Gong Fu History
or Kungfu, is a misnomer given to all forms of Chinese martial arts.
When the Western world was introduced to Asian martial arts, someone
coined the Chinese styles as Kungfu, after hearing it spoken repeatedly
by Chinese martial artists. The term actually means "skill," "power" or
"ability." When someone performs an act of great skill, power, or
ability, they are often praised with the expression "Hao (great)
Gongfu!" The expression is not only used in the martial arts circle but
for every form of skills, from culinary to computer programming. The
actual Chinese word for martial arts is "wushu". Today, China uses this
term for one of the fighting forms. The common terms for pugilism in
the past and still used today is "Quan" (Chuan) or Quanfa (Chuanfa),
meaning, "fists" or "the way of the fists". So much so was the term
"Kungfu" popularized by the Western world, that the overseas Chinese
community accepted it to represent their form of martial arts. They
used it to advertise their schools.
The origins of Gongfu is
debatable. Some scholars claim it originated from India while some say
it was formed in China. The truth of the matter is, every country ...
for that matter, regions in countries, had developed some form of
open-hand fighting style of their own. This is indisputable, as war and
fighting have been part of human since the history of time. However,
one point the martial arts scholars agree on, is that modern martial
arts rooted from China. For example, the founder of Japanese Karate,
Funakoshi Gichin, first learned the "Chinese Hand" when it was
introduced to Okinawa. He later incorporated the indigenous fighting
techniques and renamed it "Open Hand". Although both names, when
transliterated into English, read "Karate", the original Japanese
character "kara" meant "Chinese". Sensai Gichin changed the character
(although sounding the same) to mean "Empty". Taekwondo, on the other
hand, is a spin off of Karate. General Choi, the founder of modern
Taekwondo, acquired his black belt in Karate, in Japan, before
incorporating the existing Korean fighting style into one of the most
popular sport and self defense art.
Pugilistic scholars believe
that martial arts had reached the highest level of art in a temple
called Shaolin. It is widely believed that the temple began during the
Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when China flourished economically,
militarily, artistically, literally and culturally. The Emperors gave
free reins and support not only to the economists, the military and the
educators, but to the martial artists as well. The Taoists and the
Buddhists explored the mysteries of nature and man, particularly his
mind, body and soul. The Shaolin Temple became well known for its
researches and excellence in this department.
The study of mind and
soul was the main study at the Shaolin Temple. Through it came the art
of meditation and Qigong. The term Qi (Chi) in Chinese is a generic
term for air and breath in a simple sense. In a broader sense, it means
energy, electrons, atom, oxygen, nutrients, natural chemistry, white
corpuscle, red corpuscle and more. Basically, it represents all that is
within nature and the human body. Qigong, therefore would mean,
nature's power, kinetic power and so forth. Abbots and masters of
Qigong were known to defy the laws of nature, as we know it, enabling
them to leap incredible heights and distances; to move objects with
their mind, and cast explosive energy at a distance.
study of Qigong was divided into Waigong (external energy) and Neigong
(inner energy). Much of the Qigong training put a trainer in either a
sitting or standing position. The young monks were impatient and were
poor learners. The abbots then decided that some kind of physical
training needed to be incorporated into the Qigong training for the
young and restless. Thus, the "gongfu" forms were born.
Temple came to demise during China's last Dynasty, the Qing (Ching).
The Qings came from Manchuria and conquered the Chinese (Ming Dynasty)
then ruled the country from 1644 to 1912. During their rule, the "Han"
Chinese of previous dynasties fought underground to try to oust them.
The Qing rulers forbade the Hans to carry weapons. Common household and
farm tools became their weapons. Some were incorporated into the gongfu
systems. The Manchurian rulers feared the Shaolin Temple and suspected
it to be the source of trouble where the underground fighters took their
refuge and martial arts training. The story goes that they implanted a
spy in the temple who then created a fire within, causing the temple to
burn while the army attacked from the outside. Not all the monks were
killed. The ones who escaped took refuge amongst the civilians. Thus,
the secrets of the Shaolin Temple were revealed to the laity.
took on many forms when it passed to the laity, depending on the
situation, environment, and the physics of the practitioners. China's
North, being colder, forced practitioners to create forms that required
more energy to perform in order to keep warm. Long kicks, long steps,
and jumping moves were incorporated into their forms. The South being
hot and rainy took to smaller movements; low stances, short kicks and
close contact fighting. The Northerners, being taller in stature, took
advantage of their longer legs to keep or strike their opponents at bay.
The Southerners often fought in rice fields in knee-deep waters and did
not have the luxury of swinging their legs from the bottom. Their legs
were used to firm their balance or throw short kicks to the opponent's
knees or below. They could easily conceal their kicks below the water
or under their skirts. Northern China had vast open land, large cities
with large roads. One had the space to bounce around or swing long
weapons. The South, on the contrary, was congested. There was never
room to move about. One had to take advantage of confined space,
whether on a rocky boat or a moving cart, and use short weapons like the
During their dispersal, many Shaolin monks disguised
themselves as stage, opera or acrobatic actors. They developed stage
acts that concealed their pugilistic forms. It not only kept them fit
and tuned to their skills, but kept them off Manchurian suspicion. The
secret of these moves was only revealed to their most ardent followers.
Unfortunately, some of the secrets died with the masters.
As the art
was handed down, it passed on to serious practitioners as well as to
gongfu quacks. The serious ones kept true to the art and taught it as
it was meant to be. The quacks learn it haphazardly and claim
themselves as masters of it, teaching either incomplete or incorrect
forms. Some of them even changed the style to suit their limits. Some
beefed it up with nonsense to make the product look thick. Today, you
will find many gongfu practitioners doing moves that are not only
incomprehensible, but also impractical. They are the prodigies of these
I must point out that apart from pugilistic gongfu, there are
acrobatic gongfu, health maintenance gongfu, healing gongfu, and so on.
The point is that an acrobatic gongfu school should not promote itself
as pugilistic, nor a pugilistic school claim to be a healing one. The
distinction should be clear.
Today, you will find martial arts
schools in almost every corner of the world. How do you know which one
is good? Watch the performance of the students. This may be difficult
because a non-practitioner would not know what to look for and is easily
impressed by fancy moves. The best thing is for you to ask the master
what are the underlying principles of his style. Does he give you an
answer? Does his answer satisfy you? Does he spend time explaining
details to his students? These are the prerequisites of a good school.
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