Frequently Asked Questions



This is the frequently asked question list.

1. Just what is kung fu anyway?

2. Is this the same as the "kung fu" TV series?

3. Why the different spellings, "gung fu" and "kung fu?"

4. How is kung fu different from karate, Judo, or Tae Kwon Do?

5. What's the difference between northern and southern Shaolin styles?

6. What is the philosophical basis of Shaolin kung fu?

7. What is ch'i (qi)?

8. Why isn't my kung fu style listed in the styles section?

9. Where did you get all this information?

10. I am finding it hard to find a Shaolin school near me. What should I do?

11. What are some good books on Shaolin kung fu?

12. I've heard that Shaolin is too much of a "hard" style.

13. I've heard that Shaolin is too much of a "soft" style.

14. How long would it take me to get a black belt (or it's equivalent)?

15. You mean there are several black belt rank levels?

16. You don't have very much history about some styles. Could you add more?

17. Can you send me more information about Shaolin?

18. I want to study at the Shaolin Temple in China. Can you give me more information?

19. How can I follow the path of Shaolin?

20. Is Shaolin compatible with my particular faith?.

21. If Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li were all locked in a room and had to fight it out, who would really be the best?

 

1. Just what is kung fu anyway?

Kung fu, also spelled gung fu, is a generic term for martial arts originating in China. A direct translation of the term would be "hard work" or "effort". Shaolin is a subset of kung fu that was studied in temples between around 500 AD until the destruction of the temples in the early 1920's. Click here for a more detailed description of Shaolin kung fu.

 

2. Is this the same as the "kung fu" TV series?

Both of the styles seen on the original Warner Brothers series (1971-1977), black crane or Chin Na (David Chow as technical advisor) in the earlier shows and praying mantis (Kam Yuen as technical advisor) in the later ones, are Shaolin kung fu styles. The philosophical content of this series was mostly accurate (in our estimation, the temple flashbacks were arguably the best part of the series). The more recent "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" (1992-) uses a random assortment of styles, many, we suspect, devised just for a particular episode...

 

3. Why the different spellings, "Gung Fu" and "kung fu?"

This is yet another result of western linguists confusing both eastern and western speakers. In the once near-universal Wade-Giles spelling, a Chinese "G" sound was written in English as "K", while what the Chinese pronounced as "K" was transcribed as "K' ". Thus if kung fu were supposed to be pronounced with a "k" sound, it would have been written as "k'ung fu." When Bruce Lee introduced American audiences to his martial arts, he both spoke and wrote the American "G", hence "gung fu." Confused? Don't worry about it, so is everyone else....

 

4. How is kung fu different from Karate, Judo, or Tae Kwon Do?

Judo is a sport that involves primarily throwing and grappling. It is very similar to western wrestling, and was invented in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano, in Japan, specifically as a sport. Karate was originally an Okinawan method of combat that almost completely dispenses with throws. Its blocks are hard and it is a power oriented style. Tae Kwon Do is a Korean art, similar to karate, that emphasizes the feet as weapons and is also very power oriented.

Kung Fu has both hard and soft styles. All styles teach the use of throws, grappling holds, weapons, and self defense. It is therefore a more broad and complex system of combat than many other styles. Similar non-Chinese martial arts include Jiu Jitsu (Japan) and Hapkido (Korea)

5. What's the difference between northern and southern styles?

There are no unique differences. Northern styles are typically more foot/leg technique-oriented than southern styles, but there are many notable exceptions. For example, the south's White Crane is more acrobatic, aerial, and kick-oriented than most northern styles.

 

6. What is the philosophical basis of Shaolin kung fu?

The Shaolin philosophy is a combination of philosophical Taoism and Buddhism. The primary aim was to follow the Tao, the way of Nature. Only thus could the practitioner be in harmony with the Universe, and himself.

 

7. What is ch'i?

Ch'i is a basic concept in most Asian arts, martial and otherwise. It is also known as prana (India) and ki (Japan), words which generally translate into "breath." At the most simple level, ch'i is described as the life force, or "electricity" of living things. It is analogous to the energy that makes something alive, rather than inanimate, and death is described as a body devoid of ch'i. It's cultivation is taken almost on faith, via such arts as Dragon kung fu, Ch'i Kung, and T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Thus, though difficult to define, measure, or explain, ch'i lies at the root of martial and meditative arts practices.

