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Shaolin Kung Fu: Seeking Out The Old Styles

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.

Shaolin Kung FuNowadays 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.

If you want to learn more, make sure to check out the series on Youtube which is being released weekly and if you would like to support future projects like this, and get access to unseen videos from this series and other previous ones, you can go to 

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Heroes of Martial Arts Qi Jiguang, Yu Dayou & Taizhou Great Wall

qi jiguangGood News! I’m starting a new project called The Real Heroes of Martial Arts, which will be on my Youtube channel (follow the link to subscribe). For the first episode, I went to Taizhou in Zhejiang province to look at the generals Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou and discuss their relevance to martial arts. We all know of the Great Wall, its one of the most visited places in China, but Taizhou has its own mini Great Wall built by Qi Jiguang himself in the Ming Dynasty to defend the area from Wokou, or Japanese pirates.





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Book Review: My Journey in Mystic China

The recollections of Jon Blofield, a British man who lived in China before the communist era. I really enjoyed this book, and would give it 4/5. The only reason it loses a point is that I feel he overly romanticised old Chinese society and was unable to see anything bad in it, for example justifying the common use of prositutes and how he felt it made men have a better marriage. Anyway, the book provides an in-depth look at life in a China which doesnt exist any more, Jon was in a unique position as he fully integrated himself into Chinese society, basically becoming a Chinese person. He dressed, spoke and acted like a local, and was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism is also an important component of the book, and several chapters describe his stays in monasteries, pilgrimages to sacred mountains which now are merely tourist destinations and discourses with Zen masters. For anyone interested in how China was, and the nostalgia of this long-gone society, this is a must read in my opinion, and I highly recommend it.

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Liebster Award

I’m very excited to announce that I have been nominated for the Liebster award! The Liebster award is an award for bloggers, nominated by other bloggers. I’d like to give a big thanks to Brian at Hawaiian Brian ( who runs an excellent blog full of travel tips and resources.

The Liebster Award Rules

Liebster Award

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and post a link to their site.
  2. Display an image of the award and write a post about your nomination on your blog.
  3. Answer the 10 questions your nominee has asked in their blog post.
  4. Nominate 5-10 other deserving new bloggers for the award and ask them 10 questions of your choice.
  5. List the rules of the award in your blog post.

10 Questions From Hawaiian Brian

1.Tell Us About Yourself

As of now, I’ve been living in China for ten years (well, one in South Korea too), training martial arts and traveling. I’m a student of Zhou Zhen Dong, one of the top masters of Praying Mantis Kung Fu, however I have also been lucky to train with other great masters of styles such as Xinyi Liuhe Quan, Korean Taekkyon, as well as some Wing Chun, Taiji Quan and Bagua Zhang.

2.How Did You Get Started Traveling? What Inspired Your Wanderlust?

I first came to Asia at 18, for a six month trip backpacking through China, Hong Kong, Tibet, Nepal and India. I always had a fascination for the Far East, mostly due to my martial arts training. This first trip fueled my passion, and exposed me to so much new stuff it just blew my mind. When the trip was over, I returned to my old life a changed person, and new I just had to go back.

3.How Many Countries Have you Been To? How Many Continents?

I have currently been to China (the mainland, plus Hong Kong and Tibet), South Korea, Nepal, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Phillipines and Dubai & Abu Dhabi: that covers Asia so far. Then I went to the USA as a kid, Australia fairly recently, and for Europe I’ve been to: The UK (my own country), France, Monaco, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. I also went to Kenya when I was very young.

4.What Is Your Favourite Travel Experience?

There’s been so many its hard to choose. The first part of my first ever trip was some volunteer work in Xi’an, China. While the volunteer work itself was kind of disappointing (I’ll eventually write an article about that), this was my first time in China, and on top of that it was the ancient capital! It was just so different to anything I’d experienced before, and I spent almost all my free time just exploring the city soaking up the culture. Towards the end of that same trip, I trekked in the Himalayas in India, and learnt meditation at a retreat there. It wasn’t one of those intense places where you can’t eat or talk etc, it was more just rest and recover from the hard trekking for a few days, and we did meditation early in the morning.

5. Where Is Your Favourite Travel Destination and Why?

I would probably have to say Malaysia. The tropical weather, amazing food, diverse culture and incredibly friendly people made it as a great experience. As a multicultural country, you have Muslim Malay people, native Orang Asli in the jungle as well as large Chinese and Tamil Indian communities in the cities. Penang was an amazing city, something like an Asian Cuba: all the old faded colonial buildings. The most special event though was when I proposed to my now-wife on the beach in Langkawi on our last night!

6.When Did You Start Writing About Your Travels?

In 2007 when I made that first big trip, I set up a very amateur blog at, and after a few years I started focusing on learning how to really run a website when I created which I ran for several years, and now I’ve finally moved to my current site.

7.What Is Your Favourite Post You Have Written?

Maybe my interview with Seven Star Mantis teacher, Brendan Tunks, or world champion boxer Michele Aboro.

8. What Are Your Upcoming Plans For Your Blog?

I think I answered this in a recent interview on Superstarblogging.

9. Where Are You Traveling To Next?

A trip around Italy, France and Switzerland with my wife and her parents. It will be their first time in Europe, so should be an interesting experience.

10. What Is The Best Place You Have Ever Eaten?

There has been so many. Although I live in China, I’m not the biggest fan of Chinese food, probably been over-saturated by it. I prefer Mediterranean, Japanese and South-East Asian. Shanghai has an excellent dining scene if you are willing to spend money. For cheap food, I’d say Malaysia, as the street food is top quality, and you can enjoy Malay, Indian and Chinese all at the same time!

I Nominate The Following Bloggers For the Liebster Award:

A Couple For The Road

Maggie and Tsvetin at

Sivan at

David Kelly at

Eemma at

My Questions For The Nominees Are:

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself
  2. What was your first trip and how did it change you
  3. What’s the biggest thing you’ve gained from travel
  4. What kind of a traveler are you (backpacker/luxury/solo/group etc)
  5. What’s your favourite destination so far
  6. What’s your most memorable experience
  7. What’s your worst/most disappointing experience
  8. Where do you plan to go next
  9. How did you get into blogging
  10. What are your plans for your blog this year