History of Chinese Kung Fu
Last updated by david at 2013-10-21
Kung Fu Wushu, or just Kung Fu, as it is more commonly called, is an ancient Chinese hand-to-hand martial art that was developed to serve as a defense against one-on-one attacks from an opponent – especially in the context of military combat – who may have been armed or unarmed, though Kung Fu was naturally also, secondarily, an offensive strategy; that is, having parried one's opponent's thrusts, blows, kicks, etc., one then went on the offensive, delivering one's own thrusts, blows, kicks, pressure grips, etc., as required, in order to disarm and overpower one's opponent.
Kung Fu (an Anglicization of gongfu [功夫]), means "hard-won achievement" while Wushu [武术], in today's jargon, means "martial arts". However, the "wu" [武] of wushu is itself composed of two component characters – the one stacked over the other in the style of a mathematical fraction – which is often the custom in Chinese wherever the one syllable (usually the leading syllable) of a two-syllable word is itself a product of two older syllables: zhi [止], meaning "stop" (as in "to brake" or "to arrest"); and je [戈], meaning "cudgel" (or "sword" or "spear" – or, more generally, "weapon"). In other words, the "wu" of wushu means to fend off the armed attack of an aggressor. Shu [術] means "technique" – or, in the collective, as here: "art".
This is an important detail because it also relates, indirectly, to the later, seemingly hair-splitting 5th century CE distinction between "external" (shaolin [少林]) and "internal" (wudang [武当]) wushu, or martial arts. At some point in the practice of Kung Fu, even back then, there were apparently those who were more focused on the purely physical aspects of the art, rather than on the originally intended combination of both physical and mental aspects of Kung Fu. Or, to put it into more philosophical terms, the art of Kung Fu was degenerating to the level of Kung Fu technique.
It is not hard to imagine that it was also at this time that the focus shifted from a 'defense-first, offense-second' strategy to an 'offense-first, defense-second' strategy. That is, the original message of self-restraint and non-aggression somehow got lost, perhaps as the practice of Kung Fu became more widespread among the masses, i.e., as it evolved from a strictly military combat strategy to a technique that anyone could learn – and then use to overpower (bully?) any and all opponents (I believe I have read somwhere that the original Samurai tradition in Japan followed a similarly sad progression, where the once honorable Samurai eventually became the equivalent of the American Wild West's conscienceless hired gun).
Thus the sublimely long-suffering humility that was at the heart of Kung Fu, as taught by its original masters, became cheapened with a focus primarily on the physical aspect of Kung Fu, rather than on a fusion of both aspects, the physical as well as the mental, where the physical emphasis led to macho-like displays of power (note, in this connection, that in the American TV series, Kung Fu, starring the Hollywood actor David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, the original, sublimely long-suffering humility of Kung Fu was at least preserved... it took a heckuva lot of "in your face" aggession to get Kwai Chang Caine riled up enough that he would go into action!).
Kung Fu Wushu and the Legendary "Record"
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kung Fu came to be, thanks to Huang Di ("Yellow Emperor"), the semi-mythical, pre-Xia Dynasty emperor (Huangdi, as his name is more commonly written, ascended to the throne, according to the legend, in BCE 2698). Before becoming emperor, Gongsun Xuanyuan cum Huangdi was a renowned general and scholar who had written numerous tomes on themes as diverse as astrology, medicine and – of course! – martial arts. Thus Kung Fu is purported to have originated during the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty. It is said that the wrestling form, jiao di, that would become an official state sport during the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty (see below), was developed during the Xia Dynasty by one of the Yellow Emperor's wrestling rivals, Chi You.
Historical Mention of Kung Fu Wushu Up Through The Middle Ages
The earliest reference to martial arts in the Chinese historical record stems from the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, namely, a reference to a Kung Fu like discipline in the Spring and Autumn Annals. There, han-to-hand combat is mentioned, based on the integration of "hard" and "soft" techniques, which integration one can surely perceive as a reference to the fusion of purely physical techniques (later referred to as "external", or shaolin techniques) with purely mental techniques (later referred to as "internal", or wudang techniques) – the latter "techniques" sometimes known as meditation – which is not surprising, if true, given that the concept of the yin and the yang – or two interdependent sides of one and the same concept – belonged not only to Taoism, which was the prevailing religion at the time, but in fact belonged to China's pre-Taoist belief system, animism, which described the relationship of mankind to Mother Earth and all that Mother Earth embraced, and described as well mankind's relationship to the cosmos beyond.
