Chinese Martial Arts Archives

An intro to Hung Gar

When people think about kung fu, a lot of people think about the old Shaw Brothers movies.  Some of their movies have become iconic, like the Master Killer (or The 36 Chambers of Shaolin) and the Five Deadly Venoms.  In a lot of these, especially when “Shaolin kung fu” was being used, a lot of actors were actually doing a style called Hung Gar.  Most famous of these is Gordon Liu, who was in Master Killer and was recently in Kill Bill vol1 and 2.  So what is this “Hung Gar”?

Hung Gar kung fu means the “Hung family style” of kung fu.  It’s probably one of the most widely practiced kung fu styles in the world, and is famous as an exemplar of traditional Shaolin kung fu.  There are a number of different variants to Hung Gar, and a variety of myths, legends, and stories about the art.  Below is my personal understanding of the art.  I’ve practiced it since 1997 and it’s what I’d call one of my “majors” in kung fu.  The description below is based on a number of different stories, so I’ve tried to find the commonalities among them, with the assumption that what overlaps should be closer to the truth.

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“I know Kung Fu…”

Yes, I do know kung fu.  Several styles of kung fu actually.  Not that I’m that awesome at them – some are better than others but they all still need a lot of work.

But I do know of kung fu.  Started when I was 11, watching the 6 O’clock Sunday Night Movie and the Big Apple theater – all those Shaw Brothers movies.  And when I got older and started training for real, I started reading, and asking questions, and listening to stories.  Some stories that reinforced each other, other stories that totally contradicted themselves.  Out of almost 20 years of studying what I’d call martial arts history and martial arts lore, I think I can offer my take on a topic I feel I know well.  Mind you, it’ll be a distilled form, heavily spiced with my opinion and bias, but here it is anyway.

Kung Fu.  This label is attached to almost any martial art that comes from China. It is the generic name for literally hundreds of individual Chinese fighting arts.  Kung Fu is an umbrella term, and it’s actually not even the right word.  Kung Fu literally means “skilled gained through hard work and lots of effort/time” so you can have kung fu in cooking, in swimming, in painting, etc.  It’s a term that got popularized a couple of hundred years ago by Western travelers to China.  When European and American travelers went to see China in the 18th and 19th centuries and saw people running around kicking each other’s asses, they probably asked some local yokel what was going on and the yokel probably answered “oh, they have good fighting skills, have good kung fu, lots of kung fu!”  Anyway, the actual term for martial art in China is “wu-shu” which means “war skill” or “fighting skill”.  Nowadays the term “wushu” refers to the contemporary style created by the CCP and popularized by Jet Li and his contemporaries – a style that was systematized and standardized during the 50’s and 60’s by the Communist Party for lots of historical and sociological reasons.  We’ll come back to this later.

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