Acquired Skill: The True Meaning Behind “Kung Fu”

The term “kung fu” has been used to describe Chinese martial arts for some time. Although it has become an accepted term in western cultures, it is not accurate. In China the various terms used are guo shu (national art), and the most accurate quan fa (fist or boxing method) or quan shu (fist or boxing art).  More recently the Chinese government has used the term wu shu (war or martial art), although this modern version has been modified into more of a gymnastic-like sport or performing art, losing most if not all of its “martial” usefulness.


Chinese Character for Gong


Interestingly, kung fu (actually, gong fu) is not a martial art at all. Kung fu is translated as, “acquired skill.”  It can also mean work performed, special skills, strength, ability, or time spent.  The individual characters make this even more interesting.  I’ve seen the characters for gong fu translated as “time (fu) and work (gong).”

Chinese Character for Fu


However, when I look closer into each, the character for gong means “merit or achievement,”  while the character for fu, in my handy Chinese-English Dictionary translates as, “man, husband, or big man” (referring to importance, as in a medical doctor).  I haven’t found fu to actually mean “time” by itself.  And this is where Chinese is very different.  When you combine two characters they take on a whole new meaning.

The actual meaning of kung fu therefore refers to anyone of achievement, and the effort that goes into self-mastery through the Chinese martial arts is no different than the education of a doctor, lawyer, or great architect.  Kung fu also encompasses the training, discipline, and commitment for a professional dancer, Olympic athlete or anyone of great achievement.  It is the principle of “what you put in is what you get out” applied to your whole life.

The Essential Ingredient:

As we look again at the literal translation of the character for fu, the idea of a “man, husband, or big man” is one of maturity. We are not born as mature adults. Just as we must go from infants to toddlers to adolescents and so on, so must any achievement.

There is no magic bullet to becoming an adult in age without the factor of time. No tree can grow from seedling to above one’s home overnight just as no person can acquire any real skill in so short a time.

Be sincere in your efforts and time will take care of the rest.  Most of us just focus on finishing, regardless of the result.  How many cheat there way through their school years and then wonder why they are having such a hard time in “the real world?”

My teacher, Master Park, frequently discusses the students desire to see “what’s next?”  Maybe practicing a new skill before they’re ready, or looking around in books and video tapes to “try something new.”  He says that this just “wastes time.”  He will also say, “You have everything you need, but no patience.”

I have tried very hard to hear and understand his message.  I have come to realize that time waits for no one.  The years will pass you by regardless of what you decide to do with them.  Doesn’t it make sense then to make the most of every day?

Change is a natural principle that just isn’t concerned with how you feel about it.  We can choose to change for the better and work towards a life-long cultivation of ourselves.  Take just one step at a time and before you know it time will accumulate your efforts for you.

Master Park also says, “you only can graduate from Ba Gua when you die.” So what’s the rush?

“Do not pull the seedlings
to make them grow faster.”
“It takes a tree ten years to mature;
it takes a man one hundred years to form.”

“Even the tallest tower started from the ground.”

“A bird cannot fly until its feathers are full grown.”

This article was originally published March, 1999 under the title “Acquired Skill”


Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.