What is Kung Fu?
Monk on spears
Kung Fu is not what you think it is. In particular, Kung Fu is not the name for a style of martial arts practised in China. When eager martial arts students all across the world say they practise Kung Fu, that may or may not be the case. At the same time a multitude of other people, who have nothing to do with martial arts, practise Kung Fu every day of their life. How can this be?
Kung Fu (or Gong Fu in the Pin Yin transcription of Mandarin) means something akin to ?hard work? or ?effort.? Many inquisitive students of martial arts actually know this from hours of surfing the web, but they have not necessarily taken on board the implication of this meaning.
Pu Dao pattern
Kung Fu is a way of doing things. It involves achieving mastery through hard work and dedication beyond the norm. More esoterically it means following a path in tune with the natural order of things, the Dao, where upon perfection is reached.
This way of doing things can be applied to anything. That is why you should not be surprised to hear a calligrapher, a cook, or a player of the zither being described in China as having good Kung Fu. What it means is that they have, through untold hours of hard work, reached the point where the body is naturally attuned to their chosen art form.
Buddhist elder with Sun and Moon spade
A classic expression of the spirit of Kung Fu can be found on the pages of the great Daoist Classic, The Zhuang Zi. So apt is it that it is worth quoting the passage in its entirety:
?Cook Ting was carving an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As his hand slapped, shoulder lunged, foot stamped, knee crooked, with a hiss! with a thud! the brandished blade as it sliced never missed the rhythm, now in time with the Mulberry Forest dance, now with an orchestra playing the Ching-shou. ?Oh, excellent!? said Lord Wen-hui. ?That skill should attain such heights!? ?What your servant cares about is the Way, I have left skill behind me. When I first began to carve oxen, I saw nothing but oxen wherever I looked. Three years more and I never saw an ox as a whole. Nowadays, I am in touch through the daemonic in me, and do not look with the eye. With the senses I know where to stop, the daemonic I desire to run its course. I rely on Heaven?s structuring, cleave along the main seams, let myself be guided by the main cavities, go by what is inherently so. A ligament or tendon I never touch, not to mention solid bone. A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he hacks. A common cook changes it once a month, because he smashes. Now I have had this chopper for nineteen years, and have taken apart several thousand oxen, but the edge is as though it were fresh from the grindstone. At that joint there is an interval, and the chopper?s edge has no thickness; if you insert what has no thickness where there is an interval, then, what more could you ask, of course there is ample room to move the edge about. That?s why after nineteen years the edge of my chopper is as though it were fresh from the grindstone. ?However, whenever I come to something intricate, I see where it will be hard to handle and cautiously prepare myself, my gaze settles on it, action slows down for it, you scarcely see the flick of the chopper ? and at one stroke the tangle has been unravelled, as a clod crumbles to the ground. I stand chopper in hand, look proudly round to everyone, dawdle to enjoy the triumph until I?m quite satisfied, then clean the chopper and put it away.? ?Excellent!? said Lord Wen-hui. ?Listening to the words of Cook Ting, I have learned from them how to nurture life.?? [Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, A.C. Graham, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001]
Written almost two and a half thousand years ago it still speaks to us today...
One thing it is important to make clear is that Kung Fu is not just the description of the final state of mastery, rather it is the name for the process of getting there. It?s no good to see a Master in what ever discipline perform and then just try and copy their movements, for those movements have been honed over decades of hard work, one step forward, one step back, to the right, to the left, constant adjustment, the body, mind and breath changing with the movement. To have the result without this process is to have the application without the Kung Fu.
In this light Kung Fu can be thought of as the foundation training for a discipline or an art form. In the martial arts in particular it is characterised by that old clich? of the student spending the first three years of their training putting their bodies through all sorts of hardships before they ever come to learn to fight.
It is worth remembering that old clich?s have become clich?s because they contain a kernel of truth.
The Origins of Kung Fu as a Martial Art
Now let?s consider Kung Fu as that term is understood in common usage ? as short hand for the diverse family of Chinese traditional martial arts.
It is difficult to say when Kung Fu was first invented in China. Many books that introduce its history often start in the Stone Age, when the ancient Chinese first learned to wield spears and stone axes.
