Bak Sil Lum vs. Shaolin Temple #2
Who's Got the Real Shaolin Kungfu?
by Gene Ching
Shaolin versus the Warlords
China entered the 20th century with her time-honored dynastic system in ruins and at the mercy of foreign powers with more troubles to come. In 1904, Japan and Russia fought a war on Chinese soil. As a result, Japan occupied southern Manchuria and in 1912, Russia helped Outer Mongolia declare independence from China. That same year, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was declared the President of the Republic of China, with its capital in Nanjing. Two years later, Japan declared war on Germany and again fought in China, seizing the German-occupied city of Qingdao (formerly Tsing Tao, known for its beer brewed after German influence.) In 1921, the Chinese communist party was founded, and for tactical reasons, it initially supported Sun Yat-Sen's Nationalist Republic, but soon these two factions would split China into a civil war. Amidst foreign occupation and new governments, warlords now ruled China. It was a bad time for the Chinese people, but a time of great warriors. During times of war, warriors excel.
In 1922, Miao Xing, who had served as a regimental commander in the army, became the acting abbot of Songshan Shaolin. He accepted a large number of monks and layman disciples, and led them to eradicate bandit gangs in the local vicinity. Three years later Heng Lin, then acting abbot, gathered a large number of monk warriors for an oath-taking ritual at the temple. But this expansion of the order was not enough. In 1928, Shaolin Temple took its most serious blow. A warlord name Shi Yousan set fire to the temple. It burned for over 40 days, destroying 90% of the buildings. Many of Shaolin's most precious relics were looted. Its massive library of Buddhism and kungfu was reduced to ash. Shaolin would not recover from this destruction until the late 1980's. For half a century, all that remained of Shaolin was a few buildings and a lot of burnt foundations. While Buddhism and kungfu were still practiced by the monks, most of their energy was spent just trying to survive this dark period.
Meanwhile, back in Nanjing, the Central Guoshu Institute was established. Guoshu (national art, also spelt Kuoshu) was the name for kungfu adopted by the Republic of China. The Central Guoshu Institute was a major advancement for kungfu. Like the Jing Wu (Ching Woo) society, established only two decades earlier, the Central Guoshu Institute was essential in the transmission of kungfu into the 20th century. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was a great supporter of kungfu and even wrote for an introduction for Jing Wu, giving the Nationalists a pro-traditional kungfu stance.
In October of 1928, the Central Guoshu Institute held a national examination in Nanjing, which stands out as one of the most significant gatherings of kungfu masters of that time. Placing in the top fifteen was a Shaolin master by the name of Gu Ruzhang (Ku Yu Cheong) an inheritor of the Shaolin kungfu that Gan Fengchi brought out of the temple. After Wan Bengcai came Yan Degong then Yan Sansen, then Ku's uncle Yan Jiwen, then Master Ku.
Ku Yu Cheong became very famous, not only as a master of Shaolin kungfu, but specifically for his skill at Iron Palm. In 1931, he killed a Russian warhorse with a single slap. A post-mortem dissection of the horse revealed no external injury, however all of the animal's internal organs had been shattered. A famous historic photograph captured Ku smashing thirteen bricks, stacked without spacers. After his victory at Nanjing, Ku traveled to Guangzhou with four other masters of northern-style kungfu: Fu Zhensong, Li Xianwu, Wan Laimin, and Wan Laisheng. Collectively, they became known as the Wu Hu Xia Jiang Nan or the Five Southbound Tigers.
Ku had a profound effect on the development of Bak Sil Lum, so much so that some believe that the bulk of the curriculum today is based on his renovations. Not only did he study Bak Sil Lum with his uncle, he was also influenced by his father Ku Leichi (Shaolin and Tan Tuy,) Sun Lutang (Taiji,) Li Jinlin (Wudang sword,) Tan Zan (Choy Li Fut,) Yu Zhenshang (Cha style,) Zhao Shangzhou (Six harmonies,) and Du Xinyue (Ziren Men.) Ku's move to Guangzhou and his inclusion in the Five Southbound Tigers was probably the reason behind the distinction of Bak Sil Lum as 'Northern' Shaolin as well as the usage of Cantonese. Bak Sil Lum would remain in southern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the three major Pacific passages (two of which were outside of Communist control) from China to the rest of the world. Ku students, Lung Chi Cheung, Poon Chu, Tse Chung Sang, Yim Shang Mo, and Wu Siu Po are the grandmasters of many Bak Sil Lum practitioners today. Their students, such as Chan Kwok Wai, Lai Hung, Wing Lam, and the infamous challenger of Bruce Lee, Wong Jack Man, were the pioneers who brought Bak Sil Lum out of China and spread it across the globe.
Shaolin versus the Japanese
But back to Mainland China, there was more trouble for kungfu on the way. From 1937 to 1945, China was at war with Japan. Only ten years after the Central Guoshu Institute's glorious national examination, Nanjing would be ravaged by Japanese troops in what has been brought to light in Iris Chang's the best selling book The Rape of Nanking (Nanking is the old spelling of the southern capital, just as Peking is the old spelling of Beijing.) Over 300,000 Nanjingers were killed by mass incineration, death by freezing, being torn apart by dogs, disembowelment, and beheading. The Japanese holocaust is believed to have cost 30 million Chinese lives. The warlords tried to rally against the Japanese, but they were out gunned and destroyed.
