Are you gung-ho about kung fu? Me too. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with kung fu. And let’s be honest — I still am.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably found the various spellings of kung fu to be confusing. Depending on where you look, you’ll see the following variations:
- kung fu
- gung fu
- gong fu
- gōng fū
Are these just different spellings of the same thing? Or different words? Or maybe different dialects?
It’s confusing, isn’t it? Or perhaps I should say, kungfusing? Ha!
This article aims to clear up all of that kungfusion. If you’re gung ho about kung fu, then whatever style you practice — whether it is Shaolin or Tai Chi or Wing Chun or whatever — you will probably learn something about the Chinese language in this article.
(If you didn’t know that Tai Chi was a form of kung fu, then you already learned something new! To learn more on that subject, click here.)
The Correct Way to Spell “Kung Fu”
The correct way to spell kung fu is as follows:
Ha! See what I did there?
Okay, I’m being a bit of jerk, but please bear with me. There’s a method to my jerkiness. Here’s my point:
All of the various spellings — kung fu, gung fu, gong fu, gōngfū — refer to these two Chinese characters.
Simple! End of article, right? Unfortunately, not. There’s more to the story.
The Problem with Spelling in Chinese
In English, we can spell thousands of words using only 26 letters. This is because we were lucky enough to have inherited an awesome invention called an alphabet.
In Chinese, there is no alphabet. Instead, there are thousands of different characters. (Technically, we should call them logograms, but never mind that for now.)
This raises an issue that you probably haven’t thought about (unless you’ve studied Chinese). In Chinese, there’s no such thing as “spelling”. It just doesn’t exist because there’s no alphabet.
If you see something spelled in Chinese, like the words “kung fu”, then no matter what the spelling is, it’s a modern, English invention.
Spelling Chinese in English
Most Westerners can’t read Chinese. It’s all Greek to us.
In order to make some sense of Chinese characters, Westerners needed a way to write them using our alphabet. The obvious choice was to simply sound out the words, and then decide how to spell them.
But how do you spell such foreign-sounding words?
It’s not easy. There have been many attempts to do this. The two most popular attempts were the Wade Giles system and the Pinyin system.
- kung fu is the Wade Giles spelling.
- gong fu is the Pinyin Spelling (without tones)
- gōng fū is the Pinyin Spelling (with tones)
Today, the Wade Giles system is in decline, and the Pinyin system is on the rise. Pinyin has also become the official system in mainland China.
So then why is it “Kung Fu Panda” rather than “Gōng Fū Panda”?
Because of habit. The spelling “kung fu” has been in use longer. The same is true for the spelling of Tai Chi, which should ideally be Tai Ji.
The Cantonese Version of Kung Fu?
Many people think that the spelling “kung fu” is simply the Cantonese version of the Mandarin “gong fu”. I myself thought this many years ago. (Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of Chinese. More on that later.)
But it’s not true.
As I said earlier, “kung fu” comes from the Wade Giles system, and “gong fu” comes from the Pinyin system. Both spellings would be pronounced identically in Chinese.
Here’s the confusing bit: The characters 功 夫 are pronounced almost identically in both the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects. Typically, the pronunciation would be different. But not so with 功 夫.
Dialing in the Dialects
When we refer to the language Chinese, we’re actually talking about multiple dialects. The most popular (and also the official) dialect is Mandarin. Then there’s Cantonese, which is especially popular in Chinese communities outside of China. There’s also Shanghainese, Minbei, Taiwanese, Hakka, Gan, and many others.
Here’s what you need to know about the different dialects: They’re all the same on paper. The spoken versions of Chinese vary greatly — much greater than the different English dialects worldwide. But the written versions are virtually the same.
Different dialects would pronounce the characters differently, but the meaning would be the same. In other words, a Cantonese person might not be able to speak to a Mandarin person, but they could still write to each other.
Imagine someone with a thick, Scottish accent. (This means you, Darryl!) When speaking, you might only understand 60% of what they say. But if they were to write a letter, you’d understand 100%, right?
So How Should It Be Pronounced?
Now that we know all of this, how should we pronounce the words “kung fu”?
Honestly, I just say it the way everyone else does. The words “kung fu” have made their way into the English language, and I see no need to pronounce them in Chinese any more than I see the need to pronounce “feta” with a Greek accent.
But if you’re curious, here’s how it should be pronounced in both the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects:
- The “fu” is easy. It’s pronounced like the English word “food”, but without the “d” at the end.
- The “kung” is not so easy, hence the many variations. The fundamental problem is that there’s no good English equivalent to the “u” sound. If you pronounce the English word “long”, but with a “g” instead of the “l”, then you’ll get about as close as you can.
But this isn’t the whole story. We haven’t even talked about the tones in Chinese. Tones can change everything! But I think that’s a subject for another blog post.
For now, your time is probably better spent practicing kung fu itself rather than practicing how to say it. So what are you waiting for. Go practice some kung fu, grasshopper!
But if you’re interested in learning more about the Chinese language, then let me know in the comments, and I’ll write more on the subject in the future. Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.