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Understanding the history of China is an important part of studying kung fu. A rich heritage and tradition are what make this martial art special. The development of kung fu is intimately linked to the evolution of Chinese people and its culture. The following overview provides a glimpse of China's past. This knowledge provides a context to our understanding of the philosophy Chinese martial arts as well as individual kung fu styles.

The history of China can best be understood through its geography and its various ruling dynasties. Descriptions of Chinese martial arts can be traced to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) which existed more than 4000 years ago. Their origin is attributed to self-defense needs, hunting activities, the spirit of competition and the requirements of military training in ancient China. For the general population, the use of specialized techniques, tools and social rules became part of the evolving civilization. Martial arts and health exercises are some of the result of this specialization. As organized society emerged, hand-to-hand combat and weapons practice were important components in the training of Chinese soldiers. From this beginning, Chinese martial arts proceeded to incorporate different philosophies and ideas into its practice—expanding its purpose from self-defense and competition to health maintenance and finally as method of self-cultivation. Conversely, the influence of martial arts ideals in civilian society can be found in poetry, fiction, and eventually film. Chinese martial arts are now an integral element of Chinese culture. . 

 1.  Geography
 2.  Ancient China
 3.  Modern China
 4.  The World


China is the third largest country in the world in total area, following Russia and Canada. Population, ethnic composition, language and culture changes from region to region. It is this diversity that is responsible for the large variety of martial arts styles. Geographical association, as in northern fist (北拳) and southern fist (南拳), is a popular means of categorizing Chinese martial arts. This association describes the changes in martial art practice as you moved south from the Mongolian Plateau towards the South China Seas.

Styles originating north of the Yangze river are labeled as “Northern styles” (北派). The Central Plains (中原) of China and Henan Province (Chinese: 河南; pinyin: Hénán; Wade-Giles: Ho-nan), in particular, are often referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization and also of the Chinese martial arts. The surrounding regions of Henan, Hebei (河北), Shandong (山東) and Shanxi (山西) provinces also have a rich martial arts heritage. The origin of Shaolin (少林) and Chen Family Taiji (陈式太极) can be traced back to Henan. Baji (八极), Pigua (劈挂) and Mizong (秘宗) can be found in Hebei. Tanglang (Mantis,螳螂) are well known in Shandong. Xinyi quan (心意) are found in Henan, Shanxi and Hebei. Wudang (武当) is developed at Mount Wudang in Hubei province. Bagua (八卦) is strong in Anhui (安徽) province. Eventually, all martial arts found themselves competing in the Capital area of Beijing (北京) and in the port city of Tianjin (天津).

Styles origination south or the Yangtze River(長江) are known as “Southern styles” (南派). In the East, there were the Tibetan forms (White Crane; 白鶴派, Lama; 喇嘛派, Lion's roar;獅子吼, Hop Gar; 俠家). In the South, including well-known styles such as Five families comprising of Hung, Lau, Choy, Li and Mok (洪家, 劉家, 蔡家, 李家, 莫家), Choi-lay-fut (蔡李佛), Wing-chun (永春) and Fujian White Crane (福建白鹤拳). Most Southern styles follow in the foot-steps of the original Southern Shaolin school (南少林) or are related to a cultural group such as the Hakka (客家) and their pugilistic arts of Bak-mei () and Dragon Style (). The first exposure of Chinese martial arts in the West can be trace to the migration from the Southern provinces of Guangdong (廣東), Fujian and the cities of Guangzhou (Canton; 廣州) and Hong Kong (香港).  

(China in relation to the World)

(Northern Chinese Provinces)

(Southern Chinese Provinces)

Ancient China

The development of Chinese martial arts started at the dawn of civilization. The conditions at this period were cruel and merciless. People used tools made from sticks and stone to defend them selves and control their environment. Their goal was survival and there were no formal systems of martial arts. Through practice and an oral tradition, methods for hunting and self defense slowly accumulated from one generation to the next. As humans become civilized, fighting became specialized and training was formalized. Techniques for hunting and self defense as well as the spirit of competition lead to the development of hand-to-hand and weapons combat as a sport. The creation of formal fighting groups resulted in specialized training of soldiers for combat. As society steadily evolved from a nomadic hunting and gathering culture to that of a static agrarian society, combat techniques evolved into methods of self-cultivation and health maintenance.  This is the origins of martial arts.