By 1941, the Japanese invasion had made it to the Shaolin Temple. What the monks had been working so hard to restore was ruthlessly burned down once again. But that wasn't the half of it. By some accounts, Japanese troops went even further to humiliate the monks. They violated Chinese women right in front of the Shaolin Temple gate while the monks had to watch helplessly under gunpoint. Shaolin Temple was reduced to a secondary school during the Japanese occupation.
The Central Guoshu Institute had to move out of Nanjing at the very start of the war. It changed locations almost every year following, until the war was over. In 1946, the Institute returned to Nanjing, however the move back was largely symbolic. The war left the Institute with no office, no activities and no money. Two years later, the Institute was no more.
Shaolin versus the Red Guard
The Nationalists liberated Shaolin Temple from the Japanese in 1944, only one year before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Nationalists were too busy with its dispute with the Communists, so it generally ignored Shaolin. Then, in the winter of 1948, the Communists liberated the temple from the Nationalists.
As an interesting historical footnote, two of the outstanding leaders of the Communist People's Liberation Army, General Qian Jun and General Xu Shiyou, were trained kungfu at Shaolin Temple from childhood. But unfortunately it was another general, General Pi Dingjun, who liberated Shaolin Temple. When General Pi visited Shaolin, he gave an hour-long diatribe against Buddhism as a reactionary religion. The Abbot and the monks were extremely insulted, but were again out-gunned. They could only bow silently and politely.
On October 1st, 1949, Chairman Mao established the PRC in Beijing. As part of the Land Reform Movement, the Communists expropriated all but 5 of the monasteries 13,176 acres of land and placed the Temple under the 'protection' of the PRC. Soon after, the government banned the practice of martial arts as 'counter-revolutionary' and a threat to the state. The monks had to go underground and train hidden in the mountains at night. A few were caught and thrown in jail for short periods, but the local police ignored the ban for the most part, since many of them were students.
In 1966, Chairman Mao unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Red Guards attacked all vestiges of traditional society in an attempt to destroy any connections to past oppression. Religious orders were violently persecuted across China. Sacred places like Shaolin Temple were targeted. When the Red Guard actually attacked Shaolin, only five remained of the fifty monks that were there previously. Those monks were shackled and forced to wear humiliating placards declaring their crimes. They were publicly flogged and paraded through streets of raging communists, who threw garbage at them and jeered. After being beaten and jailed, the monks had to beg for food and hide in the mountains surrounding the temple as they tried to covertly affect what repairs they could on the few remaining buildings of Shaolin Temple.
Shaolin versus Wushu
The PRC eventually loosened its prohibition of kungfu by initiating a new, standardized form called Wushu. Wushu literally means "martial art" (although there is another character for wu which means, ironically, "dance.") With the advent of Wushu, the rules for martial arts competition were standardized all across China with the addition of a new concept - compulsory routines.
As a result, the proper term for the Chinese martial arts has become somewhat political. In the PRC, wushu literally means all martial arts, so the term 'traditional wushu' is not oxymoronic, although many non-Mandarin speakers might think so. Outside China, the term wushu has been generalized to only refer to this new competition style of the PRC. Many descendants of Chinese ex-patriots who fled the communist regime, now masters in foreign lands, frown on wushu for not being 'real kungfu.' And in Taiwan, Republic of China, where the last vestiges of the Nationalists ended, the term Guoshu (or Kuoshu) is still used. Westerners generally use whatever term their master uses, remaining na?ve to the implications of China's past rifts. Internationally, kungfu is still the most popular term. This is due to the way it has entered the mainstream via Bruce Lee and David Carradine (although Lee himself preferred Gung Fu.) The correct spelling according the United Nations is Gongfu, but what do they know about it?
Wushu would have a profound impact upon the curriculum at Shaolin Temple, but not nearly as much as the Open Policy reformations of Deng Xiaopeng. With the Open Policy, it was again legal to be a monk. Restoration of cultural and historic sites was encouraged to cultivate these places for tourism, so Shaolin Temple could make a serious effort at rebuilding itself. And most significantly, private business was encouraged
In 1980, Shaolin folk master Chen Tongshan opened the first modern public school just down the road from Shaolin Temple. Naturally, a large portion of his curriculum was devoted to wushu, as was every other school in China. This is because in China, a school must make its reputation in competition and to compete, wushu was the only game in China. But at the core of his teachings was traditional Shaolin kungfu, same as all the other schools that eventually sprang up around the temple. Chen's school was the first 'official' wushuguan and was awarded the coveted title as one of the top ten schools in China only sixteen years after its opening.
In 1982, the movie Shaolin Temple debuted. Shot on location and starring five-time all-around national Wushu champion, Jet Li, it aroused new interest in Shaolin, and the tourist dollars started really flowing into the area. In 1988, the Songshan Shaolin Temple Wushuguan was erected, the largest kungfu training facility in China, quite possibly the world. Now Shaolin Temple is fully restored to its former grandeur and more restoration projects are on the way. With thousands of students now traveling to Shaolin Temple to train each year, and dozens of Shaolin monks and disciples spreading around the world to teach, Songshan Shaolin kungfu is expanding exponentially
Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM