An excerpt from book in production - "VING CHUN KUEN: The Art Of Invincibility" by Kevin L. Earle.
(a note from the author: The following text is a rewrite of an article I had published in the magazine 'South Pacific Martial Arts', (1975). My notes regarding "The Indian Origins Theory" are taken from works published by Master Lee Ying-Arng ([Deceased] past vice president of the Hong Kong Kung Fu Association); thus it is to him any credit should go, while I simply present that material as accurately as possible while presenting my own commentary).
Myths and legends abound in ancient history, and Chinese history is no exception. Unfortunately
myth mingled with fact causes distortion over time, leading to misrepresentation of factual events.
As a result there is much confusion surrounding . . .
THE TRUE ORIGINS OF KUNG FU
A minor misconception, perhaps of little importance, is the oft repeated theory that Chinese Kung-Fu originated in India. Since many records have been lost the actual origins may never be known. In fact for those students of the Chinese martial arts simply interested in method it may be irrelevant exactly where or how Chinese fighting arts were first formally organized and practiced.
However I do believe that the more serious student would delight in exploring all of the relevant material available on the subject. Since my original article was published a number of authors have published extremely well researched material on the origins of kungfu, yet still today I find many writers continue to publish the same tired old fable: that a wandering Indian Monk introduced the art of kung-fu to China.
Whatever name by which you prefer to refer to the martial arts of China, they are simply that; Chinese. Having said that, it is natural that any one of us may be influenced by contact with other cultures and traditions, thus it's fair to say that there was an Indian influence on Chinese martial arts. But how much of an influence really? How deep? How wide? To answer those questions let us explore the development of the 'Indian Origins' theory, as proposed by Master Lee Ying-Arng.
Indian Origins Theory
There are at least two major reasons behind the common misconception oft repeated in western publications that Chinese kung-fu originated in India. The first and most popular is the story of Damo (Boddhidharma), the wandering Indian monk who travelled to China to preach Buddhism. It is said that he received an audience with the Chinese Emporer of the time, (Leungwuti, 520).
Damo took up residence in the Shaolin monastery of Mount Shung. He was the originator of the Zen sect of Buddhism, and during his stay at Mount Shung he taught the novice monks the art of health nourishing exercises. He taught three courses: "The 18 movements of the Arhan Hands"; "The Sinew Changing"; and the "Marrow Washing" course. These courses are not to be confused with the earlier Chinese methods of Qigong.
While acknowledging that the courses introduced by Damo did have an influence on the way Chinese arts were practiced, they had nothing to do with the original development of the Chinese art of war or the training of military personnel for as we will see, Damo was not the originator of Shaolin "Chi Chi" - "to strike with skill" - for the simple fact that the fighting arts of China have a history that predates Damo by several thousand years.
The second and perhaps less known reason for the spread of the 'Indian Origin' theory was drawn from the conclusions made by famous Sineologist Arthur Waley in his commentaries on the translations of certain passages of the 'Tao-Te Ching'. His conclusion was to classify the concentration of ch'i as yoga or yogic exercises, implying an Indian origin and tradition. Historical records show his conclusions to be mistaken, however western writers of the martial arts seized on these two references (Damo and yoga) and so began the colorful but mistaken theory that the origins of Chinese kung fu were to be found in India.
I would suggest, as would logical thought, that in all cultures the earliest forms of fighting would be found in the arming of oneself for hunting as well as for protection from enemies and predators. One might surmise that these basic skills were enhanced in friendly competition with family and friends, much as lion cubs or puppies might play together. A necessary development of rudimentary survival skills handed down by the elders; skills necessary for protection against man's deadliest foe; Man. Thus they would post lookouts around their camps and hone their basic skills around the campfires at night. They travelled in packs for protection, a naturally occurring formalization of a systematic method of training leading to the development of military units. For example by 2000 BC the Assyrian army had a formalized chain of command and specialized units such as cavalry and bowmen.
In China the earliest archeological and written records of a systematic method of training in Chinese martial skill indicates that the Chinese people had formalized their military and self defense arts more than five thousand years ago - long before Damo's introduction of Zen Buddhism. Arising from the ashes of political upheaval and civil unrest during the later 'Warring States" period Sun Tzu authored "The Art Of War", still studied in military academies today for his strategies on military administration, discipline, troop movement, intelligence, and psychological warfare. Fast forward some three thousand years and such strategies are reinforced by General Qi Jiguang; that Infantry and cavalry units must be trained in different methods and strategies from musketeers and gunners; archers trained differently to those who wield the spear or pole. A unit comprised of individuals must act as one individual. A division comprised of many units must act as one unit. An army comprised of several divisions must act as one. There is but one objective. Victory.
