The title is a gross exageration…I realize that this entry is not the most organized I have ever written. However, I felt that it deals with an important topic, and I will be posting a lot more on this subject. Eventually, it will all get more organized and concise. The subject matter is what is currently hampering my long promised book on the history of Hung Gar. The more research I did into the subject, the worse the standard story looked. Then when I got into the actual beginnings of Hung Gar, things really unraveled. This is not my final position; it is simply where my thinking is at this moment. I am still processing a ton of information, and I am also trying to get it all organized and a much more detailed article will be coming soon.
Nearly every martial artist on the planet knows how the martial arts originated.
At least, they think they know.
What we know is based on what we were told. Unfortunately, what we were told, and what we usually tell our students is a lie.
As an example, we all know that Bodidharma traveled to China in around 525 AD. He had a visit with the Emperor, who was shocked and amazed, mortified and stupefied to find that Bodidharma did not believe that the Emperor had gained any merit in the next life for all of his good deeds in this life. So he sent Bodidharma away. Bodidharma made his way next to the Shaolin Temple. Here he tried to teach them his unique take on Buddhism. But he found the monks to be in terrible physical condition. He went out and sat in a nearby cave for nine years, came out at the end of this seclusion and wrote two books, The Muscle and Tendon Change Classic, and the Marrow and Brain Washing Classic. He also created a set of exercises, the Eighteen Lohan Hands, which formed the foundation of the Chinese martial arts, and all martial arts in the world.
Nearly every martial arts history one is able to find in books or online will tell this tale.
Well, it is all pure BS.
The legend of Bodidharma cannot be traced back further than the popular Chinese novel The Travels of Lao Can, which was written between 1904 and 1907.
And even without trying to debunk the legend of Bodidharma, one must look at the tons of archaeological evidence which clearly shows that martial arts were practiced in China long before the Shaolin temple was ever built. Even if Bodidharma did all that is said of him, it means a lot less if the Chinese martial arts already existed before he was ever there.
He didn’t create the Chinese martial arts. One should give some thought to the exercises which are said to have been created by Bodidharma and evolved into the Chinese martial arts, and think about just exactly how much evolution we are talking about here. The exercises are nothing like any martial art.
I feel that part of the ease in believing the myth, aside from the massive amount of repetition it gets from so called authorities, is in the disconnect our modern world has between what we call “martial arts”, and military disciplines.
In the modern sense, a martial art is a practice of self defense activities which are pursued for sport or health reasons. In the older sense, a martial art would be military training. Somehow this disconnect has crept into our common sense, and in our modern time, we fail to see it unless it is pointed out to us. It would be extremely absurd to assert that China had no standardized military training until however many decades it took for Bodidharma’s 18 Lohan Hands to develop into Shaolin Boxing.
The myths and falsehoods surrounding the Shaolin Temple are perpetuated by people who do not want to be cast out of the martial arts “in group”. Or, perhaps, it is just so much easier to carry the same old story which everyone has already heard, rather than tell the truth and have to explain it to people who already believe the lie.
It was all researched and exposed as falsehood by martial arts historian Tang Hao. And did the world stop telling the lies when Tang Hao exposed the truth back in the 1930’s?
No! That would make too much sense! No, the martial arts community, almost as if they had met and discussed the matter (they didn’t), ignored the research and factual presentation of Tang Hao on the history of Chinese martial arts. They all opted to perpetuate the lie of Bodidharma. Why they would have wanted to hold on to the false story is beyond me.
For me, I will no longer pass the myth on to any who want to find out about the truth of the history of Chinese martial arts. I will give it straight.
The facts; the Chinese Martial Arts did not originate in the Shaolin Temple. The Chinese martial arts originated with the Militaries of the various city-states that eventually became the various dynasties which became China.
The martial arts never began as a sport no matter the country of origin. It was a serious, life-or-death training for the military.
Another problem occurs when one begins to research the Southern Chinese martial arts, which is where my research naturally had to go, as I was ultimately trying to write about the history of Hung Gar.
There is a long standing myth based on the Chinese saying “Bei Tui, Nan Quan”, which is, in English, “North leg, South fist”. The general line on this one goes that all of the northern areas of China are either vast open plains, or mountains. As such the people there traveled mainly on horseback, and as such would have developed strong legs. In the south, the story continues, the alleys were small, and crowded, and there was more marshland, so people traveled by boat, or foot.
