In ancient China, in different places across the nation, many training methods were developed to enhance the ability of martial artists. There is even a saying “To practice martial arts without practicing the special chi kung, when you get older your practice will prove futile.” (练拳不练功，到老一场空; Liàn quán bù liàngōng, dào lǎo yīchǎngkōng).
These special chi kung methods were generally aimed at:
- improving the power of attacks
- improving the resistance against attacks
- improving balance and jumping power
- overall physical conditioning.
The common requirement for developing any of these skills are:
(1) stepwise, progressive overloading
(2) persistent practice.
The list of skills
Here is the list of the 72 skills, 36 of which are categorized as hard (highlighted in bold and italics) and 36 which are soft.
- 一指金刚法 (one finger Vajra method)
– 金刚指 (Vajra finger)
– 金指 (metal finger)
– 铁指 (iron finger)
- 双锁功 (paired locking exercise)
– 撞掌功 (exercise of bumping the palms/forearms)
- 足射功 (‘launching’ the feet exercise)
- 拔钉功 (pulling out nails exercise)
- 抱树功 (embracing a tree exercise)
– 弥勒（佛）功 (Maitreya/Milefo exercise)
- 四段功 (4 section exercise)
- 一指禅功 (one finger Zen/Dhyana meditation exercise)
- 铁头功 (iron head exercise)
this skill is demonstrated in:
– 油锤贯顶 (oily hammer piercing through the crown of the head)
– 双龙入海 (double dragons go into the sea)
– 砸砖等技 (smash bricks skill)
- 铁布衫功 (iron cloth A-shirt exercise)
- 排打功 (an arranged series of hits exercise)
- 铁扫帚 (iron broom)
– 铁腿功 (iron leg exercise)
– 撞腿功 (exercise of bumping the legs)
- 竹叶手 (bamboo leaf hands)
– 铜砂掌 (copper powder hand)
– 翻砂掌 (turning over sand palm) or perhaps 畈砂掌 (field sand palm)
- 蜈蚣跳 (palpitating centipede)
– 蛇行术 (move like a snake technique)
- 提千斤 (lifting 1000 pounds / 500 kilos)
– 石荸荠功 (a stone Chinese waterchestnut exercise)
- 仙人掌 (taoist immortal’s palm)
– 阳手 (Yang hand)
– 仙人指 (Taoist immortal’s fingers)
- 刚柔法 (strength and gentleness method)
– 纸篷功 (paper sail exercise)
- 朱砂掌 (vermillion colored sand/cinnabar palm)
– 梅花掌 (plum blossom palm)
– 红砂掌 (red sand palm)
Related to but distinct from:
– 黑砂手 (black sand hand, see n49 below)
- 卧虎功 (crouching tiger exercise)
– 睡功 (sleeping exercise)
– 猫功 (cat exercise)
– 铁板桥 (iron plank bridge)
- 泅水术 (swimming in water techniques)
– 浪里攒 (saving oneself in the waves)
– 水底潜行术 (diving stealthily underwater technique)
– 八段功 (eight section exercise, NOT to be confused with 八段锦/8 pieces of brocade)
– 水性 (swimming ability)
– 游泳术 (swimming technique)
- 千斤闸 (1000 pounds / 500 kilos sluice)
- 金钟罩 (golden bell cover)
- 锁指功 (locking the fingers exercise)
– 捻指功 (exercise of twirling the fingers)
- 罗汉功 (Arhat’s/Saint’s exercise)
– 练枣子 (to practice the jujubes, i.e. the eyes)
- 壁虎游墙术 (gecko walking on a wall technique)
– 爬壁功 (climbing a wall exercise)
– 挂画 (a painting hanging from a hook)
– 守宫游墙术 (a gecko walking on a wall technique)
– 蝎虎游墙术 (a scorpion walking on a wall technique)
- 鞭劲法 (whipping strength method)
- 琵琶功 (pipa/Chinese lute exercise)
– 三阴指 (three Yin fingers)
– 指头弹 (flicking fingertips)
- 流星桩 (shooting star stumps)
– 站打桩 (stand and hit poles)
– 打千层纸 (strike a thousand layers of paper)
- 梅花桩 (plum blossom stumps)
– 三才桩 (three talents stumps)
– 七星桩 (7 stars, a.k.a. big dipper/great bear stumps)
– 九星桩 (9 stars stumps)
– 移闪砖法 (to shift your weight and make dodging movements on bricks method)
- 石锁功 (stone padlock exercise)
- 铁臂功 (iron arms exercise)
– 磕臂功 (exercise of knocking the arms)
- 弹子拳 (bullet fists)
– 打骨缝 (strike so the bones crack) of the 虎爪拳 (tiger claw boxing) martial art
- 柔骨功 (soft bones exercise)
– 拗腰折腿之功夫(twisting the waist and bending the legs gongfu)
– 童子功 (boy’s exercise, particularly pre-teenage boys)
– 柔功 (soft exercise) – this is a gentle variation suitable for older people…
– 四段功 (4 section exercise) – there are some variations of the 4 section exercise which resemble the flexibility exercises more than that they resemble the exercises normally considered part of the four section exercise.
