You may be forgiven for thinking that it’s possible to learn “kung fu”. Thanks to Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, those who haven’t actually studied the art might think it’s a style unto itself. However, kung fu is a blanket term meant to indicate a wide variety of Chinese martial art disciplines. You could no more simply learn kung fu than you could learn jazz, or sports.
However, within kung fu, there are lineages and styles for every temperament and body type. In general, kung fu is divided into “Southern” and “Northern” styles. The former favors strong arm and hand techniques with an emphasis on stable stances, while the latter prefers powerful and limber kicks and flowing, sweeping movements. Obviously, it does kung fu a disservice to oversimplify in this way, but these distinctions work as a starting point.
In fact, there is much in kung fu that deals in dualities; you will often hear terms like “hard” and “soft” techniques, or “internal” and “external” power. What’s more, many styles borrow from each other, applying their own special touches to make the movements unique. Movements that seem to belong specifically to one style may be echoed in others. There are pure striking arts, while others offer grappling and joint locks. There is also a wide variety of forms that mimic the natural movement of animals, and these will be familiar to devotees of the kung fu movie: snake, tiger, crane, monkey, mantis, etc. In short, if kung fu interests you, it may take you a while to find the specific art that feels right.
Having said all this, what’s the best way to find the style for you? Despite the fact that anyone is free to choose to study anything they want, it might be a good idea to start with your particular body type. If you are a short, stocky kind of person, a Southern style like hung ga might work for you, with its wide, strong horse stance and powerful tiger claw strikes. Or, if you are a taller, more slender type, the northern praying mantis style might work for you, with its quick, whip-like movements and long-distance precision attacks.
How is kung fu as a fitness regimen? The more acrobatic styles will test your balance and coordination, while training to remain in the proper forms for extended periods will tax your endurance. Each art will emphasize its own combination of efforts, with harmony being the eventual goal. There are also opportunities to learn weapon forms and meditation in many styles, and pursuing hung ga will also net you the ability to learn lion dance!
Regardless of which style you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time perfecting one set of movements before being allowed to move on to the next. Chinese martial arts consider adherence to proper form one of the most important elements of training, which can tax the patience of those who want to feel they’re achieving something quickly. However, if you stick with your studies, you will enjoy a lifetime of learning.