Northern Shaolin Style

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In its broadest sense, “Northern Shaolin” (Chinese: 北少林; Bak Siu Lum) refers to the external (as opposed to internal) martial arts of Northern China referring to those styles from the Northern Shaolin Monastery in Henan. At its most specific, “Northern Shaolin” refers to the style disseminated by Gu Ruzhang ( Cantonese Ku Yu Cheung).

The Northern Shaolin style of kung fu is one of the most prominent traditional northern styles of Chinese martial arts. The northern styles of kung-fu generally emphasize long range techniques, quick advances and retreats, wide stances, kicking and leaping techniques, whirling circular blocks, quickness, agility, and aggressive attacks.

The system teaches empty-hand techniques and weaponry through predetermined combinations, known as forms, routines, or movement of sets.

The students learn the basics by practicing the routines until the movements in the routines can be executed naturally based on instinct. Then, two or multiple man sets are practiced to train responses and applications of techniques learned from the sets.

Northern Shaolin Master

The practice sets/routines are not only practical in applications but are also graceful and artistic in nature. The fluidness of the movements combined with acrobatic techniques are trademarks of the Northern Shaolin Kung-Fu sets.

The Northern Shaolin style of Kung-Fu was made famous by the late Grand Master Ku Yu Cheung. There are many legends about the master. According to some related by his close students, Master Ku’s father was an accomplished exponent of the Tan Tui (Snapping Kicks) Kung-Fu form. When he was young, Master Ku traveled throughout Northern China to learn all the northern kung-fu systems. He was renowned for his Iron Palm techniques and the application of the long spear weapon. He organized all his learnings into what is the Northern Shaolin Kung Fu today.

Northern Shaolin Kung Fu is an external style directly descended from the system taught at the Shaolin Temple. The temple, located on Mt. Songshan at Dengfeng in Henan Province, was originally built for the Indian Buddhist monk Ba Tuo by Emperor Wen Di of the Liu Song period in 495. The history of Shaolin kung fu begins later, in 527, with the arrival of the Indian monk Bodhidharma (Ta-Mo in Chinese).

Northern Shaolin Techniques

Ta-Mo, the twenty-eight Buddhist patriarch, noticed upon his arrival that many monks displayed symptoms of improper nutrition and lack of exercise, and thus could not concentrate properly during meditation. Ta-Mo reasoned that a healthy body lead to a healthy mind and ultimately to the full development of Qi, or one’s vital energy.

Retreating, Ta-Mo meditated for nine straight years in a cave on Wu Ru peak behind the temple. When he emerged, he had devised an exercise regimen (among other things) that he taught to the monks, the Lohan shi bas hou (18 hand methods of the Lohan). These excercises would become the basis of the Shaolin boxing style. As Shaolin’s reputation grew, martial artists would travel great distances to this temple to become monks.

Each would bring his unique martial skills with him. Additionally, generals and other warriors would retire to the temple as monks, and brought their styles and expertise with them. The Shaolin system thus became a dynamic system that was always evolving.

Northern Shaolin Monks

Shaolin, meaning young forest, has historically and culturally been regarded as the greatest Chinese temple boxing style. This style developed as a branch of the original Shaolin teaching. It shares its name with the temple to pay respect and homage to its origin. As a style, it is no longer taught at the shaolin temple today. This shaolin style’s popularity is due in part to the famous master Ku Yu Cheung (1894-1962). He was one of the top ten champions in the first national martial arts examination by the Guoshu institute of Nanjing in 1929. Traveling south with four other renown masters, Ku Yu Cheung came to Canton city to teach his art.

Today, the Wing Lam Kung Fu School teaches the traditional Northern Shaolin System in its entirety. Northern Shaolin (Bei Shao Lin in Mandarin, Bak Sil Lam in Cantonese) has a core of ten hand forms, an extensive array of weapons forms, combat sets, iron palm training techniques and iron body training techniques. Northern Shaolin Kung Fu developed as a “long-fist” style emphasizing kicks over hand techniques. Such a long-range system stresses full extension of the limbs so that kicks and punches are extended as far as possible without compromising balance or power. The Northern Shaolin practitioner generates power from a combination of great speed and large, flowing movements, picturing his hands and feet as strong and compact as stones while his arms and legs are ropes. The limbs remain supple and relaxed during movement and only tighten when fully extended. Characteristically, a practitioner of this system moves back and forth on a straight line. His hands move like lightning. He retreats like the wind. His feet are as solid as rocks, his legs attack like shooting stars to the front, back, left and right sides, high and low, and his body flows like a flying dragon. With six internal and six external harmonies, the practitioner attacks like a ferocious tiger with violent yet appropriate attacks. He is hard and strong but not excessively so and bends like a reed in the wind as he changes from one attack to another. His defense is gentle and soft but never weak.

