Chinese Kungfu: Behind the “Craze”

Chinese Kungfu, with Taichi as one of its genres, has become a magic key for foreigners to open the door to Chinese culture. This is because it embodies the essence of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrines.

Students at “Chinese Bridge” Summer Camp learning Kungfu at Shaolin Temple.
Students at “Chinese Bridge” Summer Camp learning Kungfu at Shaolin Temple.

Contributing Writer
Cai Min
特约记者 蔡敏
For foreigners fascinated by and obsessed with Chinese Kungfu, what a rewarding experience it would be to practice Taichi upon the towering Great Wall, in the gentle breeze while savoring Oriental philosophy in lofty sentiment. Chinese Kungfu, with Taichi as one of its genres, has become a magic key for foreigners to open the door to Chinese culture. This is because it embodies the essence of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrines. It abandons the traditional concept of using strength to overpower in fights and reflects the classical ethics, etiquettes and cultivation of Oriental China.

A 50-episode TV drama The Legend of Bruce Lee was quite popular in 2008 in China. The average audience rating exceeded all other TV dramas broadcast on CCTV channels over the past 7 years. People can’t help but exclaim, “The ‘unrivaled box-office value’ of Kungfu King Bruce Lee is still as fresh as it was 35 years ago!”

In fact, the marriage of Kungfu and movie has brought continued surges of Kungfu craze, from the fist-waving and shouting Bruce Lee to contemporary Hollywood stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, from the first Chinese film Ding Jun Shan produced in the beginning of the 20th century to The Shaolin Temple released in 1979, during the early days of China’s Reform and Opening-up, which won sweeping popularity around the country, followed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the more recent The Forbidden Kingdom. They have inspired Westerners’ imagination of Chinese Kungfu, which is seen as the key to understanding Chinese culture. And in recent years, Chinese Kungfu has been enjoying drastic increase in popularity worldwide riding upon the wave of Chinese Culture craze.

Chinese Kungfu is one of the themes of modern stage drama.
Chinese Kungfu is one of the themes of modern stage drama.

Foreigners’ “Kungfu Dream”

“I knew of Chinese martial arts through movies and TV, and I expected to learn how to fly over the eaves and run on the walls just like the movie stars,” said Alphonse, a German boy now studying in the Shaolin Epo Wushu School in Henan Province. So what is his everyday life like now? He will get up at 5:10 to do morning exercises, have breakfast at 7:00, attend academic courses from 8:30 to 11:00, and receive Kungfu training from 15:30 to 18:00. He plans to spend 2.5 years at the school and then go to another sacred land of Kungfu — Wudang Mountain.

In Dengfeng City, Henan Province, there are several hundred foreigners, who came from afar for seeking their “Kungfu Dream” just like Alphonse. The city boasts 83 Kungfu academies and schools with up to 50,000 regular students.

Russian President Vladimir Putin who visited the Songshan Shaolin Temple in Henan in March 2006, drew worldwide attention. Sources said that the visit had a lot to do with his 2 daughters, who became students of Shi Yankang, the chief coach of Warrior Monks Group of China’s Songshan Shaolin Temple when the Russian Shaolin Martial Arts Research Center recruited over 20 girls in 2003. Shi Yankang is revered in Moscow, and whenever he goes shopping, he will be stopped by Russians requesting a picture with him.

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Recent statistics show that more than 50 countries and regions have schools and organizations that specialize in Shaolin martial arts, training over 3 million non- Chinese students. As much as 10 million people have visited Shaolin Temple over the past 20 years. Confucius Institute Shaolin Kungfu Summer (Winter) Camp is rather welcome among students. It was initiated this year and received 213 students from U.S. Confucius Institutes. It will regularly receive students from Confucius Institutes around the world.

According to Shi Yongxin, abbot of the Shaolin Temple, Shaolin culture now enjoys global influence and is changing the way China is viewed. Shaolin culture is an integral part of Chinese culture, and exchanges in martial arts will help promote the friendship between people of China and the rest of the world.

Compared with Shaolin Kungfu, Taichi is more popular in foreign countries as it is much easier to learn. It is estimated that more than 80 million people in over 150 countries and regions practice Taichi. It has become a must for employees of some major Western corporations to gather together to practice Taichi, even if they are in their suits and ties. Learning Chinese while practicing Taichi has emerged as a slogan of many overseas language schools…

A foreigner learning from a Taoist Abbot of Wudang Mountain.
A foreigner learning from a Taoist Abbot of Wudang Mountain.

“Kungfu Culture”

Practicing Taichi on the Great Wall is a perfect way to experience the beauty of Oriental culture for many foreigners obsessed with Chinese Kungfu. In the eyes of many people, Taichi is full of Oriental philosophy and its movements convey the charm of nobility.

Philip Saburuina from Italian Wushu Federation has learned Wudang martial arts for 10 years. She said she switched to Chinese Kungfu after 10 years of Taekwondo. According to this Italian girl, Chinese Kungfu and its culture are more conducive to a person’s physical and mental health, bringing peace of mind and harmony with nature.

