The discussion about Kung Fu is a difficult one and brings up a myriad of possibilities and options, because the word Kung Fu itself doesn’t denote martial arts in general, but rather, acquiring a skill in any art form or endeavor. Understanding that the literal translation of the word “Kung Fu” means, “a skill acquired through hard work and perseverance,” in this blog I will be strictly talking about Kung Fu as related to learning and practicing Chinese martial arts.
There are many types of Kung Fu. Not all Kung Fu is created equal, but that doesn’t mean that one type is better than another. Different kinds of Kung Fu are put together to do different jobs. Kung Fu is a broad umbrella – covering everything from fighting to health to entertainment. People all around the world believe that the term “Kung Fu” is exclusive to what they’ve witnessed in movies, social media and magazines. This isn’t so. Kung Fu is an extremely broad term that covers a huge spectrum of the Chinese martial arts. Over the thousands of years of the existence of Chinese martial arts, the nature of Kung Fu has been shaped and changed tremendously due to the needs and desires of the practitioners.
Kung Fu as an art form most likely started in its most practical form, for one individual to protect themselves or their family from harm. We’re talking about prehistoric times, when there was no real record, no system, no technique, just one guy picking up a rock or a stick to defend himself against another guy. That’s the genesis of real Kung Fu. But as the centuries passed it divided itself into more specialized types of Kung Fu or skill sets. This hearkens back to the real meaning of Kung Fu – an acquired skill.
The history and development of Kung Fu has been shaped by topography, the weather, the terrain, the social environment of that particular region, the mindset of the individuals, and the economic and social climate of a given area. When looking at any particular style or system, you have to ask yourself, who was the guy that made it? What was his purpose? What was his background? What was the philosophy and psychological makeup he used to create this particular system of Kung Fu?
If you’re talking about social and economic diversity, Kung Fu that was played by affluent people is going to vary a lot from Kung Fu played by those that were impoverished and downtrodden. If you were rich and well taken care of, your need to protect yourself would be a much lower priority than it would be for someone who’s coming from a rough and tumble hand-to-mouth existence. If you’re a farmer, your Kung Fu is going to be different than that of an aristocrat or a courtesan. Even though these individuals are both practicing Kung Fu, they are practicing different styles with completely different mindsets. One is going to be more esthetic and pleasing to the eye. The other is going to be more rough around the edges and about getting the job done. The philosophies of these two types of Kung Fu are already in stark contrast to one another just based on social economic ways and means.
Another difference would be the actual region where you come from – the weather, the topography. Different regions in China have different weather and different types of land. In the south where it’s warm and humid, everything was farm land and a rice paddy. Your Kung Fu is going to be different from a style practiced in the north where the weather is much colder and you have to wear heavier clothes. Kung Fu is transformed and modified by those who practice and teach it. The art form changes and morphs depending on the needs, wants, desires and capabilities of its practitioners.
For example, the Chinese opera is famous for its acrobats and its martial artists. The Kung Fu that is used in Chinese opera is theatrical and dramatized. The same is true with martial arts in many movies today. That’s entertainment Kung Fu. It’s very pleasing to the eye, and is an amazing skill which not everyone can do, but it doesn’t necessarily equate itself to a fighting system. That’s not to say you can’t modify it and use it, or that all the Kung Fu in the movies isn’t real. Many martial artists in the entertainment industry have backgrounds in opera Kung Fu as well as more traditional fighting based arts. Some have been able to transition back and forth. That’s actually one of the beauties of Kung Fu itself. Because of its broad spectrum, you can run the gambit from being visually pleasing and entertaining, to being down and dirty and fighting for your life. I feel this is one of the most amazing things about Kung Fu; it’s not pigeon holed to only be one way.
That being said, if that’s the case, the skill of the practitioner to be able to transcend from one end of the spectrum to the other has to be of a much, much higher level. Just doing one thing right is not easy, let alone being able to display several different understandings of the same art form. All of the aspects of Kung Fu exist simultaneously. It’s the choice of each individual practitioner what you want to accentuate. The health, regenerative, energizing and medicinal aspect of Kung Fu exists. At the very same time, the fighting aspect, techniques and theories exist. And simultaneously, Kung Fu can be entertaining and pleasing to the eye. None of these aspects can be separated from Kung Fu. It’s just what the practitioner wants to portray and what’s important to him.
Kung Fu is a lot like life. You can live your life any way you want, and you can play your Kung Fu any way you want. If you’re not a street fighter, it doesn’t mean your Kung Fu is good or bad. Because one practitioner may like the entertainment aspect, or another practitioner only practices for the health benefits, doesn’t mean he’s good or bad either. It depends on what you want, on your purpose and your goals. It is up to the individual practitioner to choose those goals and choose their focus. It’s like in college when you choose your major; if you try to major in ten subjects, you won’t be able to master any of them. If you choose one major subject, you are more likely to achieve some level of success. The same is true in Kung Fu and all martial art training.
Kung Fu is an amazing art form that everyone can partake in and learn from. This is why Kung Fu has existed for so many thousands of years and has continued to exist regardless of what trends are happening in the martial arts. The educated individual that understands the broad spectrum of Kung Fu cannot stand by and say there’s nothing there for them. If you want to fight all day and night, you can. If you want to break bricks, you can. If you just want to stretch and move and breathe, you can. No one is stopping you; it’s all there for you. Chinese Kung Fu is an all encompassing system. You can enjoy it because of its esthetic, because it gives you a means to defend yourself, or because it’s a physical and mental exercise. This is why it has been around for so many thousands of years, and those who have the insight to see beneath the surface will understand that it has all of these benefits. The broadness of the art of Kung Fu means that everyone, regardless of their status, their makeup, their ability, their capabilities, can come away with something by practicing Kung Fu.