Southern Shaolin Temple

Remnant of the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian, south China

Question 1

Sifu, could you please tell me all about your Shaolin Temple of Malaysia, such as when and where it will be built, who will teach there, who will be allowed to come and train, study, and learn the Shaolin arts there, how long someone may stay and train there once it is completed, and how much staying and training at the Temple will cost.

— Kevin, USA


As there has not been any concrete work done on the building of this Shaolin Temple of Malaysia yet, the answer given below is only tentative and philosophical.

It will be built in the country-side in Malaysia in senic environment. It will probably take many years before it can be materialzed. I also hope that I might be able to build a Shaolin Temple each in Australia, Europe and America.

Initially I shall be the main person teaching the Shaolin arts, helped by some senior disciples. Selective courses (please see below) will be taught by suitablily qualified professionals. I shall train a core of Shaolin arts instructors who will gradually take over the teaching duties. The temple will be open to all irrespective of race, culture and religion, but of course the students must be deserving, which means they must at least practise the Ten Shaolin Laws.

There will be three levels of studies leading to the attainment of “hsing-si”, “jun-siu” and “hu-fa”, or “practitioner”, “post-graduate” and “guardian”, which correspond to a bachelor's, a master's and a doctor's degree. The “hsing-si” programme takes three years full time, whereas the “jun-siu” and “hu-fa”programmes will be considered on individual basis.

At the Temple, students learn not just the Shaolin arts, but how to prepare themselves for a rewarding, meaningful life. In the “hsing-si” course, for example, besides Shaolin Kungfu, Chi Kung and Zen, students will also take compulsory selective courses like music, painting, poetry, appreciation of art, ancient wisdom, modern science, philosophy and comparative religion. The objective is to produce a graduate of high morality and ability who will be more efficient in any profession or occupation he does for himself, or if he chooses to work for someone else his Shaolin “hsing-si” qualification will be well sought after by employers.

The fees will be high so that only those ready to pay the price for high quality life-education will be selected. But scholarships will be given to deserving students who are finiancially poor.

Question 2

At what point in time did the Shaolin Temple in China, in Henan Province, stop teaching traditional Shaolin Kung Fu and Chi Kung, and start teaching modern wushu?


I do not know the year, but it was sometime in the 19th century. I also do not know exactly why, but the burning of the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province was a crucial factor. There were two Shaolin Temples in China, the northern in Henan Province and the southern in Fujian.

The southern Temple became a revolutionary centre to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Naturally the Qing government wanted to eliminate it, and hence about 150 years ago the Qing army with the help of mercenary Lama monks from Tibet, who were expert kungfu fighters, razed the southern Temple to the ground.

One of a very few Shaolin monks fought his way out and, with the Qing army trailing him for his life, ran out of China through the whole length of Thailand to the southern border near present day Malaysia. He changed his name to Jiang Nan. After his escape, he had one mission in life, i.e. to pass on the genuine Shaolin arts to a deserving disciple.

After about 50 years of searching he finally passed on his life's learning to Yang Fa Khun, who was then a young kungfu expert of the Fengyang style. At his old age, Yang Fa Khun passed on the Shaolin arts to Ho Fatt Nam, who was then a professional Siamese Boxing fighter. I know the story intimately because Sifu Ho Fatt Nam is my Shaolin master.

The northern Shaolin Temple in Henan remained, but the teaching of the Shaolin arts were discontinued. In the civil war after the fall of the Qing dynasty, a warlord took refuge in the northern Shaolin Temple. A rival warlord attacked the Temple with his army in 1928 and it burned continuously for three days and three nights. After that the Shaolin Temple became a myth.

In the early history of the present Chinese government, kungfu and other traditional arts were taboo, and their practitioners were prosecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Hence, there was a clear break in the age-old transmission of traditional Shaolin Kungfu. Indeed a well known Japanese master of Shorinji Kempo, which is the Japanese tradition of Shaolin Kungfu, commented that genuine Shaolin Kungfu was dead in China, and could only be found in Japan. This aroused indignation among some Chinese masters, and the Venerable Hai Deng, a much respected Shaolin master, volunteered to teach Shaolin Kungfu at the newly rebuilt northern Shaolin Temple.

