The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Kung fu

Alternative meaning: Kung Fu (TV series)

Kung fu or gongfu (功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) is a well-known Chinese term used in the West to designate Chinese martial arts. Its original meaning is somewhat different, referring to one's expertise in any skill, not necessarily martial. Many consider wushu a better term for Chinese martial arts, as it translates directly into martial art.



The term kung fu was first known to have been reported by a Westerner, French Jesuit missionary Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, in the 18th century and was known little in the mainstream English language until approximately the late 1960s, when it became popular because of the Hong Kong films, especially those by Bruce Lee, and later Kung Fu - the television series. Before that it was referred to primarily as "Chinese boxing".


Part of the confusion around this term comes from the many ways the Chinese characters 功夫 can be romanized, as Chinese romanization systems have evolved much in the past years.

Here are some of the most common versions in use today:

  • Kung fu is undoubtedly the most widely spread. It uses the Wade-Giles romanization system; a system that many consider obsolete today.
  • Gongfu is the Hanyu Pinyin romanization. With tones included this would be written gōngfu. Even though Pinyin is currently the official system of romanization of the People's Republic of China, the spelling "gongfu" is not widely used. Pinyin is, however, a popular system used for many other similar Chinese terms, such as Qigong (instead of Ch'i Kung in Wade-Giles).
  • Gungfu or gung fu is a Cantonese version using Yale romanization. This spelling was made popular by Bruce Lee during the 1970s.

Translation and usage

Nowadays, the most common use of the term kung fu is when referring to Chinese martial arts in general. Thus, when someone says they train kung fu, they likely mean they train in one of the many styles of Chinese martial arts. The original meaning of kung fu is quite different, and is hard to translate as there is no English equivalent. In short, 功夫 (gōngfu) means "achievement through great effort" or simply virtue. It combines 功 (gōng) meaning achievement or merit, and 夫 (fū) which translates into man. In Mandarin, when two "first tone" words such as gōng and are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu.

Although the term was originally used solely in reference to Chinese martial arts, it refers to excellence achieved through long practice in any endeavor. You can say that a person's kung fu is good in cooking, or that someone has kung fu in calligraphy; saying that a person possesses kung fu in an area implies skill in that area, which they have worked hard to develop. Someone with "bad kung fu" simply has not put enough time and effort into training, or seems to lack the motivation to do so.

Originally, to practice kung fu did not just mean to practice Chinese martial arts. Instead, it referred to the process of one's training - the strengthening of the body and the mind, the learning and the perfection of one's skills - rather than to what was being trained.

There is a curious contemporary twist on this meaning in the hacker culture: there the fu has been generalized to a suffix, implying that the thing suffixed involves great skill or effort. For example, one may talk of "script-fu" to refer to complicated scripting. It is unknown whether this was consciously based on the original, broader meaning of the term or whether it was a simple wordplay on the less general Western notion of "kung fu".

As many Japanese martial arts have originally evolved from Chinese martial arts, Japanese people use this word in their native pronunciation of "koufu" (Kanji:功夫, Kana:こうふ) to describe a building site laborer.


There are various philosophies around the term kung fu, suggesting a deeper meaning. The following is an example of such a philosophy:

For a process to truly be kung fu, the following three elements must be present:

  • Motivation
  • Self-discipline
  • Time

Motivation is the basic driving force, and without it, kung fu can never be reached. It means both interest and the will to do something; a person who is forced to do something is not truly motivated. A motivated person, on the other hand, has interest in learning: they have a goal.

It is important to note a difference between the various types of motivation: A person can be motivated to do something, because if they do not they will be punished. Money can also lead to motivation, because you know that doing something will give you more money. However, the motivation kung fu strives for comes from an interest and an inner desire to learn and develop, in which the goal is not an external gain, like avoiding punishment or earning money, but an internal one, with the only reward being knowledge, skill, strength and wisdom. This motivation can be inspired, but not controlled, by other people.

Self-discipline is closely related to motivation, but refers to the effort and patience required to actually get something done, and to get past obstacles that might appear on the way towards one's goal. While motivation is the mental state of wanting to do something, discipline is required to put motivation into action: A person might want to do something very much, but lacks the required amount of discipline to get started. Without this, motivation will lead to nothing.

It is true that a competent instructor can assist a person by providing discipline, helping that person to get past obstacles. This is good, but will not last forever, and in the end, it is always up to the person herself to put her thoughts into action.

Time is essential for finding one's motivation and self-discipline, and to actually accomplish something by making use of them, but motivation and self-discipline are also important to make a person willing to put time into accomplishing their goal: to prioritize.

In later stages, once motivation and discipline have become an integral part of a person's life, it is important not to stop spending time on practice. This is said to be a very important aspect of kung fu: Many ancient Chinese philosophers and martial artists consider time the most valuable commodity in a person's lives, as time cannot be replaced. It is said that one should use time wisely, and that, to get the most out of life, must practice kung fu in every activity. By finding interest in and putting effort and time into every action, one will make the best use of time, and live a happy and productive life.

See also

Last updated: 05-21-2005 14:46:22