The History of Kung Fu

Before we look at the names and dates that make up Kung Fu history, it is important that we first understand the origin of Kung Fu.

The fact of the matter is that Kung Fu is prehistoric: it was simply an inevitable manifestation of early human society. Human nature and necessity during ancient times ensured the development of the Martial Arts.

Consider:

  • The ability to hunt, attack, and defend one’s self has always been a necessity.
  • A group of people, witnessing the abilities of a particularly capable individual, will desire to mimic and surpass him or her.
  • This capable individual, coming to certain enlightening revelations, will find reason to share them with others.
  • Skills are naturally improved through practice. Some will practice to improve or inspire something within themselves. Others will practice out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Regardless, practice is a natural pursuit in the survival of the fittest.
  • People improve by teaching: when we are forced to relate something to other people, we understand it better ourselves.
  • The path to self-perfection is never ending, but always rewarding. It is the best way to improve our health and happiness, and the only way to ensure our continued access to resources.

Keeping all this is mind, Kung Fu can be said to be as old as humanity. The language used to describe it may change, but the pursuit of wisdom and self-perfection is intrinsic to the human experience. The natural process of collaboration and refinement that we depend upon (as individuals, and as a society), can be called the legacy of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu exists beyond any name or individual. It cannot be understood as a style, choice, or trend. It is an expression of life itself, just as a seedling grows into a tree.

A Prisoner of Style

Kung Fu encompasses every useful movement and skill one might utilize in the creation of physical force. The compartmentalization of Kung Fu into different styles has separated the art from its defining characteristic.

Traditionally, the style of Martial Arts practice in Kung Fu is called Chuan Fa. Chuan Fa describes basic fighting technique.

Chuan Fa is every punch, strike, kick, block, and movement in its purest simplicity. By developing one’s health through physical exercise and breathing practices, and one’s Martial Arts skills through Chuan Fa, one can be said to practice Kung Fu.

“Monkey style”, “Tiger Style”, “Wing Chun”, and the rest are snippets from the all-encompassing lexicon of Kung Fu.

Individuals—some tall and others short, some skinny and others stocky, some strong and others quick—develop their own “style” by determining the most effective ways they can fight. The movements of Tiger style are effective for the naturally strong, while the movements of crane style are effective for the long-limbed.

The Hungar style was developed by the naturally strong Wang Fei Hun, but most of the people who practice the Hungar form today would be better served to practice something more appropriate for their own physical and mental composition.

By practicing basic technique (Chuan Fa), a person can come to a natural realization of the most effective techniques they can utilize.

As Bruce Lee said:

“I personally do not believe in ‘style’. Because of ‘styles’, people are separated. They are not united together because styles became law. If people say Jeet Kune Do is different from this or from that, then let the name of Jeet Kune Do be wiped out, for that is what it is, just a name. Please don’t fuss over it. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

The Outlawing of the Martial Arts in China: A deliberate separation from history.

“Lineage” and the idea of “who-taught-who” are infatuations to some within the Martial Arts community. There are two reasons to abandon our obsession with this “quasi-historical” perspective.

  1. It only matters what you can do. It does not matter what the person who taught you could do. If you are awful, but you had a great teacher, it does not make your skills any better.
  2. The Lineage of Kung Fu teaching in China was interrupted by two moments in history when the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts were banned within the country.

During the Qing Dynasty (from 1636-1911), the ruling empire banned the practice of the martial arts. At this time, Kung Fu practice had to be done in secret, and so the record-keeping was very limited.

During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), everything associated with the imperial times and tradition was outlawed and lambasted in China. The Kung Fu masters who lived within China at this time all had to flee to other countries, or face persecution and/or death. There was a time during Mao’s reign, that the Chinese army practiced the Japanese Karate, instead of their own Kung Fu. During this time, the possibility of clean and consistent lineages in Kung Fu teaching was lost.

In many ways, Mao’s time marked the death of traditional Kung Fu within China, but forced its exportation to the rest of the world. Within China, only the Shaolin’s dancing practice of Wu Shu would be allowed to reclaim it’s prominence.

Now that we understand the practice of Kung Fu as a general term, and how it’s history has been twisted and manipulated, we can focus on the specific and note-worthy:

The Biggest Names In Kung Fu History

Lao Tzu

600 – 400 BC

Lao Tzu is the first known Taoist, and the writer of the Tao Te Ching, an unparalleled collection of 81 poems about philosophy and the nature of our existence. In my personal opinion, the Tao Te Ching is the greatest literary work ever completed.

Lao Tzu practiced Tai Chi, considered the original “Internal Martial Art”. In many ways, Tai Chi is the natural partner to Kung Fu, the shadow that the body of Kung Fu casts. Where Kung Fu strikes, Tai Chi receives. Traditionally, Tai Chi is a martial art, which develops high-level fighting skills. Any practice that does not lend itself to improvement as a fighter, cannot be called Tai Chi.

Any serious practice of Tai Chi, which demands a constant reconciliation and acknowledgment of the nature of our reality, will allow one to understand how the Martial Arts practice was imperative to Lao Tzu’s ability to write the Tao Te Ching.

Bodhidharma

5th – 6th Century

This Buddhist monk is credited with starting the Martial Arts within the Shaolin Temple. It is said that he travelled from India, where he was a member of the warrior caste. Upon receiving the respect of the monks at the Shaolin Temple, he came to find them unable to endeavor upon a serious spiritual practice. In order to make them capable, he trained them in various physical and breathing exercises. These exercises became the Kung Fu practiced by the Shaolin Temple.