A major change of policy after the 1960s resulted in modern wushu becoming the most popular sport in China. Hai Deng's noble effort in reviving traditional Shaolin Kungfu was unsuccessful, and modern wushu, instead of the traditional Shaolin arts, is being taught in the numerous wushu schools around the Temple, often by monks from the Temple. Although traditional Shaolin arts are not taught there, I believe the rebuilding of the Shaolin Temple to be a momentous contribution of the present Chinese government to world martial arts. There has been some talk about rebuilding the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian, and if this happens and if my service is needed I would be honoured if called upon to serve.

Question 3

Also, could you tell me about the “final test” for a monk, which I have heard many times, which included walking down a hallway filled with weapons that attacked him, and that he finally had to move a huge cauldron with his forearms which branded him with the tiger/dragon symbols.


According to legend, for his graduation test a Shaolin disciple had to fight his way through the Lane of Wooden Men. These wooden men were cleverly devised robots executing fundamental kungfu techniques.

After he had successfully fought through these wooden men, which numbered 108, the graduant would find his only exit blocked by a hugh burning cauldron. His only way to get out of the Lane was to grasp the cauldron with his two arms and turned around, which would result in the symbols of the dragon and the tiger imprinted onto his arms.

The wooden men were programmed with formidable martial skills. Hence, one who could successfully fight his way through the 108 wooden men had to be a remarkable warrior. Nevertheless, I do not know whether this legend was true.

Question 4

Sifu, could you please tell me how the art of Wing Chun was founded. Also, do you consider Wing Chun to be Shaolin Kung Fu? You say that the health and fitness acquired through Shaolin Kung Fu training is enhanced as one grows older due to the Chi Kung and meditation aspects of the art. Is Wing Chun included in this enhanced health and fitness as one grows older?


Wing Chun Kungfu was invented by Yim Wing Chun. She was a disciple of the great female Shaolin master, the nun Ng Mooi (pronounced as “Wu Mei” in Mandarin). Yim Wing Chun found her Shaolin Kungfu too elaborated, so she simplified the complex Shaolin techniques based on the principle of economy of movements. The fundamental Shaolin kungfu set from which she devised her relatively simple moves was the Shaolin Flower Set.

The answer to whether Wing Chun Kungfu is Shaolin Kungfu is both yes and no. From a wide perspective it is Shaolin Kungfu, or to be more exact a deriviative of Shaolin Kungfu. It is sometimes called by its full name of Shaolin Wing Chun. From a narrower perspective, it is different from Shaolin Kungfu, or to be more exact it is different from parental Shaolin Kungfu. The same interesting situation is also applicable to other kungfu styles derived from Shaolin, such as Lohan, Praying Mantis, Eagle Claw and Choy-Li-Fatt.

In my opinion, the enhanced health and fitness as one grows older, which are found in Shaolin Kungfu, are generally not found in Wing Chun Kungfu. This is because in Shaolin Kungfu — using the type of Shaolin Kungfu I have practised as a model — chi kung and meditation are important aspects of the training, whereas in Wing Chun Kungfu — again using the type of Wing Chun Kungfu I have practised as a model, which may be called Choe-Family Wing Chun — attention is mainly given to combat efficiency.

Sifu Ho Fatt Nam

An old, rare picture showing young Sifu Wong (left) with his teacher, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam (centre) and his siheng, Sifu Poh Lok

Question 5

Sifu, what is your opinion of the philosophy of Bruce Lee, which is reflected in his martial art of Jeet Kune Do? He seems to totally reject classical arts such as Shaolin.


The following is only my opinion. While I have no doubt that Bruce Lee was a great fighter, I do not agree with his martial art philosophy. Also, although he has done very much to make kungfu well known, personally I would not regard his Jeet Kune Do as traditional kungfu. The reason for my oppinion is that Jeet Kune Do lacks the fundamental stances and hand-forms characteristic of traditional kungfu. Moreover the philosophy and training methodology are also different.