Ancient China starts from the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (Chinese: 三皇五帝; pinyin: Sānhuáng wǔdì; Wade-Giles: San-huang wu-ti) period that occur from 2852 BC to 2205 BC to the Qing Dynasty (1368 - 1911) - a span of more than 4,000 years. This period is shrouded in myths and mystery. The information is derived mainly through an oral tradition that were recorded thousands of years later. The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August ones, were described as "god-kings" with magical powers.  They were created with the invention of the Eight Trigrams (八卦), the plow and many other technical innovations. According to tradition, the roots of Chinese civilization including the martial arts were created, systematized and then developed in this period.

Xuan Yuan (轩辕黄帝), the Yellow Emperor, is often credited as the founder of the Chinese Nation as well as the various tools of civilization such as writing, medicine and the martial arts. He is reputed to have been born about 2704 BC and begun his rule as emperor in 2697 BC. He was the first of the Fiver Emperors and was known for his humanity, intelligence, and wisdom, as well as his martial arts abilities. Various ancient histories described his proficiency with spears, halberds and using the practice of jiao di (horn butting) in combat against his arch enemy, Chi You (蚩尤). He is regarded as one of the founders of Taoism (道教始祖).   This appeal to legend and myths can still be found in the origins of different styles of Chinese martial arts.

As Chinese civilization evolved, evidence of the importance of martial arts appears in historical records. The first historical records described the sport of Bo (搏, striking) skills being practiced by China’s ruling classes during the Xia Dynasty (Chinese: 夏朝; pinyin: Xiàcháo; Wade-Giles: hsia-ch'ao; 2070 BCE–ca. 1600 BCE). In addition, there were records describing fighting between unarmed opponents against edge weapons.

The philosophy of Confucius (Chinese: 孔子; pinyin: Kǒng zǐ; Wade-Giles: K'ung-tzu, or Chinese: 孔夫子; pinyin: Kǒng Fūzǐ; Wade-Giles: K'ung-fu-tzu), lit. "Master Kong," (traditionally September 28, 551 B.C.E. – 479 B.C.E.) and his contemporary Mozi (Chinese: 墨子; pinyin: Mòzǐ; Wade-Giles: Mo Tzu, Lat. as Micius, ca. 470 BCE–ca. 391 BCE) recognized the importance of martial arts. Both philosophies stress the importance of martial ability both as an individual and for the state. The writings of Confucius and the ideas of Mozi became the roots of Chinese martial art philosophy.

History continues to reinforce the value of the martial arts. By 209 BC, when the first emperor of Qin completed the unification of China (221–206 BCE), there were records of wrestling being designated as an official ceremonial military sport. The Han Dynasty (simplified Chinese: 汉朝; traditional Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàn Cháo; Wade-Giles: Han Ch'ao; 206 BCE–220 CE) was the second imperial dynasty of China. It was founded by the peasant rebel leader Liu Bang (劉邦, 256 BCE or 247 BCE–1 June, 195 BC). His rise to power is attributed to his martial prowess.

Over the course of the next four hundred years, the importance of martial arts emerges in the historical texts such as the Han History Biographies (206 BC – 8 BC), Sima Qian’s (司馬遷) Shi Ji – Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 100 BCE) and the Zhao Ye’s (趙曄) Spring and Autumn Annals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yue (《吴越春秋》; Wu Yue chunqui; First century BC), provided description of various military skills including the shoubo (手搏, hand striking), jiaoli (角力; juélì ; jiǎolì ; a form of wrestling), archery, fencing and chariot racing. The earliest physical evidence of Chinese exercise system can be seen in the Mawangdui Silk Texts (馬王堆帛書) that dates back to 168 BCE. Those texts contain pictures and descriptions of various forms of martial arts and health exercise. Semblances of those forms can be seen today.