 

8. Why isn't my kung fu style listed in the styles section?

Unfortunately, in the history of kung fu many thousands of styles have existed at one time or another. For us to provide information on each of these styles would be an exercise in futility. The web site is designed to provide information on Shaolin styles of kung fu. What is a Shaolin style? That question will be more fully answered in the styles section at a later time, but we will give a small answer here, also. Over the course of the 1500 or so years the Shaolin temples existed, many, many outside styles, such as styles developed in villages, family (Pai) styles, or in Taoist temples were at some point studied in the Shaolin temples. But there is a difference between styles studied at some point in the Shaolin temple and Shaolin styles.

The Shaolin Temples were something akin to universities, with strong departments of martial arts studies; like universities, they studied many arts that originated outside their walls. The confusion over what is or is not a Shaolin art boils down to definitions. We define a "Shaolin style" as such if the style originated in the temples, or by instructors who were bona fide monks. This definition includes Wing Chun (developed by three priests, one a "nun"), and Hung Gar (founded by refugee Shaolin practitioners after the destruction of the Honan Temple in the 1780s). At this web site, we specifically exclude styles that were not (or were questionably) founded by priests or within the Temple. T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Eight Drunken Immortals, Choy-Lay-Fut, Pa-Kua, and Eagle Claw, for example, are thus specifically excluded (and, excepting Choy-Lay-Fut, pre-date the origin of the Shaolin order!).

 

9. Where did you get all this information?

All the information on this web site comes directly or indirectly from refugee Shaolin priests who fled China and emigrated to America before the temples were destroyed in the 1920's.

 

10. I am finding it hard to find a Shaolin school near me. What should I do?

Unfortunately, Shaolin schools are hard to find. Many people have sent in feedback asking if we know of a school near them. The problem is that many schools who consider themselves Shaolin do not teach anything close to what is described on this web site. Some schools have left feedback stating what they teach, but we are reluctant to put a list of "Shaolin" schools on this web site without actually seeing the practitioners. We are still considering how to solve this problem. For now, we have created the Kwoon to help readers in their search.

11. What are some good books on Shaolin kung fu?

Take a look at the Suggested Reading List. Unfortunately, "good" books are few and far between. There is more quality to be found in philosophical texts and histories than books on technique. We like books that cover form AND application and that constitutes the majority of the books we cover.

 

12. I've heard that Shaolin is too much of a "hard" style.

This is a favorite comment by many of the Taoist internal stylists. The Taoist internal martial arts (T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Hsing-I, Pakua) believe they are the only styles that teach how to use ch'i in a martial art. The Shaolin system is one which takes the position that both external and internal training are necessary for students. Unfortunately, many schools that refer to themselves Shaolin forsake the soft, or internal, techniques of the style for the more readily useful hard technique, thus earning the reputation stated above. For more information on the what an "internal" and "external" style is and a description of Shaolin styles, see the Styles section.

13. I've heard that Shaolin is too much of a "soft" style.

This is a comment heard often among Karate and Tae Kwon Do stylists. As stated in the response to the last question, Shaolin takes the position that both external and internal training are necessary for students. Unfortunately, again, many schools that refer to themselves as Shaolin, in their mistaken attempt to build up ch'i as quickly as possible, ignore the above theory and focus only upon soft techniques, forsaking the physical element that is necessary to generate power behind the technique itself.

We also find it interesting that many of the T'ai Chi Ch'uan instructors assert that once you have studied a hard style, it is not possible to learn the subtleties of a soft style. It would seem this reflects more upon the inadequacy of the instructor than the style he/she teaches. Chinese martial arts consist of thousands of styles, both hard and soft. It is not uncommon for students of a hard style to seek out a soft style to augment his training and vice-versa. In Shaolin, this is accomplished within the style itself and thus proof that the above assertion is false because the internal, or soft, aspects of Shaolin are shown only after the student has a solid foundation in external technique. For more information on the what an "internal" and "external" style is and a description of Shaolin styles, see the Styles section.

