September 2000 (Part 1)



Wushu — martial art or acrobatics?

Question 1

I have come across a web site claiming that Shaolin temple no longer trains its monk in Shaolin wushu and that tours of Shaolin monks around the world are not done by the real monks. Can you verify this statement? There are claims that Shaolin temple now is a mere tourist trap.

— Lam, UK


The term “wushu” has caused much confusion. It is helpful to clarify the confusion before answering your questions.

“Wushu” actually means “martial art”. So Shaolin Kungfu written in Chinese will be “shao lin wu shu”.

But in the 1960s the Chinese government standardized all styles of traditional Chinese martial arts into one style, and called it “wushu”. In other words, before the standardization the people in mainland China practised many different styles of martial arts, such as Shaolin, Taijiquan, Bagua, Xingyi, Praying Mantis, Eagle Claw, Chaquan, Huaquan, Hoong Ka, Wing Choon, Choy-Li-Fatt and many more. After the standardization the people in mainland China practise only wushu. There may be some who still practise the traditional styles, but they are the exception.

In this sense, there is no such a thing as Shaolin wushu, or Taiji wushu, Eagle Claw wushu, Wing Choon wushu, or wushu of any traditional styles — everything is just wushu. Suppose you learned wushu at the Shaolin Temple today. What you learned was not Shaolin wushu, because exactly the same art was also taught elsewhere, and it did not have any special Shaolin characteristics.

Wushu is practised as a sport, and not as a martial art. This makes the situation quite complicating, because its meaning is “martial art”. Even many people actively practising wushu may not be aware of this complication.

Now your questions. As there is no such a thing as Shaolin wushu, the question whether the Shaolin Temple today trains its monks in Shaolin wushu, becomes irrelevant. Earlier, but still in the modern period, some monks in the Shaolin Temple practised Shaolin Kungfu, but it has been discontinued. Their standard, however, is far different from that of the Shaolin monks of old.

I am not sure, but I do not think the few monks in the Shaolin Temple today practise traditional kungfu or modern wushu. Thousands of people visit the Shaolin Temple daily; there is simply no place and no time in the Temple for kungfu or wushu training. However, wushu is taught in numerous wushu schools which have sprung up around the Shaolin Temple. Some of these schools may have instructors wearing monks' robes.

I have not personally seen the touring wushu monks, so I cannot say whether they were from the Shaolin Temple or whether they were true monks. But personally I believe that had there been true Shaolin monks today, they would not like or be bothered to tour the world to show off their arts.

The Shaolin Temple is one of the greatest tourist attractions of China today, but I would strongly disagree that it is a “tourist trap”. Many people, including many from China itself, long to visit the Shaolin Temple, not to learn kungfu or wushu (as it is not taught there) but to see for themselves “the foremost temple beneath heaven”.

There is a Chinese saying as follows: “One cannot call himself a man if he has not been to the Great Wall.” Today some Chinese have changed that to “One cannot call himself a man if he has not seen the Shaolin Temple”. The Chinese government, I believe, has done a great service to its people and the world by restoring the Shaolin Temple.

Question 2

If original Shaolin wushu is still available, is it possible to go there and learn it and what advice would you have if one wants to learn wushu at Shaolin Temple.


Traditional Shaolin Kungfu is not taught in the Shaolin Temple today. It is also very difficult to find traditional Shaolin Kungfu elsewhere in China. This is due to historical as well as philosophical reasons. In the early days of the present Chinese government, especially during the time of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, what was traditional was considered a hindrance to progress. Nobody would dare to practise any form of kungfu or chi kung openly; doing so would invite the wrath of the Red Guards.

Later leaders, under the guidance of the great social reformer Deng Xiao Ping, changed this, and traditional arts like kungfu and chi kung were revived. Shaolin Kungfu, however, was an elite art, i.e. it was taught only to selected few. The Chinese leaders have a different philosophy. They choose to develop a common art that can benefit many people rather than an elite art for a selected few, hence their preference for wushu over Shaolin Kungfu.

If you wish to learn modern wushu, you can register yourself in one of the numerous schools near the Shaolin Temple. Or you can find one in Beijing or Shanghai, where the standard of wushu is very high. You can get much information from your local wushu associations.

If you wish to practise traditional Shaolin Kungfu, you have to remind yourself that much time and effort is demanded. Find out what traditional Shaolin kungfu is, define your aims and objectives, and seek a good master who can help you to realize them.

Question 3

What physical state would you recommend one be in before considering any kind of serious marital arts training? I myself am a 21 year old, 135 lbs, white male, about 5'11", with no health ailments or handicaps. I have not been a physically active person during my life.

— Nick, USA


Before considering any serious marital art training, one must be healthy and fit. Hence, in Shaolin Kungfu, if a student is weak or sick, he has to practise chi kung first to regain his health and fitness before commencing kungfu training proper.

Spiritual cultivation too demands health and fitness. This was the reason why when the great Bodhidharma taught the Eighteen Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis to the Shaolin monks to strengthen them physically, emotionally and mentally so that they could practise Zen or meditation better for their spiritual cultivation.

