What is taught in a Kung-Fu class?

There are many different styles of Kung-Fu, which vary drastically in terms of the taught moves, combat philosophy and training regimes. However, there are certain basic principles which are indispensable to all Chinese Kung-Fu styles. If you attend a Kung-Fu class, you can expect to train in all or some of the following aspects:

Kung-Fu Breathing Exercises or Chi Kung

Breathing exercises, otherwise known as Qui Gong or Chi Kung (both pronounced the same way) are an integral part of Kung-Fu training. Some classes may practise Chi Kung at the beginning or end of a class (more commonly at the beginning), as a separate aspect of martial arts training. Most forms of Kung-Fu also attempt to align Chi Kung with the performance of physical strikes, blocks and stances. The principle reason for practising Chi Gung is to cultivate Chi (also spelt Qi), which is a hidden life-force. Chi can then be projected to specific parts of the body for martial purposes.

Martial breathing exercises are considered to be fundamental, since they prepare and focus the physical body for combat and also calm the mind. Chi Kung is often practised as a form of moving meditation before or after Kung-Fu training.

Via specific Chi Kung exercises and accumulation of Chi, parts of the body can be made resilient to attack by blunt or sharpened weapons. Thus, Shaolin monks can hang by their necks from trees, lift huge weights and pull ox carts via a rope attached to their testicles (see this video on iron egg skill for example). It is common during Chinese Martial Arts displays, to see experts breaking iron bars with their heads and even bending wooden spear shafts with the sharpened tip forced against their throat. See this Kung-Fu video for an example of a Martial Arts expert manipulating Chi Kung to perform amazing feats.

Chi can be channelled into punches, kicks and other strikes, in order to break through solid objects or inflict great harm to an opponent in a single blow. At its apex, this skill is known as Dim-Mak or the death-touch. Dim-Mak experts are said to be able to incapacitate or even kill an opponent with a single strike or sequence of precise blows. Dim-Mak is based upon the same principles as acupressure, apart from the fact that its aim is to harm and not to heal. Nerve clusters and energy points known as meridians are struck, in order to cause maximum damage. However, the specific nature of Dim-Mak is a closely guarded secret and a mystery to all but the most elevated of Chinese Kung-Fu masters.

Kung-Fu Stretching

Many Kung-Fu movements require considerable flexibility. Kicks must be high if required and many Kung-Fu stances are low, involving acrobatic contortions. Flexibility must not be a limiting factor in a Kung-Fu practitioner’s performance. Flexibility is also key in avoiding injury through combat, sparring or regular training. Without the requisite flexibility a student will be unable to progress to advanced levels.

A Kung-Fu class may start off with flexibility training, after warming up or after breathing exercises. Many Kung-Fu stances are trained specifically to improve flexibility such as the horse-stance.

Kung-Fu Strengthening

A martial arts student must be strong in order to deliver blows rapidly and with penetrating power. Also his own body must be resilient to attack and muscle mass about the skeleton is the only way to achieve this.

Various strengthening exercises may be seen in a Kung-Fu class. Due to the lack of a fixed, dedicated training place, many schools these days rely on exercises using the body’s own weight such as push-ups, sit-ups and a host of jumping routines.

Kung-fu training is famously depicted in Martial Arts movies with cruel masters pushing students through arduous feats of endurance, such as crawling down flights of stone steps to carry water buckets back up or standing in low stances with hot tea kettles balanced on their heads. This is not too far from the truth – both Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan report that they were made to perform headstands on top of chairs balanced on tables for hours at a time and both have starred as abused students in films. Although such practices would be considered child abuse today, you should expect to work hard in your Kung-Fu class.

Kung-Fu Forms

Sequences of punches, kicks, blocks and other strikes are linked together with stances and moving footwork into long sequences, known in Kung-Fu as forms or Taolu. Each style of Kung-Fu has a pre-set number of taolu, ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced. A student progresses through forms as his skill level increases and each one will ask more from him in terms of balance, agility and memorisation. However, all forms must be practised continually in order to perfect them. Unlike their equivalent, Taekwondo Poomsae or Karate Kata, traditional Kung-Fu forms are not practised for examination purposes. Instead, Kung-Fu forms are often the defining element, the soul even, of a particular style. The very secrets of the style are held in the Kung-Fu forms which have been passed down from Master to student, in some cases for centuries, and in secret. Without proper and complete knowledge of all the forms in his style, a student can never become a master.

There are many different forms to be mastered. Exactly which ones will depend completely upon the particular style of Kung-Fu. While solo forms are common across all styles, there are also partner forms that can be done as a display or as a training exercise. There are different forms for each one of a huge variety of Chinese weapons from the straight sword (Jian) to the esoteric meteor-hammer (Liu Xing).

Chinese Wushu differs from traditional Kung-Fu in the respect that its forms are practised to perfection for competition events. Solo forms using empty-hand techniques and a variety of Chinese weapons are judged on a number of aesthetic principles such as technique, style, rhythm etc. Forms range in style to the calm and placid Tai-Chi Chuan to the explosive sword and staff forms of the Changquan and Nanquan, incorporating high flying kicks and 360 degree aerial spins.