Nothing is more iconically and quintessentially emblematic of the brilliance of Chinese creativity than the art of Kung Fu, now hugely popular all over the world.

When Bruce Lee brought his remarkable hitherto little-known skills to world attention through the sadly very few films he made, it sparked immeasurable enthusiasm for this ancient Chinese martial art and, more importantly, he almost single-handedly overturned forever the somewhat derogatory portrayal and ridiculed character of Chinese people prevailing in the popular western media of the time into one of immediate reverential respect.

Despite spurious attempts to link Kung Fu's origins to the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu, the two forms of combat are distinctly different, despite some superficial similarities. Kung Fu is uniquely Chinese and has its roots entirely in Chinese thought, and the sheer grace of motion embodied in Kung Fu are a world away from the Indian combat arts, and in any case, predate them.

The term Kung Fu, in Chinese Gong Fu, is something of a misnomer, being a term that originally applied to the mastery of any form of art or practice. The original name for the fighting arts was Wushu, and a master of the craft would have been referred to as Kung Fu Wushu.

Various combat skills had been developed in China over the centuries from the earliest times, most notably the Jiao Di wrestling and Xiang Bo sword dancing forms.

Sometime during the sixth to fourth centuries BC, a sect of Taoist practitioners, of which almost nothing is known began to develop a system of immensely subtle exercise and breathing techniques through experimental ideas arising from their inner comprehension of the motion of Chi (qi), the energy emanating from the formless Tao, or invisible life-force which gives rise to and sustains all phenomena.

The philosophical notions and ideas developed by these practitioners were, somewhat playfully and enigmatically left to us through the writings embodied in the Tao Te Ching and Chiang Tzu, both of which display a mastery of language, humour and inner knowledge.

Observing and emulating the twists and turns of natural phenomena including wind, water, trees and animal forms, not through mimicry, but empathic prescience, these Taoist adepts developed a host of movements aimed at harmonising their being with the natural flow of Chi in perpetuity.

Whilst the principal aim of these exercises was essentially to achieve a state of oneness with the flow of life, the awesome power that could be applied through the concentration of chi to a particular point did not escape their notice, and there were no doubt occasions where this advanced understanding would, of necessity, be applied to self-defence. Several stylised forms of Wushu grew out of this movement, and the first manuals on weaponless fighting began to appear by 200BC.

The basic tuition elements of arriving at an understanding of balance and harmony from within would surface in wider culture into the motions that are readily apparent in Tai Chi, daily practised all over the China of today.

In the early centuries BC, Buddhism would also begin to penetrate into Chinese consciousness and easily found its way into Taoist thinking, mutually attracted by their shared experience of transcendence, which in turn gave rise to the hybridised form of Chan, later Zen, Buddhism.

In 495 AD, the Shaolin Temple, nowadays embodying the most resonant of associations with Kung Fu in the western ideal, was inaugurated under the Indian Buddhist Monk Buddhabhadra, known to the Chinese as Batuo, whose first Chinese disciples, Huiguang and Sengchao were both highly skilled martial arts adepts.

In 527 AD, another Buddhist monk, Bodhidarma, known in Chinese as Damo, came to teach in the monastery, again accompanied by Huike, a highly advanced Chinese practitioner of Kung Fu.

At the temple, the Shaolin order would begin to develop their martial skills throughout the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD), and their skills were tested in 610 AD, when the monks successfully defended themselves against an attack by bandits.

Although the Shaolin temple has misleadingly entered popular media as the sole guardian of the inherited Taoist secrets of motion, there were in fact many other schools and monasteries which have collectively given rise to the numerous styles practiced today, such as Tai Chi Chuan, Ba Gua, Liuhebafa, Yiquan, and Xing Yi among many others.

The teaching of some of these styles is now widely present throughout the world, in large part due to the enormous influence of Bruce Lee, trained in Wing Chun, and who later developed his own original Jeet Kune Do style. Nowadays, many fine exponents of these arts are found among all nationalities. 

However, understanding Kung Fu as merely a supremely healthy sport or stunningly visual fighting style without penetrating beyond the physical to its inner origins and wisdom, is to ultimately fail to gain true mastery not only over the mysterious motions of being, but also to miss the greatest of all treasures.