Meaning of Kung Fu

Many don't know where the term "kung fu" comes from. In this short blog I want to explain a bit more about it and deconstruct the confusion about all the definitions of Chinese martial arts.


Kung Fu

Kung Fu

It is important to know where terms and concepts come from. Also should you know what you are practicing when you do a martial art and where it comes from.

Everybody know that kung fu is referred to a martial arts which was developed in China. Either way the term came up during the 20th century. Before that kung fu or gongfu meant and still means to achieve knowledge or a skill through hard work and practice. If you want to talk about martial arts in Chinese you would refer to “wushu” and a lot of modern Chinese martial arts is called wushu nowadays. Another term you can find is “chuan fa” meaning fist fighting. According to Sifu Douglas Wong the term Gong Fu was first used by Chinese who migrated to the US and North America in the 19th century.

Kung fu compounds two words: kung (gong) which means work or achievement and fu meaning simply man or, in a more complex understanding, practice. So it could be translated as “achievement of man”. So since it is not really meaning martial arts it is referred to strength of body and mind. It’s the self-mastery of something on a high level.

One important ingredient in this concept is a basic rule for a lot of martial arts: patience. Since mastering something, could be a move, a weapon or a form, needs repetition and consistency. So it is more important to learn one thing good then many just average.


Long history

Kung fu has been practiced for over 4.000 years in China. This might happened under another name or term but doesn't underestimate the power of it. We also have to think about the arriving of oriental martial arts in the West and how they transformed there. In fact, a lot of grandmasters had to leave China and the East during the cultural revolution and brought there wisdom and knowledge to Hongkong, North America or Europe and found new places to teach their art. It is obvious that the style of teaching had to change too. So in modern days we actually can discuss which martial arts is more traditional: the one taught from old grandmasters without an interruption of lineage in the west or the ones nowadays taught in China with new masters who's lineage is interrupted or broken and are teaching now "wushu". As always the "truth" is to find somewhere in between and each one who wants take the path of studying martial arts and especially kung fu has to find his or her own way of doing so. 

That said you should follow your heart and study with a master who you feel capable of guiding you in your progress and your skills. 

“Kung fu is a philosophy; it’s an integral part of the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, the ideals of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and then spring up stronger than before, to have patience in all things, to profit by one’s mistakes and lessons in life. These are the many-sided aspects of the art of kung fu; it teaches the way to live, as well as the way to protect oneself.” —Bruce Lee

Since Kung Fu comes, according to legends and historians, from Shaolin (temple) it is an important next to enter the world of Shaolin. In the next weeks we will deepen the meaning and history of Shaolin and the Shaolin temple.


Can I learn Kung Fu online?

There is a lot of folk out there trying to sell online courses for certain martial arts. On YouTube you can even find videos where you are supposed to learn forms. Beside that, there are also tons of books and ebooks which even round up a whole style system. The question many people asked themselves and me is: How effective can it be to learn martial arts through videos or a book? I am not the first one to answer that, but I hope I can give it another point of view with a specific kung fu focus.

Well the answer is pretty simple: You can´t! And you shouldn´t. But let´s break the answer a bit down and make it more clear. First let´s take a look at the videos. To do so we have to divide the ocean of videos and online-courses you can find. One is teachers showing how to exercise certain movements or stretching. That is different to intend teaching martial arts online. Of course it is possible to do a fitness online course or even maybe a yoga- exercise. Everything where you can´t make much wrong doing it on your own is good. Getting some new stretching through videos is a good idea, if you don´t know them.

But if you are not experienced in a style or system or worst not exercising at all, it can actually be dangerous to do so. My Sifu always told us that a martial art can´t be learned without a classical student-teacher-connection. The other question is also why would you?

In traditional martial arts the relationship between a master and his or her student is more profound than just demanding to do this or that movement. A Sifu, Sensei or however you want to call it, is someone you can call for advice when needed. My Sifu helped me in situations I didn't expect from him. Every once in awhile he would sit down with you and talk about your life and spick the conversations with helpful advises. An online video can´t give that to you.

Some people just want to defend themselves and don't care about their spiritual development. And that is totally valid. So let's say you learn a fancy move from a video like a lock or throw. How do you know that you do it right? And how often would you need to repeat it to get into your body memory so you can actually apply it in a situation of self-defense?

A teacher, at least a good one, would make you repeating important movements again and again, until your body will do this as a reflex. That moment is when you really can defend yourself with martial arts. You won´t be able to do so, if you did the technique just a few times or imitated it from a video. Same for kicks, punches and blocks. Of course you could learn general things about this sort of techniques but application is one of the most important parts you need to learn for a proper understanding. I have no idea how often I trained a simple front kick. You are never done to improve. At the beginning you need someone to correct your stance, the power you use, the flow, the intention, the technique, your guard, and so much more. You get my point. Worst case scenario here is to think you learned something in that videos and trying it outside. Don´t!

Learning forms or katas online is a growing market, especially when it comes to Kung Fu and Tai Chi. A lot of movements in forms are very subtile and have a specific meaning and application. Every form will require a specific preparation a master would provide you in a class. Of course it's possible to learn a choreography through videos but not a Kung Fu form. The difference will be visible, because here again you need someone to show you the correct movements, rhythm, stances, and so on.


All that said, we have to have two things or situations in mind: first people who are living remote and want to learn a certain style. And secondly, martial artists with experience. If you live in a small village with no martial arts school around or not the style you want to learn. Well then you might have to try it online. But at least pay a teacher regularly to Skype or talk with him and get corrections. Try to meet at least once every month or so.

People who have experience in martial arts might be more suited to learn movements from a video but I still doubt it, and I know a lot of them doubt it too, that the learning effect is very big. Maybe some techniques can be learned, but a whole style is not possible. Won´t be! Never, without contact to a master of that particular style.

Finally, that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch this videos. Most of them are fun and you can learn a lot about the theoretical part of martial arts. You can observe which style does an emphasis on what kind of stances, techniques and so on. As a martial artist it is good to open your mind to other styles and enjoy watching people who know what they are doing. Personally, I admire all the people who are trying to promote traditional martial arts in this times. So support them!