By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved
As martial artists we have the responsibility to not only use our training wisely but also to question it and question it often. As human beings we also have the same responsibility to question everything and not to rely on blind faith. Everything must not only be questioned but thoroughly researched because at every turn there are those who seek to further their own agendas by misleading us. All elements of religion, politics, economics, martial arts, and every other area must be researched and not be taken at face value.
Within the martial arts there are many myths, exaggerations, and downright lies. We can clearly trace what we consider to be martial arts to China but when we go back into the history we find that it becomes very clouded. What I’m going to try to do here is explore the myth of the Shaolin Temple and try to put Chinese martial arts into context.
The only place to start is to address the Shaolin Temple myth. Anyone who has studied martial arts has heard about the Shaolin Temple and been told that that is where the martial arts originally came from and if they trace their art back far enough they can trace its teachings back to this mecca of martial arts.
Here is the basic story: In 64 AD the Ming Emperor decided to bring Buddhism to China so he sent out a delegation to India to study and bring back its teachings. Three years later, in 67 AD, the delegation returned with Buddhist manuscripts and two Indian Buddhist Monks. The emperor ordered the construction of a Buddhist Temple (called the “White Horse Temple”) which became the headquarters of the Buddhist movement in China. Numerous other temples where constructed over the next few hundred years and Buddhism spread throughout the country.
Sometime between 480-500 AD an Indian monk known as Batuo traveled to China and became well known as a wise expert in Buddhist study. The Chinese Emperor Xiaowen summoned him to his palace and was so taken by this monk that he eventually offered to build him his own Temple at the foot of the sacred mountain Mount Shaoshi located in Henan Province. This Temple was built near the sacred mountain and surrounded by a forest, so it was called “Shaolin Temple” which means “Temple in the Forest of Mount Shaoshi” (“Shao” refers to the sacred mountain and “Lin” means forest). Later others would also translate Shaolin to mean “young forest” or “little forest” but the original name of the Temple was a description of its location.
About the same time a prince was born in Southern India. Being a prince he was allowed to study the martial arts of India (although according to this legend martial arts weren’t invented yet) and became especially adept with the bo staff. The prince also began studying Chan Buddhism and upon the death of his teacher, he became the 28th Patriarch of Chan Buddhism and was given the religious title of “Bodhidharma” (other legends say that Bodhidharma was his actual name and not a religious title).
Following his teacher’s last wishes he sent out to spread Chan Buddhism to China in 527 AD (although some legends put his arrival in China as early as 420 AD). He was initially embraced by the Chinese people but soon met with a lot of resistance because even though he was considered to be very wise, he was also very straight forward and abrasive; one might say he “told it like it is”. Bodhidharma preached that Buddhism had been changed over the years and had lost its way and he sought to return people to what he considered to be the true teachings of the Buddha, as he had learned them. At that time Buddhism had adopted several Gods from Hinduism and taught that one could “buy” their way to enlightenment through acts of kindness towards the Buddhist institution and service to royalty. Bodhidharma preached that the only way to enlightenment was hard work and discipline through years of dedicated Buddhist study and meditation.
Like Batuo before him, Bodhidharma became noticed by the emperor and was summoned to his palace. Feeling the name Bodhidharma was too hard to pronounce the emperor renamed him “Damo” (also known as “Tamo” and “Datmo”). The emperor noticed right away that Bodhidharma was very wise but was taken aback by his abrasive and strait forward nature. The emperor offered to build Bodhidharma a Temple of his own but the monk told him that contrary to the belief of the wealthy, the Buddhist concept of “Nirvana” could not be purchased through good works, such as building temples, but rather had to be earned over years and years of disciplined study. Frustrated the emperor dismissed him.
Bodhidharma was very troubled over the notion that enlightenment could be bought by good works so he set out to solve the problem at what he saw as its roots, the Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin Temple was very famous throughout China for the work the monks did in translating the Buddhist religious texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. There the monks devoted nearly all their time to this pursuit and Bodhidharma believed that he had to reform the great and famous Shaolin Temple before the rest of China could also be reformed.
