What Is Kung Fu?

With fast-paced strikes and graceful techniques, many based on animal movements, it’s no surprise that kung fu has awed audiences around the world. But what is kung fu? And what are the kung fu styles? Read on to find out.

5 August 2022

What is kung fu? Known for its graceful movements and powerful strikes, Kung Fu originated in China centuries ago. However, it was Hollywood that brought this term, and the various Chinese martial arts under its umbrella, to the wider world. From the works of Bruce Lee to those of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, kung fu artists amazed the world with their acrobatic fighting styles time and again.

But what does kung fu mean? What are its origins and what does kung fu teach you? Come to that, what are the kung fu styles?

What Does Kung Fu Mean?

Man practising kung fu kick along beach at sunset (Photo : Allan Baxter via Getty Images)

Before tackling the tricky question of “what is kung fu”, let’s begin with, what does kung fu mean? A rough literal translation of the two Chinese symbols, “kung” (or gong) and “fu”, provides a very general idea of “time spent at skillful work”. However, this can be applied to myriad practices that require time, patience and hard work to master, as illustrated by the use of the term gongfu tea ceremony in relation to the complex art of tea making.

Nevertheless, the term “kung fu” is best known in relation to Chinese martial arts or “wushu”. Hence, Merriam-Webster defines kung fu as “any of various Chinese martial arts and related disciplines that are practised especially for self-defence, exercise, and spiritual growth”.

It is perhaps best to see kung fu as an umbrella term for – or classification of – specific Chinese martial arts. There are hundreds of kung fu styles. So much so that the terms kung fu and wushu – the latter of which literally means martial arts – are often conflated. We’ll shortly address the question of “what are the kung fu styles”, but some of the best known are Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Wing Chun.

What is Kung Fu’s History?

Part of the difficulty in defining kung fu is down to the sheer size and diversity of China itself, as well as its incredibly long history of martial arts. The arts of kung fu developed in many different places and times. Indeed, many trace its origins all the way back to the practice of a martial art called Shǒubó in the Shang dynasty period (1600–1046 BC).

In terms of “what does kung fu teach you”, its development also shared deep links with Chinese culture, evolving alongside philosophies and religions. Confucius, for example, is said to have supported teaching martial arts concurrently with literature. What’s more, Shaolin Kung fu, one of the most prominent and long-standing forms of the art, was created in the setting of a Buddhist temple.

What is Kung Fu?

A large group of kung fu students practice synchronized kung fu at the Ta Gou academy in Henan Province, China (Photo: xPACIFICA via Getty Images)

So, what is kung fu? Although there is no single definition, some general principles can be ascribed to this class of Chinese martial arts.

So, what does kung fu mean in practice? Its fighting styles focus primarily on self-defence, with the ultimate goal of swiftly stopping and disabling opponents. Striking moves, both the hands and feet, are central, incorporating both open and closed hands and various types of kicks as well as blocks. With respect to “what does kung fu teach you”, it is associated with both hard and soft martial arts techniques. This means both meeting force with force and using an opponent’s force against them.

Among the characteristics most associated with kung fu are its very fast and fluid moves and an emphasis on self-discipline. Many kung fu techniques and stances are based on the movements of animals. One of the most prominent examples of this is a style known as the Northern Praying Mantis.

And yet kung fu is more than a martial art. It is also a discipline and a philosophy intrinsically connected to Chinese culture. From this perspective, kung fu draws influences from various schools of thought and religions, particularly Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

What Does Kung Fu Teach You?

Kung Fu Stance with sword (Photo: Dowell via Getty Images)

So, what does kung fu teach you? That largely depends on the style of kung fu, but there are certain categories of skill that are universal. For example, balance, flexibility and stamina are considered basic skills or “jīběn gōng”. Power skills or “qìgōng” relate to body alignment, posture, meditation and breathing, while combat skills or “quánfǎ” describe the various fighting techniques and, while usually unarmed, can include weapons-based training.

One of the main things one can expect to learn in kung fu are the five basic foot positions. The first of these is the standard posture, followed by the stances of dragon, frog, horse-riding and snake.

What are the Kung Fu Styles?

A Kung Fu competition with typical moves (Photo: John Eder via Getty Images)

On the question of “what are the kung fu styles”, there are believed to be several hundred. Among the best known are:

  • Shaolin Kung Fu
  • Wing Chun
  • Tai Chi
  • Northern Praying Mantis
  • Baguazhang
  • Xingyiquan
  • Bajiquan

With so many styles leading to debate as to “what is kung fu”, attempts have been made to create more manageable subsets. Thus, in answering “what are the kung fu styles”, there is a distinction between those originating in northern and southern China. While northern kung fu is said to rely more on wide stances and kicks, southern kung fu emphasises hand strikes and narrow stances.

There is also a perceived difference between internal and external kung fu styles. This goes to the question of “what does kung fu teach you”. Internal styles will prioritise one’s strength of mind and inner energy flow or “qi”. External styles are more focused on physical strength.

So, what are the kung fu styles and how do they match these different classifications?

Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung fu is a northern, external style. It was created and developed by the monks at the Shaolin Temple from around 495 AD. Thus Shaolin Kung Fu has strong ties with Buddhism. As a combat style, Shaolin kung fu uses a variety of kicks and hand strikes, favouring wide stances.

Wing Chun

Wing Chun is best known as the form of kung fu in which Bruce Lee was initially trained. Founded by female fighters Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun, it is the only Kung fu with a female namesake. As a fighting style, wing chun is all about close combat, quick footwork and rapid hand strikes. Much of the teachings of wing chun focus on body alignment and positioning, while its countermeasures emphasise ducking and sidestepping to unbalance one’s opponent.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is one of the softer internal forms of kung fu, meeting force not with equal force, but by using the opponent’s strength against them. It has a Taoist philosophy, including concepts of yin and yang.

And there you have it. A short summary of “what is kung fu” as well as “what does kung fu teach you”, from “what does kung fu mean” to “what are the kung fu styles”.


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