The description of Chinese martial arts extends beyond the physical activity. A system and philosophy was established in conjunction with the practice. As Chinese civilization evolves, different ideas and philosophies struggle to claim dominance. The development of martial arts reflects those struggles and this is how martial arts eventually became a representative component of Chinese culture. Those ancient texts such as the Records of the Grand Historian and the “Spring and Autumn Annals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yue” describe the philosophical and ethnical basis for the martial arts through their description of the actions of famous wandering knights. They are considered to be a predecessor to the current martial arts genre. An example of using martial arts to illustrate a philosophical idea can be found in the “Spring and Autumn Annals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yue”. The famous historical character known as the “Maiden of Yue” (越女; Yue Nui) introduced the concept of “hard” and “soft” in performing sword techniques. 

The importance of Chinese martial arts extends to the turmoil of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 CE). Mired in a civil war, various factions, representing different ideas and philosophies, began to compete for the future of China. Each competing fiefdom nurtured its own armies. Literature from this period describes the fighting arts such as shoubo (wrestling), jiaodi (contest of strength involving head butting with cattle horns) and the inclusion of weapons in the performing arts (such as Peking operas). The importance of the martial spirit was captured in the popular novel, San Guo (Romance of the Three Kingdoms (simplified Chinese: 三国演义; traditional Chinese: 三國演義; pinyin: sānguó yǎnyì) ) written by Luo Guanzhong (simplified Chinese: 罗贯中; traditional Chinese: 羅貫中; pinyin: Luó Guànzhōng; Wade-Giles: Lo Kuan-chung, c. 1330?-1400?[1]) in the 14th century. The novel describes the struggles of Cao Cao (Cáo Chinese: 曹操; pinyin: Cáo Cāo; 155 – March 15, 220) and his battle to unify China. In the novel, each character and situation reinforces ideas found in martial arts practice. For example, the emphasis on loyalty, skills in personal combat and the importance of strategy. A major character, Guan Yu (simplified Chinese: 关羽; traditional Chinese: 關羽; pinyin: Guān Yǔ) is honored in many martial arts traditions for his loyalty and righteousness to this day.

The development of Chinese martial arts is also influenced by the developments in Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM). According to tradition, the origins of Chinese medicine is attributed to the Yellow Emperor (2698 - 2596 BCE) and his Neijing: Suwen or Inner Canon: Basic Questions (《内经•素问》). The book Huangdi Neijing (《黄帝内经》, Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon)'s title is often mistranslated as Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Modern scholars have attributed this text to be compiled during the Han dynasty. Influenced heavily by Taoist concepts, this book describes the roles of the meridians, and the internal / external aspects of the body. Ge Hong (Chinese: 葛洪; pinyin: Gě Hóng; Wade-Giles: Ko Hung, 283–343), a famous physician and Taoist philosopher, is credited with integrating the practice of martial arts with the study of qigong. Hua Tuo (華佗; 208) is created with the creation of the Wuqinxi (五禽戲 "Frolics of the Five Animals"), a series of exercises based on movements of the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and crane. These theories of "external and internal work" are still applied in kung fu today.

Bodhidharma (DaMo, 菩提達摩) arrived in China in 527 A.D during the Liang Dynasty (502-557). He is credited as First Patriarch of Chan (Zen, 禪, 禅) Buddhism as well as introducing internal exercises to the Shaolin Temple (少林寺). According to legend, he mediated for nine years and finally produced two texts: Yi Jin Jing (易筋經, Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and Xi Sui Jin (Marrow/Brain Washing Classic) to teach the Shaolin monks how to improve their physical stamina and nourish their Chi. He is often honored as the creator of Shaolin kung fu.

