Kung fu 功夫 is the generic term referring to Chinese martial arts it was the accepted and widely used term outside of China and it reached its peak usage in the 1960’s due to the spread of kung fu movies, kung fu TV series and the opening up of kung fu schools to the general public worldwide. Kung fu specifically means skill attainment or special outstanding skill it can be an outstanding skill in the art of cooking, writing, knitting, acrobatics, acting, athleticism or in this case skill in martial arts. The historical terms for Chinese martial arts were usually called Kun Tao 拳頭 meaning “fist head”, Tang Chiu 唐meaning Tang hand, Tang as for Tang dynasty another term is Bu Sut 武術 meaning martial skills. Kung fu term evolved to become the term that represent Chinese martial arts was due to lack of standardization and national institution there was not a general accepted term for Chinese martial arts then different terms were used such as Kok Sut 國術 (Guo Shu), or Jiu Sut 柔術. One thing for sure though kung fu origin started as combat kung fu.
Combat kung fu has been around thousands of years it would be during the warring States in ancient China (184 to 280 AD) during that era that kung fu heroes and villains will be made known their exploits, their skills and the weapons they wielded it will later be romanticized by novel writer Luo Guanzhong sometime in the 1300’s the novel will be a best seller up to this time “Romance of Three Kingdoms” San Guo Yan Yi 三國演義”. Some of the famous historical characters were Guan Yu, Zheng Fe, Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Dong Zhou, Zhao Yun, Lu Bu and many more it would be Guan Yu that would made famous the weapon Kwan Dao. There was also the snake spear weapon of Zhang Fei other weapons such as crescent moon lance, hook spear, long spear, horse cutting knife, sword etc. would also be novelized and become standard weapons of kung fu. These kung fu warriors and weapons pre-existed before Shaolin arrive in China.
Buddhism arrived in China sometime in 500’s AD introduced by Da Mo or Bodhidharma establishing different Buddhist temples all over China one of the famous temples would be the Shaolin temple the temple would be famous with monks training in kung fu. The original type of kung fu that was taught by Da Mo was breathing or qi it is designed to make the monks healthier through proper breathing exercises so that they can meditate better. It would later be embraced by kung fu fighters to become part of their training to develop “iron shirt” technique the ability to take and absorb hits.
It is believed that certain monks were designated to train in kung fu combat to develop the skill and physique to fight as warriors it was to have the ability to defend their temples and the villagers from bandits and pirates. Another theory that has not been deeply explore is that training in kung fu by monks was to allow those monks to have extraordinary physical strength and prowess through to allow them to succeed in performing exorcism to have the physical strength to restrain or overcome individuals that are at that time considered possess by evil spirit those individuals tend to have extraordinary physical strength they’re more stronger than normal and to restrain them successfully the monks must have the strength to do that. The body for strength, mind for the will and knowledge and spirit for the Almighty in this case Buddha the body, mind and spirit in unison as one.
Several warriors and generals would retire in monasteries seeking some sort of repentance for their wartime sins and atrocities others seeking refuge from the authorities and Shaolin temple would stand out as one of the temples that have sheltered them and have been involved in revolutionary movement against the government those kung fu retirees would bring with them their kung fu skills and knowledge to the temple.
The Shaolin temple would become a martial art depository; unfortunately, many records were destroyed when the temple was burn down by invading armies or by the established authorities to clamp down on the temple’s anti-government involvement.
Kung fu combat will continue to expand dynasty after dynasty and during the Song dynasty 960 – 1279 AD military generals will put together a comprehensive kung fu system consider to be the dynasty’s martial art system attributed to the first Song emperor Zhao Kuangyin (趙匡胤 ) and would be called Tai Cho Chuan 太祖拳 Grand Ancestors Fist. And later during the Ming dynasty 1368 – 1670 Tai Cho Chuan will be modified to reflect the southern environment concentrating in short range and explosive techniques in honor of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋).
