What is Kung Fu?

Kung Fu is an umbrella term given to Chinese martial arts. Many people misinterpret Kung Fu as a martial art, but it is an overall term for many different Chinese arts.

Kung Fu can also be translated to ‘achievement through hard work’. Making Kung Fu relatable to anything you are able to do with a strong work ethic.

The popular styles of Kung Fu include the likes of Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Wing Chun (we will go into more detail on these different forms in the styles section).

Kung Fu remains popular to this day with people all over the world practising the different forms and styles, helping them to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.




The origins and history of Kung Fu


The early history of Kung Fu

Martial arts originated in China due to the need for people to protect themselves from threats, but also have the ability to hunt too.

The oldest legend of Kung Fu dates back to 2698 BCE, with the Yellow Emperor Huangdi. It is said that he created a form of wrestling that involved wearing horned helmets and taught it to the soldiers.

The art is called Shuai Jiao (or Jiao Di) which can be translated to ‘Horn Butting’ in English. The art form evolved and started to include the likes of joint locks, blocks and strikes.


The Shang and Zou Dynasties

During the Shang and Zou Dynasties, at around 256 BCE, martial arts was used as a way to boost the morale of the army. Philosophical and spiritual teachings are also heavily linked to and are a big part of Kung Fu.

The likes of Taoism and Confucianism also began to popularise, especially in the Zhou dynasty. The Taoist concept of Yin and Yang was compared to the hard and soft techniques that were used in Kung Fu.

Buddhism is also heavily linked to Chinese martial arts, especially with the Shaolin Kung Fu form. Legend states that a Buddhist monk by the name of Bodhidharma migrated from India to China at around 5 CE.

He met the emperor Xiaowen and taught the Chinese people Buddhism. He also went on to meet with the monks in the Shaolin Temple.

The monks were sent to the temple by the emperor to translate Buddhist texts to Chinese. Bodhidharma realised that the monks were physically weak from reading scripts all day.

He taught them exercises that helped them balance their Qi (inner energy). This would develop both their strength and stamina. The techniques were developed using Indian Yoga and Chinese medicine to create Shaolin Kung Fu.


The Qin and Han Dynasties

Through the Qin and Han Dynasties, till around 220 CE, different art forms and styles were emerging and becoming popular.

This included the likes of Guanzhong Boxing (also known as Hong Fist and Hung Ga/ Hunh Kuen), wrestling, fencing, sword fighting and sword dance.

A famous incident occurred where Xiang Zhuang, who was a talented swordsman attempted to kill Liu Bang, who later became Emperor Gao, the founder of the Han Dynasty.


The Song and Ming Dynasties

In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), soldiers but also common people started to practise Kung Fu. Prior to this Kung Fu was viewed as something to be practised by the nobility, but over time it started to be taught to all people.

The style ‘Southern Fist’ (also known as Nanquan) became a popular style. Emphasising the motion of the upper limbs using the elbows and knees.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), many more styles came to fruition. The likes of Wing Chun, Guangdong and Hung Kuen became mainstream arts that were practised at the time. Many books were published about the different martial arts that could be learned.

The Qing Dynasty (1636- 1911) saw the practise of martial arts banned in the public. Many  set up clubs to practise the various art forms in secret, causing many martial art schools to be created too.

During this time the First Opium war (1839- 1842) took place between Britain and the Qing Dynasty. They would use their martial arts teachings to defend themselves from the British and stop them from entering their lands.

The art forms started to integrate with eachother, forming more complete styles.

Kung Fu continued to grow and spread with now around 400 substyles within it! In 1927, the Central National Martial Arts Society was founded.

ancient china illustration

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How Kung Fu spread across the world

Kung Fu inspired different martial arts. This includes the likes of Karate, Kickboxing, Judo and Aikido.

Kung Fu continued to spread outside of China in the 20th Century. In 1936 the Chinese Martial Arts Team went to Berlin to partake in the Olympics.

Spreading their art to the world on the Olympic stage. The Chinese Martial Arts Association then started to set up different martial arts teams.

Most Notably, Kung Fu really started to popularise in the western world in the 1970s. Films and TV series featuring Kung Fu became immensely popular brining in mainstream attention to the art.

The TV series ‘Kung Fu’ (1972-1975) was hugely popular and watched by many people. Introducing them to Chinese martial arts and peaking their interests.

Of course, Bruce Lee played a huge rule too! Movies such as ‘Fist of Fury’ (1972) and Enter the Dragon’ (1973) took combat action scenes to a new level.

The intense fight scenes within the movie further promoted Kung Fu. People wanted to be like Bruce Lee and fight like him!

