The Term of Kung fu

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Kung fu or gongfu or gung fu (功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) is a well-known Chinese term often used by speakers of the English language to refer to Chinese martial arts. Its original meaning is somewhat different, referring to one’s expertise in any skill, not necessarily martial.

According to the legend of Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, kung fu also has its origin in India. The Indian monk named Bodhidharma Sardili (also known as Da Mo in Chinese) traveled from India to China around 500 CE. It is said that he visited Shaolin monks in the Henan Province.

While there, Bodhidharma awed the resident Chinese monks with his mastery of meditation. The secret was physical discipline which Bodhidharma saw lacking in the monks. He trained them in exercises designed to strengthen the body and thus their endurance.

According to legend, Bodhidharma had attained such a level of control that he was able to bore a hole through a wall simply by staring at it for a number of years in meditation. These series of exercises the monks used evolved into kung fu. This is why Bodhidharma is credited with spreading Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China and for forming the modern kung fu.

The term kung fu was not popular until the 20th century, thus the word would be seldom found in any ancient texts. The term was first known to have been reported by a Westerner, French Jesuit missionary Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, in the 18th century and was known little in the mainstream English language until approximately the late 1960s, when it became popular because of the Hong Kong films, especially those by Bruce Lee, and later Kung Fu – the television series. Before that it was referred to primarily as “Chinese boxing”. Kung Fu, as it is written here, refers to the general term of Chinese martial arts. Shaolin Kung Fu refers to the style that was developed in the Shaolin temples.

Translation and usage: Nowadays, the most common use of the term kung fu is when referring to Chinese martial arts in general. Thus, when someone says they study kung fu, they likely mean they study one of the many styles of Chinese martial arts. (An alternative term might be “Zhongguo wushu” (中國武術, literally China martial art)). The original meaning of kung fu is quite different, and is hard to translate as there is no English equivalent. In short, 功夫 (gōngfu) means “achievement through great effort” or simply virtue. It combines 功 (gōng) meaning achievement or merit, and 夫 (fÅ«) which translates into man. In Mandarin, when two “first tone” words such as gōng and fÅ« are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu.

Originally, to practice kung fu did not just mean to practice Chinese martial arts. Instead, it referred to the process of one’s training – the strengthening of the body and the mind, the learning and the perfection of one’s skills – rather than to what was being trained. It refers to excellence achieved through long practice in any endeavor. You can say that a person’s kung fu is good in cooking, or that someone has kung fu in calligraphy; saying that a person possesses kung fu in an area implies skill in that area, which they have worked hard to develop. Someone with “bad kung fu” simply has not put enough time and effort into training, or seems to lack the motivation to do so. Kung fu is also a name used for the elaborate Fujian tea ceremony (Kung-fu cha).

There is a curious contemporary twist on this meaning in the hacker culture: there the fu has been generalized to a suffix, implying that the thing suffixed involves great skill or effort. For example, one may talk of “script-fu” to refer to complicated scripting. It is unknown whether this was consciously based on the original, broader meaning of the term or whether it was a simple wordplay on the less general Western notion of “kung fu”.

In Japanese, the characters for kung fu (功夫) retain an approximation of their Chinese reading, and are pronounced kanfÅ« (カンフー). Chinese martial arts in general are also referred to as chÅ«goku ken (中国拳) or chÅ«goku kempō(中国拳法), which translates literally to “China fist” and “China fist law,” respectively. (Kempō is a generic term for a punching/striking art of Chinese origins.)

In Korean, kung fu means Chinese Martial art but a word that sounds similar is gongbu (공부), which means “study.”

Related terms: While the term Kung Fu is used globally as a generic term for the Chinese martial arts — such as Shaolin Kung Fu — certain Chinese words may be used to denote some specific aspect of a style. These words are often based on the theme of the human hand. A common term is the Mandarin word quan or chuan (拳, Cantonese: kuen, Japanese: ken), meaning fist, which conveys the sense of a style of boxing or striking, as in Shaolin Quan (Young Forest Fist) and Wing Chun Kuen (Eternal Spring Fist).

The word “chuan”, however, may not always denote boxing; Tai Chi Chuan (Supreme Ultimate Fist), for instance, contains the word “chuan” but does not focus on striking in common practice. The term chang or zhang (掌), meaning palm, is also seen, an example being Bagua Zhang (Eight Trigrams Palm). Another similar word is shou (手), or hand, as in Sanshou (Loose Hand or Free Hand).

Some words refer to an art’s origin or tradition. One term is pai (æ´¾), denoting a school of thought or system, as in Tien Shan Pai and Ying Jow Pai. This is related to the Japanese term ryuha (流派, Mandarin: liúpài), meaning “mainstream school of thought”. Some martial arts of Southern China use the Cantonese word gar (家, Mandarin pinyin: jiā), meaning family, as in Hung Gar and Lau Gar (Hung Family, Lau Family), among others.

Philosophy: There are various philosophies around the term kung fu, suggesting a deeper meaning. The following is an example of such a philosophy: For a process to truly be kung fu, the following three elements must be present:

  • Motivation
  • Self-discipline
  • Time

Motivation is the basic driving force, and without it, kung fu can never be reached. It means both interest and the will to do something; a person who is forced to do something is not truly motivated. A motivated person, on the other hand, has interest in learning: they have a goal.

It is important to note a difference between the various types of motivation: A person can be motivated to do something, because if they do not they will be punished. Money can also lead to motivation, because you know that doing something will give you more money. However, the motivation kung fu comes from an interest and an inner desire to learn and develop, in which the goal is not an external gain, like avoiding punishment or earning money, but an internal one, with the only reward being knowledge, skill, strength and wisdom. This motivation can be inspired, but not controlled, by other people.

Self-discipline is closely related to motivation, but refers to the effort and patience required to actually get something done, and to get past obstacles that might appear on the way towards one’s goal. While motivation is the mental state of wanting to do something, discipline is required to put motivation into action: A person might want to do something very much, but lacks the required amount of discipline to get started. Without this, motivation will lead to nothing.

It is true that a competent instructor can assist a person by providing discipline, helping that person to get past obstacles. This is good, but will not last forever, and in the end, it is always up to the person herself to put her thoughts into action.

Time is essential for finding one’s motivation and self-discipline, and to actually accomplish something by making use of them, but motivation and self-discipline are also important to make a person willing to put time into accomplishing their goal: to prioritize.

In later stages, once motivation and discipline have become an integral part of a person’s life, it is important not to stop spending time on practice. This is said to be a very important aspect of kung fu: Many ancient Chinese philosophers and martial artists consider time the most valuable commodity in a person’s lives, as time cannot be replaced. By finding interest in and putting effort and time into every action, one will make the best use of time, and live a happy and productive life.