A brief history of Damo and the origins of the Chinese Martial Arts

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The Chinese Martial Arts have a long, colourful history that is almost as fascinating to learn about as performing the arts themselves but the history/legend of the origins of the martial arts in China all lead back to one common source, the Indian monk Damo (also known by his Indian name Bodhidarma), who travelled from India to China in approximately the 5th Century BC.

After travelling through southern China to the Shaolin temple in the Chinese kingdom of Wei, Damo was appalled at the physical condition of the monks and he retired to a cave to meditate on their physical state.

Legend has it that Damo spent nine years meditating facing a wall in the cave. At one point he fell asleep but on awaking was so angry with himself that he cut off his own eyelids to ensure he did not fall asleep again. It is said that when the eyelids fell to the ground the first tea plants sprang from that spot of earth.

Returning to the Shaolin temple, he taught the monks internal meditations as well as the Eighteen Arhat Hands, a series of eighteen external exercises. This developed into Luohan quan, the more commonly known martial arts style still practised today. Damo also left two famous texts at the temple the Yijin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Change Classic), which still survives today and the Xi Sui Jing, which has since been lost.

As well as being accredited with being the founder of Shaolin martial arts, Damo spread Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism throughout China. There are many legends linked with his name, whether you believe them or not is down to personal preference, personally I think they add to the rich history of the martial arts as well as giving substance and a sense of a time gone by which enriches our study of the traditional martial arts.

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