Shaolin Kung Fu refers to a collection of Chinese martial arts that claim affiliation with the Shaolin Monastery. Of the tens of thousands of kung fu wushu styles, several hundred might have some relationship to Shaolin; however, aside from a few very well known systems, such as Xiao Hong Quan, the Da Hong Quan, Yin Shou Gun, Damo Sword, etc., it would be almost impossible to establish a verifiable connection to the Temple for any one particular art.
According to the Jingde of the Lamp, after Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from India, left the court of the Liang emperor Wu in 527, he eventually found himself at the Shaolin Monastery, where he “faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time”.
According to the Yì Jīn Jīng,
after Bodhidharma faced the wall for nine years at Shaolin temple, he left behind an iron chest. When the monks opened this chest they found two books: the “Marrow Cleansing Classic,” and the “Muscle Tendon Change Classic”, or “Yi Jin Jing” within. The first book was taken by Bodhidharma’s disciple Huike, and disappeared; as for the second, the monks selfishly coveted it, practicing the skills therein, falling into heterodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating the Real. The Shaolin monks have made some fame for themselves through their fighting skill; this is all due to their possession of this manuscript.
The attribution of Shaolin’s martial arts to Bodhidharma has been discounted by some 20th century martial arts historians, first by Tang Hao on the grounds that the Yì Jīn Jīng is a forgery.
Huiguang and Sengchou were involved with martial arts before they became two of the very first Shaolin monks, reported as practicing martial arts before the arrival of Bodhidharma. Sengchou’s skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon.
Records of the discovery of arms caches in the monasteries of Chang’an during government raids in AD 446 suggests that Chinese monks practiced martial arts prior to the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery in 497. Monks came from the ranks of the population among whom the martial arts were widely practiced prior to the introduction of Buddhism. There are indications that Huiguang, Sengchou and even Huike, Bodhidarma’s immediate successor as Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, may have been military men before retiring to the monastic life. Moreover, Chinese monasteries, not unlike those of Europe, in many ways were effectively large landed estates, that is, sources of considerable regular income which required protection.
In addition, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, the Bibliographies in the Book of the Han Dynasty and the Records of the Grand Historian all document the existence of martial arts in China before Bodhidharma. The martial arts Shuāi Jiāo and Sun Bin Quan, to name two, predate the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery by centuries.