JUNE 1999 PART 3

Shaolin Monastery

The Shaolin Monastery. All martial arts originated from the Shaolin Monastery" says a Chinese proverb

Question 1

Sifu, I have been studying martial arts for a long time. I started with Tae Kwon Do. during high school and college, I pursued the armed art of riflery. After college I briefly studied Ninjutsu, Pentjak Silat, and Kali before settling on Aikido. I started another martial search about 4 months ago.

I spent a month with a Brazillian Jujitsu club, a month with a Wing Chun school, a month at a kickboxing gym, and most recently have found a Tai Chi/Hsing I/Pa Kua school. The Tai Chi has really excited me. Initially I, as many people, thought that Tai Chi was only for health. However, now that I'm practicing it, I can see that there are infinite martial applications hidden within its movements.

I still believe that I am on a quest to find the best martial art for myself personally. I am currently extremely happy with the Tai Chi, but long for a more martial approach. The school where I study Tai Chi seems to offer the most instruction in the applications of the movements of any Tai Chi school in the area.

I have visited many schools in search of the right one. In nearly all of them I saw students studying techniques and forms that seem to be useless and pointless. It makes me wonder what the goals of martial arts are. It seems that most people are studying the arts purely for health benefits and are learning techniques that are only applicable within the school setting.

Take Aikido for example. I spent 5 years learning techniques that made me a better Aikidoka, made me better at performing Aikido techniques on the mat, but I don't think I became too much more effective at protecting myself or my family. I learned a lot about moving my body, but unless someone attacked me with a classical Aikido attack, I don't know how I'd fare in the chaotic and fast environment of a real-world attack.

— Bill, USA


You have a very rich martial art background. I beleive that having been exposed to numerous different martial arts, you will now get more benefit by choosing and specializing on one. You may find my webpage Getting the Best Benefits from Your Training useful. The questions you ask (below) are both perceptive and meaningful, and will benefit many other people.

Question 2

Why do you think the martial studies have degraded into a set of fitness routines and have moved away from the true battlefield techniques that were originally developed?


There are of course many reasons, and I shall discuss the more important ones. Probably the most impotant is that in the past the standard of martial arts was high because it was out of necessity; martial artists had no doubt that if they were not proficient they could be killed. Now, with the battlefield environment missing, martial arts have become mere hobbies, resulting in their low standard.

Another important reason is that there are actually very few real masters today, and even among these very few, not many of them are willing to teach. On the other hand, there are plenty of instructors (many of whom are called masters out of courtesy or ignorance) who themselves are insufficiently trained in the arts they teach. Some of them may be fighters, but they usually cannot apply the fighting techniques of their own art in fighting or free sparring.

This pathetic situation is most noticeble in kungfu, but is also found in other martial arts, with the exception of western boxing, Thai boxing and kickboxing. Notice, for example, how karate and taekwondo exponents typically spar — they usually just punch and kick one another, with little application of their other techniques. Your description of aikido is an excellent case, which could also be applied to judo and other arts. The methodology of teaching sparring as done by past masters have been virtually lost; modern instructors simply ask their students to spar, which actually means punching and kicking haphazardly.

The third reason concerns a vast difference of culture between past and present martial artists. Past masters commanded and demanded great respect from their students, without which little progress could be made in their training. Present students often treat their instructors like their peers. In the past, martial art training was work (but not without joy), and as students often depended on their master for their livlihood, they would have to go hungry if they did not train well. (This typically happened to my master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, when he was a pupil.) Modern students take martial arts as play, and they know that if they do not attend classes, their instructors might go hungry.

The fourth reason, though not obvious to most people, is crucial. Modern students (as well as many instructors) have confused learning with practising. Students in the past practised martial arts; modern students learn them. After teaching just one technique, a master in the past would expect his students to practise it for a long time before he would teach them another technique. (This typically happened to me as a student.) After learning some new techniques, modern students expect their instructor to teach them more the next day, and they hope to teach these techniques to others the next month. I actually have received many requests from people who want to learn from me for three months so that they will return home to become masters teaching others — when these hopefuls do not even have any privious experience.

Question 3

What martial arts, in theory rather than practice, have the most effective techniques within their repertoire in your opinion?


In my opinion, Shaolin Kungfu has the most effective techniques (for combat as well as daily non-combat application) in theory as well as in practice — if the exponent is ready to devote the necessary time to master them. You will find my claim understandable if you are aware of the following.

The Shaolin Monastery was the imperial temple where emperors of all dynasties (since its founding) ascended to pray on behalf of the empire. It therefore became the collecting as well as difussing centre for the best techniques known in the Chinese civilization, which had the longest martial art development by the biggest populaton of the world.

