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Graphic of two kung fu fighters in moonlight. Source: silla5775 / Adobe Stock

The History of Kung Fu: A Modern Name for an Ancient Art

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Martial arts have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. Out of all the martial arts, kung fu, popularized by stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, has become the most well-known. However, kung fu as we think of it today is surprisingly young, only being used to refer to martial arts from the 20th century onwards. The common conception of kung fu is an amalgamation of different fighting styles, some dating back thousands of years, and all hailing from China.

The Etymology of Kung Fu

It may surprise you to learn the original meaning of kung fu has nothing to do with martial arts. In the original Chinese, kung fu meant any skill that was acquired through hard work and practice. It was only during the twentieth century that the Chinese community began to use kung fu to refer to martial arts.

The popular idea of ‘kung fu’ would traditionally be called  Zhonghua wushu , or just  wushu for short, which simply translates as ‘ martial art ’. The meaning of the term kung fu has changed to match western understanding. The origin of this change in meaning appears to have been mistranslations in movie dubs and subtitles, when martial arts films first became popular in the West during the 1960s and 1970s.

Shaolin Kung Fu is perhaps the most well-known style today. Pictured are two grandmasters of the Shaolin Temple - Shi DeRu (Shawn Xiangyang Liu) and Shi DeYang (Shi WanFeng), descendent disciples of the late Great Grand Master of the Shaolin Temple Shi SuXi. (Shi Deru / CC BY SA 3.0)

Shaolin Kung Fu is perhaps the most well-known style today. Pictured are two grandmasters of the Shaolin Temple - Shi DeRu (Shawn Xiangyang Liu) and Shi DeYang (Shi WanFeng), descendent disciples of the late Great Grand Master of the Shaolin Temple Shi SuXi. (Shi Deru /  CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Legendary Origins of Kung Fu

It should come as no surprise that humans have been developing ways to defend themselves for thousands of years. The history of Chinese martial arts, commonly called kung fu today, stretches back at least 4,000 years.

The earliest records of kung fu are steeped in legend. According to ancient tales, Chinese martial arts date back to the  Xia Dynasty  of 4,000 years ago. The Xia Dynasty is the first recorded dynasty in Chinese history, and stories of the Xia often take on a mythical bent.

According to legend, the  Yellow Emperor  Huangdi was the first master of Chinese martial arts. Before becoming emperor, he had been a famous general who wrote about medicine, astrology, and martial arts. His nemesis was Chi You, supposedly the creator of  jiao di , an ancient type of Chinese wrestling.

The problem with this origin story is that it is difficult to verify; there are no contemporary sources describing the Xia dynasty. Only later sources give us any information on the dynasty, and those sources have a tendency to exaggerate. Crediting the Yellow Emperor with the invention of Chinese martial arts is akin to crediting  Prometheus with the invention of fire.

One of many statues honoring the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, first ancestor of the Han Chinese people, Xinzheng City, Henan Province (Gary Todd /  CC0)

Kung Fu in Early Recorded History

The earliest verifiable references to Chinese martial arts can be found in the  Spring and Autumn Annuals  from the 5th century BC. This ancient chronicle mentioned a hand-to-hand combat theory that integrated both hard and soft techniques. A hard technique refers to a defense where brute force is met with brute force. A soft technique is found in martial arts like jujutsu, where the defender uses the opponent's force against them.

Slightly later on, the  Classic of Rites  mentioned a form of  wrestling called jueli. In the Han dynasty (206 BC- 8AD), training manuals were written that laid out the differences between no-holds-barred, hand-to-hand combat,  shoubo, and wrestling for sport.

Various Chinese wrestling styles, like jueli and shuaijiao, were distinct from wushu kung fu (Wuyouyuan / CC BY SA 3.0)

Various Chinese wrestling styles, like jueli and shuaijiao, were distinct from wushu kung fu (Wuyouyuan /  CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Rise of Chinese Martial Arts

Around 400 AD, martial arts in China really began to spread. A good example of this was the founding of the infamous Shaolin Temple in 495 AD. Today, the  Shaolin monks are known as legendary martial arts masters.

It all began with the first monk to preach  Buddhism at the Shaolin temple, Batuo. Records point to his first Chinese disciples, Huiguang and Sengchou being proficient in martial arts. Sengchou was reportedly such a master with the tin staff that it was recorded within the Chinese Buddhist canon.

An Indian monk named Damo came to Shaolin Temple after Batuo, in 527 AD. One of his disciples was a man named Huike, who was supposedly also a martial arts master. It has been implied that these free men may have been in the military before joining the  monastery.

The Shaolin Buddhist monastery in central China was a key source for the development of kung fu (Aliaksei / Adobe Stock)

The Shaolin Buddhist monastery in central China was a key source for the development of kung fu ( Aliaksei / Adobe Stock)

Soon, the Shaolin Temple had its own institutionalized form of martial arts. This is one of the earliest recorded examples of formalized Chinese martial arts. While the Shaolin Temple's contribution to kung fu has probably been sensationalized, there are early records to support the claim that the temple had an important role to play.

