Origins of Kung-Fu
The first primitive forms of fighting arts emerged in China, India, Egypt, Greece, and other places thousands of years ago, initially as a tool for self-defense and survival, then for military combat training, and later for sport, exercise, and exhibition. Spiritual and philosophical dimensions were also added to the training, and eventually, in part through the spread of Buddhism, "Kung-Fu" (as we call it today), entered Chinese monasteries, including the now famous Shaolin Temple, where some of the most effective styles were developed.
Although martial arts did exist in China for a long time before then, the adoption of those arts by Shaolin monks in the sixth century AD is often considered to be the true birth of Kung-Fu. It is said that it was the arrival from India of a Buddhist monk/prince Bodhidharma (Da Mo) which had a pivotal influence on the development of Shaolin fighting arts. Finding the monks in poor health and too weak to engage properly in rigorous meditation, Da Mo introduced a series of strengthening, breathing, and mental exercises intended to help keep the monks healthy and focused as they worked on achieving enlightenment.
He also taught a number of hand-to-hand fighting motions and principles, which, combined with the breathing and conditioning practices he introduced, as well as the existing local fighting forms and combat methods from other parts of China, gradually developed into an extremely effective and vast system.
During those tumultuous times, the monks who left the protection of the Shaolin walls to visit other temples, towns, and villages, often became targets for robbery. Even the temple itself was attacked on occasions. It was also easy to get caught up in the continuous civil unrest and wars plaguing the region. Believing in non-violence, the monks often did not carry weapons, and had to defend themselves with whatever natural weapons they had. What to an untrained eye would often look like exercise motions and stretches, could, in a moment of need, be instantly transformed for use in self-defense, while a simple walking stick and farming implements could become deadly weapons.
Evolving through hundreds of years of combat experience and careful analysis and observation of animal fighting styles, body dynamics, breathing, psychology, and mind training, Kung-Fu became an elaborate martial art. Spreading throughout China and traveling to Okinawa, Korea, Japan, and other places, it formed the basis for most currently practiced fighting systems.
Wanted by criminals and sought out by warlords to train their armies, Kung-Fu could be devastating in the wrong hands, and most schools, monasteries, and masters have carefully guarded their knowledge and training, screening students and keeping the most effective techniques and styles secret. At the same time, martial arts have also been used to provide protection from bandits and pirates, and to resist oppressive rulers. Often outlawed by the people in power, many styles survived and developed in secrecy, often passed down through families from one generation to the next.
Over the centuries, countless different styles developed and evolved, splitting away, merging with other styles, and incorporating new movements, training methods, and techniques. Brought to the West by Chinese and Japanese immigrants, oriental martial arts have remained largely unknown to the general population until the middle of the 20th century, when more masters became willing to teach outside of their community. Since then, Karate, Kempo, Kung-Fu, and other fighting systems have exploded in popularity.