- 蛤蟆功 (toad exercise)
– 癞团劲 (round red dots on the skin strength)
– 举礅子 (lifting a stone block)
- 穿帘功 (piercing a banner exercise)
- 鹰爪力 (eagle claw power)
– 龙爪功 (dragon claws exercise)
– 擒拿手 (qinna hand)
- 铁牛功 (iron bull exercise)
- 鹰翼功 (eagle wings exercise)
- 阳光手 (transparent hands)
- 铁裆功 (iron crotch exercise)
– 金蝉功 (the golden cicada exercise)
– 铁蛋功 (iron eggs exercise)
– 门裆功 (gateway crotch exercise)
- 铁袋功 (iron bag exercise)
- 揭谛功 (expose the truth exercise)
this is probably a misspelling of the phonetically and tonally identical:
– 接地功 (connect to earth exercise)
- 龟背功 (turtle back exercise)
note that this is different from
– 虎背功 (tiger back exercise)!
- 蹿纵术 (leaping up vertical technique)
preliminary exercises include:
– 腿上包铅 (wrap lead on legs)
– 山路山口健步如飞 (run along mountain roads and passes as fast as if you were flying)
– 跑缸功 (run on a vat exercise)
– 一足跑立砖 (one foot runs on standing bricks).
- 轻身术 (light body technique)
a subskill is:
– 跑缸边 (running on the edge of a vat).
- 铁膝功 (iron knees exercise)
- 跳跃法 (the leaping method)
– 超跃功 (superjumping exercise)
- 摩插术 (rubbing and piercing technique)
– 点穴术 (‘touch’ pressure point technique)
– 击骨法 (breaking bones method)
- 石柱功 (stone pillar exercise)
- 铁砂掌 (iron sand palm)
– 黑砂手 (black sand hand)
– 毒手 (poisonous hand)
– 钢砂掌 (steel sand palm)
– 铁手飞砂 (iron hand, flying sand)
– 黑虎手 (black tiger hand).
- 一线穿 (to pass through one wire);
perhaps this could originally have been：
– 一线龙船 (a one line white-water raft) because passing through (穿) makes no sense here.
This skill is also called:
– 绳索行走 (rope walking)
– 登苹/蹬萍 渡水 (tread on a duckweed to ferry accross the water)
– 踏雪无痕 (tread on the snow without leaving traces).
- 吸阴功 (to suck in the genitals exercise)
– 锁阳功 (lock the male principle exercise)
– 缩阳功 (withdraw the male principle exercise)
– 提档功 (to lift the crotch exercise)
- 枪刀不入法 (spears and blades cannot enter method)
- 飞行功 (flying travel/flight exercise)
– 夜行术？ (night walk skill)
– 飞行世上？ (flight on earth)
– 独行千里？ (traveling alone for 1000 chinese miles/ 500 km)
- 五毒手 (five poisonous/fierce hands)
– 阴手 (sinister/Yin hand)
– 五雷掌 (five thunders palm)
- 分水功 (to separate water exercise)
- 飞檐走壁发 (flying onto ledges and walking on walls method)
– 横排八步 (eight horizontal steps)
- 翻腾术 (somersaulting methods)
– 皮条功 (leather strap exercise)
- 柏木桩 (cedar/cypress wood stumps)
- 霸王肘 (oppressive ruler’s elbows)
- 拈花功 (picking flowers exercise)
- 推山掌 (pushing mountains palm)
- 马鞍功 (horse saddle exercise)
- 玉带功 (jade belt exercise)
– 乾坤转 (turning Heaven and Earth)
- 阴拳功 (hidden fist exercise)
– 井拳功 (fist of the well exercise)
- 沙包功 (sand bags exercise)
This is practically identical to
– 打糠包 (hitting the husk bags)
- 点石功 (to briefly ‘touch’ a stone exercise)
- 拔山功 (to pull out mountains exercise)
- 螳螂抓 (mantis claws)
– 金刚手 (Vajra hands)
- 布袋功 (the laughing Buddha exercise)
– 阴阳气吸功 (yin and yang-qi being sucked in exercise)
- 观音掌 (Boddhisatva of compassion/looking at sounds palm)
– 斩魔剑 (sword for beheading devils)
- 上罐功 (to let a jar go up exercise)
– 绞棒功 (exercise of twisting a stick)
- 合盘掌 (joining coils of wire exercise)
– 金龙手 (golden dragon hands)
The number of arts
Over time, because of Chinese numerology, the count of the number of skills was set at 72, with half of the skills being categorized as belonging to internal strengthening exercises (内壮功), and half to the external strengthening exercises (外壮功). Depending on the way one counts, the total number of skills can be less, equal to, or more than 72.
