Kung Fu comes from China and dates back to origins well into the B.C. era. It is an approach toward life and self-cultivation which includes combat but goes well beyond the concept of combat. Kung fu is as much about spiritual training and self-evolvement as it is about fighting.
The term Kung Fu actually means "time" and "effort" and can actually refer to any endeavor which is approached with an attitude of slow and persistent perfection through time. The common understanding of the term Kung Fu denotes a martial and fighting context, however Kung Fu is also founded deeply on ideas of character development and right action. One can just as easily be Kung Fu at street cleaning or piano playing.
However the vehicle most commonly attached to the term Kung Fu is fighting -- but not just fighting, fighting as an "art". This implies that there is much more to kung fu than fighting which is indeed the case. In fact, there is not now nor has there ever been a "pure" martial art. The styles and systems we know are the accumulated result of many individual's knowledge and experience. These individuals quite naturally learned from knowledge handed down to them from their predecessors, but just as naturally, found approaches and techniques on their own which added to the existing knowledge. Thus the state of any system of kung fu, if it is to be truly alive, is not a static and fixed entity. It is a living breathing body of knowledge, open to new and better approaches and refinements.
To the extent that a martial art is based on effectiveness, rather than strict dogma and tradition, on efficiency and what really works, rather than just concept, the martial system will be effective. A martial system need not be purely one race's domain or one country's. An effective martial art system is just what it is -- a practical and useful method of mind, body, spirit training.
In Kung Fu one finds a wide range of techniques. There are punches from all angles, kicks from all angles, attacking blocks, as well as those that just simply "defend", and joint-locking or chin-na. There are throwing or take-down techniques and wrestling as well as various controls and methods of subduing an opponent. In Kung Fu one finds hard, muscle powered techniques and also softer techniques that utilize evasion tactics and structural alignment for effectiveness.
Kung Fu also makes use of "forms" -- or dance-like series' of movements -- which are in fact martial applications put together in a continuous sequence. These sequenced forms are used to practice fighting technique, serve to make the body healthy and vital, and to develop the mind and spirit.
The diversity of approaches found in Kung Fu makes Kung Fu an excellent art for both men and women, the smaller person equally as much as the large. Straight line movements and actions are interspersed with circular movements in a way that follows the body's natural way of moving. In Kung Fu one utilizes the most efficient tool and "energy" for the situation, using sometimes power and sometimes almost soft springy energy.
One is not restricted by dogmatic codes that say one must adhere to certain approaches. One can react with tools of all kinds and types. It is up to the practitioner to find the techniques which work best their own body and mental attitude. A good Kung Fu system has techniques which are adaptable to the person no matter what their body type or personality.
Of course, there is a certain amount of adjustment which must be made by the student. Since most beginner's movements are not efficient, relaxed, centered, or focused for the martial arts, they must undergo a period of "framing and readying" the body. During this period of training the student must make their body conform to body positions and movements which they think, at first, are odd or awkward. Later these same students come to realize that the movements were not awkward at all, it's just that they were not aware previously of what poised and centered movement could be. In Kung Fu macho posturing is not important, effective use of one's body is. Form follows function. Function follows effectiveness.
In Kung Fu speed and efficiency can be important. One strives to develop speed through relaxation of the muscles and conservation of movement. That is, since the muscles move faster when relaxed rather than when tense, Kung Fu tends to keep the muscles relaxed until the point of contact when tension will do the most good. Conservation of movement means that there is not necessarily a large winding up motion before action. One simply learns to generate energy from wherever one is -- from one's point of origin. Conservation of energy also means that in moving from one motion to another, one lets each previous move set up the next one.
Kung Fu also conserves movement through the use of circular momentum. This means that one utilizes curving and circular motions that have very little stopping and starting. This eliminates much of the energy lost in the process of having to stop and change direction for the next motion.
In Kung Fu stability of stance is important. Strong stances are good for combat confrontations, but probably even more important is the fact that they are good for health, strengthening the legs, and helping to cultivate and mobilize energy throughout the whole body. Inherent in stance work is the idea that principles of physics and body dynamics are utilized to make techniques function in the best possible way. Stances move the body, increase power in the legs for kicking, and help create more power in the application of upper body techniques.