The crucial difference between Bruce Lee's philosophy and mine is that while he considered combat efficiency as the sole criterion in judging a martial art, I consider that there are other, and often more important, criteria such as health, vitality and spiritual development.

Using Bruce Lee's philosophy as a term of reference, one must accept Jeet Kune Do as a superior art. On the other hand, if I use my philosphy as a term of reference, I would consider it inferior, because although it may be effective for combat, it would fail me in other aspects that I consider important.

Even if I were to take combat efficiency as the sole factor for consideration, I would still prefer Shaolin Kungfu to Jeet Kune Do. This is because, among many other reasons, Shaolin Kungfu offers me greater variety and more potential for combat. I would, for example, have a far wider range of attack and defence techniques besides fast kicking, and at 80 of age I would be able to use internal force for fighting, instead of depending on muscular strength derived from training with machines which someone after 50 would face difficulty.

I don't think Bruce Lee totally rejected classical martial arts, although he might not have favoured them except for Wing Chun Kungfu which he greatly admired.

Without being disrespectful to this great martial artist, I think that if Bruce Lee had a low opinion of Shaolin Kungfu, it was because he had not understood it sufficiently. Had he known more about Shaolin force training, for example, he would not have over-trained himself working with machines, or supplemented his training by taking pills. Had he understood Shaolin philosophy more deeply, he would not have played on violence and revenge as major themes in his record-breaking movies.

My difference in philosophy with Bruce Lee's does not mean I do not respect him. Although I would not like to be him, I regard him as one of the greatest martial artists the world has produced, and without him Chinese kungfu would certainly not be as well known as it is today.

Question 6

I read the information on Shaolin history and Kungfu on the internet and I have been interested in learning more about the Shaolin religion and the art of Shaolin Kungfu for quite a while. I would be grateful if there is any way you could help me.

— Michael, USA


While the Shaolin Monastery is Buddhist, the Shaolin arts which are practised world-wide are non-religious; anyone of any religion, or the lack of one, can practise and benefit from the Shaolin arts without adversely affecting his own religious conviction. There have been many Shaolin masters inside and outside China who are Christain, Muslim and Taoist.

There is no such a thing as a Shaolin religion. The Chinese concept of religion is quite different from that in the West. Strictly speaking the term “religion” does not exist in the Chinese language! The nearest term the Chinese have for what the West would call religion, is “jiao”, which means “teaching”.

Often, the word “zong” which means “tradition or heritage” is prefixed to “jiao”, indicating religion as a form of teaching with a tradition or heritage. The three greatest teachings in Chinese history are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. This explains why when you ask Chinese people what religion they profess, unless they are Christians or Muslims, most of them would have some difficulty answering you.

This does not mean that the Chinese are not religious or spiritual. If we arbiturarily take "religious" to mean adhering to metaphysical beliefs, and "spiritual" to mean believing in the existence of spirits (divine, human and otherwise), the Chinese are far more religious and spiritual than Westerners. One may ask, “Why, then, Chinese do not regularly go to temples to pray — like what Christians and Muslims do once a week in churches and mosques?” The answer is that they have their temple (place of worship) in their house, where they pray every morning and evening. I am refering here to traditonal Chinese, like those in South East Asia; Chinese in modern China may have a different set of beliefs and practice.

The “zong jiao”, or what Westerners would call religious teaching, in the Shaolin Monastery was Zen Buddhism. There are three traditions of Buddhism, namely Theravada, Mahayana and Vijrayana. Zen Buddhism is a major school of Mahayana Buddhism.

The onus of Zen Buddhism is “not dependent on words; pointing directly at mind”. This is a Zen way of saying that while studying scriptures and other texts may be helpful, at best it only leads to intellectual understanding. Spiritual attainment is experiential, not intellectual. In other words, it is not enough to merely read about and understand spiritual attainment; we have to directly experience it. The highest spiritual attainment is to break down the illusion of the phenomenal world and actualize transcendental cosmic reality, described as enlightenment in Buddhism, and return to God, unity with the Ultimate or attaining the Way in other religious teachings.

