SHAOLIN STUDIOS: A.D. 621 ~ 1365

Heroes of Shaolin
Heroes of Shaolin
Who would have thought that Russia would play an important role in the development of Chinese kung-fu films? Maybe you are thinking that it must have had something to do with Russian filmmakers either lending technology to the fledgling Shanghai film industry or sharing their tricks of the trade when Russian filmmakers were a dominant force between WWI and WWII. But no. It is something much more subliminal. It began with 13 Heroes.

Two key take aways from the previous Shaolin Studios chapter From A.D. 495 – A.D 583: prior to the origin of Shaolin martial arts due to the A.D. 457 arrival of the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (Chinese name Da Mo) at Song Shan Shaolin Temple, martial arts already existed 3000+ years earlier when emperor Huang Di introduced stick fighting and Shuai Jiao wrestling; and Shaolin martial arts is the first martial art in history that became institutionalized.


The renowned fighting abilities of the Shaolin strikingly arose during the famous battle of the 13 Shaolin monks in A.D. 621 (the year the Spanish city Malaga is conquered by Germanic Visigoths), they unwittingly became an important part of the ascension of the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 to 906), which became known as the golden age of Chinese arts and culture.

When Li Shimin, eventual co-founder of the Tang dynasty, persuaded his father Li Yuan to rebel against the Sui dynasty, in an effort to capture the Yellow River valley he besieged the former Sui dynasty, warlord and self-proclaimed emperor of the Zheng dynasty, Wang Shichong at Luo Yang. Thirteen Shaolin monks fought by Shimin’s side to defeat Wang’s army and capture his nephew Wang Renzi. To save Renzi, Wang surrendered. Soon after Shimin became the Tang’s second emperor, he rewarded Shaolin with 600 acres of property and allowed them to practice martial arts in peace so they could protect the Temple’s lands.

In the first kung fu film made in China since the Communist takeover in 1949, Jet Li plays Jue Yuan, one of the 13 monks in Shaolin Temple (1982), where after Shimin is detached from his troops and trying to get back to them before Renzi finds and kills him, Shimin stumbles into Shaolin. To reunite Shimin with his troops, Jue sways him into dressing in drag so they can safely sneak back to his troops. It works. Yet in anger Renzi tries to raze the temple and kill the monks. Shimin arrives with his army and defeats Renzi’s army. Jue pursues the fleeing Renzi in vengeance and kills him because Renzi mercilessly killed his father. The art of changing history.

In recognition of the monks' bravery and martial skills, when Shimin ascended to the throne as Emperor Taizong (A.D. 626-649), the film explains that Shimin granted land to the temple and decreed that a monk could eat meat and drink alcohol if they chose to. Drunken kung fu survives.


Another important moment in Shaolin history occurred during the late Song dynasty (960–1278 AD; Muslims defeated Mongols in Palestine to stop the Mongol westward advance) when Shaolin monk Zhue Yang expanded Da Mo’s 18 Buddhist Fist movements to 72. He eventually met Li Sou, a Hong Chuen (Red Fist) expert who introduced Zhue to the founder of the internal martial art Wu Zu Chuen (Five Ancestor Fist), Bai Hufeng. The three returned to Shaolin and improved the 72 movements to 170 and created the famous Five Animals Styles of Shaolin: dragon; tiger; leopard; snake; and white crane.

Though hundreds of movies have had a character that use at least one of the five animal styles, a movie has never been made about the art’s origin or any of the above three martial geniuses.

Yet probably the best film that features a wayward student learning the five animal styles to defeat an evil vagabond, is Jackie Chan’s Spiritual Kung Fu (1978) who learns one of each style from five different goofy ghosts who take a liking to him believing he can save Shaolin.

Though Taoist martial arts first appeared in China circa 100 BCE and Buddhist Shaolin arts arose 550+ years later, Shaolin became the first institutionalized martial art in history. It took Taoist arts 900 years to follow suit via the Buddhist Shaolin monk Zhang San-fung.


Born in 1270 (during the Eighth Christian Crusade) Zhang San-fung was a scholar and became a Shaolin disciple toward the end of the century. He became a top student and a few years later left the temple to find his own way. While passing by the Wu Dung Shan Mountains in Hubei, he was so overwhelmed by their beauty that he decided to become a hermit and live there.

Wu Dung means what martial arts should be and Shan is mountain. It was as if he was beckoned to change the foundation of martial arts away from the external (Shaolin) and more towards the internal martial arts, i.e., the way of the Wu Dung school. Zhang is also credited with creating Wuji, Iron Buddhist fist and circa 1365 (the year University of Vienna was founded) he created Taiji (tai chi) via a dream, where he witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane.

Jet Li portrays Zhang San-fung in the Yuen Woo-ping directed Tai Chi Master (1993), which follows Zhang's beginnings at the Shaolin Temple, why he left, then how he invented taiji as a way to defeat amnesia brought on by the loss of his friends during a battle against the Ching army. Sammo Hung plays Zhang in Kung-fu Cult Master (1993) where he shows his student, played by Jet Li, how to defeat a "bad" Shaolin monk and then teaches him taiji to defeat a menagerie of off-the-wall characters.

Recent films about Zhang like Tai Chi Master 2 (2020), feature him battling evil occultists using chaotic camera and dizzy one-shot fight choreography and Donnie Yen as Zhang in the ensemble casted Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre(1978) remake, New Kung Fu Cult Master 1 (2022).

Though cool to watch, these films strengthen the myth but perhaps weaken the reality of Zhang.

Although Zhang broke away from Shaolin, he bore no malice toward them because after all, his newfound Wu Dung school was still Shaolin in foundation. However, over time, as one improves one's art it becomes a point of contention when practitioners either forget their foundation or use their foundation for purposes that the original founders would disagree with. Yet thanks to Zhang, Taoist martial arts had finally become institutionalized. More on Wu Dung later.

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