Shaolin kung fu is often referred to as the origin of martial arts, with the exception of Shuai Jiao [wrestling] which predates the Shaolin Temple . Though the famous Shaolin Temple has been burned down several times by the government and it’s monk killed or dispersed throughout it’s turbulent history, it has been rebuilt and continues to thrives till this day. Shaolin kung fu as a style has changed over the centuries, but still has kept many of it’s original forms and techniques ,due to fleeing monks teaching villagers and keeping the system alive.
Though the majority of the world’s martial arts can be somehow traced back to the Shaolin Temple, Shaolin as a martial arts has taken a strange turn. In china where the art originated many modern day practitioners practice the art for [鍛煉身體Duan Lian shen ti] fitness or body/health training. Even the famous monks at Shaolin, though they spar regularly and occasionally practice fighting application or some kind of fighting drill, mostly practice for a form of mind/body exercise.
The Shaolin monks are often seem demonstrating fast and powerful looking solo forms, as well as performing highly athletic acrobatic maneuvers and feats of strength ,but what does all this have to do with practical modern fighting methods? In fact historically all the various training methods do relate directly to fighting both empty handed as well as with weapons, it is just that in recent non warring times in China the emphasis has been placed on fitness and performance.
For this article we will explore the Shaolin methods of preparing the student for combat. When one begins training in Shaolin Kung Fu, one will quickly understand that the mind is the most powerful tool. If one does not seek physical conflict but to live a happy healthy life, one can change one’s psyche. Thus by training the mind and heart to be peaceful in those ways similar to the Buddhist belief ,one can usually avoid a confrontation by simply being tolerant and none ego driven. For example if one is constantly engaging in sport fighting events and feels he is indestructible, he may be more prone to engage in a physical confrontation over harsh words when it may in fact be an avoidable situation.
With a proper mind set one will begin one’s training in the art of Shaolin kung fu. From the beginning of one’s training one will be forging one’s body to be faster, more flexible and stronger than it has ever been in the past. Though Shaolin kung fu[and other kung fu systems as well] do have specific techniques and strategies for combat, they also place utmost importance on the attributes of their physical training on making the system work as a whole.
Often the techniques within the solo routines are hidden. One would not be able to decipher the meaning without prolonged practice and fundamental skill training. It is not simply knowing that this move is a punch ,this move is a kick or throw that makes them work under pressure. The body must be trained properly in order for these techniques to work as they were designed to.
When learning a new routine or form, a Shaolin instructor will not teach you every application for every move. Over time he will reveal some of the movements meanings. Each moment in a Shaolin form has actually several meanings. What appears in a form as a simple pretty poster may be a lock, throw or strike. One is also encouraged to explore even create or rediscover the meanings behind the movements. This goes back to the students attributes being more important then individual techniques.
Training the body to be a fighting machine, the Shaolin way starts from the begin of one’s fundamental lessons. Stances play an important role in any kung fu system. The primary goal of the stance in kung fu is to offer stability in fighting. In ancient time as well as modern being on the ground is a last resort, so having solid stances can help one form toppling over under pressure or being taken to the floor intentionally by one’s aggressor.
Stances also have aggressive maneuvers within their hidden applications. For example the cross stance or 歇步 Xie Bu in Chinese can be used to stomp on an opponents knee while simultaneously locking the attackers elbow. The front stance or 弓步Gong Bu can use it’s forward momentum to create a powerful push/double handed palm strike to send an opponent flying backward [a technique the author used in a real altercation before].
The基本功Ji Ben Gong or basics of Shaolin kung fu come in the form of a series of kicking methods and punching drills. Within the kicking series are certain techniques that are simple designed to stretch the legs and gain flexibility and agility in the legs of the Shaolin student. The others are practical fighting techniques that can be utilized in dangerous situations. One of the author’s Shaolin teachers mentioned that in a real altercation one should not kick any higher than the waist of the opponent. Keeping the kicks low prevents the aggressor from catching the kick and downing the kicker, as well as preventing the possibility of losing one’s own balance while launching the kick.
Some of the most common Shaolin kicks used in combat are the instep groin kick. In this kick the instep is swung upwards into the opponents’ groin. Low level side and round house kicks to the knees or thighs. Shaolin students develop power for these kicks not only by practice low stances throughout solo drills and forms, but also by striking a variety of pads, bags and posts.
The punching basics are simple punching drills from various stances as well as transitioning form one stance to another. These drills are meant to develop full body power behind ones strikes. For practical use the Shaolin student’s fighting stance must be modified. The common Shaolin fighting stance is similar to a boxer’s stance but the lead hand is held future out in front of the body. This is because many of the Shaolin techniques involves grabbing with the lead hand either to pull the opponent into a strike or to help set up a lock or throw. The lead hand being extended out future in front of the body also helps in defense against kicks , as in used for blocking.
