Kung fu

Related Terms

Baguazhang, bajiquan, changquan, chi, chi kung, choy lay fut, choy lee fut, healing light, healing hands, hung gar, gong fu, gung fu, kungfu, liu he ba fa, nanquan, qi, shaolin, tai chi, t'ai chi chuan, taijiquan, taolu, xingyiquan, wushu, wu shu, wu-su.
Note: Although the term kung fu encompasses more than the martial arts, for the purposes of this monograph, only the Chinese martial arts are discussed.


Kung fu (gong fu) is the American version of Wu-Su, or Chinese martial arts, which is thousands of years old. Fu means a person. Thus kung fu refers to a person who has good skill or workmanship. The word kung fu is not limited to the martial arts as it is usually used in the West.
Kung fu teaches that every movement must be both aggressive and graceful. There are over one thousand styles of kung fu, each with a strict code of physical and mental discipline. Essential to movements in kung fu are chi (qi, inner energy or life force) controlled actions.
According to legend, the reign of the Yellow Emperor (approximately 2698 BC) introduced the earliest forms of martial arts in China. The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous military general, who, before becoming China's leader, wrote a lengthy treatise about martial arts.
Taoist monks are claimed to have been practicing physical exercises that resemble tai chi chuan, one type of kung fu, as early as 500 BC. In 39-92 AD, Six Chapters of Hand Fighting were included in the Han Shu (history of the former Han dynasty) written by Pan Ku. Also, the noted physician Hua T'uo composed the Five Animals Play, tiger, deer, monkey, bear, and bird, around 220 AD.
The kung fu that is practiced today developed over the centuries and many of the later additions to kung fu, such as the shaolin kung fu style, later animal forms and the drunken style were incorporated from various martial arts forms that came into existence later on in China and have accurate historical data relating to their inventors.
Today, kung fu is frequently practiced in western society to combat stress and strengthen personal health and character. The various forms have several purposes including tradition, self-defense, competition, and exercise.
Baguazhang: An internal Chinese boxing system; one of the three major internal Chinese martial arts.
Bajiquan: Features explosive power and is famous for its elbow strikes. It originated in and is mainly practiced in the Hebei province of North China.
Changquan: A general term for external Northern Chinese martial arts. In some long fist styles, the best defense is a strong offense, and in this case the practitioner launches a pre-emptive attack so aggressive that the opponent does not have the opportunity to attack. The long fist fighter likes to keep the opponent at middle to long-range distance.
Chi kung: A Chinese energy exercise where breathing and body movement recharge energy. A breathing exercise that cultivates chi and transmits it to all the bodily organs. Known in ancient China as the method to repel illness and prolong life.
Choy lay fut (choy lee fut): A hybrid Chinese martial art developed by Grandmaster Chan Heung in 1836 at Ging Mui and is highly popular in Hong Kong, Canada, and the United States. Learning the basics from his uncle, the Shaolin monk Chan Yuen Wu, Chan Heung enrolled at a Shaolin temple and, after completing a decade of training, Chan Heung developed this style.
Hung gar: A major style of southern Chinese kung fu characterized by very hard, strong techniques and stances.
Five finger kung fu: Group of exercises designed to process the cosmic force nourishing chi and directing it to the hands.
Healing light kung fu (healing hands kung fu): A combination of cosmic energy chi kung and five finger kung fu.
Liu he ba fa (LHBF): Form of Chinese internal exercise with combat fighting applications. Its principles are associated with a water exercise method said to date from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). The core exercise is usually taught in 66 forms, in two parts, for health or martial purposes. The complete system includes training derived from external styles reworked to complement the core form.
Nanquan: A modern style created in 1960 derived from traditional southern styles that features vigorous, athletic movements with very stable, low stances, intricate hand movements and a vocal articulation called fasheng (release shout). Power is driven from sharp waist movement with special emphasis on fast stance transition to generate power and speed in the arms.
Seminal and ovarian kung fu: A foundational component of the healing tao system. It is a mode of sexual intercourse that purportedly cultivates, conserves, and transforms sexual energy through the Microcosmic Orbit, an alleged major energy channel. For men, this involves the power draw, sex without ejaculation.
Shaolin: A method of kung fu based on eight postures and five animal forms: dragon, snake, tiger, crane and leopard.
Tai chi (taijiquan): A Chinese martial art that is based on the yin-yang principle. When moving up, one is always able to change and move down. Moving to the left, one is able to change and move to the right. Defending, one is ready to attack etc. This is why the movement in taijiquan has a flowing quality that is never interrupted during the practice.
Wing chun: Traditional Chinese kung fu for self-defense and health. Thought to be the simplest and most powerful form of kung fu.