A stele from 728 AD depicted two instances of Shaolin monks taking part in combat. The first was a picture of the monks defending their monastery from bandits in 610 AD. The second showed their role in helping defeat Wang Shichong (a military general who overthrew his emperor) at the Battle of Hulao in 621 AD.

The Shaolin Monastery Stele on Mount Song, also known as Stele of Li Shimin, which chronicles the history of Shaolin Monastery up to the stele's erection in 728 AD, written by Pei Cui (d. 736 AD), the title of the stele was personally inscribed by then-Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (713 - 756 AD) (Zcm11 / CC BY SA 3.0)

The Shaolin Monastery Stele on Mount Song, also known as Stele of Li Shimin, which chronicles the history of Shaolin Monastery up to the stele's erection in 728 AD, written by Pei Cui (d. 736 AD), the title of the stele was personally inscribed by then-Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (713 - 756 AD) (Zcm11 /  CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Shaolin Temple disappeared in relation to martial arts for nearly a thousand years. Then, between the 16th and 17th centuries, over 40 reliable sources indicated that the Shaolin monks were not only busy practicing martial arts, but that martial arts had become a key part of life in the monastery. From this point on, the Shaolin Monastery is closely tied to the depiction of martial arts in China.

When the Ming general Qi Jiguang wrote  Jixiao Xinshu ( New Treatise on Military Efficiency) between 1560 and 1590 he included descriptions of the Shaolin monks' techniques, such as Shaolin Quan Fa. This book eventually made its way across East Asia, greatly influencing the development of martial arts in the area. In this way, a line can be drawn connecting many modern kung fu techniques to those practiced centuries ago at the Shaolin temple.

Page from Jixiao Xinshu showing unarmed fighting (Bruce W Sims / CC BY SA 3.0)

Page from Jixiao Xinshu showing unarmed fighting (Bruce W Sims /  CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Philosophy of Kung Fu

Originally, there was no philosophy attached to Chinese martial arts; they were simply a form of self-defense. Over time, as martial arts and Chinese society itself evolved, masters began adding a philosophical foundation to their teachings.

Several Taoist texts mention martial arts in their teachings, referring to the psychology and practice of martial arts. Taoist martial artists have practiced  Tao Yin , a series of calming, meditative physical exercises, since at least 500 BC. If one looks at styles such as the “Eight Immortals”, references to Taoist teachings are noticed; each technique is attributed to the characteristics of one of the immortals.

Later Buddhist teachings would have more effect on the philosophy of kung fu, largely thanks to the Shaolin Temple. As mentioned above, Sengchou’s mastery of the tin staff even made it into the Buddhist Chinese canon.

Drawings of Tao Yin or Daoyin techniques. This is a reconstruction of a 'Guiding and Pulling Chart' excavated from one of the Mawangdui Tombs (sealed in 168 BC) in the former kingdom of Changsha. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0)

Drawings of Tao Yin or Daoyin techniques. This is a reconstruction of a 'Guiding and Pulling Chart' excavated from one of the Mawangdui Tombs (sealed in 168 BC) in the former kingdom of Changsha. (Wellcome Collection /  CC BY 4.0 )

The People’s Republic of Kung Fu

Although martial arts have always been a popular form of self-defense in China, the forms which are most popular today only rose to prominence during the 20th century. This shift began in 1900, with the Boxer Rebellion.

The Boxer Rebellion was an uprising led by the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. Most of their members were experienced martial artists who practiced ‘Chinese Boxing’; due to this, the West referred to the uprising as the Boxer Rebellion. The rebellion was an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian movement that sought to protect China from foreign influences.

Although not initially successful, the Boxer Rebellion would have major ramifications. The rebellion would eventually lead to the fall of the  Qing Dynasty  and the creation of the Chinese Republic. Chinese martial arts’ role in the creation of the Republic meant that martial arts were integrated into the Chinese national identity more than ever.

The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous period for China. Besides the Boxer Rebellion and the fall of the Qing dynasty, China also faced the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War. Unsurprisingly, in times of strife people tend to look for ways to defend themselves, and so martial artists openly started teaching ordinary citizens their craft.

Furthermore, due to all the problems China had faced, nationalism was increasing. Martial arts were an excellent way to promote national pride and create a strong nation able to defend itself. The government began publishing martial arts training manuals, creating training academies, and organized two national examinations. They then sent demonstration teams overseas to exhibit the supremacy of Chinese martial arts.