 

14. How long would it take me to get a black belt (or it's equivalent)?

As long as it takes, no longer and rarely sooner. Unlike grade school and college classes that must squirt people through in a given amount of time, a martial art is boundless. That means that advancement is achieved only after the student can DO a certain level of technique. If it takes a month or a year, that is up to the student and his or her abilities, time for practice, and other individual factors. However, many styles do establish minimum times in grade before allowing students to advance to a higher rank. While such a program may be useful (giving the student time to be comfortable with the old before tackling the new), be wary of such schools; often, the delay is a ploy to prolong student payments. All in all, excepting the most threadbare styles and questionable requirements, it takes at least three years for most skilled people to reach the lowest level of black belt rank.

 

15. You mean there are several black belt rank levels?

You bet. Most Japanese styles have ten black belt ranks, called dans (Judo has 12, but numbers 11 and 12 may only be awarded posthumously), while Chinese styles often have similar levels or degrees of disciple and master ranks. The highest ranks for most styles wear a red, not black, belt or sash, but there are many exceptions. In some family styles, a light blue sash is reserved for the senior master, while other schools use no rank belts at all.

 

16. You don't have very much history about some styles. Could you add more?

We are adding material as fast as we are able. Unfortunately, we have day jobs and are not able to update the site as much we would like. We do read all your feedback and are working on the subjects most requested.

 

17. Can you send me more information?

If we had more information written, we would put it on the web site! We do not have anything additional which we can send to readers.

 

18. I want to study at the Shaolin Temple in China. Can you give me more information?

Unfortunately, the Shaolin temples were destroyed in the 1920's. Recently, the Chinese government decided to refurbish the temple at Honan. While martial arts are studied there today, this is a recent re-emergence into the arts. Our contacts who have visited the Honan Temple (1985, 1988, and 1999) report that what is taught is mostly Wushu and T'ai Chi Ch'uan.  Most of our contacts who have visited the Temple believe it is more a trendy tourist point (and, yes, a good place to learn wu shu-but NOT kung fu) than a real effort to restore the arts outlawed by successive Chinese governments from 1901 until 1990.

Jon Funk (Black Belt, March, 1996:21) has written a controversial article entitled "The Shaolin Temple Hoax." Because of the number of letters we receive about "the return of Shaolin Masters" to the tourist-dedicated, refurbished Honan Temple, we felt obliged to publicize Mr. Funk's laudatory effort. Our primary sources for this Web-Page are exiled Shaolin monks (or the diaries left behind by those who passed away in the 1970s), who assure us that Mr. Funk is right-on-the-mark about the complete absence of anything even remotely akin to bona fide Shaolin arts being taught at the Honan Temple today. 

Because so many of our letters are written by people who believe that the Temple is now offering genuine Shaolin arts (despite our protestations about "who do you think expelled/killed the old Shaolin in the early twentieth century?"), we quote a short, but important, part of Mr. Funk's article:

"The Chinese government, it should be remembered, is communist, and doesn't want a religious group generating any ideas that don't conform to the party line."

There is always going to be a gullible audience for "too-good-to-be-true" claimants. We are delighted that a source who is completely independent of our own, has come forward in such a prestigious and public forum as Black Belt magazine to substantiate our caveat.

Although the Chinese government believes that the mere presence of martial arts instructors at the Honan temple lends them legitimacy, we find it as unlikely as the current attempt by the same government to countermand the Dalai Lama's choice for the reincarnated Panchen Lama. The last of the genuine Shaolin practitioners either fled the country or were killed during the civil wars of 1900-1931.

 

19. How can I follow the path of Shaolin?

We receive quite a bit of feedback requesting information on how to find a "true" Shaolin master, from people who would like to dedicate themselves to Shaolin. Many want to go to China and many will travel anywhere to find this master. Unfortunately, actual Shaolin masters are very difficult to find. The Shaolin order was scattered to the winds with the destruction of its temples and persecution for its neutrality during a bloody civil war that ravaged China early in this century. Those that are true inheritors of the Shaolin tradition - the few that may be left around the world - are by their nature discreet and unassuming. They do not generally start schools in strip malls. While the name Shaolin appears everywhere, the traditions and techniques behind the name are rarely of direct origin form the order of Shaolin. Over the centuries, Shaolin monks taught many techniques to soldiers and lay people who would then transmit these teachings to others, resulting in many styles named Shaolin, which in fact lost their connection to the temples centuries ago.

