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Martial mastery and the African origins of Shaolin

November 9, 2012

by Malaika H Kambon

Shaolin Warriors demonstrate systematic, prearranged sequences of martial techniques that are performed with or without weapons. These sequences of movements are used primarily as a way to develop proper mental and physical fortitude. In Western dojangs (schools), the movements generally resemble combat techniques – and indeed do enhance sparring abilities – but are sometimes artistically non-combative and woven together so as to be an effective conditioning tool. The patterns, when practiced repetitively to perfection, should demonstrate the students’ grasp of what the individual movements mean and their energy, precision, speed, fluidity and control. – Photo: Malaika Kambon
Recently I went to the Marin Veterans’ Memorial Center in San Rafael, where the famed Shaolin Warriors of China were to give a performance in display of their hand-to-hand and weapons martial skills. The troupe of 20 Shaolin monks were on the second leg of their fall 2012 North American Tour, and the performance, produced and owned by China Performing Arts Agency Productions, Ltd., was designed to be a dazzling display of gung-fu couched in a “theatrical display” of a “sacred and deadly art.”

Additionally, the Academy of Tae Kwon Do in San Francisco, where I am a student, was accorded a rare, once in a lifetime 15-minute special performance, a quarter hour prior to the show.

I was excited, and both the pre-show performance and the two hour show went without a hitch to a nearly full to capacity auditorium audience, who were so impressed with the monks, their performance, and the short gung-fu lesson given to a crowd of small children from the audience that the ensuing three standing ovations lasted from two to three minutes each.

In instances such as these, it is a given that a great many audience members are martial artists themselves. Yet it is always prudent, in my estimation, to wonder how many of the audience members are aware of the African origins of the martial arts?

Nigel BFG, in his article, “Short History: The Nuba and the African Origin of ALL Martial Arts,” published in the Black Karate Federation Magazine in 1999 and revised in 2000, states:

“As popular as the martial arts was and continues to be, less than one percent of Africans in diaspora and only a slightly higher percentage of Asians and Europeans are aware that the true origins of these magnificent arts are in fact African! Many African teens who fantasized themselves becoming the powerful Karnak (a superhero of comic legend), will be surprised to learn that Karnak was actually named after an ancient African temple in Egypt, and that the very name of his ancient discipline bespoke its origin. It is only recently that modern science and anthropology has agreed to admit that all human life shares a common point of origin in Africa. It was a watershed day, therefore, when the untold origins of the oldest martial arts on Earth were explored and documented in my 1990 book titled ‘Nuba Wrestling: The Original Art.’

“While not in general circulation, it is heralded as a landmark publication because it was the first global acknowledgement of Africa as the birthplace of the martial arts and sciences.”

In instances such as these, it is a given that a great many audience members are martial artists themselves. Yet it is always prudent, in my estimation, to wonder how many of the audience members are aware of the African origins of the martial arts?

Documentation of the earliest records of the martial arts can be found in Wesley Snipes’ documentary, “Masters of the Martial Arts,” as well as in Kalindi Iyi’s “African Roots in Asian Martial Arts” (Journal of African Civilizations, 7, 1:138-143).

With specific reference to Shaolin gung-fu, the Black Karate Federation article goes on to state:

“Buddha’s background and principles of thought can be traced to the Black people in India known as Dravidians,” as inherited from India’s older Black civilization known as Harappan, which is in turn the progenitor of the monk Bodhidharma, who left southern India for China in 520 A.D. to found and spread the teachings of Buddhism.

Within the Shaolin monastery, the disciplined spiritualism of Buddhism was based upon the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, to which Bodhidharma added a “prescribed set of exercises and movements to keep the monks healthy and awake during meditation.” Based upon the attack and defense movements of “seven sacred animals” that lived near the monastery, “these movements, and breathing exercises became known as the 18 Hands of Lo Han, and formed the basis of Chinese Shaolin Kung-Fu and, later, Japanese karate (although it must be noted that the indigenous Ainu on the island of present day Hokkaido, Japan, contributed significantly in the transmission of the martial arts to those islands).”

Obviously, the exercises were designed to preserve the physical and spiritual body, as a means to the unlocking of the soul.

The origins of martial arts appeared on the walls of Egyptian tombs some 3,000 years before the arts arose in China and Japan.
Hence it is always incorrect to interpret martial arts fighting techniques as having been designed to commit acts of naked aggression, as opposed to being employed as methods of self-defense.

The martial arts, while deadly in the hands of skilled practitioners, when practiced correctly, are done so in accordance with the philosophies of non-violence and non-aggression.

