EARLE'S ACADEMY VING CHUN KUEN
KUNG-FU ORIGINS & HISTORY
KUNG-FU ORIGINS - part 1
An excerpt from book in production -"VING CHUN KUEN: The Art Of Invincibility" by Kevin L. Earle (a note from the author: The following text is a rewrite of an article I once had published in the magazine 'South Pacific Martial Arts', (1975). The source of my information for that original article was from works published by Master Lee Ying-Arng ([Deceased] past vice president of the Hong Kong Kung Fu Association); thus it is to him any credit should go, while I simply present the material as accurately as possible).
Myths and legends abound in ancient history, and Chinese history is no exception. Unfortunately, myth mingled with fact causes distortion over time, leading to misrepresentation of factual events. As a result there is much confusion surrounding . . .
THE TRUE ORIGINS OF KUNG FU
A minor misconception, perhaps of little importance, is the oft repeated theory that Chinese Kung-Fu originated in India. Since many records have been lost the actual origins may never be known. In fact for those students of the Chinese martial arts simply interested in method it may be irrelevant exactly where or how Chinese fighting arts were first formally organised and practised.
However I do believe that the more serious student would delight in exploring all of the relevant material available on the subject. Since my original article was published a number of authors have published extremely well researched material on the origins of kungfu, yet still today I find many writers continue to publish the same tired old fable: that a wandering Indian Monk introduced the art of kung-fu to China.
Whatever name by which you prefer to refer to the martial arts of China, they are simply that; Chinese. Having said that, it is natural that any one of us may be influenced by contact with other cultures and traditions, and so it is fair to say that there was an Indian influence on the Chinese martial arts. But how much of an influence? To begin I shall now explore more fully the development of the 'Indian Origins' theory, before proceeding further.
Indian Origins Theory
There are at least two major reasons behind the common misconception that Chinese kung-fu originated in India. The first and most popular is the story of Damo (Boddhidharma), the wandering Indian monk who travelled to China to preach Buddhism. It is said that he received an audience with the Chinese Emporer of the time, (Leungwuti, 520).
Damo took up residence in the Shaolin monastry of Mount Shung. He was the originator of the Zen sect of Buddhism, and during his stay at Mount Shung he taught the novice monks the art of health nourishing exercises. He taught three courses: "The 18 movements of the Arhan Hands"; "The Sinew Changing"; and the "Marrow Washing" course. These courses did have an influence on the way some Chinese martial arts were practiced, however such influence was minimal and, as we will see, Damo was not the originator of Shaolin "Chi Chi" - "to strike with skill". (How could he be, since the fighting arts of China have a history that predates Damo by several thousand years?).
The second and perhaps less known reason for the spread of the 'Indian Origin' theory was drawn from the conclusions made by famous Sineologist Arthur Waley in his commentaries on the translations of certain passages of the 'Tao-Te Ching'. His conclusion was to classify the concentration of ch'i as yoga or yogic exercises, implying an Indian origin and tradition. Historical records show his conclusions to be mistaken, however western writers of the martial arts seized on these two references (Damo and yoga) and so began the colorful but mistaken theory that the origins of Chinese kung fu were to be found in India.
I would suggest, as would logical thought, that in all cultures the earliest forms of fighting would be found in the arming of oneself for hunting as well as for protection from enemies and predators. These skills were enhanced in friendly competition with family and friends, much as lion cubs or puppies might play together. A necessary development of rudimentary survival skills. People moving in packs for protection, honing their basic skills around the campfires at night, a naturally occuring formalisation of a systematic method of training.
The earliest written records of a systematic method of training in Chinese martial skill indicates that the Chinese people had formalised their self defense arts more than five thousand years ago - some 3000 years prior to Damo introducing Zen Buddhism into China.
Warfare had certainly reached a high degree of sophistication by the Shang Dynasty, (1600-1100 BC), when cavalry, chariots, and all manner of weapons were employed. Bronze artifacts from the same period depict human figures in postures recognizable as movements of Qigong. These historical discoveries indicate a much earlier origin to formalised Chinese martial arts training of close quarter combat, than is generally given.
There are four main divisions in these arts: weapons training, wrestling, hand to hand (as in striking and kicking), and the art of Health Nourishing.
One of the earliest original formalised methods of wrestling was called "Go-ti" (2600 B.C.), meaning "horn gore". This primitive style of hand to hand combat consists of two contestants wearing horns on their heads, attempting to gore at each other. Believe it or not this ancient art is still practised today on the occasion of festivals by the people of Shanshi, Honan, and Manchuria. Goti was introduced into Japan during the T'ang Dynasty (618 - 907). In ancient China Goti was practised by civilians, while soldiers practised "Chi-chi".
Hand To Hand
Chen-shu (hand to hand fighting) originally known as chuen-yung (hand to hand valiant fighting) is more generally called "chi-chi" (to strike with skill). The Japanese call Chi-chi-shu "Jujitsu". It is difficult to accurately trace the origins of chi-chi, however it is recorded that in the Han Dynasty (25 - 220) Kwok Yee originated his "Long Hand" style of chi-chi, which has been handed down to the present day.
Through Asia To The West
During the Ming Dynasty the Chinese arts of self defense had great influence over those of the neighbouring countries. The tour of Chang Wo throughout the South East Asian countries (1413-1419) produced a great effect on the many arts of various countries which adopted the Chinese way. A classic example is Japanese "Karate", which was derived from the Shaolin pugilism and introduced to Japan via Korea and Okinawa in the 1920's. (First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, 1922, by the then president of the Okinawa Association for the Spirit of Martial Arts, Gichin Funakoshi).
Contrary to once popular opinion that kung fu is "new" to the western world, kung fu has been practised in the United States since 1848 when it was introduced by Chinese Coolies who laboured in the mines and on the building of the transcontinental railways. The first organised Kung Fu Association on United States soil was the Chinese Physical Culture Association (Ching-wu t'i-yu hui), located on Kapena Lane, Honolulu, Hawaii. Found in 1922, it is still in existence today.(Author: Is it?).
Source: Author Ben Judkin’s personal collection - image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.
Published with permission of Ben Judkins do not copy images from this website. If you have an interest in Chinese martial history explore Ben's pages at
Sung Chi Liang, well known for his martial arts skills performs with a pair of 'hudiedao' (Butterfly Knives) on the streets of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown (circa 1900).
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