In one sense that is correct, because warfare is one of the first skills human beings learned in order to survive, and as a skill it has seen continuous uninterrupted development for thousands of years. However, in those far removed times there was nothing to distinguish martial arts used by the ancient Chinese from those used by any other people. The key question should be: when did the characteristics and principles which make Kung Fu distinct and unique from other styles of martial arts first develop?
For this we have to look right back to the earliest records. The Chinese straight sword for example was already mentioned in China?s oldest written works ? the Confucian Classics ? written in the first half of the first millennium BC. The Classics describe Sword Dances performed by warriors at feasts as a non-lethal demonstration of skill. This is probably the first written evidence for what later will be known as Patterns or Tao Lu, an integral part of Kung Fu practice now.
Another important stage in the history of Kung Fu is the development of Chinese ideas about the Dao, Qi and the Yin and Yang theory. These are very old ideas that have their root in ancient Chinese Shamanism and again are first mentioned in writing in the Confucian Classics before being developed and gaining their full importance in the works of the Daoist Masters, such as Zhuang Zi, Lao Zi and their successors.
It is these concepts that form one of the greatest distinguishing characteristics between Kung Fu and, say, ancient Western forms of fighting. The very ideas of Kung Fu and the Dao, that we considered earlier; Qi cultivation, using Qi to power your attacks or strengthen your body; using the Yin and Yang theory to balance the soft and hard in your fighting; using the eight trigrams and the five elements to subdivide types of movement; using acupressure points and ideas of meridians ? these are all Chinese inventions. They have later been exported to neighbouring countries like Japan and Korea, so influencing their own styles of martial arts.
At the same time as these concepts were being developed and written down, many texts on martial arts theory and strategy were also being written in China. The oldest being the famous ?Art of War? by Sun Zi (6th-5th century BC) and the identically named ?Art of War? of his distant relative, Sun Bin (4th century BC). In the time of the two Suns martial arts in China were already long established as an art form and were distinctively Chinese Kung Fu.
The final key date in the early history of Kung Fu must be the founding of the Shaolin Temple on Songshan in 495 AD and the teaching there of Damo, or Bodhidharma, in the early sixth century. That was when Kung Fu was first tied together with the ideas of Ch?an, or Zen, Buddhism, and began to acquire a form that would be easily recognisable by anyone practising today, or anyone who has watched Kung Fu movies.
It is important to understand, however, that the introduction of Buddhism did not mean that the earlier concepts of the Dao, Qi and Yin/Yang have been superseded. Quite the opposite, these core elements of Chinese thought were incorporated into Buddhist practices, which is what made Ch?an Buddhism a uniquely Chinese discipline quite distinct from its Indian Mahayana roots.
Kung Fu Styles
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct styles of Kung Fu in China. It is the oldest family of martial arts in the world so it is not surprising that Kung Fu has had time to become so diversified. However, all these styles are still tied together by the common thread that distinguishes them from martial arts from other cultures ? the theories of Qi cultivation, Yin and Yang Balance, Eight Trigrams and Five Elements.
The huge variety of Kung Fu styles are loosely subdivided into Northern (Bei) and Southern (Nan) Schools and into Internal (Nei) and External (Wai) families. Loosely, because these terms are not mutually exclusive. Certainly all styles have some internal and some external characteristics: all external will make you rigid like a rock, all internal will make you floppy and weak. It?s best to see it as a gradient, where you have something like Tai Chi at one end and Shaolin Quan at the other.
The Northern and Southern division is both historical and geographic. If you use the Yangtze River as a ready dividing line across the middle of China then most of the styles south of it can be classified as Southern School and vice versa, although there are plenty of exceptions. In general Southern Styles tend to have much tighter, smaller movements and stances than their northern counterparts. In North China the landscape is predominantly plains, so cavalry was key to warfare. That is why Northern Styles have many large and jumping movements and long range weapons suitable to fighting in large scale battles where you have to face mounted opponents. An example is a style like Tong Bei Quan or Chan Quan. The southern landscape is either mountainous or criss-crossed by rivers, so a different type of warfare was required.
Also, historically, after the Han Chinese started colonising the South in earnest during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), China was facing a constant threat of invasion by powerful foreign kingdoms ? the Jin, the Mongols and the Manchus. During these invasions, the South of China was often cut off from the North, which allowed martial arts in the two areas to develop separately.
