What is Kung Fu?

What is Kung Fu?
Kung Fu (or Gung Fu or Gong Fu depending upon what anglicized version you wish to use) is perhaps one of the most diverse categories for Martial Arts.

It encompasses everything from the slow, elegant pace of Tai Chi to the whirling pageantry of Wu Shu to the fast, close range, combative action of Wing Chun and everything in between.

As mentioned in another article, What is Karate?, Kung Fu actually appeared in the United States and other Western worlds with the migration of Chinese workers around the turn of the nineteenth century. Many of these workers had left China in order to raise money for their families. In very tight-knit, worker communities, many continued to practice the Martial Arts they had been taught.

It wasn’t until Bruce Lee created a media stir much later in the century that others outside of the Asian community took notice of Kung Fu. Suddenly, the trend became to name anything that closely resembled the art with the name Kung Fu. That included kicking off a tv series and incorporating Kung Fu into Karate, which had already established itself in the Western world.

In essence, none of these were incorrect reclassifications. Kung Fu, in general terms, refers to the Martial Arts that were developed in China. If you research many of the Karate style, they will trace their lineage and legends back to China.

There is no direct translation of the word Kung Fu into English. Kung literally means “achievement” or “work”. Fu is simply a reference to man or person. It explains greatly why many Kung Fu artists say their Martial Arts is a way of life, not simply a series of kicks, punches, and stances.

Because Kung Fu encompasses so many different variations of Martial Arts, it is often not enough to simply say, “I practice Kung Fu.”

In general terms, when one says they practice Kung Fu, they are often referring to the long stance, fast movements that comes from a Shaolin influences on the art. You will often see many animals represented in their movements: the most common being tiger, dragon, crane, and snake.

Because the focus is to imitate a creature of nature, kung fu attacks are as deadly, or perhaps more so, with a finger as they are with a fist. You will see movements that flow, echoing the movements of grace we see in nature.

Again, because of the vast history and expansive reaches and variations, there are many weapons involved in Kung Fu. From the heavy, foreboding monk spade to the light, agile staff to the elegant broad sword. How much you learn of weapons and what depends upon which Kung Fu path you follow.

The instructors in Kung Fu are known as SiFu, which literally translates to “teacher”. In Chinese, this refers to even normal teachers like your English or Math instructors in school.

Many Kung Fu artists will further delineate themselves based on what specific styles they practice. We will go into each style in more detail in another article. However, for a brief overview of a few of them:

  • wu shu – This art has many acrobatic movements, having strong influences from the old Chinese operas.
  • tai chi – This slow-moving art focuses on building the internal “chi” or energy of the body. The movements are graceful, emphasizing the measured flow of each step.
  • wing chun – Known as the “close-range” combat, this focuses on a lot of movements close to the body and locking techniques.
  • san shoo or lei tai – This refers to the combat aspect of Kung Fu, where competitors meet full-contact against one another. For those who have seen Muay Tai, this might be of interest to you.

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