Upon arriving at the Shaolin Temple the abbot Batuo quickly branded Bodhidharma a “troublemaker”, but he decided to let him stay at the Temple as was the custom. Bodhidharma lived in the Temple for a short time but was not well tolerated by the other monks due to his straightforward nature and overall efforts at reformation. The Temple and the monks there had gained praise and fame all over China for their labors and did not want to give that up to take on his rigorous training regimen, so the abbot soon asked him to leave the Temple.
Bodhidharma then went to live in a cave which overlooked the Temple and resided there for 9 years. During this time he observed a vow of silence and spent much of the day in meditation. Eventually local villagers stumbled upon Bodhidharma living in this cave and he became popular. Villagers and even monks from the Shaolin Temple would travel to seek the reclusive wise man’s guidance, even though he never spoke to anyone. The legend of the reclusive wise monk became so popular the abbot Batuo felt he had no choice but to ask him to come to live at the Temple, and soon Bodhidharma became the Temple’s abbot.
Bodhidharma quickly required the monks to start a regimen of Yoga and basic calisthenics to strengthen their bodies. Three types of exercises were required by the new abbot and they were “Marrow Washing”, “Muscle Changing”, and “The 18 Hand Movements” (also known as the “18 Hands of the Lo Han” which means “18 exercises for the greatest holiness”). It is said that from these Indian exercises the monks became very strong and eventually created martial arts based on their movements. It is also said that Bodhidharma, who was expertly trained in the martial arts of India, taught the monks martial arts as a means of physical exercise, but of course if Bodhidharma taught martial arts to the monks then Shaolin could not be the birthplace of the martial arts, but let’s not poke too many holes in this just yet.
In another legend it was said that martial arts did exist prior to Bodhidharma and Shaolin but they were fractured and very basic. This legend says that the Shaolin contribution to the martial arts was that it was at Shaolin that these various rough combat forms consisting of scattered techniques were organized, refined with scientific principles, and elevated to the status or art forms.
No matter which version you go with, from there it is said that from the Shaolin Temple martial arts spread across China and the monks of Shaolin were known for the utmost mastery of all things martial. The monks, who were said to engage in rigorous martial arts training for up to 10 hours a day, gained legendary fighting ability and were even asked by the emperor to come to his aid and stop various attacking armies, which they did and turned the tides of many a battle.
However, the monks of the Temple became so skilled that they made the emperor nervous so he sent his army to destroy the Temple. The monks did their best to fight off the army but the Temple was eventually burnt to the ground. Only five monks escaped and then went on to spread Shaolin Kung Fu throughout China.
Great story, but with regards to the Shaolin Temple’s contribution to the martial arts, nearly all of it is false. The true role of the Shaolin Temple in the Chinese martial arts has been thoroughly researched by both western and Chinese scholars such as the legendary author and Chinese martial arts historian Tang Hao (1887–1959).
When this legend stands up to history this is what we find:
1.) There was a Buddhist Temple called Shaolin
2.) This Temple was famous for translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese and as the Chinese birthplace of Chan Buddhism
3.) A monk named Bodhidharma did reside there
4.) Martial arts were practiced there
5.) Monks from the Temple were, on several occasions, conscribed by various emperors to assist or fight in lieu of his army.
6.) As soon as the myth that the Shaolin Temple was the birthplace of marital arts started to be spread, many serious Chinese martial artists fought the myths but few people would listen.
That's it. That is all that provable history can come up with. What's more is that when Tang Hao researched Bobhidharma he concluded that it was extremely unlikely that he was trained in any martial art, and of course if he had been then martial arts would have to predate the Shaolin Temple.
In order to see the Shaolin Temple in proper context we should discuss what relationship these organizations had with the public and Chinese social structure. Buddhist temples were supported by the entire community and sometimes the government or warlords. Temples were (as they still are in some places today) usually quite wealthy and owned large amounts of land. To protect their material wealth and to guard their vast lands the temples had their own militias. Shaolin Temple would have been no different from any other Temple in that it would have owned a large amount of land and had its own small army to protect it. This army would have been made up of individuals who were trained in martial arts and most likely they would have received their martial arts training from the same place as most other people...by serving in the military.
