Kung Fu Styles: What Is It?


If you’re reading my stuff, you may have noticed that I talk a lot about different styles of kung fu. And if you don’t practice Chinese martial arts, you may have some questions. Such as: what exactly is it? why are there so many? And maybe more. So for those who want to know, here it is.

Traditional wushu 101

What we in the West call kung fu (gōng fū 功夫) is generally called traditional wushu (武术) in China. Wushu literally means martial arts. It’s a relatively modern term. The accepted date has changed over the ages. During the republic era, when they tried to promote martial arts as a physical education, they used guo shu (国 术) or national art. Today, most people use wushu, although other terms are used here and there. Some people – sometimes I’m included here – even use wugōng (武功), which means combat skills. All these terms mean the same thing. A set of traditional martial arts that comes from China. And we use the kung fu style when we talk about various traditional Chinese martial arts (TCMA).

There is also modern wushu, which is a sport. Modern wushu is closer to Olympic gymnastics than to real martial arts. At least today, when rules allow (if not encourage) original practices. In its beginnings, there were only certain standard routines, divided into categories. And these original routines were actually derived from traditional forms. All this is related to our topic: kung fu styles.

So what are styles?

The term style or school may indicate a common origin, but in general it is not. Each style is a different martial art with its own principles and techniques. And most, if not all, each has several branches. It’s different from, say, karate, where most different schools or styles have more or less common ancestors. All karate has its roots in Okinawa. China is as big as it is, different styles of wushu come from different areas that can be very far apart. And of course you can see some patterns that lead to categories. Because we humans like to put things in boxes to better understand them.

Where do they come from?

Ji Xiao Xin Shu of Qi Jiguang |  Tai Chi Notebook
Page from General Qi Jiguang’s handbook

As in many cultures, the oldest records of bare-handed combat show some kind of struggle. In addition, no one is quite sure which style is the oldest. You once gained more respect when you said that you had learned your kung fu from a wandering monk or an immortal sage. Even though you were a great warrior who developed your own style from experience, respect came from the lineage. As a result, many styles still claim to be some historical or mythical figure today. For example, some Xingyi Quan schools claim the Song Yue Fei dynasty general. Two even better known examples are Shaolin and Wudang, famous centers of religion and martial arts, each with a certain connection to many styles. As you have probably figured out, it confuses attempts to trace real historical sources.

Martial arts historians mostly agree that military training consisted mainly of weapons. Hand combat was more of a preparatory training. The first martial arts manuals to survive to this day are military training manuals. Early martial arts were based on weapons. The Shaolin Temple was known for its wand technique for centuries before it became associated with hand-to-hand combat. At some point, hand-to-hand systems began to flourish. There is no clear common origin of hand-to-hand systems. Some were developed by military veterans, some may come from local wrestling styles, and some may have other origins.

Animal styles, religious styles, etc.

Bajiquan - Wikipedia
Bajiquan one of the Muslim related styles

It is certainly clear that the physical aspects came first and the philosophical concepts, if any, were only a later addition. Buddhist styles incorporated religious ideas into the box, so Taijiquan was not called that until the end of the 19th century. First there was practice, later came theory. Contrary to popular belief, not all styles are named after animals. In fact, so-called “animal styles” are in fact much less abundant than other types. This means that techniques inspired or named after animals tend to be very common. It’s just a mnemonic, a way to memorize the subject matter when being able to read and write was not as common (as in most of Chinese history).

Styles can be divided into several categories. The most common are north and south, which means that the style originated either south or north of the Yangtze River. There are Buddhist styles, Taoist styles, Muslim styles. Even within Southern styles, there is Hakka boxing, Guangzhou styles, Fujian styles, and each has its own characteristics. It would require a dictionary only for a list of all known wushu styles and it does not include their branches.

Before you go

I hope this brief introduction to wushu / kung fu styles helped. This is just the tip of the iceberg, if you’re interested, there’s plenty of depth and breadth to explore. Ben Judkins’ blog contains a lot of well-researched information about the history of traditional wushu and especially Southern styles. Youtube also has some very good things like Monkey Steals Peach and Mushin Martial Culture. The first named comes from Will, a practitioner of the Taji Mantis style, who also traveled throughout China and researched other styles. The latter comes from Byron Jacobs, who lives in China and trains Baguazhang and Xingyi Quan, and has several interesting videos and podcasts on the subject interviewing people who practice Chinese martial arts.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this article and please leave your comments below.

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