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Many are familiar with Chinese martial arts either through their exposure to the arts via kung fu movies or through theatrical presentations of wushu. While both presentations are rooted in the classic traditional Chinese martial arts, the original form of the arts are much different than what we see today.
The origins of Chinese martial arts are somewhat incomplete since many written records were lost or destroyed over the years. In some cases, the original records were never recorded in the first place meaning we are left to speculate on how some martial arts came to be.
Most records do point to the original Five Animal styles, tiger, leopard, snake, dragon, and crane as being the original systems of kung fu. These systems were a hybrid of yoga training combined with traditional Chinese military approaches to grappling and striking. The concept of the arts was that they were to appeal to people based on physical attributes and psychological dispositions. For example, tiger style was designed for strong aggressive types while snake system was for weaker and sneakier individuals. Of course, there was no rule against mixing and matching components of the Five Animal styles and we see this in arts such as Wing Chun which fuses snake and crane and hung gar which fuses tiger and crane.
Another common misconception associated with the Chinese martial arts is that they are intended solely for fighting. To arrive at such a conclusion would entail ignoring the many philosophical underpinnings of the Chinese martial arts. There is a significant Taoist and Zen influence on the arts. One component to such influence would be the moving meditative aspect found in the forms of the arts. Frequently, the performance of forms is intended for self reflection and pondering. The hope here would be to attain enlightenment in a manner different from the seated, dull form of traditional meditation.
Health and physical fitness was a large part of the study of Chinese martial arts. Enhanced flexibility and increased isometric strength were routinely the goals of the performance of kung fu exercises. These exercises were not easy but their difficulty levels could be modified to meet the needs of the practitioner. Ultimately, the improvement of one’s physical condition would translate into a strong body. Certainly, a strong body can prove more capable than a weak one when self defense becomes an issue.
The concept of the difficulty of the training is not limited to the physical benefits. The notion that a person is able to ‘conquer’ the physical limitations present in training opens the door to developing the character strength needed to be successful in other trying endeavors in life. Many consider this component to be the most important aspect of training in the Chinese martial arts.
It is this that has drawn many people to study the arts over the years. While the perception of the arts have changed over the years due to the infusion of sportive training and theatrical presentations, the traditional approach to the arts still endures. This is a positive thing as the traditional components still have great value in modern times.
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