Chinese martial arts, often named under the umbrella terms kung fu (Chinese: 功夫; pinyin: gōng fu) and wushu (武术), are the several hundred fighting styles that have developed over the centuries in China. These fighting styles are often classified according to common traits, identified as “families” (家; jiā), “sects” (派; pài) or “schools” (門; mén) of martial arts. Examples of such traits include Shaolin Quan (少林拳) physical exercises involving Five Animals (五形拳) mimicry, or training methods inspired by Chinese philosophies, religions and legends. Styles that focus on Qi manipulation are called internal (内家拳; nèijiāquán), while others that concentrate on improving muscle and cardiovascular fitness are called “external” (外家拳; wàijiāquán). Geographical association, as in northern (北拳; běiquán) and “southern” (南拳; nánquán), is another popular classification method.
Kung fu and wushu are loanwords from Cantonese and Mandarin respectively that, in English, are used to refer to Chinese martial arts. However, the Chinese terms kung fu and wushu; Cantonese have distinct meanings. The Chinese equivalent of the term “Chinese martial arts” would be Zhongguo wushu (Chinese: 中國武術).
In Chinese, the term kung fu (功夫) refers to any skill that is acquired through learning or practice. It is a compound word composed of the words 功 (gōng) meaning “work”, “achievement”, or “merit”, and 夫 (fū) which is a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings.
Wushu literally means “martial art”. It is formed from the two words 武術: 武 (wǔ), meaning “martial” or “military” and 術 or 术 (shù), which translates into “art” , “discipline”, “skill” or “method”. The term wushu has also become the name for the modern sport of wushu, an exhibition and full-contact sport of bare-handed and weapons forms (Chinese: 套路), adapted and judged to a set of aesthetic criteria for points developed since 1949 in the People’s Republic of China.
Quan Fa (拳法) is another Chinese term for Chinese martial arts. It means “fist method” or “the law of the fist” (quan means “boxing” or “fist”, and fa means “law”, “way” or “method”), although as a compound term it usually translates as “boxing” or “fighting technique.” The name of the Japanese martial art Kempō is represented by the same hanzi characters.
Shaolin Temple Established
In 495 AD, Shaolin temple was built in the Song mountain, Henan province. The first monk who preached Buddhism there was the Indian monk named Buddhabhadra (佛陀跋陀罗), simply called Batuo (跋陀) by the Chinese. There are historical records that Batuo’s first Chinese disciples, Huiguang (慧光) and Sengchou (僧稠), both had exceptional martial skills. For example, Sengchou’s skill with the tin staff is even documented in the Chinese Buddhist canon. After Buddhabadra, another Indian Central Asian monk, Bodhidharma (菩提达摩), simply called Damo (达摩) by the Chinese, came to Shaolin in 527 AD. His Chinese disciple, Huike (慧可), was also a highly trained martial arts expert. There are implications that these first three Chinese Shaolin monks, Huiguang, Sengchou, and Huike, may have been military men before entering the monastic life.
The Shaolin style of kung fu is regarded as one of the first institutionalized Chinese martial arts. The oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat is a stele from 728 CE that attests to two occasions: a defense of the Shaolin Monastery from bandits around 610 CE, and their subsequent role in the defeat of Wang Shichong at the Battle of Hulao in 621 CE. From the 8th to the 15th centuries, there are no extant documents that provide evidence of Shaolin participation in combat.
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, at least forty sources exist to provide evidence both that monks of Shaolin practiced martial arts, and that martial practice became an integral element of Shaolin monastic life. The earliest appearance of the frequently cited legend concerning Bodhidharma’s supposed foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu dates to this period. The origin of this legend has been traced to the Ming period’s Yijin Jing or “Muscle Change Classic”, a text written in 1624 attributed to Bodhidharma.
Depiction of fighting monks demonstrating their skills to visiting dignitaries (early 19th-century mural in the Shaolin Monastery).
References of martial arts practice in Shaolin appear in various literary genres of the late Ming: the epitaphs of Shaolin warrior monks, martial-arts manuals, military encyclopedias, historical writings, travelogues, fiction and poetry. However these sources do not point out to any specific style originated in Shaolin. These sources, in contrast to those from the Tang period, refer to Shaolin methods of armed combat. These include a skill for which Shaolin monks became famous: the staff (gùn). The Ming General Qi Jiguang included description of Shaolin Quan Fa (Chinese: 少林拳法) and staff techniques in his book, Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), which can translate as New Book Recording Effective Techniques. When this book spread to East Asia, it had a great influence on the development of martial arts in regions such as Okinawa and Korea.
List of Chinese Martial Arts
- Kung Fu. Kung Fu consists of a long history and includes many different disciplines and styles; all of which include a detailed structure of their own. Each variant of Kung Fu comprise of techniques for attack and defence applications and presents them in their own unique way. Read more.
- San Shou. Sanshou/Sanda is a Chinese self-defense system and combat sport. It combines full-contact kickboxing, which include close range and rapid successive punches and kicks, with wrestling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, kick catches, and in some competitions, even elbow and knee strikes. Read more.
- Tai Chi. The main principle of Tai Chi Quan is that with soft strength, you restrain the opponent’s strong power, and with the skill of the fist, you shrewdly take your adversary’s strength and use it against them. Tai Chi Quan is therefore very effective in actual combat. Shaolin Tai Chi is affiliated to the Chen style. Read more.
- Shuai Jiao. Shuai Jiao is the term referring to the jacket wrestling style of Beijing, Tianjin and Baoding of Hebei Province in the North China. In modern usage, this term is also the general Mandarin Chinese term for any form of wrestling, both inside and outside of China. Read more.
- Tanglang Quan. Tanglang Quan – Mantis Fist is a style of Chinese martial arts; it was created by a Kung Fu Master Wang Lang about 1600 A.D. The Mantis Fist is very useful in close range combat, it has another name called short-hit Fist, one of the Xing Yi fists. Read more.
- Qi Gong. Qi Gong concentrates on the building energy within the body and improving its circulation around it. When this energy becomes unbalanced or deficient, physical or mental problems can occur. Qi Gong is a healing art therefore, as the balance of energy helps to preserve the person’s health. Read more.
- Wushu. Wushu is both an exhibition and a full-contact sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts. It was developed in China after 1949, in an effort to standardize the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts, although attempts to structure the various decentralized martial arts traditions date back earlier, when the Central Guoshu Institute was established at Nanking in 1928. Read more.
- Qinna. Qinna is a technique by which an attacker can be neutralized without suffering permanent physical damage or experiencing excessive pain. The intensity and duration of the discomfort felt by an attacker is completely controlled by the Qinna expert, making it a perfect defense technique for a Shaolin warrior. Read more.
- Wing Chun. The effectiveness of Wing Chun is achieved by well coordinated attacks with simultaneous defence and vise versa. Due to its effectiveness this martial art makes for an effective form of self defence. Read more.