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Kung Fu: a

source of
Chinese History
AS 3416 – Kean
Professor Kong

Benjamin F. M. Novoa

Benjamin F. M. Nova

Kung Fu: A Source of Chinese History and Culture

One of the most prominent cultural phenomenon’s to come out of China is Kung Fu – a
form of martial arts. It seems relatively easy to understand its universal appeal, the action
and movement speaks for itself. The language of body movement, not unlike dance, is
universal. Yet Kung Fu goes well beyond mere battle or warfare. In fact the term
describes “any individual accomplishment or refined skill that is achieved after hard
work” (Rousseau); in actuality it advocates virtue and peace. The Kung Fu sensation has
become ubiquitous mainly through its storied history, television/film, and its growth as a
sport. To fully understand just how powerfully effective Kung Fu has been in widely
spreading the Chinese culture it is pertinent to be privy to the origins of Kung Fu, its
development, and its impact in spreading the Chinese philosophy to the world. At its
core Kung Fu has proven to be essential and beneficial in depicting the Culture of the
proverbial “Middle Kingdom” and is embedded deeply within the Chinese culture. Kung
Fu isn’t merely an offshoot of the Chinese culture but a firmly entrenched representation
of the culture with ties to its people’s history and development.
Kung Fu (despite its initial meaning of obtaining skill) often refers to Chinese
martial arts in the contemporary world. What set the Chinese martial arts apart from
most martial arts systems are its ambiguous origins. Some say that Kung Fu originated
with an Indian Buddhist monk named Da Mo, whereas others recognize that the Chinese
had already established their own form or Martial arts prior to his arrival. Due mainly to

the passage of time the facts have interweaved with legend making it difficult to
determine the arts true inception (Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming). Regardless, historians are able
to propose opinions on the origins of Kung Fu. Yet we can cite historical events in the
development of the form, beginning from the point of recorded history. The Chinese
Martial Arts, and all the Martial Arts that followed, appear to be the result of crossfertilization between India and China, but it was China that developed it to what is
recognized today.
Well before recorded history, the martial arts techniques were discovered and
developed by man, albeit in a more rudimentary form. This came as a result of the
seemingly never ending battle of man vs. nature and man vs. man. After all even in
ancient times tribes were at war with one another, conflict is innate to humanity. With the
many ensuing battles came the development of these techniques, which were modified
and handed down from one generation to the next. These combat styles grew with the
advent of weapons, creating new methods of utilizing these newfound tools. Eventually
various schools and styles originated, many of which were regionalized. Soon the schools
tested one another. Interestingly, many of these styles mimicked fighting styles from
animals found in nature: tiger, panther, monkey, snake, crane, and mantis are but a few
examples. The obvious question arises: “why imitate animals?” This is because animals
survive in harsh natural environments and carry an inherent skill for fighting. Keep in
mind that all this took place nearly 1.7 million years ago, many factors contributed to
what we call Kung Fu today. The next step was the introduction of Da Mo (according to
some historians).

Buddhism had migrated to China from India roughly around 58-76 A.D. A
Buddhist Monk by the name of Batuo came to China; 31 years later the first Shaolin
Temple was built by order of then emperor Xiao Wen -- roughly around 495 A.D. Batuo
can be considered the first Chief Monk of the Shaolin temple, but the temples greatest
influence on Kung Fu was Da Mo, also known as Bodhidarma. After arriving in China at
the behest of Emperor Liang Wu (502-550 A.D), Wu disavowed Buddhist preaching,
causing him to withdraw to the Shaolin Temple. In his time there he noticed how sickly
the monks. According to legend in order to ponder the problem he “faced a wall for nine
Years, not speaking the entire time”. Da Mo emerged from seclusion with two classic
teachings: The Yi Jin Jang, which taught the monks how to build their qi -- the circulating
life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and
medicine (Dr. Jwing-Ming). The Ying Jin Jang increased their health, strength, and
improved their already formidable martial arts techniques. The Second Teaching was the
Xi Sui Jing utilized Qi to develop the immune system and more importantly the mind.
The fundamentals of Kung –Fu were now well on their way. Since Chinese lore and
history is blurred, the true origin of Kung Fu is muddled. Some historians deny Da Mo’s
part citing that Chinese martial arts originated with military men who retired to monastic
life. Many martial arts are said to predate the monasteries -- Shuai Jiao and Sun Bin
Quan, for example (Canzoneri).
Regardless of whom you credit for the origins of Kung Fu, one truth can be
found; it developed in China, mostly through the training of soldiers, through the Shaolin
temples, and among the so called “commoners” of the many dynasties in times gone by.
It seems history shaped Kung Fu and vice versa. Feudal Society which encompasses all

