In the world of martial arts — also known as kung fu, wushu, and quanfa in China — the Chinese martial arts styles are generally regarded as the ones that have had the most influence over the past century. Styles like Wing Chun, Shaolin Kung Fu, and so on have found millions of admirers and practitioners across the world.
According to Chinese legends, their martial arts history spans over 4,000 years. The first mention of any kind of combat style is found in the 5th century B.C. However, the rapid development of Chinese martial art forms starts with the legendary Shaolin Temple.
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Chinese martial arts inspired Japanese karate
Chinese martial arts was the inspiration for the formation of Japan’s fighting-style karate. Starting from Okinawa, karate soon spread to other islands of Japan. And during the century after 1477, karate began to be practiced underground due to the prohibition of carrying weapons. Once Okinawa was made a part of Japan in 1875, karate started to flourish. In fact, the union of Okinawa with Japan was largely made possible by their shared history and interest in karate. And just as kung fu focuses on the spiritual development of a person together with physical strength, karate also formed its own spiritual teachings.
Post World War II, the era of globalization began. With this, the Chinese martial art styles, especially Wing Chun, started gaining worldwide popularity.
American movies embraced Chinese martial arts wholeheartedly in the 1970s. And the credit for making kung fu a household name goes to the famous martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. His movies thrilled audiences across the world and made teenagers and young men sign up for kung fu classes in droves. In fact, America’s tryst with martial arts can easily be traced back to how revered Lee had been among the public.
Kung fu soon became the major action style for many popular Hollywood blockbusters starring white actors, including films such as Kill Bill and the Matrix trilogy. In modern times, even American TV shows like AMC’s Into The Badlands feature extensive kung fu action choreography.
The African American community
Kung fu movies also influenced a big community in the U.S. — African Americans. The 1970s in American history was a time when blacks were reaffirming their identity in the mainstream after centuries of oppression. As such, seeing non-white actors like Bruce Lee be the action hero in Hollywood movies made a strong impact on many African American minds. In fact, several theaters saw huge attendance from blacks on nights when they were screening kung fu movies.
The black community was so inspired by kung fu movies that they even empathized with the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Many blacks saw the Vietnam War in the context of their historical slavery in the U.S. “A broad sector of blacks not only opposed the Vietnam War, but also wished for a Vietnamese victory. China and things Chinese were very popular in Afro-America,” The Guardian quotes Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua from his essay entitled Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and Challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity.
The dance form of hip-hop was also inspired and developed based on Chinese martial arts kung fu moves. Certain moves in hip-hop, like the crouching leg swoop, are taken directly from kung fu moves. Even today, a dance showdown between two hip-hop competitors is called a “battle,” which is a strong nod to the typical one-on-one battles kung fu practitioners used to have against each other.