By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved
I have received a few emails about my article “Philosophy and the Martial Arts” that took issue with my assertion that the martial arts were not invented in the Shaolin Monastery. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but historical evidence clearly shows that they weren’t, although people work hard to prove and assert otherwise because it benefits them and makes the martial arts “special”.
Truth be told, I kind of wish that the old stories were true because it makes the martial arts sound more noble than they are. My main art is Kenpo and years ago I spent months writing a historical paper tracing my branch of the art back to Shaolin Monks and the Shaolin Monastery in Fujian, China. I was quite delighted to make a family tree that traced my art from me, back through my instructors, and then all the way back to Shaolin, and I displayed that document proudly in my school…that is until I heard of the Chinese martial arts historian Tang Hao (1897-1959 A.D.) and the work he did uncovering “the Shaolin Myth” and other martial arts myths.
To really understand the whole Shaolin/Wudang/martial arts thing you need to put it into proper context, so that is what I will attempt to do here.
First we need to talk about some of the dynasties in China. China began as a group of warring kingdoms until the warlord king Qin Shi Huang conquered the other kingdoms and unified them as one; thus he united China, became the first emperor, and started a long tradition of imperial rule. The unification of China is dated 221 BC and marks the beginning of the reign of China’s first emperor and the start of the Qin Dynasty.
China remained a unified kingdom under the rule of a Chinese Emperor until the Yuan Dynasty. In 1217 China was invaded by Mongolia and the Chinese emperor was replaced by a Mongol one. The new Mongol emperor was named Kublai Khan and his dynasty ruled from 1271 to 1368. These nearly 100 years of the Yuan Dynasty were turbulent times in China because the Chinese deeply resented being under foreign rule. Even today many Chinese do not consider the Yuan Dynasty (and the later Qing) to be legitimate dynasties because they were periods of foreign occupation.
During the 100 years of Mongolian rule there were uprisings, civil unrest, plots to overthrow the emperor, and even famine. The Mongolians ended up losing influence in their homeland and then in China, and finally they were ousted by rebellion. A man named Zhu Yuanzhang was one of the key leaders of this rebellion and afterwards he claimed the throne and became Emperor Hongwu and thus Mongolian occupation of China was ended, a Chinese Emperor restored, and the Ming Dynasty began.
The Chinese Ming Dynasty was from 1368 to 1644 and was really considered the golden age of martial arts in China. The Ming Dynasty was also a great source of pride for the Chinese people because it marked the return of their sovereignty. While the Ming Dynasty had its problems, here the country grew strong, the population exploded from 60 million at the start of the dynasty to 150 million by the end, and China was able to successfully fight off every attack by foreign powers.
During this dynasty there was a great sense of nationalism and the need to become strong so China could remain free. Thus martial arts were encouraged and widely practiced and developed. The Ming Dynasty was truly a time of advancement for the combative arts.
While the martial arts spread and flourished the country again saw unrest. This time was marked by widespread political corruption and further attacks from countries such as Manchuria. In the end China could not withstand constant attacks from both without and within and in 1644 China fell to Manchuria and the Qing Dynasty was born (1644-1911).
The first Manchu emperor of this dynasty, Emperor Kangxi, began his rule by sending out a large military campaign to exterminate rebels and supporters of the former Ming government throughout China. This campaign was widespread and anyone known to support the former Ming Dynasty, or seen as a threat to the new dynasty, was hunted and killed.
Secondly, he set up a segregated class system where Manchu’s were above everyone else and held all the high positions in government and the Chinese were only allowed to hold the lowest governmental positions. The Manchu’s and Chinese were even required to dress differently. An example of this was hairstyle you see in period martial arts movies where the front half of the head is shaved and the rear half is pulled back into a ponytail. It is said that this was to make the Chinese people resemble the ass of a horse. The Chinese became second class citizens in their own country and this created massive anger and resulted in the formation of many groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing.
The Qing Dynasty existed until both civil unrest and western influence forced a change that occurred in 1911 when the communists took over.
The thing that I want to focus on here is that the Qing Dynasty, which lasted 267 years from 1644 to 1911, was again a time or foreign occupation, resentment from the Chinese, and a time of rebellion. Organizations such as the Tongs and Black Dragon Society dedicated their existence to subverting the Qing’s power and restoring Chinese rule.
While the Chinese populace opposed the foreign rule they had to be very careful about how they did it because if they drew too much attention both themselves and their families could be killed. Therefore, when people talked about opposing the Qing they did so in roundabout ways. A common method of was to talk in terms of Taoism and Buddhism. Religion was widely practiced and often talked about so this manner of discussion was seen as somewhat safe.