Throughout most of China’s existence it has actually had several different types of militaries existing at once. During the Ming Dynasty China actually had three different militaries. The Red Banner Army was China's main army and protected the palace, the Manchu homeland, and other key positions. The Green Army acted mainly as police within the country, but according to records they were usually "unavailable" to fight. China's third army was actually made up of privately owned armies and militias. Any wealthy family, business, Temple, village, or warlord would have its very own private army to protect its interests and maintain order. Since the Green Army could rarely be counted on local order was usually maintained by private militias. Each village would have their own small militia that was usually made up of village locals, paid for by the village, and trained by local villagers who originally got their martial art training while serving in the militias of all the other villages they had previously lived in.
These small private armies and militias were often asked or conscribed by the emperor to assist the regular army in fighting or even fight in their stead. So Shaolin Temple, like every other Temple, would have had their own security force that practiced martial arts, protected the Temple and its interests, and sometimes these security forces were asked to fight alongside the regular Chinese army to battle invading forces.
The real fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple would most likely not have been monks at all but rather people hired by the Temple to protect its interests. Some of the hired soldiers might have studied Buddhism while they were there but the Temple would have most likely limited this because they were not paying them to be monks. Instead of being scholarly and wise Buddhists the legendary “Shaolin Warrior Monks” would have actually been a security force that would have been a contingent of trained martial artists who would have lived the life of any soldier, such as doing basic infantry drills, marching, going through inspections, maintaining an armory, and policing the all the land and holdings of the Temple. Since they represented the Temple they would have likely shaved their heads, worn their robes, and had to abide by a moral standard as not to bring shame on the order, but that is most likely the only similarities between the actual monks and the soldiers stationed there.
At this point I should point out that this private military structure is where many of the different Chinese martial arts styles come from. For example, if you were wealthy your family would have its very own private military to protect it, its lands, its interests, and maintain order. This private military force would consist of members of the family as well as hired soldiers and would either be very small to very large depending on the family’s assets and overall wealth. They would study martial arts and the training as well as the weapons, uniforms, etc. would be provided by the family. Often the family would hire a well-known martial arts master to live with the family and either lead their military or train them in martial arts. This being so, each family would have a different and unique martial arts style it practiced and taught to its private army. This is where you get family systems just as Jin Ga, Lau Gar, Li, Mok, Yue, and many others.
If you were an able bodied person living in a village you would be expected to join that village’s private military. The private military would be structured similar to the modern National Guard and it would be funded and housed by the local village. The village would also provide weapons and martial arts training. Whoever was in charge of the military’s martial arts training would teach whatever style they knew and everyone was expected to attend training and be proficient so they could protect the village from bandits, warlords, and criminals.
People would often move from village to village as their profession or the economy demanded and upon settling in they were expected to join that private military as well. They would bring the martial arts teaching they had learned from the last village’s military to the new ones, and thus martial arts knowledge spread across China. This is where village systems come from such as Chen Taijiquan which comes from Chen Village.
By now we know that martial arts were practiced on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple, as it was practiced by the private militaries hired by every large religious Temple, but what proof is there that their martial arts was in some way significant or special? In all written history there are really four sources that speak about Shaolin martial arts that predate 1905 AD.
The first source is from some writings said to be from the Shaolin Temple itself but these writings cannot be authenticated definitively as to who wrote them and when. It also cannot be guaranteed that they came from a source who was actually associated with Shaolin (most practitioners of Buddhism and martial arts, as well as their documents, were rounded up and destroyed by the government in the Chinese Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 through 1976) or that they are objective. In the same way people often take liberties when writing their resume’ when they look for a job, writings claiming to be from Shaolin Temple that speak of their legendary feats cannot be expected to be truthful and without embellishment. Since these documents cannot be authenticated, often contradict themselves, speak of several different temples that bear the Shaolin name, and could be considered to be self-serving very few historians regard them as credible.
The second written source that refers to martial arts being practiced at Shaolin was when in 1561when a Chinese General named Qi Ji writes about touring the country to see martial arts demonstrations as research for a martial arts manual he was writing. He writes that among the many places he visited he went to the Shaolin Temple and was very impressed by their staff techniques. He was impressed to such an extent that he incorporated one of their set routines into his manual.
