What is Kung Fu?

Kung Fu, or Gong Fu (功夫), literally translates to “skill acquired through hard work”. While this is often used as a synonym for Chinese martial arts, someone may have Kung Fu in anything. One may have Kung Fu in flower arranging, serving tea, dancing, or drawing. Anyone who has spent time practicing and cultivating any skill may say that they have Kung Fu.

Martial arts goes by many other names in China. Guo Shu (國術) literally translates to “national art”, Wu Shu (武術) literally translates to “martial art”, Quan Fa (拳法) literally translates to “fist method”. These names all refer to the practice of martial arts. Prior to China’s emergence into the modern era Wu Shu was the commonly used term for martial arts. Now Kung Fu is the more commonly used term referring to traditional martial practice while Wu Shu refers to the sport variant which uses standardized sets and is conducted in a gymnastic competition like manner.

Kung Fu as a Martial Art

The practice of Kung Fu as a martial art has been around for a long time. Military organizations practiced martial arts to make them more effective combatants. Families practiced martial arts as a tradition and to protect themselves, their villages, and their livelihood. Eventually institutions of learning developed to facilitate the study and perfection of techniques much like modern day academic organizations.

Kung Fu as a martial art generally consists of empty handed routines as well as weapon sets, grappling, and combat applications. Each style is governed by differing central theories that define their use and application in combat. Constant practice was necessary to develop the physical skills and understanding needed to attain the highest levels of a given style.

In the past Kung Fu was practiced for a variety of reasons. Many practiced it as a way to improve their combat efficiency. Soldiers and mercenaries trained as part of their professions to be able to better protect themselves, their countries, or their employers. Others practiced Kung Fu as a means of spiritual development using the empty handed and weapon sets as a form of moving meditation and to break down mental and physical barriers to their progress and understanding. Still others practiced Kung Fu to increase their longevity and overall health.

In modern days the emphasis on combat or spiritual development is diminished. Many practice it for its health benefits or as a social activity. Many approach martial arts in general with a more hobbyist approach and do not devote as much time to practice as those of past generations. While self defense is still a common goal, many martial artists do not train as diligently since for most of us our knowledge and skill are not tested in life and death situations as past practitioners were.


Martial arts practice can be traced back as far back as 800 BCE in the Zhou Dynasty (北周) long before the creation of Shaolin Temple (少林寺). Originally built in 495 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏) by Emperor Xiao Wen the temple was constructed as a place for translating the Sutras that had been brought over from India. It was not until 520 CE that the Indian monk Bodhidharma, or Damo as he is known in Chinese, restructured the monks activities and duties in a way that is more familiar to today’s temple.

Originally the monks that lived and worked in the temple were solely focused on basic daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and laundry and their work copying the sutras. With the arrival of Damo, he began teaching them Chan (禪) Buddhism and found that they were not capable staying awake during the long sessions of meditation that form the core of Chan Buddhist teachings. Since they lacked the necessary stamina to stay awake during long mediation sessions he devised a series of exercises based on Yoga. These original postures, known as the 18 Postures of the Luohan (羅漢 十八手), had no martial application. This form along with the Muscle Sinew Changing Classic, Yi Jin Jing (易筋經), and Bone Marrow Washing Classic, Xi Sui Jing (洗髓經), became the foundation for the emergence of Kung Fu at the temple.

From this point the martial aspect of the temple began to grow as an institution of development and study in martial arts as well as other activities. Masters of various family styles or retired generals would visit the temple to exchange ideas on martial arts and combat. Cross training with the Daoist temples was also common. The outcomes of such exchanges developed into many different styles of martial arts. Many records and training manuals were kept and other temples were erected to spread teachings of Buddhism and martial arts to other regions in China. Because of the efforts of the Shaolin Temple to research, record, and preserve martial knowledge the temple is often considered the birthplace of all martial arts.

Unfortunately over the centuries the temple went through some difficult periods with both of the major temples, located at Hunan and Fujian, being burned and rebuilt. This resulted in the loss of much of the records and manuals as well as the loss of many masters of Kung Fu.

