Chinese kung fu sometimes referred to as wushu or gongfu, is a set of traditional martial arts fighting styles that is still popular today.

Kung Fu history is long and filled with interesting twists in its development. Some of these twists led to distinctive fighting styles like Shaolin, Qigong, and Tai Chi, which fall under the umbrella of kung fu artistry. In fact, there are many forms of kung fu that are practiced all over the world today. In fact, its influence can be felt in art forms ranging from Chinese opera to dance. Discover the origins of Chinese martial arts and learn how kung fu developed into a pillar of Chinese civilization.

Kung Fu Shrouded in Legend

The origins of kung fu history are the stuff of legend. Many Chinese people continue to believe that kung fu originated in the Xia Dynasty approximately 4,000 years ago under the reign of the Yellow Emperor. This emperor, who is also revered as a deity, is regarded as general of great prowess. Historians suggest that the fighting styles that would lead to the development of kung fu were often employed by hunters who needed to defend themselves when alone or in small groups in the forests of China.

The Early History of Kung Fu

Historians note that the earliest reference to martial arts dates to the 5th century B.C. The Spring and Summer Annals contain the earliest known references to kung fu and mention its “hard” and “soft” fighting techniques. Other early chronicles mention martial arts techniques like pressure point attacks, strikes, throws, and joint manipulation. By the time of the Qin Dynasty, these techniques had developed into a sport. The Tang Dynasty immortalized Chinese martial arts of the time in poems, while the Song and Yuan Dynasties promoted special imperial court contests for fighters. Although many people believe that kung fu actually began with the construction of the Shaolin Temple, these developments of the fighting style actually took place long before the temple was built in 495 A.D.

Influence of the Shaolin Temple on Kung Fu

The Shaolin Temple was integral in Kung Fu history and its further development. It combines kung fu fighting styles and elements of Buddhism. The early monks believed that the discipline involved in practicing kung fu and its associated breathing styles could enhance spiritual pursuits. Early monks knew that practicing martial arts could improve one’s health but also improve one’s ability to discipline the mind. This combination of mental and physical discipline in one sport was something that the Shaolin monks greatly promoted and something that is still central to martial arts training and practices today.

Schools of Martial Arts

The Shaolin style of kung fu is an early school of martial arts, but many others also came into being during the course of Chinese history. Other major schools of kung fu include:

Wudang: Similar in nature to Shaolin kung fu, Wudang developed with a Taoist influence rather than a Buddhist one. Even so, practitioners employ both physical and mental strategies in its practice. Wudang practitioners developed Eight-Diagram Palm, which is a boxing style that relies on changing palm styles.

Tai Chi: Tai Chi is a popular form of kung fu, but one that is much slower and, perhaps, more graceful in form than other types of martial arts. Tai Chi is influenced by Taoism as well as traditional Chinese medicine. Many people practice it as much for physical fitness as for self-defense.

Qigong: Quigong is regarded as a holistic practice that relies on disciplined breathing, body posture and movement, and meditation. Its roots are in kung fu, but it has also been greatly influenced by philosophy and Chinese medicine.

Kung Fu vs Karate

Some people are confused about the differences between kung fu and karate and even use the terms interchangeably. However, while both forms of martial arts, the two are different and have different origins. First of all, kung fu was developed in China, while karate developed in Japan. Kung fu predates karate and appear to have influenced its development on the island of Okinawa where early practitioners referred to their developing martial art as “Chinese hand.” Kung fu styles are sometimes called “soft” styles of martial arts because of their graceful movements; however, the term “soft” belies that power and strength associated with these movements. Karate, in contrast, is referred to as a “hard” form of martial arts because many of its movements are swift and choppy.

Kung Fu Comes to America

Kung fu styles are practiced in many places outside of Asia but are particularly popular in the United States. According to historians, Chinese immigrants who came to America during the 1820s and 1830s continued to practice their “Chinese wrestling” as it was called in their new home. However, it wasn’t until 1890 that the first official kung fu expedition was held in the U.S., specifically in New York City.

Today, kung fu and its various forms are practiced throughout the U.S. People still favor these martial arts for self-defense, but increasingly also for fitness and to practice mindfulness. Kung fu’s emphasis on self-discipline attracts people of all ages. If you are interested in kung fu, there is surely a form of martial arts that is right for you.

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