Martial arts in China are not just Kung Fu movies about Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It is not just about Bruce Lee beating Chuck Norris in Colosseum also it is not just about Jackie Chan running and fighting gangsters in streets of Hong Kong or running away across buildings in Istanbul, New York or LA. It is not so simple as it seems and it is not just Kung Fu and only one temple- The Shaolin that are mostly mentioned. Those who practice martial arts know more about it. If you are interested in Chinese martial arts read this guide. First of all martial arts are not just a fight but a way of life. It is way of strengthening your mind and body, your character, discipline. They strengthen you both physically and psychically learn you how to stay tough be flexible and handle daily situations. Maybe it seems strange but I have personal experience and with more practicing and being disciplined you become disciplined, careful, tolerant and flexible in your life. That is like this because behind every martial arts style and techniques there is life philosophy that teaches you to be better person, be honest, respect nature and other people and live in harmony with them, stay in tune and relaxed and to defend your principles and do good.
Now I will tell you main division of martial arts in China. Kung Fu isn’t specific martial art style.And term Kung Fu is related to any art and relates to anything that needs devotion, patience, self-discipline, honor, strengthening mind and body finding peace and relaxing. But mostly word Kung Fu is related to martial arts that require mentioned qualities. Another word that relates to martial arts is wu shu. Both Kung Fu and wu shu aren’t specific martial arts all Chinese martial arts are considered as some kind of Kung Fu or Wu Shu. So there is main division in martial arts in China according to few criteria: External/Internal, and Buddhist/Taoist. Each style depends on particular philosophical teaching and region where it originates.
Shaolin School of Kung Fu
So lets start from the oldest one. Oldest one is Shaolin Kung Fu School. It is whole set of different martial arts styles based on Buddhist teaching and external focus. Shaolin Kung Fu originates since 5th century in Shaolin Temple at Mountain Songshan( Henan Province). Bodhidarma is the founder of this school the same person that brought Buddhism to China. He is also founder of Chan ( Zen) Buddhism. Shaolin Kung Fu is focused on developing your external force skills. It teaches you strong discipline, focus on your mind and transferring your internal energy into external. Due to this Shaolin Kung Fu learners and masters can with right focus and power of mind break bricks with hands, break wooden sticks over each others heads and meditate on rocks for many hours while snow falls on them. Most of monks are slim but are very tough and have great abilities to stand various challenges and survive in combat. Their teaching doesn’t allow to use force first until it is necessary. Through the history Shaolin monks used it to combat robbers in order to protect temples and villages. Monks in other Buddhist temples formed sects that was hard to enter in order keep secret and quality of Shaolin Kung Fu. It was quite spreading to the south as warrior monks were invited to fight against pirates on the sea. Today there are many secular private teachers of Shaolin Kung Fu styles across China. But only most capable and most honest and compassionate can enter Shaolin Sect to practice Kung Fu there. In Shaolin Temple there is also possibility for foreigners to come to learn Kung Fu. Shaolin Kung Fu has many styles that have developed across China but mostly in Southern areas. Most famous and most original is Shaolingquan- Fist of Shaolin. This one is oldest and most demanding styles that is taught only in Shaolin. Among most famous styles is 5 Animal Style that includes Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Snake and Dragon. There are special categories of moves that remind on each of 5 animals. However there are separated styles of each of these animals. For example only Tiger style, Dragon style, Snake style, Leopard style and Crane style and each is related to only 1 animal. Also within Shaolin Kung Fu there are other animal styles as separate forms: Bear, Mantis, Monkey, Horse, Deer, Scorpion, Turtle, Crocodile, Panther, Swallow, Black Tiger, Elephant Lizard, Hawk, Wolf, Lion, Frog, Eagle and some other. Many of these styles are quite rare and it is very hard to find them today. Except animal forms there are Plum Blossom Fist, Arhat Style and Drunken Style. Today very famous and available in other countries is Wing Chun style.
