Shaolin: The Birth of Kung Fu?
You’ve seen the movies and heard the tales. Now we offer another perspective on martial arts history.
Reprinted with permission from 50 Martial Arts Myths, by Sulaiman Sharif, 

New Media Entertainment, 2009
(First in a five-part series)
Back in the days of the Wild West, there was only one fist-fighter the bad guys really feared. Kwai Chang Caine was a hard-punching half-American, half-Chinese orphan with a weakness for spiritualism and hands that were more dangerous than a gunslinger’s holster.

But Caine, a character played by David Carradine in the 1970’s television series “Kung Fu,” wasn’t just some bruiser who knew how to defend himself. He had grown up in the Shaolin monastery where a Shaolin kung-fu master—the ultimate source of all martial knowledge, trained him.

There was a reason the show’s producers chose Shaolin as the place where Caine was trained. For those who aren’t familiar with the full range and variety of martial arts, it can appear that fighting skills have one central origin: a temple in China’s Henan province where Buddhist monks copied the actions of birds and animals to produce a unique form of fighting from which all others developed. Some methods have enhanced the Shaolin style; others might have misinterpreted it, producing weaker versions that are no closer to the real thing than the last Chinese whisper is to the original message. But all forms of hand-to-hand fighting, it appears, owe their origins to Shaolin.

The Truth?
The truth, though, is very different. While the history and development of martial arts has certainly been heavily influenced by the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple—at least in the way martial arts are shown in movies, if not in their actual fighting forms—Shaolin is just one of many places where martial arts have been practiced.
And it certainly wasn’t the first.

Even in China, martial arts have been around long before the foundation of the Shaolin temple in the fifth century. The Spring and Autumn Annals, a historical document dating from the eighth to the fifth centuries BC, mention “hard” and “soft” forms of martial arts. Other documents dating to the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) refer to differences between sports wrestling and unarmed combat, for which manuals were available even then.

 Greek to Me
Nor was martial arts training restricted to China, even at this time. Pankration, a sport practiced at the Greek Olympics in 648 BC, combined wrestling and boxing to produce a complete system that included kicks, locks, throws and even chokes. A tournament might have looked a little like a modern mixed martial arts meet—except that pankration fighters fought naked, something that mixed martial artists tend to avoid.

In India too, the Akananuru and Purananuru, two poetry collections dating from around the first century AD and the second century BC describe a martial arts system using spears, swords, shields, bows and silambam, a kind of staff.

And the techniques used and taught by Roman gladiators and legionnaires might be considered a form of martial arts training too, even if they weren’t spread widely, had little influence and are no longer practiced today.

In truth then, while Shaolin martial arts are certainly important, they’re not the origin of training in armed and unarmed combat. Martial arts began in different places and at different times, in response to certain conditions—such as the attitude of local religions or the violence of the surrounding environment. Each form developed in its own way, influenced by local changes, by talented teachers who discovered ways to improve the technique or by meeting with other forms that inspired new moves altogether.

Shaolin Roots
So how then did one temple in one country come to be seen as the model for all martial arts and the source of knowledge for hand-to-hand combat? Much of the reason lies in Shaolin’s history. The temple was founded on the slopes of Mount Song, one of the five holy peaks to which Chinese royals were supposed to pay homage. Located just 35 kilometers from Luoyang, an imperial capital, it was also easy to reach and was therefore given plenty of gifts from emperors keen to show their spiritual side.

The temple’s links to royalty didn’t stop with a fortunate location. The first evidence that the monks took part in combat dates to the early seventh century, when they joined a campaign against bandits. In 621, Shaolin monks helped Li Shimin seize the imperial throne. As a reward, one of the monks was appointed General-in-Chief of the imperial army.

However, it’s not until a thousand years later—during a time of banditry, violence and a weak imperial military—that we first see evidence that Shaolin monks actually engaged in a unique form of combat training. Texts dating to the 17th century describe Shaolin monks practicing spearfighting, unarmed combat and, most importantly, fighting with a staff. That last technique might have been influenced by the fighting technique used by the Monkey King in Journey to the West, a hugely popular book that predates by two centuries the first known use of Shaolin skills.

It was also around this time that we begin to see the spread of the Shaolin myths. When the monks were called on to support the military in its campaigns against pirates, Friar Tianyuan, a Shaolin monk, was placed in charge of the monastic troops. Monks from Hangzhou challenged his command by picking eight champions to face him in combat. Tianyuan spotted them climbing toward his terrace and beat them off. When they attacked again with swords, Tianyuan used a door-bar to defeat and disarm them single-handedly, winning their respect and their obedience.

And that perhaps is the greatest evidence that Shaolin is not the source of all martial arts. The temple specialized not in animal forms but in fighting with a staff, a method rarely used today outside the ritualized sport of kendo. It remains, however, a rich source of martial arts stories.

Sulaiman Sharif is Harimau Pelangi Cula Saki—highest-ranking black belt—and holds the rank of Black Warrior in the Malay warrior art of silat seni gayong.