Throughout Chinese history since the founding of the Shaolin Monastery, virtually all the empire founders or the crucial generals who helped them, with the exception of the Mongolian and Manchurian empires but including the present day Nationalist and Communist governments, were trained in Shaolin fighting techniques, tactics and strategies. In recent times, virtually all the kungfu masters who defeated foreign martial art masters who came to China to test her martial arts, were Shaolin trained.

Question 4

By what criteria do you assess a martial arts school if you were to enter its doors as a new student?


I would access the school according to the following categories: the master, the students and the art the master teaches. I would apply the following criteria to each of the above category: philosophy, training and result. Some questions I shall consider include the following. You should have no difficulty forming questions of your own from the examples below.

  1. Does the master view his art as a programme of personal development, or does he aim to win trophies or prize money in fighting?
  2. Is his teaching systematic and purposeful?
  3. Has the master himself asttained a reasonable high level in the very art he is teaching?
  4. Are the students well disciplined and do they come from respectable background?
  5. Is the art taught sufficient to meet the objectives of my enrolling in the school?

To relaxed is essential in Taijiquan, failing which one would not be able to generate chi flow and internal force

Question 5

Is mat-practice (punching the air, kicking a bag, pulling punches, simulating combat) truly an effective means to train in the martial arts, or does one need to have more realistic combat training in order to fully realize the potential of a particular style?


Mat-practice is essential, but by itself is insufficient. Mat-practice provides the necessary force and skill to back the techniques learnt in solo training. If a student rushes into sparring without such preparation, he is likely to spar wildly, have little force, and be out of breath easily.

On the other hand, if he only undergoes mat-practice, even for many years, but has no training in sparring, he simply cannot spar. This is only logical, i.e. if you have no training in xyz, then you simply cannot perform xyz well — irrespective of whether xyz is martial art sparring, playing tennis, or driving a locomotive. Yet, it is amazing how many kungfu students have not learnt sparring.

Even if one has developed adequate force and skill from his mat-prctice, if he is asked to spar without first being trained how to spar, he would spar inefficiently — usually he would throw all his force and skill as well as the techniques he has learnt in solo practice, to the winds. This lack of methodical preparation to spar is probably the single most importnat reason why many kungfu students with many years of learning, suddenly become clowns or sitting ducks when facing attacks from karate, taekwondo or kickboxing students with only a few months' experience.

Question 6

Finally, in this age of guns and high tech weaponry, why are we all studying ancient hand-to-hand combat systems instead of spending time at the rifle range learning the combat methods of the 20th century?


Honestly, and this is my personal opinion, some martial arts, especially the brutal ones, are not only a waste of time but also injurious to both physical and emotional health. In my experience of teaching chi kung, I sometimes came upon interesting situations where my students were actually tensed when they thought they were relaxed. Most of them trained in such martial arts before, and many of them had internal injury or emotional problems.

But this is not to say that studying — more correctly, practising — ancient hand-to-hand combat systems is useless. In fact, I beleive the brutal martial arts I mentioned above have deviated much from the ancient systems from which they originated.

Practising martial arts in the traditional way is still very useful today because it gives benefits that shooting with a riffle may not. Although I disagree with the philosophy of the sumarai and the ninja, I have no doubt that their training can bring benefits applicable to modern societies. A sumarai or a ninja, for eaxmple, was trained to be totally relaxed while facing his opponent or waiting for his victim. He also was trained to be very quick in both his physcial and mental movements.

Another good reason is that while your martial art is with you all the time, people do not normally carry firearm. Indeed, in some countries illegal procession of firearm carries the death sentence.

But perhaps the most impotant reason is that most martial art practitioners today do not really practise their arts for combat. Many do so for recreation, though some may want to vent their pent-up emotions on their sparring partners. And for those who have the rare opportunity to learn great arts like genuine Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan, it is a comprehensive programme for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual cultivation.

Question 7

I've been looking at your Taijiquan website and your book The Complete Tai Chi Chuan, and I would like to know more about the principle of “shoong”. I sometimes have difficulty relaxing physically and mentally, and was wondering if there are practical means of being in a properly “shoong” state before I try and do taijiqigong or a set.

— Chia-Hua, USA


“Shoong” means relaxation. It is easier as well as more rewarding to actually relax than to intellectualize on its principles. It is like eating and walking. If you want to eat or walk, you just do it; you are never bothered about describing how you eat or walk, or about the principles of eating and walking. Similarly if you want to relax, just relax.

This is different from saying everyone can relax easily. In fact, and quite surprisingly, many adults find it hard to relax. You have to learn how to relax, just as you learned how to eat and walk. Can you remember how much time you had to spend learning how to walk when you were a small child?