Along with stances the principle of body structure is very important. This is the idea that the body be held in a structurally aligned position so that every movement is back up not simply with muscles but with the structural integrity of the whole body, including the body's connection to the ground. This approach creates powerful and effective techniques but also increases the stability of the body at all times.
Fluidity is also very important in Kung Fu. Movements are allowed to flow in circular and elliptical ways to lend grace and momentum to the techniques. Such movements are beautiful as well as healthy and powerful. They circulate energy, loosen the joints[doesn't exist], and stretch[doesn't exist] out the muscles and tendons. Such movements are multi-purposed. They are aesthetically pleasing, healthy, and also devastatingly effective.
In dealing with an attacker, Kung Fu strives to utilize the ability to strike any portion of the adversary's anatomy from the head to the toe. One also must develop the ability to use any part of one's own body to strike with -- the fingers, hands, elbows, knees, head, feet, shoulders, hip, etc. -- the tools one uses are determined naturally by the situation and the task at hand. For instance, in order to subdue a drunken assailant or perhaps even a relative, one may not want to use deadly force or destructive action, so one utilizes the proper tools and actions for that particular situation. A regular part of Kung Fu training is devoted to developing specific weapons and their particular ranges of motion. In the end this becomes a matter of feel.
In Kung Fu, one also learns the cultivated skill of striking important vital areas of the opponent's body. This ability increases the effectiveness of the strikes many fold and makes Kung Fu a highly skillful art rather than a brutish clash of force against force.
Of course stability, fluidity, and accuracy are important in the body actions of Kung Fu, but they are also important in other ways. They are qualities to be sought not just in the body, but also in the mind and spirit. An attitude that is confident, assured, and concentrated, yet open to new ideas is truly a goal worth cultivating. A mind-set which is precise yet open and with perspective is an attitude which is capable. Flexibility, stability, and precision of mind and body are thought of as indispensable for true advancement in Kung Fu.
In Kung Fu the health qualities are not forgotten. They form a major concern for many of the activities and styles of movement. If simply fighting effectively was the only goal, Kung Fu would look quite a bit different. The health aspects are attended to naturally during the process of growth and progress through the system. The movements are geared to open and vitalize the body in ways which just fighting effectiveness won't do.
Strengthening and stretching are gradually evolved, as is aerobic conditioning and coordination. Martial skills are gained through a gradual progression and a layering of techniques one upon the other. Perfection of technique is sought over the course of time, not insisted upon to the point of stagnation and never learning anything new. One works hard to perfect hat one has learned, yet always has new challenges.
Kung Fu is noted for its practicality in fighting, yet the other side of the coin, the mental and the spiritual sides, is not slighted. One can easily use the pre-set sequences of simulated fighting to develop concentration, energy focus, control, poise, conditioning, Naturalness, self-confidence, spatial-awareness, as well as imagination, spirit, and a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit.
At advanced levels, form practice becomes expression, both personally and of the principles of nature and the truth. If one reaches the upper stages of form work in Kung Fu, forms can speak as eloquently of philosophy as of fighting. They can express the humanness which binds us all together and of the universal truths of nature which transcend our own particular small and limited time.
So, even as Kung Fu is an effective and time tested approach to self-defense, both at in-fighting and at out-fighting ranges, it is also an approach to self-cultivation and spiritual growth. In order to reach the deeper levels one must begin speaking of sensitivity, of balance and harmony, of interconnectedness and attitude, of positivity and ethics, and of moral action and healing. The deeper levels of Kung Fu must eventually lead to right action and caring, the realm of the mind and the emotions, the realm of the spiritual. At the deeper levels, developing Kung Fu is developing wholeness physically, mentally, and spiritually.
In the end, one can come to realize that these qualities are not separate, but a single complete and unified totality. At this level, one may for the first time truly understand what is meant when it is said that kung fu is not just a fighting system, but is a true system of growth and self-cultivation.
-- Eo Omwake