The Martial Arts Origins and Development of Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan

16 May, 2023 | Martial Arts

Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan (少林高參門南北拳) is a Chinese martial art with a long history, originating from the Southern Shaolin in Fujian (福建), China, and was pioneered at the Shuanglin Monastery (雙林寺) in Singapore by Master Shi Gao Can (釋高參). Under the direct guidance of Master Quek Heng Choon (郭逢春), one of his disciples Master Lai Khee Choong (黎鉅忠) propagated and carried on the tradition to the United Kingdom, and subsequently set up martial arts schools worldwide.

After being systematised by Master Lai Khee Choong, Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan melded traditional Chinese martial arts with modern teaching methods, setting it apart from the typical Chinese martial arts. After years of honing and passing down, it has developed into a sophisticated martial art system, combining traditional forms, Sanda (散打 Chinese kickboxing), Qigong (氣功), and self-defence skills. Its profound essence has been widely recognised and revered, spreading its influence worldwide.

A group photo of Master Gao Can with students at his promotion ceremony as Abbot of Lianshan Shuang Lin Monastery

When talking about the origin of Nam Pai Chuan, it is imperative to mention Master Shi Gao Can. Born as Lin Ya Hong (林亞鴻) in 1886 during the reign of the Guangxu (光緒) Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. China was undergoing a period of internal strife and foreign aggression. Like most children, he had to fend for himself from a young age. At the age of 13, he left home to follow Cao Biao (曹彪), a famous armed bodyguard at the time to get a meal and learn martial arts. Inspired by Cao Biao, he quickly developed a strong interest in martial arts. However, at the age of 16, he followed his brother south and began to make a living by ferrying people across rivers due to life pressures. Unfortunately, his brother drowned in an accident, which gave Lin Ya Hong a deeper understanding of life’s fragility. He then decided to return to Fujian (福建) Province.

He happened to meet Monk Xing Liang (行亮上人) at Qingxing Temple (清興寺), in Hui’an (惠安) County, Fujian. Noticing that the 18-year-old Lin Ya Hong was kind-hearted and had the potential for wisdom, Xing Liang took him in. In 1903, Lin Ya Hong formally became a monk, and began studying Mahayana Buddhism at both Qingxing Temple and Meifeng Temple (梅峰寺) in Putian (莆田), delving into the study of Buddhist Zen.

After a period of study, he decided to promote Buddhism in the North. At the Puji Temple (普濟寺) in Nanhai (南海), Zhejiang (浙江) Province, he met Master Hui Jing (慧精大師), a highly accomplished martial artist and monk from the second chamber of the Shaolin Temple. As Lin Ya Hong had studied martial arts with Cao Biao for some time and had a strong interest in it, he asked Master Hui Jing to teach him, thus beginning to learn both Buddhism and martial arts concurrently.

Master Hui Jing only accepted three disciples, of whom only Gao Can was an initiated disciple who received the complete transmission of knowledge. Both Xing Liang and Hui Jing were revered monks in the early 20th century and had a profound influence on Master Shi Gao Can. Their guidance and inspiration allowed Gao Can to become the 49th successor of the Shaolin Temple, and laid a solid foundation for him to establish the Gao Can School of Martial Arts in Southeast Asia.

Master Gao Can and his Exquisite Calligraphy

After many years of mastering martial arts, he embarked on a journey to spread Buddhist martial arts throughout China. He was not only proficient in fighting skills but also an expert in acupuncture, pressure points and hidden weapons. Master Shi Gao Can played a pivotal role in the development of Shaolin martial arts in China. However, in the 1940s, amidst continuous wars, Gao Can decided to head south to Southeast Asia and was invited to the Yogyakarta Palace in Medan, Indonesia.

During his time in Southeast Asia, Gao Can’s reputation grew, but Malaysia was in the midst of war and turmoil at the time. Many temples were affected, including the Shuanglin Monastery in Singapore. At the warm invitation of Abbot Song Hui (松輝), Master Shi Gao Can took over and became the new Abbot of Shuanglin Monastery.