As the phenomenal world is a creation of mind, the most simple, direct and effective way is to work on mind, and this is best done through meditation. Once the illusion is dispelled, enlightenment is attained in an instant.

Interestingly, the term “Buddhism” is a Western label. The Buddhists themselves in China, as well as in India, Japan, South East Asia and elsewhere did not call themselves Buddhists, or call their religion Buddhism. What then did they call themselves or their religion? They did not have any specific terms, as these terms were not necessary. Defining (which means limiting) one group according to religious beliefs was alien in Eastern societies; religious freedom was, and still is, an innate quality amongst orientals.

On rare occasions when the Chinese had to refer specifically to a set of beliefs to differentiate from another set of beliefs, such as Buddhism and Taoism, they would call the former “fo-jiao”, which means the Teaching of the Enlightened Ones, and the latter “tao-jiao” (“dao-jiao” in modern Romanized Chinese), which means the Teaching of the Way. But there has never been — and according to the philosophy of the two sets of teachings, there will never be — the slighest indication that if one practises the Teaching of the Enlightened Ones, he or she cannot at the same time practise the Teaching of the Way, or vice versa. The practitioner is free to choose from various teachings whatever is suitable for his or her benefit and development.

Shaolin Kungfu is one of the three precious Shaolin arts, the other two being chi kung and Zen. This classification is arbiturary and for convenience; in reality the three arts are closely integrated. The basic level of Shaolin Kungfu is combat efficiency; the second level is health and vitality; and the highest level is intellectual and spiritual development. A Shaolin Kungfu master who can fight very well, but is poor in health and low in spiritual attainment, is a master at the lowest level.

As in Zen and chi kung, kungfu attainment is experiential, not intellectual. It is helpful to read about Shaolin Kungfu to have a sound philosophical understanding, but inevitably you have to practise, practise and practise to experience its benefits. To have good results you have to learn from a genuine Shaolin master. If you learn from videos, you will probably succeed in learning only kungfu gymnastics or kungfu dance. You must also be prepared to put in some reasonable effort and time; otherwise you would probably get more benefits from playing football or kungfu dancing.

Question 7

Sifu, I am very interested in martial arts and chi kung. However, due to time constraints, it is really very hard for me to attend lessons on a regular basis.

— Wesley, Singapore


If you wish to learn from me, you need not attend regular classes. In fact, due to various reasons, I am now not teaching regular classes. You can take one of my intensive courses lasting a few days depending on the course you take.

Please refer to the my webpage on intensive courses for details. But it is important to remember that the intensive course will only equip you with the fundamental skills and techniques; to get lasting result you have to continue to practise after the course.

Question 8

Can you honestly tell me how useful your books (no disrespect, but I do know that books are never as good as the real master) are, compared to actually learning from you? Which of your books would you suggest as being good for a total beginner?


Let say we use a scale from 1 to 10, meassuring from useless to extremely useful. If you are a total beginner, learning from my books so as to experience the best benefits will put you at 3, although in terms of intellectual understanding you may be at 8. In other words, you can have a good philosophical understanding of kungfu or chi kung from reading my books, but it may not be very useful in helping you to experience the actual effects you have read about.

Coming back to practical benefits again (in contrast to intellectual understanding), if you already have some experience in kungfu and chi kung, learning from my books will place you at 5, whereas if you are already a master you will be at 7. In all cases, learning from me personally will place you at 10.

On the other hand, coming to my intensive course for an intellectual understanding of kungfu or chi kung will place you at 3, whereas reading from my books will place you at 8. This is because while there is discussion on relevant questions, my intensive courses are focussed on practical results.

Personally I would prefer that you would come to my course without any pre-conceived ideas, follow the course faithfully the way I teach it, and then read my books after the course. But most people may find the reverse more interesting: read my books first, then come for my course, as in the case of my many students. In this way you may experience at first hand some of the incredible things you have read in my books.