The third is a few years later in 1566. An English manuscript tells of a journey that a group of English traders had in China. Within that writing they briefly mention that during the trip they were lost in a storm and found their way to the Shaolin Temple where they asked for refuge. They were given shelter and then provided with a martial arts demonstration that impressed and delighted them. Martial arts knowledge was very restricted, especially when it came to foreigners, so when the monks were asked what these incredible feats were the monks replied that they were seeing a demonstration of “Kung Fu”. The term “Kung Fu” means “great expertise or mastery developed through discipline and years of hard work”. The English traders took this to mean that Chinese martial arts were called “Kung Fu” and this is why we use that term in the west to this day.
The forth source is from royal manuscripts that talk about several battles between the Chinese military and invading armies. In some of these writing they speak of private militaries that were conscribed by various emperors to fight alongside of the national army and among some the names of private armies it mentions the Shaolin Temple providing soldiers.
That’s it. Before 1905 only four sources mention the Shaolin Temple practicing martial arts and the first one isn’t considered credible by most historians and the second, third, and forth mention Shaolin’s martial arts only briefly. If Shaolin was a martial arts powerhouse it would be expected that more historical evidence would exist, yet we find that most of the references to Shaolin martial arts come after 1905.
The martial arts did not begin at the Shaolin Temple, and it makes sense that it didn’t happen this way. In truth there was no real connection between the lethal techniques of martial arts and religion.
The first recorded human society was the Sumerians who lived in what is today southeast Iraq. Samaria dates to 4000 B.C. and the earliest swords known to exist date to around 1600 B.C. so obviously combat systems are older than the Shaolin Temple which dates to around 500 AD. History shows that basic combat techniques and strategy were often known by lay persons to various degrees out of necessity, but real expertise in combat systems and warfare was the territory of the military.
The point of driving home the martial arts-military connection is to put the martial arts into proper context. If you look at the modern marital art of marksmanship practiced by our military you’ll see that it is studied as a form of combat…period. It does not have a philosophical component; it does not have a first aid or medical component other than what is necessary to kill another person; it doesn’t not have a traditional meditational component; and no one running around saying that by studying riflemen-ship you’ll be a better or wiser person. Marksmanship is a discipline of function…period! The same was true 1500 years ago in relation to using your fists, feet, swords, spears, etc.
The martial arts were practiced by the military for combat and they were practiced by the general public for self-protection. Originally there was no religious or moral component and no one thought that training in martial arts would make you a better person. If you went back in time to 1300 ad and asked a kung fu master if his style was “Buddhist” or “Taoist” they would look at you like you were nuts. It’s the same was as if you went to a hunter and asked if his rifle was “Catholic” or “Protestant”.
The question should now be asked: if the marital arts in China largely came from, and were refined by, the various Chinese militaries and not by wise warrior monks in the Shaolin Temple…why is there this notion, how did it start, and why did it start?
Let’s look at the history and context of Chinese society. In the golden ages of martial arts, the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 to 1911 AD), most Chinese were poor and illiterate, had very little education, and were too busy dealing with basic survival to focus on religion or morality. Martial artists rarely taught for a living and if they did it was only to a select few. Most martial artists, like today, had a day job and lived very unglamorous lives. If a martial artist did make a living with his training it was usually in the military, as a bodyguard, a criminal, or a street performer.
Martial artists were not great people, or at least not any better than anyone else. The fought, they killed, they robbed, and they lied just like everyone else. There are records of martial artist con men going around the countryside and scamming villagers. The way this typically worked is that one person would arrive at a village a few days ahead of the rest of his group and mingle with the general population. When the rest of the group arrived at the village they would issue an open martial art challenge to the villagers declaring that they would beat anyone there in a fight. In all the turmoil and confusion of the open challenge the conman sent there in advance would step forward and accept the challenge on behalf of the village. Local villagers would then place bets and a perfectly rehearsed contest would take place with the traveling challenger being victorious, often by using a “secret technique”. Later, all parties would meet up at a different village or hideout and split the profits.
