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Chinese Martial Arts

By Sifu Derek Frearson



Since early times man has needed to defend himself and to utilise any available method to do so from the throwing of stones, sling shots, bare hand and simple sticks etc generation by generation the method of self defence has improved as it grew from village or clan encounters to nations in conflict.  China with its diverse population developed many weapons and empty hand methods over many centuries and gave the world the greatest advancement at that time in the art of killing Gun Powder.

Throughout many centuries both armies and groups in remote areas sought to improve methods of attack and defence techniques with dynasties rising and falling under the sword.  


The earliest Chinese records date back to the Xia 21st-16th century BC and list 21 dynasties up to the Ching dynasty 1644-1911 AD.

Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) records talk of arts similar to Sanda  and Kung Fu being practised.

In the 500 years from the Qin and Han Dynasties to the Three kingdoms Period (221BC- 280AD) Chinas feudal society developed and reached maturity.

China Enjoyed one of its flourishing periods in history during the heydays of the Sui and Tang dynasties 581-907).

With a prosperous economy and comparative political stability, the feudal rulers attached due importance to military affairs and the imperial examinations.

This gave a big boost to the development of sports including Martial Arts and wrestling.

The introduction of the conscription and martial arts examination systems gave an impetus to the popularisation of martial arts which were mainly used in military operations.

Li Bai’s poems give lucid descriptions of sword dances during the Tang Dynasty.

The conscription system of the Sui dynasty stipulated that men should serve in the army. The martial arts examination system, which took effect in the year 702, stressed techniques and strength, but stature and physique were also prerequisites for the entrance examination.

As time passed by, the martial arts gained increasing popularity in the army and among the folks, and it was not uncommon to find Wushu masters in many parts of the country.


All dynasties laid great stress on military training with horsemanship and archery being the main method to soften up the enemy after it was the foot soldiers job to fight hand to hand with spears, pikes and swords ETC.


The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) were the last two feudal dynasties in Chinese history. From the early Ming to the Mid Qing the development of Chinese martial arts had unprecedented development and enjoyed immense popularity amongst the general public. Many styles were developed during this period including the well known Shaolin School.


The training consisted of various kinds of coherent and aesthetically refined routines based on the attacking and defending skills. Easy to learn and good for the body, these routines soon caught on and developed into various styles and schools Nei Jia Quan (inner school) Wei Jia Quan (outer school). Complete sets of exercises with or without weapons were developed and each of them was given a special name. Theories on Chinese martial arts were studied and enriched, and the important technical points were put into verse which made them easy to remember and put into practise.

An ancient form of Wrestling (Xiangpu) was also very popular at this time especially during the Qing dynasty. In 1638 a boxing master Chen Yuanyun from Zhejiang of the Shaolin School went to Japan and helped to develop Judo there.   



No article on the development of Chinese martial Arts would be complete without a piece on the Shaolin Temple


At the foot of Mt. Song is the Shaolin Monastery so named because it was built near a small (Shao) wood (Lin).  In 495 AD an Indian monk named Batuo came to China to teach Buddhism, Emperor Wen Di of the Northern  Wei dynasty  ( 386- 534 ) was a devout follower of Buddhism and ordered the building of the monastery for the visiting monk.  Some thirty years later, Batuo was followed by another Indian monk, Bodhidharma. Emperor Wen Di bestowed on the Shaolin Monastery 3,000 hectares of land and the Buddhist sanctuary became a big land owner.  The peasants in the area became the monastery’s tenants, unable to tolerate the exorbitant exploitation by the Monastery the peasants often rose in revolt. The monastery trained monks to protect its property from disgruntled tenants and bandits.



