1. What is a Martial Art?
2. What is Kung Fu?
3. Are there different kinds of Kung Fu?
4. How is Kung Fu different from Karate, Judo, or Tae Kwon Do?
5. Which style should I study?
6. What about Rankings and Color Belt Systems?
7. What is the significance of the black belt or sash?
8. How long would it take me to get a black belt (or it's equivalent)?
9. Should children study Kung Fu?
10. Is Kung Fu tied to certain religious beliefs?
11. What is Qi (Chi)?

1. What is a Martial Art?
A Martial Art can be defined as a system of techniques, physical and mental exercises developed as an effective means for self-defense and offense, both unarmed and with the use of weapons.

The origin and history of Martial Arts is a controversial issue. There is evidence that combat skills were organized and taught since before the dawn of civilization. We can see ancient signs of Martial Arts in Greek, Egyptian, African, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, as well as other cultures. There is a clear trail leading from the Southern China regions up to Korea, Okinawa and Japan. The details before that, and the exact details of that transfer, are greatly debated by historians and Martial Artists alike.

2. What is Kung Fu?
2. What is Kung Fu?
In general, Kung Fu is a label used to describe any Martial Art that comes from China. It is the generic name for literally hundreds of individual Chinese fighting arts, both "internal" and "external," ancient and of relatively recent invention.

The words "Kung Fu" can be literally translated as "skill from effort". It can be used to describe anything that requires a person to invest both time and effort into training to become skillful. In these terms, a chef, artist, musician or computer programmer can all be said to have good "kung fu".

It is said that the term "Kung Fu" gained widespread use in reference to Chinese Martial Arts during the influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States during the 1800s. An alternate spelling, "Gung Fu," was made popular by the late Bruce Lee during the 1970's. Lee's spelling is actually the most accurate, as the pronunciation is closer to the hard "G" sound of the English "good" or "gong" than the sharp "K" of "king" or "kong."

Regardless of spelling or pronunciation, the term "Kung Fu" has become ingrained in popular consciousness as synonymous with Chinese Martial Arts. Therefore, this is the term used throughout this web site.


3. Are there different kinds of Kung Fu? There are literally hundreds of different Kung Fu styles, and then there are sub-styles and family styles within those. The variations are complex and wide ranging. These different styles of Kung Fu encompass what can be termed "soft" or "internal" as well as "hard" or "external." Some styles emphasize strikes and kicks, others include grappling, ground-fighting or pressure-point attacks. The arts of Kung Fu also includes a vast variety of weapons training.

There are many ways in which the various styles can be divided or categorized. Here are a few ways that might be useful in defining and discussing the various arts. Note that these are not necessarily consensus definitions but they are commonly held. Note, too, that very few of these styles are just one way or another. All are mixtures of these elements in various degrees. When we say a style is "hard" what we mean is that the predominant expression of that style is hard. If we say Praying Mantis is linear, it does not mean Praying Mantis has no circular techniques.

"Sport" vs "Fighting Art" vs. "Exercise" vs. "Philosophy"
These are usually NON-useful comparisons because people tend to be very strongly opinionated on this matter. Most people want to think their art is an ancient "fighting art" and can be applied thus on the street. Some styles truly are all four, and to some degree all styles contain all four elements. In discussions of a style it is most useful when people highlight which area or areas their style emphasizes.

"Linear" vs. "Circular"
This distinction refers to lines of movement in attack and defense. "Circular" styles use circular movements (ie, around and aside) to redirect, attack or otherwise move in relation to the opponant. "Linear" styles use direct, straight-on movements, attacks or head-on blocks. Styles can, and sometimes do, mix circular blocks with linear attacks. This is a subtle distinction and not absolute, but it gives some information.

"Soft" vs. "Hard"
"Soft" styles tend to redirect energy, channeling and diverting momentum to unbalance an opponent or to move them into striking range. They tend to be lower commitment and use less physical force. Because of this emphasis, they are less likely to be unbalanced and can recover from redirection easier. Often a great deal of emphasis is placed on learning to use internal energy and skills such as "listening" and "sticking." Some examples are Taijiquan, Xingyi, Baji and Baguazhang.

"Hard" styles tend to direct energy outward and meet energy with energy. They will tend to strike more, and deliver more force with each strike. Hard stylists will often damage with their blocks, turning them into attacks. They deliver more power, and thus are harder to turn aside, but they are higher commitment, and thus don't recover as well from mistakes. Examples are Bei Shaolin Changquan (Northern Shaolin Long Fist), Hongjia (Hung Gar), Heihuquan (Black Tiger) and Xizang Baihe (Tibetan White Crane).