Many martial artists would earn a living by performing on the street using magic tricks. This is where many of the myths of "chi", internal energy, came about. Putting out a candle from 10 feet away, using "chi" to knock over an opponent from a distance or through a wall, breaking a spear against your throat, having a partner jump on your stomach with all his bodyweight from 7 feet in the air and not being injured, laying on a bed of nails, breaking a stack of boards with your pinkie, running a sword across your skin without being cut, producing smoke with your fingertips, using "chi" to boil a glass of water, and many, many other feats were merely magic tricks that used psychology, chemistry, and physics to fool people who had little to no education, and still fool many people today. (It often surprises religious people to learn that turning water into wine, the famous miracle performed by Jesus, was a very common magic trick in China well before biblical times. In fact, most of the miracles described in the bible and other religious texts were in fact established magic tricks in Asia during those times.)
In 1756 the Chinese instated a trade policy called the Canton System and began very lucrative trade with Europe that made many European and Chinese businessmen very wealthy. The British East India Trading Company had a monopoly on trade with China and soon grew unhappy with the trade policies they saw as unfair. China decided that it only wanted to be paid in silver for exported goods while the European countries did business with gold. England had to spend a lot of time and effort to get enough silver to buy Chinese goods (especially tea which was in large demand in England) to the point where, after a trade was completed with China, it had actually lost money.
In 1817 the British East India Trading Company, which controlled the opium market coming from India, arranged with the Chinese Emperor to pay for Chinese goods with opium as well as silver in an attempt to balance the trade deficit. They began importing opium into China in massive quantities and within 10 years there was a widespread opium problem among the Chinese people. This was made worse in 1834 when the trade monopoly held by the British East India Trading company was broken and Americans began trading with the Chinese and paying with opium from Turkey that was cheaper in quality and price. The new completion drove opium prices down and many Chinese became angry that foreigners were hurting the country by weakening its people with opium addiction. It is estimated that over 2 million Chinese were addicted to opium as a result of this trading.
In 1839 the emperor ordered that the opium trade was now illegal and companies trading with China had to sign an agreement not to import opium and had to surrender any opium shipments they had to the Chinese government. This started of series of events that led to the Opium War between England and China which lasted from 1839 to 1842. The war ended with Britain occupying Shanghai and the Chinese emperor signing a treaty that they considered very unfair.
The result of this war was that opium trade was renewed and word quickly spread of how easily the more technologically superior English defeated the greatly numerically superior Chinese. In response to this many western companies descended upon China and religious missionaries stormed in like locusts to convert the non-Christian Chinese.
The mid 1800’s saw a huge invasion of China by western influence and many Chinese politicians and businessmen sought to develop relationships with western companies to reap the great fortunes that trading with them could bring. A huge movement followed where much of Chinese society started to westernize themselves and abandoned traditional clothing for a western suit, tie, and top hat.
How did all this effect marital arts? It caused a large portion of the country to move away from them. In no area was this abandonment of martial arts greater than among the wealthy and upper classes who now either saw martial arts as unnecessary because handguns were now widely available, or they wanted to distance themselves to win the approval of westerns who might see it as a “lower class thing to do”. By 1880 most wealthy Chinese businessmen and officials had their bodyguards move from carrying martial arts weapons to keeping a colt pistol under their shirt.
Among the lower middle class and poor martial arts training was still popular to a large degree because they didn’t have the access to firearms and needed to defend themselves in the very turbulent times. However, with large portions of the Chinese population moving away from martial arts the masters and those who depended upon teaching for their livelihoods had to find a way to remain relevant.
What occurred from roughly 1850 to 1920 was martial arts had to go on a marketing campaign to get their followers back. In order for martial art teachers to maintain their income and their high status in the Chinese community they had to come up with a way to “rebrand” themselves and market marital arts training as a still useful skill in the new Chinese economy. Not only that, if they wanted to get the wealthy and powerful members of society back they had to find a way to make martial arts training prestigious.
There were many strategies used including dumbing down the training to allow more people to enroll in schools. This led to many arts losing their combat efficiency in favor of teaching techniques that looked cool and were fun to do but didn’t have proper combat applications (which still happens widely today where a lot of schools teach tournament competition and try to pass it off as real authentic martial arts and realistic self-defense).
