The History of Kung Fu

What is a martial arts style?

The concept of a style is a rather complicated one, and Chinese martial arts claim as many as 1500 different styles. By “style” we mean a particular school of martial practice, with its own training methods, favored techniques, and emphasis on attack and defense. While it is impossible to quantify differences between most styles, it is easy to see the distinctions between such disparate approaches to combat as practiced by Tiger, Crane, and Monkey stylists. In choosing a style (a contemporary privilege; traditionally, styles were assigned by the teachers), try to find one that suits your physical attributes, interests, and sense of utility. It does no good to study the graceful single-leg and flying techniques of White Crane if you have the flexibility and grace of a turtle! On the other hand, and kung fu practice will enhance your physical skills, dexterity, and alertness, and it is not uncommon for a beginner in one style to change to a more “appropriate” style later. Whatever else may be said of styles, the first year basics are almost universal–punches, kicks, and stances show little variation at the beginner’s level.

What is Kung Fu?

In dealing with the recently popularized concept of kung fu, one must begin the discussion by explaining that kung fu is not a martial art unto itself, yet it encompasses the most effective and devastating methods of self-preservation known to man. The identity of kung fu is diverse; over 1,000 styles are known or recognized. From kung fu came Karate, Escrima, and most important, a way of thinking that became a code of life.

Kung Fu requires of the practitioner a strict code of physical and mental discipline, unparalleled in Western pursuits. It is only as a whole concept that kung fu can be discussed, and this entails more than fighting.

To be adept, one must follow the Tao, the way, the essence of the philosophy and life of the originators of the arts. One cannot pay to learn this art; it is only acquired by the desire to learn, the will to discipline one’s self, and devotion to practice.

The standards to be met to attain proficiency are so high that the Chinese refer to the master as a disciple of the way of the tiger, the sign of the dragon.

The Martial Aspects

The power of the kung fu practitioner lay in his ability to defend himself against impossible odds and situations. After years of the most diligent practice, these monks became more than merely adept at the ways of survival. But the initial acceptance to be one of the chosen few was difficult.

As children, applicants for priesthood were made to do the most menial and difficult work related to the upkeep of the temple. Their sincerity and ability to keep the secrets of the order were severely tested for years before the finer aspects of the order were revealed to them. But, upon being accepted by the elders of the temple, his or her entry into kung fu was to open a whole new world. The student would work long hours training mind and body to work together in a coordinated effort. He would learn the principles of combat, the way of the Tao, and together they would ensure his way to peace.

One would be taught initially the first basic fist sets, the prearranged forms which simulated multiple attacks. These in turn became more complex as the student advanced, while he would simultaneously be learning the way of Taoism.

Upon completion of the student stage, one became a disciple who would be taught the higher secrets of the arts and philosophies. Weapons of all descriptions would become familiar to him as weapons of attack and defense. One would perfect his movements to coincide with his breathing. One’s mind would meld into the realm of meditation known as mindlessness. And one would learn to harness ch’i.

Ch’i is a concept of such magnitude that we shall deal with it throughout this site in many different lights. For now, suffice it to say that ch’i is the power governing the universal power, so to speak. Only by harnessing such energy can a person of mild stature learn to break bricks with his bare hand, or learn to sense the movements of an opponent in the darkness. The list of feats goes on and on; we shall discuss some of these in other sections of this site.

Essential to movements in kung fu are ch’i-controlled actions. Compare the movements of a Karateka and a kung fu practitioner, and the differences are at once obvious. The Karateka moves deliberately, forcefully, each move unique and distinct from each other move. He punches linearly, kicks in a straight line, and keeps his body as rigid as iron. The Chinese boxer, on the other hand, is smooth and fluid in motion, allowing several moves to meld imperceptibly into one long, graceful action. In short, kung fu is fluid.

Ch’i properly coordinated allows for fluidity. Consider a single drop of water. Alone, it is harmless, gentle, and powerless. But what on earth can withstand the force of a tsunami? The concept of ch’i is the same. By tapping into the universal energies, one increases one’s abilities many times. How can one damage a kung fu practitioner, when one is unable to strike and injure a body of water?

