What is Kung Fu?

The term kung fu 功夫 was made popular through early Chinese martial arts movies that were produced in the Cantonese dialect. The romanisation of kung fu is of the old English transliteration used in the Hong Kong area. In the Western world, the term kung fu 功夫 most often refers to ‘Chinese martial arts’ as a whole and includes all styles and systems. This incorrect concept has caused major problems for the martial art development in non-Chinese practitioners.

Kung fu 功夫, or a kung fu 功夫, refers to any skill where repetition and time develop a nameless quality and ability in a person – a level that others cannot achieve without enormous effort and sacrifice. This could be in opera performance, gymnastics, or even cooking.

A good example of a kung fu 功夫 – specifically relating to martial arts skills – can be found in learning fei biao 飛鏢 (fei biu in Cantonese), or “hand thrown” projectiles. If a layman tries to throw fei biao 飛鏢 without being taught, or even without considerable practice, they will fail miserably. However, some time and effort will yield average results and this is where most people stop developing. If one continues on for many years – and many thousands of hours – they can eventually throw all kinds of objects as deadly projectiles. Some examples might be pens, pencils, chopsticks, paint brushes etc. At this point, you have developed fei biao 飛鏢 kung fu 功夫 – you can do what most other practitioners cannot. Kung fu 功夫 might be more accurately described in English as a ‘hard earned skill’.

The diligent exponent of martial arts will try to develop their kung fu 功夫 in all aspects of their martial practice – kicking, striking, throwing, weapons, projectiles, an so on. Thus, the path of kung fu 功夫 is one of lifelong self perfection and refinement. The perfection of one’s skill, perfects the person as a whole.

In the English language we should be using the expressions; ‘Chinese martial arts’, or mo sut 武術 in Cantonese, or wushu 武術 in Mandarin. These terms describe warrior arts and their cultural derivatives. The term ‘Kung fu’ 功夫 should describe the skill level.

Understanding related Cantonese translations:

  • kung fu 功夫 (Mandarin: gong fu) literally translates as “skilled man” – the ancient meaning being that of an artisan. The common, modern term, specifically describes skill that is developed over time and with effort.
  • mo sut 武術 (Mandarin: wushu) literally translates as “martial/military art”.