It is very difficult to separate fact from fiction regarding the origins of the martial arts. Many of the more colorful martial arts legends either have no historical basis whatsoever, or exist in diametrical opposition to facts we can document historically. What we do know is that today nearly every martial art in the world traces its beginnings to the Shaolin Temple. While the Shaolin temple undeniably played the most important of roles in the evolution of the martial arts there was in actuality already a long tradition of martial arts before the Shaolin Temple entered the scene in roughly the 6th century AD.
A stylized system of fighting existed in ancient Greece as long ago as 2,000 BC which was known as Pankration. Evidence exists of martial arts practice in India during the same time period. The martial arts appear to be rooted in both cultures much like many language groups. Historians can document the existence of trade routes between ancient Greece and India which would explain the cross cultural development of martial arts as well as language.
Evidence also points to the existence of early forms of martial arts in China as early as the third century BC. These systems were developed by Chinese doctors as a means of toning the body. By the 5th century AD it is clear that various fighting styles had developed throughout Asia. Also by this time Buddhism had spread throughout much of the continent. The original Shaolin temple was built in the 4th century AD by order of the Emperor and functioned only as a religious center. The practice of martial arts at the temple did not begin until the 6th century AD with the arrival of the legendary Bodhidarma.
Bodhidarma (Ta Mo in Chinese, Daruma in Japanese) was a Buddhist monk from India who likely belonged to the ruling warrior class. The details of the story vary dramatically depending on which legend one chooses to examine but the underlying theme remains. Bodhidarma is credited with starting the practice of the martial arts at the Shaolin temple in addition to founding the form of Buddhism known as Chan. Chan Buddhism, which is called Zen in Japan, teaches the concept of gradual practice and sudden enlightenment. Previous schools taught that the disciple of Buddhism practices meditation over a long period of time and achieves enlightenment in stages. Chan contends that while the practice takes place over a long period of time the moment of enlightenment occurs suddenly and spontaneously.
Another tenet of Chan pertains to the unity of the body and mind. Meditation is practiced in the full lotus position because that position is conducive to the healthy flow of energy in the body; this practice is commonly known by the Japanese term â??zazen.â? Chan teaches that a healthy body as well as a healthy mind is necessary for enlightenment. This belief helps explain the development and refinement of the martial arts by the Shaolin monks. Over the centuries the Shaolin temple became the foremost martial arts training center in China. The Shaolin warrior monks became famous as many different schools of kung fu developed. These schools taught empty hand fighting as well as weapons combat.
The Shaolin arts also spread across all of Asia. Many warriors and princes from other countries trained with the Shaolin monks, and many monks traveled throughout Asia spreading their fighting styles. This spread ultimately led to the creation of various Karate systems in the Okinawan islands as well as early forms of Tae Kwon Do in the Korean peninsula. In the 18th century the original Shaolin temple was burned down. Legend has it that five monks escaped and went on to establish the Shaolin temple in Fukien Province. The temple at Fukien is the birthplace of the five Shaolin animal styles, based on the movements of the Dragon, Tiger, Crane, Leopard and Snake.
Since the creation of the Fukien temple there have been many instances of Shaolin temples being burned or destroyed and recreated. Throughout this process new styles have been created, including Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Praying Mantis. Chinese martial arts are typically divided into northern and southern styles, with the Fukien temple as the fountainhead of the southern styles, and the original temple in Honan Province that of the northern styles.
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