Artistic Aspects

There can be little doubt, after examining first hand the structure of kung fu, that mastery of it is indeed mastery of a fine art form. It requires a tremendous amount of background, information and disciplines, which would shame our liberal-arts students. The priests of old were adept in all of the following: medicine, music, art, weapons-making, religions, animal husbandry, cartography, languages, history, and of course, kung fu. The artist had to be more than a fighting machine, he had to know how, where and why to enter a fight, and even of greater importance, how to avoid conflict. Only with “unbeatable” ability of the priest was he secure enough not to need to fight.

There was a ranking system of sorts used, beginner, disciple, and master. The beginner (novice or student level), was the menial servant. Only very crude rudiments of kung fu were in his domain. Disciples were in effect almost priests, still having to master themselves, but of the right mettle to carry the traditions and secrets of the Shaolin. The pinnacle of master was reached by very few; it was truly the achievement of a lifetime.

The primary obstacle that a disciple had to pass to attain the priesthood was the test for master rank. Actually a series of oral and practical exams, they culminated in the test of the tunnel. The candidate was lead to a corridor linked with the outside world. In the corridor were booby-traps, all lethal, all unpredictable. The disciple had to pass all of these, for there was no going back, no way out but to succeed. Most never even began the journey; few finished it. The adept who passed the traps faced one last obstacle; a several hundred pound urn filled with burning iron filings. On each side of the urn was an emblem, different for each temple, usually of a dragon and a tiger. The urn had to be moved with the bare forearms to unblock the exit. In so doing, the now priest was forever branded as a Sil Lum monk.

Many priests just out of the temple would wander about the country acting as doctors, roving law givers, and guardians of the poor. Some would return to the temple then it was their job to prepare the next generation of priests. Entry was between ages five and seven. Graduation was at the age of at least twenty-two. And every bit was part of a long, hard life.

The stylistic variations within the Chinese martial arts are due to various factors. First, some priests were not content with one “truth”, and engineered improvements or variations on the old standards. Some arts had their origin from Indian exercises, while others were influenced by Greek wrestling, and equally unexpected pursuits.

Secondly, the priests were not all content as priests. Some went civilian and taught parts of the temple boxing, mixed with moves of their own. A man who preferred the use of one style of attack, i.e. claws, would build a whole discipline around gouging, claw-like attacks (Eagle Claw system).

Thirdly, the civilians taught by priests would adapt what they needed in their real lives. For this reason, Southern Chinese preferred hand techniques with stable stances, adaptable to boats, while the Northern Chinese adapted almost bizarre foot techniques, flying kicks and wild sweeps.

Martial Arts: Hard vs. Soft, External vs. Internal

The concept of hard/soft and external/internal martial arts is not one easily described. In terms of styles which most people are familiar with, Karate would be an example of a hard style and Aikido or T’ai Chi examples of soft styles. A hard style is generally considered one where force is used against force; a block is used to deflect an incoming strike by meeting either head on, or at a 90 degree angle. A soft style does not use force against force, but rather deflects the incoming blow away from its target. There are uses for both hard and soft techniques. A practitioner may wish to break the attacker’s striking arm with the block. On the other hand, a much smaller opponent would not be able to accomplish this, so instead may wish to deflect the incoming attack.

An external style is one which relies primarily in strength and physical abilities to defeat an opponent. In contrast, an internal style is one that depends upon ch’i and timing rather than power. Aikido (at the master’s level) would be an internal style, while most karate styles are external.

However, the concepts of hard/soft internal/external are finding fewer proponents among senior martial artists. Both conceptual twins are impossible to separate in reality, and masters will generally acknowledge that any distinction is largely only a matter of subjective interpretation. Arguments about the reality of the concepts are often waged by novices and philosophical dilettantes, ignorant of the inseparable nature of duality. They see yin and yang as elements that can exist independently, while philosophical and physical reasoning demonstrate that they cannot. Without their union (=Tao), neither can exist. Ergo, a “hard” technique such as a straight fist is guided by the soft power of mind and the internal component of ch’i. Equally, the softest projection of Aikido requires the “hard” element of physical contact and movement, coupled with actively redirecting the opponent. In short, preoccupation with distinguishing soft from hard is a distraction from learning martial arts and moving towards a unifying technique and mastery.

