What is Kung Fu?

In a modern society with fast paced technology and an abundance of information accessible at the tap of a finger its hard to understand how something like a Chinese martial art like Kung Fu fits in. Often I hear people say things like what is Kung Fu, is that like MMA, or what UFC fighters do? Is it more like Yoga and Tai Chi? To someone who has actually spent a significant amount of time practicing traditional Kung Fu every day and researching Asian history and martial arts it often catches me off guard that most people don’t know what Kung Fu really is. Even with such an incredible amount of information available there is still so much confusion as to what Kung Fu is and how it fits into the modern world.

Most of what people understand as Kung Fu has been from the film industry, reason simply being that Kung Fu movies are cool. They just are. Shaw Brothers are a well known producer of Kung Fu movies that have basically kick started a standard of what a fight scene looks like. Modern movies have all taken from these early films and evolved into amazing technical action sequences that include many martial arts influences. But among the many styles of martial arts Kung Fu always had a reputation for being very flashy and beautiful, as well as extremely technical and sophisticated. Most martial arts films that involve Kung Fu techniques are still not accurately portraying what real Kung Fu is. What you see on screen is actually a very modern take on traditional Kung Fu called Wushu. Wushu literally means, Martial Arts in Mandarin Chinese. Wushu was developed for very different reasons and in a very oppressive communist Mao Zedong China. During the Cultural revolution (1966-1976) and the banning of all Martial arts, the Chinese government realized they actually needed to preserve martial arts to maintain their culture in a way that wasn’t a threat to the communist government. If you were teaching or practicing traditional Kung Fu in China at this time you were killed, plain and simple. For this reason a lot of traditional Kung Fu teachers left China and spread all over the world which is a great conversation for a future topic. But for now what we have during this time in China is Wushu. I know what you’re thinking you already don’t know what Kung Fu is and now you don’t know what Wushu is, but it’s important and relevant, I promise. Wushu was created basically for the Chinese government to show off, and it aesthetically looks very acrobatic and flashy. Wushu has characteristics of the many traditional styles of Kung Fu but exaggerated with over embellishments and stuntman like choreography. This was intentional so that it could show the greatness of Communist China at that time and the People of China could have competitions to prove skill and ability in Wushu. The focus was not on Martial ability and combat anymore but precision and visual perfection of technique. By far the best known Wushu practitioner that the world knows is Jet Li, hence our modern view of Kung Fu that we see in movies and action sequences. Along side Jet Li are Wushu competitors turned actors such as Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan who trained in a Chinese opera version of Wushu. So looking at this it is very easy to see why the mass majority view of Kung Fu is taken from the movie industry and essentially is derived from an evolution of Kung Fu which is modern Wushu.

jetli3

Jet Li showing his Wushu Championship medals

So what happened to Kung Fu, I thought this was about Kung Fu? Well Kung Fu went into hiding and basically became very secretive and was taught only to Chinese and later to the few very dedicated outsiders that were willing to learn from the strict traditional teachers. After these Chinese Kung Fu teachers and practitioners were forced to leave China they had dispersed all over the world essentially to hide, leaving family members behind. Those who fled to the United States developed Kung Fu in a secretive way which they held closely guarded. A lot of the mysticism and unknown comes from this early history because it wasn’t taught to a lot of non Chinese. Slowly there were teachers that crossed the racial barriers and knew that they had to teach Kung Fu to anyone dedicated to learn in order to pass on the traditions of Kung Fu as it had been taught to them. The traditional Kung Fu was studied solely with the intentions and focus to be used in hand to hand combat to defend your life. Not to look fancy.

Lau Bun with students, Circa 1963

Lau Bun with students, Circa 1963

For the current day practitioner, Kung Fu is often overlooked and disregarded as not practical or unrealistic. There are those that will say you can’t use that in a real life street fight or in a modern MMA arena. A lot of these remarks come from the popular view of Kung Fu as what most see often times which is actually a form of Wushu or those that have never learned traditional Kung Fu to actually use it, but rather to merely look good visually. The true essence of Kung Fu is a very effective fighting art. With diligent practice over time a person can gain the ability to protect themselves and others with relative ease and without much thought, but rather muscle memory and an ability to just react to what happens naturally. Kung Fu is more than just kicking and punching. It becomes ingrained in how you move, how you walk, the way you open a door or pick something up, it becomes a part of you and you naturally move with it. This is the true beauty of what Kung Fu is. To try and give a detailed explanation of every aspect of Kung Fu is almost impossible. A true understanding is only developed through practice and hard work over many years. The literal translation of “Kung Fu” itself means skill gained over time. This is where it is hard to tell someone simply what Kung Fu is, or is not for that matter. With all the flashy acrobatic and high jumping variations of kung fu that the majority of people see, most of these practices are not focused on the sophisticated approach of combat application. They are skilled athletes and can be very impressive with their ability, but it is still for show and not for the reality of a street fight. There is a saying from the old masters that, real Kung Fu does not look good, but it works good. At the end of the day if you are practicing a Kung Fu style that you are not drilling and training to apply in a combat situation you may not be practicing Kung Fu, but rather performing Kung Fu for the audience. Personally I would much rather someone look at a traditional Kung Fu form that I do and not be wowed by high flying kicks and precise spins, but rather have the skill and ability to protect my loved ones or myself at a moments notice if necessary. This is Kung Fu.

 

-Sifu Nick

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