Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri
This was my 29th article, 9th for Kung Fu Wushu Qigong magazine, it is about Lohan Ch'uan - The 18 Routines of the Enlightened Ones.
Kung Fu Qigong Wushu Magazine
(c) 1997 KungFuMagazine.com, reprinted by permission.
Luohan Quan - The 18 Routines of the Enlightened Ones
by Salvatore Canzonieri
Many people feel that Shaolin Boxing (Quan or Ch'uan) is generally composed of many different styles, most of which were appropriated from many people and many places during Shaolin's long and turbulent history. However, there is actually only one true Shaolin Boxing style that was developed by Shaolin monk-soldiers and which forms the nucleus of all of today's Shaolin-derived boxing styles. This style is called "Lohan (Luohan) Ch'uan" and it was named after the 18 legendary Lohan (Arhat or Bodhisattva, a Buddhist who has attained Nirvana), who started out as bandits, converted to Buddhism, and were so devout that they became "enlightened." These Lohan had well-respected martial arts abilities and their unique specialties were preserved for all time as 18 statues that still exist in the (northern) Henan Shaolin Temple. They are revered as saints today, and even their statues are considered saintly.
As stated in a previous article (August/September 1996 issue of this magazine), during the Northern Wei Dynasty (BC 386-15), to relieve the fatigue of constant sitting meditation and to help guard the temple grounds, some Shaolin monks had been practicing a popular form of throwing and grappling called Jiao Ti (which is now called Shuai Chiao [Shuai Jiao]) that was a popular spectator sport/martial exercise throughout the Chinese empire at the time. Later, this original throwing art became almost forgotten as the monks became more immersed in the meditational aspects of monastic life and was practiced only by an inner circle.
Many years after the legendary Bodhidharma (Damo) was supposed to have entered Shaolin and introduced the Ch'an (Chan; Zen in Japanese and Son in Korean) sect of Buddhism, the Shaolin monks began to develop a set of boxing techniques to invigorate their health and physical condition (various other types of boxing had by now also become popular spectator sport/martial arts throughout China) and to develop a self-defense system that could deal with sudden ambushes on the long, lonely mountain roads along the silk trading routes between India and China. To do this, the monks changed the throwing techniques and movements within Shuai Chiao also used them as punching and kicking techniques. They kept many of Shuai Chiao's wu shu (martial arts) concepts, which emphasized: moving naturally and not struggling with an opponent's attacks but instead redirecting the incoming force and upsetting the opponent's balance to overcome them; and integrating soft internal and hard external actions. Also, they kept the Rou Qi Gong and Rou Quan movements and postures found in these secret sets and made them part of the Luohan forms.
With the example of the Lohans being saintly figures who were also
martial artists, the monks named their unique brand of soft/hard boxing
"Lohan Ch'uan." Originally, the style was composed of one set of loose techniques, the "18
Routines of the Lohan" (routines meaning "patterns"). During the next
few hundred years, at least 18 forms were developed for this style. By
1. Xiang Long (Descending Dragon)
At this embryonic stage, Shaolin Boxing was solely represented by Lohan Ch'uan, making it the foundation and origin of all subsequent boxing routines to come out of or to be influenced by Shaolin Boxing. In fact, many of today's styles have techniques named after the Lohan (e.g., "Lohan Drying a Corpse," Lohan Exits the Cave," "Lohan Rides the Tiger," etc.), or they have a set of forms actually named "Lohan Ch'uan" (as in the styles of Ch'i Hsing Tung Lung (Qixing Tanglang, Seven Stars Praying Mantis), Hung Ga (Hong Jia), Mi Ts'ung (Mizong), Choy Li Fut (Tsai Li Fo), Lama Pai, and others). Lohan Ch'uan also forms the foundation from which such styles as Seven Stars Praying Mantis, Tai Tzu (Taizi) Ch'uan, Wu Hsing (Wuxing, Five Animals), Ngo Cho (Wuzu, Five Ancestors), and Pa Kua (Bagua) were developed (the founders of each of these styles were well versed in Lohan Boxing). The Lohan style still exists today in both northern and southern Chinese versions, making it over 1,000 years old.