In the 1st century BCE, i.e., during the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty, mention of a combat wrestling discipline, jueli (alternatively, jiaoli) [角力], can be found in the work, Classic of Rites. This is the first historical mention of a form of hand-to-hand combat specifically involving strikes, throws and grappling techniques such as applying pressure to key points of the body or of the locking of joints that could temporarily incapacitate one's opponent. It was also during the Han Dynasty that an "anything goes" form of the wrestling discipline, jueli, known as shoubo [手搏], was introduced, according to the History of the Former Han Dynasty, aka Hanshu, completed in CE 111 and which covered the period, roughly, of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty through the Wang Mang Interregnum, or the Xin (CE 009-024) Dynasty.
The earliest chronological reference to a term relating specifically to a hand-to-hand military fighting strategy – even predating mention of the wrestling discipline, jueli – is an early Han Dynasty reference found in the aformentioned Hanshu, where the term bing jiqiao [兵技巧] is mentioned. Later, during the 1st century BCE, how-to manuals describing the particulars of, and rules for, jueli became available. (By definition, given that it was a no-holds-barred form of wrestling, manuals were not required for shoubo!)
During the Qin Dynasty, another form of wrestling, or jiao di [角抵] – literally, "horn-butting" – became an official sport. This sport aped the "wrestling matches" between male horned animals, especially contests between bulls, male deer (bucks), etc., for the right to mate with the flock's females. Of course, more than head-butting is involved in the duel fought out between male horned animals. For example, the males each attempt to throw the other after having locked horns, and if one succeeds in this endeavor, it then attempts to gorge the fallen male (the human equivalent of the gorging was considerably less debilitating: one applied pressure to key points of the body, or locked one's opponent's joints, thus winning the duel). Various forms of Han period wrestling are documented in Sima Qian's book, Records of the Grand Historian, written in BCE ca.100.
During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, both Li Bai (CE 701-762), aka Li Po – considered one of China'a greatest ever poets – and Du Fu (712–770), considered by posterity as THE greatest Chinese poet (he is often likened to Virgil, Horace and Ovid, as well as to Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo and Baudelaire, all rolled into one!) – and note that the Tang Dynasty was considered the "Golden Age" of Chinese poetry – immortalized martial arts sword dances in a number of their poems. There are stele from the Tang period that depict monks from Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province engaged in what can only be interpreted as a combat form of Kung Fu –indeed, the associated historical record bears out the combat nature of these depictions (more on this topic farther below).
During the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, which was a period of stability and unity in China, Kung Fu Wushu was known as wuyi [武艺], literally meaning "martial arts". Both during the Song Dynasty, and again during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, the next period of stability and unity in China, a form of martial art known as xiang pu [相扑], meaning "wrestling" (literally "flooring and pinning each other" – which some believe was the forerunner to Japanese sumo wrestling), was performed at the Imperial court.
But it was first from the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty and onward that Kung Fu became codified and quantified, as it were. In fact, most of what we know of the structure of Kung Fu stems from the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty era and the subsequent Republic of China (1912-49) period. During the RoC period, the designation wushu changed to guoshu [国术], meaning "national arts". The change reflected the RoC's patriotic emphasis on the individual's subservience to the nation's interests. Guoshu was in fact taught at this time through the new National Martial Arts Academy that had been established in Nanjing expressly for this purpose. In the early years of the People's Republic of China, the designation of martial arts in China reverted from guoshu back to wushu (more on post-16th century era evolution of Kung Fu farther below).
The Early Religio-Philosophical Underpinnings of Kung Fu Wushu
Perhaps because Kung Fu required of its practitioner a high degree of skill that balanced the mental with the physical, it found its way into religious and philosophical works, including into early Taoist works. The earliest Taoist text to mention principles associated with Kung Fu is the 6th century BCE work, Tao Te Ching – not to be confused with the ancient I Ching, aka the Book (or Classic) of Changes, which describes a complete system of divination, or geomancy, is attributed to the mythical figure, Fu Xi, who allegedly lived during the 29th century BCE (the oldest extant, albeit, incomplete, version of the I Ching stems from roughly the 4th century BCE).
The Tao Te Ching, in contrast, is attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), the ancient master who, precisely because he is believed to be the author of the Tao Te Ching, is believed to be the founder of Taoism (alternatively, Daoism). Another 6th century BCE text that broaches the topic of Kung Fu is The Art of War reputed to be written by the famous Spring and Autumn general, Sun Tzu. The Art of War has been such a timelessly influential work that it was a reference work at military academies in the West as late as the 20th century.
