Sep 19

Chinese Martial Arts

China, the world’s largest country by population, is widely regarded as the home of martial arts and is the birthplace of numerous diverse styles.

Modern Chinese martial arts can trace their origins to a number of sources, including ancient military skills, the Buddhist martial arts that evolved out of the Shaolin temple, the Daoist martial arts that originate from the Wudang temple in Hubei province, and a number of other techniques used by bandits, militia, secret societies, invaders, and marauding pirates throughout China’s turbulent history.

According to legend, the Indian monk Bodhidharma (known as “Da Mo” in China) traveled from southern India to China in the 6th century CE carrying sutras (collections of dialogs and discourses). He then settled in the Shaolin temple in Song Shan, and introduced martial exercises and Zen Buddhism to China. However, there is evidence to suggest that the practice of martial arts in the country dates back to well before that time.

A longer history

Although Bodhidharma may well have been one of the first to record martial-art techniques-he also introduced techniques such as meditation to existing fighting systems-experts believe that Chinese martial arts gradually developed from ancient hunting skills and from one tribe’s need to defend itself from another. These fighting forms developed slowly over the years: punches and kicks were incorporated and, in time, so was the use of weapons.

The first evidence of martial-art practice in China comes in 2698 BCE during the reign of the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, who developed the practice of jiao di (“horn-butting”) among his soldiers. In the 5th century BCE – some 1,000 years before Bodhidharma’s arrival in Song Shan – Confucius mentions martial arts in his texts; Daoist literature from the 4th century BCE contains principles applicable to martial arts; and there is evidence to suggest that physical exercises similar to taijiquan have been practiced in the region since at least 500 BCE. In contrast, the earliest textual evidence of Shaolin martial arts comes in 728 CE.

Putting soldiers to the test

The development of martial arts in China is indelibly linked to the military. The first military martial-arts tests were established in 702 CE. These challenged a soldier’s physical strength, horsemanship, and skills with a lance, spear, and bow and arrow. Such a premium was placed on them that regular soldiers were categorized according to their ability and courage in hand-to-hand combat and weapons skills, particularly their swordsmanship.

Various military generals have added their expertise to China’s martial-arts mix. Even Genghis Khan, the Mongol warrior whose armies had conquered much of South Asia- including all of China-by the 13th century, believed that bkyukl bokh was the best way to keep his troops ready for battle. Two styles of the art are still practiced today, one in Mongolia, the other in Inner Mongolia.

Boom in popularity

It was not until the Republican Period (1912-1949), a time when China was recovering from the fall of the Qing dynasty, the invasion by Japan, and the Chinese Civil War, that martial arts became more accessible to the general public. In a wave of national pride, the Chinese government classified all martial arts under the banner “guosho,” meaning “national art.” Martial artists were encouraged to teach, numerous training manuals were published, examinations in martial arts were created, and demonstration teams started to travel the world- the first martial-art demonstration in front of an international audience took place at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Troy Macraft

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  1. pugpaws2 says:

    Do you believe that all Chinese Martial Arts came from the Shaolin Monastery?
    I see this kind of comment all the time. A question I answered on Chin Na already has one answer where the person said all Chinese arts came form Shaolin origin……. I question this. Do you think all Chinese martial arts came from Shaolin origin?

  2. Ymarsakar says:

    The Shaolins collected styles that other families created. Their method was to create an incentive for other martial artists to visit, thus collating knowledge and making even more martial artists want to come. This then became a central hub for Research and Development, but only because they had talented individuals from other places come to them.

    Shaolin temples, unlike some other temples of Taoism or Buddhism, also had a martial glory and reputation, which also gave them privileges like the permission to eat meat. Because of their political connections, many people sought knowledge and education there. They also entrusted orphans or sick children to the temple. Because of this, they benefited enormously from traveling warriors and masters who either wanted to spread their ideas or who wanted to hear other people’s ideas and gong fu. The Japanese had their Muga Shugyou, or Warrior’s Pilgrimage. The Chinese had their own version of the same. But this is precisely why the state government destroyed the Shaolin temples so many times. Too much martial knowledge there that couldn’t be controlled.

    Shaolin monks collected so much knowledge and styles, that not even the Shaolin masters knew more than 1-3 styles. They focused on one or two. Whereas Shaolin collected dozens upon dozens. They also had "secret scroll" information buried in the monastery, that was only unlocked recently due to China Communist government commands. Youths in China thought similarly to youths in MMA today. They wanted complete knowledge transmission and saw cross training as the way to get it. The Shaolin Temple was their day’s idea of gathering martial arts and artists together so that they could train together, share knowledge, and cross train. What you see today as Shaolin conditioning, came from absorbing and integrating the knowledge of Chi gong for martial purposes, as well as nei gong and other methods, as well as swordmanship from Nue Yu. Originally, these were all separate martial lineages and philosophies.

    MMA’s cross training is in its infancy, while the Shaolin Temple had a few centuries to work out the problems. The Shaolin monks also raised children from infancy, which gave their disciples A LOT of time to master disparate methods and conditioning methods. This allowed them to have a good understanding of how to mix styles and methods, compared to modern day MMA students who can’t attend class for more than 2-3 hours per day. Compared to 14 hours of training a day, there is no comparison in terms of that. The 5 animal styles, including derivations like White Crane, is a good example of people mixing ideas and movements from family styles. Those actually did come from Shaolin because they developed it. Including Wing Chun, of course. But the older martial art styles they created this from, were mostly family styles developed in war, for warriors.
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  3. Kokoro says:


    china had martial arts long before daruma came from india and influnaced the Shaolin temple. india was only one of the influences as well, there was also the influence from the trade routes from the middle east.
    many of the styles created in china had nothing to do with the shaolin temple. there are said to be over 300 styles of kung fu they all have various origins across china.

    another common comment i see on here is india is the motherland for all martial arts. which is another fallacy. i think people watch too much tv at times with out researching this stuff on there own.
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  4. AngelOfDeath says:

    Like the two answers above me said, the Shaolin monastery was basically a library for martial arts. Soldiers at this time already knew an early form of Sanshou and many other styles were already in use.

    Bodhidharma and the Shaolin monks are very well-known, while the majority of the population doesn’t know anything about what was happening the Middle-east and Northern China at the time. This is what causes these comments.
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  5. biggy34 says:

    Yes most of them are a spawn off of the Shaoling in versions of Kung Fu. Most all have never really trained with the monks though. I was a pro fighter for the MMA don’t listen to these stupid people I know fighting.
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  6. JimG says:

    No I don’t believe that for a minute. As you know the origin of Martial Arts (whether Chinese, or other ) came from the battle field. You don’t find many pacifists in combat situations. lol
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  7. kajukat says:

    China is a big country. There must have been people who independently created their own systems without any influence from the Shaolin Monastery.
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  8. David says:

    Nobody in China thought that until Sun Lu Tang wrote it in one of his books around the turn of the century, then everyone took it as gospel.

    Lots of soldiers, bandits, and rebels hidout in the temple over the years. And they all added to the base of MA knowledge that was there, but there were MA in China long before the temple was ever built.
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  9. bunminjutsu says:

    NO the shaolin as well as other temples were often used by anti government rebels to "dissapear " for awhile many of them trained in various forms of combatives.Until 500 years ago most martial training centered around weapons with some close quarters jujutsu like grappling in case your weapon was broken or lost on the battle field.
    Once the country became unified under one government and fearing rebellion weapons were confiscated and weapon less forms of self defense became more common and were developed. In the east as well as the west it became common for styles to attach the temples name to a style to lend it authenticity and mystery even tho what was taught never saw the inside of any temple.
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