A History of the Chinese Martial Arts

A short reflection on the early days of eastern practices, some key historical figures, and the interplay between Daosim and Buddhism.

Bodhidharma & Buddhist Qi Gong

In 527 A.D, a well-regarded ‘bodhisattva’, or ‘enlightened being’ named Bodhidharma (known by the Chinese as ‘Da Mo’) was invited by Emperor Liang Wu Di into China to preach Buddhism. Bodhidharma, who was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India, is often depicted for his barbaric appearances. He was said to be a hairy, bearded, dark skinned man, dressed in orange robes, as many Mahayana Buddhists did at the time.

After the emperor (for reasons unknown) decided that he did not like Bodhidharma, the monk was forced to retreat to a temple in Shaolin. Upon arriving, he saw that the priests who resided in that temple were physically very weak. Many had become ill, as they had been fully neglecting their physical bodies, thinking that it was not necessary to cultivate physically to attain enlightenment. This is still considered true for many meditation intensive schools of practice, Vipassana, being one very notable example.

They believed it was altogether, a waste of time to exercise the body and laughed it off. Bodhidharma then put the argument to them, that attaining enlightenment requires time. That by being weak and sickly they are decreasing their longevity, shortening the span of their life and therefore, shortening the time with which they had, to work towards becoming enlightened.

The monks agreed that this was true and Bodhidharma stayed in the Shaolin temple, ardently working on the problem at hand. After nine full years, he emerged with a series of techniques, known as ‘Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing & Marrow/Brain Washing Classics’.

In this book is a series of physical, breath and meditation exercises, aimed to increase the strength of the physical body and bring one’s mind closer to an enlightened state. These exercises are commonly referred to as a type of ‘Qi Gong’, directly translated as ‘energy work’. Qi Gong is said to be the ancestor or parent of Tai Chi, which is an evolved, martial form of the healing art. Tai Chi is said to be the child of Qi Gong and the sibling of Kung Fu.

It is characterized by its martial arts-type forms, involving highly technical coordination of a liquid-like flow of movement and focuses on mindful presence and relaxation.

Where is Tai Chi From?

In the 12th century, a Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng, who had given away his property to his family and was living life in accordance with the Tao, was strolling leisurely between the summits of the Wu Dang mountains in Hubei province in China. He stopped, captivated by the sight of a bird attacking a snake. After seeing how the snake defended itself, keeping still, observing and then lunging in for a fatal bite upon the bird, he was inspired.

It was from this legend that Tai Chi Chuan is said to have emerged, and that it was Zhang San Feng went on to create a set of 72 Tai Chi Chuan movements.

Prior to the discovery of old documents, which confirmed the existence of Zhang San Feng, many people believed, and in some cases still do, that Tai Chi was created in Chen village, Henan Province. Yang style is possibly the most popular style of Tai Chi which circulates around the west today, it is said to be a later expression of Chen style and can also be traced back to Chen Village.

Internal and External Tai Chi

While styles such as Yang and Chen are said to be ‘external’, what is now Wudang Taoist Tai Chi is characterized by being uniquely ‘internal’. Now, what exactly is meant by ‘external’ and ‘internal’? There is also some room for debating the implications of these labels and where they come from. Some will say that the ‘external’ styles are characterized as being ‘hard’, while the other ‘soft’, some will argue that as Tai Chi as a whole is comprised of both external and internal exercises, that one focuses more heavily on one part than the other. But interestingly there is also another argument which relates not to the practice itself, but to the geographical origin. The styles which originated from Chen Village date back to being influenced by Da Mo. As Da Mo came from India, the manifestations of his influence are labelled as ‘external’ (outside of China). Taoism, being indigenous to the Chinese Wudang mountains, has resulted in their style being named ‘internal”.

Again, it is quite difficult to say with any certainty at this time, and there seems to be much room to open argument on the subject still, as is the nature with ancient histories.

Taoism vs Buddhism

For many people, distinguishing the difference between Taoist philosophy and Buddhism is a very convoluted and tightly tangled endeavour, and with good reason! Most people know at least, that Taoism is Chinese and Buddhism was originally Indian (though the Buddha himself came from Nepal).

”Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”

-Gautama The Buddha

Actually, Taoism is comprised of a large degree of Buddhist philosophy, over time they absorbed many of the philosophies of Buddhism that were being preached in China, being influenced by the general zeitgeist.

It apparently wasn’t uncommon for Taoist and Buddhist monks to befriend each other and share philosophies. However, while Taoism’s open- minded approach to learning enabled it to move like water and adapt, Buddhism was far more conservative than that, and refrained from making new adaptations based on newly available knowledge.

The Buddhist’s then were absolutely forbidden from eating meat, drinking alcohol, in the cases of monkhood they were forbidden from sexual activity and made to shave their heads. The Taoist’s had a slight touch of rascality to them. They could eat meat, drink wine, grow their hair long and priest’s (in some casts) were even allowed to marry and have children.

”If you are depressed, you are living in the past.

If you are anxious, you are living in the future.

If you are at peace, you are living in the present”

-Lao Tzu

Despite these considerably minor differences, both philosophies aim toward the same goal of enlightenment and cultivating the ‘Tao’. They both focus on taming the emotional body, in order to achieve inner peace, purifying the self and attaining the ultimate goal of enlightenment in order to escape the cycles of ‘Samsara’ (cyclical death and rebirth).

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References

  • Dr Yang Jwing Ming, The Root of Chinese Qi Gong
  • Qigong, The Secret of Youth: Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Classics

Author: Naiyie Lamb

Naiyie is a writer and editor with a background in psychology, eastern philosophy, and digital marketing. Her creative experience includes writing custom blogs, press releases, and memoirs.

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