Yet another ancient text that broaches the topic of Kung Fu is the 4th century BCE work, the Zhuangzi, named after its author, which refers to the psychology and practice of Kung Fu. Also early Confucianism seems to refer to martial arts, albeit, not directly. The Confucianist work, Zhou Li, mentions the "Six Arts", or disciplines, one of which, Rites, touches upon martial arts like concepts.
Other oblique references to Kung Fu can be found in the following works: the Tao Yin, or the set of Taoist exercises associated with the Taoist concept corresponding to the qi as set forth in the Taiji Quan (alternatively written as Tai Chi Chuan); a later version of the aforementioned History of the Former Han Dynasty, aka Hanshu, has a subsection entitled "Six Chapters of Hand Fighting" which, as the title suggests, covers principles of combat related to Kung Fu (the original Hanshu, as indicated in the above, was completed in CE 111, though a later version included an updated chapter spanning the period 39 to 92 CE – note that the work completed in CE 111 spanned the period only up through the Wang Mang Interregnum, or through the Xin (CE 009-024) Dynasty); the BCE 220 work, "Five Animals Play" – which studies the movements of the tiger, the deer, the monkey, the bear and the bird, by the famed physician, Hua Tuo, the first physician to make use of anesthesia – covers principles of movement related to the "soft", or "internal" [wudang] side of Kung Fu; and finally, the famous Eight (Taoist) Immortals of the Tang Dynasty period espoused principles that belong solidly in the fusion camp of both the "internal" and "external" sides of Kung Fu.
Post-16th Century Era Evolution of Kung Fu Wushu
One of the most notable post-16th century developments in Kung Fu was the association of Kung Fu to Shaolin Monastery in the town of Dengfeng, which belongs to the prefecture-level city, and capital city, of Henan Province, the city of Zhengzhou. But Kung Fu's association to Shaolin Monastery has roots that go back as far as the Tang Dynasty period. There exists a stele from CE 728 that depicts two different occasions where Shaolin Monastery was defended by its monks, the first depicting a bandit attack in CE 610 and the second depicting the defeat of the rebel Tang general, and self-proclaimed emperor of a breakaway region of the Chinese empire, at the Battle of Hulao in CE 621. Nothing was heard of the "warrior monks" of Shaolin Monastery for another milennium...
Beginning with the 16th century, the practice of Kung Fu became a regular part of the daily life of a monk at Shaolin Monastery. The latter half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century was a troubled time for China. It was a period when the eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty weilded great and abusive power, especially in matters of taxation. In addition, the first long period of the subsequent Qing Dynasty was no less troubled, for the Ming – in the form of the so-called Southern Ming - refused to give up power and therefore hung onto a shrinking southern part of the country.
There was a period in China's history when the practice of Kung Fu was forbidden, but Shaolin Monastery secretly kept it alive, and once the ban on its practice was lifted, warrior monks from Shaolin Monastery, traversing the length and breadth of China, undertook the heroic task of spreading the art and science of Kung Fu to a relatively ignorant but receptive audience.
Moreover, much of the first period of Qing rule was plagued with the so-called Revolt of the Three Feudatories whose combined territory occupied up to half of the Chinese empire during the latter half of the 17th century. Though the records of Shaolin Monastery do not specifically state it, emperors and their ministers and tax collectors had been known to raid monasteries, which were believed to conceal great wealth. In any case, absent strong central power that could enforce stable rule, monasteries felt that they were best served looking out for their own interests.
There are some 40 different historical texts that make reference to the institution of Kung Fu at Shaolin Monastery, so it is obvious that the monastery had reason to believe that self defense was necessary (well, on the more peaceful and healthy side of things, the daily exercise of Kung Fu movements, which combine meditative aspects with physical exertion, is naturally good for one's blood circulation and good for one's mental health as well). Some of these texts include what one one would today characterize as manufactured Buddhist lore that extols the virtues of Kung Fu, and which therewith attempts to justify the monastery's practice of Kung Fu. For example, the text, Yijin Jing ("Muscle Change Classic"), from 1624, describes the founding of Shaolin Kung Fu, which, as we have already discussed, has been taken to mean a focus on the so-called external aspects of the discipline of Kung Fu, though this is in no way mentioned explicitly in the Yijin Jing, which circumstance stands in contrast to the Tang period Shaolin Monastery stele that depicts warrior monks engaged in a combat form of Kung Fu.