There are three golden steps to relaxation. One, have your body symmetrical. For example, if you are standing, check that you are standing upright, with your shoulders level and your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Then loosen all your muscles. Don't worry how or why you do it; just do it.

Next, have your lips gently open and smile from your heart. Again, just do it. Thirdly, close your eyes gently and do not think of anything. Then just let go. All these are easier done than described, and need not worry about the principles behind them. Just do them and enjoy the benefits.

Question 8

Also, could you please help me understand how “shoong” applies to combat? I know that shoong is useful for defense; ie, following and sticking to the opponent's moves, swallowing and neutralizing an attack. But how would “shoong” apply to offense? If one were to throw someone across the room, how would this be accomplished while still being relaxed?


Have you seen, on TV for example, how top class atheletes won their world ttitles? At the moment of their triumph they were always relaxed. Had they been tensed instead of relaxed, they might have lost the titles instead. And they were also powerful at the same time.

The same principle applies in Taijiquan — in defence and offence as well as in all other physical movements. A Taijiquan master is powerful because he uses internal, not muscular, force. Should he tense his muscles, like what he would have to do had he used muscular force, his chi could not flow smoothly and little internal force would be manifested. Of course to those who are not trained in internal force, this sounds impossible, even ridiculous. But for those trained in internal force, generating chi flow with relaxed muscles is as easy as eating and walking.

A classical explanaton of the relation between relaxation and tremedous power is flowing water. If you freeze the water, which is analogous to freezing your muscles, the tremendlous power of flowng water will stop. If you can generate your energy flow, you may throw your opponent across a room, and you have to do this in a relaxed manner. Not only you have to learn such a skill from a master (and not from a book or video), you have to practise the skill diligently in order to execute it efficiently.

Question 9

I have been studying Wing Chun kung fu in England for some years now, but have decided to try out traditional Shaolin kung fu.

— Chi Wai, England


Your statement brings forth an interesting point worth commenting. Wing Chun Kungfu — like Lohan Kungfu, Praying Mantis Kungfu, Hoong Ka Kungfu, Choy-Li Fatt Kungfu. and many others — is traditional Shaolin Kungfu, and it is also not traditional Shaolin Kungfu. Whether it is, or it isn't, depends on what we mean by Shaolin Kungfu.

If we take Shaolin Kungfu to mean martial arts that originated from the Shaolin Monastery, then Wing Chun Kungfu as well as all the other kungfu styles mentioned above, are Shaolin Kungfu. Hence, the full terms of these martial arts are Shaolin Wing Chun Kungfu, Shaolin Lohan Kungfu, etc.

The problem is that if we take this definiation, which is actually correct, then virtually all styles of kungfu, including Taijiquan and Hsing Yi Kungfu, can be called Shaolin Kungfu. Following this definition, one may even say that Jujitsu, Judo, Karate and Taedwondo are Shaolin Kungfu, as these martial arts originated, directly or indirectly, from Shaolin. In practice, of course, we do not normally hear of Shaolin Taijiquan or Shaolin Hsing Yi, although a reader once told me he had found schools teaching Shaolin Jujitsu and Shaolin Kickboxing!

The more limited definition of Shaolin Kungfu refers to the type of kungfu actually taught in the Shaolin Monastery, either in the northern monastery in Henan, or the southern monastery in Fujian. Hence, we have Northern Shaolin and Southern Shaolin. If we use this definition, then we differentiate this type of Shaolin Kungfu from the various styles of kungfu which originated from the monastery but underwent discernable modifications, such as Wing Chun Kungfu and Praying Mantis Kungfu.

Shaolin Kungfu

The power of Southern Shaolin Kungfu is revealed in this pattern called “Low Stance Arrow Punch”, also known as “Precious Duck Swims Through Lotus”, demonstrated ny Sifu Wong

Question 10

My question relates to the various styles of southern Shaolin kung fu. I would appreciate any advice you have concerning my choice of style — I am attracted to the 5 animal style of Shaolin Fist, and also the Tiger/Crane style of Hung Gar Fist.


Some famous styles of Southern Shaolin Kungfu are Wing Chun, Hung Gar (Hoong Ka) and Choy-Li-Fatt. The Five-Animal Set is found in both Hung Gar and Choy-Li-Fatt, whereas the Tiger-Crane Set is a famous set of Hung Gar. Interestingly, I have learnt a Tiger-Crane Set in the Choe Family version of Wing Chun Kungfu, and this set is different from the Hung Gar Tiger-Crane Set (which I also have learnt).

If you wish to have a taste of Shaolin Kungfu in general, the Five-Animal Set is an ideal choice. You may choose the one from Hung Gar or from Choy-Li-Fatt.