Wudang School of Kung Fu
Another school of Chinese Kung Fu is Wudang Kung Fu School. It originates from Wudang Mountain located in Hubei province. Wudang Kung Fu is set of Taoist internal or soft forms. In mysterious, remote and foggy Wudang Mountains since 13th century have been developing martial arts based on Taoism. Taoists from both Zhengyi and Quanzhen sects formed Wudang Sect that started practicing martial arts. The founder of Wudang Sect is Zhang Sanfeng. I already wrote before how he discovered Tai Chi. Tai Chi Quan is full name of basic and founding Wudang style. Its literate translation is supreme ultimate fist. If you have read my previous texts about Taoism you will understand following.Taoists consider that humans should live in harmony with themselves and with nature to respect all beings- plants and animals and to respect sky, sun and moon. Taoists believe that you should be powerful like water, to breach any barrier, constantly flow further towards your way and leaving worries far behind you. They say that power is in softness and their quote is- “bamboo that is bending is stronger than oak that is firmly standing” It means be flexible but still. All this concepts are embodied in Tai Chi In Taoist terms practicing tai chi develops peaceful but still mind, circulates your own qi( life energy) within your body in order to make balance between mind and body. That is achieved by awareness of yourself by strictly coordinated movements which must be very soft but very accurate. At the same time you have to know when to move which leg , whether to put one arm above to the right or another one down to the left or vice versa and whether to breath in or breath out. Each technique requires strict accuracy and starts with breathing in and ends with breathing out. Breaths and movements of body make your energy circulate which harmonizes your mind and body and increases awareness of yourself and your place in nature. That is why this is considered as soft style and internal. As focus is on your own energy flow( from breath to other parts of your body) and on each of your moves which are soft in nature but you stand hardly and firmly. Zhang Sanfeng used to say following:
Breathing Out –
Touching the Root of Heaven,
One’s heart opens;
The Dragon slips by like water..
Breathing In –
Standing on the Root of Earth,
One’s heart is still and deep;
The Tiger’s claw cannot be moved.
As you see Tai Chi is based both on softness and firmness but core is internal force. f you have read previous posts about Taoism you can easily understand how Tai Chi is connected to the Taoist teaching. Members of Wudang Sect saw it as continuation of following the Dao( Way) and harmonizing with nature. As it is based on Taoist teaching except softness on one side and slow moves on another there is hardness and fast moves. Each of Tai Chi techniques can be done also very fast with very accurate moves but very fast. In such way it can be used in self-defense and fight. Both versions are equally taught on Wudang but basis is soft one. If you don’t know the soft and slow one then fast cant be applied easily. Point is that when you are attacked you should use same moves but fast but accurately and move faster then enemy avoid or block his strikes. You should circle around fastly but accurately like water avoiding barriers. When enemy gets tired you block his strikes and then strike fast and hard and defeat him. Also on Wudang there was created Tai Chi Jian what literally means supreme ultimate sword. It is very similar art as Tai Chi but instead of hands and fist swords are used also in slow and fast way both for harmonizing and for fighting. Also there is version of Tai Chi where you use spear as primary weapon.
Except Tai Chi other Wudang styles are: Tai Yi Quan, Xingyiquan, Xuanwu Quan(. Wudang Quan. Fuhu Quan, Baijiquan( hard one) and Baguazhang( an art where you mostly use palms both in slow and soft but also in fast and hard form). With all these knowledge Wudang Sect kept its secrets and lived in mountains and learnt new followers their arts. Only those who proved that they share all Taoist virtues such as patience, , kindness and simplicity where accepted in sect. Women were also accepted there. Main form was Sanfeng Style oldest style of Tai Chi that includes 13 forms that together compose around 60 moves. They led isolated lives( but many of them married with local village women) and they learnt except martial arts, meditation, qi gong, Chinese natural medicine, learnt to recite old Taoist scripts and share kindness and wisdom around. Today there is currently 15th or 16th generation of Sanfeng Tai Chi masters that keeps lineage and tradition. There are some foreigners in that lineage too. Today Wudangshan is quite commercialized as they intend to attract fans of martial arts in order to show them real traditional life of Taoist monks and their exercising. They offer short staying and shorter exercising which can cost you around 300-400$ for few days( food,accommodation and training included). Also there is long term staying between one and 3 years and whole year costs around 4000$( including accommodation, food and training). It requires for you to have desired virtues and there is strong discipline.
Beyond Wudang Tai Chi was spreading to other parts of China especially to the north. Other 5 styles were created on concept of Sanfeng Style. First one that appeared is Chen style. It was developed by inhabitant of village who was surnamed Chen in XVII century in Henan province. It isn’t sure where he learnt Sanfeng style and modified it. Chen style has 108 movements. His family continued his tradition and Chen sect is first sect and school of Tai Chi that wasn’t ordained as monastic. It is quite widespread today and its masters continue lineage of family Chen whether they have that surname or not. It has both slow and fast versions and uses of weapons. It can be found today in foreign countries moderately often.
