Frequently asked questions

Kung fu, also spelled gung fu, is a generic term for martial arts originating in China. A direct translation of the term would be “hard work” or “effort”. Shaolin is a subset of kung fu that was studied in temples between around 500 AD until the destruction of the temples in the early 1920’s.

Both of the styles seen on the original Warner Brothers series (1971-1977), black crane or Chin Na (David Chow as technical advisor) in the earlier shows and praying mantis (Kam Yuen as technical advisor) in the later ones, are Shaolin kung fu styles. The philosophical content of this series was mostly accurate (in our estimation, the temple flashbacks were arguably the best part of the series). The more recent “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” (1992-) uses a random assortment of styles, many, we suspect, devised just for a particular episode…

This is yet another result of western linguists confusing both eastern and western speakers. In the once near-universal Wade-Giles spelling, a Chinese “G” sound was written in English as “K”, while what the Chinese pronounced as “K” was transcribed as “K’ “. Thus if kung fu were supposed to be pronounced with a “k” sound, it would have been written as “k’ung fu.” When Bruce Lee introduced American audiences to his martial arts, he both spoke and wrote the American “G”, hence “gung fu.” Confused? Don’t worry about it, so is everyone else….

Judo is a sport that involves primarily throwing and grappling. It is very similar to western wrestling, and was invented in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano, in Japan, specifically as a sport. Karate was originally an Okinawan method of combat that almost completely dispenses with throws. Its blocks are hard and it is a power oriented style. Tae Kwon Do is a Korean art, similar to karate, that emphasizes the feet as weapons and is also very power oriented.

Kung Fu has both hard and soft styles. All styles teach the use of throws, grappling holds, weapons, and self defense. It is therefore a more broad and complex system of combat than many other styles. Similar non-Chinese martial arts include Jiu Jitsu (Japan) and Hapkido (Korea)

5. What’s the difference between northern and southern styles?

There are no unique differences. Northern styles are typically more foot/leg technique-oriented than southern styles, but there are many notable exceptions. For example, the south’s White Crane is more acrobatic, aerial, and kick-oriented than most northern styles.

The Shaolin philosophy is a combination of philosophical Taoism and Buddhism. The primary aim was to follow the Tao, the way of Nature. Only thus could the practitioner be in harmony with the Universe, and himself.

Ch’i is a basic concept in most Asian arts, martial and otherwise. It is also known as prana (India) and ki (Japan), words which generally translate into “breath.” At the most simple level, ch’i is described as the life force, or “electricity” of living things. It is analogous to the energy that makes something alive, rather than inanimate, and death is described as a body devoid of ch’i. It’s cultivation is taken almost on faith, via such arts as Dragon kung fu, Ch’i Kung, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Thus, though difficult to define, measure, or explain, ch’i lies at the root of martial and meditative arts practices.

Unfortunately, Shaolin schools are hard to find. Many people have sent in feedback asking if we know of a school near them. The problem is that many schools who consider themselves Shaolin do not teach anything close to what is described on this web site. Some schools have left feedback stating what they teach, but we are reluctant to put a list of “Shaolin” schools on this web site without actually seeing the practitioners. We are still considering how to solve this problem.

This is a favorite comment by many of the Taoist internal stylists. The Taoist internal martial arts (T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Hsing-I, Pakua) believe they are the only styles that teach how to use ch’i in a martial art. The Shaolin system is one which takes the position that both external and internal training are necessary for students. Unfortunately, many schools that refer to themselves Shaolin forsake the soft, or internal, techniques of the style for the more readily useful hard technique, thus earning the reputation stated above.

This is a comment heard often among Karate and Tae Kwon Do stylists. As stated in the response to the last question, Shaolin takes the position that both external and internal training are necessary for students. Unfortunately, again, many schools that refer to themselves as Shaolin, in their mistaken attempt to build up ch’i as quickly as possible, ignore the above theory and focus only upon soft techniques, forsaking the physical element that is necessary to generate power behind the technique itself.

We also find it interesting that many of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructors assert that once you have studied a hard style, it is not possible to learn the subtleties of a soft style. It would seem this reflects more upon the inadequacy of the instructor than the style he/she teaches. Chinese martial arts consist of thousands of styles, both hard and soft. It is not uncommon for students of a hard style to seek out a soft style to augment his training and vice-versa. In Shaolin, this is accomplished within the style itself and thus proof that the above assertion is false because the internal, or soft, aspects of Shaolin are shown only after the student has a solid foundation in external technique.

As long as it takes, no longer and rarely sooner. Unlike grade school and college classes that must squirt people through in a given amount of time, a martial art is boundless. That means that advancement is achieved only after the student can DO a certain level of technique. If it takes a month or a year, that is up to the student and his or her abilities, time for practice, and other individual factors. However, many styles do establish minimum times in grade before allowing students to advance to a higher rank. While such a program may be useful (giving the student time to be comfortable with the old before tackling the new), be wary of such schools; often, the delay is a ploy to prolong student payments. All in all, excepting the most threadbare styles and questionable requirements, it takes at least three years for most skilled people to reach the lowest level of black belt rank.

You bet. Most Japanese styles have ten black belt ranks, called dans (Judo has 12, but numbers 11 and 12 may only be awarded posthumously), while Chinese styles often have similar levels or degrees of disciple and master ranks. The highest ranks for most styles wear a red, not black, belt or sash, but there are many exceptions. In some family styles, a light blue sash is reserved for the senior master, while other schools use no rank belts at all.

The bottom-line answer to that question is that everyone needs to judge that for themselves. If it doesn’t feel right to you, there is some kind of conflict. However, we would encourage anyone finding conflict with a philosophy of self and reality examination, as Shaolin and Buddhism are, to do some self and reality examination, using whatever methods they like. Shaolin offers a way of finding guidance within oneself and within the natural world, and asserts no dogma to be taken on authority. Buddhism in general has been adopted by people of differing faiths all over the world, in conjunction with their existing faiths. Buddhism does not conflict with most beliefs, and can often augment other forms of spiritual searching. In a relationship with God or the gods or Allah or the Great Spirit, the better one understands one’s own self, the more fruitful and honest that relationship is going to be.

So, if you are drawn to Shaolin or Buddhism but think there may be conflict with your existing faith, take a close look at the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and see if they hold some truth for you. And maybe re-examine your existing faith while you are at it, something we recommend for ourselves and everyone, everyday.

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