The greatest period of change for Southern styles was during the three hundred years of the last Dynasty ? the Manchu Qing (1644-1911 AD). As happened under the Jin and the Mongols, North China, with its open plains so handy for invading horsemen, fell quickly to the advancing Manchu. The remnants of the Han Chinese armies fled to the southern provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and finally the island of Taiwan, where they were able to hold out for a few more decades under the leadership of General Kosinga.
By the end of the 17th century however, the Manchus were able to crush the last of the open resistance to their rule. From then on the rebels had to resort to underground resistance, forming secret societies of fighters who blended in to the general population during the day. In this way, the practice of martial arts changed from being the occupation of elites to that of every class of people. After the Manchus issued an edict forbidding the carrying of weapons, fighting in the Southern styles developed to concentrate on using bare hands and any makeshift weapons that would come to hand, including everyday farming tools. Over the next two hundred years, fed by a continuous state of violence, rebellions and repression by the state, Southern styles proliferated to the extent that the vast majority of styles still practised today draw their roots from that period. An example is Bai He Quan or Wuzhu Quan.
Shaolin Kung Fu
Bodhidharma or Damo came to the Shaolin Temple in 527 AD and after nine years of meditation, during which he famously sat unmoving facing the wall of a cave, he taught the monks breathing and strengthening exercises and fighting drills called the 18 Hands of Luo Han (Shi Ba Luo Han Shou). They served as the core of future Martial arts training at the Temple.
Young monks with camera
Shaolin Kung Fu gained instant recognition after thirteen fighting monks from the Temple came to the aid of Prince Li Shi Ming during his battles with rebellious generals. When the Prince took the throne as Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) he extended imperial patronage to the Temple and sponsored the continuing practice of martial arts within its walls.
From that time on Shaolin Temple was known across China as the centre for martial arts practice. Its prestige caused famous masters to go and teach there, either as monks or as secular disciples. These masters brought in their own unique styles which were adopted and mixed into the range of techniques already practised in the Temple. When these outside masters moved on to set up their own schools they carried the name of Shaolin and its techniques with them. In this way Shaolin Temple became an arena for exchange of knowledge between different styles ? a bit like a modern day university with a constant stream of visiting lecturers ? and was able to spread its influence so widely.
Many sister Temples were built to take advantage of the success of the Henan Shaolin Temple. Often these were small Buddhist outposts in far corners of China, which did not survive in the long term, causing continuing controversy about whether they existed at all or could properly be named as Shaolin Temples. However, the sister Temple in Fujian, built in the Tang Dynasty, proved to be as resilient and important as the Henan Temple itself. It not only survived through the centuries but eventually became richer and more extensive than its northern progenitor.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD), the Southern Shaolin Temple became famous as a refuge to the last remnants of resistance to the Manchu invaders and a centre for Southern Styles of Kung Fu. Eventually its reputation as a hot bed of rebellion caused the Southern Temple to be burned down during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735 AD), creating one of Shaolin Kung Fu?s most enduring and well known legends: the escape of the five ancestor masters, who continued teaching Shaolin Kung Fu in secret after the Temple?s destruction.
Kung Fu Weapons
The provenance of the Chinese straight sword (Jian) has already been discussed above. Together with the staff (Gun), broadsword (Dao) and spear (Qiang) it forms the four core weapons of the Chinese arsenal. The staff and broadsword are considered foundation weapons which teach a student how to use any long or short range weapon. The spear and the straight sword on the other hand are the ?King? of long and short weapons respectively ? mastering them requires the greatest skill.
In addition to these four, there are hundreds of other weapons, ranging from adapted farm tools like a Three Section Staff, through hunting tools like a Tiger Fork, to ancient battlefield weapons such as a ten foot Horse Lance.
This multitude of weapons is grouped according to whether they are long, short, hard or soft. These categories are usually paired; for example a typical hard long range weapon is the spear, where as a soft long range weapon is a Rope Dart, a hard short range weapon is a sword, and soft short range weapon is the famous Nunchaku, which is an Okinawan pronunciation of the Chinese name Lian Jia Gun. Finally, projectile weapons, such as the bow form a separate group of their own.
Traditionally martial artists would choose a weapon to suit their body shape and personality, so a big strong person would wield a fifty pound Guan Dao, where as a short smaller built man would specialise in daggers or short swords.