overused term

Kung fu (term)

This article is specifically about the term "kung fu". The martial arts often called Kung Fu are in fact synonymous with "Chinese martial arts"; for information about this, see Chinese martial arts. For other uses, see Kung fu (disambiguation).

Kung fu or gongfu or gung fu (功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) is a Chinese term often used by speakers of the English language to refer to Chinese martial arts. Its original meaning is somewhat different, referring to one's expertise in any skill, not necessarily martial.


The term kung fu was not popular until the 20th century, thus the word would be seldom found in any ancient texts. The term 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".

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 study kung fu, they likely mean they study one of the many styles of Chinese martial arts. (An alternative term might be "Zhongguo wushu" (中國武術, literally China martial art)). 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.

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. 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. Kung fu is also a name used for the elaborate Fujian tea ceremony (Kung-fu cha).

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".

In Japanese, the characters for kung fu (功夫) retain an approximation of their Chinese reading, and are pronounced kanfū (カンフー). Chinese martial arts in general are also referred to as chūgoku ken (中国拳) or chūgoku kempō(中国拳法), which translates literally to "China fist" and "China fist law," respectively. (Kempō is a generic term for a punching/striking art of Chinese origins.)

In Korean, kung fu means Chinese Martial art but a word that sounds similar is gongbu (공부), which means "study."

See also

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