What's Your Style? A History of Kung Fu

CULTURE | July 22, 2019

People perform kung fu during the opening ceremony of the 12th Zhengzhou (China) International Shaolin Kongfu Festival at Daixian gorge 2018 in Dengfeng, Henan Province of China. Source: (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Almost everybody has heard or has an opinion about the Chinese martial art known as Kung Fu. But it also one of the most misunderstood branches of martial art with the average person developing their opinions mostly from flicks such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Bruce Lee films, Five Deadly Venoms, or even Carl Douglas’s song “Kung Fu Fighting.” The fact is that Kung Fu has a long and curious history that is fully integrated into Chinese culture.

The mythical Yellow Emperor. Source: (Wikimedia)

Myth and Legend

According to myth, the legendary Yellow Emperor of the Xia Dynasty introduced many aspects of Chinese culture including fighting techniques to the military at some point during his reign from 2,698 to 2,598 B.C. 

Monks at Quanzhou Shaolin Temple. Source: (Getty Images)


What would become known as Kung Fu, first appears in the historical record in the 1st century A.D. with a now-lost manuscript that taught boxing. This was furthered in the written record by mentions of skills related to fists and weapons. But this was all part of military training in China, just as it was for all cultures. In fact, kung fu, simply translated could mean “a person with discipline techniques” -- that is by repeated practice (discipline) you obtain mastery of a skill. The actual term for martial art is usually translated as wushu. Sometimes it is also called Chuan fa, “the way of the fist.” So somebody who has kung fu could be adept at almost any skill through practice, but Kung Fu Wushu would refer to skill in the Chinese martial arts.

The Qing Dynasty printing of the Weisheng Jieyao, a manuscript of qigong (breathing exercises). Source: (Wikimedia)

The Taoist Influence

What differentiates Kung Fu from other martial traditions are its spiritual, philosophical, artistic, cultural, and health elements. It is probable that Kung Fu as a distinct form comes from the merger of fighting skills with religion. This first appears in Taoist breathing techniques which were meant to prolong life such as so-called silk weaving exercises which emulated the motions of silk weavers. Practitioners were taught to control their chi or internal energy -- this then was used by fighters to improve their own skills.

Then there is the legend of the Indian monk Bodhidharma (sometimes called Ta-mo) who came to the Buddhist Shaolin monastery in Henan Province in probably the fifth or sixth centuries A.D. 

Bodhidharma. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The Legend of Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, a father of Zen (Chan) Buddhism, practiced style of meditation was very demanding physically -- One legend was that he stared at a wall for nine years and when he fell asleep in his seventh year he cut off his eyelids. One legend has it that he deemed the monks of Shaolin were not physically ready for his hardcore, physical path to enlightenment -- so he taught them exercises o strengthen them physically and internally. He also introduced breathing techniques such as the 18 hands. One tradition holds is that he also taught the monks to fight by emulating the movements of animals such as the monkey, tiger, crane, etc. This is disputed by some schools of Kung Fu who hold that Bodhidharma introduced Buddhist breathing techniques which then became combined with already extant Chinese martial arts. 

A Shaolin Monk practicing Kung Fu. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The Impact of Shaolin

It should be said that many scholars doubt that there was even a real Bodhidharma -- but legend or not, he became the patron saint of the Shaolin school of Kung Fu. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the Shaolin monks were known for their ability to fight. Many are under the false impression that the Shaolin temple was the birthplace of Chinese Kung Fu. Kung Fu predated Shaolin by many centuries. However, the Shaolin monks preserved and codified Kung Fu. Thus today, Shaolin and kung fu are interchangeable.

People perform kung fu during the opening ceremony of the 12th Zhengzhou (China) International Shaolin Kongfu Festival at Daixian. Source: (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Secret Societies

In many cases, particular martial arts schools were tied to secret societies that worked to its own political ends. This was especially the case during the Manchu Dynasty which banned martial art training. The Manchus were considered to be foreign barbarians by ethnic Chinese and the ethnic Chinese formed clubs to secretly train in the martial arts.

Many took the merger of spiritual and fighting practices rather far, equivocated martial arts with magic or at least how to obtain superhuman powers. Is it any wonder then why the martial arts practitioners who rose up against Westerners in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 believed that their training would help stop bullets?

This fist position shows how certain styles imitate fauna. In this case it is the praying mantis. Source: (Wikipedia)

What’s Your Style?

Since the development of Kung Fu took millennia, it is no surprise that it became fragmented. Styles of fighting were passed through families or towns or regions and thus there came to be different so-called styles of Kung Fu such as those resembling animals (monkeys, tigers, cranes, etc), or named after deities, or geographic terrain such as mountains. Generally, there is a broad but blurred distinction in styles between the northern and southern parts of China (it is said that northern styles depend on legs and southern styles more on hands). Then some styles concentrated more on the breathing and spiritual elements while others concentrated on performance and yet others on how to fight - these are commonly called “soft” versus “hard” styles.  

Thus when somebody is training in Kung Fu, there are hundreds of types of schools and styles. In a movie trope, a Kung Fu hero might ask a potential rival, “What’s your style?” It is actually a very valid question.

Kung Fu also is the progenitor of almost every well-known East Asian martial art. Japanese Karate, Korean Kempo, and Thai Kickboxing have direct roots with the Chinese martial arts. In their case, these became more standardized and national systems.

Tai Chi Chuan at Kung Fu Corner, Kowloon Park, Hong Kong. Source: (Wikimedia)

Kung Fu Today

What is interesting too is that for westerners, for many years East Asian martial arts were thought to be primarily Karate or Jiu-jitsu. It is only in recent decades that the antiquity of Kung Fu is realized -- and this may be because of the popular cultural elements of the martial arts as seen through films starting in the late 1960s and 1970s. More importantly, Kung Fu was generally taught in secret or restricted to a bloodline. It was only in the mid-20th century, that Kung Fu masters exiled from Communist China began to teach non-Chinese.

The Kung Fu styles generally practiced today were in place during the last days of the Republic of China. However, when the Communists took over China in 1949, Kung fu practitioners fled the country and disseminated their martial arts around the globe. Martial arts through the Cultural Revolution was discouraged and suppressed until the late 1970s.

Since that time, economic and social reforms in China have led to a renaissance of traditional martial arts. Whether Shaolin, Tai Chi, or Hung Gar, thousands today practice and benefit from this millennia-old tradition.

Tags: kung fu

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