For the next thousand years, China encounters successive series of wars both internal and external. Technology and culture also developed at a rapid pace. The development of martial arts also played a prominent role. Often, knowledge of the martial arts was required in order to pass the military examination process for the imperial courts. Martial arts also permeated society, as agile performers displayed their skills in the street and in the theatres. Many martial arts societies were formed so that people could protect themselves against lawlessness and the unjust rule of the central government. An example of the influence of the martial arts can be seen in the popular novel, Water Margin (simplified Chinese: 水浒传; traditional Chinese: 水滸傳; pinyin: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn) (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh, All Men Are Brothers or The Marshes of Mount Liang) first compiled in the 1300’s. This book describes the events that led 108 people (105 men and 3 women) to abandon lawful society and band together as leaders of the outlaw fortress on Mt. Liang in the Liangshan Marsh during The Song Dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng Cháo; Wade-Giles: Sung Ch'ao, 960-1276). Each of those characters had outstanding martial arts training. For example, Wu Song (武松) was so skilful that he could fight and defeat a tiger with his bare hands.

The Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo) rose up out of a peasant rebellion and ruled over the greatest economic and social revolution in China before the modern period. Once again, martial arts were an important part of society. During this period, Qi Jiguang (戚继光, November 12, 1528 – January 5, 1588), a well-known general, compiled a book that presents 16 different styles of bare-hand exercises and another 40 of spear- and cudgel-play, each with detailed explanations and illustrations. His books,  Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書) and Record of Military Training (練兵實紀), also describes various kung fu theories, training methods and military strategies.

Underground martial arts societies flourished once again near the end and after the fall of the Ming, because of the opposition to the foreign Qing rulers. In response, the Qing rulers limited the practice of martial arts to the elite and nobility. However, martial arts continued to be pervasive among the general population, and many of the current kung fu styles can be traced to this era. 

Hunting in prehistorical times)

one of the Three Sovereigns)

Yellow Emperor)


(Liu Bang giving tributes)

(Shi ji)

(Mawangdui Silk Texts)

("Maiden of Yue"; 越女; Yue Nui)

(Lui Bei with his adviser Zhuge Liang and his sworn brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei)

(Techniques of the Five Animal Frolics)

(Techniques from the Yin Jin Jing)

(Wu song defeating the tiger)

(General Qi Jiguang)

(Books on martial arts)

Modern China

The present views of Chinese martial arts are strongly influenced by the events of the Republican Period (1912–1949). In the transition period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty as well as the turmoil of the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War, Chinese martial arts became more accessible to the general public as many martial artists were encouraged to openly teach their art. At that time, some considered martial arts as a means to promote national pride and build a strong nation. As a result, many training manuals (拳谱) were published, a training academy was created,two National examinations were organized as well as demonstration teams traveled overseas and numerous martial arts associations were formed throughout China and in various overseas Chinese communities. The Jing Wu Athletic Association (精武體育會/精武体育会) founded by Huo Yuanjia (Chinese: 霍元甲; pinyin: Huò Yuánjiǎ; Cantonese: Fok Yuen Gap; c.1868-1911) in 1910 is an example of the type of organization that promoted a systematic approach for training in Chinese martial arts.

In 1928, the Nationalist government, under President Chiang Kai-Shek, established the Central Guoshu Academy (Zhongyang Guoshuguan, 中央國術館/中央国术馆) in Nanking. Many famous masters and practitioners were recruited for this institute. The traditional name "Wushu" (martial techniques) was changed to "Zhong Guo Wushu" (Chinese martial techniques) or simply "Guoshu" (country techniques). This was the first time in Chinese history that a central government was to combine all the different styles of Chinese martial arts under one teaching institution. Unfortunately, when World War II broke out in 1937, all training was discontinued.

A series of provincial and national competitions were organized by the Republican government starting in 1932 to promote Chinese martial arts. In 1936, at the 11th Olympic Games in Berlin, a group of Chinese martial artists demonstrated their art to an international audience for the first time. Eventually, those events lead to the popular view of martial arts as a sport.

Chinese martial arts started to spread internationally with the end of the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Many well known martial artists chose to escape from the PRC's rule and migrate to Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world. Those masters started to teach within the overseas Chinese communities but eventually they expanded their teachings to include people from other ethnic groups.