Polish youngster Jan is one of the first students of Yuan Wenqing, “the Prince of World Martial Arts”. Jan said he has won a number of Kungfu championship titles in Poland and Kungfu relaxes him.

To Jet Li, a legendary Kungfu film star with a 35-year career, “Violence is powerless.” He hoped that by watching Fearless, people can comprehend the purpose of learning martial arts, the essence of Chinese Kungfu and the ultimate goal of Wushu.

Why do we learn martial arts? What is Chinese Kungfu? What is the ultimate goal of Kungfu? To answer these questions, we need to delve into the developing history of Chinese martial arts.

Shaolin Kungfu enjoys a history of 1,500 years and Taichi has been practiced for more than 300 years. The offensive and defensive moves of Chinese Kungfu are carriers of Chinese culture. By assimilating the essence of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrines, abandoning the traditional concept of using strength to overpower in fights and pushing the limbdominated fighting boundaries, Chinese Kungfu is infused with classical ethics, etiquettes and cultivation and thus radiates with a unique Oriental charm.

By assimilating the essence of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrines, abandoning the traditional concept of using strength to overpower in fights and pushing the limbdominated fighting boundaries, Chinese Kungfu is infused with classical ethics, etiquettes and cultivation and thus radiates with a unique Oriental charm.

Through Chinese Kungfu, we can savor the soul of traditional Chinese culture, namely “Upholding Harmony and Golden Mean”. It is a philosophy acquired through gradual martial arts training and can be applied in the settlement of conflicts, eventually leading to peace and harmonious coexistence. Take Soft Fist for instance; it is primarily aimed at “befriending” people instead of attacking people. Just as Quan Jing, a book on Chinese boxing puts it, we should uphold ethics instead of physical strength. Two thousand years ago, Zuo Zhuan, a famous cultural and ideological classic from the Spring and Autumn Dynasty, has defined the ethics of Kungfu, as suppress violence, disarm military forces, protect the land, justify rights, befriend the public, and increase wealth. In contemporary China, the Central National Wushu Club also took “patriotism, self-cultivation, justice and readiness to help others” as their Wushu principles. These ethics has always been strongly advocated by all genres of Kungfu. Only by constant body-building and ethics cultivation, can one genuinely uphold the spirit of loving Wushu and respecting morality.

An understanding of the essence of Chinese Kungfu is comparable to a window open to Chinese culture.

Statue of Bruce Lee.
Statue of Bruce Lee.

Usher in a New Lifestyle

In Chenjiagou village, Wenxian county, Hebei Province where Taichi originated, almost all villagers, young and old, practice Taichi. And there is an interesting saying: “Drink some water from Chenjiagou village, and you will naturally acquire some Taichi skills.”

If you go to Beijing Tongzhou Canal Culture Square in the morning, you’ll see people doing exercises with music accompaniment everywhere: dozens of senior citizens practicing Taichi , stretching gently and slowly in an air of calmness, exhibiting strength in gentleness; people swaying their swords in dance steps, and around 100 seniors practicing Taichi Fan at the center of the Square. This offers a glimpse into modern urban life, and it is indeed their new way of life.

Bruce Lee said: “Kungfu is practiced not just to smash stones or wood boards, but to have an impact on our thinking and way of life.”

According to Cai Longyun, Vice-Chairman of Chinese Wushu Association and a Kungfu master himself, modern Kungfu has changed from an offensive and defensive means to a way of promoting fitness. “A few decades ago, the Kungfu that can rapidly knock down an opponent in actual combats is considered best, while in modern times, the stress has shifted to elegance and standardized moves,” he said. According to Cai, while purely offensive and defensive Wushu isn’t for everyone, elegant and standardized Wushu movements can be more easily acquired by the general public at a time when mass participation is needed to promote Wushu. A move in this direction is essential to popularize Kungfu worldwide.

The current Kungfu craze among the public in the world is more oriented towards physical and mental fitness.

In an interview with a U.S. magazine, Jet Li said that the notions of “qi”, “spirit” and “equal emphasis on inner and outer qualities” advocated in traditional Chinese Wushu are not mysterious. More importantly, fitness and Kungfu enable people to enjoy inner peace and help open their hearts. Mental health is an important contributor to longevity.

According to Jet Li, to lead a genuinely healthy way of life, one should place equal emphasis on both physical and mental health. If Wushu learners, become more aggressive after martial arts training, they will run against achieving real health. Wushu ethics is by no means empty talk–it promotes a healthy mindset and lifestyle.

Just as Bruce Lee said, “Kungfu is practiced not just to smash stones or wood boards, but to have an impact on our thinking and way of life,” Chinese Kungfu has taken on a fresh form and integrated into ordinary people’s lives, impacting their thoughts and way of life.


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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 01. 
Volume I. March 2009.

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