Kung means 'discipline' and Fu means 'person', hence, 'Kung Fu' refers to a disciplined person. Kungfu is often mistaken by the uninitiated as simply as a physical activity. However, it is far from the truth, especially for Shaolin Kungfu.
There are many styles or schools of kungfu. Traditionally, these numerous styles are divided into two major groups, namely internal kungfu and external kungfu. The three well known internal kungfu styles are Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), Bagua zhang (Pakua Palm), and Xingyiquan (Hsing Yi Kungfu). External kungfu includes Shaolin Kungfu and all its derived styles. Today, the two most well known branches of Shaolin Kungfu are Northern Shaolin which emphasizes on kicking, long range, acrobatic and ground-fighting techniques, and the Southern Shaolin which emphasize on higher stances and hand techniques.
Shaolin Kungfu can be divided into four dimensions: 1)Form, 2)Force, 3)Application, 4)Philosophy. Shaolin Kungfu epitomizes the meditation principles of Ch'an Buddhism that the mind, the spirit and the body become one. Based on Shaolin's special philosophy of the Unity of Ch'an and martial Arts (the latter also known as Kungfu), students' livelihood will be enlightened, their wisdom will be expanded and their ethical standard will be elevated, resulting in a peaceful society.
Shaolin Kungfu has a history of about 1500 years. It is the style of Kungfu (a martial art) that originally developed in the Shaolin Monastery in China.
According to historical records, the Shaolin Temple was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty in the 19th calendar year of the reign of Emperor Taihe (495) and is one of China's most famous an-cient temples. The Shaolin Temple once had many monks on its premises. Those monks of the lower level mostly came from the secular society and some of them knew some martial arts before entering the temple. Those who knew martial arts taught and helped each other to improve their skills. They also absorbed the experience of their predecessors and gradually developed their mar-tial arts into the unique Shaolin school.
During the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577), Shaolin monks could lift hundreds of kilograms in weight and were good at Chuan and horse riding. By the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), Li Shimin, king of the Qin state, fought with the self-appointed emperor of the Zheng state, Wang Shichong. Shaolin monks Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, and Tan Zong took the side of Li and helped him catch the latter's nephew Wang Renze to force the self-appointed emperor to surrender. After Li Shimin was enthroned as the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, he awarded his followers ac-cording to their military merits and contributions. Monk Tan Zong had the title of chief general con-ferred on him, while the Shaolin Temple was given large grants of land and money to expand the temple complex. The Shaolin Temple was allowed to organize an army of monk soldiers, who acted as military people in warring times and as monks in peace time. The Shaolin school of Chuan im-proved and developed through the trials of battles and wars.
The Shaolin monks in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were all taught to practise Wushu. In the 32nd calendar year of the Jiajing reign (1553), the Shaolin military monks took part in the battles against Japanese invaders in southern China and accomplished many military exploits. Wang Shixing of the Ming Dynasty wrote in his Tour of Mount Song. "All of the 400 Shaolin Temple monks have good Wushu skills." "Fists and cudgels were wielded as if they were flying during practice." Cheng Chongdou also of the Ming Dynasty wrote in his book The Dossier of Shaolin Cudgel Fight: "Shaolin monks are best known for their cudgel fights." Ming general Yu Dayou, who was reputed for his anti-Japanese military service, went to teach cudgel fighting skills in the Shaolin Temple. It was in the latter half of the Ming Dynasty that Shaolin monks switched from cudgel fighting to fist fighting, so that fist fights could be promoted to match cudgel fights.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the people living around the Shaolin Temple were very active in practising Wushu, which boosted the development of the Shaolin school of martial arts. In the Shao-lin Temple, the rear hall was used for Wushu exercises, where various kinds of weapons were dis-played on the weapon stands ready for use at any time. Some monks practised fist fighting to safe-guard the temple. After years of exercises and practising, foot prints were stamped on the brick floor of the rear hall and these prints can be seen clearly even today. On the north and south walls of the White-Clothes Hall, there are Qing Dynasty murals vividly depicting the exercises practised by monks in the temple.
