Shaolin Kung Fu-a Cultural Treasure for Humanity
Shi Yongxin

Shaolin kung fu was created at the Shaolin Temple, Mount Songshan, in China. For generations, the techniques and knowledge of Shaolin kung fu were handed down and preserved by guardian warrior-monks known as the Sangha. Today, Shaolin kung fu is recognized as an invaluable and unique cultural heritage not only in China but for the whole of humanity.

In general, Shaolin kung fu, as transmitted and taught by the Sangha, refers to ancient martial practices created under specific cultural conditions at Songshan Shaolin Temple, and embedded in the temple’s long historical development. At the core of Shaolin kung fu is the tenet of protecting the Buddhist dharma, which permeates every aspect of Shaolin Sangha’s daily activities and religious life, and the belief of using martial arts as a vehicle to understand and practice Chan (Zen) Buddhism. In time, guided by the principles and spirituality of Chan teachings, Shaolin kung fu evolved into a spiritual activity to cognize the fundamental principles of Mahayana Buddhism and cultivate instinctive wisdom.

Shaolin Temple has been the center of Chan Buddhism since the Wei Dynasty (5th century AD). Through a prolonged and dynamic process of development and exchange, Buddhism absorbed Confucian and Daoist ideas into its doctrines, and finally transformed to a new orthodoxy known as Chan. Strongly imbued with Chinese ethical values and philosophical notions, the concept of the ‘unity of man and Heaven’ lies at the very heart of Chan Buddhism, and its practice focuses on the pursuit of esoteric, transcendent knowledge through meditation. In important ways, therefore, Chan Buddhism was a syncretic belief system born out of cultural exchanges among different religions and philosophies. In turn, Chan Buddhism was to exert an enormous and lasting influence on Chinese culture and spiritual life.

During the political turmoil at the end of the Sui Dynasty (AD581—681), Shaolin monks began to organize militia units for self-defense, thus inaugurating the emergence of Shaolin Temple as a military force. The perfect utilization of body movements in Chinese martial arts, together with the threefold notions of spiritual harmony (of inner being), social harmony (between man and society), and cosmic harmony (between man and nature), coalesced to develop the unique culture of Chan Buddhism at Shaolin. On the one hand, Chan Buddhism elevated martial arts into a spiritual endeavor and a vehicle of cultivating awareness, whereas on the other, meditation provided a gateway to empowerment for martial artists, by opening the door to self-knowledge. This combination laid down the foundation for a system of knowledge that incorporated the duality of Chan Buddhism and martial arts, in consonance with human progression towards greater spiritual peace and social harmony. Indeed, the continuing relevance and value of this philosophy and unique way of life is recognized not only within the temple, but acknowledged and practised by people hailing from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Over the past millennium, this fusion of Chan spirituality and martial arts became the cornerstone of Shaolin kung fu, which in time blossomed and spread to every corner of the world.

Shaolin kung fu is the most outstanding representative of traditional Chinese martial arts. It includes 708 sets of empty-handed and armed martial arts routines and 156 sets of qigong breathing exercises, some of which are preserved and documented in historical martial arts manuals. Within this system, Shaolin kung fu is divided into several coherently related classes, whose techniques are based on an intimate understanding of the human anatomy and scientific principles of body movements. It stresses the dynamic intercourse between motion and stillness, quick and slow movements, the importance of proper breathing, and puts into martial practice traditional philosophical concepts about yin and yang, the equilibrium between hardness and softness, and unity between man and Heaven. Moreover, for Sangha warrior-monks who follow the martial way, Shaolin kung fu is an indispensable means to cultivate Chan Buddhism, to realize the nirvana state of ‘all things but one mind’, and to ‘perceive the Buddha nature in oneself with an enlightened heart’. That is why Shaolin kung fu, qua a vital channel of Chan Buddhism, puts special emphasis on moral training, and seeks to instill virtues of self-restraint, discipline and peace through a regime of physical training. Combat is open to the Sangha warrior only as a last recourse, who is taught to strike at the eight vital spots that may immobilize without causing fatal injury to the opponent, in accordance with Buddha’s teaching to respect the sanctity of life. In this way, the unity of Chan Buddhism and martial arts makes Shaolin kung fu a unique, life giving form of martial arts, and allows Shaolin kung fu to play an active role in promoting dialogue, mutual understanding and respect among individuals and communities.

