What's in a Name? Buttons Home Writings History There is no Jin part 1 There is no Jin part 2

You say "gong fu", I say "kung fu"

If you say gongfu you are from mainland China, but if you say kungfu then you are either from Hong Kong or Taiwan, or anywhere outside mainland China.

Many people, including Chinese, don’t understand why there are different English versions in many Chinese terms. There are two main reasons why we use different spellings:

  1. The differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.
  2. The differences between English and pinyin.

In the old days before communism China we translated Chinese names and terms into English using either Cantonese dialect or Mandarin dialect. When Hong Kong became a British colony, English was the official language. As a result, many Chinese names and terms were translated in Hong Kong*. In mainland China and Taiwan, Mandarin is the official dialect, because it’s the dialect for Peking, or Beijing. They used Mandarin to translate in China and Taiwan.

Here are a few examples between Cantonese and Mandarin:

Cantonese Mandarin
Wong Wang
Chan Chen
Hong Kong Hong Kong (use Cantonese version)

When China became the People’s Republic of China, the government, meaning the communist party, decided to use the pinyin system for translating Chinese names. This pinyin system uses the same twenty-six letters of the English alphabet but some of the letters are pronounced differently. For people who have learned the pinyin method, pronouncing the Chinese words with pinyin is easy. Otherwise, good luck.

Because China is a one party government, they can do whatever they want. This is why in China pinyin is the only way to go.

Pinyin English*
Beijing Peking
Gongfu Kungfu
Taiji Quan Tai Chi Chuan
Qi Chi
Shifu Sifu
Laoshi Teacher
Dao Tao

Once you understand the reasons behind those different spellings, you can begin to learn what those Chinese terms really mean in English.

The meaning of Chinese terms as I understand them, growing up in Hong Kong:

Kungfu (gongfu) means being skillful in any work. To have kungfu means to be good at doing something, usually technical, such as cooking, carpentry, fixing cars, or being good at martial art. It refers to things you have to spend lots of time and effort and then you become the expert.

To learn or practice kungfu also means to learn Chinese martial arts in Southern China and Hong Kong. It is a slang that is so popular that it finally became natural. Kungfu movies are films that focus on Chinese martial arts as the main attraction. Nowadays kungfu refers more to southern Chinese martial art styles.

Sifu (shifu) means teacher and father. It refers mostly to kungfu (matial arts). But in the Chinese way you also call your Zen teacher sifu. I used to work as a cook in a Chinese restaurant and the waiters would address me as Sit sifu.

Laoshi (teacher) means “old teacher”. There is no such term as young teacher. “Old” means good and respectable. In Hong Kong teachers are commonly called “Sin Sung”, which really means to be born before you, in other words, being older.

Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) The yin/yang symbol is actually called Tai Chi symbol. Tai Chi means the harmony of yin and yang. Chuan is the fist, which also means a martial art bare-hand routine, or a martial art style.

Some books refer to Tai Chi Chuan as the “ultimate supreme fist”. This is because they separated the term Tai Chi as two words. This is our ego talking. There is no “ultimate supreme fist”. If there is, why should we learn anything else?

Here are some fun Chinese terms if we separate the words:

tian hua Tian = heaven, hua = flower; tian hua is smallpox.

sheng qi Sheng = to grow, qi = air or energy; sheng qi is to become angry.

dong xi Dong = east, xi = west; dung xi means a thing, or someone.

Wu Shu (martial art)Wu shu means martial art. This is a term we have used for hundreds of years. In about 1950 the Chinese government decided to promote a new kind of Chinese martial art, using new training methods and also creating new routines from traditional martial arts. This new style focuses more on difficult and fancy movements, but less on self-defense. Wu shu is sometimes called modern wushu or contemporary wushu.

Nowadays wushu means modern wushu. We cannot refer it to the original meaning without causing confusion.

*Using one of two English translation methods: Wade-Giles or Yale

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