the years between 221-1911 was a time when Kung Fu in its many forms flourished. The
Song Dynasty, Ming, Qing, and even the republic of china all contributed to developing
the art. One again, it should be known that it depends on which school of thought you
believe developed Kung Fu which determines your history. Feudal society was an early
contributor. After unifying the central plain of China soldiers developed Guanzhong
Boxing (later called Hong Fist). In the Qin and Han dynasties wrestling, fencing, and
sword dance and fighting were favored. Then there was the Song Dynasty (960-1279),
which developed the Southern Fist, practiced among soldiers and common folk alike. It
emphasized motions among the upper limbs. The Han people who were unfairly treated
during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) were forbidden to practice Kung Fu in groups.
They gathered secretly (and defiantly) to practice; Jueyuan, abbot of the Shaolin Temple
created the Seventy-two fists. His wealth of determination and skill led him to create the
one hundred and Seventy-two fists including Five-element and Eight-Diagram Boxing
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is often considered the most prolific of periods
for Chinese martial arts. It marked an epoch for the form. All of its present day styles
have their main origins in this time period. During the Ming Dynasty, various styles of
martial arts became firmly established as separate schools. Famous General Qi Jiguang
gathered the many styles/skills throughout china at the time. Heavily recognized for his
success Qi Jiguang had a reputation for intense training and severe discipline, but as a
superb training expert as well. Once again Martial arts (Kung Fu) were partially
responsible for shaping history, in this case the arts made an already formidable army
even more dangerous at the hands of General Qi Jiguang. Everything was ripe for use:

Long Fist, Short Hands, Five Fist and Hua Fist of Shandong Province, Five Shapes
Boxing and Crane Boxing of Fujian Province as well as the Hung Kuen, Wing Chun and
Choy Li Fut of Guangxi and Guangdong were just some of the styles incorporated. Every
style was ripe for use and developed in a time where the martial art of Kung Fu truly
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the Han people were still forbidden to practice
Kung Fu. As a result the Shaolin temple began to decline, even monks were prohibited
from the art. Some workings on martial arts were prevalent in folk circles however. After
the first Sino-British Opium War in 1840, many conventional martial arts groups rose to
prevent the British army from entering Guangdong. Form/Intention Boxing, Hung Kuen,
Southern Shaolin Boxing, Wing Chun and Tai Chi improved vastly over the time. After
1864 many forms were introduced to the Zhejiang areas. The relatively short lived
Republic of China (1912-1949) had the first non-government Kung Fu organization – the
Jingwu Gymnastics Club. Often called the “School that saved Kung Fu” it was
established by Huo Yuanjia (played in the movie Fearless by Jet Li) and Nong Jinsun.
Jing Wu helped to adapt the role of martial arts and keep it relevant in a rapidly
modernizing society. But it’s teachings go beyond Kung Fu, promoting well rounded
individuals. This philosophy has carried over into modern day Chinese society where
parents are ardent to have their children learn violin and piano, sports and swimming as
well as take additional tutorials in many extra-curricular activities outside of school
(History of Kung Fu).
Today the Chinese government has placed value in the understanding of
traditional Kung Fu. Every year many performances and contests are held to encourage

civilians to learn and inherit the skills. The Martial Arts Federation and Chinese Martial
Arts Association for example have been founded for promotion purposes. Many schools
teach all kinds of skills, such as Wudang Sanfeng Martial Arts School and Songshan
Shaolin Martial Arts School. Moreover, Chinese Kung Fu has come to the world stage to
attract more and more foreign people to enjoy and learn. Kung Fu is goes beyond a mere
hobby or dalliance; it has proven to have influenced China’s growth and is vital when
trying to understand a country and civilization that is prominent on the world stage.
Having established the origins and development of Kung Fu we now delve into
philosophies of Kung Fu. Kung Fu is primarily a striking style that includes open and
closed hand strikes, blocks, kicks, throws and locks all meant to DEFEND against
attackers. Contrary to common belief it is not meant to mete out justice or aggressive
desires. At its core the art uses hard (meeting force) and soft (using aggressors strength
against them) techniques. What really set it apart are its beautiful flowing forms. In Bruce
Lees own words “like water”.
Considering the extensive and rich history of China it should come as no surprise
that there are over 400 subtypes of Kung Fu, each with their own merits. China
encompasses a vast area of land with many tiny regions that are separate. Kung Fu can be
broken down in 3 major ways (this is a simplistic understanding), The Northern styles,
the Southern Styles, and the other. The most prolific Northern styles are Shaolin -primarily striking, Long Fist -- a melodic style with a wide wingspan, the Eagle Claw
which focuses on grappling, joint locks, and takedowns. Not to mention Monkey Style, a
form that as you may have guessed mimics ape or monkey-like movements as part of its
technique (Rousseau).