"Internal" vs. "External"
"Internal" styles are styles that emphasize the more non-tangible elements of the arts. They utilize Qi flow, rooting, and those elements which some people consider "mystical". They tend to emphasize meditation, body control, perception, mind control (of self, not others!), and pressure points. 'Typically,' internal styles are soft. Taijiquan is a popular internal style.

"External" styles tend to emphasize body mechanics, leverage, and applied force. They tend to use weight, strength, positioning, and anatomy to optimal advantage. 'Typically,' external styles are hard. Shaolin Monk Fist (Luohanquan) is an external style.

"Complete Art" or "Not"
The term "complete art" is sometimes applied to styles that includes the full range of martial techniques: strikes, kicks, throws, pressure points, and joint locks. Most Kung Fu styles can be called "complete arts," but although some styles contain more techniques than others, no single style is "complete" in the sense that it includes all the important techniques from other styles. In general, every style has its strong and weak points, and each has something to offer to the lexicon of martial arts techniques.


4. How is Kung Fu different from Karate, Judo, or Tae Kwon Do? Judo is a sport that involves primarily throwing and grappling. It is very similar to western wrestling, and was invented in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano, in Japan, specifically as a sport. Karate was originally an Okinawan method of combat that almost completely dispenses with throws. Its blocks are hard and it is a power oriented style. Tae Kwon Do is a Korean art, similar to karate, that emphasizes the feet as weapons and is also very power oriented. Kung Fu has both hard and soft styles. All styles teach the use of throws, grappling holds, weapons, and self defense. It is therefore a more broad and complex system of combat than many other styles. Similar non-Chinese martial arts include Jiu Jitsu (Japan) and Hapkido (Korea).


5. Which style should I study? That's a question that only you can answer, maybe with a little help of your physician (in determining whether you should practice martial arts at all). While some people advocate that "my style fits any individual", it is very debatable if any single individual would adapt to *any* style. It depends heavily on your objectives, but remember, these may change with time. Many people who begin martial arts training strictly to learn self-defense become quite interested in other aspects as their training progresses.

Some points to consider when selecting a style...

What are you looking for?
Are you looking for self-defense, self-cultivation, physical exercise or spiritual enlightenment? Different Kung Fu styles are often best suited for particular pursuits. For instance, if you're looking for street-wise self-defence, an internal art like Taijiquan may not be your first choice. A better option for street-fighting might be a style like Praying Mantis, Wing Chun or Jeet Kun Do. On the other hand, if you are looking for meditation and philosophy then Taijiquan could be ideal.

If you're looking for involvement in a competitive sport, arts such as Shaolin Long Fist or Tian Shan Pai would probably be a secondary choice to arts such as Shuai Chiao. If you are looking for intense body conditioning and muscle development, Xingyi is probably not the style for you. For physical conditioning, a more intense style like Hongjia (Hung Gar) is probably better suited for your study.

Note that these are general guides. In truth any art can be taught in a manner which promotes any of these things. For instance, there are Taiji competitions and rigorous workouts associated with Praying Mantis classes. The way to find out is to look at three things, only one of which is directly linked to the style:

A. The basics of the style (what does it teach, what is it used for)
B. The skill and the teaching style of the teacher
C. The purpose and the logistics of the school

How much time can you devote to learning?
The "bigger" and more "complete" arts (the ones with more techniques) naturally require longer periods of time for a practitioner to achieve a given level of proficiency. Some styles are founded on the principles of becoming combat-ready in a relatively short time. Others may take years to develop usable skill. This is neither good nor bad; there are good points on both sides of the debate. This is simply another facet to account for in your decision.

Don't be afraid to "Shop Around."
Many experienced Martial Artists advise "Read, visit, ask, compare and then decide. Remember that the teacher and the school have as much to do with what you will learn as the style. Check out the styles in your area. Go see some classes of the different styles and see what interests you and what you think you would stick with.

Also, many people change from one style to another. While this is a common practice, accepted as a means of development, it is known that the first style is normally the one that leaves the base, the more profound "marks". Try to choose a style that suits your needs and at the same time offers you a kind of "challenge" to go on learning.


6. Rankings and Color Belt Systems Traditionally the Chinese arts of Kung Fu have not had a formal ranking system or colored belt model. In fact, ranking systems as we know it today have only been around about 100 years. The first modern ranking system was devised by Jigoro Kano for the sport of Judo, then later adopted by Funakoshi as Karate was spread from Okinawa to Japan. Today in the West, the spread of sport Karate and Tae Kwon Do has helped imprint the concept of colored ranking belts in the minds of most martial artists, so most commercial schools have adopted them as "standard operating procedure."

That being said, do not put too much stock in rankings, and put even less in belt color. Belt colors are HIGHLY dependent on the style, school, and instructor. Some styles don't have any belts. Some have only white and black. Some have white, brown, and black. Some have a rainbow. Some instructors hand out rank/belts like candy, others are very stingy. A given color will frequently signify different ranks in different styles.