That is one way to view the state of Shaolin. However, another view might be that real Shaolin is everywhere; that Shaolin is not only a series of closely guarded techniques but also a way of life available to everyone. While the martial and other techniques developed by Shaolin adepts over the centuries have proven very effective, both martially and spiritually, these are nonetheless tools used within a system of philosophy - of self discovery, of Buddhism, of a way of life - that is the framework of Shaolin. This framework is available to all that wish it, and without the need to travel all over the world. As the Buddha taught, the truth lies ultimately within us. While there are those that may have insight to offer us, if we always look to be told the truth, we will never discover it.

Keeping in mind that Shaolin is a philosophical path in which the martial technique is a tool, we encourage this type of path even if it does not necessarily contain Shaolin or even martial technique. We encourage the idea that dissolution of the illusions of the self can be achieved through practice involving the relation of the whole body with the world, and this can be done utilizing any body/mind centered activity that adheres to this focus. The focus, skill, determination, and compassionate approach used within Shaolin for centuries can be carried into any pursuit or way of living in accordance with similar goals and then be very similar to Shaolin. While ancient traditions like Shaolin that have millennia of experience to facilitate the highest levels of this type of spiritual path, and are certainly of use at very advanced levels, it is possible to begin the path using any physical art combined with the right intent and goals. If we are not able to find a master to teach us now, we can begin the path with what is immediately available to us - with books and writings of Buddhist and other masters; with instruction in a martial art or yoga or some other body/mind centered activity; with the trust that there is a wealth of knowledge available for discovery within, and that a master will be available when needed.

Buddhism is an experience of discovering the true nature of the self, and the tools developed by Shaolin are simply tools to this end. Shaolin martial technique as it existed in the temples before their destruction will likely not be conveyed to most through a master on-hand. While we will be offering technique for direct download form this website in the near future, it is important to remember that even true Shaolin martial technique must be properly utilized as moving meditation to be truly Shaolin. While Shaolin martial technique itself is famous for its effectiveness, it is its use toward the higher spiritual goal that makes it truly part of the Shaolin path. We will be doing our best to convey what we can over this site about this relationship and ways to use the technique for these goals.

The main point we would like to make is that Shaolin is a viable philosophy and way of life in the present, and it does not consist exclusively of its martial technique. As society moves further away from the great teachings of the past, we do ourselves disservice if we reach blindly for random relics of those teachings: we lose sight of the teachings as a whole and fall into the trap of idol worship that so disturbs some of the Christian faith(1). So, be mindful of why you are searching for "true" Shaolin technique. Shaolin is not about something that will take you to a better reality. Reality is a function of how we view ourselves and our relation to the world. The way of seeing that utilizes Shaolin martial technique as a tool on the path can find other tools close at hand. Shaolin martial technique is not the Holy Grail. Don't lose too much time on the quest

1. All faiths, including Christianity, fall into the trap of idol worship. Ironically, the sacred cow of despising idol worship is also a form of idol worship itself if the reason for eschewing idols is not understood, if it is understood to mean physical idols instead of mental ones. In the Buddhist view, treating God or Buddha or anyone as an actual figure outside of our selves to worship is idol worship. In this view it is not inherently "wrong" or "evil", but misleading and illusory. Even the act of having a physical "idol" of a god or God or the Buddha is only "idol worship" if it is used as a separate entity from which realization will come, instead of a representation of something inside our selves. Enough for now on that subject, but look for a discussion of Buddhism in relation to Christianity to come soon to this page.

 

20. Is Shaolin compatible with my particular faith?

The bottom-line answer to that question is that everyone needs to judge that for themselves. If it doesn't feel right to you, there is some kind of conflict. However, we would encourage anyone finding conflict with a philosophy of self and reality examination, as Shaolin and Buddhism are, to do some self and reality examination, using whatever methods they like. Shaolin offers a way of finding guidance within oneself and within the natural world, and asserts no dogma to be taken on authority. Buddhism in general has been adopted by people of differing faiths all over the world, in conjunction with their existing faiths. Buddhism does not conflict with most beliefs, and can often augment other forms of spiritual searching. In a relationship with God or the gods or Allah or the Great Spirit, the better one understands one's own self, the more fruitful and honest that relationship is going to be.

So, if you are drawn to Shaolin or Buddhism but think there may be conflict with your existing faith, take a close look at the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and see if they hold some truth for you. And maybe re-examine your existing faith while you are at it, something we recommend for ourselves and everyone, everyday.

 

21. If Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme were all locked in a room and had to fight it out, who would really be the best?

Who cares?