For example, the list above shows number 44 to be “light body technique” (轻身术), and mentions other techniques which fall in this same category (for example 46. “the leaping method” [跳跃法]; 43 “the leaping up vertical technique” [蹿纵术], etc…) If we would put all these techniques under the heading of “light body techniques”, the list of 72 skills would be reduced to 61 skills.
In contrast, certain training methods are mentioned under one header, as they form part of the preliminary exercises for a particular skill, or are variations of a particular skill. For example, in the list above we can see that there are 4 variations of n28 梅花桩 (plum blossom stumps), namely 三才桩 (three talents stumps); 七星桩 (7 stars, a.k.a. big dipper/great bear stumps); 九星桩 (9 stars stumps), and 移闪砖法 (to shift your weight and make dodging movements on bricks method). If we would count these in, we would arrive at 76 skills instead of 72. Likewise, n43 蹿纵术 (leaping up vertical technique) has many preliminary exercises that are not even given mention in this list of 72 skills.
Moreover, several of the skills in this list have many names, and may be considered as distinct from one another by some practitioners, while other practitioners might consider these different names to be synonyms for one same skill. This also amounts to different counts.
Despite the difficulty in counting and agreeing on what can be considered a separate skill, and what forms part of one whole skill set, these arts keep being referred to as the 72 skills (sometimes 72 arts, depending on translation of 七十二艺).
As with so many Chinese martial arts, these skill sets have become associated with the Shaolin warrior monks. Some legends even tell there were 72 chambers in Shaolin through which the apprentice had to pass to reach mastery, with each chamber representing a training ground for one of these skills. (Anyone who has been to Shaolin knows the monastery is too small for this to be true.) The original development of these 72 skills is often accredited to Shaolin, a buddhist monastery which is considered by many to be the true source of all Chinese martial arts as well as the original place of Zen practice.
While the Shaolin monastery has gained fame for its martial arts in the last centuries, systematic practice of martial arts in China predates the Shaolin temple, and has been practiced at many places throughout China uninterruptedly from past to present.
Many people know that a large number of martial arts throughout China have been influenced by Shaolin martial arts or that these other martial arts claim to have a direct or indirect relation to Shaolin. (Sometimes obscure martial arts faked or suggested a link with Shaolin in order to increase the credibility of their own martial art. And who can blame them, when people’s shallow judgment makes them think that only Shaolin and Wudang are great Chinese martial arts? In order to catch students’ original interest, mention of a link to Shaolin or Wudang has become almost a necessity.)
What many people do not know is that the influence between obscure martial arts and Shaolin was bidirectional, with the Shaolin martial arts having come into being through practitioners of lesser known but very efficient martial arts visiting the monastery and teaching there for a while at different periods throughout history. Often the influence was merely unidirectional with Shaolin receiving instruction from outside masters, rather than being able to surpass the skill of the obscure master.
Because Shaolin is not always the originator of its own martial arts, but rather the collector of different Chinese martial arts, I decide not to refer to these 72 martial skills as the 72 skills of shaolin. I simply refer to them as the 72 skills because I believe they have roots in different martial traditions from across the Chinese nation. However, Shaolin does get credit for having amassed these arts under one roof. Despite this, even within the walls of the Shaolin monastery no single person has ever mastered all 72 of these skills.
As soon as I find the time, I intend to reorganize this list according to which skills fit together. More specifically, these are the categories I intend to use:
(A – overall physical conditioning )
(B – Skills that improve balance, jumping power, and deftness)
(C – skills for resistance against attacks)
(D – Skills for improving the power of attacks)
Over time, I also intend to create a post for most of these skills based on input from different sources in both English language and Chinese.
If you like to contribute to the blog posts that will appear and have appeared here on this topic, this is your chance.
I am gladly welcoming input from people who have demonstrable experience in these arts or of Chinese language and culture.
I would also appreciate to be made aware of non Shaolin and non Chinese martial arts which train these skills, as well as of both past and present day practitioners who train any of these arts, instructional books, dvds, websites as well as movies that portray these skills.
Moreover, if you see parallels between the claimed effects of these training methods, and the prowess of a historical or mythical figure of any culture, I would be glad to know.
Everyone else is also free to leave comments, ask questions or discuss your ideas below.
I will integrate information you provide so the overview of these arts that will be collected here over time is as complete as possible.
- “Shaolin Kung-fu” (2007) written by 冯永臣 and 王跃进
published by China Travel & Tourism Press, ISBN: 7-5032-2966-7
- Authentic Shaolin Heritage: Training methods of 72 arts of Shaolin (2007) written by Jin Jing Zhong
published by Lulu, ISBN: ???
- Kung Fu – History, Philosophy and Technique, Chapter 6: The Dynamics of Kung (1980) written by David Chow & Richard Spangler
published by Unique Publications, ISBN: 0865680116
- 少林精功七十二艺 (2010) written by 乔蓓艺
published by ???, ISBN: 978-7-5337-4657-5
- Chinese-English and English-Chinese Wushu Dictionary (2007) written by 段平 and 郑守志
published by China People’s Sports Publishing House, ISBN: 978-7-5009-3001-3