Chinese Kung Fu

Written by Sally Guo Updated Apr. 2, 2021

Kung Fu (an Anglicization of gongfu), meaning "hard-won achievement") is an ancient Chinese hand-to-hand martial art. It was developed to serve primarily as a defense against a one-on-one, hand-to-hand attack from an opponent, originally in the context of military combat, where the opponent may or may not be armed.

Kung Fu can also be used in the attack, meaning that, having repelled his opponent's attack, the defender may then go on the offensive, delivering his own thrusts, blows, kicks, and pressure grips – as necessary – in order to overpower his attacker.

The Development of Kung Fu

Though it originated in a military context, Kung Fu was eventually taken up by the masses, where it served both as a means of self-defense and as a system of health-giving exercises that fused the mental/spiritual with the physical.

This latter development explains perhaps why Kung Fu was embraced, as early as the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, by Buddhist monks, where the discipline was preserved even though China's most troubled periods. Since the emergence of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Kung Fu has first reconnected with its ancient roots, then, once the genuine core of Kung Fu was rediscovered, the discipline evolved into a sport that has spread far beyond the boundaries of China, has also become an Olympic Games discipline.

Between its Tang period acceptance by Buddhist monks and its modern-day evolution into a worldwide sport, Kung Fu, in a somewhat more stylized, dance form, also developed into an art street theatre, then, in an even more stylized dance form, was incorporated into Chinese Opera.

Kung Fu lent itself to these diverse applications because of its dual aspects involving both the physical and the mental, where, by emphasizing the one aspect more than the other, Kung Fu can take on, at its extremes, a dramatic, even violent physical form or a sublime, almost yoga-like, meditative form not unlike the discipline qigong. In fact, meditation, or getting in touch with one's qi, or "life force", is an integral part of Kung Fu Wushu.

The explicit division of Kung Fu Wushu into two aspects stems from the 5th century CE, as does Shaolin Monastery (it was founded in CE 497), which is obliquely related to Kung Fu. The physical aspect of Kung Fu Wushu is referred to as "external" (shaolin) wushu while the mental aspect of Kung Fu Wushu is referred to as "internal" (wudang) wushu.

Shaolin Kungfu
Shaolin Kungfu

For example, the monks of Shaolin Monastery used Shaolin Kung Fu to defend the monastery from roving bandits and from the soldiers of competing warlords where this was necessary, but they also used Wudang Kung Fu on a daily basis as a more peaceful form of physical and mental exercise to keep both bodies and mind healthy.

Note the Chinese name of "external" wushu, namely, Shaolin. This is no accident, according to some Kung Fu scholars, for Shaolin Monastery, named after nearby Mount Shaoshi (note that lin means "forest"), is believed to have been the first institution (or individual) to have emphasized the distinction between the two aspects of Kung Fu Wushu, leaning perhaps in the direction of "external" wushu, given the monastery's perceived need to defend itself from bandits and others who would take advantage of peaceful monks, the result of which is that "external" wushu has come to be associated with the monastery of the same name, not the other way around, though there is no conclusive evidence for this claim.

The mental dimension of Kung Fu of course involves self-control, both on the level of the practitioner's physical movements and on on the level of the practitioner's feelings, temperament, attitude, or psyche, leading, when practiced by a master, to the pinnacle of humility combined with utter self-control and self-confidence; like the black belt practitioner of karate, the Kung Fu master who knows his strength and skill need not behave aggressively in order to burnish his self-confidence; his self-confidence is anchored solidly in his humble knowledge that when called upon to defend himself, his training ensures that he will acquit himself admirably, whether he is victorious or not.

As a hand-to-hand combat discipline, Kung Fu was practiced either bare-handed or with weapons, i.e., anything from a sword to a dagger to a cudgel – and worse, as will be seen in the following - (the Kung Fu warrior monks of Shaolin Monastery in the town of Dengfeng, Henan Province are reputed to have been quite proficient in the use of cudgels – but of course, being Buddhist monks, they did not have need of either swords or daggers!).

Much of what we know of the practical mechanics of Kung Fu stems from the 20th century period, i.e., from the Republic of China (1912-49) era and from the subsequent People's Republic of China era, the latter of which is, of course, the current era. During the RoC era, the Wushu, or "martial arts", part of the discipline's title (Kung Fu Wushu) was changed to Guoshu, or "national arts", since the aim during this post-feudalistic era was to inculcate a sense of nationalism in the people; becoming adept at Kung Fu was to prepare oneself to defend not only oneself nor even one's monastery, but also the motherland.