And through intense physical and mental preparedness and meditation, the unity of mind, body, spirit and soul produces a strong, focused and serene mind, and the “stillness” in movement that promotes growth and mental acuity. The arts are used in self-defense, only when necessary, thus making it extremely unwise to provoke a true practitioner.

This is a very brief look into the foundations of the gift of martial arts, given by their true originators in earliest Africa.

Photographic documentation of the African origins of martial arts can be found within Shaolin temples in the forms of statues and paintings and as hieroglyphics within paintings and stone tablets and upon the walls of Egyptian tombs.

With these firm principles in mind, I observed the Shaolin Warriors of China, as I have watched other demonstrations of Shaolin monks in other times and at other venues. Though media recording was only allowed during the pre-performance demonstration in Marin, my mind’s eye recorded the seriousness of the practitioners and the precision and crispness of very advanced techniques that could only have been performed within the context of a unity of physical will and training and of spiritual purpose.

We would all be wise to fully look beyond the merely commercial and the popular sport aspects of martial arts to their true origins and the depth of spirituality from which we may learn and grow.

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance photojournalist and the 2011 winner of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association Luci S. Williams Houston Scholarship in Photojournalism. She also won the AAU state and national championship in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2010. She can be reached at


18 thoughts on “Martial mastery and the African origins of Shaolin

  1. John Mulligan

    So are you saying that you want Sub- Saharan Africa to take credit for the Asian art of Kung Fu given that, according to you, Africans are the "true originators" of martial arts? Not only that, you are claiming that Egypt was "black" within the meaning of Sub-Saharan African? And further, that the people of India are in fact also Sub-Saharan African. And you being of Sub-Saharan African descent, can take pride, somehow, from this?

    Look, we did this with the Olmecs…. It's racist. You can't steal another culture and make it your own. Stop. Indians are Indian. MesoAmericans are MesoAmericans. Egyptians are Egyptian. Kung Fu is Chinese. The Chinese have their own rich culture and you have yours. Stop stealing.

    1. Gary

      Very good John, most people don't realize that the first slave were Indians, shipped off American soil to the West Indies. Oh yeah, and those Indians were black. I agree, Egypt was the prime example of white washing. Quite as kept, blacks or African had a great influence on Ancient China.

  2. junya

    Do I understand this reasoning correctly? The justification for the claim of an African origin of Shaolin kung-fu is:

    1. Legends say Bodhidharma originated Shaolin kung-fu.
    2. Bodhidharma is believed to have come from South India, thus most likely of Dravidian ethnicity.
    3. Harappan (aka Indus Valley) civilization seemed to have linguistic and cultural links to Dravidian.
    4. Harappan civilization was "Black".
    5. Therefore, Shaolin kung-fu is of African origin.

    First, I don't understand what is meant by the claim that Harappan civilization was "Black". Does this refer only to skin color, or to linguistic/cultural characteristics? If "Black" just means skin color, then I don't get the jump from step 4 to step 5. Is there a claim that Dravidians and all other people of dark skin are African? On the other hand, if "Black" refers to linguistic/cultural characteristics, then again Dravidians would be "Black". But according to step 5, they therefore are of African origin. This is a remarkable claim. The African origin of humanity is accepted by all. But the jump to claiming that cultural achievements of Dravidians (or any dark people) are of African origin is a huge one requiring proof.

    Or am I missing something here?

  3. Joseph

    Black is a color, not a race. This type of Afro-centric "scholarship" does nothing to advance the cause of people of African origin living in the diaspora, in fact, just the opposite. If Africans "invented" science, then modern researchers must use scientific methodology to advance their hypothesis. Just saying something doesn't make it so.

  4. Arch.J

    “Egyptians are Egyptian”, this pretty much sums up the extent of your knowledge on culture and civilization. Please read a book before you say something so simplistically silly.

  5. Arch.J

    "Egyptians are Egyptian", this pretty much sums up the extent of your knowledge on culture and civilization. Please read a book before you say something so simplistically silly.

  6. John Mulligan

    Arch, I have no idea who you are. But if you are African American, i.e., descended from slaves brought here in bondage in a great injustice, I challenge you to find an Egyptian national and convince him/her that you heritage is the same.

    Afrocentrism = low self esteem.

    1. Arch.J

      I never would and if you knew anything about historical development you'd know why. Your just further expounding on your ignorance of the subject and ad hominem attacks can't cover for it.