Kung Fu Styles

Kung Fu styles may generally be divided into three classes: Shaolin Temple styles, temple-derived non-temple styles, and family styles, or Pai. Within the Temple styles are those arts generally and consistently taught in the temples, with many having their origins in pre-Shaolin history. There are two major divisions in Shaolin kung fu. The southern temples are predominantly hand technique oriented, while northern temples put more emphasis on kicks and foot techniques.

The northern Shaolin styles primarily consist of Northern Praying Mantis, Black Crane, and Black Tiger.

The southern Shaolin styles primarily consist of White Crane, Tiger, Dragon, Leopard, Snake, and Southern Praying Mantis.

There were also styles that had their roots in the Shaolin temples, such as Wing Chun and Hung Gar.

Many of the movements were representations of the behavior of animals. A system sometimes comprised the maneuvers of one specific animal and no other. All the blocks, attacks and stances were done in imitation of the bird or beast. Each system had certain aspects peculiar to it since each of the animals was designed differently by nature. However, most styles were not so rigid and limited; northern praying mantis, for example, uses mantis and tiger hand techniques, and monkey and generic northern style footwork.

Differences Between the Styles

In general terms, the styles followed specific training objectives (but there are always exceptions). The dragon movements were devised to develop alertness and concentration. These movements were executed without the application of strength, but with emphasis on breathing in the lower abdomen along with the coordination of mind, body and spirit. Movements are long, flowing and continuous, and provided Shaolin practitioners with the equivalent of t’ai chi or pakua.

The tiger movements were formed to develop the bones, tendons and muscles. The execution of these movements was the opposite of that of the dragon, since emphasis was placed on strength and dynamic tension. Movements are short, snappy and forceful.

The snake movements were used to develop temperament and endurance. Breathing was done slowly, deeply, softly and harmoniously. Movements are flowing and rippling with emphasis on the fingers.

The crane movements were used to develop control, character and spirit. Emphasis is placed on light, rapid footwork and evasive attacking techniques. Movements in the one-legged stance are performed with a considerable amount of meditation.

The Shaolin systems were developed from animal actions and were divided into low systems and high systems. The list used below is from the temple from the Honan province during the Ch’ing dynasty. The low systems of the Shaolin were choy li fut, crane, cobra, and tiger. The high systems of the order were snake, dragon, Wing Chun, and praying mantis. The primary features that separate high from low are the fantastic economy of movement and the differences in application of ch’i in the high systems.

The low systems were so called because they had their basis both in physical maneuvers and in earthly creatures. Choy li fut was based on a posture called a riding horse stance, so called because when adopted, one appeared to be straddling a horse. The movements are very stiff and hard, depending primarily on muscular power to perform adequately. There are only three kicks in the original system, although recently the style has adopted many techniques of the Northern Shaolin system. According to legend, it was designed for use on the house boats of the south where a stable stance and powerful hand techniques were necessary. The certain portion of its history is that the system was named for two Chinese boxing masters, Choy and Li. Fut means Buddha, serving in this instance to refer to the Shaolin temple’s Buddhist influence.

The next system is crane, one of the traditional Shaolin systems. A legend is also attached to its birth. One day a monk stumbled on a battle between an ape and a crane. It seemed as if the ape would rend the bird in two. However, the bird continually stymied the ape, flapping its wings and darting in and out with its beak; at last the animal was driven away. The graceful movements of the bird were copied as well as its one leg stance. The principle weapons of the system are its long range kicks and a hand formation, the crane’s beak.

The cobra system is a strange, nearly dead system. Its basis is a stance that resembles a cobra risen from the grass with spread hood. The maneuvers are strictly defensive in nature, devastatingly effective and swift. Cobra is designed for speed and tenacity for once the reptile strikes, it hangs on and makes certain that its opponent will die. Most of its techniques are hand maneuvers aimed at the eyes and throat. It is primarily a dim mak style.

Tiger is another natural system, this the opposite of crane. It is a vicious method of fighting utilizing powerful kicks and grim clawing motions. Like the tiger, its practitioner fights fiercely, rending, tearing and breaking any open space of skin or limb that is left unguarded. It is highly defensive in nature, waiting until being backed into a corner, then unleashing an unstoppable assault. Its principle hand weapon is the tiger claw, also useful for unarmed defense against weapons. By clasping the weapon between the hands or enmeshing it in the crushing grip of the hand, the enemy’s advantage is lost.