Masters also tried to reinvent themselves to be a more appealing to the upper class and more heroic to the lower class. This time was one of revolution and the government had to put down numerous revolts by the people who wanted the foreign influence ended, the Christians driven out, or the new Chinese Christian population wanting to force others to adopt their religion by the end of a sword. With all the rebellion also came books that showed the romantic righteous struggle of one particular group over another. Each book had a star that was brave, wise, and nearly unbeatable in combat. These books, which were the equivalent of dime store romance novels, were published by all types of groups in China as propaganda and became very popular among the public.
These books and the images in them were so popular that martial arts masters started to try to adopt those qualities and images. The stereotypical image of the wise and just marital arts master who could do no wrong, beat 15 opponents with the wave of his hand, and could hear a cricket from a mile away was adopted by the martial arts community and dates to around 1915. Before this martial art masters were not seen as any wiser or any better than anyone else (but prior to 1850 they did hold a somewhat higher status in the community simply because they had the ability to kill you). The same thing happened in the United States after the movie “The Karate Kid” (the first one, not the horrible, horrible remake) came out and many instructors tried to be like Mr. Miyagi; or after Bruce Lee movies became popular and instructors started to imitate him which still happens to this day.
To go after the wealthy they had to consider what the wealthy people of those days still valued. Even though a lot of the wealthy made an outward effort to adopt western things they still valued religion and all things ancient because Chinese believed that the older something was the better it had to be.
Lying about your style’s history and even forging historical documents to make your style appear older or connected to a well-known master was a widely used and time tested marketing ploy among Chinese martial artists. After all, the way Chinese society viewed martial arts, if you developed a style it was considered “too new” and untested, but if your grandfather created the style people would think it might be credible; however, if you could convince people that your style was hundreds of years old, came from a famous master, or was connected to a famous place it was not only seen as credible but training in it was seen as experiencing Chinese history firsthand and being connected to it.
Masters continued the age old tradition of lying about their styles history and trying to connect them to religion and places of religious significance was especially clever. While a large portion of the new westernized upper class considered the grueling training of martial arts a lower class activity, they considered religious pursuits to be an extremely upper class activity. By convincing people that they could use martial arts training as a moving meditation to aid spiritual development they opened the religious market as potential customers. To do this, though, they needed a good story to set it up.
Tying the martial arts to the Shaolin Temple was actually very smart and it solved a lot of their problems. Firstly, you get to connect marital arts with Buddhism which helps you to tie everything together and intermingle the two disciplines in a nice package to appeal to the upper class. Secondly, if you wanted to tie your martial art to a religious entity to couldn’t get any better than the Shaolin Temple. This Temple was infamous and highly regarded all over China due to (firstly) their work transcribing Buddhist texts and (secondly) being the Chinese birthplace of Chan Buddhism which was very popular in China (Chan Buddhism also spread to Japan were it was called “Zen” or “Zen Buddhsim”). So by saying your martial arts comes from Shaolin you borrow the prestige of that Temple, its religion, and the famous Bodhidharma himself.
Saying your art came from Shaolin became so popular people wanted to tie different arts to Taoism was well. They did that by saying their art came from the famous Wudang Mountain Temple. Today a lot of people see martial arts as a discipline which includes self-defense and combat training, learning oriental medicine, meditation, and spiritual and moral development but that is actually a fabrication and a creation born mostly between 1905-1920 for marketing purposes. Since the dawn of martial arts until about 1850 marital arts was solely a combative discipline and didn’t contain these things.
The majority of what is today considered martial arts came about in the late 1800's and early 1900's as a marketing effort. In the same way much of what people know about the samurai of Japan came from the 1700's and later, when the samurai were actually around since the 1100's.
The Shaolin Temple myth was most widely spread by two books; the first was a popular novel called, "Travels of Lao Can" which was written around 1905, and the second was "Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing" written in 1915. Both of these books were very popular and widely read.
