I’m sure a few of us used to watch Kung Fu Theater on TV when we were kids. (Or just yesterday.) <cough> But either way, I think we all know what Kung Fu is. And, more specifically, Shaolin Kung Fu. What you might not have known was how Shaolin Kung Fu started…
Set the Way-way Back Machine to Ancient China. All ancient martial arts in the world have some foggy semi- or totally mythological origin. Even the origins with actual historical records are not exactly clear.
Chinese Martial Arts (CMA) — and there are A LOT of them — have a very long history. They have an even longer un-verified history. But today, we’re going to talk about Kung Fu. And of all those Kung Fus out there — and there are A LOT of them — we’re sticking with Shaolin Kung Fu.
First, let’s nail down our words here. Shaolin is a temple in Henan Province, in east-central China. It’s a Buddhist temple. A Ch’an (Japanese Zen) Buddhist temple. Not only do they have their own style of Kung Fu, they also have their own style of Buddhism. It was built in the late 400s AD.
So, what does Kung Fu mean? Well, there are a lot of words for “martial arts” in China. Kung Fu, Wushu, Quanfa, Chuan Fa. You may also know the Japanese word Kenpo… same thing. Kung Fu technically means anything acquired through discipline and hard work, not just fighting skill. Over time, though, it just came to mean “martial arts”, basically.
So, here, Shaolin Kung Fu means “the martial arts from Shaolin [Temple]”. Easy enough. Don’t worry, it gets easier from here.
There are a lot of articles and podcasts and news casts and posts in social media regarding workouts at home. Can’t go to the gym. Can’t go out. Gotta stay fit. Work out at home. Just like Rocky IV!
China, in the 400s, didn’t even HAVE gyms. So, according to Shaolin records, sometime after the temple was built this guy shows up from India. Whitish dude, big beard, blue eyes. He asks to stay at the temple. He was either turned away right then, or shown the gate after a short stay. Either way, he ended up living in a cave for almost 10 years.
His name was Bodhidharma. And he brought Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism to China. To Shoalin. After spending so long in a cave, he was finally let into the temple.
Once in, he was said to have been very critical of the monks’ lack of physical fitness and overall lack of good health. So, he showed them all the workout he’d been doing all those years in his cave. (And you think your living room is rough?)
He showed the monks not only physical fitness exercises, but also “internal” exercises and meditation. These included what is now known to be the oldest form of Shaolin Kung Fu, Luohan Quan. Bodhidharma supposedly taught at the temple for some time.
When he left, or died — whichever “history” you want to listen to — the monks found two scrolls he had left behind: the Yijin Jing and the Xisui Jing. The Yijing scroll showed a ton of “tendon/muscle” exercises that ended up being the primary focus for the Shaolin workout program. And, consequently, they can all be done in about a three square foot area… He obviously didn’t have much space to work with in his cave when he was coming up with this stuff.
But, in the end, a dude was forced to live in a cave. But that dude wanted to get swolt, clearly. And in not being able to go out and do that, he managed to come up with a plan on his own. Then did it for ten years on the same square of rock/dirt before getting hired on to teach it to dudes who would then go down in history as some of the toughest fighters the world has ever known.
So, next time you’re watching a Kung Fu flick, just remember that stuff they are doing probably descended from stuff a dude did while living in a cave for a decade, all alone.
If you got time to read this, you got time to train!