(There is another Shaolin martial art that is about as old like Lohan Ch'uan. Xinyi ("heart and mind") Ch'uan is a rudimentary self-defense system (as opposed to a boxing system, which has aspects of being a sport). This style was developed by mimicking the movements of animals and human labor and the monks used it primarily to defend themselves against wild animal attacks.)
Lohan Ch'uan is composed of many diverse aspects, containing techniques for dodging, grappling, throwing, tumbling, joint-locking, striking, kicking, elbowing, kneeing, and pushing. Great stress is placed on being sharp-eyed and ever vigilant in an encounter, with quick moving, highly evasive techniques that are not preplanned, but instead rely on proper execution of body mechanics, flexibility, energy flow, focused intent, wits, sudden inspiration, and acting in response to the needs of the situation. Feinting is also used to fool the opponent by being ever changing and highly unpredictable.
The most classic ideas of Chinese boxing are contained as primary elements of Lohan Ch'uan. The hand, eye, body, and foot are coordinated to work in tandem, with defense and offense being executed simultaneously. When moving, the joints of the arms and legs are kept neither totally straight nor totally bent, but instead are springy, flexed, and tensile. The body is kept low when moving, keeping one's Tan T'ien (Dantian) lower than the opponent's. Kicks spring out swiftly and become heavy on impact, as do hand strikes. Most movements are executed in a circular fashion, driven by the turning of the hips/waist and the opening/closing of the Kua (the ingienial fold along the leg/hip socket). But, whether the movements are up or down, forward or backward, withdrawing or advancing, the body continues to move along a straight line. The effect is like a spiraling tornado, clearing a path in its wake. The applications of the techniques are kept simple and practical, meant to immediately overcome the opponent.
Lohan Ch'uan's body mechanics (which come from Rou Quan) are powered by "ching luo (jingluo)," which is a traditional Chinese medicine theory that perceives within the human body a network of passages (main and collateral channels or "meridians") through which intrinsic energy ("ch'i [qi]") circulates, via breathing techniques ("ch'i gung [qigong]") that are combined with cardiovascular and muscular movements. During this period in martial arts, there was no distinction between "soft" and "hard" or "internal" and "external" (nei chia [neijia] ch'uan and wei chia [waijia] ch'uan) movements, both were equally emphasized in Lohan Ch'uan (as they were in the ancient styles that led to Lohan Ch'uan, such as Shuai Chiao, Sun Bin, Wu Dragon/Phoenix, etc.)
The Lohan Ch'uan style uses various long and close range boxing
The simultaneous use of attack and defense allows for continuous striking to be employed after a combination of hand movements, in all four directions, and with great variety to upper, middle, and lower targets, totaling over 300 kinds of kicks, such as side, fan, front, and back kicks. Besides these kicks, there are 24 ways of doing springing kicks (tan tui). In striking, flexibility is stressed; work is done to increase the degree of the kicking angle so as to be able to direct the kick at will.
Lohan Ch'uan's main concept is to not struggle in fighting, but to use
"soft" to overcome "hard" by using the opponent's own force against him
(i.e., redirection). Lohan Ch'uan strikes are kept soft until impact
and are open to sudden changes in direction. The symbol for this
redirective quality is "Ø" which is a circle with all its axis --
horizontal, vertical, and any angle -- forming a ball. Anyone attacking
the ball causes it to roll around, making the opponent miss. A large
attacking force will lose its center of gravity and fall (very similar
to ideas later used in T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Taijiquan), which partly
developed from Shaolin forms). The various hand movements are used to
create a spiraling force that changes the direction of an attacking
The "line" in the "circle" means that once the attacker's force is defused, one must then use emitting force from within one's centerline to counterattack. Concentration must be used to swiftly execute such a high-speed counter. The counterforce is executed like "releasing an arrow." This counterforce must also be "brisk, springy, crushing, and shaking." Speed and power and supple flexibility are to be balanced. To increase speed and power, while still maintaining soft flexibility, one must 1) coordinate the whole body and 2) use the mind (focused intent) to guide one's internal energy (ch'i).
In Lohan Ch'uan methodology, three methods are enforced:
The defensive slanted posture face's the opponent with the side of the body, exposing less areas to be attacked. In striking from this "single whip" slanted or inclining posture (also called the bow and arrow stance or the front stance), the waist is twisted with the shoulder following it, while the Kua folds closed as the waist twists, causing the back leg to straighten and push against the ground. Outgoing force extends out from the Kua, waist area, up the spine, through the shoulder, and out the striking hand.
