Huang Zongxi described Chinese martial arts in terms of Shaolin or "external" arts versus Wudang or internal arts in 1669. It has been since then that Shaolin has been popularly synonymous for what are considered the external Chinese martial arts, regardless of whether or not the particular style in question has any connection to the Shaolin Monastery. Some say that there is no differentiation between the so-called internal and external systems of the Chinese martial arts, while other well-known teachers have expressed differing opinions. For example, the Taijiquan (Tai Chi) teacher Wu Jianquan:
Those who practice Shaolinquan leap about with strength and force; people not proficient at this kind of training soon lose their breath and are exhausted. Taijiquan is unlike this. Strive for quiescence of body, mind and intention.In 1784 the Boxing Classic: Essential Boxing Methods made the earliest extant reference to the Shaolin Monastery as Chinese boxing's place of origin. Again, this is a misconception, as Chinese martial arts pre-date the construction of the Shaolin Temple by at least several hundred years.
According to the Jingde of the Lamp, after Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from South India, left the court of the Liang emperor Wu in 527, he eventually found himself at the Shaolin Monastery, where he “faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time”.
According to the Yì Jīn Jīng,
after Bodhidharma faced the wall for nine years at Shaolin temple and made a hole with his stare, he left behind an iron chest. When the monks opened this chest they found two books: the “Marrow Cleansing Classic,” and the “Muscle Tendon Change Classic”, or "Yi Jin Jing" within. The first book was taken by Bodhidharma's disciple Huike, and disappeared; as for the second, the monks selfishly coveted it, practicing the skills therein, falling into heterodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating the Real. The Shaolin monks have made some fame for themselves through their fighting skill; this is all due to their possession of this manuscript.The attribution of Shaolin's martial arts to Bodhidharma has been discounted by a few 20th century martial arts historians, first by Tang Hao on the grounds that the Yì Jīn Jīng is a forgery. Stele and documentary evidence shows the monks historically worshiped the Bodhisattva Vajrapani's "Kimnara King" form as the progenitor of their staff and bare hand fighting styles.
Huiguang and Sengchou were involved with martial arts before they became two of the very first Shaolin monks, reported as practicing martial arts before the arrival of Bodhidharma. Sengchou's skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon.
Records of the discovery of arms caches in the monasteries of Chang'an during government raids in AD 446 suggests that Chinese monks practiced martial arts prior to the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery in 497. Monks came from the ranks of the population among whom the martial arts were widely practiced before the introduction of Buddhism. There are indications that Huiguang, Sengchou and even Huike, Bodhidarma's immediate successor as Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, may have been military men before retiring to the monastic life. Moreover, Chinese monasteries, not unlike those of Europe, in many ways were effectively large landed estates, that is, sources of considerable regular income which required protection.
In addition to that, the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, the Bibliographies in the Book of the Han Dynasty and the Records of the Grand Historian all document the existence of martial arts in China before Bodhidharma. The martial arts Shuāi Jiāo and Sun Bin Quan, to name two, predate the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery by centuries.
Some lineages of Karate have oral traditions that claim Shaolin origins. Martial arts traditions in Japan and Korea, and Southeast Asia cite Chinese influence as transmitted by Buddhist monks.
Recent developments in the 20th century such as Shorinji Kempo (少林寺拳法) practised in Japan's Sohonzan Shorinji (金剛禅総本山少林寺) still maintains close ties with China's Song Shan Shaolin Temple due to historic links. Japanese Shorinji Kempo Group financial contributions to the maintenance of the historic edifice of the Song Shan Shaolin Temple in 2003 received China's recognition.