One of the more frustrating aspects of teaching Chinese martial arts has to be the mysticism surrounding the origins of most kung fu styles. Not only are most origin stories nothing more than pure legend, but even attempts at more a truthful history are often buried deep in tribal politics. As lineage to the most authentic source is the main aim, so the histories passed down often contain more than a few embelishments. As Chinese martial arts researcher Brian Kennedy said in his book Jingwu: "When the person or group that is making a historical claim is likely to benefit - financially or otherwise - from the claim, there is a clear conflict of interest. These conflicts of interest can occur on a large scale (say the Shaolin Temple) or a smaller scale (individual teachers).
It doesn't help either that most of the so-called Chinese martial arts history that is passed on these days has its origins in Chinese pulp-fiction novels. The line between storybook fiction and real history has been so distorted that much of what we know of Wong Fei Hung for example, can be flushed down the toilet.
Add to this the Chinese government trying to promote the tourist juggernaut that is the "Shaolin Temple". Suddenly many historical revelations and 'proof' are found to promote its authenticity. Now even with the popularity of the "Ip Man" films, suddenly mainland China has produced heretofore never seen photos of Leung Jan and Leung Bik. Close inspection can reveal them easily to be fakes - but not before they are shared to thousands on Facebook as the real deal.
One of the most commonly held beliefs in Chinese martial arts is that the Ching government burned down the Shaolin Temple. Only five Shaolin elders escaped this fire miraculously. These five elders are also the founders of various streams of martial arts. Most respected researchers indicate that this was nothing more than a propaganda trick of the hung moon society trying to get the public riled up against the Ching. According to kung fu books and oral history the five elders of Shaolin are:
- Chi Sim
- Bak Mei
- Ng Mui
- Fung Dou Dak
- Miu Hin
However, the book Thian ti hwui. The Hung-league or Heaven-earth-league by Gustav Schlegel printed in 1866 has an original hung moon manuscript in it. The hung moon is widely attributed with founding a number of martial arts as well as being the root of modern Chinese Triads or organized crime. This manuscript lists the ng jou or five elders of Shaolin. They said these elders created the five lodges or departments of the hung society, not of martial arts. This historical document lists the five elders under the following names:
- Wu Dak Dai
- Fong Dai Hung
- Choy Dak Chung
- Ma Chiu Hing
- Lee Sik Hoi
Looks like those who promote the old five elder myth need a brush up on history. When the Chi Sim five elder group is commonly accepted as fact despite documentary evidence to the contrary, what else has been a mere fish tale?