At some point, in an effort to advertise and market itself, the Shaolin Temple disseminated this story as the “Origin of Kung Fu”.

To separate Kung Fu from it’s prehistoric ancestry in this way is a truly egregious and disrespectful act, that deserves to be condemned. Anybody who thinks that they invented Kung Fu is clearly not a martial artist.

The Shaolin Temple currently practices what is known as Wushu. A sport system based on flowery movements, sleight of hand, and extreme demonstrations, much like a circus.

Zhang SanFeng

11th Century

The most famous monk to have ever lived in the Wu Dang Mountains, Zhang Sanfeng is said to have created a set of 72 Tai Chi Chuan movements. He was inspired by witnessing a fight between a snake and a bird (likely a crane or magpie). He was impressed by the ways in which each animal could quickly strike from stillness, and developed movements that would cultivate this ability in man.

Similar to Lao Tzu, Zhang SanFeng’s martial arts practice allowed him achieve the highest levels of reverence and wisdom. Stories of his fighting ability have been mythologized and celebrated, but his practice of the Martial Arts was most impressive because of the wisdom it granted him.

Yue Fei

March 24, 1103 – January 28, 1142

One of the most revered figures in Chinese history, Yue Fei was a military general of the Song Dynasty.

He is credited with the creation of Xingyi Chuan (which is considered an internal martial art, a la Tai Chi) as well as the Eagle Claw Kung Fu Style, which is known for its gripping techniques, joint locks, takedowns, and pressure point strikes. This method incorporates much of the skills of Chinese grappling known as Chin Na.

Yue Fei is also responsible for the organization and popularity of Baduanjin (“The Eight Piece Brocade”), one the most effective sequences of breathing exercises (Chi Gong) in traditional Chinese martial arts and medicine. All of his soldiers were required to regularly practice Baduanjin, in order to maintain their condition.

In his adolescence, he trained a great deal in both the literary and military arts. It is safe to say that his training would have focused on basic technique (Chuan Fa), and he later created the styles of Xinyi and Eagle Claw to teach to particular men within his ranks.

Yue Fei was also trained in the eighteen Chinese weapons of war: Bow (弓), Crossbow (弩), Spear (槍), Single-edged sword (刀), Double-edged sword (劍), Ancient style spear (矛), Shield (盾), Axe (斧), Greataxe (鉞), Dagger halberd (戟), Round bar mace or iron whip (鞭), Bar mace (鐗), Pole pick (撾), Spiked Mace (殳), Trident (叉), Rake (耙), Rope (綿繩套索), Barehanded (白打).

Yang Luchan

1799–1872

Also known as Yang Wudi (“Yang The Untouchable), Yang Luchan created the Yang Style of Tai Chi, which is the most popularly practiced in the world today. Unlike the Chen Style, the Yang Style focuses on developing Martial Arts skills, and so offers the most when it comes to physical and mental benefits.

Yang was born to a poor farming family, but his skills as a Martial Artist led to him eventually be employed as a teacher to the imperial family. It is said that he never lost a fight, and was particularly skilled in quelling an opponent without having to physically harm them.

Sun Lu Tang

1860-1933

One of the most prolific writers in Martial Arts history, Sun Lu Tang created the Sun style of Tai Chi. He wrote these five books, which were recently translated into English:

Xingyiquan Xue (A study of form mind boxing, 1915)

Baguaquan Xue (A study of eight trigrams boxing, 1916)

Taijiquan Xue (A study of grand ultimate boxing, 1921)

Baguajian Xue (A study of eight trigrams straight sword, 1927)

Quanyi Shuzhen (An explanation of the essence of boxing)

Ip Man

October 1893 – 2 December 1972

The most famous name in Wing Chun, Ip Man’s name has experienced a great deal of fame because of the fictional movies that use his name. While his skills must be acknowledged, I believe that his fame is mainly dependent upon his opportunity to teach Bruce Lee, and the fact that his name “Ip Man” sounds like a superhero to the western ear.

The current practice of Wing Chun, as it is generally taught, can be said to loosely resemble a Martial Art.

Bruce Lee

November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973

The most famous Chinese Martial Artist in history, what can be said about the first person to introduce the martial arts to the western masses?

By demonstrating incredible skills and technique in all of his movies (and any other time he happened to be filmed), Bruce Lee was able to leave a lasting legacy by inspiring millions to reach for his standard.

He first trained in the style of Wing Chun with his teacher Ip Man, but in viewing his ultimate work and philosophy, it is clear that he advanced far beyond the techniques taught within Wing Chun.

He is also a treasure trove of wise quotes and interesting commentary, such as the following:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”

“The more we value things, the less we value ourselves.”

Jackie Chan

Born April 7th, 1954

One of the most famous names in recent Martial Arts films, Jackie Chan trained in traditional Kung Fu as a child, and achieved a prolific career in both Chinese and American cinema.

His skills in Kung Fu are real, but his portrayal of Martial Arts technique in his films is decidedly different from Bruce Lee’s. Where Bruce Lee’s work showed real and effective movement, Jackie Chan always prioritized humor, flash, and entertainment.

The trained eye can easily distinguish the gap in skill between Chan and Lee.