Since "kung fu" is not a martial art and simply means the mastery of a discipline, I'm wondering firstly which martial art is known in the public eye as kung fu and secondly which martial art is actually taught under this name.

  • "Kung Fu" can be translated as "martial art" - so all of them are.
    – MCW
    Apr 5, 2018 at 23:06

3 Answers 3


Technically the Chinese term "Kungfu" (spelled and pronounced numerous ways) means "skill obtained through hard work and diligent study" as stated in the previous post.

However, if you use this term in China it will be always be assumed that you are speaking of "Chinese Martial Arts" and nothing else.

There are other terms in the language that are used too. These often have specific connotations in mind: "Wushu" - for the performance side of martial arts, "Sanshou" - free fighting (no weapons used), "Kuo Shu" - a general term for combative martial arts (not necessarily respectable or earned through hard work and study), etc.

Though you could technically make a case for using the term "Kungfu" when referring to a martial art of any origin, that might appear dishonest frankly. Kind of like calling a person an "Engineer" when what they really do is collect garbage from the streets ("Sanitary Engineer").

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The Chinese term "Kung fu" (gong fu) usually refers to martial arts, though it also more generally means skill attained through hard work that can be applied to any skilled trade. When referring to martial arts, the term does not refer to a single martial art but can refer to many different martial arts styles.

Chinese martial arts tend to be less organized than their Korean (tae kwon do), Japanese (karate, judo, aikido), and Western (boxing, fencing, wrestling) counterparts. Organization means there is a governing body that makes decisions. Without organization, variation is very high.

The term kung fu is applied to styles including, but not limited to:

  • shuai jiao
  • wing chun
  • hung gar
  • shaolin
  • mantis
  • white crane
  • baji
  • bagua
  • taiji
  • xing yi

Many of these styles themselves can be subdivided into distinct substyles.

I personally would consider the application of "kung fu" to styles such as karate to be correct when considering martial skill earned through hard work, as opposed to classification of martial arts. Karate is not normally referred to as kung fu because it is named from Okinawan or Japanese origins, which use different terminology.

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    Kung fu does not specifically refer to martial arts, though that connotation is very strong in popular culture. A classic non-martial use of the term refers to the traditional tea ceremony, and masters of calligraphy have long been described as having good kung fu. I otherwise agree with you on its general use to describe martial arts.
    – Dungarth
    Apr 1, 2018 at 6:56
  • So it depends on the movie actor or teacher. It's like joining a club called "Japanese martial art" and not knowing if you're going to be taught karate, judo or aikido - weird. Apr 1, 2018 at 13:22
  • @WaterBearer - the kung fu gyms in my area generally specify their respective styles somewhere in their name. "Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy" and so on. Those that don't usually list the names of the styles that are taught on their website/front door. As gym space is expensive in metropolitan areas, it's not unusual for different teachers to group up and share a gym, so the name on the door can be a little bit more generic (but they'll still list all the styles somewhere).
    – Dungarth
    Apr 2, 2018 at 15:26
  • @Dungarth I think we are actually in perfect agreement, though my wording should have been better. See if the new edited wording is better.
    – mattm
    Apr 2, 2018 at 22:32
  • @WaterBearer It's like joining a club that says karate, but not knowing whether it's a Goju-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, Shotokan, Kyokushin, or actually a Tae Kwon Do club that uses the word karate because people know the word from the movie "The Karate Kid" but not TKD [I have seen such a place]. Most people cannot tell the difference between any of these martial arts; "kung fu" is the appropriate level of detail for this audience.
    – mattm
    Apr 2, 2018 at 22:43

There was a movement in the mid-20th Century to use the term Wushu (武术 "War Arts") as an umbrella term for the entire body of Chinese martial arts.

This included work to create standardized forms with an emphasis on promoting the sport. (Standardized forms are easier to judge for a variety of reasons, although most tournaments also have events for traditional forms.)

  • Where "Kung Fu" was a euphemism applied to any and all Chinese Martial arts in the West, Wushu is today generally acknowledged as the formal term.

Here are the entries from the Oxford English Dictionary on early English usages:

1966 Punch 14 Sept. 388/3 Kung-fu is here.

1968 Clarendonian XXII. 270 Chinese Kung-fu is still taught today—but only as a Martial Art to a very select, carefully chosen few.

1970 K. Platt Pushbutton Butterfly i. 9 The Chinese now call their form of karate Kung Fu... It's mostly leg-fighting.

1971 ‘A. Hall’ Warsaw Document xvii. 213 It was probably kaminari, a bastardized form of kung fu.

1974 Listener 17 Jan. 93/3 The plot..hinges on Lee wiping out an ex-monk, Kung-fu (martial arts) vice chief.

1974 Bookseller 13 Apr. 1961/1 There has been a great upsurge of popular interest recently in kung fu, the ancient Chinese art of self-defence, encouraged by the films of Bruce Lee..and the television series Kung Fu.

It's not unlikely that Bruce Lee himself was the original driver of this term, in that he was famously teaching in the Bay Area right around the time the term started popping up. (This makes sense as Master Lee was a Hong Kong resident, as opposed to the mainland, such that there may have been numerous reasons for his use of an alternative term to Wushu.)

  • Lee was also surely using the term per it's actual Chinese meaning, well translated as "skill obtained through hard work and diligent study", as opposed to referring to a specific martial arts style in that he was developing Jeet Kune Do at this time, based on the idea that true combat can have no limitations, and not be bound by adherence to a particular style or system.
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    Why a euphemism?
    – mattm
    Oct 28, 2020 at 3:47
  • @mattm Euphemism b/c "kung fu" used as a label for Chinese martial arts is not literal, compared, for instance to Wushu. Bruce Lee notably used both "Kung Fu" and "Chinese Boxing", and my sense is he used the latter term to refer specifically to the Chinese system of martial arts in all of its variety.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 3, 2020 at 2:33

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