Myth and History in the Chinese Martial Arts

I stated in the beginning of the article “Everything my Sifu told me was a lie” that I would put together a cleaner version of the information. I hope this one makes a little more sense. Most of the information is the same, but I have put it into a more comprehensible order, and added some new information and analysis.


Every martial artist has told and retold the well known and well worn story of Bodidharma. How he 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 the monks 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 later still, all martial arts in the world.


Nearly every martial arts history one is able to find in books or online will tell this tale. But, sadly, this legend is just another lie. 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. For reasons unknown to me, no one bothers to question the myth. In China, the myth 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 (525 A.D. – 1827 A.D.) which mentions Shaolin, but it seems that the Shaolin Temple gained some notoriety due to staff technique, not empty hand boxing. And even this notoriety was not highly praised by all. There are some contemporary writings which hold Shaolin staff in low regard. So, it would seem that in the world of fact, Shaolin boxing is not the origin of all martial arts. Shaolin boxing isn’t even the origin of Shaolin boxing!


Bodidharma didn’t create the Chinese martial arts. And even without trying to debunk the legend of Bodidharma, one must look at the tons of archaeological evidence which clearly show 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 (he didn’t), it means a lot less if the Chinese martial arts already existed before he was ever there. One should give some thought to the exercises which are said to have been created by Bodidharma and supposedly evolved into the Chinese martial arts, and think about just exactly how much evolution we are talking about. The exercises are nothing like any martial art. The so called 18 Lohan hands are a series of basic callisthenic exercises which bear no resemblance to martial arts.  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! Instead, 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. The fact is this; 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.


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 or possibly centuries it took for Bodidharma’s 18 Lohan Hands to develop into Shaolin Boxing. And in China, it was common practice to conscript civilians into military service (in the modern time, it would be called the draft). People had to know how to protect themselves. And they had to have some ability, however small, in the use of weapons, for then as now; hand to hand fighting should only be seen as a last resort. All soldiers know this. The real martial arts never began as a sport no matter the country of origin. It was a serious, life-or-death training for the military.


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. Add to this the fact that, just as it was in previous generations in China, people take legendary figures and weave an intricate tapestry of lies in order to connect their style or system with these figures of legend. They follow this old practice in order to legitimize their style, or perhaps to add some perceived glory to the art. This is still a common practice today. How many styles claim that some long dead founder learned the system while working as a servant in the house of someone else? Look at the following:


An excerpt:

“Yang Lu Chan is the most important people about Tai Chi Chuan phylogeny. The story of Yang Lu Chan learning Tai Chi Chuan is very famous in China. Then, he was a counterjumper in Chen family herbal medicine shop at his hometown Yong Nian County, He Bei Province. Later, he was sent to Chen Jia Gou, Wen Xian County, Henan Province ,hometown of Chen family, for his brightness, hard working and honesty. Chen Chang Xing was teaching Tai Chi Chuan at Chen Jia Gou then, and Yang Lu Chan was very eager to learn Tai Chi Chuan from Chen Chang Xing. But he could not realize his dream because of the severe familial restrictness. So Yang Lu Chan began to learn Tai Chi Chuan in his own way by peeping and listening carefully while Chen Chang Xing was teaching his student, then he practiced and exercised alone secretly. Then by then, his skill improved to a certain extend.

One night some years later, the secret was discovered by Chen Chang Xing when Yang Lu Chan was practicing Tai Chi Chuan. According to the tradition of Wushu circle, it is a very fearful mistake and tobu to learn kung fu of others secretly. And the learner would be abolished kung fu from his body if he is lucky, even be killed if he is unlucky. But Chen Chang Xing did not do that, because he was kindheart and inspired by Yang Lu Chan’s diligence and honesty. And so, he accepted Yang Lu Chan as his student. Since then, Yan Lu Chan followed Chen Chang Xing and learned Tai Chi Chuan seriously for 18 years , and finally he realized the soul and essence of Tai Chi Chuan.”

And this: from which we read:


“Upon their arrival in King Mui, the two were met by Chan Heung, the chief gung fu instructor there.  Jeong Kwan explained their situation but was faced with the unfortunate fact that those without the Chan Surname were allowed to reside in their village much less learn their gung fu.  But Jeong Kwan pleaded until Chan Heung devised a plan.  He was able to take in the young boy, but only in the capacity of a groundskeeper.  However, the young Jeong Yim wasn’t allowed to learn the gung fu from their village.   An agreement was made and in 1836, Jeong Kwan left his young nephew with Chan Heung.  

                      During his daily chores, the young Jeong Yim watched as the students practiced their gung fu.  Since he already was accomplished by the age of 12, he was able to pick up Chan Heung’s Choy Lee Fut rather quickly.  At the time, Choy Lee Fut was based off of the styles taught by Monk Choy Fook, and Lee Yau San.  Jeong Yim was already familiar with the Lee Ga system, which ironically they shared the same sifu.  So at night time  while everyone was sleeping, Jeong Yim would practice his stolen gung fu until he was caught in the act by Chan Heung.”


See any similarity? I could go on and on with just how many different styles claim this story as part of their “history, but that would take this too far off topic, I will save it for another day. For now I will just note in passing that this story is so widespread that it more than likely originated in a Wu Xiao novel in China. It is possible, I suppose, that one of the arts is telling the authentic story, and that all of the others which use the story have stolen their history, but I sincerely doubt it.


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.


If you travel to Fujian province in China, and visit several cities, you 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! The term “according to tradition” is used to erase the need for actual research. 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 fabrication as if their entire existence depends upon it. Poor Ji Seen Sim See is said to be a survivor of the destruction of the Northern Shaolin Temple. Sometimes he is one of the five ancestors who survived the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple. To ease this discrepancy, many martial arts “historians” claim that he survived the destruction of the northern and fled to the southern, only to survive that destruction as well! Talk about a run of bad luck! And whenever you mention the Five Ancestors, you must be clear about which version of the story you are speaking of – the Hung Mun or the Hung Gar. Although both are supposed to be the same thing, the southern kung fu systems claim a different set of people than the Triads claim. If one will take a bit of time to look into what was going on in China at this time, it becomes clear that the Heaven and Earth Society was fostering the anti-Qing sentiment to recruit members. It seems that making up a history was as popular then as it is today.


There is also 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. When this fact is taken into consideration, 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. It is not really so complicated.


So how did these military techniques become the elaborate kung fu systems we see today? What about those techniques which clearly have no martial purpose whatsoever? Myth and idiocy creep into the mix here, and we end up with a stupid line about how we no longer know what the move is for because someone died and never told their most trusted disciple. Then we are told the line about how we need to do a ton of in depth application study. Only rarely will the truth of the matter ever come out. The simple truth is 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. In earlier times in China, a martial artist had only a few choices as far as martial related employment. Basically, you could go into the military, work in private security, or work as a street performer. Only later did the public martial arts school become an option.  


Hung Gar has a fake history, and 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 it’s 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 references 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