Man being carried with spears in neck and chest
One man hauls up two ropes and hooks them under either arm as suddenly their tautness threatens to split him in two. Harnessed to the other end of each rope is an ox, a pair of beasts pulling with all their weight and power in opposite directions. Grimacing, the man in the middle of this struggles to keep his limbs, let alone his balance, and yet he stays centred like a rock. The man is a Shaolin Warrior Monk, and tasks like these are de riguer – part of the brutal daily training through which he will achieve not only formidable strength and resilience but physical, mental and spiritual harmony.
Practicing the meditative art of qigong, a profound wisdom and mysterious power that uses controlled breathing and graceful movements to circulate qi – or energy flow – throughout the body, Shaolin Monks gain the ability to perform near superhuman feats. As these disciples of Kung Fu learn to summon qi, they can direct this life energy to different parts of the body, which are thus bestowed with incredible toughness – made as strong as steel and able to withstand and deliver tremendously powerful blows.
Monk punching a wooden post
It is through qigong that the crown of a man’s head can break stones and iron plates; that the hands can smash bricks and break solid sticks, and the feet splinter rocks and staffs. Even the most vulnerable parts of the body can become impervious to otherwise deadly attacks from bladed weapons such as swords: the stomach can resist lying on the sharp point of a trident or the throat the thrust of a man's spear simply through gathering qi to that region of the body to prevent it from being injured.
Monk standing on his head
Learning to harness the power of qi takes years of gruelling training. The only way the body's natural energy will reinforce its structural strength is through repetition of exercises day after day. To strengthen fists – which are fragile and damage-prone despite their use in attacks – students daily punch walls for hours until eventually their hands are solid. To protect the brain, the skull is hardened greatly by repeated strikes each day, and the head banged against objects to train it to resist the shock of an attack.
Young child trainee hanging by the neck
Other seemingly brutal training methods practiced range from the wrestling of bulls to the iron neck exercise, where the individual is hung by the neck from a cloth noose – an experience that while initially only sufferable for seconds, when mastered can be endured for minutes at a time. This latter technique is very useful in combat, for it fortifies a particularly delicate part of the body and should enable a defender to get free and counterattack if caught by an enemy in an arm lock.
Kung Fu means phenomenal amounts of work, effort and time invested in training, and those instructed in the hard Shaolin style must also expect pain and self-torture, often from an early age, if they wish to master their art. At one school, daily training starts at 5:30 am to the tune of a military siren, and no one wants to be late, as they will be punished mercilessly by the trainers with stick blows and press-ups. During the day that follows the aspiring young monks will follow a gruelling regime.
Leaping into the air in unison
Conditioning and endurance training are undergone in an early morning session of running at different speeds – from sprints to climbs up hundreds of stairs. After breakfast, stretches like the splits and the crab take trainees beyond the pain barrier, before basic elements of the Shaolin Kung Fu like leg movements, blocks, strikes and stands are taught with exhausting repetition. Weapons training follows lunch, and the teaching of acrobatics such as somersaults, flips and cartwheels on hard stone floors.
The day’s training finishes at 6 pm, though underachieving is punishable by an extra hour-and-a-half session during the late evening. Even if limping, pupils must participate in training, and one month a year is all the time they are permitted off. It is noted that many foreigners cannot cope with this extreme training, their bodies suffering debilitating cramps. Blood will be lost but new muscles will also be trained. Yet, mercifully, the pain will ease after one month and slowly subside after several more.
Flying through the air
For centuries, persistence has been vital to becoming a Shaolin Monk, with years of discipline necessary. Ten traditional and complex combat precepts must also be followed: agility, speed and energy; co-ordinated motion and rest of arms and feet; unique fusion of the body’s five ‘elements’; the eight-point theory of ‘ba tiao’ relating to defence; the stout gait of a god; knowledge of arm and leg work; simultaneous advance of limbs; all-round defence; harmony of eyes, ears and heart intelligence; and use of sinews.
Shaolin monastery with bed of spears
Achieving mastery of these precepts is the path a Shaolin Monk must take, and yet these warriors have traditionally studied martial arts not just as a means of self-defence or even mental training, but as a system of ethics and morality. From the time the Shaolin Temple was founded in the 5th century, through numerous social changes – and the destruction of the monastery many times – the Shaolin Monks have served and earned respect of the people of China as warriors and priests. The ancient principles to which they adhered set an example for students of the Shaolin way today.