Oil painting of the dowager Empress Cixi of Qing Dynasty sitting on an armchair, by Dutch painter Hubert Vos, 1906. On the bamboo forest painted background, there is written from right to left, in traditional Chinese "Great Qing Empire Cixi Empress". Cups of fruits surround the empress, as for any highest rank personality in Imperial China. (Public Domain)

Oil painting of the dowager Empress Cixi of Qing Dynasty sitting on an armchair, by Dutch painter Hubert Vos, 1906. On the bamboo forest painted background, there is written from right to left, in traditional Chinese "Great Qing Empire Cixi Empress". Cups of fruits surround the empress, as for any highest rank personality in Imperial China. ( Public Domain )

The People’s Republic Clamps Down

After the Chinese Civil War, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese martial arts soared in popularity. Some of the greatest masters of the time chose to flee China and migrated to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of the world. These masters taught in Chinese expat communities, but soon began teaching the locals too.

The All-China Wushu Association was established in 1958. The aim of this organization was to regulate martial arts training so that it fit with state doctrine. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports created standardized forms of the main Chinese martial arts, ensuring they suited current ideologies.

Martial artists in China faced challenging years during the Cultural Revolution from 1969 to 1976.  Like so much of traditional Chinese life, martial arts were looked down on by Mao and his followers, who believed the old ways had to go. Martial arts teachers were forced to radically change their teachings to fit with Maoist revolutionary doctrine if they wanted to stay free.

Traditional martial arts, with their focus on lineages and self-defense, were seen as subversive. The study of lineages focused too much on history, and even worse, self-defense centered too much on the self. Furthermore, in a communist utopia, the citizenry should have no need for self-defense.

To combat this, the PRC began promoting wushu, a competitive sport that a PRC-controlled committee regulated. Wushu was used to replace traditional martial arts schools. Wushu was taught in both high schools and universities, with a stronger emphasis on wushu as a modern sport, and less as self-defense strategy.

A wushu exhibition at a school in Wudang, China (Guadelupe Cervilla / CC BY 2.0)

A wushu exhibition at a school in Wudang, China (Guadelupe Cervilla /  CC BY 2.0 )

This clampdown on traditional martial arts did not last for long, however. During the era of reconstruction (1976-1989), Communist ideology gradually became more willing to integrate other points of view. This led to the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports creating a new task force in 1979. Its job was to reevaluate the teachings of wushu, and potentially include aspects of other traditional martial arts.

The State Sports Commission, which oversaw all sports in China, was closed in 1998. This is sometimes seen as an attempt to de-politicize sports in China and open them up to more people.  It has led to both traditional styles and the modern  wushu forms being encouraged in China today.

This plan seems to have worked, but perhaps a little too well for the government's liking. Chinese martial arts became hugely popular in China during the 20th century. Chinese pop culture began to revolve around martial arts, and from the 1960s to the 1980s martial arts fiction or “wuxia” became incredibly widespread.

Unfortunately, these wuxia films became too popular, and old worries about martial arts being subversive began to resurface. This led the Chinese Nationalist Party to clamp down on the production of wuxia films in China.

Happy to undermine the Chinese government, British Hong Kong started producing wuxia films instead. This led to the spread of Hong Kong kung fu films internationally in the 1970s. This, in turn, led to an international interest in Chinese martial arts, or as they had been coined by this time, kung fu.

Conclusion

Even though kung fu as we know it today is only a few decades old, its history and traditions go back thousands of years. What many often think of as ‘kung fu’ is a mixture of hundreds of styles and techniques from all over China. Kung fu today is the culmination of thousands of years of knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

At times, that knowledge has been seen as dangerous or divisive, and those in power have sought to restrict it. Yet as is so often the case, those restrictions have ultimately failed. The more the Chinese government has tried to clamp down on Chinese martial arts, the more popular they have become. Governmental controls led to martial arts masters fleeing China and spreading their teachings more widely, as well as the rise of kung fu’s cinematic popularity. 

By seeking to control knowledge, they caused the widespread dissemination of the very ideas they were trying to restrict. Today, people from all over the world practice the teachings of Chinese martial arts every day, all dipping into that ancient well of collective knowledge. 

Top image: Graphic of two kung fu fighters in moonlight. Source:  silla5775 / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Carradine, D. 1991.  Spirit of Shaolin: A Kung Fu Philosophy . Tuttle Publishing. Available at:  https://archive.org/details/spiritofshaolin0000carr/mode/2up

Christensen, J. September 26, 2021.  From Bruce Lee to Shang-Chi: A Short History of the Kung Fu Film in Cinema . The Conversation. Available at:  https://theconversation.com/from-bruce-lee-to-shang-chi-a-short-history-of-the-kung-fu-film-in-cinema-168273

Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia . 2001. ABC-CLIO. Available at:  https://irp.cdn-website.com/3b6bbdea/files/uploaded/Martial_Arts_of_the_World.pdf

Morris, A. 2004.  Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China . University of California Press.

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