In case you don’t know who I am, my name is Zack. I just got back from spending my junior year in China. I work at the Language Learning Center here on campus as the Chinese liaison. So, if you are interested in Chinese or China stop on by and I’ll chat with you.
For the first month I was in China I was working on a research project funded by the Center for Asian Studies. My project involved interviewing college students who haven’t practiced any traditional Chinese martial arts and various practitioners of Chinese schools of martial arts to determine what people in China understand about this important cultural element in their history. The questions I asked focused on what perceptions they had of concepts like Kung Fu and Wushu, as well as what perceptions they thought the rest of the world might have about these topics.
Kung Fu is the combination of two characters “功” and “夫”, which mean “merit” and “man” respectively. When combined they imply the gaining of merit through hard work. This merit does not necessarily involve martial arts, in fact Kung Fu can refer to many different pursuits. Wushu on the other hand is composed of “武” and “术”, literally meaning martial art. It is clear that in the West Kung Fu has become the dominant term for Chinese martial arts, owing largely to the influx of movies from Hong Kong in the 70’s.
I expected that in China many people would make a larger distinction between the two words. However, not only did the majority of non-practitioners I interviewed associate the word Kung Fu primarily with martial arts, but they also associated it strongly with the depictions of it in movies. The practitioners on the other hand made a clear distinction between the two words. To them martial arts (武术) is a form of Kung Fu, a way of achieving merit through hard work.
The first question I asked my interviewees was “What do you think of when I say the word ‘Kung Fu’?”. The the non-practitioners would instantly reply with names like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Practitioners on the other hand gave me philosophical explanations of the nature of Kung Fu. For instance, a Tai Chi master I met one day discussed how yin and yang play into the practice of Tai Chi.
All in all it was an extremely interesting and enlightening project and I made many friends in the process. I advice anyone to give Chinese martial arts a try so that they can experience it from a practitioners perspective, instead of only seeing it through media. After all, if no one continues to practice Kung Fu it will become a thing of the past.
The grandmaster of my style of Praying Mantis (over 80 years old):