What is Kung Fu – the magic and mystery of the Chinese martial arts.

Most people will have seen Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or the Kung Fu Panda films. But what they may not realise is that kung fu is a term that covers all the martial arts of China. And there are hundreds of them. So what is kung fu?

The vast world of kung fu

The vast majority of kung fu styles will be unknown to most people as only a handful have become popular in the Western world. Names like wing chun, hung gar and lao gar may be familiar to you. The names of animals are common in Chinese martial arts and almost everyone will have heard of tai chi chuan though they may not realise what a devastating martial art it used to be.

Real kung fu very rarely looks like it does in the movies

what is kung fu

The world of kung fu is a vast one. There is a huge array of skills, forms, weapons, training methods and so on. Each traditional school would have its own secret skills and methods for training the mind, body and breathing. These would be kept strictly in their clan or school to prevent others learning them and gaining an edge in combat.

For hundreds of years the Chinese martial arts had a very Darwinian process of selection. Only the best would survive and each would be constantly adapting and experimenting to find new ways to gain more power and a competitive edge over their adversaries.

The mockery of modern kung fu

Modern kung fu has totally changed. No more the Darwinian selection and constant progress through experimentation. Now there are very few schools left anywhere in the world that teach real kung fu the old way. Almost none of them learn to progress through experimentation.

China is the last place you’d now look to find quality kung fu. The Communist regime strictly controls how kung fu is taught. Skills and forms are taught that look very exciting but none of the martial applications are taught with them. The students are simply not taught to fight.

Without sparring with others, without that pressure testing you can never know if what you are learning is actually working. You can’t feel how different forces work through your body unless you are pushed and pulled and have to adapt to those forces.

Real kung fu stance
Testing a student’s stance

The magic of real kung fu

Kung fu movies and legends are full of magic and mystery. You often see people flying through the air or hurling people across the room with the slightest of touches. There is much talk of meditation and spirituality. Is any of this stuff real?

As with all legends and mysteries there is some truth in it but that truth gets more fanciful with every retelling of it. After 40 years study of real kung fu here is my take on what makes it special.

Effortless Power

One of the hallmarks of good kung fu is that the aim should be to produce maximum power with the minimum effort. this doesn’t involve training specific muscle groups through weight training or anything of the sort. It involves making the whole body work precisely together to create an awesome power.

When the body is truly unified and rooted to the earth amazing things can happen. you can withstand someone pushing or pulling you with all their strength and you can’t be moved. You can make any movement, no matter how small extremely powerful. You can drop a larger person to the ground with the smallest of movements.

I am far more impressed by the person who can take a larger person to the ground effortlessly with a small movement than I am by the person who wastes energy with jumping acrobatics

Effortless power is such an important concept to me that I have even written a book on it – “The Effortless Power of Kung Fu”.


Chinese martial arts skills are far more fluid and circular than say karate or taekwondo. Through an understanding of yin and yang principles the body can be made to stand as strong as a tree (see above) or flow like water.

Your joints open up and your body starts to create wave-like movements that keep it young and vital even into your old age. It is noteworthy how many old karate masters struggle with any kind of movement due to the way they have damaged their body over the years. In contrast many old Chinese masters still have their vitality and full mobility.

Combat Effectiveness

Unfortunately kung fu isn’t what it once was. There is a lot of rubbish being taught that claims to be kung fu but is nothing of the kind. It’s the most basic combat training dressed up with fancy Chinese titles. I’ve seen it myself and I have no time or respect for it.

Real kung fu is awesomely powerful. Facing a genuine kung fu master is like facing a wild animal. I have known several in my lifetime and I am now considered one myself. When you face the real thing the speed and fluidity of the attacks is terrifying. There is nothing predictable about the way a real kung fu man attacks or defends. Fast and powerful moves come out of nowhere from any height or direction. Suddenly he’s behind you and you’re on the floor in agony. How did it happen? You have no idea.

Paul Chapman kung fu

Quickly render your opponent helpless without hurting or damaging him.

Skills like this are quickly learned when you understand the concepts properly.

Comprehensive Training

No martial arts can offer as much variety as you’ll find in kung fu. I personally teach eight different animal styles each of which has different skills, training methods, tactics and ways of generating power. On top of that I teach a variety of weapons, internal training and external conditioning and the Taoist philosophy that underpins everything I teach.

Kung fu is a full way of life. It gives you physical and mental training, effective combat skills and a spiritual path that brings you into balance with yourself and the nature and people around you. I don’t think there is a richer and more comprehensive training anywhere in the world.

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