Snake is an interface between the high systems and low systems. It is one of the easiest systems to learn and also one of the most deadly. The reason that it is a transition system is because it has the movements of a spiritual system and the physical applications of a low system. The spiritual movements are all flowing and continuous, akin to the movements of a cloud. Physical applications of such movements are seen by the stabbing hand motions to the face, throat and genitals. Ch’i is present in the practitioner as his body mimics a snake in its coiling, undulating motions; for only through ch’i can the proper flow be achieved to allow the technique to work. It is an earthly animal by nature, yet still somewhat spiritual due to its mysterious character. The snake has thus been appointed as the guardian of the dragons.

The basis of the dragon systems is ch’i, the inner power of Taoism. The movements and applications of the dragon systems are dependent on the use of ch’i. The special flow that distinguishes it from the flow of the crane system is due to ch’i. Also, the ch’i is substituted for muscular strength. For example, a tiger stylist would break a rock by sheer force and physical technique, while a dragon stylist would shatter it by ch’i projection.

The praying mantis has as its watchwords silence and determination. Although it is a physical system in terms of its origin, it nonetheless is classified as a high system. Praying mantis warrants its prominence because of its extreme efficiency. Despite the fact that it is hand oriented and lacks the fancy leg maneuvers of dragon, it is versatile and overpowering. Characteristic of mantis, as well as dragon and snake, is the virtual lack of blocks. Since blocks are inefficient, the high systems follow the advice of the ancient sages and yield in order to conquer. Also, it combines ch’i and extreme awareness to be virtually invincible.

The systems of the Shaolin can be arranged on the pyramid illustrated below. The best method for this is to take the tiger family as a representative of the low systems and the dragon family as a representative of the high systems. The remaining Shaolin systems will be placed in the appropriate tiers singly.

The lowest level of the pyramid is composed entirely of basic techniques. These are common to all martial arts and can be claimed exclusively by no one system. The maneuvers are comprised of kicks, punches, stances and blocks. Since they are universal to most martial arts, it is very difficult to distinguish a student from a karate style as opposed to a choy li fut pupil. All of this class of basics belongs to the low systems and so are dependent on hard, muscular movements in order to carry them through properly.

Next we progress to the low systems. As stated earlier, this level has its basis in earthly rather than ethereal beings. The subsystems of tiger are numerous at this level. Tiger, eagle, leopard, hung gar, the drunken system and the crab system all belong at this level. Tiger, leopard and hung gar are very oriented toward physical body strength and the destruction of an opponent by breaking his body’s structural system. Eagle is a vicious ripping system with the bulk of its work directed against the eyes and throat. The drunken system is a lurching, seemingly unstable system that strikes with little power and thus tries to exhaust an opponent with an arrhythmic, oddly placed series of blows to tender, exposed areas. The crab system concentrated on closing off blood vessels and pinching nerves, thereby immobilizing part or all of an attacker’s body.

In the category of the higher low systems are found four different tiger subsystems: hong tiger, s’hu tiger, imperial tiger and white tiger. They are placed above the previous systems because ch’i and some concepts of spiritual motion have been incorporated into them. Hong tiger was a system which evolved from a mixture of tiger and white dragon. It was used by palace guards especially against weapons. S’hu tiger was the weapons training that went with the unarmed system of hong tiger. Imperial tiger is a modern adaptation of hong tiger. The techniques are sophisticated at this level. Also contained in the band of high low systems is monkey, placed there because of its liberal use of parries and advanced striking techniques, taking it out of the realm of brute strength. White tiger is a highly sophisticated, forbidden style similar to snow tiger.

The main systems of the Shaolin that are left are placed thus: choy li fut, white crane, and tiger all low systems. Snake is a lower high system and may be classified as a low or a high system. Dragon, praying mantis, and Wing Chun are all classified as full high systems due to their efficiency of movement and the use of ch’i to both supplement and in some cases replace physical technique. These systems were taught to some extent to all monks as part of their training. The complete systems were reserved for the few, the priests that would remain in the temple after being granted their priesthood.


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