Luohan (罗汉) is a term originating from Buddhism and is called Arhat (अर्हत) or Arahant in sanksrit and pali respectively. It is used in Chinese Buddhism to describe a practitioner which was had a higher level of attainment or pre-enlightenment but has not become a Boddhisattva, or a Buddha. The Luohan are also considered semi saint like and are often as disciples of Guatama Buddha who were instructed to await the coming of the Matreiya (future Buddha). Depending on the sutra (Buddhist Scripture) there are between 4 - 16 Luohan in early Indian and Tibetan texts. After the Ming Dynasty, 18 Luohans were part of Chinese Buddhism.
The first reference of the 16 Luohan dates back to 891 AD, when a monk Guan Xiu painted portaits of the Luohan.
During that time Buddhists had undergone a period of persecution from the Emperor Tang Wuzong and a group of faithful had taken the Luohan as guardians at the time. One of the oldest known statues of such depiction are from Yixian county, Hebei Province.
The Luohan in their original depictions prior to entering the Chinese Buddhism, did not have the emotional and differentiating characteristics that would be endowed upon in the future. In fact many held the Luohan with great reverance and even the Emperor QIanlong from the Qing Dynasty visited the Guan Xiu paintings (stored at the Shengyin Temple, Hangzhou) and was said to admire them greatly. He even wrote a set of eulogy for each of the Luohan which influenced the depiction until this day.
In martial arts terms, there are some folklore and legend which attribute the Luohan to the time of Boddidharma and his time in the Central Plains of China, where the famous Shaolin Temple on Shao Shi Peak of Song Mountain is located. The legend suggests creation of something thought to be 18 hands of luohan. This however is questionable given that Boddhidharma is of the Indian buddhism tradition and through the sheer concept of Ch'an (Zen) which he is the associated founder, it would be peculiar to show reverance to Luohan (especially all 18 of them when some had not yet been created then).
What is lesser known or correlated is the practice of the White Lotus groups that were sub Daoist, Buddhist and general Chinese culural religious faiths that believed in the coming of the Matreiya as well as placing many historical and religious figures into their reverance system. Some parts of these groups also practiced martial arts and it is likely the path by which the Luohan were to be included into their practice.
There are many schools of Luohan Quan which have arisen across China, some from the Central Plains area (Hebei, Henan and Shandong), others from the Southeastern coast (Zhejiang, Fujian) and some in the West (Sichuan). Each not necessarily related as much as commonly inspired by the Luohan.
To the practices in those three main areas, there are again many variations and schools thereof.
Although Luohan Quan is a main feature in Shaolin Quan (for more information visit our details here), its practice does not hold the symbollic practice as found in some of the styles of southeastern coast. It is these styles of the Jiangnan to which our Luohan Quan is derived and thus expounded upon herein.
The beauty of the Luohan Quan from Jiangnan is in its direct association between the buddhist ideals and the practice, between the descriptive aspects of the Luohan and the techniques within the boxing. It is unfortunate that this style is rarely held in its completeness in present times, possibly because of the great skills that understanding parts of the style already can impart or due to the common practice of masters finding an affiniation with only one or some of the Luohan thereby ignoring others. After an almost 20 year expedition of practice and discovery across Zhejiang and Fujian province the composition of the many pieces of the style are detailed herein.