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traditional GŌNGFU

The history of kung fu has its earliest precursors in India during the first millennium, though the majority of its development took place nearly exclusively in medieval China. Although some Chinese martial arts do predate kung fu, as discussed below, the majority of extant sources agree that kung fu itself developed out of an Indian martial art based on Buddhist philosophies. The development of kung fu over the ensuing centuries in various parts of China led to many branches of the discipline – so many that the term “kung fu” has come to refer to nearly any Chinese martial art. It has historically been one of the most pervasive martial arts, even playing a central role in the development of Shotokan karate.

Kung fu is thought to originate outside of China. A number of historical records and legends suggest that it originated from martial arts in India sometime in the 1st millennium AD, though its exact avenue is unknown. There are a handful of historical documents crediting the 5th to 6th-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma with establishing kung fu, the earliest of which is the 1624 exercise manual Yijin Jing (Muscle Change Classic). Though he was (apocryphally) not the first to bring Buddhism to China, these texts credit him as the first to bring martial arts in some form, establishing the first Shaolin monastery at the end of the 5th century to teach what he had learned in India. However, the legitimacy of stories regarding Bodhidharma’s role in the history of kung fu is highly debated, as discussed below.


As it stands, there is no single figure who can be undoubtedly credited with developing kung fu. Disregarding legends of Bodhidharma’s role, kung fu nonetheless appears to have originated from Indian martial arts, was developed in the Shaolin monastery in the late 5th or early 6th century, and held a somewhat significant presence by the 6th century. Its spread from that period onward is clear.

Historical documents suggest that during the Sui Dynasty (581–618), the Shaolin monks had a standardized system of combat and some level of military presence, likely advancing the reputation and spread of kung fu. Though their military presence was limited for some time after this dynasty, kung fu remained very much a central part of Shaolin monkhood, to the point that their Buddhist teachings were altered to incorporate it. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Shaolin monks were again conscripted for military work on occasion, most notably in a series of battles against Wokou pirates in the mid-16th century.

From the Sui Dynasty onward, kung fu had undoubtedly established a good reputation, perhaps due in part to the success of Shaolin monks in military service.


Martial artists from all over China traveled to learn kung fu in Shaolin during various periods, suggesting the art had developed widespread renown. Such a level of popularity and practice by a large number of masters over the centuries likely contributed to the development of so many extant branches, leading to a wide number of styles in various regions throughout China.

Its teachings were even taken to the Ryukyu Islands in modern Okinawa, Japan during the Middle Ages, leading to the development of shotokan karate.

Over the centuries of development in China, Kung Fu has become a large system containing various schools or sects. It is recorded that there are over 300 distinct types of boxing existing around the country. The styles in northern and southern China are quite different. Therefore it is hard to be simply classified

Some of the schools are classified by geographical locations, for example, the Southern Fist (Nanquan) prevailing in south China, and Shaolin School based at Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. Some are named after the creator and master, like the Chen Style Tai Chi and Yang Style Tai Chi. Some are identified by different training methods, such as the Internal Boxing Arts (Neijiaquan) which concentrate on the manipulation of the inner breath and circulation of the body, and the External Boxing Arts (Waijiaquan) concentrating on improving the muscles and the limbs.


All forms of kung fu are centered on the principle of harnessing personal energy or “Chi.” Unlike many other sports, in which people tend to lose energy as they age, kung fu enables the practitioner to learn how to renew their stores of energy so that even if you reach middle age or are even older, you still retain the energy of a much younger person.

Kung fu has many health benefits which include improved personal energy and flexibility, enhanced strength, and conditioning of the body as a whole as well as benefiting the mental and emotional states of those who practice it regularly.

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