After the PRC came to power, "Guoshu" was dropped in favor of the former title, "Wushu", and the government set up a commission, or special task force, in 1979 (the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, which, in 1986, established the Chinese National Research Institute of Wushu) to look into the ancient roots of Kung Fu in order to determine which were genuine Kung Fu elements and which weren't, in case some artificial, add-ons had crept into the practice of Kung Fu during.

For example, the RoC era (the PRC's effort to determine the authenticity of the various elements of Kung Fu can perhaps be compared – if the comparison is neither too sacrilegious nor pretentious! – to the First Council of Nicaea (CE 325), convened by Emperor Constantine (the city of Nicaea is located near the present-day city of Iznik, in Turkey), which was tasked with determining which elements of the collected body of Biblical writings were authentic scripture and which weren't, with an eye to determining which of the Biblical writings should be included in the New Testament).

Yet, in keeping with the Olympic Games spirit, which spirit in fact guides all sports worldwide, the government of the PRC eventually, in 1998, had to dismantle its Kung Fu investigatory and implementational scaffold – its State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports – since, in the long run, the commission would have represented an undue interference on the part of the state in sports, which is naturally anathema to the Olympic Games spirit.

Wudang Kungfu
Wudang Kungfu

The Mechanics of the Physical Side of Kung Fu

Schools/ Styles

Kung Fu knows many "schools" (men), "families" (jia), or "sects" (pai), some of which are further subdivided into styles which, for example, mimic the movements of certain specific animals, follow a certain philosophical tradition, or follow a myth or legend. Some styles lean more toward Shaolin Kung Fu while others lean more toward Wudang Kung Fu. Those that lean more toward the latter aspect of Kung Fu tap into the same kind of meditative principles as governs qigong, meaning that the practitioner of Wudang Kung Fu is very acutely aware of being in contact with his qi.

In addition to the two overarching functional distinctions of Kung Fu, there is also northern and a southern geographical distinction that divides the discipline into a Northern School, or Style, that emphasizes lightning-fast, powerful kicks and high leaps that are spliced together speedily and seamlessly; and a Southern Style that emphasizes powerful arm and hand techniques, momentary but frozen-in-time stances, and very fast and fancy footwork that is very impressive to behold.

Both the Northern and the Southern Style can be further divided into an "external" and an "internal" variant, though it should be said that even at its "external" extreme, Shaolin Kung Fu incorporates elements of Wudang Kung Fu, else it would simply not be Kung Fu!

That is, Kung Fu rests on the interdependence of these two overarching functional aspects in much the same way that the yin and the yang are perceived as two sides to the same phenomenon, whether one is speaking of good versus evil, male versus female, or even an opposition as banal as hot versus cold.

Some well-known Kung Fu styles are Black Tiger Kung Fu, Kragon Kung Fu, Leopard Kung Fu, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Snake Kung Fu.

Tai Chi
Tai Chi

Practical Training

The practical training of Kung Fu is a very broad topic that is too broad and detailed for us to explore in-depth here. Note however that the following main elements belong to a proper Kung Fu regimen:

Basics of Kung Fu

Basics, which include stances and conditioning exercises such as breathing, stretching, striking, leaping, and throwing. Breathing exercises invoke principles of qigong, where the apprentice taps into his qi, but all movement in fact is intimately linked to one's qi, meaning that either qigong or qigong-like meditation is incorporated into the basic exercises, otherwise it is impossible for the apprentice to move with grace and fluidity.


Forms, or taolu, are various sets of movements, each set consisting of a series of predetermined, coordinated movements that must be practiced until they can be executed in a single, fluid, multi-step sequence of uninterrupted segments.

It is perhaps best to think of taolu as subroutines that are executed in response to one's opponent's taolu, in much the same way that a given opening in chess generally has a finite number of corresponding counter-moves.

The apprentice begins initially learning the taolu sub-routines until he can execute them satisfactorily, then he and his teacher (or a more advanced student) hold a sparring session in which the execution of the sub-routines are perfected. The standard for which an apprentice must strive is this: "Train your form as if you were sparring, and spar as if it were a form." What this means is that the apprentice needs to learn to recognize instantly the opponent's taolu and to immediately execute an appropriate counter taolu, as if by rote. Only then has one mastered the taolu.

