‘Kung fu’ has become synonymous with the traditional Chinese martial arts in the popular imagination. Yet some practitioners and writers object to this usage, insisting instead on the adoption of other labels such as ‘wushu’. Increasingly authors in both the academic and more serious popular literatures are moving away from ‘kung fu’, as it is perceived to be both inauthentic and ahistorical. But is this really the case? The following article examines the use of ‘kung fu’ in both the Chinese and English language literatures on the martial arts from the middle of the 19th century to the 1960s. It finds that the term’s adoption as a descriptor of a set of martial practices is older than is generally acknowledged. There are also specific regional and social reasons why certain Chinese martial artists have chosen to adopt and promote this term in describing their own practice. Like the traditional Chinese martial arts themselves, the term kung fu has meant many things to various practitioners in different times and places. By studying the evolution and spread of this terminology, students of martial studies can gain insight into the changing nature of the Chinese martial arts.