Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu, or Shaolin martial arts, is the best-known and most popular style of martial arts in China. It ranks first among the top 3 Chinese kung fu styles (the other two are Wudang and Emei).

Featuring a combination of Zen Buddhism and martial arts, Shaolin Kung Fu originated 1,500 years ago at the Shaolin Temple in Mt. Songshan, Henan province.

Shaolin Temple Was Originally Built for an Indian Monk

Historically, Shaolin Kung Fu has gone through three main phases of development.

Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534): Establishment

The Shaolin Temple was founded in AD 495 by Emperor Xiaowen for an Indian monk called Batuo to preach Buddhism on Mt. Songshan. A large number of local martial artists became odd-job men in the temple.

Sui and Tang Dynasties (AD 581-907): Shaolin Monk Soldiers

At the end of the Sui dynasty, the political situation was chaotic, with a scramble underway for the throne. Shaolin Kung Fu was developed and promoted through battles and wars, eventually becoming the leading kung fu school in the central plains of China.

According to historical records, 13 monk soldiers of Shaolin Temple once helped Li Shimin, later the Taizong Emperor of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), to accede to the throne.

Thereafter, the temple was allowed to organize an army of monk soldiers, who served as soldiers in times of war and as monks in peace time, thus greatly contributing to the development of Shaolin martial arts.

The “Hands of 18 Arhats”, with a strong Buddhist flavor, have been practiced by Shaolin monks ever since that time. They were later used to create more advanced Shaolin martial arts.

Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644): Resisting Foreign Enemies

From 1552 to 1554, Japanese pirates known as wokou invaded the southeastern coast of China. More than 30 patriotic monks from the Shaolin Temple organized a troop and went to the front line, sacrificing their lives in the fight against the enemy.

Later, Shaolin monks participated in the war at least six times and performed immortal feats for the country and people. Since then, Shaolin Kung Fu has further established its authority in Chinese martial arts circles.

During this period, Shaolin monks switched from cudgel fighting to fist fighting, so that fist fights were promoted to have the same status as cudgel fights.

In modern times, Shaolin Kung Fu has gained increasing popularity at home and abroad. And the word “Shaolin” has become a symbol of Chinese traditional martial arts.

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Classification of Different Forms of Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu is rich in content with lots of different forms (tàolù套路, a series of skills and tricks in wushu). According to historical records, Shaolin martial arts have 708 forms, including 552 boxing styles and weapon skills, and 156 sets of combat techniques.

The basic skills involve daily exercises of stance and conditioning. Some incomplete records show that the forms handed down from ancient times are as follows.


The Shaolin Boxing style is vigorous and powerful, conducive to actual combat. Emphasizing practical skills rather than appearance, boxing mainly embodies the word “strong” and gives priority to attack.

There is no restriction on venue when practicing Shaolin Boxing. You can “practice in the area where a bull lies.” In terms of stance and footwork, Shaolin Boxing requires lightning-fast movements, standing like a nail but moving like a swallow.

Major boxing styles include Arhat Boxing, Hung Kuen, Shaolin Five Fists, Drunken Boxing, and Animal Imitation Boxing.


There are many weapons in the kung fu system of Shaolin, ranging from a simple wooden cudgel to various swords and spears, and rare weapons (Staffs of Dharma).

It is a remarkable fact that in the Temple, priority was given to training in unarmed Kung Fu. In principle, any weapon can be taken from an opponent and used against him. Superior knowledge of unarmed combat includes extensive training in disarming opponents.

In the hands of someone who is well-trained, a weapon is simply an extension of the body.


Unlike the “internal” Wudang Kung Fu, Shaolin Kung Fu emphasizes the physical aspect of martial arts, namely the “external” power.

Monks used Shaolin Kung Fu to defend the monastery from roving bandits and when necessary from soldiers of competing warlords, but they also used Wudang Kung Fu on a daily basis as a more peaceful form of physical and mental exercise, to keep body and mind both healthy.

Therefore, Qigong exercises are also a major category of Shaolin Kung Fu, such as “muscle-changing scripture” (易筋经, Yijin Jing), “eight pieces of brocade” (八段锦, BaduanJin) and others.

Ten Taboos

People who practice any of the following behaviors cannot learn Shaolin Kung Fu:

1. Bad conduct; 2. Disloyalty or failure to honor parents; 3. Lack of perseverance; 4. Lack of accomplishment with pen and sword; 5. Impure motives; 6. Tackiness; 7. Deceitfulness; 8. Weakness; 9. Learning without practical use; 10. Lack of respect.

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