Let’s go back in time to somewhere around 1700’s to Old China…
Amongst the Chinese folk cults, one particular group is known as ‘會門’ or literarily ‘folk groups’. This particular folk group can be divided into two subgroups: ‘the group of fists’ (拳會) and ‘the group of broad sword’ (刀會). The latter group is in fact a subset of the first. It was thus named as its members carried broad swords on their back. Just a note on this: most of the Chinese martial arts now days were made popular by these groups.
The original purposes of these folk groups were to provide protections to ordinary Chinese folks from the suppressions of Western culture and religions, namely the Christians. They were first seen active in Northern China during 1700’s. (We have to bear in mind that the old Chinese folks were pretty conservative then.)
These folk group practices one special type of martial arts known as ‘the fists of gods’ or ‘gods’ boxing’ (神拳). This type of ‘fist’ existed well before the coming of Western influences to old China. There are two streams of ‘fist of gods’: the Northern Tradition and The Southern Tradition.
The Southern Tradition
It is said that during 1750, the founder of Southern Tradition is a peasant named Shi Ting Yang (石廷揚) from Zhe Jiang Province (浙江) and later transmitted the knowledge to Wu Bu Yuan (吳卜元). It was Wu who started a small shrine that worships ‘the 5 elders’ (五公) and Wu’s followers only need to consume some kind of talismans, yawn a few times and then the gods will possess their bodies to perform martial art stunts. Unfortunately, Wu’s activity was put to stop by government officials. Sometime later, similar boxing practices appeared in Gui Zhou (貴州) too. Well, to make a long story short, the Southern Tradition was never any form of martial arts; it is somehow similar to spirit mediums and more towards trickery.
The Northern Tradition
According to the record, the Northern Tradition existed since 1717 in Shan Dong (山東). It was then a type of martial art called ‘the heavenly gate boxing’ (天門神拳) exclusively practised by the followers of ‘the cult of sole incense’ (一炷香教). At the same time another cult called ‘the cult of grand master’ (祖師會) also follow a similar martial art system.
These types of martial arts are called ‘fists of gods’ because they enable their practitioners to exhibit some kind of invulnerability. This is similar to the current days’ hard Qigong (硬氣功) exercises namely: the golden bells cover (金鐘罩) and the iron shirt (鐵布衫).
At that time, the practitioners of such arts are said to be able to withstand the chopping of broad swords on their stomach and waist, the piercing of iron needles through their face and the strike of horse whips without feeling too much pain.
1800’s and beyond
Now the time comes to 1896, in the northwestern part of Shan Dong appeared another type of ‘fists of gods’ belonged to ‘the cult of Luxi boxing’ (魯西神拳會); which change to ‘Yihe boxing’ ( 義和拳) later. Well the Luxi boxing was real alright, it belonged to Wuzu (五祖) type of martial arts but with some elements of magic.
The Luxi boxing must be preceded by an opening prayer to the gods and goddesses of Peach Mountain (桃花山). According to the legend, there are 6 caves in the Peach Mountain and that all spirits dwell in these caves. A practitioner must choose a particular patron god, goddess or even historical hero.
Added to that, the practitioners of Luxi boxing will also be taught some traditional healing methods. However, the practice of invulnerability to sharp weapons was very much guarded a secret at that time.
Today, we have seen some folk cults such as Mao Shan (茅山) and Liu Ren (六壬) sects practise auto-boxing and traditional healing techniques similar to the above. The latter is very much popular in Hong Kong, while traces of former can be seen in Malaysia still.
The above description of ‘a fist of gods’ or auto-boxing if you would like to call it; is an amalgamation of kung fu, magic, folk cult believes, traditional healing and of course with elements of superstitions. These practices have been inherited and transformed through the time and brought to Southeast Asia with the arrival of Chinese migrants.