Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

How "Kung Fu" Entered the Popular Lexicon

When Run Run Shaw, a giant of the Hong Kong entertainment industry, died earlier this month at the ripe old age of 106, I took the opportunity to look at a term with which he was intimately connected: kung fu. In the 1970s, martial-arts movies from the Shaw Brothers studio (and its Hong Kong rival, Golden Harvest) firmly planted kung fu in the global consciousness. But I was surprised to learn that kung fu as we know it was actually born on American soil.

As I explained in my Wall Street Journal column last weekend, kung fu is a transcription of a Chinese term (功夫) that has historically meant "workmanship" or "skill achieved through great effort." In the system known as pinyin, the standard method of transcribing Chinese characters, the term would be rendered as gōngfu. But in the earlier transcription system known as Wade-Giles (named after two 19th-century British Sinologists), it was spelled kung-fu. In English-language literature, one can see the term first appearing in works like John Dudgeon's 1895 essay, "Kung-Fu, or Tauist Medical Gymnastics." As the title implies, kung-fu was then understood to be connected to certain Taoist exercises practiced to regulate one's vital energy, or . The term was also related to a particular method for preparing and serving tea.

It was likely only in the twentieth century that this Taoist term became connected to martial arts, which more typically has been known in Mandarin Chinese as wǔshù (武術). On Language Log, Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylania, speculates about how the term passed into the martial-arts realm:

So how did gōngfu 功夫 come to acquire the sense of "martial arts," especially one in which sharp blows and kicks are directed at vulnerable points on the body of an opponent? It is actually not such a great leap from pneuma / breath control and other types of Buddho-Taoist psychophysical exercises and discipline to "martial art." One can well imagine a disciple watching his master mow down a dozen menacing opponents with his extraordinary skill acquired through rigorous control of the (ch'i; Gk. pneuma, Skt. prāṇa, Heb. rouah; vital energy / air / breath / spirit), i.e., qìgōng 氣功). After the dust settles on this eye-popping display of sang-froid and combative prowess, and as the master composes himself to sup a cuppa, the awestruck disciple exclaims, "Master, you possess supreme, unparalleled gōngfu 功 夫!!!" After a few centuries of such adulatory ejaculations, it would be natural for gōngfu 功夫 to take on the latest sense that it has acquired, viz., "martial art."

But to truly understand how kung fu came to be, we need to look not to China or Hong Kong but to northern California in the late 1950s. At the Kin Mon Chinese Institute in San Francisco's Chinatown, recent immigrants from southern China shared in martial-arts instruction. They used the term gung fu, following the pronunciation of the term used in their Cantonese-speaking homeland. More fully, they called it sil lum gung fu (where sil lum is the Cantonese equivalent of Mandarin shaolin, the name of the famous Buddhist monastery associated with martial arts).

The Kin Mon club was established by Tim Yuen Wong, who had emigrated to the United States with his family on the eve of World War II. One of his students was James Yimm Lee, who was born across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland before serving in the U.S. Army and becoming a welder. Lee became the most widely known proponent of sil lum gung fu, introducing it to the American martial-arts community through a series of self-published and self-distributed books.

For his manuals, Lee chose to use the old Wade-Giles spelling of kung fu rather than gung fu or gong fu. The first book was published in 1958 under his birth name of Kein H. Lee, entitled Fighting Arts of the Orient: Elemental Karate and Kung Fu. That was followed by Chinese Karate Kung Fu: Original Sil Lum System in 1961 (co-authored with his teacher T.Y. Wong) and Modern Kung Fu Karate: Iron Poison Hand Training in 1962. The books linked kung fu to the Japanese art of karate, which was then very popular in the United States, though the two shared only a family resemblance.

It was in 1962 that James Yimm Lee, then 42, first received a visit at his Oakland home from the 22-year-old martial-arts enthusiast Bruce Lee (no relation). The younger Lee was also born in the Bay area to a Cantonese-speaking family. He was impressed by the elder Lee's self-made training equipment, as well as the books he had published. The meeting is described in The Dragon and the Tiger by Sid Campbell and Greglon Yimm Lee (son of James Yimm Lee):

After leaving the garage area, James offered to show Bruce some of the books that he had written on the subject of martial arts. Bruce was particularly impressed with James's first book, Fighting Arts of the Orient, Elemental Karate, and Kung Fu, and he tried to glean every bit of knowledge that he could in the short time. One of the first things that he noticed was the way in which James had spelled the words kung fu, and he asked why James had chosen to spell it that way, rather than the more traditional gung fu. James casually replied that, since most Americans were not familiar with the Chinese pronunciation, he had felt the alternate spelling would have more market value in the United States.

Bruce Lee preferred the gung fu spelling, and a year later he published his own book under the title Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense. But the kung fu spelling was the one that caught on in American martial-arts circles, showing up in the magazine Black Belt as early as 1963. Two years later, the magazine ran a feature on "the ancient Chinese fighting art of kung-fu."

When Bruce Lee achieved fame in the role of Kato on the television show "The Green Hornet," the gung fu spelling still lingered: a Black Belt article from 1967 was called, "Is 'The Green Hornet's' Version of Gung-Fu Genuine?" But on the cover, the spelling kung-fu was used, as the magazine's audience was already familiar with that version of the term.

A few years later, Bruce Lee was almost cast in another American TV show, about a martial-arts master in the Wild West, but he was passed over for David Carradine. That show was called Kung Fu, of course. Lee headed to Hong Kong, signing a film contract with the Golden Harvest studio. The Shaw Brothers studio missed a golden opportunity to sign him, but in the 1970s Run Run Shaw produced a huge number of kung fu movies with other stars, such as Five Fingers of Death and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. While those films cemented the popular perception of kung fu, let's not forget James Yimm Lee, working out of his Oakland garage, as a key progenitor of kung fu as it came to be appreciated around the globe.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Friday January 31st 2014, 5:59 PM
Comment by: Read H. (NY)
Saturday June 28th 2014, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Timothy L. (Fort Worth, TX)
Fascinating--erudite and punchy! I really enjoyed it.

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