When performing the punching techniques of Shaolin in an actual confrontation the techniques are performed tighter and from the shorter more mobile fighting stance. Shaolin has many comprehensive blocking methods that vary slightly from teacher to teacher. They usually involve deflecting and trapping the attacking limb while helping to set up the Shaolin fighter’s attack. As with many other Chinese Kung Fu systems, the Shaolin fighting methods are done quickly and aggressively with forward moving footwork to crowd and disrupt the attackers balance in the process.
Throwing locking and grabbing an opponents vital areas on one’s body are all part of the Shaolin fighter’s arsenal. After an attack is deflected and neutralized the Shaolin fighter will strike with a barrage of fist ,knees, kicks elbows, head butts[just to name a few] strikes all while moving forward and crowding the aggressor. After one has entered one’s space and stunned one’s attacker with several strikes, the Shaolin fighter can throw, lock or do a combination of the two to down the opponent and end the confrontation. If the aggressor wants to continue to fight while in a prone position the Shaolin fighter has many finishing maneuvers for just such a situation.
For the Shaolin practitioner, if he should end up on the ground ,his primary goal is to regain a standing position. This theory can be best illustrated by the famous butterfly kick from the ground where the practitioner swings his legs in a wide circle and the momentum propels him/her back to their feet. This maneuver is used in the situation where the Shaolin practitioner is downed and the opponent remains standing. It has several applications from kicking a standing opponent’s legs, to sweeping him to the floor, and of course bringing oneself back to one’s feet. In a broader sense this application relates the entire theory of ground fighting in Shaolin kung fu. That one needs to get back to one’s feet regardless of what grappling maneuver or system the aggressor may attempt/posses. The author has the fortune to have a coach and friend that previously taught the author Chinese wrestling[Shuai Jiao] but is also a professional MMA fighter with a purple belt in BJJ. The author has focused on learning escapes from popular hold and submission with an emphasis on escaping and regain a standing position to add to his Shaolin curriculum.
Body Condition and two man exercises
The author has witnessed that the Schools surrounding the main gates of the Shaolin Temple all seem to participate in free sparring every Saturday morning. The level of intensity and techniques allowed seem to be the same from school to school. Punches ,kicks and limited throws seem to be the norm within these training sessions. The students spar with a high level of intensity [pretty much full contact strikes are allowed]. These matches look similar to other styles when engaged in stand up sparring matches. With a keen eye one may notice the wide swinging type of hand strikes resembling Shaolin specific striking techniques seen within the forms. Beside the common kickboxing/Sanda methods of sparring are many Shaolin specific conditioning drills and as well as fighting games.
The forearms and shins are imports tools in any striking systems arsenal. For this reason it is important to train the body to take sufficient contact to such areas. In Shaolin kung fu the forearms are used both in striking as well as defending. There are many two man drills used to condition the forearms for contact. Simple drills evolve standing in a stationary stance and banging forearms in a pattern. More complex forearm drills evolve complex footwork as well as target practice on the partners body utilizing the forearms as striking weapons.
There are several two man sets designed to condition both the instep of the feet and shins for striking and defending purposes. Again both moving and stationer drills can be performed with light to moderate contact being made at the beginning, till one works his way up in pain tolerance and toughness. For both the forearm and leg drills if a training partner is not available a tree can be used. It is also important not forcefully rub out the trained area using the hands and rubbing away from the heart to help prevent blood clotting.
Body conditioning drills also exist in Shaolin Kung fu to toughen up the body against strikes. These come in many forms but are similar to the leg/arm drills in where you continually strike your partners body in mirroring movements.
Grappling drills consist of standing in stances and trying to pull, push or off balance one’s training partner. One drill that the Shaolin students play is to assume a right foot foreword horse stance and clasp the lead hands as if shaking hands tightly. From here simply try to pull one out of one’s stance without moving one’s own feet. Another drill is done where both partners face each other in a right foot forward front stance. Begin by crossing lead arm forearms then trying to quickly secure a grip of your partners wrist while preventing or breaking your partners attempt. If a grip is secures you then try to pull your partner out of his stance while remaining in your stance.
The first drill will help the student to practice his rooting ability[stability in one’s stances] as well as pulling strength and hip movements. The second drill also develops rooting, pulling and hip movement as well as practice wrist grab escapes and securing a wrist hold.
This article gives a brief glimpse into Shaolin Kung Fu as a fighting systems. In reality one could dedicate one’s entire life to understanding such a system and still not know it’s entirety. Many times it has been said that it is not the system but it’s practitioner that makes a system effective. This can be said for Shaolin Kung Fu as well. If however the Shaolin student wants to be an effective fighter, Shaolin has what is needed in it’s system to do so, as long as one trains appropriately with such methods .
About the Author:
Chris Friedman has been doing the martial arts since his early teens. He has lived in China for the past 9 years studying various Chinese martial arts. He now lives in Henan 15 minutes from the famous Shaolin Temple. For more info on Chris or Shaolin kung fu please go to www.shaolinwithchris.com