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What is kung fu?
Kung fu (or gong fu) literally means work, time, skill. More specifically: martial skill. Kung fu has been practiced for thousands of years.
Students learn how to strike using various parts of the body, misplace bones, seize muscles, target vulnerable areas and take their opponents to the ground.
A lot of people use the term 'kung fu' in the same way that they say karate, muay thai or taekwondo. This is inaccurate.
Karate is one of many Japanese fighting arts, in the same way that taekwondo is one of a handful of Korean fighting arts.
'Japanese fighting arts' includes judo, aikido, ju jutsu, iaido, kendo etc. Karate is one method that has many variations, schools and techniques. Many different schools of karate, but all still doing karate.
If you were to watch any style of karate you would recognise it as being distinctly different to say judo.
Consider kung fu...
Unlike karate, the term kung fu is not referring to one approach. It is an umbrella term meaning 'Chinese martial art'.
The many styles of kung fu are in fact completely different systems. One style of kung fu and another may be as different from each other as karate and judo are to one another.
The term kung fu encompasses all Chinese martial arts, not just one approach. There are hundreds of different styles and systems.
It is more descriptive to refer to a kung fu style by name e.g. taijiquan. Within a given approach e.g. taijiquan there will be many variations, schools and techniques.
Many different schools of taijiquan, but all still doing taijiquan.
Kung fu is thousands of
years old and is a highly developed system of martial art. The student who
locates a good kung fu school will find the training thorough and
challenging. Kung fu skills, which have been refined over centuries, are not
learned easily or quickly. The sincere student, however, through hard work
and dedication, will not be disappointed with the results.
Is taijiquan kung fu?
This is a debatable issue. According to The Sword Polisher's Record: The Way of Kung Fu by Adam Hsu, taijiquan is certainly a style of kung fu.
Other people disagree; regarding 'kung fu' as merely being the martial component of taijiquan. Some taijiquan exponents often see kung fu as being synonymous with 'external'.
Advanced kung fu
Taijiquan is essentially an 'advanced' kung fu method. It is a Chinese martial art and it does involve hard work, time and skill. For many years it was used in combat by the Chinese military.
What differs from most kung fu styles is the Taoist component and the somewhat complex 'internal' aspects of the art. As kung fu styles go, taijiquan is a very hard method to learn.
External martial artist
Some students have prior experience in martial arts when they start learning taijiquan. Usually they trained externally (judo, karate, ju jitsu, aikido, wing chun etc).
They are well accustomed to practice, rigorous training and combat.
With many martial arts there is a heavy emphasis upon hard (strenuous) training.
It is all about strength-building, coordination, mobility, stamina, accuracy, whole-body movement, whole-body power and patience.
This traditional approach was designed to test the resolve of the student and ensure that the necessary fundamentals were established.
Sit-ups, circuit training, body building, gym machines, running, sweating and straining... High repetitions. Long gruelling training sessions. Challenging postures held for sustained periods of time.
This is the external way. But it is not the taijiquan way.
When you do taijiquan, you shouldn't sweat.
Sweating is a sign that energy is being dissipated.
It comes from tension and it's as if you are depleting your bank account.
Doing taijiquan, you want to accumulate energy, not spend it.
So, if you sweat, you should stop and rest.
(Cheng Man Ching)
Taijiquan is an art where all the principles of other martial arts have been turned upside down.
They practice fast, we practice slow.
They practice hard, we practice soft.
There are many similarities between the hard and soft fighting systems; both use animal movements and forms, for example, and both incorporate the five elements, but because of the Taoist influence, the soft arts exhibit a stronger and deeper relationship with the natural world.
Since the Taoist concepts are rooted in the most distant past with the most ancient beliefs of the Chinese, it is difficult for the Western mind to understand them. Therefore, before you can investigate the internal martial arts, you must first back to the very origins of thought in ancient China.
In many martial arts schools the practice was carried out in secrecy and the school's very existence was frequently concealed from the authorities. For example, taijiquan is based on body of theory known to be around 2000 years old yet it was not revealed until 1750.
Kung fu styles like taijiquan have become widespread and popular. It is important for all practitioners to understand a major weakness in the transmission of all Chinese arts; a lack of basic training. In fact, a step-by-step training program, standardized terminology, clear explanations and correct interpretations are either entirely missing or woefully scarce.
If you’re looking for something easy, then kung fu is probably not for you.
21 May 2003
Last updated 20 December 2020