Due to the scarcity of authentic written records, the exact origin of the martial arts is obscure. Most historians agree some form of the martial art was practiced in China as early as 1000 B.C. In dealing with ancient martial art history we must rely partially on legend, keeping in mind that many legends, however exaggerated, have some basis on fact. Our most reliable information comes to us Buddhist inspired martial arts such as those practiced at the Shaolin Temples. Records indicated that Bodhidharma, an Indian priest, traveled from India to China sometime around 525 A.D. His purpose was to transmit the discipline of Zen to China and integrate those ideas with the already existing Buddhist doctrines.
Bodhidharma, the 28 th descendant of the original Buddha, became abbot of the Shaolin Temple in Honan Province shortly after his arrival in China. Legend tells us that when he arrived at the Temple he found the monks to be in a state of physical decay and unable to withstand the prolonged periods of meditation which was essential to the practice of Zen Buddhism. Accordingly, Bodhidharma instituted a series of 18 exercises, similar in nature to Hatha Yoga, in an attempt to improve the physical condition of the monks. The exact nature of the 18 hands of the Lo Han, is unknown. The exercises consist of breathing, stretching, bending and reaching movements. These were the catalyst for the creation of other physical disciplines used to further the spiritual development of the Zen Buddhists. Prior to Bodhidharma's arrival, meditation was practiced as a purely mental discipline. Afterwards it became much more successful as a combination of physical and mental in keeping with the Doctrine of Yin and Yang.
Bodhidharma probably never intended his exercises to take on a martial attitude. This did not happen until several hundred years after his death. The reason for this new attitude was probably attributable to political unrest together with increased lawlessness. The next appreciable contribution occurred in the 16 th century. A Shaolin monk, Ch'ueh Yuen, expanded the original 18 exercises to 72. This practice took on a self- defense theme. Later he left the Temple and traveled extensively throughout China in search of other Martial Arts masters. Ch'ueh Yuen probably learned techniques and ideas from many different sources. During his travel he met two masters, Fong and Li Shao. Together they returned to the Shaolin Temple and expanded the 72 movements to 170. These new movements were categorized into five distinct styles: Tiger,Dragon, Crane, Serpent, and Leopard. They also advanced a set of moral and ethical principles to govern the practice of this art. These five styles formed the bases of the art of Shaolin Chuan Fa, also known as the Five Forms Fist. Other styles were added later.
Many stories relate to the training procedures at the temple, which were apparently quite demanding. In order to attain priesthood, an individual had to undergo a series of deadly test. The last test was to move a heavy metal urn filled with burning coals. A picture of a tiger and a dragon were etched on opposite sides of the urn. The urn could only be moved by the disciple's forearms, which would brand the images, the marks of a Shaolin Priest.
For many years the Shaolin fighting arts were practiced in utmost secrecy. Masters were concerned that the techniques would fall into hands that would use the potentially deadly art for purposes other than what was originally intended. Many factors contributed to the eventual spread of the martial arts. Buddhist missionaries took their disciplines with them when they visited Japan, Korea, and Indonesia. The main factor was the ruthless domination of the Manchu Emperor. Most clan Buddhist were anti- Manchu. Many temples were training grounds for pro-Ming revolutionaries. On several occasions the Manchus destroyed temples in an effort to stomp out resistance. Fleeing monks undoubtedly carried many secrets with them, which were eventually spread all over China.