For hundreds of years, Shaolin Sangha have practiced martial arts as a vehicle of observing and intuiting the principles of Chan Buddhism. In this process, Shaolin kung fu has been imbued with the spirit of ‘justice, harmony, and peace’, and thus become an important heritage of traditional Chinese culture.

After the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in November 1997 and adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in October 2003, Shaolin kung fu was listed as a cultural item under municipal, provincial and state protection; and since 2004 it has been shortlisted by the Chinese government for submission to UNESCO as a masterpiece of intangible heritage. If this application is approved, Shaolin Sangha may assume the duty of passing on their knowledge with a strengthened sense of identity and purpose; while the Chinese state, and the public at large, will work together towards providing a better environment for the future development of Shaolin kung fu. Indeed, the value of Shaolin kung fu is increasingly appreciated and recognized through both public and private efforts to protect, promote and perpetuate it as an intangible cultural heritage. Today, Shaolin kung fu has an immense global following in excess of 1,000,000 students, while literature, films, TV programs and stage performances based and inspired by Shaolin kung fu afford popular entertainment to the peoples, societies, and nations around the world.

Right now, we are doing everything in our power to safeguard the heritage of Shaolin kung fu and the Temple. Firstly, the Shaolin Temple has actively participated in the process to nominate Shaolin kung fu as an intangible cultural heritage at different administrative levels in China. Secondly, as custodians of Shaolin kung fu, we have taken legal measures to register and protect its trademarks, in order to prevent further damage to Shaolin kung fu's public reputation by unauthorized and illegal use of its name and image. Thirdly, the Shaolin Temple has endeavored to improve its system of teaching and dissemination. Over the past few years, the temple’s ancient patriarchal clan system has been fully restored, a wide range of materials about Shaolin kung fu has been collected, and a concerted effort has been made to comprehensively document the heritage of Shaolin kung fu.

At the same time, acknowledging the fact that the Shaolin Temple is where Shaolin kung fu is practiced, maintained, and taught, the Temple and its principal affiliated structures have been recognized as key cultural monuments under state and provincial protection. From 2001, the Shaolin Temple, directed by the of ‘Law of Cultural Relics of the People’s Republic of China’, initiated a thorough clean-up of the surrounding environment and restoration of its historical architecture and related facilities. Areas where Shaolin kung fu is practiced, such as the meditation halls, commandment altar, and martial arts training halls have either been restored or rebuilt. As a result, the space for transmitting Shaolin kung fu has been fully restored and upgraded in recent years. Further, in order to promote scientific research and greater understanding of Shaolin kung fu, in 1999 the Shaolin Temple established the Shaolin Cultural Research Institute. To date, three international symposiums have been held, while dozens of books on the study of Shaolin kung fu have been published. In addition, to oversee and more closely supervise research projects directly related to the Temple and its culture, we founded the Shaolin Press, which includes Chan Lu among its publications, a quarterly journal with research papers and reports pertaining to the study of Chan Buddhism. We have also launched an official website ( in bilingual (Chinese and English) versions. Last but not least, the Shaolin Temple has organized Shaolin kung fu performance teams to promulgate Shaolin kung fu and conduct cultural exchanges worldwide.

What we are doing is not only for the preservation of Shaolin’s martial tradition; but in so far as Shaolin kung fu is an integral part of China’s martial culture, to preserve, promote, and revitalize China’s classical martial arts heritage, which is increasingly pressurized by the economic and cultural forces of globalization. It is our duty to protect this cultural treasure, and to ensure that it continues to develop and play an active role for the betterment of humanity and world peace.



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