The History and Style of Shaolin Kung Fu

Get the facts on this well-known martial arts type

Man Doing Kung Fu
Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Before delving into the history of Shaolin Kung Fu, it's first important to know what the term "kung fu" means in China. Contrary to popular opinion, it's really a term that refers to any individual accomplishment or refined skill that is achieved after hard work. So, if you work hard to drop a sparring partner with a spinning back kick, that's kung fu! Seriously.

Despite how kung fu is defined in China, the term is widely used across the world to describe a significant portion of the Chinese martial arts. Therefore, Shaolin Kung Fu refers to the Chinese martial arts styles that started with and continue to be tied to the Shaolin monks and monastery.

The Shaolin Temple

According to legend, a Buddhist monk from India named Buddhabhadra, or Ba Tuo in Chinese, came to China during the Northern Wei Dynasty period in 495 A.D. There, he met Emperor Xiaowen and gained his favor. Though Ba Tuo turned down the emperor's offer to teach Buddhism at the court, he was still given land on which to build a temple. This land was located at Mt. Song. And that's exactly where he built Shaolin, which translates to "small forest."

The Early History of Shaolin Kung Fu

From 58 to 76 A.D., Indian and Chinese relations began to grow. Accordingly, the concept of Buddhism became more popular in China as monks traveled between India and China. An Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma may have played a significant role in the development of the Chinese martial arts. It is believed that he eventually preached to the monks at the newly formed Shaolin Temple in China. While there, he may have taught the monks martial arts movements, which served as the basis of Shaolin Kung Fu. Though Bodhidharma's role in martial arts history isn't certain, the monks became famous martial arts practitioners after his legendary arrival.

Famous Use of Shaolin Kung Fu in History

The Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) saw 13 warrior monks help the Tang emperor rescue his son, Li Shimin, from an army of soldiers looking to overthrow the ruling party. When Li Shimin was eventually named emperor, he called Shaolin the "Supreme Temple" in China and fostered learning exchanges between the imperial court, armies, and the Shaolin monks.

Destruction of Shaolin Temple

Qing rulers had the Shaolin Temple burned to the ground because Ming loyalists lived there. They also banned the practice of Shaolin Kung Fu. This resulted in the monks dispersing, where they were exposed to other martial arts styles they used to enhance Shaolin Kung Fu when it became legal again.

Shaolin Kung Fu Today

Shaolin Kung Fu is still practiced by the monks. In fact, they have become world famous entertainers, as their art is beautiful to watch. Interestingly, as the Shaolin style has morphed and taken on many different sub-styles, its hardcore self-defense core has lost out to the more showy styles, like Wushu.

Many believe that the original kung fu devised by the monks was much more powerful, though perhaps less aesthetically pleasing, than most Shaolin Kung Fu practiced today.

The 72 Shaolin Martial Arts Training Methods

In 1934 Jin Jing Zhong published a book titled Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin. Zhong lists, by his own account, only authentic Shaolin training methods in this book, meaning those designed for self-defense purposes. The methods can help practitioners develop extraordinary abilities. Zhong said he learned the skills from a scroll given to him by Shaolin Abbot Miao Xing.

Shaolin Kung Fu Characteristics

Shaolin Kung Fu, like all of the kung fu styles, is primarily a striking style of martial art that utilizes kicks, blocks, and punches to stop attackers. One thing that is pervasive in kung fu is the sheer beauty of the forms they practice, as well as the mixture of open and closed hand, strikes to defend against attackers. There is a minimal emphasis on throws and joint locks. The discipline also utilizes both hard (meeting force with force) and soft (using an aggressor's strength against them) techniques. The Shaolin styles also tend to stress kicks and wide stances.

Basic Goals of Kung Fu

The basic goals of Shaolin Kung Fu are to protect against opponents and disable them quickly with strikes. There is also a very philosophical side to the art, as it is strongly tied to Buddhist and Taoist principles. Shaolin Kung Fu sub-styles also have a very theatrical presence. Therefore, some practitioners have the goal of acrobatics and entertainment, more than practicality.

Shaolin Kung Fu Sub-Styles

This list includes the styles of Shaolin Kung Fu taught at the temple:

  • Xiao Hong Quan - Little red fist
  • Da Hong Quan - Big flood fist
  • Tong Bei Quan- Through the back fist
  • Liu He Quan- Six harmonies fist
  • Taizu Chang Quan - Emperor Taizu's long fist
  • Qixing Quan - Seven-star fist
  • Da Pao Quan - Big cannon fist
  • Xiao Pao Quan - Small cannon fist
  • Chang Hu Xin Yi Men - Forever preserve the heart-mind link/door
  • Meihuaquan- Plum flower fist
  • Luohan Quan- Arhat fist
  • Tongzigong- Shaolin child training
  • Dan Dao - Single sabre technique
  • Long – Dragon technique

Shaolin Kung Fu in Movies and TV Shows 

Shaolin Kung Fu has been represented in Hollywood. David Carradine famously played a Shaolin monk in the American Old West on "Kung Fu." The groundbreaking TV series aired from 1972 to 1975.

Jet Li made his film debut in 1982's "Shaolin Temple." And in the film "War of the Shaolin Temple," invading Manchu warriors try to kill the 3,000 kung fu masters at the Shaolin temple. Unfortunately for them, only an outcast can save them.