Question 11

I realise however that before I can learn these, I need to learn the basics of southern Shaolin kung fu. In your book, some basic patterns are illustrated in Chapter 6 (the foundation of Shaolin kung fu), but I was wondering if a particular traditional basic Shaolin set exists that is common to all southern Shaolin arts, that teaches the fundamental movements and stances shown in your book.


A good approach is to learn and practise the basic patterns explained in my book, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu”, then learn and practise the Five-Animal Set. You may choose the set from Hung Gar or Choy-Li-Fatt, or from my book. While my book may act as a guide, unless you are already well versed in Shaolin Kungfu, you should learn from a living master or at least a competent instructor.

Question 12

I have heard of Shaolin Lohan Boxing — is this the basic Shaolin Boxing set that has to be learned before taking advanced forms like Five Aanimals?


The original Shaolin Lohan Set was the prototype set of Shaolin Kungfu, from which thousands of Shaolin kungfu sets developed over time. This prototype set was developed from the Eighteen Lohan Hands, which was taught by the great Bodhidharma between the years 527 and 536 in the northern Shaolin Monastery.

There is a style of kungfu that specializes in the Lohan Set, and this is the school of Lohan Kungfu. It is a Northern Shaolin style. The Lohan Set is also very popular among Southern Shaolin styles. Much of Hung Gar and Choy-Li-Fatt, for example, is based on the Lohan Set.

While the Lohan Set was the fountainhead of Shaolin Kungfu, one needs not start his Shaolin training with this set. In fact the Lohan Set, of which there are now numerous versions, is an advanced set, taught only to students with many years of experience.

On the other hand, one can become a Shaolin master without even knowing the Lohan Set. Wing Chun Kungfu, for example, pays little attention to the Lohan Set. This was because the specialty of the Shaolin nun Ng Mooi, who taught kungfu to Yim Wing Chun (the founder of Wing Chun Kungfu), was the Flower Set; the Lohan Set which is favourable to those of bigger size, is generally not suitabloe for women. The Flower Set was developed from the prototype Five-Animal Set, with emphasis on the Snake and the Crane.

I think the word “boxing” in such terms like “Lohan Boxing” and “Shaolin Boxing”, which are sometimes used in the West to refer to Lohan Kungfu and Shaolin Kungfu, is inappropriate, because it can give a false impression that Lohan Kungfu or Shaolin Kungfu is similar to western boxing. In fact, they are vastly different. Similarly, terms like “Lohan Fist” and “Shaolin Fist” are inappropriate.

This inappropriate use of the words “boxing” and “fist” is due to an inappropriate translation from the Chinese terms “Lohanquan” and “Shaolinquan”, which refer to the style of Lohan Kungfu and the style of Shaolin Kungfu. Sometimes they can also refer to a Lohan kungfu set or a Shaolin kungfu set. “Quan” when refering to a kungfu style is the shortened form for “quan-fa”; and “quan” when refering to a kungfu set is the shortened form for “quan-tao” (pronounced like “ch'uan th'ao”). The “tao” in “quan-tao” is different from the “tao” in “Taoism”, which is spelt as “Daoism” in romanized Chinese.

Although “quan-fa” word by word literally means “fist-technique”, the compound word as a whole idiomatically means a system of martial art. Hence “Shaolinquan” or “Taijquan” is not “Shaolin fist techniques” or “Taiji fist techniques” but “Shaolin Martial Art” or “Taiji Martial Art”, which includes not only fist techniques but also weapons, force training and martial art philosophy.

Question 13

There are so many sets in Shaolin kung fu, it is very confusing! Any advice you have to give on this subject would be greatly appreciated.


This shows both the richness and vastness of Shaolin Kungfu. Not only Shaolin Kungfu has the largest number of kungfu sets, it also has the widest range of force training methods, the most extensive choice of combat applications, and the most profound level of martial art philosophy of all the martial arts of the world. This is logical: it represents the result of Shaolin masters modifying available kungfu material to meet different needs over 15 centuries.

But there is nothing confussing about the large number of sets. By observing a performance of a typical kungfu set, a knowledgeable master often can tell not only the name of the set and the style of kungfu performed, but also the strength, weakness and attainment level of the performer.

You do not have to know many kungfu sets to be proficient in kungfu. If you know and can apply three sets well, you can attain a master's level. This would come as a surprise to many present-day students, whose “kungfu” career is usually keep learning one set after another.

Set practice is just the start of kungfu. Once you have learnt and practised a set well, you should go on to other stages like force training and combat application. Different people would progress at different rate, but as a rough guide, if you take one year as your unit of training, you should spend about three months on set practice and the other nine months on force training and combat application. But for those whose purpose is beautiful demonstration to please spectators, or to learn enough in three months to teach others, then this training programme is not suitable.


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