If you're thinking of taking up a martial art, but find Thai kick-boxing too dangerous and Tai Chi too slow, how about trying Shaolin wushu? With a little training, you could be chopping through a block of wood bare-handed in no time.
Or so the Shaolin monks in generations of kung fu movies would have us believe. But Shaolin isn't just about showy moves. As part of a long tradition of Chinese martial arts, there are currently at least 200 streams of Shaolin wushu on record which cater to practitioners with different physiques or health conditions.
According to legend, Shaolin wushu originated from a Zen Buddhist patriarch named Da Mo who went to China over a thousand years ago to preach Buddhism and train monks to fight against bandits. But Andy Leung Kwok-fung, a 42-year-old Shaolin martial arts trainer who teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says his masters told him a different story.
'In the old society, no matter what kind of crime you had committed, you would be exempted as long as you became a monk and stayed in the temple,' explained Leung. 'As a result, many bandits and fugitives converted and then taught the monks their martial arts skills to ward off wild animals.'
As more bandits and bullies sought refuge in the temples, knowledge about different martial arts styles began to accumulate. The monks assimilated and refined what they had learned. Hence the old saying that all forms of martial arts originate from the Shaolin temple.
While the origin of Shaolin wushu is still open for debate, practitioners claim that it is a sport for everyone, from primary kids to elderly people. Leung agrees and says that different people find different styles more attractive than others.
The northern style of Shaolin boxing involves sequential movements that are elaborate and stretched out - a feature that seems to reflect the geography of northern China with its vast open spaces.
The southern style of Shaolin boxing, on the other hand, has movements which are distinctly more compressed. Again, this seems to reflect the landscape of the south, with its countless river valleys and a more compact sense of space.
But no matter which style suits you most, Shaolin wushu has numerous health benefits. 'It is an exercise that involves your whole body,' says Leung. 'I may feel tired after playing soccer, but I feel refreshed after practising kung fu because it helps blood to circulate around the body.'
Shaolin also preaches mental and physical restraint. Even though many Shaolin martial arts can be quite invasive, the spirit is to conquer your enemies with reason rather than excessive force.
'The word 'wu' in Chinese means to cease war. Our masters teach that the most sophisticated wushu is the one that can overcome an opponent or resolve an incident without resulting in any injuries,' said Leung.