What exactly is Shaolin ‘Tongbiquan’?

Tongbiquan, or 通臂拳 in Chinese, translates as ‘Full Arm Boxing’, and is the primary style taught to students during the CK Martial Hearts Shaolin Kung Fu Camp 7-day program.

The name refers to the fact that power used in applying Tongbiquan techniques is delivered almost exclusively using only the arms, similar to how a baseball bat is used.

According to the the current Shaolin Temple Abbot, the Venerable Shi Yongxin, the current style of Tongbiquan taught at the Shaolin Temple is based on the kung fu style referred to by Han Tong in his text ‘The Routine of Datongbi Boxing‘. While Shaolin Tongbiquan is not the exact same style Han Tong was writing about, it is believed to have been the basis of Shaolin Tongbiquan, but subsequently practiced and improved upon, leaving us with the routine we learn today.

In his own book on the style, A Shaolin Monastery’s Compendium of Pugilism – Datongbi Boxing, Abbot Shi Yongxin classifies Tongbiquan as having the following characteristics:

  • brevity coupled with militancy,
  • strictly systematized movements coupled with highly controlled acts,
  • simplicity coupled with dynamism,
  • speediness coupled with aggressiveness,
  • highly flexible offense coupled with highly resilient defense, and
  • adaptability coupled with practicality

From these points, we can see that Full Arm Boxing is a very versatile style. It is also important to note that the whole form is only 3 minutes long when practiced at normal speed, and as such, is not considered to be overly long or too complex to learn. Of course, as with most things in life, even though something can be easy to learn, it takes constant practice over a very long time to really master anything, and this form is no different! And while all students on the 7-day programs will be able to learn the complete form from start to finish, those who enroll on our 14-day camps will be able to take full advantage of the time, and not just learn the form, but get a much better taste of how the above points play into how the form is practised and applied.

For the sake of clarity, it should also be noted that in many martial arts circles, there is some confusion as to what is Tongbiquan, and if or how it is related to the style know as Tongbeiquan (Through the Back Boxing).

As explained above, Tongbiquan means Full Arm Boxing, translated from the Chinese characters 通 (full) 臂 (arm) 拳 (fist or boxing). The confusion starts from the fact that in Henan Province, where the Shaolin Temple is located, in the local dialect 臂 (arm) is pronounced bei, instead of bi. Many people then hear the name Tongbeiquan (as it is called in the Henan dialect), and believe it is actually a different system, the name of which is also Tongbeiquan, but with a 背 (back) instead of the 臂 (arm) that is used in Tongbiquan.

Simply stated, Tongbiquan and Tongbeiquan are not related in any way, even though they sometimes sound the same. You can see how easy it is for the styles to have gotten confused, especially as many people now practising in the west neither read nor speak Chinese, so have difficulty in correctly identifying the style they are practising and teaching! Fortunately, more and more students and teachers are becoming more discerning, and making more effort to correctly identify what exactly it is they are teaching and studying, both in the West and in China itself. We can therefore hope that in the years and generations to come, everyone will know the difference between the styles, not just in name but in practice as well.

Let us know in the comments below if you have practiced this style of Shaolin martial arts, or if you have any questions about the version we learn at the Shaolin Temple. We always love to hear from you!

Yours in Martial Spirit


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Shaolin Large Full-Arm Boxing – Shaolin Chan City

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  1. Rashad

    It depends on what you want. If you want to win tuntnameors, go with Jiu-jistu. If you want something that will keep you safe on the street, go with Kung-fu. The reason for this is historical. Japan, the primogenitor of Jiu-Jitsu, has always been a homogenic, relatively peaceful society with little crime. Therefor their martial arts are focused less on pragmatic values and more on glory. Karate and Jiu-Jitsu are unique among the arts for being ritualized, and being easily adapted for use in competitions, because idle samurai (especially during the Tokugawa era) were continually testing themselves, and they needed to do so in a means that maximized intensity and minimalized injury. China, however, is much more heterogeneous. Don’t get into the whole slanty eyes’ racism; China is as varied as any western country, and historically was always plagued by bandits and criminals and invaders. The Chinese learned Kung-fu to preserve their lives. Everytime a Chinese man took to the road, he faced the threat of highwaymen or bandits. Or the mongols were raiding over the hill, your dedication to Kung-fu was the determining whether you lived or died.This is why there is only one rules set for Jiu-Jistu, but well over 300 styles of Kung-fu; the Japanese had enough time to write down the rules and make sure everyone was following them. In the tournament ring, or sparring, where there are boundaries, and rules against injury, jiu-jitsu fighters are in their zone. This is why Kung-fu fighters historically do terribly in tuntnameors. On the street, the Jiu-jistu fighter would be out of his zone, especially if the Kung-fu figher just raked his eye, or struck his shin and broke it, or jabbed him in the throat. It’s dirty and underhanded, but if you are trying to preserve your life, then the only rule is to win.So to say which one is more powerful’ is deceptive, because it depends on what you want. If you want to dominate in tuntnameors, take Mixed Martial Arts. If you want something that you can use in a crowded bar, or against an intruder in your house, take Kung-fu.Assistant instructor