Like many things the origins of Kung Fu are shrouded in a cloud of myths and legends and it is sometimes difficult to separate the fact from the fiction. The earliest martial techniques were little more than techniques picked up during the endless fight for survival amongst predatory animals and rival human tribes. During this time there were no formal styles or techniques and, aside from passing their knowledge on to their children so they could hunt and fight, there was no formal training.
It is believed that the first instance of formalised martial arts was introduced more than 4000 years ago during the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty by the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, who was a famous general before coming to power. It is said that the Yellow Emperor wrote many lengthy treatises on medicine, astrology and the martial arts.
The earliest surviving written references to Chinese martial arts are found in the Spring and Autumn Annals dating back to the 5th Century BCE. The Annals mention hand to hand combat theory including the notions of “hard” and “soft” techniques. There is also mention in another document from around that time of a combat wrestling style known as Jiao Di that consisted of strike, throws, locks and pressure point attacks.
During the latter half of the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256BCE) Chinese philosophy would evolve and begin to shape Chinese martial arts, in particular the concepts of Yin and Yang. Many texts from this time, including The Art of War and Taoist texts such as the Tao Te Ching contain principles that were applied to the martial arts. Many Taoists during this time were practicing a type of physical exercise that would later grow into T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
The first instance of institutionalized Chinese Kung Fu as we know it today can be found in the Shaolin Temple, accredited to the monk Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist teacher who travelled to the Shaolin Temple around 1500 years ago. It is said that Bodhidharma was disappointed in the physical condition of the monks at the temple and devised a series of physical exercises that formed the foundation for modern day Kung Fu.
Over the years the monks would travel China to learn new techniques and improve their skill as martial artists. Many war veterans would also take refuge in the temple bringing their knowledge and experience with them. During this time the many animal styles were developed within Shaolin Kung Fu. The Shaolin Warrior Monks became renowned for their fighting skill as well as their physical and mental discipline, a reputation they hold to this day.
When the Manchurians took over China and established the Qing Dynasty, in order to prevent the Hans from rebelling against the government, they outlawed the practice of martial arts. In order to preserve the martial arts they were spread, in secret, into layman society. No longer restricted to the Shaolin monks and unable to be taught openly, many of the forms that we recognise today were developed as people learned what they could from who they could, often combining the knowledge of several masters into a new style and passed on to new students. When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911 these Kung Fu masters were no longer required to train in secret and the schools we know today were established.