It seems since people began to take notice of Chinese martial arts (generically known as "kung-fu") that a huge myth concerning kung-fu's origins has spread like a virus. It has spread so far and wide that few even try to debate it anymore. This myth states quite emphatically that "all martial arts come from Shaolin". Unfortunately most of what people think they know about one of Buddhism's most famous temples they actually learned from either Shaw Brothers films or Chinese pulp fiction novels. To add to this confusion is the plethora of "kung-fu historians" who are actually only perpetuating the myths of their chosen kung-fu style's folklore of choice. Rather than applying actual history research methodologies they artfully fit square pegs into round slots to make their history fit.
The good news is that many myths can be debunked, or at least looked at critically by applying simple logic. In fact, I am not trying to offer any type of counter-history to refute Shaolin advocates, rather I'm simply trying to offer food for thought. We don't need to swallow any "history" that is shoved down our throats, including anything I have to say. Question it all! If you love something be critical with it!
I'm going to offer my first myth counter here. Please read it and give it some thought.
Myth 1: "All martial arts come from Shaolin."
Well anytime the word "all" is applied in any statement regarding any history, a red flag should immediately be raised. Many Shaolin advocates really do believe that all martial arts come from the Shaolin Temple. In fact, I even heard this used yesterday at an open demonstration by a Shaolin kung-fu school. Oddly enough, this Shaolin school was simplying demonstrating "modern wushu" forms which were actually developed by the communist Chinese government in the last century. Even their so-called Shaolin kung-fu is nothing more than martial dance routines which are fun to watch, but certainly not battle-worthy. At the very least, certainly not original Shaolin if such a thing exists.
But regardless of whether what is taught as Shaolin kung-fu today is actually the original Shaolin kung-fu or not is not the point of this article. It is also completely irrelevant whether we are talking about a "northern Shaolin" and/or "southern Shaolin" temple as my points of logic do not necessitate either one or both being the "true one".
Point 1 - Chinese Martial arts pre-date the existence of the Shaolin Temple and even of Buddhism.
For most of its history China has had a very large border that it was forced to protect against the many invading tribes of other lands. For this reason, the original Chinese folk had to develop various war arts to protect their rather vast wealth of land. Some of the earliest weapons found by archaelogists in China come from the Hsia Dynasty which is around 2205-1766 BC. These weapons, many of which are now known as "Shaolin" weapons, were mostly spears, lances and other long pike-style weapons. As far as bare-handed fist-fighting, there are records in the "Hsiao Ya" (Book of Odes) that mentioned fist fighting - and this was about 3000 years ago. The first records of formalized bare-handed fighting comes from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 AD) and mentions techniques of wrestling, straight-sword, broadsword, spear and lance. For reference, the Shaolin Temple was built around 495 AD.
Mind you I don't believe that even the most fervent "Shaolinophile" would claim that fist-fighting did not exist in any form before the Shaolin Temple. However, many of the fighting arts that they claim to be their creation were already in existence before the temple (and Buddhism itself) even existed!
Stay tuned for Part 2 "Do Buddhists really fight?"...