Kung fu

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What is kung fu?

Kung fu (or gong fu) literally means work, time, skill. More specifically: martial skill.

Chinese martial art

Chinese martial arts are often referred to as 'kung fu'. Kung fu has been practiced for thousands of years. There are dozens of different styles.
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.

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.

(Adam Hsu)

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.

Martial arts are dangerous

The British Medical Association Guide To Sports Injuries states:

Combat sports such as boxing, judo, karate or kung fu make tough demands on the body; training is intense, and participation requires all-round fitness. Regardless of the fitness of the participants, however, the aggressive blows traded between opponents means that these sports always carry a serious risk of injury.

Traditional model

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.

Hard training

it-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.

(Cheng Man Ching)

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.

(Howard Reid)

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.

(Howard Reid)

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.

(Adam Hsu)

If you’re looking for something easy, then kung fu is probably not for you.

(Anna Spysz)


Taijiquan way

Taijiquan is physically and mentally challenging; but in a very different way to mainstream martial arts. Long, gruelling training sessions are discouraged. Overtraining is as bad as not training.
Tired muscles and sore joints are unhealthy.


Although taijiquan seeks to achieve many of the same goals as external martial arts, it is not external. Hard-style training is external
. Taijiquan adopts a slightly milder approach.
The difference is not in the aims of Art but in the manner in which the work is undertaken. Refer to the Wang Treatise.

High repetition

To gain familiarity with the taijiquan movements, high repetition is necessary. This is the same as external. The difference lies in the time scale.

Be patient

An external person hammers their body by training intensively; thereby accumulating the required number of repetitions. The taijiquan person spreads their training out.
Instead of long, sustained training sessions, they train little and often. It takes far longer to perform the necessary practice, but there is far less risky of injury and the body is not unduly taxed


This same attitude is applied to strength-building. Be patient. Give yourself time. Rest. Allow your body time to grow and change. Avoid pushing or forcing an outcome

Deliberate practice

Simply working hard will not necessarily lead to progress. It needs to be deliberate, focused improvement designed to improve your practice by developing key skills outlined by your instructor.
The student must implement corrections, study the recommended books, undertake assignments and challenge their comfort zone.

A young boy travelled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist.
When he arrived at the dojo he was given an audience by the sensei.

"What do you wish from me?" the master asked.

"I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land," the boy replied.
"How long must I study?"

"Ten years at least," the master answered.

"Ten years is a long time," said the boy.
"What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"

"Twenty years," replied the master.

"Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?"

"Thirty years," was the master's reply.

"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.

"The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way."

(Joe Hyams)

Combat skill

Taijiquan combat skills take a lot of time to develop. Alongside applications, striking methods and grappling skills, the student is also discovering how to move in a whole-body, energy efficient manner.
This multi-faceted approach ensures that the training remains intelligent and moderate. There is no scope for overtraining or being aggressive.

Bad influences

When you read accounts of how traditional masters trained, it can be tempting to commit to a punishing regime. Ask yourself: is this necessary? Is it even productive?
By being patient, you are following the Taoist method of not too much and not too little. Just enough.

The tortoise and the hare

Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare captures the difference between taijiquan and external training very nicely. The taijiquan training is often slow and steady whereas external is fast.
Speed becomes a major issue later in the taijiquan syllabus when the student learns cold jing and fa jing. Until then, sensitivity, timing, positioning, agility and jing are cultivated. 

Running on empty

Modern people are often running on empty. They fail to take adequate rest. Many of the exercise methods they adopt lead to even greater fatigue.
Stimulants, sugar, caffeine and fatty food enable the individual to carry on when in fact the real solution to fatigue is of course rest.

3 methods

Our students study 3 compatible kung fu methods:

  1. Chin na (seizing)

  2. Shuai jiao (take downs)

  3. Taijiquan (supreme ultimate fist)

They all use the body in an internal way. Chin na and shuai jiao are kung fu methods rather than a separate system.

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Do your work, then step back.

(Lao Tzu)

Worth reading

• Confusing internal & external training methods
• External to internal
• Neijiaquan (internal martial arts)  
• Technique-based mentality 
• Cross-training martial arts
• Taijiquan combat

• Taijiquan fighting method

Page created 21 May 2003
Last updated 07 November 2018