After Chen style in 1820s was founded next family style- Yang Style. Yang Lu Chan was a student of Chen Zhang in Chens village in Henan. Later Yang Lu Chan modified and created his own style and passed it to his sons. Ancestors of Yang Lu Chan still hold this tradition in teaching Tai Chi. Today this style is most famous one and most widespread style and it be learn in almost any country in world. There are most schools that are licensed by holders of lineage of Yang style to teach this style. Most of people that you can see in parks or most of clubs teaching abroad are teaching Yang Style.
Another style that appeared from Yang sect is Wu Hao style. It is least popular and there is very little information about it. It is almost extinct and it is mostly focused on slow moves.
Another style that appeared is Wu style. Wu style was founded in Beijing by former student of Yang style Wu Quanyou. Wu style was founded in 1870. Wu Quanyou was military officer in imperial army. He was ordered by emperor to teach his soldiers Tai chi in order both to relax and harmonize but also to use it in combat. So Wu style is very good set of 108 moves that can be used slowly and softly but also in combat if you do moves very fast and firmly. Wu family heritage isn’t only in surname but in knowledge of this amazing style. It is moderately widespread today in China. Some of them are held by members of Wu family or by holders of generation of masters with different surname. Except in China Wu schools exist in Australia, USA, Greece, France, Canada, Poland, Germany and maybe some other country. These schools are licensed by Wu family and its masters are listed in generation of masters. Descendants of Wu Quanyou teach in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canada. This style is very interesting and specific. I have chosen to learn this style because it offers both soft and slow but also and firm and fast versions, isn’t too widespread ,isn’t too available, isn’t too famous and commercialized what makes it unique and still mysterious and weapons can be used as well. I currently know 30 moves and I think its sufficient for me both to relax and balance but also to defend myself. In my opinion you need between 20 and 30 moves of Wu style Tai Chi for proper relaxation, improving concentration and for defense. I do it quite often few times per day including both versions. But also sometimes I use sword while doing Wu style Tai Chi.
Last founded style is Sun style. It was founded in 1920 by Sun Lutang who was taught by teachers of Wu Hao style that was still not that rare. This style is less famous then other styles.
Emei school of Kung Fu
Emei Kung Fu was founded by Buddhist sect. So next to the Shaolin and Wudang Kung Fu there is Emei Kung Fu as well. Emeishan mountain in Sichuan province was place where Taoist monks lived. They firstly developed martial arts that were based on Taoist teachings. When Buddhism started to appear in China many Buddhist monks came to Emeishan. They brought their teachings and skills of Shaolin Kung Fu. In the area were many robbers so in order to defend themselves both Buddhist and Taoists combined their skills in order for better defense of temples. Later on this mountain Buddhists predominated but basis of Taoist martial arts stayed as well. So Emei Kung Fu school is combination of Taoist and Buddhist teachings and techniques as well. Main styles of Emei Kung Fu are Emei fist( Emeiquan) and Monkey style. Monkey style was created as inspiration of main inhabitants of mountain- monkeys. Emei school was widespread nearby Mount Emei and its styles were taught in temples in Chengdu. Also they were taught by secular family teachers. Today this school is almost extinct. It can be found somewhere in Sichuan. But existence of Emei sect still remains a mystery, do they still exist? Are they among regular monks of Mount Emei? Is someone who still knows almost disappeared Monkey Style? I will go there and search one day.
BONUS information Sacred mountains of China!
Probably you have already seen often mentioning mountains sacredness and their spiritual meaning. Have you ever wondered why?! Here is the answer mountains were sacred since very ancient times since about 3000 years BC. Mountains have been perceived with awe and big respect. In ancient understanding that Heaven and Earth are two contradictory but balanced sides mountains are seen as bridges between two and best place to gain energy from both balanced sides. Many kings and emperors went to specific mountains to offer worships to Heaven and to pray for balance and harmony like one that exists between Heaven and Earth. Since ancient times Taoist and Buddhist monks used mountains as perfect place for retreat to nature. Taoists mostly came there to worship Heaven and Earth and be close to nature and find inner peace there surrounded by fog, trees and rocks. Mountain in Taoism is seen as rigid, still and hard and as opposite to water which is flexible, soft and movable. Therefore mountain and water make balance and Taoist priests and followers still come there to follow their balance and reach own balance. Taoists use to spend time on mountains, to meditate, practice martial arts and make various natural medicines. For Buddhists mountains are place of retreat, turning off senses, silencing mind, living modestly without suffering. Buddhists go on mountains to search peace and wisdom which Buddha encountered when lived isolated and ascetic life.
