What is Kung Fu?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Kung fu is one of a number of Chinese martial arts designed to refine the body and the mind. It is perhaps one of the most widely known martial arts, because many films incorporate its techniques. There are hundreds of styles taught all over the world, although they can be loosely divided into two camps: Shaolin style kung fu, and other techniques, some of which have a history that outdates the Shaolin order.

Kung fu is a martial art designed to refine the body and mind.
Kung fu is a martial art designed to refine the body and mind.

There are a number of different ways to spell kung fu, including gung fu and gong fu. This spelling variation is due to the difficulty of transliterating from Chinese to other languages. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese was transliterated using the Wade-Giles system, which transposed the Chinese “g” sound with a “k.” Parts of China and Taiwan still use the Wade-Giles system, but most of China has begun to use pinyin, which has replaced the “k” of the Wade-Giles system with a “g.” Bruce Lee and other famous martial artists from China also use the “g” when talking about this martial art form.

Kung fu uses self defense tactics that turn the energy of an attacker against him.
Kung fu uses self defense tactics that turn the energy of an attacker against him.

Shaolin gung fu has its origins in the fifth century. Like some other martial arts, it began in religious temples, where the monks sought a mind and body discipline. In addition to the fighting style, it also includes mental exercises and religious practices designed to balance the whole body. Kung fu is fundamentally about aligning the practitioner with chi, the life force that is believed to move around all people.

Shaolin temples resembled universities, integrating a wide range of subjects of study. Therefore, traditional Shaolin styles such as Wing Chun, Crane, Praying Mantis, and Hung Gar incorporate knowledge from fields outside martial arts, such as the healing arts and meditation. Advocates for Shaolin styles believe that they are more rounded martial arts styles, and that practitioners will benefit from them on a whole body level.

Other fighting styles, some of which predate the Shaolin style, are also lumped under the kung fu umbrella. They include Pa-Kua, Eagle Claw, and Eight Drunken Immortals styles. These disciplines are not considered to be Shaolin style because they did not originate in temples and are focused primarily on fighting techniques.

Whether Shaolin or otherwise, kung fu is characterized by self defense tactics that turn the energy of an attacker against him or her. Although the techniques may vary, individual styles teach grapples, throws, kicks, punches, and the use of weapons such as staffs. In addition to the physical discipline, most place an emphasis on respect, honor, and living a balanced life.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I grew up with kung fu movies and really fancied having a try myself. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect to be flying through the air after a couple of classes!

Kung fu training was too tough for me, and I quit after a couple of weeks. There was a world of difference between the way it is portrayed in movies and the actual practice.


@Noblerabbit - I love watching all kinds of martial arts displays, and will be looking out for the group you mentioned.

I don't think there is one main headquarters for kung fu because it us such a widespread activity. If you are interested in having a go the best thing to do is check out what's available in your local area.

I bet that so long as you are not really rural there will be at least one kung fu school nearby.


I once watched the Shaolin Monks "Wheel of Life" tour in England and I was blown away. They were just so fast, controlled and athletic and you could tell it wasn't special effects as they were right there in the room!

Does anyone know where the main Kung Fu headquarters is?

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