The term "gung fu" literally means "hard work," yet with its connection to the discipline of martial arts and the warrior monks and sages who exemplify it, gung fu has become the general term for all Chinese martial arts. It must be noted however, that within the realm of gung fu there are literally hundreds of styles and sub-styles. In an attempt to somewhat simplify the nature of the Chinese martial arts, two of the main branches that produced forms of gung fu are the Shaolin and Taoist schools.
Shaolin styles are rooted in Ch'an Buddhism, a type of Buddhism more commonly known by its later Japanese equivalent, Zen. The monks of the Shaolin temples followed a mixture of Indian Buddhist philosophy mixed with Chinese traditions, the result being Ch'an Buddhism. According to legend, the Indian monk Bodhidharma reformed the first Shaolin Temple in Honan Province in 520 A.D. (It's construction dates back to the late 490's A.D.). It is important to note that Bodhidharma (called "Tamo" by the Chinese) did not invent gung fu, but rather introduced the Chinese monks to the "eighteen movement of lohan," a series of meditative postures based on yoga. These postures were designed to not only improve their physical well being and stamina but also to develop an internal energy and inner power referred to by the Chinese as "chi." It is unclear as to when the monks began to expand their yogic postures into forms of combat, but living in fairly treacherous regions, they may have been skilled in some form of martial skill before the arrival of Tamo. However, after Tamo's departure, the Shaolin monks began to gain prominence as skilled warriors, and their abilities were noticed by the Emperor who enlisted their help in putting down rebellions. The monks drew inspiration from the animals, studying their movements and incorporating new techniques and forms into their evolving gung fu. In time, new Shaolin temples were constructed, most noteably the Fukien temple, birth place of the famous Hung Kuen (Hung Gar) and Wing Chun styles.
Many of the Shaolin temples fused their ideas with the philosophy/religion of Taoism. Native to China, Taoism embraced a harmonious lifestyle with nature, a belief that meshed well with the meditative and peaceful ideas behind Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism. Followers of Taoism used Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" as their guide to harmony and the ever flowing "chi" explained in his work that flowed throughout the Earth was instrumental in the development of Taoist gung fu. Styles like Baguazhang, Taijiquan, and Xing Yi, believed to be created atop the mystical Mount Wudan, were not utilized effectively without the understanding and development of "chi" flow and the "dan tien" center of cultivation.
Animal forms or animal strikes and footwork are significant in all styles of gung fu. Taoist gung fu makes use of several animals including the dragon, tiger, snake, eagle, bear, horse, sparrow, swallow, chicken/rooster, fish, monkey, turtle, crane and crocodile. Shaolin gung fu employs the tiger, dragon, crane, leopard, and snake as part of their famous Five Animal set, while the praying mantis, monkey, eagle, and ape can be found in other versions of Shaolin and non-Shaolin arts. In addition to the animals, the Five Elements: Water, Metal, Earth, Wood, and Fire, are used in both Shaolin and Taoist gung fu.
In addition to famous Shaolin and Taoist schools, many Chinese regions developed their own forms of gung fu. Most famously, the Hakka people of southern China developed unique styles featuring the short bursting power, narrow stances, and rounded backs, found in Bak Mei (White Eyebrow) and various “Southern Mantis” schools.
In the realm of Shaolin, Taoist, and Hakka gung fu, techniques, aspects and/or forms taught at United Combat Arts all fall under what we call "Combative Gung-fu" and include: