The Rich History & Origins of Kung Fu

The History of Kung Fu

Kung Fu is an ancient Chinese art with a rich history. Today, most people are familiar with Kung Fu thanks to its appearances in pop culture entertainment ranging from movies to music to video games, but the origins of the martial art date back over four thousand years. Technically, the term “Kung Fu” translates to “achievement through great effort” and can refer to any skill that has been mastered through dedicated practice. More commonly, the term Kung Fu is used to refer to the many styles of Chinese martial arts that have been practiced for thousand of years. Due to the history of Kung Fu dating back such a long time, many of the stories about its origins and development have been lost or changed quite a bit as they were passed down throughout the years, but some details of its early history do survive.

The Origins of Kung Fu

As the term “martial art” suggests, Kung Fu originated as a way of training and conditioning soldiers for battle, as well as for self defense and hunting. Legend says that China’s Yellow Emperor, a noteable general and writer who rose to power in 2698 BC, introduced early fighting techniques to China that included a form of wrestling that would evolve and expand into the basis of martial art techniques including pressure point attacks, blocks, and joint locks. It was practiced both with and without weapons such as swords and spears. The study of martial arts not only served the soldiers well in battle, but enhanced their physical fitness and overall health, as well as boosting morale. The first formal martial arts contests date back to around the 7th century BC, when state king Qi Huangong began to hold competitions twice a year.

Kung Fu appears in historical texts as far back as the 2nd century BC, where the combat discipline is mentioned in a work called the Classic of Rites. Other notable appearances of Kung Fu in written works include descriptions in the works of the great 7th century BC Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bai, the famous Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, and the classic 14th century Chinese novel “Outlaws of the Marsh”.

Styles of Kung Fu

As it evolved and spread across China, hundreds of different styles styles of Kung Fu developed which can be classified in multiple ways. One way that Kung Fu styles are divided is by internal styles, which focus on self control and harnessing qi, and external styles, which focus on strengthening the body. Styles of Kung Fu that originated in the regions north of the Yangtze River tend to place more emphasis on kicks, while Southern styles focus more on hand strikes. Some of the Southern Kung Fu styles are believed to have been originated by five monks who fled the Shaolin Temple when it was destroyed, each of which was a Kung Fu master who went on to teach new students and develop a unique style of practice. The differences between styles of Kung Fu also evolved due to differences in the religious beliefs behind the styles (such as Buddhist styles and styles rooted in Taoist philosophy).

Some of the most popular styles of Kung Fu include:

Shaolin – One of the most famous styles of Kung Fu, Shaolin Kung Fu is a northern style tied to the Shaolin Monks that was spread out beyond the monastery after the Shaolin Temple was destroyed by Qing rulers, causing the monks to scatter to other areas, where they later shared their knowledge when the practice of Kung Fu was deemed legal again.
Eagle Claw – The Northern Chinese style of Eagle Claw gets its name from the locking hand movements performed with sturdy legged stances taught by general Ngok Fei to his soldiers during the Song Dynasty.
Long Fist – Also known as Chang Quan, Long Fist is an beautifully acrobatic Kung Fu style that also dates back to the Ming Dynasty.
Monkey Style – Monkey Style or Monkey Fist Kung Fu is one of the martial art styles that draws upon the study of how animals move. It features techniques that may be observed in the fighting among primates, such as climbing body limbs, tumbling, and attempts to confuse the enemy.
Wing Chun – Many are familiar with Wing Chun as the style of Kung Fu that the legendary Bruce Lee began his training with. It focuses on maintaining a narrow, defensive position, even when attacking and is well suited to fighting in close quarters. According to legend, it originated in the 17th century when a woman named Yim-Wing Chun learned the art of Kung Fu from a Shaolin nun to win a fight against a man she did not want to marry.
Choy Li Fut – Known as an effective style for fighting more than one opponent at a time, Choy Li Fut Kung Fu is a 19th century style of the martial art founded by Chan Heung.
Hung Gar – Established in the 17th century in southern China, the Hung Gar style of Kung Fu is known for strong punches delivered from a low stance. Hung Gar was named after one of the top students of one of the monks who fled the destruction of the Shaolin temple and began teaching in the south.

Other styles that gained popularity in the 19th century include Northern Praying Mantis, Southern Praying Mantis, Five Animals, Drunken Boxing, Fujian White Crane, Xingyi, Baguazhang, Jow Ga, Bak Mei Pei, and Taijiquan.

Kung Fu Today

Kung Fu continues to thrive as an art form in modern China, where citizens are encouraged to learn and pass on the skills. You will now find Kung Fu everywhere from Chinese Opera to the Olympics to street performances. The internet has made it much easier for people from around the world to learn more about Kung Fu, as it provides such a huge range of access to Kung Fu videos, books, groups, discussion, and online classes. Movies like Kung Fu Panda introduce children to the martial arts, while stage shows like the Legend of Kung Fu keep the spirit of Bruce Lee alive by bringing the masterful display of skill to new audiences every day.

You can see the history of Kung Fu come to life at the White House Theatre in Branson as the Legend of Kung Fu: Return of the Dragon show brings the mythology of the martial art’s beginnings to the stage with a cast of talented performers for whom the art of Kung Fu has been a lifelong practice. When you come to experience the Legend of Kung Fu: Return of the Dragon, be sure to check in online when you get to the theatre, and we’ll reward you with a free popcorn and drink to enjoy during the show! We make it easy to buy your Legend of Kung Fu show tickets online, and you will even receive $5 off your ticket purchase if you like our Facebook page. The cast of the Legend of Kung Fu looks forward to sharing the beauty, skill, power, and history of Kung Fu with Branson visitors!