First traces of kung fu were found around 3000 years B.C . For almost 5 millenniums kung fu developed , grew and improved on battlefields all over Asia . Kung fu in all its aspects reached its peak during the Ming dynasty period after which the downfall of Chinese martial arts started and unfortunately continues today .
For the most of the time of its existence , kung fu was primarily weapon fighting art . Empty hand techniques were rudimentary and considered not important . Despite of the common believe , kung fu was practiced exclusively by military and law enforcement , common people had no chance nor opportunity to practice martial arts . The way practicing was also completely different from today, common soldiers practiced fighting and maneuvering in large formations, weapon techniques were compatible with that kind of warfare and there were not many “solo” techniques . The complete systems of weapon fighting and some rudimentary empty hand techniques were reserved for officers and government officials . One more interesting thing , before the end of the Ming Dynasty , kung fu styles , in a sense we know and perceive them today , did not exist . People define their arts purely by teacher’s linage , so if asked , during the Ming dynasty what is his martial style , someone would say his teacher name and further lineage . Styles as we know them today were invented later ,in the second half of the Ching dynasty rule .
When Ching overthrew the Ming two things happened which caused start of the slow declining of kung fu . Main instructors , people who possessed the complete knowledge of fighting systems were military officers . Most of them were killed , some of them manage to escape and hide but most of the military knowledge ,including martial arts were lost forever . Some of the officer changed sides and got high positions in Manchu government , they passed down their arts, but unfortunately that was just a fraction of the previous amount knowledge . We know this is true according to the government military exames . These tests during Chig dynasty could never reach standards from the time of Ming , simply most of the instructors were killed and training systems were lost . Manchus simplified the exams and made them easier to pass.
Ching dynasty didn’t pay too much attention to modernization of the army and that is probably the reason why kung fu didn’t disappear completely . Fire arms were introduced to the Ching army pretty late , so the first two century of Ching;s rule their army still relied on the traditional , old weapons . On the other hand , common people could not own any weapons , especially long weapons like spears , swords ect. Therefore , kung fu started to develop in specific direction. Training was concentrated on small , hidden weapons and empty hand techniques , compatible with this kind of training started to develop.
In the 1850’s , fire arms finally became the main type of weapons used by Ching army which made old weapons absolute . This was a final blow to the old weapon orientated kung fu systems. Many systems simply disappeared and many changed focus in training . Empty hand practice became main focus in kung fu training and one other thing happened , a rich class of traders and merchants adopted this kind of practice as a status symbols which distinguish them from common people who couldn’t afford the tuition fees . Most , if not all kung fu styles we know today were created from the time of 1800 to 1930’s
Although this change of focus in training and change of the social position saved kung fu from disappearing , martial arts , not used on battlefields , practiced by people who actually despised violence and did not learn it for fighting purposes but as a sign of the social status , along with a specific culture of that period and secrecy and almost none interaction and exchange between styles , kung fu became more theoretical than practical . Occasional fist fights didn’t help much in efficiency improving and development of kung fu .
In 1900 a Chinese secret group, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists started boxer rebellion . Boxers believed their kung fu will protect them from firearms which led slaughter of the rebels. This event led many people to stop kung fu practice and many teachers simply closed their schools. Again a great deal of knowledge was lost forever .
In 1911 China finally became a republic , free of Ching rule and government started to promote and support kung fu practice . It was a golden age of kung fu , or it seems so . This is also a period when kung fu became more than a fighting art . Kung fu was mixed with religion ,philosophy , esotery … focus moved to health , self development , religious practice … all these things , not negative in essence led to further complicating of the styles , inventing new forms , adding new religious and philosophical content , making them often too complicated . Many styles completely lost their fighting aspect .
In late 1930’s in China got involved Second World War . Most young man went to fight and kung fu schools stayed empty . Simply there was no students to whom old masters could pass their knowledge . A lucky few , who didn’t have to go to fight on the front ,stayed in schools yet to meet the worst time in kung fu history . For China second world war didn’t end in 1945 like it was for the rest of the world . Civil war continued for four more years , devastating the country in every possible way . People fought for their country on both side and simply , there was no time for kung fu practice . Many masters closed their schools because the lack of students and many were killed just because someone thought they support one or the other side in the war.
In 1949 civil war finally ended . Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan and communists who came to power isolated country from the rest of world . After 11 years of constant war and several crop failures which happened one after another the worst famines in history of the country hit China . Hungry people ,looking more like skeletons that alive people , roamed around searching for anything that could be eaten. Talking about kung fu training in that conditions has no sense . People were preoccupied with bare survival , even a scraps of food could mean a difference between life and death . Many masters died at that time from hunger , many systems simply disappeared .
But the worst was yet to come .The most devastating blow to traditional kung fu came with cultural revolution which came as soon as the hunger stopped. In this anti traditional movement ,kung fu practice was seen as retrograde remains of Feudal China and was strongly forbidden . Many kung fu master were imprisoned , sent to a labor camps and those were the lucky ones , many were simply killed or crippled .
From 1936 till 1976 when ban on kung fu practice was finally lifted a great deal of traditional kung fu simply disappeared . Not only the technique but also the cultural and historical heritage were simply erased from existence . The only forms of kung fu practice allowed in communist China were modern Wushu which is far from kung fu as much as watching TV is and Tai Chi for health purposes .
After cultural revolution there was not much interest for kung fu practice , it was still considered retrograde , feudal practice and government and society in general didn’t approve this practice, although not forbidden it was not socially accepted which led to the further loss of knowledge .
Kung fu movies from Hong Kong became very popular , especially in the west in the 70’s and 80’s when” kung fu craze “ started after Bruce Lee’s death . These movies , on one hand popularized kung fu all over the world bit on the other , they were for decades only source of any kind of information about kung fu . People accepted information from these movies totally uncritically and believed everything was true.
These movies shaped the mind of people on west as well as on the east and kung fu adjusted to the public view and expectations of those who wanted to practice and expected to practice what they have seen in the movies . Many kung fu styles totally changed their conception and technical content in order to look exactly as people expected , just like kung fu looks like on the movie screen . Techniques are totally unrealistic but they look very attractive if performed in great speed and they leave an impression of great fighting skill . Popular movies not only shaped technical content and approach of kung fu , but also the culture , history , heritage … simply , whatever was said or done in the movies that became a standard in real life . Even things like “drunken kung fu” which was invented by late movie director Lau Kar Leung for the purpose of the movie ,and he clearly stated tht he was the one who invented the story, people still believe and practice “drunken kung fu “ today .
Custom of hiding things from outsiders , not showing everything and keeping key elements for carefully chosen individuals also led to low quality of training .
‘Watering down” the style in order to keep students , especially foreign ones, as long as it is possible and taking their money also harmed kung fu immensely .
Last , but least , superstition , believe in supernatural , keeping old senseless tradition , cult like behavior also damaged kung fu .
Future of kung fu is not bright . Not proven in a ring like MMA , Thai Boxing , Kyokushin ,BJJ , there is declining interest for kung fu . Majority of martial arts practitioners have only interest in effectiveness , proven effectiveness of the style and have no interest in culture, heritage , customs ect, which became main content of many styles . I hope, as a kung fu practitioner , Chinese martial arts will find a way to prove them self in full contact fighting and save them self from disappearing .