4 – Kung Fu (5th Century BC)
“To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is.” Bruce Lee
The idea of Kung Fu is one that is often misinterpreted. There is not a single Kung Fu style that one can learn, rather the term refers to the whole gamut of Chinese martial arts; the name Wushu is also given to the same thing. Kung Fu in Mandarin literally means “learning through practice” and is not related to martial arts, while Wushu might be a more proper term, as it literally means “martial art”. Kung Fu, of course, is the accepted term in English and thus the one that we will use here.
Like everywhere else in the world, China developed martial arts right from the beginning of recorded history, though the styles that are most commonly associated with the nation are somewhat more recent. There are folk myths and legends that tell of the first martial arts masters as early as anything that was happening in Ancient Greece, with wrestling systems as well as strike and weapon-lead styles all present, but in terms of methods that would be recognisable today, the first practitioners were the Shaolin.
The Shaolin monks that clustered in Buddhist Monasteries pioneered the use of fighting to defend themselves around 600AD, with archaeological evidence to prove it, but the records then go dark for almost a thousand years, though the circumstantial evidence suggests that they must have continued. In the early Modern period, when Western influences began to penetrate into China, there are far more sources that show the Shaolin style of Kung Fu, which focussed on staff fighting and unarmed combat, as well as prioritising the link between inner strength and physicality.
In terms of what we know today as Kung Fu, the first codifications came around 150 years ago. As China opened up to the West and transport links inside the country improved, the many experienced martial artists that existed there began to teach their skills more widely. The nationalist government of the time began to incorporate their traditional fighting styles into wider Chinese culture and exhibit them to the world, including producing textbooks and conducting public demonstrations.
One of the key aspects of Kung Fu that has perhaps set it apart is the focus on the spiritual nature of Chinese martial arts and the unity of the body, mind and spirit. Meditation is a vital aspect of training, as it breathing regulation and control over qi, the life force. At one end of a spectrum there are competitive sparring styles, such as Sanshou, a form of kickboxing, and Shuajiao, Chinese wrestling, but the majority of martial arts are performed with the intention that they not be used and purely for aesthetic or spiritual purposes. Competitive Wushu is predominantly based on forms and demonstrations of techniques rather than practical applications.
The popular perception of Chinese martial arts is somewhat distorted from the practical use of Kung Fu: when one thinks of the greatest fighters of recent years, the likes of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li, they are all actors rather than actual competitive fighters. While that is not to decry their abilities as real combatants, it shows the manner in which the arts of Kung Fu have progressed separately from other martial arts. Just over the East China Sea, however, there is a different story afoot. Chinese and Japanese martial arts might seem quite similar to an outsider, but in practice, and in history, they are very different indeed.