Thursday, January 28, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.03 - Northern Shaolin

The word "Shaolin" is probably the most-known phrase worldwide in regards to Kung Fu. This will be a fairly brief overview of the style/school that is typically what people, whether they know it or not, are referring to when they say "Shaolin". (To read my brief summary of the Temple's historical origins, read the first post on Kung Fu.)

The Northern Shaolin Monastery is the monastery that most people refer to as Shaolin Temple. It is where Bodhidharma made his pilgrimage and introduced some yoga and Indian martial arts techniques. These teachings blended with the indigenous martial arts styles already present, and the monks practiced their martial arts as a form of moving meditation, but initially the martial arts practice was primarily done to prepare monks to defend against marauders and bandits. Gradually, the monastery became more secure, and the monks were able to focus on using the arts for more spiritual purposes.
It was not uncommon for retired soldiers to devote themselves to religion, and the Shaolin monastery became the home for many such men. These men brought with them their military training and helped augment the Shaolin martial arts, particularly when it came to weapons. It was also not uncommon for fleeing criminals to seek sanctuary, and many ruffians would eventually become monks, also bringing their own physical skills and training methods.

While a student in the Shaolin monastery could learn several individual, distinct styles weapons methods, over time the various styles also blended into what could be described as the Northern Shaolin style. This style focused on longer-ranged techniques, acrobatic attacks, flexibility, and speed. The high kicks and jumping techniques found in northern schools of Kung Fu are often attributed to the idea of taking an opponent down from their horse. The wide stances are supposed to give the martial artist a lower center of gravity and greater balance.
Most technques were passed down in illustrated manuals and taught in forms. Students would practice most forms, and when becoming ordained monks would typically chooses to master one empty-hand form and one weapon.
Because of the military influence, Northern Shaolin teaching encompassed most weapons available at the time. These include (but are not limited to) the broadsword, straight sword, staff, monk's cudgel, three-section-staff, nunchaku, dart rope, and butterfly knives.
Because students typically lived in the monastery for years, if not most of their lives, there was plenty of time to train by repetition. A student could certainly spend five hours in a stance, simply punching. Techniques would be repeated ad nauseum until they would be strung together as forms. Then, after thousands of repetitions of a single form, students would practice in two-man forms. Eventually, after years of repetitious drilling, students (usually monks) could spar so as to perfect their reflexes and hone their techniques.
Many monks would also practice various "iron body" techniques, usually focusing on a single area (some monks focused their palms, others on their groin, or head, etc.). (Read my post on Iron Fist.)

The monastery featured many training apparatuses, examples (and exaggerations) of which can be seen in kung fu movies (like "36th Chamber of Shaolin") and plenty of documentaries.

Nowadays, the Shaolin Temple is primarily a religious, cultural, and monetary institution in China. To learn "Shaolin Kung Fu", someone (especially a foreigner) would have to go to one of the hundreds of schools surrounding the actual monastery. These schools are typically run by monks or former monks looking to spread martial culture and make a decent living. While some of the older techniques and training methods can certainly still be found in those schools, the schools primarily focus on the much more profitable styles of Wushu (the modern acrobatic, demonstrational style that came about as a result of the Cultural Revolution) and Sanshou (the modern kickboxing style that also was formed and is regulated by the Chinese government).

Unfortunately, Northern Shaolin style does not exist as it once did, really. The influence of it can be seen in the Northern systems of Kung Fu, and somewhat in Wushu and Sanshou, but most teachers claiming to teach "Shaolin Kung Fu" are most likely teaching a different style (that could very well have been influenced by Shaolin, or a descendant of it) and simply capitalizing on a rich cultural tradition and household brand name.
Would Batman learn Northern Shaolin? He would certainly want to be skilled in the elements present in the style, but he could do this by studying multiple Chinese styles. Of course, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be able to find out-of-the-way masters of older, perfected styles, so he could very well find a "true" Shaolin master and study under him.

-I highly suggest the movies "36th Chamber of Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple". I also suggest the book "American Shaolin".
-I have found it quite easy (and enjoyable) to spend hours on end looking at videos on youtube that portray Shaolin training methods. I could also suggest the "Human Weapon" and "Fight Quest" episodes about Kung Fu.
-The TV show "Kung Fu", while quite enjoyable, was almost entirely errant in its representation of the Shaolin Kung Fu an many Shaolin traditions. Nevertheless, I do love that show. RIP David Carradine, crazy sex fiend that he was.
-Always question whatever history you read or hear in regards to martial arts (including this one). I admit to not having done a truly exhaustive amount of academic research on the subject, but I especially advise you to be wary of things that sound too much like legend and over-hype. (If you meet a "master" who claims to have trained at the Shaolin Temple, either disregard him or ask what school in Dengfeng he ACTUALLY trained at, and what generation of monk his teachers were [they should know, and it should usually be between 30th generation and 33rd].)

1 comment:

Piranha Mae said...

great article. I notice it's tough to find the authenticity of any Chinese history unless you go to China and get it directly, perhaps.

I'm a kung fu movie fan and it's interesting just reading the bio's on the actors and the history of the genre. most sites report different things.

If you like kung fu movies a good site is the author doesn't pretend to be an authority but provides information the best he can.