    1. Werwolf

      The fact that we are having a discussion about the AFRIKAN origins of Kung Fu proves that we have lost. That is the AFRIKAN way. It wins.

  7. Rene

    I’ll say that blacks and whites have a racist habit of taking credit for everything. Such as blacks believing everyone came from Africa and thus all people descend from blacks. As a result whites are the supposedly racist, dumb, ruthless savages of history. And all people of color are uniformly righteous and should band together against the big bad white man.
    Or whites believing that Egypt was white and all thing significant could only originate from white people. Since blacks could never have contributed to anything historically because blacks are savages whose only history is slavery. Both come from a superiority and inferiority complex.

    Reality is both groups should study and understand the bible. Since both groups hate the bible and thus hate God both are in this contest to disprove the significance of the other.

    If both groups would research and understand the bible they would realize that after the flood the concept of denoting identity based upon solely skin color was erroneous. It was only used as a descriptive enhancer which was in direct accordance to the bloodline and individual descended from. Other than that identity was deferred to through tribes which would cumulatively form nations.

    Throughout post flood history whites and blacks have always had a symbiotic relationship with one another. Post flood the first world ruler was a white man named Noah who passed down his rulership to his son Shem who was a white man. Nimrod, a black man rebelled against this order and formed an opposing world rulership symbolized through the famous tower of Babel or Babylon. After the dispersement of nations Nimrod and his blood line held on to their world rulership through alliances with other kingdoms consisting of white people. Through these white nations Nimrod ensured his military and religious domination of the world since they were his enforcers. These white nations militarily controlled a collection of black city states called Canaanites whom they intermingled with and formed the racial equivalent of American blacks. The Canaanites ruled what we know of as Egypt, which was another black nation but was referred to as the land of Ham since the Egypt city state didn’t have control over all the land. These Canaanites bore giants because of their intermingling with the spirits of the giants who were killed off by the flood. The Caananite Giants living in Egypt are the ones who taught the Egyptian priests martial arts and how to build the religious/scientific towers we call pyramids. After Abraham killed Nimrod and his alliance of Babylonian rulers(who cumulatively killed the Canaanite giants) the Canaanites spread throughout the entire world and some of them formed the racial,cultural,religious foundation of all the nations we consider “Asian”. These nations were the Sinites,Hethites,and Hittites.

    These same Canaanite nations brought over the Egyptian and Ethiopian colonial powers that subsequently colonized southern India, China,and all of Asia. Intermixing with the red(brown) skin foreigners who were allowed to live in their land of Eastern Ethiopia or what we call the Indus Valley (Southern India) the Ethiopians / Egyptians/Canannites formed a mixed race we call Dravidians. Cumulatively the Canannites, Egyptians, Ethiopians , along with their mixed race black&red(brown) children, and the red(brown) man originally ruled Asia.

    Forming the highest classes were the black Canaanites,Egyptians,Ethiopans followed by the
    mixed Dravidians. The red(brown) man were a separate class ruled by the darker colored classes. The Ainu followed, which were white people coming from the Middle East or what we call Aryans which intermixed with the black,mixed,red(brown) nations of peoples and formed the modern day white skinned,light skinned,brown(red) ruling class of people who now rule Asia today.

    These white skinned Asians were socio-economic slaves to the upper classes of blacks who ruled Asia. They were treated horribly and atrociously, they were the equivalent of what blacks and dravidians are today in regards of being untouchable and social outcasts. They suffered all types of physical and sexual abuse.

    From the ruling black races did the white skinned, brown(red) Asians learn gungfu. The black priest+warrior nobility classes were cumulatively the 1st buddhas and are whom “Buddha” is an amalgamation of. These two nobility classes went out to civilize what they considered a savage and backward race of people through passing on the knowledge of spiritual enlightenment, which also consisted of what we call gungfu. Originally religious enlightenment and selfdefense were one in the same.

    As they grew in numbers, joining forces together the white,red(brown) skinned asians over threw their black rulers, gradually took over asia, and remade history in their own image. This is why it seems impossible to believe that blacks could have taught the Chinese Kung fu or that the Chinese actually originated from blacks.

    1. Lamar

      You really don’t know your Earth History, and need to learn that one ingredient thing you forgot, Melanin a carbon base material, research this and you will find the truth to the beginning of creation. And the people you named Noah and Shem research the origin of the names and you will see all you need to know. Make sure you know facts upon something before debating.

  8. Gary

    Really, every one's making a great argument, but does anyone have any research to prove it? Or, has anyone taken the time out to research the arguments in this article?


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