When Spa Monkeys discovered a low key, partly hidden kung fu gem called ‘Hong Kong Shaolin Wushu Cultural Advance Learning Centre’ in Lai Chi Kok, we were excited to go investigate it. What we found was an amazing lineage of China’s most legendary form of martial art. We realized that an interview was not enough to fully provide an in depth look into this historical art form so this feature has been split into two parts.

Part 1 will explain the background of Shaolin Monk history, who they are and what they do, along with a description of ancient Chinese weapons that are available at the school. Part 2 will be the interview itself with Master Chen, who explains what the school’s facilities are and their teaching philosophy. These bladed weapons are actually types of ancient Chinese blades; some rare even within mainland China, such as the hookswords and moonblades. (The last time our staff even saw a moon blade was in a fictional kung fu comic book.)

The legend of Shaolin

Shaolin Monks and Buddhist Monks are very different. Buddhist monks live a life completely devoid of violence, dedicated to strict Buddhist ideologies – even preferring death to self-defence, while Shaolin monks (also known as Warrior monks) have been known to break through cement walls with their bare fists and have a long history of defensive battle.

Interestingly, both are considered monks: ascetics that devote their entire lives to certain religious philosophies. They leave mainstream community to meditate and train in isolation, often with other monks.

To understand the fundamental difference between the two is to understand the difference in their practiced philosophies.

The origination of Shaolin monks are rather mysterious and historians still debate the few theories; but one of the most common theories is that the legend of the Shaolin Monks began in the Tang Dynasty; from a small group of retired martial artists and reformed fighters who wanted to follow the Buddhist path yet preserve their martial knowledge. They needed protein from meat for their daily physical upkeep and wine to remain robust in their often extreme training conditions. Buddhist monks refrain from both.

It was during this time that their local state King Li called upon them to protect him and his family from attacking rival states. The warrior monks saved them from invading forces; their martial power unmatched. Later, Li became Emperor of the Tang Dynasty – he built many Shaolin temples and schools in their honour, where they returned to establish a lineage of Shaolin Monks.

Throughout the great Dynasties, historical records show many instances of Shaolin Monks being called forward by the Emperor to protect civilians, Buddhist monks and assist the Imperial armies from threats such as pirates and military invasions. Despite their powerful martial abilities, these warrior monks only left their temples to defend.

During the Cultural Revolution, many of these temples were attacked and abandoned. Some monks were arrested, tortured and executed, others forced into hiding – leading to their scarcity today. The Shaolin movement has only recently resurfaced; some may argue about the authenticity of the monks or training schools but the good news is that this is the first step to a historically legendary resurrection of a powerful art form hidden for a long time.

Glossary of Ancient Chinese Weapons

These are the available weapons for training at the Shaolin school. Keep in mind that students must start off with basic Shaolin hand-to-hand training and disciplines before being approved for weapons training. Historically, Shaolin masters chose only their top students for bladed weaponry training; individuals who entailed the right mind set, discipline and responsibility were chosen.

Understandably there is a degree of responsibility from the teacher to ensure such a powerful skill is passed onto the right people. The basis of Shaolin Monkhood was never to abuse their power: they strive for perfection, not domination.

The Long Sword (“Jian”)

  • Weapon Type: One handed (Can be dual wield as well)
  • Range: Short to Mid Range
  • Description: The long sword is a double edged, straight blade that is considered one of the main four historical Chinese weapons. It is nicknamed ‘The Gentleman of Weapons’ for its light weight and versatility, as well as for the fact it was often carried by noblemen for protection.

The Sabre (“Dao”)

  • Weapon Type: One handed
  • Range: Short to Mid
  • Description: The sabre is a single edged blade with a curvature at the top. Larger than the long sword, it slightly resembles a machete and was used for slashing and chopping. Nicknamed ‘the General of Weapons’.

The Hooked Swords, a.k.a. Tiger-Head Hooks (“Hu Tou Gou”)

  • Weapon Type: Dual Wield
  • Range: Middle to Long
  • Description: The hook swords have a very unique look. They consist of five components.
    1. The back, which acts as a regular sword
    2. The hook, used to trip enemies, catch other weapons (defensive) and slashing
    3. The end of the hilt, which is sharpened as a dagger
    4. The link, which is used to link the two swords. This is so that when the hooks are connected, the wielder can swing the pair, yielding a much more extended scope of damage – almost six feet. While the second is in the air, the dagger on the hilt slashes the target

The style of training tended to be flashy and the danger of accidentally cutting oneself with the swinging blades mechanism meant that the weapon was rarely used in battle, but more for showmanship during festivals.

The Crescent Sabre (“Guan Gao”)

  • Weapon Type: Two Handed
  • Range: Long
  • Description: Named after the famous General Guan Yu, one of the Daoist Buddhas revered in Hong Kong and China. The halberd is considered a heavy weapon, designed to both attack and deflect opponents from a distance. It was also used by military cavalry, as it was able to reach ground targets.

The Wooden Pole (“Guen”)

  • Weapon Type: Two Handed
  • Range: Long
  • Description: The basic of all long range blade weaponry training. The simple wooden pole is lightweight and easy to swing. It acts as a good introductory stepping stone to the heavier bladed long range weapons. The Monkey King, a popular Buddhist legend, is known for always carrying his mystical wooden staff.

The Crescent Moon Blades (“Yuan Yang Yue”)

  • Weapon Type: Dual Wield
  • Range: Short
  • Description: These close range short blades were designed to catch, break or tie up opponents blades. Usually used against longer weapons like the spear, sword or halberd, the moon blades are very effective against opponents that use a safe distance to attack from. These were also easily concealed (especially in the long sleeves of ancient Chinese garb) so were typically used in situations where the target was unaware and caught off guard.

The Dome Mace/Hammer (“Chui”)

  • Weapon Type: Dual Wield
  • Range: Short to Mid
  • Description: Rather heavy, the Chinese mace is almost always used in pairs. It was designed as a blunt bashing melee weapon, but due to its weight, the wielder needed great brute strength. It is not commonly used as most martial artists preferred more agile weaponry, but its chain-linked variation (known as the Meteor Hammer) is popular as a flexible swinging mace.

 The Spear (“Qiang”)

  • Weapon Type: Two Handed
  • Range: Long
  • Description: Known as the ‘King of Weapons’, the spear is often the first long range blade weapon introduced to students as a foundation trainer. Many schools of Kung Fu attribute stability, strength, coordination and balance to spear training. It was one of the main weapons issued by ancient Imperial military for their soldiers. Interestingly, a tassel (usually made of horse hair) is always attached underneath its leaf shaped blade. This is to stop blood from flowing onto the wooden shaft, causing it to be slippery for wielder. It also blurs the opponent’s view when the spear is moving quickly – making it difficult for them grab the spear from below the blade.

The Monk’s Spade (“Chan Zhang”)

  • Weapon Type: Two Handed
  • Range: Long
  • Description: As its name suggests, this was a weapon often carried by travelling Shaolin monks. It had two main purposes. Firstly, its shovel shaped head was used literally as a spade. In the midst of constant warfare and disasters in ancient China, monks helped bury any corpses they came across with proper Buddhist rites. Secondly, the sharpened crescent blade at the hilt served as a protective weapon against bandits. (Bandits probably figured out that it was not a good idea to attack Shaolin monks.)

 Chinese Halberd (“Ji”)

  • Weapon Type: Two Handed
  • Range: Long
  • Description: Like other multi-bladed weapons, the halberd was designed to have several means of attack. It consists of a curved side blade attached to a spear head, with a counterweight blade at the hilt. The empty space between the pole and the side blade is designed that way on purpose – it allows the wielder to strike with the shaft of the pole and then pull back to hook the opponent with the edge of the side blade. The hooking mechanism was particularly useful when reaching and knocking off opponents on horseback