The survival of authentic kung fu

Venerable Hai Deng, who was famous for his One Finger Zen skill, was the last abbot of the Shaolin temple who advocated traditional kung fu training. After he left the Shaolin temple in the 1960's, the focus of the Shaolin temple gradually shifted towards demonstration wushu rather than martial arts. Image reproduced from www.shaolin.org

Venerable Hai Deng, who was famous for his One Finger Zen skill, was the last abbot of the Shaolin temple who advocated traditional kung fu training. After he resigned in the 1960’s, the focus of the Shaolin temple gradually shifted towards demonstration wushu rather than traditional kung fu. Image reproduced from http://www.shaolin.org

Many kung fu practitioners have heard of the Cultural Revolution in China which led to the death or exile of many practitioners of traditional arts, including kung fu. In fact, many people have the mistaken belief that no authentic kung fu exists anymore!

The good news is that not all of the martial monks were killed in the Cultural Revolution. The more devastating attacks on the Shaolin lineages actually took place during the Qing dynasty when the northern Shaolin temple at Henan and the two southern Shaolin temples were destroyed. My grandmaster has two lineages dating back to the second southern Shaolin temple; one going back to Venerable Chee Seen (abbot and founder of the second temple) and Venerable Jiang Nan (a monk who escaped the second temple’s destruction and fled to Thailand), in addition to his Choe Family Wing Choon and the Wuzuquan of Chee Kim Thong. 

My grandmaster's first master, Lai Chin Wah, was a Shaolin master and was known as "Uncle RIghteousness" in martial arts circles for his honor, integrity, and kung fu accomplishments. Though he died n the 1960's or 70's, his heritage lives on in my grandmaster's school, Shaolin Wahnam. Image taken from www.shaolin.org

My grandmaster’s first master, Lai Chin Wah, was a Shaolin master and was known as “Uncle RIghteousness” in martial arts circles for his honor, integrity, and kung fu accomplishments. Though he died about forty years ago, his heritage lives on in my grandmaster’s school. Image taken from http://www.shaolin.org

Shaolin kung fu lived on in many different families and groups after the destruction of the Shaolin temples, especially the well-known Southern Shaolin styles (though they generally did not use the name “Shaolin” in order to escape attention from the government): Hoong Ka (Hung Gar), Choi Li Fatt, and others. 

Regarding the northern Shaolin temple, the last abbot to emphasize teaching traditional Shaolin kung fu was Venerable Hai Deng. He left the position after having a difference of opinion with the Communist Chinese government (who wanted to promote wushu as a sport rather than martial arts). Most folks who have trained at the Shaolin temple or one of its subsidiary schools since the 1970’s or 1980’s through today only learn forms and no application. If they do learn application, it is usually in the form of modern “Chinese Kick-boxing,” known as sanda. The sad thing is that many of them practice the same forms from the old days (sets such as Da Hong Quan, Lohanquan, Taizuquan, and Tantui), but few of them will practice applications and thus resort to boxing and kick-boxing for fighting, instead of their kung fu movements. Venerable Hai Deng lived through the Cultural Revolution, thankfully, but I do not know if any of his martial monk students ever got a position of prominence at the Shaolin temple after he left. Given how many Shaolin monks use boxing and kick-boxing in their sparring, and how many practitioners who the public regard as “Shaolin masters” say that “forms only teach principles and you can’t use elaborate kung fu movements in sparring,” I doubt they ever did. 

This video shows a monk from the Shaolin temple in the 80’s or 90’s demonstrating Da Hong Quan (often translated as “Great Storm Set” or “Big Red Set”). His movements show a functional strength and agility rather than the gymnastics and contortionist’s flexibility more often seen today. I would hazard to guess he knows how to use his kung fu for self defense.

Anywho, to make a long story short, Shaolin and Shaolin-influenced kung fu does survive today. The tricky business is tracking down someone who is willing and able to teach you the full package: force training (the most important, yet most ignored part of kung fu training today), forms (the most popular of kung fu training today), applications (second least popular aspect of kung fu training today), and philosophy (including strategies and tactics, which are often quoted but rarely implemented).

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