Your conditions are suitable for martial art training. In Shaolin Kungfu training, it is not necessary to have been active in physical activities previously so long as you are healthy. Even if you were weak or sick to start with, the chi kung exercises innate in genuine Shaolin Kungfu itself will transform you into a healthy and fit person.

That is to say, if you learn from a genuine Shaolin master -- not from a mediocre instructor teaching external kungfu forms. Shaolin training itself is a complete programme for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development. It is not without good reasons why Shaolin Kungfu is regarded by many as the best martial art in the world. But it is very important that you have patience, endurance and respect for the teacher.

Question 4

I took 1 year of American self defense “karate”, but quit because it was not satisfying my need for spiritual development. Since then I have dabbled in yoga videos. I find my weakest points are flexibility and weight gaining.


Although karate is very popular in America, it is not an American martial art; it is Japanese. It originated from Southern Shaolin Kungfu. Japanese masters went to China to learn kungfu and returned to develop karate. It was spread to the United States in a systematic manner after the Second World War. Nevertheless, the philosophy as well as practice of karate are quite different from those of Shaolin Kungfu.

If you want to learn external yoga forms, you can dabble in yoga videos and have some fun, provided you do not break a bone or twist your neck doing funny postures. But if you want to learn genuine yoga, you have to learn from a genuine yoga master.

Like Shaolin Kungfu, yoga is a complete training programme by itself for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development, and as in Shaolin Kungfu too real masters are very, very hard to find. If you practise genuine yoga or Shaolin Kungfu, which are quite different from each other, you will have flexibility and the correct weight.

Shaolin Kungfu

The Shaolin Kungfu taught in our school, Shaolin Wahnam, is very different from the Shaolin wushu taught by modern Shaolin monks

Question 5

Is there a recommended level of physical endurance one should satisfy before attempting the rigors of martial arts? Is there a certain percentage body fat, or heart rate, or muscle mass recommended?


In mediocre martial arts, including external Shaolin kungfu forms (but not genuine Shaolin Kungfu), you need to have reasonable physical endurance to take your classmates' kicks and punches, not too much body fat so that you can bounce about, and a healthy heart rate and adequate muscle mass so that you won't collapse after the training.

But in genuine Shaolin Kungfu training — and also in genuine yoga — you can start with any physical endurance (i.e. being able to last) any amount of body fat and any heart rate and muscle mass (provided you can still stand and move about). If you have sufficient moral endurance (i.e. willing to last) you will be moulded into a picture of good health.

Question 6

I am looking for an authentic Shaolin school. So far I have been unsuccessful. To your knowledge is there anyone skilled in my area?

— Steve, Australia


Today it is very difficult to find authentic Shaolin Kungfu anywhere in the world, not even in China. By authentic Shaolin Kungfu I mean traditional kungfu taught in the Shaolin Monastery in China in the past, where internal force training, combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation were essential ingredients.

What is taught in China today is modern wushu, not traditional kungfu. Internal force training, combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation are not ingredients of modern wushu. Traditional kungfu is taught in many countries where overseas Chinese are found, but internal force training, combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation are also not their ingredients. Usually only external kungfu forms are taught. These kungfu students may practise sparring, but usually they are unable to apply their kungfu forms in sparring.

Question 7

I have spent the past few years learning the art of Bagua. But I find it not a complete system, as we never seem to train the things we learn in a combative manner. Everything I read about the art tells conflicting things to what I learn.


Authentic Baguazhang, or Bagua Kungfu, is a complete martial system. Unlike exponents of some martial systems where certain modes of combat are not included, authentic Baguazhang exponents can handle any modes of attack without having to borrow any outside techniques.

Kicks, for example, are not normally included in judo training, locks not normally included in taekwondo training. In this respect I would regard these arts as incomplete, because their exponents when faced with modes of attack outside their normal repertoire, would have to borrow from other arts for their defence.

The fault therefore is not in Baguazhang, but in the way it is taught in your school. This is a pathetic situation facing all kungfu today. Not only in Baguazhang but in all styles of kungfu, more than 80% of their practitioners world-wide never train in a combative manner the kungfu forms they learn. They are concerned mainly, and often solely, on performing kungfu forms. If they ever spar, which is infrequent, they borrow techniques from other martial systems.

Congratulations for being perceptive in realizing that much of what is being written about your art is in conflict with what you actually practise. This happens in all other styles of kungfu, but very few realize it, much less do anything about it.

Here are some well known things written about kungfu. Kungfu is effective for fighting. Stances are very important. Size and weight are not important. Respecting the master is of utmost importance.

In reality, very few kungfu practitioners can defend themselves effectively. Very few instructors insist that their students spend time on stance training. All sparring competitions (where competitors often fight like children) are based on weight divisions. Most kungfu students today never address their masters as masters; they often call them by names, sometimes by nicknames. Isn't the situation of kungfu today pathetic?

Question 8

We are constantly told that we are training our reptile mind and if we should find ourselves in a situation we would just react as required.


Here is an example of an instructor not knowing what he is saying, or not practising what he says. What methods does he employ to train your mind — reptile or otherwise — and to ensure you would react as required by the situation? He has no methods.

