Martial arts is about so much more than just fighting. It's culture and family. It's legacy. A way of life. So let's explore the past a little more. Re-discover the masters who never got a pay-per-view contract yet inspired those who did.
Karate is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom. It developed from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts under the influence of Chinese Kung Fu, particularly Fujian White Crane. Also called Karate Do. - wiki
During the rise of Communism in the Maoist Revolution of 1949, the red plague destroyed much of the ancient literature and killed many of the monks who maintained this once massive body of knowledge. The mighty Shaolin have since been largely reduced to a tourist attraction. Though I hope some might be secretly training for real somewhere far from the eyes of government.
It wouldn't be the first time the Shaolin have defied the power of the state.
Many escaped China to continue training in peace. The West experienced a Kung Fu renaissance when most of the world's best Chinese fighters emigrated to America and Europe. Karate vs Kung Fu vs Tae Kwon Do vs Jujitsu vs Aikido etc. Long before Mixed Martial Arts... we cheered with excitement as traditional rivalries between Japan, Korea, China, and others played out in movies and tournaments around the free world. Red China thought it had destroyed the past; instead they spread it to every corner of the globe.
Here's a list of the greatest (and most famous) Chinese Fighters; past and present; real or imagined.
The Ten Tigers of Canton
Each of the ten tigers was a specialist in unique Kung Fu traditions. All are derived from Southern Shaolin Style and in practice still very similar. Low stances, fewer kicks, stronger bodies, precise deconstruction of an enemies production through economy of movement. Beyond the fundamentals of bone and sinew metamorphosis are the animal spirit that stylize and further the individual innovations applied by the martial artist.
Wong Yan-lam | "Lion's Roar" style, student of the Tibetan monk Xinglong. This style is very difficult to master and encapsulates the teachings of three more common styles. Hap Family Fist, Lama Style, and White Crane Fist (The only major style created by a female master, Fang Qinian)
Wong Ching-ho | "Nine Dragons Fist" style, student of Luk Ah-choi. The Dragon styles are imitative. Developed upon the imagined characteristics of the mythical Chinese dragon. The traditional wingless serpents with the big beards full of elemental wisdom. Distinct in both mode and nature to the shoulder heavy, muscle bound, Western Dragons with their massive wings.
So Hak-fu | "Black Tiger" style, student of Shaolin monk Zhaode. Also known as Hak Fu Mun, this is a personal system build upon the traditional Southern Shaolin style he was taught by Zhaode.
Wong Kei-ying | "Hung Ga" style, student of his father Wong Tai and later Luk Ah-choi. A doctor and the father of the world famous Wong Fei Hung. Hung Ga is considered by many to be the pinnacle of southern style. Lowest stances, strongest bodies, closest system to mastering the pain endurance elements of Shaolin tradition. Starts hard and becomes soft. Enlightenment through suffering.
Lai Yan-chiu | "Souther Praying Mantis" style. Although a tiger, he was only a part time player who operated a pawn shop, Shun Hang. As you can imagine how critical this was to any "operation" required of our band of ferocious heroes.
So Chan | "Hung Ga" style. The infamous Beggar So. The Drunken Fist master with the Shaolin Pole. The king of beggars.
Leung Kwan | "Hung Ga" style, student of Shaolin master Li Huzi (Bearded Li, also known as "Golden Hook") More commonly known as Tit Kiu Sam, or Iron Bridge Three. Best known for his "Iron Bridges" and the Iron Wire Fist form. His Iron Wire Fist is the highest level in most Hung Ga schools and his work is very important to the current Hung Ga system.
Chan Cheung-tai | The mysterious Iron Finger Chan. I don't know anything more about him.
Tam Chai-kwan | "Huadu style Hung Ga and Tam Ga". A kick artist nicknamed Three Legs Tam for the three types of kicks he preferred.
Chau Tai | "Choy Li Fut", master of the long staff and "soft hands techniques".
The Top Masters
There are those that stand alone. Masters of unusual accomplishment. Not always for fighting, but also for contributions to martial arts as a whole.
Fang Qinian was the only female grand master of the golden age of Kung Fu. Creator of the Fujian White Crane Fist style which imitates characteristics of the crane's movements, methods of attack and spirit. It is one of the six well-known schools of Shaolin Boxing. The others being Tiger, Monkey, Leopard, Snake and Dragon. A pressure point style, it is said that Fang Qinian could kill with a single strike.
Wong Fei Hung is considered universally as the best Hung Ga (Tiger) practitioner of all time and possibly the best fighter. Most importantly he embodied the essence of martial spirit. A doctor and community leader. A folk hero in the truest sense of the word. Famous for his unbreakable horse stance and condensing the traditionally long forms of Hung Ga into more manageable pieces.
Lam Sai Wing was the greatest disciple of Wong Fei Hung. The Magnificent Butcher is credited as the first grand master to allow his techniques and Hung Ga generally to reach non-Chinese students through English publication. A war hero and teacher. Some of his students were among the first actors and stunt people in the emerging 1940s Hong Kong "Kung Fu" movie industry. His stories of Wong Fei Hung are now film legend.
Ip Man was a grand master of Wing Chun style. A more contemporary version of Wong Fei Hung. His most famous student was the electric Bruce Lee. Ip Man taught Bruce some things about water. Do you kick the water? Or do you only think you do? A cup holds the water and the water takes on the shape of the cup. You can kick the cup, but can you kick the water? It goes around you, shaped by you.
Bruce Lee ... what more do I need to say? Be like the water.
The only living person on this list. A modern day action superstar. A genuine martial artist with on screen presence. The gold standard. A true talent and currently carrying the flame for Kung Fu movies all over the world.
Donnie Yen has largely escaped the legacy of Red China in Hong Kong where people were still free to pursue their dreams thanks to British protection. Actor, martial artist, film director, producer, action choreographer, and multiple-time world wushu tournament champion.
Go rent a Donnie Yen movie today. Any one. Doesn't matter. Just do it!