How this worked was that Taoism was a religion that was native to China, so when people talked of Taoism often they were talking about loyalty to the Ming Dynasty. Also, the government of the Ming Dynasty had a close association with Taoist priests and used them for prophesy. The Ming Dynasty Emperor Chengzu (1423-1404) spent considerable funds constructing and rebuilding Taoist Monasteries on Wudang Mountain, which was a holy site in the Taoist religion. In many ways Taoism was seen as the official religion of Ming Dynasty emperors.
Buddhism, however, was a foreign religion so when people talked about Buddhism often they were talking about the foreign Qing rule. While the Chinese people accepted the wisdom contained in both religions, often the discussion of one or the other were code.
Books and other texts were written and passed around that spoke of the wisdom of Taoism and the shortfalls of Buddhism, and these manuscripts were really coded and to the trained eye they spoke of rebellion and Chinese nationalism, and tried to bring people into the fold of rebel groups. What this really was, was political defiance through literature.
In retaliation, the Qing Government was very pro-Buddhist and attempted use Buddhism to sway people to a pro-Qing stance.
This extended to the martial arts also. Traditional, or at this period what was considered to be traditional, Chinese martial arts were what we would today consider “soft” or “internal”. Native Chinese martial arts were softer and relied on “chi” or sudden bursts of explosive kinetic energy (kE) for power. As a manner of nationalism people tried to tie the native Chinese arts with Taoism and the Wudang Mountain. Thus if you said something was a Taoist art what you were really saying is that it was an art that was native to China.
Arts that originated, or had strong elements that originated, outside of China was referred to as Buddhist by some rebel groups. One of the best known Buddhist Monasteries in China was called Shaolin Monastery and this monastery was known for its scholarly works. Shaolin Monastery was famous all over China for translating Buddhist manuscripts from Sanskrit to Chinese. If you were reading a Buddhist Sutra chances are that the translation was done at Shaolin. In this period if you said that something was a Buddhist or Shaolin art there was a good chance that what you were really saying is that it was foreign, or at the very least not really Chinese.
It is true that martial arts were practiced at Shaolin but martial arts were not actually practiced by the monks; the monks probably practiced some type of calisthenics or yoga but the combative arts were practiced by the Shaolin Militia. In China every landowner had it’s own army/militia/security force and monasteries were large landowners. The official army could not be counted on to respond to defend the people, so all landowners and villages maintained and trained their own military forces.
Like all monasteries, the Shaolin Monastery had its own army. Even the writings from the Monastery say that there were two kinds of people there: monks and “warrior monks”. What this means is that at Shaolin, and every other monastery, there were Buddhist monks and a military force. The Shaolin Monastery’s military force trained in martial arts, maintained an armory, did perimeter checks, and spent a great deal of time doing military drills like marching and standing in formation. Also, like all private militaries in China they could be called upon to fight along side of the regular army and even to fight in their stead.
In a sense, during the Qing Dynasty practicing “Shaolin styles”, “Buddhist styles”, or “external styles” was a way of supporting the Qing government, and practicing “Wudang styles”, “Taoist styles”, or “internal styles” were a way of thumbing your nose at the Qing government. The "external" school and Shaolin Monastery represented foreign Buddhism, which symbolized the Manchu aggressors, while the "internal" school represented indigenous Taoism, which symbolized the Chinese, who would overcome their oppressors.
It should be noted that this was not so all over China. The whole Buddhist/Taoist, Shaolin/Wudang, internal/external thing was only a known code for the small group of people in the “know”. Only the hardcore supporters of either dynasty even knew that such a distinction existed. To the average person there were just the martial arts, and the thought of an art being tied to either location or religion was ridiculous.
The harder the rebels pushed the Taoist/Wudang symbolism the harder the government pushed the Buddhist/Shaolin symbolism. The Chinese rebels who practice more traditional “internal” arts tried to push their native roots by connecting them with Taoism and Taoist’s holy Wudang Mountain. The Manchu’s who practiced a harder form of martial arts that was more native in style to their homeland in turn tried to tie it to Buddhism and to the Shaolin Monastery (It should be noted that any real mention of the Shaolin Monastery being a significant site in terms of martial arts didn’t appear until around 1900 or so).
It should also be mentioned that the classifications of internal and external martial arts is a fairly new thing. External martial arts tend to generate force from muscle tissue while internal marital arts tend to generate force by using bodyweight to transfer kinetic energy. That really is just about the only difference. “Internal” arts still have punches, kicks, throws, leverages, eye gouges, and everything else that “external” arts have.
This is how the classifications of internal/external, Shaolin/Wudang, Buddhist/Taoist martial arts came about. It all started as rebel symbolism and code in the Qing Dynasty and grew from there. Ever since, martial arts styles have been arbitrarily labeled as being either of the Shaolin or "external" school, or the Wudang or "internal" school. Today many people take it literally but historians are quick to point out that there is no credible evidence whatsoever that martial arts came from the Shaolin or Wudang Monasteries or had any real connection with religion at all prior to around 1915-1920.