 At the end of the Sui dynasty (581 - 618) warlord Wang Shichong took over the Shaolin Monasteries land at Boguzhuang by force. Wang Shichong sought to establish a separate regime in Luoyang, he proclaimed himself Emperor and gave his newly created state the name of Zheng.  Li Shimin, a nobleman from the land of Tang was captured by the despot Wang Shichong, historical records report that thirteen cudgel playing monks came to the rescue of Li Shimin and captured Wang Shichong’s nephew Wang Renze. After he ascended to the throne, Li Shimin, now Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) rewarded the monks highly and permitted them to maintain monk soldiers.  It was at this time that the Shaolin Monastery was at its zenith and owned an area of 360,000 square kilometres with more than a thousand halls, towers, pagodas and pavilions.  Five thousand and forty eight palaces and rooms were built at the Monastery complex and at its peak the monastery had a force of 2,000 monk soldiers and was known as ‘The Number One Temple Under Heaven ’.



 The Emperor not only bestowed a large estate on the monastery but also sent meat and wine and thus broke the five commandments of Zen Buddhism (killing, theft, pride, drinking wine and eating meat) and necessitated their alterations. The monks not only practised barehanded combat but were also skilled in horsemanship, QiGong (or Chi Kung, breathing Exercises) and combat with weapons.  Over the centuries, there have been many monks whose names are now a deep rooted part of the folklore of the Shaolin Monastery.  These include Hui Ke, Wu Song, The Monk With The Big Shoes, Iron Knee Ti Jing, Chun Xi Fights a Tiger, Broadsword Yi Jang and many more.                                                                                                                                         A Major influence occurred during the Five Dynasties (907- 960) period when monk Ju Fu invited renowned martial arts masters to stay at the monastery to train and share their knowledge, he later combined their boxing skills. Zhao Kuangyin attended a martial arts meeting at the monastery, he demonstrated a set of Long Range Boxing which the monks readily adopted into the Shaolin system.  It is also said that Zhao made an intensive study of Shaolinquan and developed thirty-six forms of Changquan (Long Boxing).



 Zhao Kuangyin became the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty (960- 1279).


Sima Guang (1019-1086) a scholar of the Song dynasty wrote in his thesis Comprehensive Mirror for Aiding Government, recounted a combat on horseback between Yuchi Gong (585-658), a famous general under emperor Tai Zong (Li Shimin) of the earlyTtang dynasty, and Li Yuanji (603-626), one of Li Shimins brothers, the latter thrust his long spear at Yuchi Gong who wrested the weapon from his opponent with lightning speed.



 During the Yuan Dynasty ( 1279- 1368 )  Bai Yufeng came to the monastery and after long study created a boxing system based on the movements of five animals, Dragon, Tiger,  Crane,  Leopard and Snake.  In 1341 the Shaolin Monks were used to attack an army of peasant insurgents named the ‘Red Turbans ’,   this battle is portrayed in a mural in the White Robe Hall of the monastery.


 In 1522 ( Ming Dynasty 1368- 1614 ) forty Shaolin Monks led by the monk Yue Kong were used to fight Japanese aggression in the Songjiang river area of Zhejiang Province,

they fought many battles before laying down their own lives.



At various times throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911) the Shaolin monks were forbidden to practise martial arts. When the monastery was going to be rebuilt in

1723 plans had to be sent for the Emperors approval, he decreed that the monks be placed in

strict supervision by an abbot appointed by the court. The main gate of the Monastery is called the Mountain Gate; it was first built during the rule of Emperor Yongzheng in1735.

Emperor Kang Xi visited the Monastery in 1751 and stayed for three days, he wrote the three

characters Shao-Lin Si for the horizontal board which now hangs above the main gate.



During its long history the monastery has been both patronised and persecuted by various Dynasties.  It was the Tang Dynasty that saw the greatest developments of Buddhist culture despite three officially inspired persecutions when 40,000 small temples and 4,600 large ones were destroyed.  The monastery has been seriously damaged by fire in three wars, the first in the Sui Dynasty, the second in the early Qing Dynasty during the rein of Emperor Kangxi and the third and possibly the worst in 1928 when the warlord Shi Yousan's army set fire to the monastery.  The fire burned for over forty days and 80-90% of all buildings were destroyed, many precious relics and boxing manuals were either destroyed or looted.

