Origins of Kung Fu Martial Arts

The opinions on the origins of Kung Fu by Sun Lutang (1860-1933) translated from Chinese in English.

In ancient times, the ancestors had Kung Fu abilities that didn’t look like what some may call Martial Arts. However, how did the national art (Chinese Kung Fu) come from the cave-dwelling world? Bamboo and wood were used to forge weapons in order to defend themselves from wilderness.

Origins of Kung Fu

Written history began through the conflict of the Yellow Emperor and Chiyou, which gave birth to the 3 Dynasties (Xia, Shang, Zhou).  History tell tales of men with super strength who were lifting heavy objects such as roof beams and cauldrons (to come off as imposing to others). These men possessed amazing Kung Fu skills such as catching birds in flight. However, whether these were expressions of inherent or trained abilities we cannot know with certainty.

There is also a poem by Zhou Zhaoxing from that era who emphasizes Martial Arts and dance. Later on Duke Yuen had an instructive duel with the Maiden of Yue, bringing about the renown of the sword art. Famous swords were mentioned in the earliest written records. The name of the sword is just the name of the sword and nothing more. 

History tells tails of the Kung Fu masters and warriors of the art of the sword as early as the period of the Han dynasty. Unfortunately, there is no details of their training methods.  

The Beginning of Our Martial Art

By the end of the Han Dynasty the 5 animal styles of Kung Fu were established, which are all practiced by many to this day. We can say that this was the beginning of our Martial Art.

It is said that the Shaolin Temple at first had a lot of emphasis on Sitting Meditation practices. Then during the rule of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, Bodhidharma came east and after seeing the practices in the temple, came to think that his disciples did not understand the way of supporting each other with movement and stillness, so he wrote the two classics of Yi Jin (Sinew Changing) and Shu Sui (Marrow Washing) for the sole purpose of the marriage of both the internal and external cultivation of Kung Fu  [Bodhidharma saw that strengthening the body was the first and foremost needed practice, since the monks were so bored and weak from all of the sitting meditation to the point of becoming unhealthy]. 

Origins of Kung Fu Martial Arts
Ip Man class of 1955

Internal and External Kung Fu

Over time a distinction was made between the 2 internal and external practices which lasts to today. People think that there is the Shaolin (external) practices of Kung Fu as opposed to the internal ones (believed to have moved to and further cultivated in the Wudang mountains).

Yue Fei  from the Song Dynasty obtained the two classics, added his own “Yigu” (Bone Changing Classic). He then took the functional sum of all 3 and named the result Xingyiran (“form & intent”), and so there was the birth of the Kung Fu system of ‘Xingyi’. So in this way, what was started by Bodhidharma was completed by Yue Fei. 

Tai Chi Origins

Tai Chi originated from Li Daozi and Xu Xuanping of the Tang Dynasty. Daoist Zhang Sanfeng later expanded the art by adding acupoint striking methods. This version was passed down by Zhang Songxi, Shan Zhengnan and some others. 

Different Branches of Kung Fu

The Eight-Posture Plum Blossoms art seems to have come from the venerable monk Bao Zhi [a disciple  of Bodhidharma] and became what we now call the Emei school of Kung Fu. And, among these arts, in regards to Bagua Kung Fu, Dong Haichuan of Wen’an obtained it in the southern provinces and then transferred it in the north. I have heard that its origination was in the very distant past.

Then there are the ‘heart of the cannon hammer’ (Cannon Kung Fu), the Arhat Wuji (Five Foundations) Kung Fu; the five poles, the eight poles, the Mizu, Taizu, the Pigua (hexagrams), Tongbi, and the Ruan, Yu, and Kong families. Each family (school of Kung Fu) takes its own position on what qualities are most important. Some emphasize theory, some emphasize energy (Qi), some emphasize strength. They all have their own specialties and distinctive characteristics.

Kung Fu Descended Mainly from Two Branches

If we have to make classifications, the Kung Fu Martial Arts we have now were descended mainly from two branches; those of Bodhidharma and Zhang Sanfeng. The great variety of styles was the result of later generations of practitioners who further developed these systems. Narrow-mindedness toward other styles leads to arrogance and pretension. I eagerly hold on to the hope that throughout our nation, it is the broadminded masters who are doing the teaching of Kung Fu!

By Sun Lutang (1930)

Origins of Kung Fu Martial Arts by Sun Lutang
The original text in Chinese by Sun Lutang (1930)
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