The likes of the hip-hop movement are believed to be inspired by Kung Fu too. The moves used in Kung Fu inspired people to create dances which have now evolved and become very popular today.

The Wu Tang Clan is a great example of this. They are one of the most popular hip-hop groups to come out of America. Their name was based on the Hong Kong movie ‘Shaolin vs Wu Tang’.

Kung Fu movies continue to be popular with the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen who still star in movies with intense combat action.

Kung Fu has become a huge part of China. Through travelling to China, tourists can see the rich culture of martial arts within the country and the many different styles that are practised.

The most popular styles of Kung Fu today include the likes of Tai Chi, Wing Chun and Shaolin Kung Fu.

Hong Kong, China - July 20, 2010: Bruce Lee statue at the Avenue of Stars. Skyline over Victoria Harbour in the background at sunset. The Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong is a memorial figure of deceased martial artist, Bruce Lee.

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Different styles of Kung Fu

As we have previously stated, there are over 400 substyles in Kung Fu! We will go through some of the most popular and well-practised styles:


Shaolin Kung Fu

Originating in the Shaolin temples, Shaolin Kung Fu is one of the most well-known styles of Kung Fu today. The form is heavily linked to Buddhism.

The history dates all the way back to when Bodhidharma taught the Shaolin monks exercises due to them being weak from reading scripts all day.

This style emphasises using a wide stance, teaching people how to kick and strike with the hands using open and closed hand strikes.

Over the years the style has developed to where it now has thousands of different forms that practitioners can learn.

Many regard Shaolin Kung Fu as the most complex Kung Fu system out of all the styles.

Check out this video of a Shaolin monk completing his final test to become a master!


Wing Chun

Wing Chun is believed to have been founded during the Qing Dynasty around 200/300 years ago.

The 2 women that are considered to be founders of the style are Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun.

Ng Mui was a Shaolin Nun who is believed to be one of five legendary elders to survive the destruction of the Shaolin Temple.

Yim Wing Chun was a student of Ng Mui who was taught the art to protect herself from a man who tried to force her into marriage.

She was also known to sell tofu for a living. This style focuses on using the upper body and fighting within close distance.

Practitioners are agile on their feet evading strikes thrown by their opponent and countering with fast punches themselves.

The first Kung Fu style Bruce Lee learnt was Wing Chin via Master Ip Man!

This video goes through the core concepts of Wing Chun.


Tai Chi

Tai Chi is the most popular style of Kung Fu today. It has evolved into more of an exercise due to the clear health benefits it has for people.

The first known style of Tai Chi, the Chen style, was created by Chen Wangting. Other styles emerged later on such as the Yang and Wu style.

Tai Chi focuses on internal movements. Taoist concepts such as Yin and Yang and Qi (internal energy) are implemented into the style.

Slow movements are used in Tai Chi, making it popular for people who are looking to improve their health and reduce stress to practise. 

This video goes through a basic module for beginners to follow and practise Tai Chi!


Xing Yi Quan

Xing Yi Quan is one of the oldest internal styles of Kung Fu (with Tai Chi and Bajiquan). This style is reported to have been created during the Song Dynasty by Yue Fi.

The modern style of Xin Yi Quen was created by Li Luoneng in the 1800s. This style is believed to imitate a spear as it pays more attention to internal power and uses loose movements.

The training of the mind is important. Teaching practitioners how to control the flow of energy and use it to be fierce, fulfilling their full potential.

Here is a demonstration of Xing Yi Quan by a master of the style.


Baji Quan

The founder and origins of Baji Quan are unclear with there being many different theories. Though it is believed to have originated in the Hebei province.

The style is known for its explosive short-range strikes, especially the elbow and shoulder strikes.

It is known as the ‘bodyguard style’ as many bodyguards trained in this style when it came to protecting people.

Techniques include using elbows, shoulders, knees and hip punches. It is one of the most effective styles of Kung Fu when it comes to close hand combat.

Check out this intense demonstration of Baji Quan!


The Northern Praying Mantis

This style was created during the Ming Dynasty by Wang Lang.

As stated in the name, the form is to resemble that of a mantis. Such as the ‘praying mantis hook’ where a practitioner will join their fingers together to replicate a mantis hook.

This ‘hook’ can be used to defend from strikes and attack an opponent too.

The style emphasises the importance of footwork, speed and agility. Strikes are thrown using the arms, wrists, elbows and knees.

this video goes through some techniques of the Praying Mantis style



This is another internal style of Kung Fu (along with Tai Chi and Xing Yi Quan).

Dong Haichuan is credited for the creation of Baguazhang in the 19th century. He learned from Buddhist and Taoist masters in the mountains to create the style.

This form uses slow and fluid movements. Circular footwork is a basic foundation of the style.