During the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) kung fu gain international prominence in an uprising in northern China a rebellion against Christians, foreigners and against Western dominance in 1899 – 1901. Because of the rebels martial arts background they would be refer by the western powers as Boxers that would become the western historical term of that rebellion “The Boxers Rebellion” the actual term is Harmonious Righteous Union Militia Movement or Yi He Tuan Yun Tong 義和團運動 the rebellion was concentrated in the north and was a rebellion in support and supported by the Qing government while in the south a rebellion or resistance was mostly against the Qing government.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty and the birth of modern China in 1911 during China’s Republican era 1912 to 1949 the Nationalist government attempted to introduce a national identity for Chinese martial arts to unify the many styles that include external, internal or a combination of external and internal, wrestling, striking, kicking or combinations of all of those systems the government introduced the term Kok Sut 國術 to encompass all of those it was widely accepted and would become the standard term for Chinese martial arts that is why we see many old Chinese martial arts schools or clubs use the term Kok Sut.
Kung fu training will become part of the military combat program of modern China the Nationalist government would enlist several kung fu masters to be chief instructors in training the nationalist soldiers. The Da Dao will become the de facto standard side weapon of the infantry use in hand to hand combat especially whenever they run out of ammunition which was a common thing during that time.
Kung fu will continue to be part of military combat to the end of WWII 1945 and into the fall of mainland China to the communist in 1950.
It would be during the 1400’s to the early 1900’s that several kung fu systems will start to emerge such as Eagle Claw fist, Praying Mantis fist, White Crane fist, Monkey fist, Lo Han boxing, Tai Chi Chuan (Fist), Baguazhang, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, Goh Cho Kun and many more. At the same time as several kung fu systems emerges so did the changes from combat oriented to internal strengthening, energy cultivation, soft techniques, urban policing, theatrical and athleticism all have different mindset and training purpose.
It is evident that the historical background of kung fu has been about combat about fighting techniques that was taught initially in the military and on militia forces, today kung fu has changed it is more widely present in civilian society, in schools, in sports and in theaters the ancient and early kung fu combat is no longer the same as it is today, the weapons have been replaced with none lethal, none combat steel and it is reasonably understandable as time, environment, civil law and order, policing, society in general has changed we have progress to the point that there are better ways to settle disputes or better ways to fight wars.
Those ancient combat weapons are still being practice today not for killing or for warfare but to exercise with it to experience and preserved the history of it and to use those weapons as an exercise tool to aid in improving our overall body coordination and physical health.
The myths, the magic, and fantasies about kung fu that seems to be wide spread does not help in finding the real kung fu it makes it more difficult the wrong impression that kung fu is about the ability to be able to fly, stand one leg on a bamboo branch, able to shoot energy blast from the hands or the ability to block multiple bullets with a sword. So now we ask, will the real kung fu please step forward?
Real kung fu is the ability to separate facts from fiction understands that Superman, Wonder Woman or Wolverine are only in movies and comics not real life. No amount of kung fu training can make the human body bullet proof or stop knife, swords or arrows from penetrating the body. There is no energy fire ball that can be generated from a human body and use as a weapon to kill or blast someone else.
The facts of kung fu are combat, athleticism, sports, self-defense, and physical health these are real kung fu that has evolved for thousands of years that is why our ancestors were smart enough not to just contain the understanding about kung fu or martial art within the frame work of combat but to understand the reason why it is called Martial Art it is a form of kung fu it is not about the art of killing or violence nor is it about magic it is about the body, mind and spirit the preservation of life through martial art training to be specially skill and discipline in the use of fighting techniques be it skillful in Tai Chi Chuan, Tai Cho Kun, Shuai Jiao, Sanda, Goh Cho Kun, Mantis kung fu, Eagle Claw, Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, White Crane, Baguazhang, Shaolin, Wu Shu etc. etc. this is real kung fu, combat kung fu is the roots and origin of real kung fu.