Kung fu (term)
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In general, kung fu/kungfu or gung fu/gongfu (// ( listen) or //; 功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) refers to the Chinese martial arts, also called wushu and quanfa. In China, it refers to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete. In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial arts. The Chinese literal equivalent of "Chinese martial art" would be 中国武术 zhōngguó wǔshù.
There are many forms of kung fu, namely Shaolin Kung Fu, Wing Chun, Tai chi, etc. and are practiced all over the world. Each form of kung fu has its own principles and techniques. It is only in the late twentieth century, that this term was used in relation to Chinese martial arts by the Chinese community. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term "kung-fu" as "a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate." This illustrates how the meaning of this term has been changed in English. The origin of this change can be attributed to the misunderstanding or mistranslation of the term through movie subtitles or dubbing.
In Chinese, gōngfu (功夫) is a compound of two words, combining 功 (gōng) meaning "work", "achievement", or "merit", and 夫 (fū) which is alternately treated as being a word for "man" or as a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings (the same character is used to write both). A literal rendering of the first interpretation would be "achievement of man", while the second is often described as "work and time/effort". Its connotation is that of an accomplishment arrived at by great effort of time and energy. In Mandarin, when two "first tone" words such as gōng and fū are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu. The word is also sometimes written as 工夫, this version often being used for more general, non-martial arts usages of the term.
Originally, practicing 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. It refers to excellence achieved through long practice in any endeavor. This meaning can be traced to classical writings, especially those of Neo-Confucianism, which emphasize the importance of effort in education.
In the colloquial, one 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. The colloquial use of the term has thus returned to the original literal meaning. Someone with "bad kung fu" simply has not put enough time and effort into training, or seems to lack the motivation to do so. Kung fu is also a name used for the elaborate Fujian tea ceremony (kung fu cha).
However, the phrase 功夫武術 (kung fu wu shu) does exist in Chinese and could be (loosely) translated as 'the skills of the martial arts'.
In popular culture
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References to the concepts and use of Chinese martial arts can be found in popular culture. Historically, the influence of Chinese martial arts can be found in books and in the performance arts specific to Asia. Recently, those influences have extended to the movies and television that targets a much wider audience. As a result, Chinese martial arts have spread beyond its ethnic roots and have a global appeal.
Martial arts play a prominent role in the literature genre known as wuxia (武俠小說). This type of fiction is based on Chinese concepts of chivalry, a separate martial arts society (武林; Wulin) and a central theme involving martial arts. Wuxia stories can be traced as far back as 2nd and 3rd century BCE, becoming popular by the Tang Dynasty and evolving into novel form by the Ming Dynasty. This genre is still extremely popular in much of Asia and provides a major influence for the public perception of the martial arts.
Martial arts influences can also be found in dance, theater and especially Chinese opera, of which Beijing opera is one of the best-known examples. This popular form of drama dates back to the Tang Dynasty and continues to be an example of Chinese culture. Some martial arts movements can be found in Chinese opera and some martial artists can be found as performers in Chinese operas.
In modern times, Chinese martial arts have spawned the genre of cinema known as the Kung fu film. The films of Bruce Lee were instrumental in the initial burst of Chinese martial arts' popularity in the West in the 1970s. Bruce Lee was the iconic international superstar that popularized Chinese martial arts in the West. The influence of Chinese martial art have been widely recognized and have a global appeal in Western cinemas starting off with Bruce Lee.
Martial artists and actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan have continued the appeal of movies of this genre. Jackie Chan successfully brought in a sense of humour in his fighting style in his movies. Martial arts films from China are often referred to as "kung fu movies" (功夫片), or "wire-fu" if extensive wire work is performed for special effects, and are still best known as part of the tradition of kung fu theater. (see also: wuxia, Hong Kong action cinema). The talent of these individuals have broadened Hong Kong's cinematography production and rose to popularity overseas, influencing Western cinemas.
In the west, kung fu has become a regular action staple, and makes appearances in many films that would not generally be considered "Martial Arts" films. These films include but are not limited to The Matrix Trilogy, Kill Bill, and The Transporter.
Martial arts themes can also be found on television networks. A U.S. network TV western series of the early 1970s called Kung Fu also served in an attempt to mainstream the Chinese martial arts on television. With 60 episodes over a three-year span, it was one of the first North American TV shows that tried to convey the philosophy and practice in Chinese martial arts. The use of Chinese martial arts techniques can now be found in most TV action series, although the philosophy of Chinese martial arts is seldom portrayed in depth.
Influence on Hip Hop
In the 1970s, Bruce Lee was beginning to gain popularity in Hollywood for his martial arts movies. The fact that he was a non-white male who portrayed self-reliance and righteous self-discipline resonated with black audiences and made him an important figure in this community. Around 1973, Kung Fu movies became a hit in America across all backgrounds; however, black audiences maintained the films’ popularity well after the general public lost interest. Urban youth in New York City were still going from every borough to Times Square every night to watch the latest movies. Amongst these individuals were those coming from the Bronx where, during this time, hip-hop was beginning to take form. One of the pioneers responsible for the development of the foundational aspects of hip-hop was DJ Kool Herc, who began creating this new form of music by taking rhythmic breakdowns of songs and looping them. From the new music came a new form of dance known as b-boying or breakdancing, a style of street dance consisting of improvised acrobatic moves. The pioneers of this dance credit kung fu as one of its influences. Moves such as the crouching low leg sweep and “up rocking” (standing combat moves) are influenced by choreographed kung-fu fights. The dancers’ ability to improvise these moves led way to battles, which were dance competitions between two dancers or crews judged on their creativity, skills and musicality. In a documentary, Crazy Legs, a member of breakdancing group Rock Steady Crew, described the breakdancing battle being like an old kung fu movie, “where the one kung fu master says something along the lines of ‘hun your kung fu is good, but mine is better,’ then a fight erupts.”
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- Phil Hoad, "Why Bruce Lee and kung fu films hit home with black audiences", The Guardian
- Wisdom B, "Know Your Hip-Hop History: The B-Boy", Throwback Magazine
- "Kung Fu Influences Aspects of Hip Hop Culture Like Break Dancing". 9 October 2017.