 After the 1911 Revolution, Shaolin monks, together with village militias, fought against bandits in defence of the monastery and its surrounding area.  In 1922, Monk Miao Xing, who had served in the army as a regimental commander became Abbot.  Miao Xing led a group of monks to wipe out bandits in the vicinity of the monastery. After the liberation of China in 1949 there was an attempt to stifle religious practise including the study of Traditional Martial Arts as they were viewed as being filled with feudal and superstitious ideas. The Temple was ransacked again during the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976) when many books and artefacts were destroyed.


It’s clear that there has been interaction between Military Arts, Temple Arts and the General Public Arts throughout the centuries with this cross fertilization adding to the effectiveness and vast array of Chinese Martial Arts Styles.


In 1983 the Physical Culture and Sports Commissions along with Wushu Associations at National and local levels undertook a survey that lasted for three years and mobilized some 8,000 researchers who travelled to the remote corners of China. They interviewed 15,000 old Wushu masters; as a result of the survey 130 different schools were identified each with an origin, style, special features and principles that it may call its own. It would be interesting to see more data on how the styles were categorised, how many were of Shaolin Origin, internal, external, northern, southern, family styles, ethnic styles ETC.

At this time they also instigated the “Three Contributions Campaign” in which they asked the martial arts community to donate Wushu manuals, ancient weapons and technical expertise.

480 manuals, 390 ancient weapons and 30 other articles were donated to the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission amongst this were hand copies of the ABC of Sword Play, Cudgel Play, Tongbeiquan (Through The Back Boxing) in 108 forms, Diagrams of the Single Scimitar Exercise copied in 1715 and Xingyiquan (Form and Will Boxing) copied in the last century. The weapons donations included a dagger axe made in Sichuan during the Warring States Period (475-221BC) a Tang Dynasty (1618- 907) Sword with a ring handle, an Iron Whip from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and a Generals Scimitar and Cudgel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  


The Sports Commission also collected around 400 hours of Video Tape records of old masters and styles. Also to help understand Wushu styles during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220.420) a research group visited the Dunhuang caves in Gansu and another group went to the caves in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region to study the frescos there.



After the survey a set of books were produced in China with some 650,000 words to form an encyclopaedia of Wushu with detailed information on the skills, history and geographical distribution of schools and exercises, barehanded or with weapons. To date  I have not seen any information of these books being translated into English or made available generally, if anyone has information on this please contact the author.













Xia                           21st- 16th century BC

Shang                      16th- 11th century BC

Xi Zhou                   Western Chou 11th century- 771 BC

Chunqiu                   Spring and Autumn Period 770- 476 BC

Zhanguo                  Warring States Period 475- 221 BC

Qin Chin                  Chin 221- 207 BC

Xi Han                     Western Han 206 BC – 24 AD

Dong Han                Eastern Han 25- 220 AD

Sangou                    The Tree Kingdoms 220- 265 AD

Xi Jin                       Western Tsin 265- 316 AD

Dong Jin                  Eastern Tsin 317- 420 AD

Nan-Beichao            Southern and Northern Dynasties 420- 589 AD

Sui                           Sui 581- 618 AD

Tang                        Tang 618- 907 AD

Wudai                      Five Dynasties 907- 960 AD

Liao                         Liao 916- 1125 AD

Song                        Sung 960- 1279 AD

Jin                            Kin 115- 1234 AD

Yuan                        Yuan 1271- 1368 AD

Ming                        Ming 1368- 1644 AD

Qingchao                 Ching Dynasty 1644- 1911 AD      





About the Author: Sifu Derek Frearson is the Chief Instructor of the International Taijiquan and Shaolin Wushu Association and is a direct line practitioner of Yang Style Taijiquan, Foshan Wing Chun and Seven Stars Praying Mantis. He is also a director of                   



Thanks go to China Sports Magazine published in Beijing China for the historical information.


Shaolin information researched in China by the author.


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