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The Rebellion of the Harmonious Fists and the art of Kung-fu

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Sport, Weapons on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about Kung-fu originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

Boxer rebellion. picture, image, illustration

The Boxer Rebellion brought about the siege of the British legation in Peking by Andrew Howat

Bands of men could be seen carrying out a strange ritual all over the Shantung province of China in the year 1900. They were bowing, stamping and knocking their heads on the ground with their bodies facing the south-east.

Under the exhortation of their leader, these men would work themselves into a trance-like frenzy in which they believed they were immune to bullets or swords.

Finally, in their thousands, they would hurl themselves at the homes and offices of the Europeans living in Peking, determined at all costs to throw the “foreign devils” into the sea.

These were the I Ho Chuan, or “Fists of Righteous Harmony”, better known as The Boxers, the most famous army of kung-fu fighters in history.

Skilled, fearless and fanatical, the Boxers proved no match for Western fire power. Peking was besieged for 55 days, and when the city was finally relieved, the great mass of peasant-fighters melted away, leaving thousands of casualties behind them.

Puzzled and dismayed, they felt themselves betrayed by their leaders, who had sworn that nothing could harm them. What had gone wrong? The great kung-fu teachers of the past would have had a ready enough answer: the secrets of China’s great martial art had been divulged to non-Buddhists and those who were not “gentle and merciful.” And, of course, utter disaster had been the result.

But how did such an apparently aggressive art come into the hands of Buddhist monks in the first place? And did it really originate with them, or was this deadly form of unarmed combat a skill that had been introduced into China from somewhere else? These are questions that are still argued about by experts even today. For, kung-fu is probably the great-grandfather of both karate and judo, and has its beginnings so far back in history that the truth about its origin has been lost.

In China, kung-fu is more generally known as wu-schu, or martial art. Kung-fu is not even directly translatable, although it describes a skill that in Hong Kong is called “War Art.” Its name has been popularised in the West by the Kung-fu films that were made in Hong Kong. Even though this name may not be strictly accurate, it has become generally accepted throughout the rest of the world.

It is possible to trace what seem to be references to kung-fu as far back as 2,500 B.C. Certainly “boxing techniques” are mentioned in writings of about 600 B.C., although we do not know what kind of boxing this was. What is far more likely is that in about 500 A.D., a stranger arrived in China, bearing news of the form of Buddhism known as Zen. His name was Ta Mo and, according to legend, he was the son of the Indian king, Sugandha. Given a chilly welcome by the emperor, Ta Mo settled in a monastery in the province of Honan, and after many years of silent meditation, began to teach.

Ta Mo’s curriculum allowed little time for sleep, and it was not long before young monks began to show signs of exhaustion. One by one they collapsed, worn out by their master’s harsh regime. Realising that the souls of his pupils could not benefit from his teaching if their bodies were weak, Ta Mo set about instructing them in a series of exercises that were to form the basis of kung-fu. Within a century, these were being followed throughout China.

So many stories of the origins of kung-fu stress its association with Buddhist monks, that one wonders why the followers of a religion of non-violence should wish to become expert in a martial art. Some kung-fu scholars believe that the monks learned self-defence as a mental and physical discipline, and also as a means of protecting themselves from marauders when they went on pilgrimages.

But there is another theory that makes a good deal of sense and provides a reason for the considerable secrecy that surrounded the masters of kung-fu.

When the Ming dynasty gave way to the rule of the Manchus, many former officials had to go into hiding. As the Manchus were superstitious, and generally avoided having anything to do with religious orders, the Ming officials disguised themselves as Buddhist monks and took refuge in a monastery. There they planned the revolution that would bring them back to power. According to legend, a monastery in Southern China housed two distinct sets of monks for many years. These were the genuine seekers after religious truth, and a group of political fanatics who spent their time making themselves as immune to harm as was humanly possible.

The passing out tests of these fanatics were formidable. Before they were allowed to set out and gather recruits to the Ming cause, they had to make their way through a temple filled with fiendishly ingenious wooden dummies. Each of these was equipped with some kind of lethal weapon. As the candidate walked through the temple, the pressure of his feet on the floor would activate one or more of the dummies, which would immediately slash or stab at him with murderous ferocity.

Should the man succeed in making his way between all the dummies, he would be faced with a final task. This consisted of making his way through a doorway in which stood a heavy metal jar that had been heated until it glowed red. The correct way for the student to remove the jar was to pick it up in his arms. This act branded him with two symbols engraved on the vessel, a dragon, and a tiger, which would remain with him for life as proof that he was master of kung-fu.

As with all the martial arts of the Orient, kung-fu relies heavily on mental training. Only with the aid of a completely disciplined mind can a student hope to gain control of his body. Consequently kung-fu training requires meditation and special exercises that may take years to master.

Many martial art exercises are based on the movements of five animals – the bear, monkey, bird, tiger and deer. These were introduced by a famous doctor in about the year 200 A.D. Later, the properties of other creatures real and mythical, were added, not only to the exercises, but to the movements of kung-fu itself, so that there were the leopard movements, snake movements and even dragon movements.

Kung-fu reached the Western world in about the middle of the last century, when it appeared among the Chinese communities on the West coast of North America. Almost certainly it was taken there by the many Oriental workers who were employed on building the great, transcontinental railway systems. But, although it was more than a century old in our eyes, few people had heard of kung-fu until Bruce Lee appeared on the cinema screen, with his high kicking, hard hitting form of unarmed combat.

Kung-fu is very similar to karate. Indeed some say that it is only another name for Chinese karate. As a sport, it should only be followed under the guidance of a skilled instructor, and, unlike similar Japanese martial arts, it boasts no badges or belts to denote grades or proficiency, for to the true believer in kung-fu it is not a sport, but a way of life.

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