The connection between the mind and outer movements is important.

Techniques include using the fists, elbows, palms, leg kicks, locks and throws. Weapons can also be used in this style too such as swords!

Here is a demonstration of Baguazhang from a master of the style!

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Basic principles of Kung Fu

As previously stated, Kung Fu means ‘achievement through hard work’. Meaning it can be anything someone is able to do, even outside of martial arts.

Though within Kung Fu, the meaning shows the work ethic you must have as a Kung Fu practitioner to become successful in the arts.

Across all styles, students will constantly be drilling techniques until they become sufficient in them. Only through hard work will students be able to achieve something in Kung Fu.

So, it is important that every class a Kung Fu practitioner goes to, they give it their all!

We should know by now that there are hundreds of different Kung Fu styles! All of them will require you to know these fundamentals when you train:


Kung Fu Stance

This is the most important when it comes to training in Kung Fu. Your stance serves as the base from which all you strikes and blocks come from.

A strong and solid stance will allow you to throw and defend against strikes efficiently. With the numerous styles there are different stances.

A longer stance is more suited to kicking such as Shaolin Kung Fu, whereas a shorter stance is more suited to punching such as Wing Chun.


Kung Fu Striking

Being able to throw strikes with correct technique and form is vital. From each style you will learn a preferred technique that has been proven to be efficient when throwing the strike. Different styles will have emphasis on different strikes such as kicks and punches.


Kung Fu Defence

Being able to defend yourself is as important, if not more, than being able to strike. As martial arts are about defending yourself, you will need to know how to block and move out of the way of strikes thrown your way.

Some styles of Kung Fu can also include grappling techniques too, such as throws.

Other important factors of Kung Fu are motivation, self-discipline and time.

Motivation is important as practitioners should be inspired to learn Kung Fu. Wanting to develop their mind and body in the process.

With motivation, they will be disciplined to train and constantly improve themselves. Then over time they will see the results of their efforts and how they have evolved as human beings because of this.

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Are Kung Fu and Karate the same?

People get confused with Kung Fu and Karate, mistaking one for the other. Many are unsure which is the Chinese and which is the Japanese art form.

As we know, Kung Fu is the umbrella term for Chinese Martial arts. So, Karate is a Japanese martial art. Karate was inspired by Kung Fu when the Chinese migrated to Japan, especially the island of Okinawa.

Chinese martial artists taught their various Kung Fu learnings to the Japanese, who created their own styles in the form of Karate. We have our ‘What is Karate?’ blog post, for you to learn more about the art.

Karate practitioner training on the beach

Within this post it will go through the difference between Karate and Kung Fu, so make sure to give that post a read to learn more about it!

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What equipment do I need when starting Kung Fu?

When going to you first training session in Kung Fu, no matter the style, it will be fine for you to wear your own suitable clothing.

This can be wearing a comfortable t shirt and a pair of jogging bottoms. As you will need to be able to throw the various different strikes, using different techniques, so you must feel loose!

As you start to train more regularly, your sifu (Kung Fu teacher) may provide you with a uniform to wear. This is more common in traditional Kung Fu schools who like to adopt the history of the art.

Kung Fu uniform is called ‘Yi-Fu’. There are different types of uniforms for different styles. For example, a Tai Chi uniform is called ‘Tai Chu-fu’, whereas the clothing worn for Shaolin Kung Fu practitioners is ‘Han Fu’.

Depending on the style you do to, some may include the use of weapons training! This will most likely be something you ask your sifu. If it is something you are interested in learning, you would need to find out whether it is offered by your school.

Other equipment that will enhance your training and skills may be provided in the school too. This includes the likes of a wooden dummy, which is popularly used for Wing Chun practitioners, formerly used by the likes of Ip man and Bruce Lee!

wing chun dummy

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Basic rules of Kung Fu in competitions

People can also compete in Kung Fu competitions too. The most popular Kung Fu tournament is the World Wushu Championships. Here the competition is broken into two parts:


  • Wushu Taolu- This consists of different choreographed movements. Competitors will perform this, displaying both attacking and defensive techniques.
  • Sanda- This was a style originally used by the Chinese military. It incorporates different modern techniques as well as traditional Kung Fu. Competitors are allowed to strike with punches and kicks as well as use wrestling, takedowns and throws.

All competitors will be required to wear a certain uniform too. They all must weigh in before the bout to make sure they are fighting at a fair weight. We will go through some of the key rules for each competitive style:


Rules of Taolu:

  • Competitors must perform a specific choregraphed movement for performance display
  • The length of each performance depends on different competitions but will vary from 50 seconds to 6 minutes
  • Competitors must make sure they finish their performances within the time limit set
  • Music is only allowed to be played if the competition management choose and play the music. This stops competitors from receiving any clues by playing their own music and lyrics.