To comment on the latter book ("Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing") historian and author Stanley E. Henning wrote an article entitled "The Chinese Martial Arts in Historical Perspective" (published in 1981). In that article he stated that, "Both [the legendary historians] Tang Hao and Xu Je Dong exposed this book's lack of historicity but, unfortunately, it became popularly accepted as a key source of Chinese martial arts history enthusiasts, and its pernicious influence has permeated literature on the subject to this day". In other words, even though credible historians have disproven the historical information in this book about how the martial arts were created it was (and still is) widely regarded as a credible source of Chinese martial arts history.
The Shaolin Temple myth was further spread by the government of the “Republic of China” in 1928. To organize, control, and spread the Chinese martial arts the government created a large martial arts school called the “Central Guoshu Institute” (Guoshu was a term meaning “national art” and it was the name that the government gave to the martial art styles if officially approved of and chose to recognize). The government handpicked five masters to head the institute.
In October of 1928 they held a national martial arts tournament which was attended by 600 participants including some of the most revered masters and their students. The organization reportedly separated the 600 participants by splitting them in two categories: “Shaolin Styles” and “Wutang Styles”. This was reportedly the first official use of the Shaolin/Wutang classification used in martial arts; although it was only used by the Central Guoshu Institute originally it soon spread all over China.
There is exactly zero credible evidence that the Shaolin Temple was the birthplace of the martial arts or even a hotbed of martial arts training. All credible evidence says that the Chinese military (the Red Banner Army, the Green Army, and private armies and militias), not the Shaolin Temple, were responsible for creating, developing, promoting, and spreading Chinese martial arts throughout China. All credible evidence says the "legend" of the Shaolin Temple was created in books and cannot be traced back further than 1905.
As a couple of side notes, after the Chinese martial arts reinvented themselves their troubles weren’t over because they ran into the communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution which ran from 1966 through 1976. During this time the new government wanted to recreate China and decided to round up and destroy all things that were traditionally Chinese because they were no longer relevant in the “new China”. The martial arts were at the top of their list and martial arts practitioners and master were rounded up and executed, their schools were burned down or taken over by the government, and all the martial arts documents and training manuals they government could locate were rebounded up and burned (it is said that the government did keep some masters alive and retain some martial arts manuals in order to train their military). Martial arts were forced underground with the penalty of death for you and your family, and the masters either fled China or were killed.
Many masters fled to Hong Kong (which was under British control), Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, America, and other countries and any that could not were killed or imprisoned. The result of this is that many people now believe that if you want to learn true Chinese martial arts today you have to look outside of China. When martial arts practice was again made legal some masters may have returned but it is unlikely because they may be have killed for leaving in the first place (when it comes to communism not dying is often illegal).
Another effect of this destruction and exodus is that a lot of martial arts and martial art knowledge have been lost forever. Many styles taught today are most likely incomplete and lacking a lot of their secrets and applications.
It is important to note that while traditional martial arts were made illegal and punishable by death the government approved practice of “Wushu” was encouraged. Chinese martial arts have gone by a variety of names but the government wanted a new name for a new regulated artform. Traditionally martial arts were called “Chuan Fa” or “Quanfa” (meaning “methods of fighting with the hands”) but the new system was the literal translation of the term “martial arts” (“Wu” means martial and “shu” means arts).
The government didn’t necessarily want to eliminate martial arts altogether, it really wanted to control them. In 1958, before the Cultural Revolution and the destruction of traditional martial arts, they organized the “All-China Wushu Association” to control the martial arts and regulate them by government standards. Wushu was a creation made by the new government that was designed to give people a good show, be entertaining, but not learn the true fighting applications of actual martial arts. While they encouraged Wushu they hunted down and killed true masters. Wushu is widely considered to be solely a performance art and void of the actual combat and self-defense teachings of traditional Chinese martial arts.
Another note is that the modern Shaolin Temple is little more than a tourist attraction. The government reopened it as a source of national pride and as a tourist attraction, and reportedly the new Shaolin Temple brings about $2 billion US dollars into the Chinese economy each year. The government cleaned up the temple, filled it with modern Wushu experts dressed in robes, and today it its purpose it to put on a show for both the Chinese people as well as foreigners, and also to try to convince people that China still has retained its martial arts knowledge and abilities instead of hunting them down and killing them off. It is regarded by most experts that the new modern Shaolin Temple does not practice traditional Chinese martial arts or even Chan Buddhism.