In the fifth calendar year of the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty (1727), people were not allowed to practise Wushu. However, they could not be stopped either in the secular society or in the Shaolin Temple, where Wushu was practised underground.
Apart from the Shaolin Temple on Mount Songshan, the Shaolin Temple was said to have set up more than a dozen Shaolin affiliates in other temples in the country. The Shaolin Temple on Mount Nine Lotus in Fujian Province during the Ming Dynasty was famous for developing the Shaolin Quan.
Around the 1911 Revolution against the Qing Dynasty, the Shaolin martial arts underwent further developments. Wushu clubs were established all over the country and most of them took the Shaolin Quan. Lots of patriots organized sabre and flying sword groups in order to overthrow the dynasty. They constantly practised their skills and contributed greatly to the cause.
Shaolin Kungfu is non-religious. Throughout history, Shaolin masters have come from various religious backgrounds, including Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Christian and Muslim. There are also masters who claimed to profess no religion.
The benefits of practising Shaolin Kungfu can be divided into five categories: 1) self-defense, 2) health, 3) vitality, 4) mind expansion and 5) spiritual development. Irrespective of whatever style you practice, you must be able to defend yourself if you practise kungfu; otherwise your training becomes meaningless, because the term 'kungfu' means martial art However, kungfu, unlike many other martial arts, is generally non-aggressive and non-brutal although it is very effective for combat.
The Shaolin school is very popular in secular society with a myriad of followers. Over the years it was enriched theoretically and its techniques perfected to form a colossal system of fist fight.
Compactness is a feature of the Shaolin school. The moves and tricks of this school are short, simple and succinct as well as versatile. While fighting, Shaolin boxers would advance and retreat straight forwardly. They need only a small space to execute their style of fist fight which is des-cribed as "fighting along a single straight line." Shaolin Quart is powerful and speedy with rhythmic rising and falling of body movements. It stresses hardness of actions and blows but it also advocates softness in support of the hardness. The motto of the Shaolin fist fight says "hardness first and softness second." When jabbing or palming, the arm is required to be neither bent nor straight, in an attempt to blend external and internal forces.
Apart from practising Shaolin Kungfu, there are Ten Shaolin Laws for the followers to follow (see below). The laws, in the Shaolin tradition, are not meant to be punitive or restrictive, but as practical means to help followers to achieve the set aims and objectives; in other words, to help them attain the best possible results in practicing Shaolin Kungfu for combat efficiency, joyful living, mind expansion, and spiritual fulfillment. The laws are not forced upon the follower; the follower accepts them because they choose to, because they believe that the laws are helpful to them in their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual cultivation. If a follower breaks the laws, after sufficient warnings, he may be asked to leave the Shaolin training, not as a punishment, but because the training is not suitable for him.
With the monumental development of the wushu/sanda tandem, a campaign to list wushu as an Olympic sport has been gathering much support. This will undoubtedly happen in the future.
The long history and development of Shaolin Gongfu has reached a point were it is imperative to distinguish between the traditional martial art -- Shaolin Gongfu -- and the modern evolution of that art -- present-day wushu -- and to acknowledge their differences. Traditional Shaolin Gongfu, or Wugulun gongfu, is a practice focused on promoting health and fitness and creating an internal state of meditation, in addition to being an effective combat art. This form is currently practiced by a small group of people from the Shaolin Wugulun lineage, popularized by leading ChanWuYi figures, Master Shi Dejian and Mr Wu Nanfang. The now more well-known form, wushu, is a regulated sport that might someday be accepted as an Olympic sport.
The global popularity of different practices (especially modern wushu), very loosely grouped under or taking the name of 'Shaolin', requires considerable examination as to what Shaolin Gongfu, and, for that matter, traditional Chinese martial arts, really are. Mr Wei Jizhong accurately observes: "Gongfu movies, television shows, performances and opera are very popular in China and overseas. Especially overseas, 'gongfu', 'Shaolin monk skills' and similar names have gradually taken the place of [Chinese] martial arts. This phenomenon has caused us to take [modern] wushu as a national tradition and promote it as such to the world. Should this make us happy or worried? I'm afraid that the [Chinese] martial arts community hasn't taken time to ponder this situation."