Southern Shaolin Kung Fu History

Elements of Chinese martial arts originated in the distant past as simple blocking and striking techniques.

Elements of Chinese martial arts originated in the distant past as simple blocking and striking techniques. The first documented form of Chinese martial arts, classical Chinese wrestling, is noted in the texts written about the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, who lived in the first half of the third millennium B.C. Over the ensuing years, other forms of Chinese martial arts evolved.


In about 525 A.D., a holy man named Bodhidharma left his monastery in Southern India to spread the Buddhist faith to China, later called Ch’an Buddhism. (Ch’an is the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit word “dhyana” meaning yogic concentration. Also known as Zen.). After traveling hundreds of miles to reach Northern China and crossing the Himalayan mountains, he crossed the Yangtze River and headed North to Loyang, the capital of Honan Province. In a neighboring forest, he found the Shaolin Ssu (Young Forest Temple). The temple had been built by Emperor Hsiao Wen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534 A.D.) and was famous for scholarly translations of Buddhist scripture into Chinese. Bodhidharma located a nearby cave, where he sat in meditation facing a stone wall for most of the next nine years. Various stories have arisen regarding his meditation practices – it was said that he could hear the screeching of ants crawling along the rock face. Another time, he supposedly fell asleep while meditating and cut off his eyelids to prevent that from happening again. At the end of nine years, Bodhidharma’s deep blue piercing eyes had apparently drilled a gaping hole in the cliff wall and Fang Chang could no longer refuse him entry into the temple.

Shaolin Kung Fu

Bodhidharma became the first Tsu (patriarch, literally, ancestor) of the Ch’an sect in China. He saw that the monks were weak and could not perform his rigorous meditations so he incorporated some calisthenics into their training. These in-place exercises were transcribed by later monks as (1) “The Muscle Change Classic” or “The Change of the Sinews,” (2) “The Marrow Washing” and (3) “The Eighteen Hand Movements of the Enlightened One” (The Eighteen Lo Han Shou) and marked the beginning of Shaolin Temple boxing. Bodhidharma later devised some self-defense movements based on his knowledge of Indian fighting systems. His emphasis on “Chi” (intrinsic energy which can be cultivated with breathing exercises and meditation) is still an essential foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu. Bodhidharma’s teachings were further enriched and refined by succeeding Shaolin masters to become the powerful and graceful Shaolin Temple boxing, also known as Shaolin Ch’uan (Shaolin Fist) or Shaolin Ch’uan Fa (Way of the Shaolin Fist). Since bandits frequently attacked the temple, the Shaolin hired Kung Fu masters to teach the monks to defend themselves. Eventually, the Shaolin fought off the attacking bandits and became renown for their martial arts prowess.

Rise of the Manchus

Then, in 1644 A.D., the Manchus came to power (Ch’ing Dynasty 1644 -1911 A.D.). Many of the officials from the previous M’ing dynasty sought refuge in the Shaolin temple and the Manchus destroyed the temple. Only five masters escaped – those who went north taught the taller Northern/Mongolian people accustomed to a cold and rigorous climate, while those who went south taught the shorter Southern people accustomed to a warmer climate. The first Shaolin Ssu has long since been destroyed, but several branches of Shaolin Kung Fu stemming from the first temple have spread out throughout China and the world. Today, the two most well-known branches are Northern Shaolin and Southern Shaolin.

Northern vs. Southern Styles

In the colder Northern regions of China the ground was hard, allowing more stability when kicking and stepping. Therefore, Northern Shaolin styles emphasize kicking, long-range, acrobatic, and ground-fighting techniques. Many of the fancier kicks are acrobatic and graceful as well as powerful, but the basic kicks can be effectively applied by any well-trained student. In the warmer Southern regions of China, the ground was softer and often muddy, making kicking and stepping more difficult. As a result, Southern Shaolin emphasizes higher stances and hand techniques. The practitioner of Southern Shaolin will patiently wait for an attack, then quickly block and counter as the opponent strikes, catching the opponent off guard.