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History of Kung Fu

The History of Kung Fu

The Chinese martial arts originated in the Buddhist monastery built in 377 A.D. in the Shao Shih Mountains Deng FonHsien, Huo Nan province, by order of the Emperor Wei. There were no martial arts being done in the temple at this time, but the monks were doing meditation and exercises.

In 527 A.D. during the Liang dynasty, a Indian Buddhist prince by the name of Da Mo from India came to the monastery and found that the monks were not strong in body, so he taught them ways to strengthen their bodies and also taught them Buddhism. Legend has it that Da Mo spent nine years in a cave meditating, before he gave the Shaolin monks this information on what is called “Shi Sui Jing” (marrow washing classic) and the Yi Chin Jing (muscle change classic). From these teachings, and others, sprang forth a martial arts system that would later become legendary. The symbol of the Shaolin monks became the “Wan” symbol, an Indian mystic symbol meaning good fortune and virtue which is attributed to Da Mo. Thirty years after Da Mo’s death the Chou dynasty Emperor had the temple closed down in 570 A.D. This was due to some renegade monks who, after leaving the temple, went robbing and killing people who were defenseless against them because of their power. In the Sui dynasty 600 A.D. the temple was allowed to reopen with emphases on martial arts morality for the code of monks. In 650 A.D. the Fukien Temple was built. Many styles and systems flourished in this temple including the Five Family Fists of Choy, Li, Fut, Mok, and Hung which became the standard style for the Shaolin temples for its completeness along with its formidable internal and external power.

The start of martial arts in China came about for the same reasons it did in every other culture: In order to aid in hunting endeavors and to protect against enemies. Along with this, evidence of martial techniques, including those tied to weapons and soliders go back thousands of years in the history of the area. It appears that China’s Yellow Emperor Huangdi, who took the throne in 2698 B.C., began to formalize the arts, however. In fact, he invented a form of wrestling taught to the troops that involved the use of horned helmets called Horn Butting or Jiao Di. Eventually, Jiao Di was improved upon to include joint locks, strikes, and blocks and even became a sport during the Qin Dynasty (approximately 221 B.C.). It would also seem important to add that the Chinese martial arts have long held philosophical and spiritual significance within the culture. Along with this, the Chinese martial arts grew alongside the ideas of Confucianism and Taoism during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 B.C.- 256 B.C.) and beyond, not in isolation from them. For example, the Taoist concept of Ying and Yang, the universal opposites, ended up being tied in a large way to the hard and soft techniques that make up what is kung fu. The arts also became a part of the concepts of Confucianism, as they were tied to the ideal things people should practice. Which is why it is very important to talk about Buddhism in terms of kung fu. Buddhism & Martial Art came to China from India as relations between the two areas grew during the years 58-76 A.D. In accordance with this, the concept of Buddhism grew more popular in China as monks were sent to and fro between the countries. An Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma is particularly mentioned in the martial arts history books. Bodhidharma preached to the monks at the newly formed Shaolin Temple in China and appears to have changed not only their way of thinking by fostering concepts such as humility and restraint, but also may have actually taught the monks martial arts movements. Though the latter is disputed by chinese, one thing appears clear. Once Bodhidharma arrived these monks became famous martial arts practitioners that worked extremely hard at their craft. At the same time, Taoist monasteries in the area also continued, teaching different styles of kung fu during the same era. Initially, kung fu was really only an elite art practiced by those with power. But due to occupations by the Japanese, French, and British, the Chinese began to encourage martial arts experts to open their doors and teach what they knew to the native masses in an effort to expel foreign invaders. Unfortunately, the people quickly found out that the martial arts could not repel the bullets of their adversaries. Some time later, kung fu had a new opponent— Communism. When Mao Zedong eventually took hold of China he attempted to destroy almost everything that was traditional in order to grow his particular brand of Communism. Kung fu books and Chinese history, including much of the literature on the art at the Shaolin Temple, was put under attack and in many cases destroyed at this time. Along with this, several kung fu masters fled the country until the Chinese martial arts, as had always been the case, became a part of the culture once again some time later (in this case, communist culture).