Within China, the practice of traditional martial arts was discouraged during the turbulent years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1969–1976). Like many other aspects of traditional Chinese life, martial arts were subjected to a radical transformation by the People's Republic of China in order to align them with Maoist revolutionary doctrine. The PRC promoted the committee-regulated sport of Wushu as a replacement to independent schools of martial arts. This new competition sport was disassociated from what was seen as the potentially subversive self-defense aspects and family lineages of Chinese martial arts.

In 1958, the government established the All-China Wushu Association as an umbrella organization to regulate martial arts training. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports took the lead in creating standardized forms for most of the major arts. During this period, a national Wushu system that included standard forms, teaching curriculum, and instructor grading was established. Wushu was introduced at both the high school and university level. The suppression of traditional teaching was relaxed during the Era of Reconstruction (1976–1989), as Communist ideology became more accommodating to alternative viewpoints.

In 1979, the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports created a special task force to reevaluate the teaching and practice of Wushu. In 1986, the Chinese National Research Institute of Wushu was established as the central authority for the research and administration of Wushu activities in the People's Republic of China. Changing government policies and attitudes towards sports in general lead to the closing of the State Sports Commission (the central sports authority) in 1998. This closure is viewed as an attempt to partially de-politicize organized sports and move Chinese sport policies towards a more market-driven approach. As a result of these changing sociological factors within China, both traditional styles and modern Wushu approaches are being promoted by the Chinese government.

In 1990, the International Wushu Federation (IWUF) was established and is now one of the largest organizations governing the sport of Wushu. In 2008, IWUF placed a bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have wushu included in future Olympic Games, but did not meet with success. However, the IOC allowed China to organize an international wushu event during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but this event is not one of the 28 official Olympic sports, nor is it a demonstration event. Instead, it was called the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Wushu Tournament. In 2009, the 10th World Wushu Championships was held in Toronto, Canada. .

(Huo Yuanjia, founder of the Jing Wu Athletic Association)

(Techniques performed at the Central Guoshu Academy)

(Chang Tung Sheng noted Shuai jiao practitioner was a heavy weight champion of the 5th National Kuo Shu Tournament in 1933.)

(Book burning during the Cultural Revolution.)

(A typical modern Wushu performance with difficult aerial techniques)

(IWUF and the 10th World Wushu Championship)

The World

Chinese culture and civilization suffered many setbacks due to colonialism, the two world wars, the Japanese invasion, and a savage civil war. Martial arts practitioners were instrumental in defending the country, but they too were swept up by turmoil of the period.

By the end of the civil war, China was effectively divided in two: Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Some martial artists escaped to Taiwan or to other foreign countries, but many more stayed behind. More traumatic to Chinese philosophy was the final realization that China was no longer the center of the Universe.

Over time, the culture and philosophy of the Far East spread to other areas of the world. Initially, practice of the martial arts was limited to the small immigrant populations that left their homeland. The large movement of people that occurred during the Second World War, however, as well as the subsequent conflicts of the Cold War introduced the West to the martial arts tradition. The Japanese sport of Judo and Okinawan karate was some of the first styles to gain acceptance. During the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's, other styles from the Far East spread to the West: Aikido and Jujitsu from Japan, Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do from Korea. Chinese martial arts did not reach the popular masses until the advent of Bruce Lee. With three movies, Bruce Lee single-handedly generated a huge interest in Chinese kung fu, although he never actually trained extensively in any traditional style except Wing Chung. Still, his athletic ability and charisma attracted the public to this ancient tradition. Over time, this interest led to a deeper appreciation of the variety of Chinese martial arts. Today, we live in a global village, where everyone has access to information and quality instruction in the rich heritage of the Chinese martial arts. This tradition first developed in China is now part of the cultural fabric of the world.

(Chinese Kung Fu demonstration in Vietnam)

(Bruce Lee 李小龍 1940 - 1973)

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