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Wing Chun Academy of Thailand


Gong Fu History

Gongfu, 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.

Later, the 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.

The Shaolin 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.

Gongfu 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 broad sword.

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 quacks.

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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Copyright © Daniel Y. Xuan

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