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Kung fu/Kungfu or Gung fu/Gongfu (i// or //; 功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) is a Chinese term referring to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete, often used in the West to refer to Chinese martial arts. 1 It is only in the late twentieth century, that this term was used in relation to Chinese Martial Arts by the Chinese community.2 The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term "Kung-fu" as "a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate."3 This illustrates how the meaning of this term has been changed in English. The origin of this change can be attributed to the misunderstanding or mistranslation of the term through movie subtitles or dubbing.2
In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial arts. The Chinese literal equivalent of "Chinese martial art" would be 中國武術 zhōngguó wǔshù.4
In Chinese, Gōngfu (功夫) is a compound of two words, combining 功 (gōng) meaning "work", "achievement", or "merit", and 夫 (fū) which is alternately treated as being a word for "man" or as a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings (the same character is used to write both). A literal rendering of the first interpretation would be "achievement of man", while the second is often described as "work and time/effort". Its connotation is that of an accomplishment arrived at by great effort of time and energy. In Mandarin, when two "first tone" words such as gōng and fū are combined, the second word often takes a neutral tone, in this case forming gōngfu. The word is also sometimes written as 工夫, this version often being used for more general, non-martial arts usages of the term.5
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.5 This meaning can be traced to classical writings, especially those of Neo-Confucianism, which emphasize the importance of effort in education.6
In the colloquial, one 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).
However, the phrase 功夫武術 (kung fu wu shu) does exist in Chinese and could be (loosely) translated as 'the skills of the martial arts'.
- Yang, Jwing-Ming. (1989). The root of Chinese Chi kung: the secrets of Chi kung training. Yang's Martial Arts Association. ISBN 0-940871-07-6.
- Lorge, Peter (2012). Chinese Martial Arts From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521878814.
- "Dictionary". Oxford Dictionaries Online. 2011-02-26.
- "Dictionary". Dictionary.com. 2010-03-10.
- "Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea", July 20, 2011
- Angle, Stephen (2009). Sagehood: the contemporary significance of neo-Confucian philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-19-538514-4.