Throughout the late Ming Dynasty period there are numerous references in various works, from Kung Fu manuals to military combat manuals and journals to more general historical works to works of fiction, non-fiction (eg., travelogues) and even poetry, as well as epitaphs dedicated to specific Shaolin warrior monks. It is telling that in none of these works is there a specific reference to the internal versus external dichotomy that would eventually emerge in Kung Fu, and which had been there earlier, already during the Tang Dynasty.
Like Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the warrior monks of Shaolin Monastery became quite adept with the zhang [杖], or "staff", which they used to great advantage in their defense of Shaolin Monastery. The Ming period general, Qi Jiguang (1528-88) described Shaolin Kung Fu, or Shao Lin Quan Fa [少 林 拳 法], i.e., "Shaolin Buddhist Boxing Principles" (literally, "Shaolin Buddhist Fist Principles"), which also included a description of how to use the staff, in his book, Ji Xiao Xin Shu [纪效新书], or "New Book of Efficient Techniques". Qi's book had great impact on Kung Fu as the discipline was practiced in Korea and on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which lies roughly midway between the Chinese island of Taiwan and the large southwestern Japanese island of Hashima, on which the city of Nagasaki lies.
Kung Fu even played a role in the eventual Han Chinese overthrow of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. Like the warrior monks of Shaolin Monastery of an earlier era, the militant Han Chinese anti-Manchu revolutionaries behind the uprising that came to be known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) called their movement the Yi he tuan [義和團], or the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists", a direct reference to Kung Fu, which naturally inspired the English moniker,"Boxer".*
Kung Fu flourished during the subsequent Republic of China (1912-1949) era. It was during this period that the many branch disciplines within Kung Fu Wushu were developed (instead of the term "Wushu", the term Guoshu [國術] was employed, since, as indicated in the above, it translates to "National art", and nationalism, or devotion to the motherland, was a strong theme during the RoC period). Numerous Kung Fu academies sprang up, manuals describing the various disciplines and setting out their distinctions were published, and in 1936 the first display of Kung Fu was sprung on an unsuspecting world audience at the 11th Olympic Games, held in Berlin, where a group of Chinese Kung Fu artists demonstrated for the very first time their unique, hand-to-hand combat skills for the benefit of an enthralled international audience.
The progress of Kung Fu continued after the People's Republic of China came to power in 1949, with a brief hiccup during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The older term, Wushu, replaced the RoC era term, Guoshu, and gradually Kung Fu in the PRC era regained its individualistic focus, where it was up to the individual to pursue the sport to the degree and dedication that the individual was willing to invest in it. Today, Kung Fu is enjoyed in a variety of disciplines and at all levels by a multitude of devotees the world over. I if you would like to learn Kung Fu Wushu from a true master, you can most certainly find one in China; in fact, if you wish, you can visit Shaolin Monastery where you can watch the masters perform, and afterward, you can enroll yourself in a Kung Fu Wushu course.
* Unfortunately for the anti-Qing (anti-Manchu) "righteous fists" movement, Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) – who was the de facto ruler of Qing China from 1861 to 1908 in a role that paralleled to a degree the role of Regent of France played by Catherine de Medici during the 15th century, since Cixi ruled in place of first her son, Emperor Tongzhi (1856-75), who was a minor for most of his nominal 13-year reign, then her nephew, Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908), whose nominal reign was from 1875-1908 – managed to take control of the movement and convert it from a murderous anti-Manchu movement to a murderous anti-Western (actually anti-foreigner, since Japan and Russia were among the Eight Nation Alliance) movement that lasted 55 days. The Eight Nation Alliance included Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the United States, Russia and Japan.
These were roughly the same foreign powers that had forced the humiliating Unequal Treaties upon Qing China, thus bringing down the wrath of the Han Chinese people upon the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty, so a revenge of sorts for Qing China, though a short-lived victory for Empress Dowager Cixi and her government, for the 55-day reign of terror for the foreigners, which bizarrely involved slaughtering alternated with peace gestures, finally provoked the Eight Nation Alliance to land a 20,000 strong army on Chinese soil, leading to a quick defeat of the Imperial Chinese Army and the capture of Beijing.
In the aftermath, the Qing government was forced to pay a whopping indemnity under the so-called Boxer Protocol, which cost Cixi's Qing China a sum the size of the entire annual tax revenues collected by the Qing government, in exchange for the lives of the murdered foregners. The 1963 Hollywood film, 55 Days at Peking, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven, is woven around the events of the 55-day anti-foreigner murdering spree.
Nowadays, learning Chinese Kungfu is regarded as one of Top 10 Things to Do in China for tourists traveling to China.
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