Types of Kung Fu

5Shaolin Kung Fu has a long history dating back over 1500 years, producing the largest amount of masters and students in martial arts history. Not only is it a first-rate martial art (meaning it can be effectively used for fighting), but it also contributes to excellent health and is a method of spiritual cultivation. With so many versions of Shaolin Kung Fu it is sometimes difficult to know what is ‘Shaolin Kung Fu’.


Rather than describe the different styles it is easier to put Shaolin Kung Fu into four categories:

  1. High Level Shaolin Kung Fu
  2. Middle Level Shaolin Kung Fu
  3. Low Level Shaolin Kung Fu
  4. Flowery Fists and Embroidery Kicks
  • High level Shaolin Kung Fu is what the top monks in the Shaolin Temple in China practiced in the past. It is very combat effective, uses internal force, contributes to excellent health, and is a process of spiritual cultivation. This is what we train.
  • Middle level Shaolin Kung Fu is also combat effective and contributes to good health. There is emphasis in force training, but much of it is external, like hitting sandbags and striking wooden poles. This type of training focuses on combat rather than spiritual cultivation. Its training contributes to good health, but if the force training is incorrect or excessive it becomes detrimental to health.
  • Low Level Shaolin Kung Fu. Its practitioners practice genuine Shaolin Kung Fu forms but they do not know how to use Shaolin forms for combat, and has no spiritual cultivation. They borrow techniques of other martial arts, like Karate and Kick-Boxing, for their force training and sparring. Their training may also be detrimental to their health.
  • Flowery Fists and Embroidery Kicks is the term for when practitioners have beautiful Shaolin Kung Fu forms, have no internal force and are ineffective in combat. It is more for show. Their practice contributes to good health. However, overstretching and wrong use of stances can lead to problems with knees and joints.

It would be fair to say that the above classification is for convenience only and there is often overlapping.


It is also reasonable to accept that Kung Fu is actually a martial art. So it is debatable whether the third and the fourth categories can be called Kung Fu. Although practitioners of the third category can fight but they use techniques of other martial arts for their fighting and not those of genuine Kung Fu. This is a great pity. Why many Kung Fu practitioners are unable to use their Kung Fu for fighting will be discussed in another article.


Most of the Shaolin Kung Fu practiced today belongs to the third and the fourth categories. It is admittedly often very beautiful to watch, commonly has genuine forms contained in it and is very entertaining and enjoyable. However it is not high or middle level Kung Fu.


Actually, middle level Kung Fu is uncommon. High level Kung Fu is rare. It took me many years of searching to find a teacher that was willing and able to pass on high level Kung Fu.


If you are looking to train in Kung Fu it is worthwhile you considering why it is you want to train. What are your aims?


There are of course many reasons why people join a martial arts club. It might be because they want to:

  • Get fit
  • Be Healthy
  • Be happy
  • Learn to defend themselves
  • Become more confident
  • Have a place to socialize with like minded people
  • Do something they have seen in the movies
  • Be part of something with a long history
  • Build internal force
  • Be an instructor
  • Cultivate their spirit


I must admit that when searching for genuine Kung Fu it wasn’t because I was looking to cultivate my spirit. I just felt that there was something missing from the martial arts I was practicing at that time and thought Shaolin Kung Fu had the answers. Much to my delight not only did it have the answers I was looking for but it also had the answers to things I hadn’t even thought of or realized I needed.


So, before you spend years practicing an art without either knowing why or what the scope of the art has, take a moment to ask and investigate. Now that I am on the teaching end of the arts I realise how lucky we are to have access to high level Shaolin Kung Fu.


If you want to achieve all that the Shaolin arts have to offer then a good place to start is with a high level art. Whilst I am grateful for what I learnt before Shaolin Kung Fu I realize that I could have spent many more years attaining a high level in a lower level art. I would have missed out on training energy, clarity of mind and spiritual cultivation, with the benefit of being able to apply my art to everyday life…not just fighting.


Another important point is to appreciate the difference between learning and practicing. Learning involves knowing more and more material, often in theory. Practicing involves going over and over again material that you know, usually in action. In the past, before you even got a chance to learn Shaolin Kung Fu you needed to prove you were capable of repetitive actions. So you might follow the master about for a year or so sweeping his floors and doing his chores. I’ve thought about bringing this tradition back, but so far I’ve had no takers!


Of course, the foundation training of Shaolin Kung Fu is extremely important in terms of your continued development. We spend a lot of time in stances. This is often the part of training Shaolin Kung Fu that tests if the student is ready or able to learn a high level art. It not only builds strong stances, but also internal force and clarity of mind. Both energy and mind are required for spiritual cultivation.


Even if you have a rare chance to learn high level Shaolin Kung Fu you’ll need to practice it regularly and sufficiently to get the benefits. To practice as high level Shaolin Kung Fu you’ll not only know Kung Fu history and philosophy in theory, but will also able to defend yourself, have good health, vitality and longevity, and experience peace and spiritual joy.