This June I traveled to the town of Dengfeng, in Henan Province. Dengfeng is the main town just next to the famed Shaolin Temple. When you say the name Dengfeng, it conjures up images of hundreds of kids in grubby tracksuits jogging around concrete squares, or performing Wushu routines in perfect unison. While this stereotype is indeed correct, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that there is a wealth of traditional martial arts knowledge beneath the surface. I wasn’t here to watch children do somersaults, but to seek out the elder masters who preserve the old teachings of Shaolin Kung Fu.
Nowadays Shaolin Kung Fu is stereotyped by the performances we often see on TV and social media: monks breaking metal bars over their heads, spinning in the air and landing in an “eagle pose” or contorting themselves in some weird stretch. However, this has very little to do with the Kung Fu that has been practiced at the temple and surrounding area since at least the Ming Dynasty. The first mention of the Shaolin monks practicing martial arts goes back to the Tang Dynasty, when 13 warrior monks helped the Tang emperor Taizong (Li Shi Min) overthrow a rebellion and secure the dynasty. However, no mention is made of what these monks actually practiced. The martial arts of the Shaolin monks were first widely documented in the Ming Dynasty, at this point it seems there was a focus on weapons, and then moving into the Qing (1644 onwards) was when hand to hand combat really gained popularity. If you want to know more about the development of Shaolin Kung Fu, I highly recommend the book The Shaolin Monastery by Meir Shahar.
Shaolin Kung Fu is typically made up of the forms Xiao Hong Quan, Da Hong Quan, Tongbei Quan, Qixing Quan, Pao Quan, Luohan Quan and others depending on the specific lineage. Master Hu Zheng Sheng explained to me that it’s not that Shaolin Temple created any style of Kung Fu, rather the temple absorbed various styles from the surrounding areas. In ancient China, much like in medieval Europe, temples were a place where criminals, disgraced generals or failed rebel leaders could seek refuge, not only that but temples owned large swathes of land which they needed to protect from bandits and thieves. It’s only natural that this environment would be a breeding ground for fighting styles to emerge.
One interesting revelation I had from talking to the various masters was the crossover between the principles and theories of Xingyi/Xinyi and those of Shaolin Kung Fu. Each master in Dengfeng said that the core theories of Shaolin Kung Fu were the Six Harmonies, Four Extremities and Three Sections. What they are and how they are manifested did have some variation from teacher to teacher, but in general were the same. Technique-wise I saw a lot of crossovers between the moves found in the old Shaolin forms and those of Xinyi Liuhe. This is something I discovered when training with Josh last year, but became even more apparent on this trip.
And it is that which leads me onto Xinyiba. Xinyiba was explained by Hu Zheng Sheng to be the highest level of Shaolin Kung Fu. Now it has some similarities to Xinyi Liuhe but if differs in that it is not a system in itself, rather it is a concept of training your art in a more effficient way. Ba 把 in Kung Fu refers to a core technique, and all of the Ba are contained within the common Shaolin forms, although they take on different names and are somewhat hidden. Once a student reaches the relevant stage, the teacher will instruct the student on which techniques are Ba, and how to take them out of the form and train them. When training Xinyiba there are only a few movements, and each movement can contain several of these Ba. It’s disputed whether Shaolin Xinyiba or the Xinyi Liuhe practiced by Muslims came first, but we can be sure of the connection. The main difference is that Muslim Xinyi Liuhe is a stand alone system, and has a complete system of training, including the Ten Animal Forms and Si Ba among others. It is known that Ji Long Feng, who is credited as the founder of Xinyi/Xingyi spent time at Shaolin temple, and they say he taught his new empty hand system to the monks here, which he based off of spear methods. Interestingly, the Muslim people in nearby Luoyang who practice Xinyi Liuhe don’t recognise Ji Long Feng as the teacher of their style’s founder, Ma Xue Li, but instead say that Ma Xue Li was already an accomplished martial artist who went to spend ten years at Shaolin Temple, before returning to Luoyang and teaching a new art inside the Mosque to a small group.
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