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.