Some common taolu sets are the following:

Lian quan tao (练拳套) – Fist practicing sequence,

Lian quan jiao (练拳脚) - Fists and feet practicing sequence,

Lian bing qi (练兵器) - Weapons practicing sequence,

Dui lian (对练) – Sparring sets,

Dui da (对打) – Fighting sets.

Note that the character set, means "to practice"(练). It is present in all of the above taolu sets except for the fighting sets (dui da), suggesting that the fighting sets are more for real than for practice. Note also that some of the taolu combat forms that one sees at special tournaments and other public displays are designed more for their aesthetics than for their practicality in an actual combat situation. Moreover, experienced masters will say that the best forms are the ones that the journeyman creates for oneself, having mastered the traditional forms contained in the "rule book".

Learning Tai Chi
Learning Tai Chi

Applications/Practical Uses of Kung Fu

Applications, or the practical uses of Kung Fu, involve, for the student, or apprentice, simulations of real combat situations, or sparring sets. The apprentice begins sparring with a partner who is compliant, that is, the sparring partner allows the apprentice to execute the fixed routine while countering with corresponding expected (standard "textbook") routines.

This allows the apprentice to develop proficiency in executing the given routine without having to be prepared for every imaginable contingency that might alter the routine. As time passes, the apprentice is faced with a semi-compliant opponent (some surprises are encountered, requiring the apprentice to adapt his response to these) and finally, with a non-compliant opponent, where the apprentice must respond to anything that the opponent "throws at him".

The overarching principle in simulating real combat situations via a gradual process, whereby the apprentice is faced with a more and more realistic opponent, is naturally to avoid that the apprentice suffers injury.

Some well-known sparring disciplines include the following:

Sanshou, which is a freestyle type of Kung Fu that includes kickboxing, that is, Sanshou includes ti (kicks), da (punches, strikes), shuai (see Shuai Jiao below) and na/ Chin Na (to lock or to catch).

Note that na is a grappling technique where one throws one's opponent then locks his joints, while Chin Na – one of the most popular elements of Sanshou with spectators (they roar when it succeeds!) – is a special trip-up, called "kick catch", where the goal is to catch the opponent's foot during a kick and then trip the opponent up, literally, causing the opponent to lose balance and crash to the floor,

Shuai Jiao, which is a form of wrestling that evolved from Jiao Di, or the ancient "horn butting" form or wrestling, where opponents clash and try to throw each other to the ground in the sumo manner, except that with Shuai Jiao no butting is involved and therefore there is no headgear. Shuai Jiao is closely akin to traditional Olympic wrestling as it is practiced in the West,

Wushu, or standard Kung Fu, and Chinese Kickboxing (no Chinese translation – they use the English term instead), which is a special variant of Sanshou where Japanese rules apply. Kickboxing is a Japanese invention whose English-language translation is as given.

In fact, Kickboxing is quite different from Sanshou. It combines Western boxing, Thai boxing (Muay Thai, which includes elbowing and kneeing!), and Karate, together with kicking and punching, or Sanshou, roughly. "Anything Goes!" might be a more comprehensive description of Kickboxing!

An older form of "anything goes" Chinese boxing, called Lei Tai ("Striking Platform", a reference to the slightly raised platform, but without ropes, on which it was fought out) were either bare knuckles, with no rules whatsoever or where agreed-upon weapons were used existed – in China, as late as the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. It was sometimes fought to the death, making the Lei Tai raised platform the Chinese answer to the Roman gladiator ring!

In addition, there are numerous other wrestling disciplines in China – often where the participants are either naked from the waist up (so that clothing doesn't provide leverage) or where they, in contrast, wear a leather jacket (to protect sensitive skin?) – that stem from the various "outer regions" of China, such as from Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Shanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.

Weapons Training

Weapons Training (qixie), is the last of the Practical Training procedures, for good reason: the apprentice – or shall we say "the adept"? – needs to be adept at all of the other aspects of Kung Fu before taking up weapons, for his own sake and for the sake of his opponent. In the hands of an adept, the weapon is simply an extension of the body. Weapons Training proceeds a bit like the training in forms, where the initial opponent – generally a teacher – is compliant, then progresses to opponents who are less compliant.