What he actually means — but he himself may not know the meaning — is that what you have been doing in class has nothing to do with combat, and should you be caught in a combative situation you just have to depend on your raw instinct and react in whatever ways you can.

Question 9

It is very hard to remain focused on my training as it seems my teachers are not very skilled. Every time I ask a question they say we can't perform these techniques as they are too dangerous. There seems to be no real evidence of the combative skill of the art from my teachers.


They are not only unskilled but also untruthful. And the great pity is that they, like many other kungfu teachers, may not even realize it. They may be under the delusion that they are preserving a great art. Such a delusion is not uncommon among many Taiji teachers.

If they believe the techniques are too dangerous to be useful, they should not waste their students' time teaching the techniques. Actually whether a response is dangerous or not, depends not so much on the technique being used, but on the skill of the person using it. A skilful exponent can apply a deadly technique on his sparring partner without inflicting the slightest harm. This in fact is the norm in kungfu sparring practice.

Actually today very few kungfu teachers, including some well known “masters”, can effectively use their kungfu forms for defence. Many of them cannot even decently defend against brown belts of other martial systems. Saying their techniques are too dangerous for practice or use, is a common way to hide their inadequacy and save face. If you press further, which is impolite in kungfu culture, they may become aggressive and threaten you.

Another way to save face is to say that they practise kungfu not for fighting but for health. This is very common among Taiji teachers, so common that many of them actually forget that Taijiquan is a martial art. The big irony is that these teachers and their students are not very healthy or fit. Some of them cannot even jump over a chair.

My contention is that anyone who claims to practise kungfu, including Taijiquan, must be able to put up some decent defence. He may lose in a fight or sparring; there is nothing shameful about losing when the opponent is better. But it is shameful if after practising for years something which he claims to be a great martial art, he does not even know what to do if someone throws him a simple kick or punch.

Hoong Ka Kungfu

Sifu Chan Hon Choong of Hong Kong, a master from the lineage of the famous Wong Fei Hoong, demonstrating the Double Tiger-Claws of Hoong Ka Kungfu

Question 10

I am currently looking for a new school and would appreciate some guidance on what to look for in a good teacher. I have spent many years looking but have not had much luck. I would like to train in Shaolin or Taiji but not sure what to look for in a sifu.


Your not finding a good kungfu teacher is not due to your lack of luck but due to a lack of good teachers.

Two minimum qualifications of a teacher are that he is professional, and he is ethical. By professional I mean a good teacher knows what he is teaching. Nowadays many kungfu and chi kung teachers don't. If they know what they are teaching, they would have taught a martial art or an art of energy management, even at a low level, and not dance or gymnastics.

To be ethical a teacher must be reasonably good in the art he teaches. He should not, as expressed in a Chinese proverb, wu ren zi di (ng yien tzi tai in Cantonese), which means misguiding his students and wasting their time. Some persons, especially in Taiji and chi kung, start teaching others after learning the art for a few weeks, i.e. before they themselves have practised it sufficiently.

Being professional and ethical is the basic requirement of any teacher. If you wish to know the qualities of a great teacher, please refer to Qualities of a Good Master.

Question 11

Could you please tell me how old chi kung is?

— Robin, USA


The earliest piece of archaeological evidence on chi kung in extant is a piece of jade pedant with chi kung instructions craved on it describing how to attain the small universal chi flow. It is dated by archaeologists to 380 BCE.

The small universal chi flow is an advanced art where chi is circulated round the body through the ren and the du meridians. Hence more elementary types of chi kung could have existed much earlier before this date. Chi kung historians believed that chi kung could have existed continuously till now for more than 5000 years.

Question 12

Where did it originate from, i.e. the country?


Chi kung originated from China and has a continuous history till today. “Chi kung”, or “qigong” in Romanized Chinese, is actually an umbrella term referring to various arts of energy serving various purposes, such as for health, martial art, mind expansion, and spiritual cultivation. Besides in China, various arts of energy known by different names have existed in all great civilizations of the world.

Question 13

Did martial arts originally come from India?


No, the martial art of each people developed at their respective place. Nevertheless, many martial arts today, such as judo, karate and taekwondo, were much influenced by Shaolin Kungfu.

At first martial arts were practised on individual basis, like Western Boxing today. It was at the Shaolin Monastery in China that martial arts for the first time in the world became institutionalized, i.e. it was taught not as a personal art but as an institution.

In other words, before this time, there was only martial arts in general, and they were of high standards, but since the Shaolin Monastery, there have been Shaolin martial art, Wudang martial art, Praying Mantis martial art, etc.

The impetus for the development of Shaolin martial art was given by the great Bodhidharma, an Indian prince who renounced the throne to spread Buddhism. He taught the Shaolin monks two sets of internal exercise, namely Eighteen Lohan Hands and Sinew Metamorphosis, to help them in their Zen meditation.

Later these two sets of internal exercises developed in Shaolin Kungfu and Shaolin Chi Kung respectively. Bodhidharma is therefore honoured as the First Patriarch of Zen, Shaolin Chi Kung and Shaolin Kungfu.



Courses and Classes