The origin of the Shaolin Warriors is rooted in tales dating back to approximately A.D. 525.
The stories say that, in the midst of persecution, a group of Buddhist monks searched for ways to protect themselves from aggression. The monks began to mimic the attack and defense movements of the animals living in the surroundings of the Shaolin monastery. The exercises helped them increase their health and strength—and over time, the practices gave rise to what is known as Shaolin kung fu.
The Shaolin monastery still stands in the Chinese province of Henan. Nowadays, the monks who occupy it don't need to use kung fu to defend themselves. Instead, they hold performances for the tourists who visit every day.
"It is so interesting to picture these monks and their disciplines that go back thousands of years," said Chuck Tennes, executive director of UApresents. "It is even more amazing to see that what started long ago will now be presented in Tucson."
In China, there are Shaolin kung fu performances in different areas of the country every day. The shows are free, and it is a tradition for families and neighbors to get together and watch them. "Kung fu is one of the many beautiful pieces of the Chinese culture," said Han Wenqiao, translator for the Shaolin Warriors. "People can go everywhere, even the Shaolin monastery, and watch kung fu and other types of martial arts."
The Shaolin Warriors are a martial-arts performing group influenced by Shaolin kung fu and other traditions practiced in the Shaolin monastery. Members of the group don't have a direct relationship with the monastery, but many of them come from Buddhist temples and martial-arts schools from around China.
The Shaolin Warriors begin their physical and spiritual training when they are as young as 6. The touring group's two youngest members are 12. Wenqiao said that they received permission to leave their martial-arts school in order to tour with the group. "They chose to come here and share the beauty of martial arts," Wenqiao said. "But while they tour, they continue to learn new techniques as part of the performance. That way, when they return to their school, they will be able to reintegrate into the regimen."
The other 20 performers are monks recruited from temples from around the country. Their lives are devoted to Buddhism and martial arts.
To the Warriors, Shaolin kung fu is more than a martial art. They use it as a tool to help them through their spiritual and physical disciplines. Because Buddhism rejects violence, the Warriors don't use Shaolin kung fu as a weapon, but as part of a process to reach enlightenment. Their sole goal is to develop a life of patience, self-control and, eventually, wisdom.
Wenqiao said that Shaolin kung fu is a combination of Zen and martial arts. Zen meditation helps the Warriors reach a state of mind that allows them to endure the difficult, and sometimes painful, Shaolin kung fu training.
When the Warriors are on tour, they continue to study Buddhism and polish their physical skills. They train for about four hours each day, meditate for about three hours, and have strict vegetarian diets, as they would back in their monasteries and martial-arts schools. "There is a lot of passion involved in the performance," Wenqiao said. "It takes a lot of sacrifice to be a Shaolin Warrior."
The Warriors' Buddhist upbringing is reflected in the performance itself. The show is divided into five stages: enlightenment, mind over body, mimic boxing, mastery of weapons, and graduation test. The 90-minute performance takes the audience through the journey of becoming a Shaolin Warrior.
"Their show is very appealing, because it covers their physical and spiritual disciplines," Tennes said. "It is an easy performance to relate to, because it involves history, martial arts and spirituality. There is something for everyone to enjoy."
Tennes has been working to bring the Shaolin Warriors to Tucson for more than a year. He said he was fascinated by the ancient history of Shaolin kung fu and how loyal the Warriors are to the beliefs it dictates.
"We should appreciate the traditions of people who were here long before us," Tennes said. "The Warriors are carrying traditions through so many generations, and it is such a privilege to get a close look at a tradition that has traveled halfway across the world, and for more than 1,500 years."