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A Brief History of Kung Fu

Of the nearly countless forms of martial arts styles practiced today, perhaps none invoke more imagery than the legendary Kung Fu. To even hear the two words together brings to mind a flood of classic images. Hundreds of orange-robed monks training in synchronized harmony in the lush grounds of a Chinese monastery. A yellow jumpsuit-clad Bruce Lee unleashing a flurry of fists and feet too fast for your eye to even follow. David “Grasshopper” Carradine snatching a pebble from an open hand. No other fighting style in the past century has captured the public eye like Kung Fu. It is one of the most recognized and romanticized styles ever known. It is also the style that people know almost nothing about.

The term Kung Fu can be translated to “achievement through great effort” and is generally used to summarize the broad world of Chinese martial arts. So where did the martial arts begin? If legend is to be believed, the origins of Kung Fu can be traced back nearly 4,000 years ago. During the Xia Dynasty it is believed that the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, a famous general and leader of China, was the first person to introduce the earliest fighting systems to China. The practice of martial arts continued throughout the dynasties and in 509 BCE started to find its way into the lives of the common working class. With the popularity of martial arts competitions and exhibitions on the rise, Kung Fu was soon finding itself commonplace outside of military barracks and temples. As with any ancient art, different philosophies eventually gave way to the development of unique schools and styles.

One Kung Fu style that has risen in popularity in recent years is that whose name refers to an assortment of martial arts that are said to be affiliated with the Shaolin Monastery. Shaolin Kung Fu, like the majority of Chinese martial arts, has a history that can be difficult to pin down. Records have been able to trace stories of staff-wielding monks back to the establishment of the monastery itself in the 5th century. The style itself is considered one of Kung Fu’s “external” arts and focuses on both weapons and body conditioning with techniques that rely heavily on body strength and dexterity. While the style itself may still be a little too general, one of the styles contributed by Shaolin Kung Fu has come to permeate nearly every popular outlet for the Chinese martial arts.

Quick! How many animal stances can you name off the top of your head? If you even watch a minimal amount of television or movies, chances are you can easily list four. Popular movies, shows and video games have made famous the classic styles of The Tiger, The Mantis, and many others. While there are well over a dozen styles of animal techniques, the Five Animals (the Tiger, the Crane, the Leopard, the Snake, and the Dragon) are accepted as the first. During the Tang Dynasty the warrior monks of Shaolin and their Shaolin style were seeing the peak of their popularity. Pilgrimages were made by many looking to study and learn the legendary methods of Shaolin. While many saw the 18 techniques of Shaolin as perfection, still others saw room for improvement. One such martial artist was Jueyuan, who during the 13th century expanded upon the 18 techniques and tripled them to 72. Still unsatisfied, Jueyuan searched the countryside for improvement. In the end, Jueyuan would expand his paltry 72 techniques to a staggering 170 that he would later organize into the Five Animals.

Perhaps the most recent of the Chinese martial arts known as Kung Fu is Wushu. Like the styles before it, Wushu can trace its ancestry back to the ancient dynasties of China. What makes Wushu unique is that it was actually created in the 20th century as an exhibition and sport in an attempt at nationalizing the martial arts. While exhibitions of the martial arts were by no means new, China, in creating the International Wushu Federation (IWUF), sought to make the first commercialized sport out of a martial art. Rules for events and routines were created as well as a strict scoring system that would gauge the true skill of every entrant. Wushu is perhaps best known for its mixed displays of acrobatics and showy weapons handling. While some have criticized the sport for its ‘inauthentic’, overly choreographed productions there can be no arguing that an impressive amount of skill and discipline is required to master this art.

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