As many temple styles from both the Shaolin Temple and the Daoist Wudang Temple(武當寺) developed, also of great importance were the family styles. Families passed on and developed their own understanding and techniques and trained martial arts as a daily aspect of their lives. The collaboration over centuries of these martial traditions accounts for the thousands of styles and their respective variants that exist.

As China began the process of modernization the martial arts began to suffer, most notably starting with the Boxer Rebellion. Several foreign nations began working within China to tap its resources for their own uses bringing along western ideals, clothing, and customs. Many of the Chinese populace felt threatened by the western presence and the national heroes, martial artists, stepped in to attempt to settle the discord and remove the threat to their nation. This culminated in a large scale battle in which tens of thousands of martial artists were killed. This unfortunate event caused one of the single largest dark ages for Kung Fu. Many unique styles were completely wiped out as masters and all of their students were killed. During later periods martial artists would be persecuted off and on.

As China emerged as a republic, martial arts were banned and their practitioners hunted and persecuted. Many practitioners either went into hiding or fled the country rather than give up practicing Kung Fu. Many more styles were lost as masters in hiding died off leaving no students to pass on their unique styles and understanding. Though this did have a positive outcome as well. With many masters fleeing China during the cultural revolution, this provided the opportunity for Kung Fu to travel to western nations. Masters fled to Europe, Canada, and the United States to avoid persecution where they continued to practice their arts. Because of past influences it was still a long time before any person not of pure Chinese descent was allowed to learn Kung Fu. Fortunately times have evolved and there is again great interest in all martial arts including Kung Fu.


There are many benefits to practicing martial arts such as improved health, mental clarity, spiritual development, confidence, discipline, awareness, respect, humility, and regard for life. Depending on the goals of the practitioner, one or more of these benefits may be sought. Simply practicing at any level of dedication can help a practitioner improve their health or instill discipline and a sense of self confidence. More dedicated practice can lead to development of other benefits such as awareness, mental clarity, or spiritual development.

The most obvious benefits are those associated with health.  Kung Fu is a very physically oriented art.  As such the training helps practitioners keep fit as well as building strength.  The types of exercises build dense muscle that is capable of delivering explosive force.  Drills improve hand-eye coordination as well as speed and agility.  Stance training and transitionary drills improve balance and grace.  Many of the exercises and forms are aerobically challenging which helps increase endurance.  Staying physically active helps improve overall general health and many people enjoy practicing martial arts as a way of staying physically active.

The mental benefits are often not as readily apparent.  Practicing techniques and forms, learning the underlying principals of a given application, and repetition of information all engage the brain.  A practitioner of the martial arts that does not think about what they are doing and trying to understand it on a deeper level is not really getting the full benefit of the art.  Repetition and practice helps increase and exercise a practitioners memory.  Sparring and set practice helps exponents think quickly and get their bodies to react not after their thought but as the thought occurs.

Character development is another benefit of practicing martial arts.  Generally martial arts use philosophical guidelines to help students grow as martial artists.  These standards and codes of conduct help to ensure that the practitioner learns when it is appropriate to use what they have learned and to hold a high regard for all life.  Repetition, practice, and working to achieve goals assists in developing a tenacious attitude towards all aspects of their life.  The structured environment helps instill discipline and respect within the practitioners.  And as students achieve their goals they develop a sense of pride and accomplishment that increases their self confidence.

The most important thing for achieving any of these goals is focus. Focus keeps training directed and always moving forward. Proper focus is imperative for utilizing empty handed forms and weapons sets as a form of moving meditation. This moving meditation then develops into spiritual development. Focus and intent are necessary to achieve all of the benefits of practicing Kung Fu or any martial art.

Comments  1 Comment »

  1. Tony - May 15, 2008 4:02 pm

    Sucks? What sucks about this post? It is about a lightweight history of his art and then some philosophical woffetey bah at the bottom for a pep talk. :) I thought the history was fascinating.

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