2) The "Three Coordinations" -- Three points must be coordinated: the hand, leg, and eye. When one sees the target, the hand and foot are already there in readiness, making the actions more complete and full of "spirit." The Three Coordinations give the opponent too many things to fight against at one time. The foot is used to seal the opponent's foot, keeping him from moving forward or backward. At the same time, the fist attacks his face, making the opponent unable to avoid the counter. The Three Coordinations make the power and speed of the upper and lower body move as one, doubling their effect.
3) The "Six Harmonies" -- Six points must be integrated into harmonious movements: the "hand and foot," "elbow and knee," "shoulder and Kua," "mind and heart," "mind and energy," and "energy and strength." The Six Harmonies is a foundation that allows one to perform the "Three Alignments" and "Three Coordinations." Practice of the Six Harmonies allows one to strike cleanly and quickly, well coordinated and with balance between the internal and external body, making one well energized, efficient, and effective.
The Lohan style has various ch'i gungs to develop both the external and internal body. External ch'i gungs are done to develop the strength of the skin, muscle, and bone to increase speed, power, and flexibility. Internal ch'i gungs are done to use the mind to guide energy through the body to push one's strength with the aid of more energy.
Leverage is always important in Lohan Ch'uan, making for an intelligent use of force. Lohan Ch'uan tries to avoid using force against force. A head-on attack in a straight line is the worst case scenario and goes against its philosophy of avoiding struggle. Because it comes from Buddhism, it seeks not to attack, but to let nature take its course and let an attacker's force become spent as it is used against itself. Lohan Ch'uan uses leverage as a "scientific" method to find the best angle and direction for striking and/or upsetting the opponent's balance. The angle between the direction of one's outgoing force and the opponent's incoming force should be more than 90 degrees and less than 180 degrees; this range of angles makes it easier to defuse the opponent's incoming power and change the direction of its force, nullifying the attack. Use of leverage is called "slanting strength," following the saying, "4 ounces to move 1,000 pounds." Lohan Ch'uan also has a saying, "When one goes out the door, take their sheep," which means follow and borrow (by adhering, etc.) the incoming force, redirecting it to overcome the enemy by his own inertia. In this way, soft overcomes hard.
Lohan Ch'uan has many sets, some being two-person forms. There are San
Ta [Sanda] forms, ch'in na forms, and many weapons forms, notably the
Wind Devil staff form. Some of the empty hand sets are the 18 Hands, 18
Palms, 18 Fists, Small and Big Lohan forms, and others with 27, 54, 108
moves. The 18 Hands of the Lohan is considered to be the oldest and all
the others are said to have come from its techniques. These original 18
techniques later influenced not only the development of Chinese wu shu
(traditional and modern), but also that of other countries such as
Karate, Kenpo, Tang Soo Do, and others. The 18 methods from this
original set of loose techniques are:
These 18 techniques can be seen depicted by the 18 Lohan statues at
Shaolin. Because the Lohan Boxing style contains such great diversity
(with strikes, kicks, joint-locks, throws, etc.), it has been able to
last over 1,000 years and go on to become the foundation of many of
China's present day martial arts, as well as that of Okinawan
Karate/Kenpo. Its techniques are practical and basic, but the
methodology that powers the style is very complex and subtle, with its
internal/external nature and emphasis on balance of soft and hard
techniques. Its defense/offense concepts have become a part of much of
today's internal arts as well, such as T'ai Chi Ch'uan and Pa Kua (Tung
Hai Ch'uan [Dong Haichuan] was a Lohan master first). By creating a
boxing system out of its Shuai Chiao roots, the Shaolin monks were able
to create an original style that endures to this day. Many feel its
sets are still practiced in much the same way as they originally were.
Years ago, a survey was done in China of forms by various Lohan masters
from different parts of the country who had had no contact with each
other. When their execution of forms was compared, it was found that
there was little difference in the sets and techniques between them.
This means that the sets are more than likely the same as the
originals. Little did the monks know, from Lohan Ch'uan's start over
1,000 years ago, that they would be establishing the foundation for
Shaolin's legendary status throughout the world and developing
techniques that are a major influence on most of today's martial arts.
(c) 1996-7 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri