If you’re like most people in the West, especially the United States, you think martial arts. You might picture the signs outside of martial arts studios, or maybe Neo waking up from his virtual training session in The Matrix saying, “I know kung fu.”
But what is kung fu really? Well, kung fu is actually a compound of two Chinese words
“gōng,” meaning work, merit, or achievement
and “fū,” meaning man.
Translated literally, the phrase means “achievement of man,” and indeed in ancient Chinese culture, it was used to refer to the general ability to cultivate energy and patience in order to accomplish some sort of task or acquire some knowledge or skill. While it could apply to martial arts, it could just as easily refer to any other type of study that takes time and discipline, such as cooking or calligraphy or playing music.
In its original connotation, the word beautifully articulates the long and arduous process of strengthening one’s body and mind and honing one’s ability. Someone with good kung fu is able to apply his or herself in order to become better and more adept, while someone with bad kung fu is not as focused or as motivated.
Unfortunately, this original meaning got warped in the West by poorly translated movie subtitles or dubbing. And it didn’t stop there–the Oxford English Dictionary even defines kung fu as “a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate.”
This brings me to a larger point about the misconceptions we Westerners have about Asian culture and martial arts in general. We tend to think of martial arts as an exotic form of fighting existing primarily in China (Kung Fu), Japan (Karate), and Korea (Tae Kwan Do). The truth, however, is that people having been fighting with fists since we crawled out of caves thousands of years ago. All sorts of ancient cultures on continents all over the planet have developed unique fighting styles. What’s more, what we think of as Chinese kung fu was actually heavily influenced by fighting systems in India, which in turn was inspired by Roman gladiators.
The moral of the story is that the history of martial arts and the cultural history of China is much more complex than we often realize, and those of us interested in devoting time and energy towards the practice of martial arts (those of us with good kung fu, you could say) would do well to appreciate the nuances of that which we are engaging with.