Kung Fu, an ancient sport popular in China, has a very long history, during which a variety of skills were created and massively improved. Originated from the hunting and defense needs in the primitive society (over 1.7 million years ago – 21st century BC), it at first only included some basic skills like cleaving, chopping, and stabbing. Later the system of Kung Fu formed and developed mainly as the fighting skills from the Xia Dynasty (21st - 17th century BC) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), and reached its peak during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911). In modern times, it develops well and becomes not just martial skills or physical movement. It is also a way for keeping fit, entertainment, and performance.
Chinese historical records, like Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, the Bibliographies in the Book of the Han Dynasty, the Records of the Grand Historian, and other sources document the existence of martial arts in China for thousands of years. For example, the Chinese martial art of wrestling, Shuai Jiao, predates the establishment of Shaolin temple by several centuries. Since Chinese monasteries were large landed estates, sources of considerable regular income, monks required protection. Historical discoveries indicate that, even before the establishment of Shaolin temple, monks had arms and also practiced martial arts. In 1784 the Boxing Classic: Essential Boxing Methods made the earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery as Chinese boxing's place of origin. This is, however, a misconception,but shows the historical importance of Shaolin kung fu.
Shaolin arts had no relationship or any degree of semblance to the Indian Kalaripayattu, such as Wing Chun, Changquan, Iron palm, the Mantis fist, the Drunken fist etc. The martial arts of Shaolin did not originate from within the temple, they came from the outside. The Chinese had a structured military fighting system for over a thousand years before the first Shaolin Monastery was founded by monk Batuo in 477AD, according to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks by Daoxuan written in 645AD. Retired Chinese military men brought their combat experience to the temples when they chose to lead a reclusive life. According to Shaolin records, the first two Chinese monks, Sengchou and Huiguang, were martial arts experts before studying religion under, Batuo. Chinese martial arts existed in the temple before Bodhidharma arrived at the monastery in 5th century AD. The Chinese martial arts that predate Bodhidharma's arrival by several centuries to over thousand years include, but are not limited to, Jiao Li wrestling, Wu Yi sword arts, Shoubo military arts, Sun Bin Quan internal style, “Dao Yin” qigong, The Six Chapters of Hand Fighting, Huo Tuos Five Animal Play etc.
Da Mo (Bodhidharma)
In the year 527 AD, a monk known as Da Mo (Bodhidharma) arrived at the Shaolin Temple. Dat Mo is belived to have been an Indian monk who was probably born in Kanchipuram near Madras. Da Mo travelled to the city of Kuang, now known as Canton, where he was granted an audience with the Emperor at the time, Wu Ti of the Liang Dynasty. The Emperor had instructed local Buddhist monks to translate Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese with the intention that the general populace would then have the ability to practice the Buddhist religion. After his audience with the Emperor, Dat Mo travelled to a monastery in the Kingdom of Wei before finally arriving at the Shaolin temple. When Da Mo initially arrived at Shaolin, he was refused admittance, perhaps because he was considered a foreigner. Rejected by the monks, Da Mo went to a nearby cave and meditated by staring at the cave wall for nine years until the monks recognized his religious prowess and admitted him. Legend has it that he bored a hole through one side of the cave with his constant gaze. Unfortunately, the real reason that Da Mo earned his recognition from the Shaolin monks is lost to history. There is also a story that a local monk was so moved by Dat Mo's piety that he cut off one of his hands in symaphy. Once admitted to the temple it is believed that Dat Mo found his Chinese disciples too weak, both physically and mentally, to practice the intensive meditation required by his path to enlightenment. Dat Mo is regarded as the founder of Chan Buddhism which is probably better known by its Japanese derivative, Zen Buddhism.
The Shaolin Temple
To rectify monks' fitness problem, Dat Mo devised exercises combining physical movement and breathing, thus strengthening the bodies and minds of his disciples. This enabled them to pursue the spiritual path with more vigor. Since Dat Mo was himself of the warrior Caste (Ksatriva) it is possible some of the exercises were drawn from the Indian martial tradition. It is evident, therefore that early Shaolin Kung Fu was largely internal in nature, being designed for the improvement of health, control of the mind and the perception of the Buddha nature. The content of this training has come down to the present time as:
Ye Gun Kung - Exercises designed to strengthen the physical body by working the tendons
Sai Choi Kung - The art of cleansing (the body - mind)
Sime Kung - Meditation practice incorporating: stationary or moving exercises training the practitioner to sense, improve and finally control the movement of the Chi in his body; and spiritual training, an effort to directly perceive one's 'Original face' or 'Buddha Nature'
Shaolin Kung Fu is not a creation of one person, but an accumulation of works by millions of people. Shaolin Kung Fu is the pearl of Chinese wisdom, which was handed down by numerous generations of China’s top martial artists. Shaolin Kung Fu has a vast content and numerous forms.
The Chinese martial arts, and indeed all the martial arts that followed, appear to be the result of a cross-fertilisation between India and China and the passage of people between the two counties. Monks and merchants were constantly making the journey and it is not unreasonable to assume that they required trained body guards or even to learn to defend themselves. Combined with Dat Mo's intervention at the Shaolin Temple this has lead to what we call Kung Fu today. Lau Gar is a form of Kung Fu and as such can also trace its roots to the Shaolin Temple.
Kung Fu lent itself to these diverse applications because of its dual aspects involving both the physical and the mental, where, by emphasizing the one aspect more than the other, Kung Fu can take on, at its extremes, a dramatic, even violent physical form or a sublime, almost yoga-like, meditative form not unlike the discipline qigong. In fact, meditation, or getting in touch with one's qi, or "life force", is an integral part of Kung Fu Wushu.