Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kung Fu

It turns out that kung fu does not really refer to a specific style of martial art, or even to martial arts at all. It means something like "the achievement of excellence" in some undertaking or other. You could have kung fu in baking or poetry or swimming or meditation, or even in martial arts. A more appropriate generic term for martial arts might be wu shu, which means something like fighting technique. English speakers are now used to associating kung fu with fighting, so perhaps one shouldn't try to change it now. But it is worth remembering that one can achieve excellence in other things as well.


  1. This is the definition of Kung Fu:
    Any of various Chinese martial arts, especially those forms in which sharp blows and kicks are applied to pressure points on the body of an opponent. Can't imagine using the term for baking!

  2. Hi, Jamie. I suppose if you think of "kung fu" as an English word, it would mean exactly what you say. That's probably a result of the old TV series starring David Carradine. When we use the term in everyday American English, that's just what we mean by it.

    But in Mandarin, I'm pretty certain "kung fu" (or maybe gongfu) means more or less what I indicated above. Here's a link to a Wikipedia entry that confirms this: But I know this independently of Wikipedia, and several other books on the subject, having discussed it with several Mandarin speaking students from mainland China over the years.