The Shaolin practitioner is also renowned for acrobatic but devastating kicks. Shaolin’s repertoire of kicks covers everything from a basic front toe kick to a jumping back kick, from a low sweep to a tornado kick. Northern Shaolin Kung Fu is well suited to the student who is agile and flexible, who has good endurance and speed, or who wishes to develop such traits.

The Northern Shaolin curriculum includes hand, weapon and sparring sets. The hand sets cover the ten Shaolin sets and four supplementary sets from other styles. Each Shaolin set has its own theme and together they teach a complete repertoire of hand techniques. Weapon sets are taught to augment a practitioner’s skill, since each weapon stresses different basics. The four fundamental weapons – staff, broadsword, spear and straight sword – are complemented by a variety of other weapons, such as the nine-section chain whip, three-section staff, double hook-swords, double-hook spear, long handle knife (Kwan Do) and double straight swords, to name a few. Lastly, sparring sets complete the curriculum. These include hand and weapon sets, such as the two-man empty hand sparring set, Kwan Do versus spear, broadsword versus spear and empty hands versus double daggers.

History: The monastery in Henan is the original—and possibly the only—Shaolin Monastery; references to other Shaolin temples are largely if not entirely absent from the records of the original Henan temple. As the reputation of the Shaolin martial arts grew during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), its name became synonymous with external martial arts, regardless of whether an individual art traced its origins to the Shaolin Monastery in Henan or not. As a result, the “Shaolin” moniker was applied to other Buddhist temples with strong reputations for martial arts. The most noteworthy and influential of these is a temple—possibly two—located in Fujian Province. The characteristics of the martial arts taught at each temple were so different from each other that they became identified with their place of origin.

The Northern Shaolin style associated with Gu Ruzhang was first taught to a lay disciple, the celebrated 18th century master Gan Fengchi of Jiangsu Province, by a Shaolin monk named Zhao Yuan, born Zhu Fu, a member of the Ming royal family who joined the sangha after the Ming was overthrown by the Qing in 1644. (Gan is also remembered for founding the martial art Huāquán 花拳, literally “flower fist”, about which he wrote the book Introduction to Huāquán.) Gan in turn taught Wan Bengcai, who taught Yan Degong, who taught Yan Sansen, who taught Yan Jiwen, who taught his nephew Gu Ruzhang (1894–1952).

Yan Jiwen also taught Gu the skills of Iron Body and Iron Palm. On a famous occasion in 1931, Gu is said to have demonstrated the latter on a horse. Among the martial artists who gathered at the Central National Martial Arts Institute in Nanjing in 1928, Gu placed in the top fifteen and was included—alongside Fu Zhensong, Li Xianwu, Wan Laimin, Wan Laisheng, and Wong Shao Chou—in the Five Southbound Tigers (五虎下江南; pinyin: wÇ” hÇ” xià jiāng nán; literally “five tigers heading south of Jiangnan”), five masters of the Northern Chinese martial arts sent to Guangzhou to organize another National Martial Arts Institute.

In Guangzhou, the name “Shaolin” was already associated with Hung Gar and other styles, so Gu’s style came to be known by the name Northern Shaolin.

Gu taught Northern Shaolin to Yim Shang Wu, Lung Chi-Cheung, Lam Kam Tong, Chin Men Chen, Poon Chu, Sang Tse Chung, Wu Siu-Po, Lai Gan Jing, and Others. Their students include So Bin Yuen (Johnny So), Lung Kai-Ming, Chan Kowk Wai, Lai Hung, Kwong Wing Lam, Wong Jack-Man, and Others. So Bin Yuen taught Ken Hui (Hui Ho Kwong) who in turn taught James Wong, Thomas Wong, Timmy Endo, Troy Augborne, Cesar, Kisu, Angie Wong, Harold Hazeldine, Mike Lewis, Bobby Tang, Jerry Tang, Frankie Tang, Warren Tsang, Ben Chan, Adam Mendoza, Patty Woods, Irene Yeung Ng and others.