The origins of Chinese martial arts can be traced over 3,000 years ago to self-defense needs, hunting activities and military training in ancient China.
Hand-to-hand combat and weapons practice were important components in the training of Chinese soldiers. From this beginning, Chinese martial arts proceeded to incorporate different philosophies and ideas into its practice expanding its purpose from self-defense to health maintenance and finally as method of self-cultivation.
Conversely, the influence of martial arts ideals in civilian society can be found in poetry, fiction, and eventually film. Chinese martial arts are now an integral element of Chinese culture.
Kung fu and wushu are popular terms that have become synonymous with Chinese martial arts.
China has one of the longest histories of continuously recorded martial arts tradition of any society in the world, and with hundreds of styles probably the most varied.
Over the past two to four thousand years, many distinctive styles have been developed, each with its own set of techniques and ideas. There are also common themes to the different styles, which are often classified by “families” (jia), “sects” (pai) or “schools” (men) of martial art styles.
There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies, myths and legends. Some styles put most of their focus into the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition and exhibition.
References to the concepts and use of Chinese martial arts can be found in popular culture. Historically, the influence of Chinese martial arts can be found in books and in the performance arts specific to Asia. Recently, those influences have extended to the movies and television that targets a much wider audience. As a result, Chinese martial arts have spread beyond its ethnic roots and have a global appeal.
Martial arts plays a prominent role in the literature genre known as wuxia. This type of fiction is based on a Chinese concepts of chivalry, a separate martial arts society (Wulin) and a central theme involving martial arts. Wuxia stories can be traced as far back as 2nd and 3rd century BC, becoming popular by the Tang Dynasty and evolving into novel form by the Ming Dynasty. This genre is still extremely popular throughout East Asia and provides a major influence for the public perception of the martial arts.
Martial arts influences can also be found in Chinese opera of which Beijing opera is one of the best-known examples. This popular form of drama dates back to the Tang Dynasty and continues to be an example of Chinese culture. Some martial arts movements can be found in Chinese opera and some martial artists can be found as performers in Chinese operas.
In modern times, Chinese martial arts have spawned the genre of cinema known as the martial arts film. The films of Bruce Lee were instrumental in the initial burst of Chinese martial arts’ popularity in the West in the 1970s. A U.S. network TV western series of the early 1970s called Kung Fu also served to popularize the Chinese martial arts on television. With 60 episodes over a three-year span, it was one of the first North American TV shows that tried to convey the philosophy and practice of Chinese martial arts.