Kung fu routines may be performed solo, paired, or in groups, either barehanded or with traditional Chinese weaponry. There are hard, soft, internal and external styles. Most styles of Chinese martial arts contain practice of the application of techniques (both as prepared drills and as free sparring), but also the practice of what is known as forms, or taolu in Chinese. Forms are pre-choreographed series of techniques and movements performed alone or with one or more partners.
Another important part of the training is "basics" or various exercises for strengthening the body and regular stretching; a student cannot progress to the more advanced stages without them. Without strong, flexible muscles, many movements of Chinese martial arts are impossible to perform correctly. Basics may include: stretching, strengthening of muscles, bones and tendons, stamina training and basic stances, kicks and punches. Some styles may also include: jumping, jump-kicks and acrobatics. In addition, many styles teach a few basic techniques before moving on to forms. These techniques are normally the most common techniques of the specific style.
Chinese martial arts pay considerable attention to stretching. Common stretching exercises may include: general warm-up stretching, stretching in pairs and various types of stretch kicks, usually practiced with speed.
Forms are series of techniques put together one after another practiced as a whole set of movements. Forms seek to incorporate both the internal and external styles of kung fu. A kung fu form needs to be practical, usable and applicable as well as promote flow, meditation, flexibility, balance and coordination. There are two types of forms in Chinese martial arts. Solo forms are performed alone while sparring forms are choreographed fighting sets performed by two or more people. Forms help build up the practitioner's strength and flexibility, speed and stamina, and teach balance and coordination. They are tools for both the students and teacher to remember the many techniques taught by the style.
Many styles contain forms using a wide range of weapons of various length and type, utilizing one or two hands. There are also styles that only practice a certain weapon. Chinese styles train with a broad arsenal of Chinese weapons to condition the body and practice coordination and strategy drills. Others do not use any weapons, and there are referred to as "empty-handed."
A hard style is generally considered one where force is used against force. For example, a block is used to deflect an incoming strike by meeting either head on or at a 90-degree angle.
A soft style does not use force against force but rather deflects the incoming blow away from its target. There are uses for both hard and soft techniques. A practitioner may wish to break the attacker's striking arm with the block. On the other hand, a much smaller opponent would not be able to accomplish this, so instead may wish to deflect the incoming attack.
An external style is one that relies primarily on strength and physical abilities to defeat an opponent. These styles are what most people associate with Chinese martial arts. They are generally fast and explosive, focusing on physical strength and agility. External styles can be both the traditional styles focusing on application and fighting, as well as the modern styles adapted for competition and exercise. External styles begin with a training focused on muscular power, speed and application, and generally integrate their qigong aspects in advanced training, after their desired "hard" physical level has been reached.
An internal style is one that depends upon chi and timing rather than power. Styles focus on the practice of what they call "internal" elements, such as awareness of the spirit, mind, chi (breath, or energy flow) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension, tension that soft stylists call "brute force". Some internal stylists say that the difference between internal and external for them is mostly the distinction of the inside and the outside of the body. The reason for the label "internal" comes from the focus on the internal aspects earlier in the training; once these internal relationships are understood, they may be applied to the external applications of the styles in question. At an advanced level and in actual fighting, internal styles are performed quickly. The goal is to involve the entire body in every motion, to stay relaxed with deep, controlled breathing and to coordinate the motions of the body and the breathing accurately according to the dictates of the forms while maintaining perfect balance.
Application training or sparring puts martial techniques to use. When and how applications are taught varies. Many styles focus on certain drills where each person knows what technique is being practiced and what attack to expect. Gradually, fewer and fewer rules are applied and students learn how to react and discern what technique to use.
Today, many Chinese martial arts choose not to practice application as the need for self-defense has decreased. The applications of the techniques were often considered sacred and kept secret from all but family and the closest friends. Because of this tradition, some schools may require students to show that they are worthy (can be trusted not to use their knowledge for a bad purpose) before teaching applications.

Theory / Evidence

The concept of chi or the inner energy or life force that is said to animate living beings, is encountered in almost all styles of Chinese martial arts. One's chi can be improved and strengthened through the regular practice of various physical and mental exercises.
There are many ideas regarding controlling one's chi energy to such an extent that it can be used for healing oneself or others. Some styles believe in focusing chi into a single point when attacking and aim at specific areas of the human body (similar to the study of acupressure), to cause maximum damage or disable certain functions of the body. Some go so far as to think that at an advanced level it is (or was, as some believe such abilities to now be lost, if they ever existed) possible to cause harm without even touching the opponent.
Traditionally, kung fu styles have been known to improve cardiovascular and mental health as well as remedy a variety of ailments including arthritis. High quality trials are currently lacking.

Author information

This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).


Chinese Martial Arts Institute. 8 June 2006.
Chinese Kung Fu Association. 8 June 2006.
Shaolin Kung Fu Institute. 8 June 2006.
The American Center for Chinese Studies. 8 June 2006.