There are three panels judging different criteria. Panel A will judge the quality of the movements, Panel B will evaluate the overall performance and Panel C will determine the difficulty of moves performed by the competitor.

This can be performed as either a team or an individual. The competitor/team that scores the highest points in total, will be the winner of the tournament.

Find out the rules of Taolu in more in detail within this PDF.

Check out this video from a Wushu Taolu tournament!


Rules for Sanda:

  • A match consists of 3 rounds which are 2 minutes each in length. There is a minute rest after each round
  • Striking with their heads, elbows and knees is illegal
  • You must not hit an opponent when they are down
  • You are not allowed to strike your opponent on the backside of their head, neck or crotch
  • No strikes can be thrown after or before the start of a round

For Sanda competition, competitors are awarded points for effective striking and techniques used. Strikes such as punches and kicks to the thigh can score one point.

Whereas strikes such as kicks and knockdown that are scored can score two points.

Judges will score the winner of each round at the end of each one.

So, competitors will know which rounds they have won or lost, winning two rounds will mean that competitor has won overall. Check out the rules in more detail within this PDF:

Give this video a watch to learn the rules of Wushu Sanda!

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Why train in Kung Fu over other martial arts?

All martial arts are similar in the respect that they teach you ways of defending yourself and how to control both the mind and the body.

Many people choose to train in the various styles of Kung Fu because of its rich history. Many people see China as one of the birthplaces of all martial arts.

With the art forms being heavily involved in Chinese culture. To train in Kung Fu in China is a unique experience. Some techniques and methods have been around for a long time and used in times of war, which makes it more appealing to practitioners.

Kung Fu is also popular amongst people due to the diversity of the arts. There are many different styles within Kung Fu that implements both external and internal forms, allowing people to choose which one they prefer.

Some styles can also be seen as softer and harder too, with different techniques used across the arts.

Different forms can also include grappling techniques as well as striking techniques, with some styles being more mediative too. The vast options within Kung Fu allows people to find an art they truly want to learn and practise.

For kids, Kung Fu can be great too. With the different styles, parents can help children find the best style for their kids, but also themselves, making Kung Fu something both parents and kids can do together.

Gyms will make sure that the child’s health is priority and that they are protected as much as possible from any potential injuries or harm.

Through continuous training, children will be able to see a boost of confidence and also be able to defend themselves efficiently!

Chinese temple

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What are the benefits of Kung Fu?

There are many benefits of training in Kung Fu. We will go through some of the key benefits:


  • Learn self-defence- Whatever style of Kung Fu you choose to do, all of them will teach you how to defend yourself, using techniques that have been trialled and tested over many years
  • Improve your strength and stamina- Through constant training you will see an increase in both your strength and fitness. It can be tough, but the improvements you will see will be worth it!
  • Improve self-confidence- Kung Fu can be tricky. Especially when you first start training in one of the styles. After countless hours of practise and regular training, you will see yourself become a better martial artist. This will have a great impact on your self-confidence, spreading to outside of your martial arts training too.
  • Improve your mental health- Regular training can help to reduce stress you may have and uplift your sprits by providing you a way of expressing yourself through the martial art. It can help combat depression and anxiety.
  • Diversity of different styles- As we have mentioned a few times now, Kung Fu has hundreds of styles! This variety of different styles will help you to find the right one for you!
  • Feel a part of a community- Everyone is like one big family at a Kung Fu class! All are friendly with one another, no matter whether you are a complete novice or an advanced practitioner. This element of respect has been inherited from the history of the Chinese martial arts and remains important till this day. You will always feel welcome to the classes!

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How to get started and find a Kung Fu class!

Anyone can start Kung Fu, no matter how old or fit you are. Finding a Kung Fu class is a simple process! Make sure to check online for nearby Kung Fu schools in your area, as most will have an online presence.

Contact the school (if they have contact details) if you have any questions you want to ask. Find out which session you would like to attend by contacting them if possible. If not, then just turn up and see how the class is for yourself!

After going to a few classes and trying the different martial arts within Kung Fu, it may not be for you. 

Don’t worry, there are many other martial arts out there! Be sure to check out our ‘MARTIAL ARTS…WHAT ARE THEY?’ post to gain a good understanding of other popular martial arts too!

If you have any questions on this post, the MILITAR MINDSET, martial arts in general or any other enquiries feel free to contact us.

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We have gone through Kung Fu in this post. In our next few posts on the Martial Arts Series, we will cover other individual martial arts. Make sure you subscribe to our blog to keep up to date with the latest posts!

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