Little has changed in the last four thousand years or four hundred years. Modern armies are comprised of a combination of specialist soldiers. Infantry units, medics, engineers and transport, intelligence, communications and logistics. Consider also that just as today's Special Forces receive specialized training for advanced combat situations, the warrior of 4,000 years ago may have become familiar with any number of weapons, yet would have specialized and become expert in one particular weapon or class of weapon as determined not just by his preference but as required by his commander. Men picked for specific roles dependent not just on their abilities but their physical attributes. In writing his regulations for combat training military commander Wu Ch'i (circa 400 BC) wrote in part, "The regulations for combat training are that the short men carry lances and halberds, and the tall men bows and crossbows. The strong carry the banners and flags; the valiant the bells and drums; the weak are servants and prepare food. The wise lay plans."
Apart from the obvious technological advances in weaponry and armaments there is little new in the art of war. Strategy as espoused by either Sun Tzu or Wu Ch'i is equally as valid today as it was during the Warring States period. For example, similar strategies apply to modern tank warfare as applied to ancient chariots. Wu Ch'i was asked "Suppose I suddenly encounter the enemy in a flooded marsh. The chariot wheels sink in the muck and the shafts are submerged and water overwhelms both vehicles and horsemen... What then is to be done?" Wu Ch'i advised that "Generally, chariots are not used when the weather is cloudy and damp, but may be sent into action when it is bright and dry." A tank is just a chariot, when all is said and done.
There can be little doubt that Chinese fighting arts reached their highest peak as a necessity in military application. Warfare had certainly reached a high degree of sophistication by the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC) when cavalry, chariots, and all manner of weapons were employed. Bronze artifacts from the same period depict human figures in postures recognizable as movements of Qigong. These historical discoveries indicate a much earlier origin to formalized Chinese martial arts training of close quarter combat, than is generally given.
There are four main divisions within early Chinese martial arts: weapons training and hand to hand (as in striking and kicking) make up the martial aspect of military training; wrestling in civilian matters; while the arts of Health Nourishing as introduced by Damo had no direct military application. Regardless, let us take a look at the formal breakdown of Chinese martial training as presented by Master Lee Ying-Arng.
One of the earliest original formalised methods of wrestling was called "Go-ti" (2600 B.C.), meaning "horn gore". This primitive style of hand to hand combat consists of two contestants wearing horns on their heads, attempting to gore at each other. Believe it or not this ancient art is still practised today on the occasion of festivals by the people of Shanshi, Honan, and Manchuria. Goti was introduced into Japan during the T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907). In ancient China Goti was practised by civilians, while soldiers practised "Chi-chi".
Hand To Hand
Chen-shu (hand to hand fighting) originally known as chuen-yung (hand to hand valiant fighting) is more generally called "chi-chi" (to strike with skill). The Japanese call Chi-chi-shu "Jujitsu". It is difficult to accurately trace the origins of chi-chi, however it is recorded that in the Han Dynasty (25 - 220) Kwok Yee originated his "Long Hand" style of chi-chi, which has been handed down to the present day.
Note the clear distinction Master Lee Ying-Arng made between the military methods, "chi-chi", and the methods enjoyed by the civilian population. Similar distinctions hold true today; it can be seen that specialist military methods, weaponry, and armaments are not employed in the general population but are reserved for the military. How do such divisions arise?
MILITARY - a disciplined military force of regular troops and specialist units representing those most highly trained in the arts of war and armed to repel and kill if necessary an invading enemy force. Not to be deployed against ones citizens.
POLICE - a disciplined force of civilians trained to maintain law and order within a nations own civilian population, having due regard to the safety of their fellow citizens criminal and victim alike. Basic weaponry, no military skills required.
SECURITY - protection; escort duties of goods and/or personnel; persons skilled in maintaining order with a "Duty of Care" for example in hospitality settings. No military or policing skills required.
CITIZENRY - often undertaken as a hobby in a class or gym setting, citizens own training of basic maneuvers for general health and self defense; at a more serious level for sports competition. No killing or maiming required...
Naturally there can be some overlapping of methods, however one might come to the conclusion that what is taught to the general populace today whether it be for sports combat, self defense, or health, is but a watered down version of the formalized Kung Fu as was originally developed for military purposes. This does not mean that the unarmed methods are any less effective, for the level of skill attained is up to the effort and self-discipline of the individual.
However let's continue exploring martial art history and development in part 2 ...
Source: Author Ben Judkin’s personal collection - image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.
Published with permission of Ben Judkins do not copy images from this website. If you have an interest in Chinese martial history explore Ben's pages at
Sung Chi Liang, well known for his martial arts skills performs with a pair of 'hudiedao' (Butterfly Knives) on the streets of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown (circa 1900).
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