If you grew up in the 70s or 80s or are just an old school martial arts fan, then you are familiar with the original TV series Kung Fu. David Carradine plays Kwai Chang Caine, a half Asian orphan adopted into the Shaolin Temple as a child. During young Caine’s stay at the temple he endures many hardships while training in the ways of Shaolin.
In the intro of the show, you see Caine’s training in the Shaolin Temple. Throwing stars into a man-shaped wooden target, dodging spears being thrown at him, as well as empty-handed fighting and staff combat. In order to leave the Temple for graduation, Caine had to first snatch a pebble out of the hand of his teacher and then lift an iron barrel filled with burning coals with his bare forearms. This branded his forearms with two distinct patterns: one of a dragon and the other of a tiger, exactly as engraved along the outside of the barrel.
Other famous movies such as the Shaw Brothers film Master Killer show the star Gordon Liu training at the Shaolin Temple with mysterious methods such as carrying two buckets filled with water with knives attached to the ends, preventing the monks from lowering their arms. At the same time, they have to walk up a steep narrow cement passage leading to the top of a well.
Not only did this strengthen the monks’ arms and shoulders, but one wrong step and they would fall off the edge of the narrow path and crash down to the floor below, thus forcing them to also develop their balance in the process.
Another training sequence in this film showed the star training in a special darkened room with cylinder shaped objects lit with candles on one side. The objects would spin and when they stopped and shined on Caine, he had to immediately strike it. This training exercise was designed to train the eyes and fighting skills in the dark under such conditions, not to mention also having to walk on rice paper without tearing it, in order to also train Caine to walk silently.
Shaolin Kung Fu in these great shows and films were not merely portrayed as empty hand and weapons fighting arts, but as complete systems of self-protection against anything that could come one’s way.
Often times in Kung Fu, Caine was put into situations outside of the normal hand-to-hand or weapon-based combat. As always, his Kung Fu training either directly or indirectly gave him the ability to prevail.
Just as Shaolin was glamorized by television and films, so too have the ancient Ninja night warriors of Japan become popularized by films and TV shows. The Ninja has been portrayed as a type of spy wizard capable of almost superhuman skills and abilities.
In some films, he is a ruthless villain, and in others, he is a resourceful underdog survivor. Specialty skills involve – among other things – wilderness survival, stealth, moving silently, hiding at will (becoming suddenly invisible to the naked eye), mind control, and also both mental and physical endurance above and beyond what the normal soldier could typically endure.
First aid skills, climbing, and acrobatic abilities along with a host of James Bond type gadgets that help them on their missions are a few more of the exotic traits assocoiated with the Ninja.
These two distinct Asian warriors have always both had connections to religious and mystical elements – both mentally and spiritually – with the Ninja being involved in Shinto beliefs and the Shaolin monks in their Chan Buddhist beliefs.
The Ninja practiced energy controlling methods and the famous Kuji interfinger weaving of body and mind. The Shaolin monks practiced long hours of sitting meditation practice, and both disciplines used such training to take them to a higher level – mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Both the birthplace of the ancient Ninja as well as the famous Shaolin monks took place in mountainous regions, giving them an early closeness to nature. The historical art of the Ninja originated in the Iga province, which was said to be surrounded by mountains. The famous Shaolin Temple is located in the Songshan Mountains of Henan province. These rugged surroundings may have helped forge the mental toughness and physical endurance it has taken to survive to this day.
Both the Ninja and the Shaolin monks have struggled throughout history with the governing bodies in their countries of origin. Though the history of the Ninja is clouded in mystery, one version states that the art of ninjutsu was created as a resistance to the overbearing slum lord Shogun rulers.
The Shaolin Temple was seen as a threat to the leaders of the country in past times, forcing them at times to have to resist the governing authorities. The Shaolin Temple has also been attacked by other outside forces with evil intentions throughout its turbulent history.
Both groups are masters of exotic weapons. The Ninja are known to be masters of many weapons skills, the most popular being the infamous shuriken throwing stars. Other popular weapons of ninjutsu are the straight sword, knives, various chains, staffs of different sizes, and the notorious blowgun. The Ninja are also famous for a variety of secret or unusual weapons not seen in other systems of martial arts. Because the Ninja often worked as spies and sometimes assassins, they would conceal their weapons in everyday objects.
For the female Ninja known as the Kunoichi, a knife could be concealed within a comb and used in an unassuming way till close enough to draw the hidden blade. For the male Ninja, a simple walking stick could contain a hidden sword, and a ring could contain a lethal dose of poison.
The Shaolin system is known for eighteen weapon skills, though it is rare for one monk to master all eighteen skills. The Shaolin weapons come in many shapes and sizes. From the common staff and sword to the more complex rope dart or three-sectional staff. These exotic weapons are an important part of the Shaolin training and fighting skills. The Shaolin monks used such weapons to strengthen their bodies as well as to be able to use different shaped items as fighting tools when needed.
Both martial arts conjure up thoughts of mysterious warriors. Both arts are still present to this very day, and both arts have much to offer their students by way of self-defense and self-cultivation.