Shaolin Lineage

Is our lineage authenic?


Some also said that our Shaolin lineage was not authentic, and that our lineage was outside the Temple, whereas theirs was directly from the Shaolin monks. Would you like to comment on this, Sifu?

— Dan, England


All my four Shaolin masters were patriarchs of their respective styles. This was no co-incidence because, except for my first master, I earnestly searched for them. My lineage from my four masters is as follows.

The Venerable Chee Seen, The Venerable Jiang Nan and Yim Wing Choon were the first patriarchs in our respective styles. Regarding Wuzu Kungfu, I could only trace my line of teachers to Lim Yit Liang, who, if I am not mistaken, was a woman and who was a senior classmate of Lim Yian. I could not say comfortably that I am of this Wuzu lineage because due to my short time in this style (about two years) I have learnt only a little, but I would be disrespectful if I had not listed my line of Wuzu teachers.

Only the up-line teachers of my own teachers are mentioned in the lineages above. While Sifu Choe Hoong Choy learned from only one teacher (he told me that one good teacher was enough for one's lifetime learning), my other teachers learned from many. Uncle Righteousness had three teachers, Sifu Chee Kim Thong also had three, and Sifu Ho Fatt Nam had seven.

While the Venerable Chee Seen and Yim Wing Choon are well known today due to the popularization of Shaolin stories since the 1960s and after Bruce Lee became famous in the 1970s, they were unknown at the time I learned Southern Shaolin Kungfu and Wing Choon Kungfu from Uncle Righteousness and Sifu Choe Hoong Choy. We honoured them as the first patriarchs in our respective styles (at a time when most martial artists had not heard of them then) simply because they were our first patriarchs. Similarly we honour the Venerable Jiang Nan as our first patriarch, even though he is relatively unknown today.

You have correctly stated in a discussion forum that all Shaolin lineages today are “outside” the Temple because there has been no Shaolin Kungfu in any one of the three Shaolin Temples since the separate burning of the two southern Shaolin Temples about 150 years ago. Shaolin Kungfu was absent in the first Shaolin Temple, the northern one at Henan, for even a longer time.

The northern Shaolin Temple was burnt not by the Qing Army but by warlords in 1928, seventeen years after the Chinese Republic had replaced the Qing Dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, Qing emperors still patronized the northern Shaolin Temple as the imperial temple, but Shaolin Kungfu was no longer practiced there. In fact the name “Shaolin Temple” which is still hung at the Main Gate of the restored northern temple, was written by the Qing emperor, Kang Xi.

During the Qing Dynasty, the Shaolin tradition was carried on first at the publicly known southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou in Fujian Province, later at the underground southern Shaolin Temple at Nine-Lotus Mountain also in Fujian Province.

The first southern temple was built during the previous Ming Dynasty by imperial decree, and the second during the Qing Dynasty by the Venerable Chee Seen. Both southern Shaolin Temples were burnt by the Qing Army because they became centres for revolutionaries. Lama fighters from Tibet aided the Qing Army during the first burning, and the Qing Army was led by Pak Mei and his top disciple, Ko Chun Choong, during the second burning.

The northern Shaolin Temple was restored by the present Chinese government in the 1970s. When a Japanese master commented correctly that Shaolin Kungfu was no longer found in the Shaolin Temple in China but existed as Shourinji Kempo in Japan, the Venerable Hai Deng volunteered to teach Shaolin Kungfu in the Shaolin Temple.

Although the Venerable Hai Deng was a great Shaolin master and teacher to the great chi kung master, Sifu Yan Xin, the standard of kungfu practiced at the Shaolin Temple at this time was low. There were about 20 monks learning Northern Shaolin Kungfu, and the emphasis was on forms, like Lian Huan Quan (Continuous Fist), Xiao Hung Quan (Little Turbulent Fist) and Da Hung Quan (Big Turbulent Fist), and on weapon sets, like the staff, the spear and the crescent-moon spade. There was little or no emphasis on force training and combat application, the two hallmarks of traditional Shaolin Kungfu.

This low standard of kungfu was not the fault of the Venerable Hai Deng. The reason, I believe, was insufficient time because probably due to policy differences with the temple authority or the government, the Venerable Hai Deng soon stopped teaching at the Shaolin Temple. One main point of difference was that while the Venerable Hai Deng taught kungfu, the policy of the Chinese government was to promote wushu.

Soon wushu became very popular, especially after the resounding success of the film “Shaolin Temple” starred by Jet Li. Wushu schools mushroomed around the Shaolin Temple. Wushu was not taught inside the Shaolin Temple (which has become a top tourist attraction with thousands of visitors everyday), but Shaolin “monks” (many of whom eat meat and some have their own families) taught at many of these wushu schools.