Rather than rank or belt color, what will determine an individual's skill are how long and how intensely they have studied, the quality of instruction they have received, and (to a lesser extent) their "natural" ability..


7. What is the significance of the black belt or sash? Today the black belt or sash is given to martial arts students that have reached an advanced level of skill. In it's historical sense, the black belt signifies that this student has "put in his time" to learn the art. In ancient times, a student in training would wear a plain white belt when beginning training. Over the course of months and years, the white belt would become increasingly dark and dirty. By the time a beginner had mastered his art, his once pristine white belt was now black. When ranking systems began to be developed, the Black Belt was reserved as the mark of a long-time student in honor of this tradition.


8. How long would it take me to get a black belt (or it's equivalent)? As long as it takes, no longer and rarely sooner.

Unlike grade school and college classes that must squirt people through in a given amount of time, a martial art is boundless. That means that advancement is achieved only after the student can DO a certain level of technique. If it takes a month or a year, that is up to the student and his or her abilities, time for practice, and other individual factors. All in all, excepting the most threadbare styles and questionable requirements, it takes at least three years for most skilled people to reach the lowest level of black belt rank.


9. Should children study Kung Fu? In general, yes! Some of the possible positives would be control of aggressiveness, instilling self-respect and self-control, as well as self-defense.

The style that a child should take is a totally different question, and is directly influenced by the style, if any, of the parents. It will of course be convenient if the child can practice with, or at least in the same school as, the parents. The major issue with children in the martial arts is the integrity and trustworthiness of the teacher and the school. The joints and connective tissues of children are more vulnerable to injury than those of adults. Keep this in mind when selecting a style and school for a child, and discuss it with the instructor. Schools which allow aggressive joint locks to be applied to children or don't train them to refrain from snapping/hyper-extending elbows on strikes and knees on kicks should be avoided. (It is for this same reason that good baseball coaches will not allow young pitchers to throw pitches which require hard snapping of the arm-like curve balls). Throws, however, are quite different; the small size of children makes them naturals for arts which require falling down.


10. Is Kung Fu tied to certain religious beliefs? Some of the major styles of Kung Fu do have philosophical and religious roots or associations. For example, many Kung Fu styles originated or were influenced by the Buddhist Shaolin Temples. Other styles such as Taijiquan and the other Wudang Mountain arts are heavily influenced by Daoism. Therefore, it is natural for people who are considering Kung Fu training to wonder if it is compatible with their own philosophy or religion.

The short answer is that, regardless of influence or origin, the training and practice of Kung Fu is not inherently religious and should not conflict with most other major religions. In some schools, the Kung Fu training has almost no reference to it's religious roots; other schools try to preserve the ancient traditions by incorporating Zen meditations or Daoist philosophies. This is more often influenced by individual schools and instructors than anything else.

Normally it is not considered ethical for an instructor to try to impose his own views on his students. However, the philosophical aspects of some arts may still be present in the required training to the extent that some potential students would be offended by it. Be sure to watch for this aspect when you visit a school that you are interested in. Have a conversation with the instructor about it, and watch how he/she interacts with his/her students.


11. What is Qi (Chi)? You will likely see Qi mentioned quite a bit in your study of Kung Fu. However, there are no absolute right answers to this question. Instead of giving the one true answer to this, below are several different opinions:

A. Qi doesn't exist. Everything the Qi model tries to explain can be explained with body mechanics, biophysics, and psychology. There is no need to postulate some mysterious force. Science can explain it.

B. Qi exists absolutely. Qi is an energy, a living force, a spirit that can be used to increase your strength, throw people around, etc. Subjective experience shows that Qi is real. It may either be a bio-kinetic phenomena science doesn't understand yet or the power of the mind in union with the body.

C. Qi may or may not "really" exist. It is a useful model. The Qi model allows you to visualize how to increase your strength, throw people around, etc. It doesn't matter if it exists or not. If someone invents a better model (i.e. one that is easier to visualize), then maybe we'll switch to it.

Of the styles that stress Qi, some work on developing the flow of Qi within their bodies. An example of this approach is Taijiquan. Other styles work on letting the Qi of the universe flow through them


Disclaimer and Copyright Notice Some answers given may reflect personal biases of the author and the martial arts FAQ listing's contributors. The answers contained herein pertain to discussions on the rec.martial-arts group, and are by no means exhaustive. The martial arts FAQ list owes its existence to the contributors on the net, and as such it belongs to the readers of rec.martial-arts. Copies may be made freely, as long as they are distributed at no charge, and the disclaimer and the copyright notice are included.
-- Matthew Weigel Research Systems Programmer mcweigel+@cs.cmu.edu

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