There are 18 such weapons, ranging from a simple wooden cudgel to a mace, in passing via various swords and daggers, axes, hammers, and lances. (The story doesn't say how many apprentices perish in the making of an adept, or whether the participants wear special protective gear that prevents serious bodily harm, but if I were to go in the ring facing any one of these Eighteen Arms of Wushu, I would only do it dressed in a steel version of an astronaut's suit!)

Ethical Aspects

Lastly, Kung Fu Wushu is closely linked to a number of ethical aspects, or virtues, which, as in the ancient Japanese Samurai tradition, prevent the discipline from descending to a level 'not befitting an officer and a gentleman, one is tempted to say. In any case, the ancient masters of Kung Fu Wushu were very mindful of the necessity of following a code of honor that governed their lives both during "battle" and otherwise, especially the latter contingency.

That is, like the Samurai, the Kung Fu master did not go around full of bravado looking to pick a fight; on the contrary, the Kung Fu master was an honorable, virtuous citizen first and foremost, and a Kung Fu fighter last! The humble, long-suffering Kwai Chang Caine in the American TV series, Kung Fu, played by the Hollywood actor David Carradine, was very hard to provoke, even if, once provoked, Kwai Chang Caine could generally incapacitate his opponent before that opponent knew what hit him.

The Kung Fu tradition rests on the following ten virtues (in roughly the order of importance as listed, i.e., the first virtue being the most important): Humility, Sincerity, Politeness, Loyalty, Trust, Courage, Patience, Endurance, Perseverance and Will.

Kung Fu has in recent years become wildly popular in cinema, not least thanks to the so-called wuxia ("martial arts") film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from 2000, which was a Chinese (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland of china) and American co-production. Other well-known wuxia films include Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) – both by the renowned Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou – and Reign of Assassins (2010), starring Michelle Yeoh.

Other internationally famous films that at least offer a nod to the wuxia genre include four Hollywood films: The Matrix (a trilogy, 1999, 2003 & 2003), Kill Bill (2003); and three French films: Le Transporteur (a trilogy, 2002, 2005, 2008) all written by the renowned writer, director, and producer, Luc Besson.

In addition, there have been numerous TV series around the world that featured Kung Fu themes, including the aforementioned American TV series, Kung Fu, and, of course, Kung Fu has taken the world – or shall we say, "the universe"? – of video games by storm.

Has Chinese Kung Fu Lost Its Function in Combat?

Today, with the rapid development of modern weapons, the role of the unarmed and of “cold weaponry” in combat has decreased dramatically, while the acrobatic and show-oriented martial arts have an ever-increasing market.

This has led to criticisms of outsiders’ understanding of the real Chinese Kung Fu. Has Chinese kung fu really lost its function in combat?

The answer is no

Though it originated in a military context, Chinese kung fu was eventually taken up by the masses, among whom it served both as a means of self-defense and as a system of health-giving exercises that fused the mental and spiritual with the physical.

This latter development perhaps explains why Kung Fu was embraced as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) by Buddhist monks, among whom the discipline was preserved even though China's most troubled periods.

Since the emergence of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Kung Fu has first reconnected with its ancient roots, then, once the genuine core of Kung Fu was rediscovered, the discipline evolved into a sport that spread far beyond the boundaries of China.

Having become an Olympic Games discipline, the real and adaptable fighting functions of Kung Fu have been gradually degenerating into competitive, stylized dance movements.

However, there are still groups who practice traditional Chinese martial arts and uphold the authentic Kung Fu ethos in combat, rather than for performance or entertainment. This can be seen from the survival of all kinds of Kung Fu clubs.

This is not to say that the modern development of Kung Fu is not good. Any form of martial arts, competitive or show-oriented, or traditional, will always be an important part of Chinese kung fu and of Chinese culture.

See the Real Kung Fu in China

Chinese Kung Fu is often an attraction to people who have never visited China before. The most famous style is Shaolin Kung Fu, which teaches people how to have an unbreakable body, tough fists, and a hard head. This provides unbeatable memories for visitors.

With the Top 10 China Tours, you have an opportunity to experience Chinese culture and watch authentic Kung Fu. Maybe you can find a master willing to impart to you time-honored Kung Fu secrets.

Create My Trip

Need Help?

Request a custom itinerary today and get one step closer to your personalized trip

Create Your Trip