During his time at Shuanglin Monastery, Gao Can continued to accept students and impart authentic Southern Shaolin Kung Fu. His years of study allowed him to pass on many martial arts techniques that had been lost in China, such as the Shaolin Luohan Fist of Joy and Anger (少林羅漢喜怒拳) and Gao Can School’s acupoint techniques. One of the students who received his true transmission was Master Quek Heng Choon. Master Quek is the founder of Nanyang Shaolin Gao Can Mun (南洋少林高參門) in Malaysia and is recognised as one of the most influential students during Gao Can’s time in Singapore and Malaysia.

Master Quek Heng Choon was born in 1926 in Hui’an County, Fujian Province of China, same place where Gao Can meet his first Sifu Monk Xing Liang. He represents the 50th generation of the Southern Shaolin lineage in Southeast Asia. Master Quek began learning martial arts at the age of 7. During his youth, he learned Southern Shaolin Kung Fu from masters such as Liu Ping Shan (劉平山) and Master Hua Yue (花月和尚) from Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou City (泉州市). In 1947, he moved to Singapore and became a disciple of Master Shi Gao Can the following year. After years of rigorous training, he deeply grasped the essence of Gao Can and became one of the few indoor disciples of him. From 1956 and 2010, Master Quek embraced disciples widely from various places, leading to the spread of his students across Malaysia, Singapore, and China. During the dissemination of Shaolin Kung Fu in Southeast Asia, Master Lai Khee Choong became Master Quek’s proud disciples.

Venerable Gao Can instructing Master Quek

Master Lai Khee Choong was born in 1944 in Malaysia and was an initiated disciple of Master Quek. He began learning martial arts in 1959 at the age of 15. In 1967, Master Quek represented the Singapore Shaolin Association in demonstrating the Hard Qigong technique, which involved breaking a marble table with bare palm and was praised by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on the spot, causing a sensation in Singapore. At this time, Master Lai formally became a disciple of Master Quek and became a core disciple of the Singapore Shaolin Association, officially establishing the Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan lineage.

In approximately 1965, he pursued a law degree in London. However, recognising the demands of the changing times, he understood that many martial arts students needed to balance their training with work or studies. After dedicating many years to intense training under Master Quek, he made the decision to return to the UK in 1979 and simultaneously introduced Southern Shaolin Kung Fu to this new environment, choosing to settle here permanently.

When he left Malaysia, Master Lai proposed to open a martial arts school to teach authentic Shaolin Kung Fu. Master Quek was delighted and not only allowed him to teach, but also named Master Lai’s martial arts school “Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan” and designed a logo centred on the character “endure (忍)” shaped by Yin and Yang (陰陽), hoping that Master Lai would endure hardships, never forget his original intention, and bring Kung Fu to Europe and the world.

Starting in 1979, Master Lai began a process of modernising and systematising traditional Chinese Kung Fu. Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan adopts a teaching method that deviates from the traditional approach by incorporating a belt-level system. It includes white, yellow, green, blue, and brown belts as initial stages, which can eventually be evaluated for black belts. The black belts are further divided into degrees ranging from 1st to 10th. Each belt level has specific goals and requirements, including basic hand and legwork, two-person combination paired work, traditional forms, and free combat, offering rich and superb content.

In 2009, Master Quek decided to visit and conduct training in London at the age of 84. This was his first and last visit to London. Due to his advanced age, he decided to pass on the position of head coach of Shaolin Gao Can Mun worldwide to Master Lai and officially renamed the school “Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan,” widely accepting disciples around the globe and flourishing.

Master Quek and Master Lai with students, London 2009

Even at the age of 79, Master Lai continues to teach Shaolin Kung Fu in London, dedicating his life to the propagation of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu. After more than 40 years of refinement and inheritance, Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan has become an advanced martial art that is exquisitely skilled, encompassing traditional Chinese martial arts, Qigong, sparring, and self-defence capabilities.

Due to its integration of traditional Chinese martial arts and modern teaching methods, Shaolin Gao Can Mun Nam Pai Chuan has gained widespread recognition and respect, becoming one of the most representative Chinese martial arts internationally. Not only are there martial arts schools established in the UK, Europe, Israel, Japan, and New Zealand, but it is also deeply loved and sought after by the local populace.