Many people, native Chinese as well as foreigners, mistaking wushu for kungfu, learned wushu at these wushu schools, but claimed that they learned Shaolin Kungfu at the Shaolin Temple. Their claim was doubly untrue — they did not learn Shaolin Kungfu, and they did not learn at the Shaolin Temple.

With this background information, you would be in a better position to understand the three points you have raised — whether our lineage was authentic, that our lineage was outside the Temple, and direct lineage from modern Shaolin “monks”.

Briefly my comments are as follows. Whether our lineage is authentic or not is our business, not theirs. My students learned from me, just as I learned from my masters, not because of the teachers' lineage but because we were satisfied with their teaching. We remember our lineage not because we wish to impress others but because we want to honour our teachers. Notwithstanding this, someone with a distinguished lineage may not necessarily be an expert exponent. His own teacher may be a great kungfu master, but if he has not trained well or sufficiently he himself would be a bad exponent.

Except for the Venerable Jiang Nan, the Venerable Chee Seen, the Venerable Harng Yein and Chan Fook, none of the masters in my various lineages learned in a Shaolin Temple. Indeed, since the burning of the second southern Shaolin Temple and except for a very short period during Hai Deng's teaching, any person saying that he learned Shaolin Kungfu in a Shaolin Temple, is a liar. There has never been any kungfu taught in a Shaolin Temple since then.

Shaolin “monks” today teach wushu, not kungfu. Incidentally, in my opinion as well as judging from competition winners, the highest standard of wushu in China today is found not in the wushu schools around the Shaolin Temple in Henan, but in Bejing and Shanghai.

Of course, those who learn from Shaolin “monks” are directly in the lineage of the “monks”, just as those who learn from A or B or C, are in the lineage of A or B or C. That is their business, and I don't see what has that to do with our lineage.

But if they imply that because they learn from Shaolin “monks”, their kungfu is genuinely Shaolin whereas ours is false, and that theirs is “inside” the Temple whereas ours is “outside”, then they are grossly mistaken. Theirs is a lineage of wushu, not of Shaolin Kungfu, and their wushu lineage dates back to the 1970s at the most. Hence whether their kungfu is genuine or false is irrelevant. Their lineage is also “outside” the Temple. Even their teachers, the Shaolin “monks”, did not learn their wushu inside the Temple.

Until the end of the Cultural Revolution spearheaded by the Red Guards in the 1960s, no one in modern China dared to practice kungfu or any traditional arts, for doing so would be considered counter-revolutionary, the most serious crime in China at that time. Indeed there was a clean break of traditional kungfu, chi kung and spiritual cultivation in China for about a hundred years. Only when modern far-sighted Chinese leaders, following the impetus set by the great Deng Xiao Peng, reopened China to the world, did Chinese traditional arts experience a renaissance.

You would recall I told you my first wish in London during my recent visit with my family was to visit the British Museum. When my family visited the imperial palaces in Bejing a few years ago, the most obvious and lasting impression was their pathetic lack of treasures. What we saw were some pieces of worn-out furniture reputed to have been used by emperors.

Before coming to London, we visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. We saw what would make any Chinese proud, compensating for the miserable feeling of being Chinese in Bejing. While most other ancient civilizations exhibited broken earthen pots and beads or at best some marble statues, ancient Chinese civilization showed off its jade figurines, porcelain, huge wall murals and gigantic statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Tang Dynasty.

Learning that we would visit the British Museum to see what we didn't see in the Forbidden City in Bejing, my disciple in Holland, Liang Hoo, told me a touching story. Seeing exhibits of Chinese treasures in the British Museum, a Chinese man cried. They should be in China, he demonstrated. Another Chinese man came near to console him. We should be grateful they are in the British Museum, he said. If these treasures had not been taken out of China before the Cultural Revolution, they would have disappeared from the world.

Many of our students, having experienced the difference between what they have learnt from our school and what they had learnt elsewhere, have expressed similar feelings. If our first patriarch, the great Jiang Nan, had not taken our Shaolin arts out of China, these wonderful arts might be lost to the world. Instead of wasting our time attempting to prove our lineage or the benefits of our arts to sceptics, we should spend our time enhancing our arts and teaching them to deserving people so that we can pass on these wonderful arts to posterity. That was the aim of the Venerable Jiang Nan, and earlier of Bodhidharma Bodhisattva.

The above is taken from Question 3 December 2002 Part 3 of the Selection of Questions and Answers.


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