The Chinese LoHan of Kung Fu

To some they were robbers and outlaws. They raided innocent villagers their  yells and catcalls chilling the night. After, by the light of burning hovels, they galloped into the darkness. You could not have told them from the thousands of Chinese bandits who lived off the work of others like rats in a granary. You could not have known them to be the stuff of enlightenment unless, of course, you had heard it from the horse’s mouth yourself.

Shaolin LoHan practice, stick and bag

The 18 LoHan (LuoHan) are legendary heroes of Buddhism and China. When you visit the Shaolin Temple you will walk past an outdoor porched area populated with bigger than life sized statues. These represent one of the fundamentals legends and sub styles of the Shaolin system: those disciples of Buddha known as the LoHan (LuoHan). As legend goes the Shaolin Temple has a hall known as the LoHan Palace where 36 wooden figures were set up to be activated by the pressure of a student walking on the floorboards. These spring loaded dummies would then swing or slide down in the direction of the startled monk with wooden fists or weapons aimed to do damage. Each dummy was designed to throw only one blow but with enough power to make it meaningful.
Should the kung fu man be lucky and skillful enough to reach it, the next phase of the test involved a sloped ramp bordered with twenty-four wooden horses. The only thing to do was reach the bottom of the slope while dodging these two dozen run away steeds.

LoHan statuary

If not historically accurate at least these were the tests devised by novelists writing about the monastery in the Ming Dynasty. A more reasonable possibility was that the disciple who wanted to return to the outside world and yet retain his connection with the Shaolin community was required to traverse a gauntlet of 36 living monks, including his own teachers,  all waiting to make him earn his release. This was probably the reason so many monks just “hopped the wall” rather than trust a test they were almost assured of losing.
The LoHan were also known as Arhats (worthy of reverance) and differed from Buddhas or Bodhisattavas. Though highly evolved the LoHans were not considered to have attained a Buddha’s level of enlightenment. Representations of the Hinayana school, they are considered those sentient beings who are boarding the “small vessel” and thus securing salvation only for their own persons rather then halting their paths and serving other souls. In this life their disciplined approach and self sacrifice is believed to have bestowed amazing powers such as light body flying and great strength. It is really these religious beliefs rather than Kung Fu fantasies which associate the Shaolin monks with their miraculous feats.

Old LoHan drawings

LoHan Numerology
It is most common to say that there 18 LoHan. But different groupings also have 4, 16, 36, 500 and 1255.

Originally there were only four. (1) In the Seng I Jing (313 bce) we learn that on his deathbed Sakayamuni appointed four disciples to preserve his doctrine. Then, 100 years later, Tao Chi translated “The Lectures of the Bodhisattava on the Mahayana” from Sanskrit into Chinese. The LoHan in this version numbered sixteen. During the Tang dynasty (618-907) Hsuen Tsang (Tripitaka) returned from India bringing the scripture “Fa Chiu Chi” and a much more detailed account of the sixteen LoHan based on the oral inheritance from Ch’ing Yu of Ceylon. From this point on the LoHan became Buddhist folk heroes in the Chinese mind.

In the Five dynasties period spiritual inflation hiked the number to eighteen LoHan when Ch’ing Yu and Hsuan Tsang, the messengers of the LoHan tales, were added to the ranks. This was even retroactive. The earliest carving of the sixteen LoHan in China is found in Hangchow’s Smoke and Rosy Cloud Cave. It was carved by Wu Yen Shuang during the Five dynasties but, by the Song dynasty, members 17 and 18 had been added to the original carving.

In Tibet the story was a bit different. When the sixteen LoHan traveled from the central plane of China into Tibet two different names were added: Madam Moya (the Buddha’s mother) and Maitreya the Smiling Buddha. Yet another folk custom added emperor Wu (Liang dynasty) and Tamo (Boddhidharma) the founder of the famous Shaolin Buddhist clan. In each case the result for this select club always topped at eighteen members.

So how do we explain a version with 1255 LoHan? This number records the entire first generation disciples of Amitabha with the four disciples at top, followed by the sixteen LoHan next, and the remainder of the generation also known as “LoHan”.

Monks practicing in a "LoHan" formation

There are many folk tales about the LoHan. In a common Chinese version they were originally a band of eighteen outlaws.  One night after a raid their lead horse suddenly stopped and would not bear away the load of booty. When beaten it started to cry and then mysteriously began speaking. “I was a robber like you in my previous existence and most of you were my victims. I was reincarnated here to pay back the evil I had committed. Now I’ve repaid the debt and will no longer help you.” Frozen like statues the eighteen robbers glanced among themselves. It didn’t take them long to reverse their direction in life  and become devout Buddhists with an example like this in front of them. As the saying goes, “An evil man becomes a Buddha the moment he lays down his butcher’s knife.” After lives of exemplary deeds and kindness the LoHan reached enlightenment and now dwell in Nirvana, forever un-reincarnated.

Throughout the centuries LoHan have been associated with Kung Fu. The most ancient of Shaolin styles is known as LoHan boxing and its powerful, direct and simple movements give the impression of an older, less refined martial era. Sometimes LoHan moves are downright crude using strength and very basic leverage. This style eventually developed more sophistication and was divided into  eighteen different methods or energies. But even with its refinement it is still easy to spot a LoHan by its distinctive uppercut – extension punch similar to a movement in Shaolin known as Drunken Monk Sleeps in the Sun ( a possible reminder of the LoHan’s less spiritual past?)

One of the honorable Arhats

The LoHan continue to be a part of the Kung Fu world with many styles having LoHan forms or at least Qigong exercises said to come from the Shaolin Temple. For instance one Sifu, Shiu Han Sheng, blended the Northern and Southern LoHan moves to create an exercise of thirty-six actions which he taught in Singapore. LoHan exercises also made up a part of Wong Han Fun’s Northern Praying Mantis curriculum. In another instance LoHan was married to the famous Lost Track creating a style well represented by sifus like Alex Kwok. They are also hopeful symbols of what practice and high aspirations may accomplish.

1.  Mahakasyapa, Pindola, Kundadhana and Rahula.


LoHan Boxing Book

Choy Lai Fut LuoHan exercises,

One Response to “The Chinese LoHan of Kung Fu”

  1. Alfonso Holderness says:

    As a beginner practicioner I find any advice helpful and reliable resources and blogs are hard to find.

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