Characteristics of Kung Fu

Kung fu is primarily a striking style of martial arts that utilizes kicks, blocks, and both open and closed hand strikes to defend against attackers. Depending on the style, kung fu practitioners may also possess knowledge of throws and joint locks. The art utilizes both hard (meeting force with force) and soft (using an aggressor’s strength against them) techniques. Kung fu is widely known for its beautiful and flowing forms.

Basic Goals of Kung Fu

The basic goals of kung fu are to protect against opponents and disable them quickly with strikes. There is also a very philosophical side to the art, as it is strongly tied, depending on the style, to the Buddhist and/ or Taoist principles that were brought up with it.

Kung Fu Substyles

Due to the rich and long history of Chinese martial arts, there are over 400 substyles of kung fu. The northern styles, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, tend to put a level of importance on kicks and wide stances. The southern styles are more about the utilization of the hands and narrower stances.

Below is a list of some of the more popular substyles.


  • Shaolin
  • Long Fist
  • Eagle Claw
  • Monkey Style


  • Wing Chun
  • Hung Gar
  • Choy Li Fut

Kung-Fu in the 20th Century

Up until the early 20th century, Kung-Fu continued to be something practised by the elite, be they military elite, learned men, warrior monks or the members of a particular family. The negative effects of European interference in China had brought Chinese national self esteem to an all time low. First of all, China had been brought to its knees by a mass drugs trade in opium, perpetrated mainly by Britain and France in the two Opium Wars, 1839 – 1842 and 1856 – 1860. The Boxer Rebellion of 1899 was an attempt by the Righteous Harmony Society, previously known as the Righteous Fist Society, to expel foreign elements and reclaim China for the Chinese. The Boxers believed that their Chi Gung expertise would allow them to repel bullets, as it did swords and clubs. The limitations of internal Chi power were quickly discovered as many died among hails of enemy gunfire. The failed rebellion only saw more concessions given to the occupying powers, as the Chinese government were unable to protect their thousand year old traditions against the humiliation of European colonisation. In an attempt to recapture cultural aspects that were essentially Chinese and boost national pride (and health), the government encouraged martial artists to open up their doors to the (Chinese) general public. Much of the mythology surrounding the Chinese martial arts was also created around this time, serialised in popular novels. At this point, many Kung-Fu organisations were established that are still in existence today. The Chin Woo Athletic Association was founded in 1910 and a central governing body for Kung-Fu was established in 1928. By 1932 National Kung-Fu competitions were being held throughout China and in 1936 Kung-Fu was put on the world stage at the Berlin Olympic Games. The Cultural Revolution and the persecution of Kung-Fu In 1966 Mao Zedong, the creator of China’s unique brand of Communism, launched the Cultural Revolution. His aim was to rid China of all remnants of traditional thought so that it could radically modernise into a fully functioning Communist State. 80 million speakers communicated Mao’s revolutionary doctrine to some 400,000 Chinese through the Central Peoples Broadcasting Station. In a kind of nationwide hysteria, millions of revolutionary youngsters, entitled Red Guards, marauded through the provinces, destroying ancient buildings and artefacts, and torturing and killing people as they saw fit. Persecution of Chinese traditions hit Kung-Fu hard and no one was safe. Even the venerated Shaolin Temple was subject to revolutionary purges and the abbots were made to parade in public with paint slashed on their robes. Books and ancient martial arts manuscripts were looted from the monastery and burnt. The extent of the damage wreaked in the turbulent years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was on a scale never seen by the world before and the physical losses can never be repaired. Those Kung-Fu masters that could, fled overseas, whilst the remainder went into hiding or suffered harsh reprisals. Kung-Fu continued to flourish in its overseas setting and many famous masters set up Kung-Fu schools in Hong-Kong and Taiwan. A lesser number moved to the United States and Europe. Chinese cultural traditions became stronger in expat Chinese communities than back home in mainland China. After the tumult caused by the Red Guards had settled down, China began to rethink its policy toward Chinese martial arts as a sport.