Shaolin Quan or Shaolin boxing originated in the Shaolin Temple on Mount Songshan at Dengfeng in Henan Province. It was named after the temple. The founder of the Shaolin Quan was said to be a Indian monk, Bodhi-dharma. The proposition, though very influential, was proved to be false, for there was a monk named Bodhi-dharma but he knew nothing at all about Chinese boxing. In fact, Shaolin Quan was the manifestation of the wisdom of the monks of the temple, secular Wushu masters and army generals and soldiers.
According to historical records, the Shaolin Temple was built during the Northern Wei Dynasty in the 19th
calendar year of the reign of Emperor Taihe (495) and is one of China's most famous ancient temples. The Shaolin Temple once had many monks on its premises. Those monks of the lower level mostly came from the secular society and some of them knew some martial arts before entering the temple. Those who knew martial arts taught and helped each other to improve their skills. They also absorbed the experience of their predecessors and gradually developed their martial arts into the unique Shaolin school.
During the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577), Shaolin monks could lift hundreds of kilograms in weight and were good at boxing and horse riding. By the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), Li Shimin, king of the Qin state, fought with the self-appointed emperor of the Zheng state, Wang Shichong. Shaolin monks Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, and Tan Zong took the side of Li and helped him catch the latter's nephew Wang Renze to force the self-appointed emperor to surrender. After Li Shimin was enthroned as the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, he awarded his followers according to their military merits and contributions. Monk Tan Zong had the title of chief general conferred on him, while the Shaolin Temple was given large grants of land and money to expand the temple complex. The Shaolin Temple was allowed to organize an army of monk soldiers, who acted as military people in warring times and as monks in peace time. The Shaolin school of boxing improved and developed through the trials of battles and wars.
The Shaolin monks in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were all taught to practice Wushu. In the 32nd calendar year of the Jiajing reign (1553), the Shaolin military monks took part in the battles against Japanese invaders in southern China and accomplished many military exploits. Wang Shixing of the Ming Dynasty wrote in his Tour of Mount Song: "All of the 400 Shaolin Temple monks have good Wushu skills." "Fists and cudgels were wielded as if they were flying during practice." Cheng Chongdou also of the Ming Dynasty wrote in his book The Dossier of Shaolin Cudgel Fight: "Shaolin monks are best known for their cudgel fights." Ming general Yu Dayou, who was reputed for his anti-Japanese military service, went to teach cudgel fighting skills in the Shaolin Temple. It was in the latter half of the Ming Dynasty that Shaolin monks switched from cudgel fighting to fist fighting, so that fist fights could be promoted to match cudgel fights.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the people living around the Shaolin Temple were very active in practicing Wushu, which boosted the development of the Shaolin school of martial arts. In the Shaolin Temple, the rear hall was used for Wushu exercises, where various kinds of weapons were displayed on the weapon stands ready for use at any time. Some monks practiced fist fighting to safeguard the temple. After years of exercises and practicing, foot prints were stamped on the brick floor of the rear hall and these prints can be seen clearly even today. On the north and south walls of the White-Clothes Hall, there are Qing Dynasty murals vividly depicting the exercises practiced by monks in the temple.
In the fifth calendar year of the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty (1727), people were not allowed to practice Wushu. However, they could not be stopped either in the secular society or in the Shaolin Temple, where Wushu was practiced underground.
Apart from the Shaolin Temple on Mount Songshan, the Shaolin Temple was said to have set up more than a dozen Shaolin affiliates in other temples in the country. The Shaolin Temple on Mount Nine Lotus in Fujian Province during the Ming Dynasty was famous for developing the Shaolin Quan.
Around the 1911 Revolution against the Qing Dynasty, the Shaolin martial arts underwent further developments. Wushu clubs were established all over the country and most of them took the Shaolin Quan. Lots of patriots organized sabre and flying sword groups in order to overthrow the dynasty. They constantly practiced their skills and contributed greatly to the cause.
The Shaolin school is very popular in secular society with a myriad of followers. Over the years it was enriched theoretically and its techniques perfected to form a colossal system of fist fight.
Compactness is a feature of the Shaolin school. The moves and tricks of this school are short, simple and succinct as well as versatile. While fighting, Shaolin boxers would advance and retreat straightforwardly. They need only a small space to execute their style of fist fight which is described as "fighting along a single straight line." Shaolin Quan is powerful and speedy with rhythmic rising and falling of body movements. It stresses hardness of actions and blows but it also advocates softness in support of the hardness. The motto of the Shaolin fist fight says "hardness first and softness second." When jabbing or palming, the arm is required to be neither bent nor straight. in an attempt to blend external and internal forces.