What is Shaolin Kempo?

Shaolin Kempo is an ancient martial art that was developed in Asia well over a thousand years ago (some argue it can be traced back as far as 5,000 years). It is primarily a mixture of Kung fu and Karate.  As most of its history is couched in legend, opinion, and bias, Urban Kempo is hesitant to provide an historical account. Google “Shaolin Kempo” and you will find plenty of martial artists purporting their accounts of its origins and evolutions. We encourage you to enjoy the mystical and fascinating stories with an eye for skepticism!

Sensei Mike on the Potomac

Most agree, however, that Shaolin Kempo was probably introduced publicly to the United States in the early- to mid-20th century, and has become a contemporary American phenomenon. It is a melting pot of philosophies and techniques, and its diversity and adaptability render it difficult to strictly define.

Kempo is, however, universally characterized by three main elements:

Kempo is not a sport.

Virtually every fighting sport fosters a controlled and moderated environment that posits one competitor against another (almost always separated into weight classes), and implements timed rounds with breaks for water, rest and instruction.  In contrast, Kempo prepares one for an attack outside of the ring (or increasingly more popular octagon), where in most cases victims are outweighed and/or outnumbered, and in some cases facing an adversary with a weapon.  This simple difference changes the approach to training immensely.  Whereas in a ring, one might find it advantageous to create space and utilize time, the Kempo artist realizes that space and time are adversarial to their well being.  Whereas athletes in a ring understand that their opponents intend to fight, the Kempo artist might pretend to be afraid or in shock, thus utilizing the element of surprise prior to executing strikes.  And finally, as the risks become much higher outside of a controlled environment, so do levels of stress and fear.  The Kempo artist has to decide how and to what degree to defend.  Questions of simple evasion, maiming or disabling defense techniques become pertinent to the Kempo artist, whereas athletes approach their contests with clear goals and strategies in mind.

Stay standing.

Kempo encourages the practitioner to remain on his/her feet, while discouraging tackling one’s adversary to the ground. This philosophy grows out of the assumption that adversaries tend to be larger in either size or number, or could use an object such as a knife or pencil to gain an advantage. In almost all cases, it is perceived as unwise to defend oneself from the ground.

Be practical.

Kempo recognizes that most instances of attack occur at short-range distances. As a result, in contrast to Tae Kwon Do for example, which relies heavily on kicks to high targets such as the head, Kempo places a greater emphasis on using hands and elbows, as well as knees and low kicks to targets such as the knees and groin. It encourages the use of strikes that are quickly executed, effective, and at times disabling.