I’m really excited about the opportunity this will give us to talk about a few topics and answer any questions that you may have. I thought probably the best one to start with would be the often asked question ‘What is Kung Fu?’ – kind of an important one to answer for a Kung Fu School! Kung Fu or Gong Fu literally translates to ‘skill gained through hard work’, and can therefore be given to anyone who shows a developed ability of any sort – from a chef who can chop his veggies really well to a to a performer who can balance 7 items on his nose (well we didn’t say it had to be useful!).
In certain parts of China the phrase Kung Fu became associated with local fighting arts. Other names often used for martial arts in China are Quan Fa (‘Fist Method’) and WuShu (‘Martial Art’). China (and associated territories) is a massive place with a long continuous civilisation which spawned well over 300 different fighting arts. These are split into many different styles with many different subdivisions or families (Pai). China has such a huge geographic range that is shared by a range different groups (Han, Hakka, Hui etc) and cultures, each keeping their martial secrets ‘in the family’ for centuries. No wonder such diversity of methods exists!
Each art developed under certain conditions to fulfil certain requirements. This is an important distinction to make as Kung Fu does not describe a single art like, for example, the term Judo would, but sums up many extremely diverse styles with diverse aims. So if someone says ‘Kung fu has really good kicks’ or ‘Kung Fu is rubbish’ you really have to ask ‘Which Kung Fu?’.
Whilst all Kung Fu styles contain a combat element the approach and spirit of the styles vary. Some Kung Fu methods stressed pure combat, others maintaining health and some contain a performative/ritual element. Some styles were pure fighting arts for insurgents and rebels others were spiritual maps, acting like physical Taoist literature or tantric vehicles. Some stressed a particular battlefield weapon others focussed on hand to hand fighting. The arts developed according to the individual and social requirements of the group that developed them. Some styles were quite commonly taught, others were kept back to only a select few as ‘black hand arts’. The only common requirement was regular practice.
‘Wushu’ is the most commonly used term in mainland China but it tends to refer to the popular government sponsored performance/gymnastic routines developed mainly in the 1980s. To avoid confusion the term ‘Wushu’ tends not to be used by practitioners of traditional arts in the west. When Chinese Fighting arts came to popular Western consciousness in the early 70s it was due in part to the series ‘Kung Fu’ and also Bruce Lee who used the term as it a popular colloquialism in Hong Kong where he grew up. This meant that the term Kung Fu was firmly embedded in the western language.
It is worth mentioning that Kung Fu may also be used to refer to arts from outside of China. For example a skilled Karate practitioner or western Boxer may have good ‘Kung fu’ and arts like SiJiHao (Tibetan Lions Roar!), the central art taught at Tao Jia Martial arts, would also be described as Kung Fu despite being Indo-Tibetan in origin.
For more on the history of Martial Arts please visit us again as articles on the history of Kung Fu, the Shaolin temple and Taoist arts are on their way.