The above placement of 3 in terms of usefulness in learning from my books is made with reference to what you would learn from me personally. Without false modesty, with reference to what many people would learn in many of today's kungfu and chi kung classes, learning from my books may place you at 8. The chief reason is that what many of today's classes teach is only external kungfu and chi kung forms, whereas from my books you can at least intellectually understand and therefore hopefully learn, albeit in a poor manner, some of what I consider as the essence of kungfu and chi kung, like how to use the kungfu patterns to defend yourself, and how to use simple methods to generate energy flow — aspects that are rarely if ever taught in today's classes.

A legitiamte question to ask is that since the methods are clearly explained, why a reader can only be placed at 3 when learning from my books. The answer is that the methods constitute only one factor in successful learning. A more important factor is the skill in the actual teaching. The most important factor is what is known in Zen as “transmission from heart to heart” which has to be carried out in person.

“The Art of Chi Kung”, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu” and “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan” are good for both total beginners as well as experienced practitioners.

Question 9

Do you not agree that your fee of 1000-1500 US dollars can be rather steep to people living in Asia, and therefore, really serious and interested students will not have their chance of studying under you? Perhaps you could charge by which country they came from? If their currency is lower, charge less. Or is there any other way you would ever except disciples?


At surface value, US$1000-1500 is not only steep to people in Asia, but also to people in Europe and America, where the average fees are less than US$100 per month. Nevertheless, I honestly believe my students receive from their training more than what they pay, and this is confirmed by many who have taken the courses from me — directly in words or indirectly in their actions such as coming back for more courses or recommending their friends to me.

On the contrary, my charging a high fee actually provides a chance for serious and interested students to learn from me. If they are serious and interested enough, they will find the money to attend my courses. US$1000-1500 for learning a great art is really a small fee. If they find my courses not worth the money they have to pay, they do not have to pay anything. This is a written condition stated in the particualrs of my courses. On the other hand, if I find them not serious or interested enough, I would return them their money and ask them to go home — which I actually did to three students so far (but one of them came back for the course).

Charging students according to the countries they come from may cause many problems. If a student is deserving but financially poor, I teach him without charge. All my disciples, without a single exception, have learnt some of my best arts without paying any fees. I define a disciple as someone who has learnt from me for some time and have proven his worth. Understandably, although I have about 3000 students, I have only a few disciples.

Wing Chun Kungfu

An old picture showing Sifu Wong performing Wing Chun Kungfu

Question 10

If I am interested in the martial applications of kungfu, is it true that I should start first with chi kung exercises? Would it be okay to study such basic exercises from books and videos (since they are more basic)?


No, it is not true. Many people have not learnt any chi kung exercises, yet are good kungfu fighters. But I believe the results — for combat and otherwise — will be much better if one starts with chi kung before doing any kungfu.

Here, “chi kung” and “kungfu” are used in their limited sense; in their wide sense, kungfu is chi kung, and chi kung is kungfu. It is difficult to imagine any martial art (kungfu) without any energy management (chi kung). On the other hand, any chi kung attainment demands time and effort (kungfu).

It is OK to study basic chi kung exercises from books and videos but, unless the practitioner is already quite familiar with chi kung, he is unlikely to get good results. You should also remember that basic exercises are the most important. If the basics are poor, subsequent practice will be affected.

Question 11

Do you happen to know if Sifu Yang Jwing-Ming's books are good?


Yes, Sifu Yang Jwing-Ming has made great contributions to the study and practice of chi kung and kungfu.

Question 12

Which of your books teach basic chikung exercises, together with explaining how to do the internal training part, such as chi flow and visualization?


All my books, with the exception of “Silat Melayu” which I wrote many years ago in conjunction with a famous Silat master.

These books are “Introduction to Shaolin Kungfu”, “The Art of Chi Kung”, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu”, “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan”, “Chi Kung for Health and Vitality” and “The Complete Book of Zen”. They teach basic chi kung exercises, including explanation on internal chi flow and visualization. The books would not be complete if these two important dimensions of energy and mind are missing.

However, if you have not practiced chi kung or learn from instructors who only teach chi kung dance, you will have difficulty understanding my description. In chi kung it is skills rather than techniques that are important.

For example, it is important to sink your chi, or energy, to your dan tian, or abdominal energy field. You may not have the skill to do so.


January to June 1999

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