Many people all over China visit mountains looking for blessing of Heaven and Earth, harmony in life, health, fortune, love, longevity… They usually spend a night on top and wait sunrise since it is believed that first morning rays are most important blessing known as infinite light, blessing of immortals and Buddha light. It is said that who waits sunrise on one of 13 sacred mountains will live 100 years.
In China there are 13 sacred mountains divided on 5 great mountains, 4 Taoist mountains and 4 Buddhist mountains. There are hundreds of mountains in China with spiritual places of worship but these 13 are considered as core sacred mountains.
5 great mountains
These mountains are mixture of Taoist and Buddhist influence and are important both for followers of Buddhism and Taoism since they have temples and sacred sites of both.
- Taishan- Is considered as most sacred mountain in China. It is 1.545m high and located in Shandong province. It is sacred at least since Zhou dynasty( 1046BC-256BC). At least 72 emperors visited it to offer prayers including Qin Shi Huang emperor founder of Qin dynasty and unifier of China. Also great philosopher Confucius visited it. Even founder of PRC Mao Zedong came there once to give respect to this place. Many poets and writers visited it in history to gain inspirations. Bixia Yuanjin is main deity of this mountain and it is translated as Heavenly Immortal Lady of Jade. She is considered to be daughter of Jade Emperor. Mountain has both Buddhist and Taoist temples and carved verses of both teachings.
- Hengshan- Is a sacred mountain in Hunan province. It is famous for old temples that date from Tang dynasty( 618-907).
- Huashan- Is located in Shaanxi province. It is considered to be one of most dangerous mountains in the world. Come and you will see it its steep and dangerous cliffs. Be very careful but it is worth risk to see stunning view and check few old temples
- Hengshan- It is another Hengshan in Shanxi province. It is one of oldest sacred sites too at least since Zhou era.
- Songshan- It is sacred mountain in Henan province. There are located several Buddhist and Taoist temples with many rock carvings which date from Tang dynasty.
4 Taoist Mountains
These are mountains which are mostly inhabited by Taoist monks and on which are located Taoist temples.
- Wudangshan- it is most famous Taoist mountain. Wudangshan is located in Hubei province. There is famous 5 Dragons Temple which dates from Tang dynasty. In 13th century mountain was inhabited by immortal Zhang Sanfeng a founder of Tai Chi. This mountain is a home to Wudang branch of martial arts which are still practiced there. If you are fan of martial arts it is right place for you. Outskirts of this mountain are famous for being inhabited by Taoist hermits who came on their own to live in nature far from world.
- Longhushan- It is located in Jiangxi province. Longhushan is another most famous Taoist mountain. It has been inhabited by Taoists since 1st century CE. Today there are many temples and headquarters of Zhengyi Dao sect.
- Qingchengshan- It is located nearby Chengdu in Sichuan province. According to legend Jade Emperor came there once. There are many Taoist temples which have very old Taoist scriptures. Also conservation center for pandas is located there.
- Qiyunshan- It is located in Anhui province. This mountain is famous for many inscriptions on rocks and few temples.
4 Buddhist Mountains
These mountains are mostly related to Chan school of Buddhism.
- Emeishan- Is located in Sichuan province. Emeishan is highest sacred mountain and is high over 3000m. Mountain is mostly devoted to Puxian a Buddhist deity which helps other beings.There are old Buddhist sites which date from 1st century CE. There are located more than 76 Buddhist sites. Emeishan is inhabited by monkeys so it is really interesting to walk there. This mountain provides one of most beautiful sunrises so come here and see it.
- Wutaishan- It is a mountain located in Shanxi province and devoted to Wenshu boddhisatva a deity of wisdom. There are more than 20 Buddhist sites on this mountain.
- Jiuhuashan- Is Buddhist mountain in Anhui province. It is devoted to Ksitigarbha a deity which protects beings from dangers of hell and evil spirits. This mountain was visited by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai. Since pre Tang era this mountain is inhabited by Buddhist followers.
- Putuoshan- It is island mountain in Zhejiang province located in East China Sea. It is devoted to Guanyin a goddess of compassion, children and women. It has very interesting combination of natural landscape and architecture.