A more likely idea was proposed in 1998 by Stanley Henning that military hand to hand combat would be short bridge (close in fighting), or short boxing, as opposed to the more flowery and pretty long boxing of the northern regions. Adding to this view are the facts of military recruitment in southern regions due to repeated invasions by the Japanese pirates. All of a sudden, one is able to see clearly that the densely populated cities in the south, being harassed by Japanese pirates, and the local population being conscripted into military service – southern short bridge boxing. In actual combat, especially in the circumstances in which the military find themselves performing hand to hand combat, the fancy high kicks (which martial artists love to perform but quietly admit are useless in a fight) are not seen. One can see then how the southern styles of Chinese martial arts may have developed along a different line, and developed a different fighting mentality than the northern flowery long boxing.
Then there is the problem of the southern Shaolin Temple.
If you travel to Fujian province in China, and visit several cities, one will find several sites which claim to be the southern Shaolin Temple. Put simply – there is not one shred of evidence that such a temple ever existed. There are claims upon claims, but the earliest references to the southern Shaolin Temple are found in 19th century Heaven and Earth Society membership manuals. From all outward appearances, the 1915 manual called Secrets of Shaolin Boxing is the reference point for most of these myths, and people seem, for decades on decades, to treat it as fact. To this day, the claims from this one source are treated as fact! This book was little more than an attempt by the secret societies to “weave together” the various myths surrounding Chinese martial arts. The manual made Bodidharma the founder of Chan (Zen), although the doctrine was well established by the time Bodidharma was said to have resided at the Shaolin Temple. This weaving took the groundless stories, and presented them all as fact. It also provided the opportunity for the Hung Mun society to claim being founded by some renegade monks from a temple which did not exist. This allowed them to recruit through fostering anti Qing sentiment in the country. Tang Hao and Xu Jedong exposed all of this as fantasy in the 1930’s, and Stanley Henning brought it back up in the late 80’s/early 90’s, but the mainstream martial arts community clings to the entire fabrication as if their entire existence depends upon it.
So, where are we?
I am training in a martial art which originated in a temple which did or didn’t exist, founded by criminal organizations that fabricated their origins and history out of thin air. The temple that didn’t exist was affiliated with one that did, but was not known for martial arts until the 1600’s.
No one ever tells you that the techniques which make no sense at all were put in there to make the forms more interesting for street performances or Chinese Opera. It is always some stupid line about how we no longer know what the move is for because someone died and never told their most trusted disciple. Then comes the line about how we need to do a ton of in depth application study.
It is enough to give me a HUGE headache.
Okay, the Bodidharma story…
For reasons unknown to me, no bothers to question it. In China, it has been examined repeatedly. Tang Fan Sheng (Tang Hao) reported in 1930 that the Bodidharma story can be traced back to a single source – the preface by Li Jing to the “Marrow Washing Classic”.
Matsuda Takatomo wrote An Illustrated History of Chinese Martial Arts, which had original research, as well as revisiting work done previously by Tang Hao and Xu Jedong. He reports that the oldest available copies of the classics were written in 1827. There were books published in the time gap which mention Shaolin, but it seems that the Shaolin Temple gained some notoriety due to staff technique, but not empty handed boxing.
So, here I am. I am supposed to be feeling nauseous, or something. My art does not have a fake history, it has a real one. It is just that the real history is not as exciting as the fake one. People in the southern part of China practiced a type of short bridge boxing which came to be known as Hung Gar. It is no less a brutal martial art for the fabrication of history. It seems that martial arts have a real problem with the truth anyway – look at the lies in any available history of Taekwondo! 4,000 year history my foot! So it would seem that, comfortingly, Hung Gar is not alone. All of the southern Shaolin systems face the same dilemma.
I had about fifty pages written on the history of the Chinese martial arts and China when I started really thinking about the Bodidharma myth, and how I had read some accounts which discredited the entire myth.
I started doing some more in depth research from reliable (i.e. non martial arts) resources, and found tons of information.
Here are some references for further reading on this subject. If you feel the need to do an online slam of me for this article, please be smart enough to read the information in the referneces first. I am not the only one out there proclaiming the truth.
Or go to Google Scholar, or Jstor. Anytime you go to a regular martial arts school’s website, they are selling you something.
The Chinese Martial Arts in Historical Perspective, S. Henning (Dec. 1981)
On Politically Correct Treatment of Myths in the Chinese Martial Arts, S. Henning (1995)
Shaolin-Wudang Research, Tang Hao (1930)
Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals A Historical Survey, B. Kennedy and E. Guo (2005)
The Riddle of the Southern Shaolin, C. Toepker
Damo: Conspiracyof Ignorance, C. Toepker