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The Mysterious Origins of Kung Fu

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In Chinese ‘Kung’ means energy and ‘Fu’ means time. Kung Fu is any practice that requires time, patience, and energy to master. So it does not only stand for the martial art that is synonymous with that name.

Kung Fu became popular in the West with the coming of Chinese action movies depicting it. Martial artists and actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li have also contributed to raising its popularity in the West. There are actually many stories of how Kung Fu developed. Here are some of them:

One theory: Kung Fu and all other Chinese martial arts originated in India

One story is that all Chinese martial arts including Kung Fu have their roots in India. It is possible, because China and India have had extensive trade relations for centuries and Buddhism did come to China from India. Chinese merchant ships even traded in the port city of Calicut in Kerala, India, for many centuries. Even now, there are Chinese fishing nets in Calicut, which are locally known as ‘Cheena vala’. The Indian martial art called Kalaripatayam is also said to share many characteristics with Chinese martial arts. Without contradictory evidence, these facts make it entirely possible that the rudiments of Kung Fu came to China from India.

Another possibility: Martial arts came to China with an Indian Buddhist monk

The second story is about how martial arts were introduced to China by an Indian Buddhist monk known as Bodhidharma. The Shaolin temple in Henan province also confirms this tradition. The early Buddhist monks were proselytizers and they went far and wide to propagate Buddhism. They often had to travel treacherous paths which were roamed by waiting bandits.

The Buddhist monks had to protect themselves against these bandits but there was a problem. The monks were pacifists so they could not carry weapons. Instead, they learned to defend themselves with their fists and legs. Slowly and steadily, they developed the martial arts forms that over time have become modern martial arts. Even now, the Shaolin temple is known as the Mecca for martial arts.

Another thought: Kung Fu came from the exercises developed to make the monks stronger

Boddhidharma developed 18 exercises which had to be performed with the hands. He taught it
the monks in the Shaolin temple. Apparantly, some of the monks used to fall asleep during his sermons. Buddhism also had very austere practices and he found that the monks were not physically prepared for the vigors of the religion which often involved frugal living and even fasting at times. Boddhidharma believed that by developing a strong body, the monks could follow the tenets of Buddhism better. The monks later took these exercises forward and codified them into a system which became Kung Fu.

Eight hundred years after Boddhidharma’s death, during the rule of the Yuan dynasty (between 1260 and 1368), a monk called Chuan Yuan accepted the help of two boxers – Pai Yu feng and Li Cheung – and added more detail to the original Kung Fu.

He believed that the system as it was taught then was incomplete. His contributions included dividing the system into five styles, which were derived from animals – Crane, Tiger, Dragon, Snake, and Leopard. Modern Kung Fu is more advanced than the Kung Fu of olden days. It generally takes several years to develop proficiency.