What is Kung Fu?
For most westernes this word is associated with Bruce Lee. Martial arts movie lovers will add names like Shaolin, Wing Chun, Ip Man, Jackie Chan, Jet Lee and maybe more.
So most people would say that kung fu is some martial art, probably Chinese. This is correct and incorrect at the same time.
Actually kung fu is an adapted version of the Chinese word gongfu, originally meaning a particular skill acquired through work and time, or the mastery of some skill. So it can actually be used to describe a level of skill in many different disciplines: the tea ceremony, cooking, teaching, even cleaning and organizing things. And of course fighting.
I believe the meaning of kung fu as a martial art, probably started to spread across the planet from a movie scene, where some now forgotten actor recklessly said to Bruce Lee "my kung fu is better than yours." This meaning grew with the popularity of Bruce Lee, who inevitably proved how wrong that guy was. So moviegoers just took the word "gongfu" as the name of a new extraordinary effective and beautiful style of martial arts.
It doesn't mean that "gongfu" was never a word used in martial arts before, but it never was the name for Chinese fighting.
However somehow in the western mind the word kung fu does not cover all kinds of Chinese martial arts. So for westerners Shaolin martial arts is kung fu, but Tai Chi is not. Such a situation is absolutely not understandable for Chinese people, who threw their hands up and finally adopted "kung fu" as a new name for Chinese martial arts.
Actually, in Chinese, martial arts are called "wushu" (wu - martial, shu - art). "Kung fu" (gongfu) is also sometimes used, especially in modern times. Old names for martial arts include "wuyi", "wuta", and more.
So what do we have.
- All styles of chinese martial arts are kung fu (wushu), including tai chi and modern sport wushu. So in this case the words "wushu" and "kung fu" (gongfu) are synonymous.
- On top of that every style of Chinese kungfu has it own name. For example: shaolin quan, taiji quan (known as tai chi), bagua zhang, baji quan, yongchun quan (known as wing chun), tanglang quan (known as mantis style). There are hundreds. If you read something like "shaolin kungfu" or "wudang wushu" it mostly means the name of a particular style of chinese martial arts.
- The word "gongfu" can also mean skill and mastery.
A little more about KUNGFU
Chinese wushu is one of most mystical martial arts. Partly because of the love of chinese people for mythology and ancient roots. Partly because of the western search for universal Eastern Wisdom and Truth. Finally we can see that Truth is quite a valuable item on the market, which tends to produce a lot of "masters." Anyway, there is a lot of information on the internet about wushu that is incorrect. And at the same time a lot of things are denied without reason. I want to go through some common myths about kung fu.
Myth 1. Real authentic Kung Fu is the same as in the past.
I remember my self searching for true masers keeping a real tradition, who could teach me their skills and wisdom, coming from centuries of practice. After spending many years on this path with great masters, I realized that Kung fu is not something... stable. It's not the same as it was 200 years ago, not even the same as it was fifty years ago. But I wanted guarantees, I wanted to know that I was going the right direction. So to realize this changeable nature of martial arts was difficult to swallow, even harder to digest.
I had to realize that Kung Fu is truly a living thing, constantly changing and adapting to new conditions. So with every technological and social change, masters of kung fu had to adapt their skills to new situations. Two hundred years ago kung fu gave one real power and respect. Seventy to eighty years ago during the tumultuous changes in China, martial arts meant survival. During the Cultural Revolution kung fu was something to save and hide, because it could cause you death. In modern times, where there is not so much open violence, masters must find new values for their skills.
Many people feel that in modern times martial arts are going through a crisis. "Real"mastery, "real" students, "real" techniques are "disappearing". What is going on? Adaptation. Civil martial arts (excluding those used in the military) are diverging into three main paths: martial arts as sport--championships, Olympic games, etc, martial arts as a show--movies and performances (or even a combination of sport and show) and martial arts for health, which includes not only tai chi but the general practice of martial arts (up to some level) and its positive effects on the body.
So obviously martial arts are not the same as in the past, but there is still much to take from them. I know that there are some who would be unsatisfied with this answer, and they would be right. If they searched long enough (I mean really long enough), they may find a master who teaches something else. But the right question is not what are we looking for but, what do we actually need.
Myth 2. Kung Fu is the most effective/ineffective martial art.
Beginners and MA moviegoers love to debate this kind of thing. Nothing bad about such conversations besides the fact that they're absolutely useless. After 10 years in wushu and meeting some very good martial artists I became pretty clear about few things:
- There is no effective style, but there are skillful people.
- Different bodies and minds make the same things work differently for different people.
- This is why there are so many styles. Its important to find the best for you.
- Also at some point it is very important to become absolutely clear about what "effective" means for you. In other words what kind of effectiveness are you looking for? Effectively breaking 5 pieces of wood during one jump flip, effectively defending against a gun or knife attack, or effectively improving health are very different things.
Myth 3. I have to find the best master, so I can learn the best kung fu.
This mistake is so common, that it almost sounds correct. But it is a mistake.
Actually the best master is not somebody well known, recognized with prizes and trophies. The best master is not necessary a lineage holder, a 70 year old chinese master who's practiced since he was five. Even more, the best master is not something constant. The best master does not exist by himself, but in relationship to the student.
A big mistake for many beginners is right away trying to find a master with a very high level. I saw many kung fu travellers, who switched masters one after another, trying to find THE BEST. Most of the time they were unable to even understand the real level of masters who they trained with. It is kind of similar to what happens with people searching for an ideal love partner.
The problem is people don't understand what they really want and what they actually need. Many beginners know only that they want the cherry on the top of the cake, something like "I want to became kung fu master" or at least "I want be able break 10 bricks, do a tornado kick during a back flip and heal with chi." And with such a plan they start their kung fu trip. Good luck, guys.
From my perspective the best master for a student is the right teacher. I want to say that there is no master that is equally good for everyone. Even for one person during different periods of their life. But always there is someone, who can help to achieve well formulated goals. And more realistic goals have bigger chances of success.
With years of practice goals always change one way or another, often becoming more ambitious, deeper or more professional. And when the practitioner is READY he\she will again meet the right teacher, who will lead them through the next step of this long-long way.