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Meaning and background

The meaning of gongfu

Often spelled Kungfu (based on an older method of transcribing Chinese characters), gongfu serves as a collective term for Chinese martial arts. The characters themselves, however, have no direct reference to martial arts.



Rather they refer to skills that one (has) acquired over a longer period of time. This means that musicians or cooks can also have gongfu.


Martial arts training is focussed primarily on developing and building reliable skill. That is why people within Chinese martial arts circles often refer to other practitioners having gongfu. This makes the connection between the terms understandable.


In addition to gongfu, there are a number of older as well as current terms for Chinese martial arts. During the imperial era, there existed terms that directly referred to unarmed combat: quanfa (拳法; literally fist-fighting method or boxing method) and quanshu (拳术; literally the art of fist-fighting).

The fact that these terms are rarely used nowadays is partly due to the effects of the Boxer Rebellion . The secret societies involved in it also called themselves Yihequan (义 和 拳, pugilists of justice and harmony).


Disparagingly referred to as boxers by foreigners, the rebels had a bad reputation. Most of them were poor, uneducated peasants whose thinking was seen as superstitious and outdated. So the old names for martial arts fell into disrepute.


During the Republic period (1911-1949) the term guoshu (国 术, national art) was used. The term came together with an attempt to establish indigenous forms of physical exercises as part of a modern, national identity for China.


In the People's Republic of China, martial arts are now referred to by the term wushu (武术; martial art). Outside of China, this term is often used to denote modern, competitive martial arts forms. These are known in Chinese as xiandai wushu (现代 武术; modern martial art) or bisai wushu (比赛 武术; competitive martial art) and have developed on their own, in many cases moving far away from the traditional forms.


Northern and southern styles



The distinction between northern and southern styles is mostly made geographically. But there are also differences in the training structure , in the body mechanics and in the tactical approach, which make up the Northern and Southern styles.


The northern systems are said to prefer wide, open stances, punches and kicks at a distance and dynamic footwork. Many of the northern styles are therefore also known as changquan (长拳, Long Boxing).


Typical for southern systems are tight, twisted positions, a focus on stability and tactics based on hard strikes and blocks with the arms. Many southern styles are characterized by common forms, for example the very widespread form sanzheng / sanzhan (三正 / 三 战). This form can also be found in various modern styles of Karate.


Of course, there are exceptions for both. The distinction is less a hard categorization but serves more as a guiding principle.

The old term quanfa lives on in the naming of Chinese martial arts traditions. Almost all of the major martial arts schools contain the character quan (拳; fist). For example, in northern China we know:

Tongbeiquan - 通 背 拳, Through-the-back Boxing

Bajiquan - 八极拳, Boxing of the Eight Extremes

Hongquan -红 拳, Red Boxing

Xingyiquan -形意拳, Boxing of Form and Mind


Southern China has also produced a number of its own traditions. Among other things we find there:

Hongjiaquan / Hunggarkuen - 洪 家拳, Hong Family Boxing

Baihequan - 白鹤 拳, White Crane Boxing

Luohanquan - 罗汉拳, Arhat Boxing

Yongchunquan / Wingchunkuen - 咏春拳, Boxing of the Ode to Spring


There are a few exceptions, such as Baguazhang (八卦 掌; Boxing of the Eight Trigrams). The training method prefers the open hand, which is why the character for quan is usually replaced by zhang (掌; open hand).

Internal and external gongfu

Another distinction that is often made is that of the inner and outer school of martial arts, or in Chinese: neijia (内 家) and waijia (外家). The two terms are politically and ideologically charged and difficult to define. Taijiquan , Xingyiquan and Baguazhang are listed as systems of the inner school. All other systems then fall, by definition, into the field of the external martial arts.


Internal martial arts are often described as systems of practice that aim to cultivate abstract concepts such as qi (气, breath or energy), jing (精, essence), or shen (神, mind). Most of these concepts come from Daoism , Chinese medicine , or health exercises such as daoyin (导引, lead and pull) and tuna (吐纳, inhale and exhale), but sometimes have a completely different meaning there.


These abstract concepts are not really sufficient to distinguish the various martial arts. Exercise systems that are officially considered external martial arts have also adopted these terms and the concepts behind them. The distinction between internal and external styles is also skewed because all classical internal systems are of northern origin. Southern systems are often not even considered.

Instead of talking about complete martial arts systems, it might be better to talk about certain qualities. A practice system of internal martial arts has a stronger focus on posture and body mechanics - it is about body work and the optimization of biomechanics . Strikes or throws are not just learned and repeated, but are developed based on optimal, biomechanical principles.


External martial arts works more with contextual training. They deal more with the question of when certain strikes, kicks and throws make tactical and technical sense.


Viewed in this way, both approaches have advantages and disadvantages . The external training approach is less abstract and quickly leads to practical skills that are relevant in the context of physical confrontation. However, it is also possible that unfavorable habits are developed that have to be laboriously corrected later. Internal training methods are more thorough and for a solid foundation right away.


Following this logic it quickly becomes clear that a complete martial arts system can only work using both aspects .


Health, competition and aesthetics

Chinese martial arts combine very different aspects in a single training system. That makes these training systems very versatile and appealing - but it can also cause confusion.


The origins of Chinese martial arts go back a long way and are probably to be found in the military field . At the same time, there has always been a connection to performing arts. In the history of Chinese wrestling (shuaijiao 摔跤) we find a lot of meantions of demonstrations and exhibition fights that were certainly often choreographed. Various emperors reportedly had bodyguards that also took on the role of acrobats and showmen to entertain the royalty. It was precisely this mixture of aesthetics and combative content that was criticized by some observers - including General Qi Jiguang, who spoke contemptuously of "flowery punches and embroidered kicks".


At the latest during the course of the last dynasty (the Qing dynasty, 1644-1911), but probably earlier, elements of health care and mindfulness training also found their way into the martial arts. The rate at which combative, aesthetic and medical elements were mixed probably also accerlated because the importance of cold weapons in war decreased more and more.

After the end of the Qing dynasty, efforts were made to standardize martial arts practice and also to organize public competitions according to fixed rules - the so-called Leitai (擂台, battle platforms). This development was interrupted by wars and only picked up again on a larger scale in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. In the People's Republic a similar idea arose in the 80s in the form of Sanda (散打, free hitting / fighting) a fixed format and training concept for competitions, combining training methods and techniques of Boxing, Muay Thai and Chinese martial arts.


Is is an advantage or disadvantage to have so many different aspects mixed-up in gongfu? Specialization leads to expertise more quickly, but also cuts off potential synergies. In the Chinese tradition, it is up to each practitioner to set priorities in training. As teachers, they then pass on their subjective interpretation and shape the learning experience more than in more standardized, specialized systems such as modern boxing.


The often ideological distinction between martial arts and combat sports has a strongly individual character. Depending on which elements I emphasize, one or the other term is more appropriate. Attaching combative qualities to the terminology alone - in one direction or the other - is always more fantasy than reality.