The Southern Styles are not without their own illustrious classes. Wing Chun is
about close quarters combat, narrow stances, but mostly simultaneous defense and attack.
Hung Gar typically uses low power stances and strong blows. Then there is Choy Li Fut,
which also uses low stances but the torso is angled, giving opponents the shoulders
instead of the chest.
Then there are the other arts that may not be considered traditional Kung Fu but
are often included in the conversation. Baguazhang for instance has touches of Taoism; a
soft flowing style that focuses on mind and body. Shuai is a fast wrestling style with
strikes included for added effect. Finally and most disparate of all is Tai Chi. Tai Chi is
the style that most heavily has traces in the Ying and Yang. It focuses more on internal
power that stresses leverage and little muscular tension that uses attackers force and
aggression against them. It also includes breathing techniques and is tied to health and
meditation (Rousseau).
Regardless of the many styles and their many variations there remains one
understanding that connects them all, they are all rooted in philosophical understanding.
They tap into the three main schools of thought found in China: Confucianism, Taoism
and Buddhism. The martial arts contain elements derived from these theories, and in
theory can provide insight and a path towards enlightenment. Each philosophy has
contributed to the arts. Confucian can be gleaned in the arts from teachings such as
respect for your teacher, a focus on education, the ideal of righteousness and protection of
one’s country. It influence can be found in nearly all the styles. Taoism has influenced the
arts as well. Do not react to force, be natural (at one with nature), and the importance of
change heavily influenced Tai Chi, Bagua, and the Wu Dang styles. Finally there is

Buddhism, with inspirations in Shaolin, Fut Gar, and other Buddhist Styles. It does so by
passing on the idea of life being sacred, the discipline of the mind, and the power of
meditation. Chinese philosophy represents a source of strength and inspiration for the
martial arts. It provides a firm foundation for building a philosophical and spiritual
component in the study of Kung Fu. Of all the aspects that define Kung Fu, the
philosophical teachings are what seem most valuable for individuals to come away with.
Kung Fu is the ultimate fusion of mind and body and should be venerated as such.
Today, Kung Fu is more popular than ever before due to its mass exposure
through our many mediums. This growth began with our adoration of films. Kung Fu
films began to take shape in Shanghai in the early 1920’s. They were based on pulp
novels, called Wu Xia of the past, which told tales of traditional hero’s and folklore. It
was Wu Xia, which featured the epic adventures of martial artists, which inspired many
of these films albeit with a modernized retelling. Notable writers like Jin Yong, Liang
Yusheng and Gu Long have many popular Wuxia works, which have been adapted for
movies or TV series and passionately followed by fans (Bowman). The popularity of the
films, then and now, can be attributed to traditional Kung Fu culture. Some of it is
accurate while others … not so much. They toe the line between historical legend and
contemporary fact. The popularity became a phenomenon with the one and only Bruce
Lee. In the 1970’s it was his skill that drew audiences in. While some may take the harsh
view that many of these films were a “bastardization” of Chinese culture it was anything
but. Lee’s characters were often underdogs that refused to bend to the will of outside
influences; instead he remained firm in maintaining tradition, practicing philosophy, and
holding true to a sense of national pride. His films and many like it rely on traditional

Chinese beliefs, though translated for wider audiences: Good versus bad, virtue always
triumphs over corruption, and that a pure heart can win the day. Martial arts cinema is
escapist, and is a link of sorts to Chinese tradition, Kung Fu in particular.
Today the standards of Kung Fu representation in films seem to be in good hands.
Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and a new generation of students and practitioners are
carrying the metaphorical torch. Women have also broken the traditional mold. Maggie
Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and Jeeja Yanin are but a few of the women who have broken the
traditionally male dominated film genre. With the advent of the Internet and social
networking the martial arts are more pervasive than ever before. Seeing as Kung Fu is a
positive and welcome representation of Chinese values the results of its widespread
awareness can only be beneficial. As a fan of the art, I wait with abated breath to see who
the next man/woman to champion the art will be. Over the last several decades’ martial
arts have become ingrained in the global cinematic imagination and furthered the
fundamental values of Chinese culture, at the very least it serves as a gateway for
outsiders into the east.
In Closing, during its development in the thousands of years of Chinese history,
martial arts have always attached great importance on etiquette and morality. It seeks to
clarify and provide introspection, meld body and mind, and encourage the most
benevolent and altruistic of beliefs. While some fail to understand it on its outset, films,
tournaments, poems, and writings on Kung Fu can draw in the “uninitiated” and lead to
them research Kung Fu for themselves. Kung Fu is just one facet of the Chinese culture
that has historical, developmental, and philosophical merits in an ever-growing culture
that is worthy of appreciation and increased understanding.