor. The Indian monk also stayed at White Horse Temple but left because there was too much confusion and noise.

Popular Belief No. 3: Bodhidharma meditated for nine years at Shaolin.

Almost. He actually meditated in a cave on nearby Song Mountain. I’ve visited it myself; it’s a grueling hike up the mountain.

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Popular Belief No. 4: Bodhidharma was the Buddha.

No. He was actually a Buddhist monk, a 28th-generation disciple of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.

Popular Belief No. 5: Monks have to be accepted into the temple, and they must start training at age 3 or 4.

Yes and no — maybe. In the past, that might have been true. These days, an adult can be accepted, even a married one, and being accepted doesn’t mean you’re a monk.

exhibit at Shaolin Temple

Part of a display that retells the history of Shaolin Temple, 1988

Popular Belief No. 6: Shaolin monks are concerned only with perfecting their fighting skills.

Not even close. Buddhism is a life of purity and atonement, and being able to improve the quality of other people’s lives. It’s basically a life of sacrifice. It’s no different from many other religions in that respect.

Popular Belief No. 7: The physical labor monks do in movies was never part of the real Shaolin lifestyle.

Not true. Before they’re allowed to practice kung fu, they have to build their physical strength and humility. They sweep, carry things and do other tasks. The temple is a national treasure, but its inhabitants still have to take care of everybody and everything there.

Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple, is the featured instructor in a new online kung fu course from Black Belt magazine. Titled Tree of Shaolin, it streams video lessons to your smartphone, tablet or computer anytime and anyplace. Sign up here and start your journey along the 1,500-year-old Shaolin path!

Popular Belief No. 8: Young monks at Shaolin don’t receive a proper education.

Wrong. All children at the temple are educated in conventional subjects, as well as Chinese culture and Buddhism. They also do many chores to keep the temple in good working order.

Popular Belief No. 9: All monks get the same education.

They don’t. As a young monk progresses, he’ll usually get noticed by one of the senior monks or priests, who will take him on as a disciple. If that doesn’t happen, he won’t learn very much.

Popular Belief No. 10: A monk-in-training can have more than one mentor.

No. Each one has only one master, who accepts him as a son.

Popular Belief No. 11: All the monks live at the temple.

Most do. However, some are sent to other cities to help spread the Shaolin martial arts. The temple has a facility in which the monks live, and it’s pretty crude.

training at a commercial kung fu school near Shaolin

Chinese students training at a commercial kung fu school near Shaolin, 1988

Popular Belief No. 12: Once a monk starts training in kung fu, that’s all he does.

Not so. It’s a big part of his life — but not all. He also studies Shaolin culture, Buddhism, weapons, chi kung and Chinese medicine.

Popular Belief No. 13: Most visitors to Shaolin are kung fu students from America.

No way. More than 1 million tourists make the trek annually, and 90 percent of them are Chinese.

Popular Belief No. 14: Any tourist can come to Shaolin and train with the monks.

Unfortunately, no. I’ve seen the real training and the training tourists engage in, and they’re different. The real training is old-style Shaolin. The tourists stay in more modern facilities located near the temple and follow more modern training methods.

Shaolin monks at demostration in California

Shaolin monks demonstrating in California, 2003

Popular Belief No. 15: The monks are getting rich from their performances.

Nope. The …

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