David Levinson

There are thousands of different styles of Chinese martial arts and related physical activities that have developed and changed over a period of some 5,000 years. General categories include external (focused on other people), internal (focused on personal development), North China, South China, Shaolin, Buddhist, and Daoist. For most Chinese, the focus of martial-arts practice is mainly internal, with the goal of achieving better health, agility, and a better state of mind and being. Outsiders are mainly interested in martial arts used aggressively to harm others or defensively to protect oneself.

Wushu and gongfu (which has entered the English language in its Wade-Giles romanization, “kung fu”) are synonyms and are generic labels for Chinese martial arts. However, historically they meant different things, and the fact that their literal translations are so different is a sign of that. Wushu literally means “martial arts,” while gongfu means “achievement through great effort and virtue.” Historically, gongfu was used in a much broader sense and referred to things that were not related to martial arts at all, such as cooking, while wushu always referred specifically to martial arts.

Today, both mean “martial arts” and are used interchangeably.

Taijiquan (Wade-Giles: t’ai chi chuan; it has entered English as “tai chi”)

According to Chinese legend, tai chi was started by the Daoist priest Zhang Sanfeng in the 15th century. Written history, however, indicates that it originated in the 1920s with Yang Luchan in Henan Province. Yang Luchan gained fame by using tai chi to defeat practitioners of other martial arts.

Tai chi is a “soft” martial art that emphasizes slow movements, awareness of one’s body, and awareness of the opponent and his or her movements. As a martial art, it is based on redirecting one’s opponent’s strength so that his or her movements are neutralized. Because of its slow movements, many disabled and elderly people in China also practice tai chi to enhance their health. It is less popular in the West than other Asian martial arts because of its less aggressive style.

Qigong (Wade-Giles: chi kung)

Qigong began about 5,000 years ago as part of ancient Chinese religion; modern practice dates to the 1980s. Although in the sixth century ce it was incorporated into martial arts training, in and of itself qigong is not a martial art. It is an art form that uses meditation, relaxation, physical movement, mind-body integration, and breathing exercises to maintain a healthy body through a free flowing, well-balanced energy system.

Qigong has become popular worldwide as a means of reducing stress and getting exercise. Over 3,000 styles are practiced. Practitioners of Falun Gong, which became popular in 1992, claim that it is a form of qigong. The Chinese government views Fulan Gong as a political cult and has suppressed it.

Wushu or gongfu (kung fu)

Chinese martial arts go back to Neolithic times and reached an advanced level during the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 bce). Use of the term wushu now creates much confusion, given the numerous forms of Chinese martial arts and exercises practiced around the world. The term “kung fu” was first used in the west in the 18th century, but it did not become popular until the 1960s, when it was used in reference to Bruce Lee’s martial-arts films.

Source: Levinson, David. (2006). Wushu, taijiquan, and qigong. Guanxi: The China Letter, 3, 10.