Parkour, Qing Gong, What’s the Connection?

As a young boy in elementary school throughout the ‘90s, one of my favorite pastimes was weekly forays to the San José Public Library, where I would beeline right past the Dewey Decimal Classification charts straight toward the VHS section. I’d roam up and down the aisles with my head bent sideways, scanning for martial arts movies I hadn’t seen yet.

By the end of middle school, I must’ve watched every film with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung, my five idols growing up. Thanks to them, no one could ever catch me during my other favorite pastime, huge games of manhunt, which was a mixture of hide-and-go-seek tag organized and played by upwards of thirty kids inside the boundaries of my childhood apartment complex.

I still attribute my evasiveness in running away from people during those games to Jackie Chan (and Spider-Man), whose dynamic movements and reconfigurations of urban settings in his films inspired me to scale fences and walls, climb ladders up to our apartments’ rooftops.

They were definitely out of bounds, jump off to the nearest tree branches like a goddamn gibbon, and slide down like it was a fireman’s pole too girthed for its own good––death-defying antics for a prepubescent. I was basically practicing parkour before I even learned what it was with the advent of YouTube, and I’m sure the same holds true for thousands of excitable kids all over the world, too.

parkour gap jump
Parkour jumping men

As the story goes, the history of parkour has French connections.

It can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century with a man named Georges Hébert, who was a physical instructor for the French military. He was ostensibly impressed by the natural movements and physical development of the indigenous peoples he observed during his travels abroad.

He was also influenced by early pioneers of physical education, including but not limited to his predecessor Francisco Amorós y Ondeano, as well as the father of gymnastics Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, or the spiritual founder of Nazism, depending on who you ask.

Hébert’s plethora of experiences and inspirations culminated in his own fitness philosophy called “méthode naturelle” (natural method), a system based on ten principles: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, self-defense, and swimming.

To practice movements within these fundamental groups, he developed the first organized obstacle course of the modern era. His work would continue to expand during and throughout the two world wars, become standardized in the French military, and eventually spread to armed forces around the world.

One man in particular, the late Raymond Belle, took Hébert’s legacy by leaps and bounds. Raymond, a heroic firefighter and veteran of French Special Forces, was first introduced to and became engrossed by the disciplines of Hébert during his military training in the ‘50s.

Later in the ‘80s, he passed on what he learned to his young son David Belle––who would later become the founder of parkour as we’ve come to know it––and David’s group of friends. And one of those friends, Sébastien Foucan, eventually branched off to become the founder of freerunning, not to be confused with parkour.

But instead of explaining their differences and continuing to tell you this terribly Eurocentric history, which you can finish researching on your own, I’d like to stop and bring martial arts into the picture.

Widely considered a lost art, Qinggong is the closest martial arts counterpart to parkour.

Qinggong is often times conflated with Qigong, which is “energy cultivation.” Qinggong, however, best translates to “light body technique” and refers to a specific kind of training within the grandiose framework of Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).

We’ve all seen exaggerated, fantastical interpretations of Qinggong in Chinese Martial Arts films, especially in the wuxia subgenre, when heroes and heroines gracefully glide across water, run over the tops of trees, and fly through the air. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Many different styles of CMA incorporate Qinggong, such as Baguazhang, Taijiquan, and Wushu. In one example, traditional Baguazhang training involves balancing on and walking around a circle of bricks.

  1. First, the bricks are placed normally, that is, flat on the ground.
  2. Then they’re placed lengthwise on their sides, which makes them slightly harder to balance on.
  3. Finally, the bricks are positioned widthwise, standing vertically.

Once these steps are mastered, the practitioner starts over with progressions of bodyweights attached around their ankles and/or waist. The same concept is applied in another balance exercise where a large container is filled with rocks, sand, or water, which the practitioner walks around the ledges of.

The contents are removed bit by bit, so as to make it more and more unstable for the practitioner until they can walk around the ledges of an empty container. For scaling obstacles, the practitioner runs up a plank supported against a wall, the gradient of which is increased as training progresses.

And for jumping and running, distances and bodyweights are gradually tinkered with over the course of time, a very, very long time—I’m talking over a decade—until it feels like flying once the weights are finally removed. Such slow progressions and additions of bodyweights are typical of traditional Qinggong training.

parkour backflip
Parkour backflip

It’s not difficult to imagine modern parkour practitioners benefitting from these types of Qinggong exercises.

According to the book East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, France was no stranger to the contagious, reimagined spread of Hong Kong action cinema, martial arts films in particular. Luc Besson and Jet Li’s collaboration on Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and Unleashed (2005) immediately come to mind.

In view of this, it’s interesting to think about how parkour was being developed in the ‘80s, because coincidentally––or perhaps conveniently––Hong Kong action cinema was growing as one of the few in the world that thrived in the face of the increasing global dominance of Hollywood’s silver screen.

Whether or not one was influenced by the other, however, there’s no question that the popularity of parkour and Hong Kong action cinema and all their parkour-esque sequences boomed at the same time throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Now I don’t mean to discredit the influence that Georges Hébert, his predecessors, and ultimately Raymond had on his son David Belle. Rather, I would merely like to suggest that martial arts and parkour are two sides of the same coin used to pay for the same thing: survival. Both are derived from the same instinct inherent in us all. The physiological reaction to either fight or flight has and will always stand the test of time.

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