Ever since it was founded in 495 A.D., emperors of every succeeding Chinese dynasty have consecrated the Shaolin Temple as their Imperial Temple. This was where emperors prayed on behalf of their people. It was also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. Today, every Zen school in the world traces its lineage back to the Shaolin Temple in China.
Over the years, the Shaolin Temple became a haven for China’s elite: generals, martial artists, classical poets and painters, famous calligraphers, scholars, and spiritualists. At its height, there were over 2000 monks staying in the Temple in Songhshan province. These monks were classified into four categories: administrators, scholars, workers, and warriors.
Hundreds of years after the temple was built, another Shaolin Temple was built in Quanzhou in the south of China. Though it was smaller than its big brother in Henan, this Southern Temple played an important role in the development and spread of Shaolin Kung Fu.
The End of Shaolin
The Qing Dynasty in China (1644-1911) was a period of great turmoil, especially during the 19th century when governmental control was weakened. Prosperity declined. China suffered serious social and economic problems in addition a population explosion. Millions of people were dissatisfied with the government.
Although rebellions occurred all over China, the Southern Shaolin Temple had a reputation for being a revolutionary center. Revolutionaries loyal to the previous dynasty, the Ming government, rallied around the Southern Shaolin Temple. In an effort to crush the growing rebellion, the Qing emperor, Yong Cheng, sent his army to attack the Southern Shaolin Temple. In the ensuing battle, the Shaolin Monks were outnumbered ten to one. Many monks and disciples were killed, and the Temple was burned to the ground.
Only the most skilled Shaolin monks escaped the attack. Our Shaolin Wahnam school traces its lineage back to two of these monks: Zhi Shan (Gee Sin) and Jiang Nan (Kong Nam). The lineages of these two monks remained separate for over 100 years until they were reunited again in my teacher, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit.
The Venerable Zhi Shan
The story of the Venerable (a title of respect given to Buddhist monks) Zhi Shan is well known in many Kung Fu schools. It has been depicted in hundreds of stories and dozens of movies. The Venerable Zhi Shan was the founder and abbot of the Southern Shaolin Temple.
After escaping the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple in Quanzhou, Zhi Shan built another temple at Nine Lotus Mountain (Jiulian Shan). Pak Mei (Bai Mei) was another master who escaped the burning of the temple, but he later betrayed his masters by rebelling against Zhi Shan.
Pak Mei’s distinguished disciple, Kuo Chun Chong, was the military commander for the two provinces of Fujan and Guangdong. Led by Pak Mei, Kuo Chun Chong and the Qing army destroyed the second southern Shaolin Temple at Nine Lotus Mountain. The Venerable Zhi Zhan died defending the temple.
Several monks and secular disciples managed to escape. Many of these masters are now legendary (even in Hollywood): The Venerable Herng Yein, the Venerable Sam Tak, Hung Heigun, Lok Ah Choi, and Fong Sai Yuk. Years later, two of Hung Heigun’s disciples tracked down and killed Pak Mei in order to avenge Zhi Zhan.
Zhi Zhan was a revolutionary. His main objective was to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty in order to restore the previous Ming government. His teachings were fast and secretive, with an emphasis on Kung Fu that was hard and combative. Although internal force training was certainly a part of his Kung Fu, many of his disciples focused on external force training.
Zhi Zhan is often regarded as the First Patriarch of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu. The disciples of the Venerable Zhi Zhan spread Shaolin Kung Fu to Guangdong province. Eventually, these arts spread throughout the world. Most Southern Shaolin styles today, like Hung Gar, Lau Gar, and Choy Li Fut, come from Zhi Zhan.
From Zhi Zhan, the art passed to the Venerable Herng Yein, then to Chan Fook, then to Ng Yew Loong, then to Lai Chin Wah, then to my teacher, Wong Kiew Kit.
The Venerable Jiang Nan
Another monk escaped the burning of the Temple was a young master named Jiang Nan. This monk fled south with the Qing army chasing him. His original name is lost to us. In an effort to hide from his enemy, he changed his name. After crossing a river that marked the edge of China, he chose the name Jiang Nan, which means “South of the River”. It was south of this river that he would spend the rest of his life.
For 50 years, Jiang Nan wandered further and further south, with only one mission in life: to pass on his art to a worthy successor. One night, near the border between present-day Thailand and Malaysia, he encountered a young medicine-man who was demonstrating Kung Fu to attract customers to his mobile roadside stall. The monk observed the young man every night for 6 nights. On the 7th night, after the crowd had dispersed, the monk approached the young man. Without any aggression in his voice, the monk said, “Not bad. But despite all the applause, what you showed was not real Kung Fu.”
The young man was shocked. As a traveling medicine-man, he relied on his Kung Fu to ward off bandits and thugs who would frequently challenge him. And yet this old monk was telling him that it wasn’t real Kung Fu!
The monk continued: “Don’t take my word for it. Kung Fu is for fighting, not talking. If you like, we can put it to the test with some friendly sparring.”
The young man agreed, eager to prove himself. But to his amazement, the 80-year-old monk beat him easily. Even when the young man stopped pulling his punches and attacked with full force, the monk handled him as if playing with a child. Recognizing the signs of true mastery, the young man knelt before the monk and begged to be accepted as a student.
With a smile, the Venerable Jiang Nan said, “Yes, on one condition.” The young man bowed lower and said that he would do anything. Raising the young man’s head and looking into his eyes with a smile, the monk said simply, “Start from scratch.”
That young man was named Yang Fatt Khun.
When Yang Fatt Khun was in his 70s, he accepted a young man as a student. This man was already well trained in the martial arts and earned his living as a professional Muay Thai fighter. That man was named Ho Fatt Nam.
At first, master Yang rejected the young Ho’s requests to become a student. But one night, with the help of one of Yang’s students, the young Ho sneaked into the secret training hall. Bowing before master Yang and offering the traditional gifts, he begged to be accepted. Taking the gifts and placing them on the altar, Yang said, “This is Heaven’s Will.”
Each year, master Yang held a grand sparring competition among his students in order to choose his top ten disciples. From an unranked position, Ho Fatt Nam gradually rose to a top position. When master Yang announced his retirement, he named Ho Fatt Nam as his successor.
Years later, a young Wong Kiew Kit was one of the last students to learn from master Ho. When he first begged to be accepted as a student, master Ho had only one request: “Start from scratch.”
The name “Wahnam” consists of meaningful Chinese characters from the names of Grandmaster Wong’s two masters: Ho Fatt Nam and Lai Chin Wah. The name “Shaolin Wahnam” was chosen to honor these two masters as well as all of the past masters in the Shaolin tradition.
Both Jiang Nan and Zhi Shan learned from the same master, the Venerable Zhang Mei, at the southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou. After over a hundred years of secrecy and exile, these two lineages, one from Zhi Shan and the other from Jiang Nan, were reunited in my teacher, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit. This reunion is meaningful to us because we now inherit the best of two Shaolin traditions.
Zhi Zhan was a revolutionary; his objective was to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. His teaching was fast and secretive, with emphasis on kung fu that was hard and combative.
The Venerable Jiang Nan was a missionary. His main aim was to preserve the original Shaolin arts, with little intention to fight the Qing Dynasty. While Zhi Zhan quickly rebuilt a second southern Shaolin Temple after its destruction and taught many disciples, Jiang Nan took 50 years to search for a deserving successor in order to teach him holistically and slowly. Jiang Nan’s teaching emphasized internal development and spiritual cultivation. The Shaolin Kung Fu from his lineage is comparatively soft and internal.