The fighting styles that are practiced today and are known as Kung Fu include: Bagua, Drunken Boxing, Eagle Claw, Five Animals, Hsing I, Hung Gar, Lau Gar, Monkey, Bak Mei Pai, Praying Mantis, Fujian White Crane, Wing Chun and Tai Chi Chuan, and the majority are thought to have been established and used by monks in the defense of Shaolin Monastery.
There are Kung Fu styles that mimic animal movements (e.g. the old movie staple of a ninja posing like a praying mantis) and others that take their inspiration from various Chinese philosophies. Some Kung Fu styles are centred on the concept of harnessing of ‘chi’ or ‘qi’ energy that is said to flow through the body, while others concentrate solely on competition and exhibition. Each style of Kung Fu offers a different approach to self-defence, improving health and fitness, and self-development.
How does it work?
Training systems vary between the different types of Kung Fu style, with a shifting emphasis on ethics, strategy and philosophy, but each style is built on a series of founding principles:
‘’’The Fundamentals of Kung Fu’’’ As the name suggests, fundamentals are the basic elements of Kung Fu that a student must master before progressing onto more complex moves. The fundamentals are often taught through repetition and are performed in different ways until they begin to come more naturally. Fundamentals training can take the form of solo practice, partnered sequences and the use of specialized equipment (including punch bags, focus pads and dummies). It is often said that whilst working on the fundamentals of Kung Fu, students must train both in Internal Kung Fu and External Kung Fu. According to tradition, ‘Internal Kung Fu’ training includes focusing and refining the use of the heart, mind, spirit and strength in combat, whereas ‘external Kung Fu’ training includes training the hands, eyes, body and legs.
‘’’Stances’’’ Stances are specific postures and footwork positions used to adapt the body alignment and weight distribution at stages during combat. Stance training is usually a static activity, involving the holding of positions for a period of time (think back to that poised, stereotypical ninja again) in order to develop focus and concentration of power, although dynamic stance training (where you move from one position to another sequentially) can also be performed. Balance is the key to stance training, and many centres use balance beams and balls to build strength ready for evasion and counter attack moves.
‘’’Meditation’’’ Meditation is utilized to improve concentration and clarity of thought. A solitary exercise, it is designed to remove all distractions from your mind whilst you focus on perfecting your moves and strategies.
‘’’Forms’’’ Forms are the core techniques that can be strung together to provide a defensive or a confrontational barrage of movements. When performed correctly, forms are meant to unite both the internal and external aspects of the martial art, demonstrating practicality, stamina and function as well as promoting a smooth flow, meditation, flexibility, balance and hand-eye coordination. Forms can be empty handed or involve the use of weapons such as knives or poles (usually introduced after forms have been properly mastered) and may be left, right or two handed.
As your form portfolio expands and you become more confident in all areas of the individual style structure, you are expected to react and instinctively know which techniques to use in every situation and against a multitude of opponents. This combative use of moves is known as fighting application.
Is it for me?
Self defense, stress elimination and fitness are the main benefits that draw people to Kung Fu. If you would like to build your confidence, strength, improve your focus and see yourself as a bit of a Bruce Lee type, then Kung Fu may be right up your street. It’s a highly social activity and one-on-one classes are fairly rare, so if you prefer to keep your exercise regimes solitary rather than working up a sweat in a group, you may not enjoy martial arts as much. There is no age limit with and the aim is to perform to the best of your ability, so whatever your strength and agility level there is likely to be an entry level class for you. Due to the combative nature of the sport, pregnant women would be better off avoiding Kung Fu, although there is nothing to stop you perfecting your forms post-birth, as the controlled moves are designed to prevent injury in a classroom setting.
Good to know
A Kung Fu training room is called a Kwoon and Kung Fu instructors are known as Si-Fu (if male), Si-Je (if female) or Si-Sook (if a junior instructor).