Gong Fu is the Han Yu Pin Yin romanization of Mandarin of what we know as Kung Fu, which is in Wade-Giles romanization. It literally means "skill" or "work" (Gong), "attained over a period of time" (Fu). So technically Gong Fu is actually not referring to the Chinese martial arts that we have come to associate with Bruce Lee or the Panda in the West. It is referring to any disciplined skill that we develop over a period of time. The actual word in Mandarin for martial art is Wu Shu.
The word Gong Fu can be used to describe other activities, such as the classical art of drinking tea, Gong Fu Cha. This art, a little like the Japanese Tea Ceremony, is a meditative art of smelling, tasting and drinking tea while contemplating life and nature around us, often in the company of like-minded individuals. This was/ is the way many scholars used to connect and discourse in the Chinese world. There is a very scholarly post on Gong Fu and Gong Fu Cha, which explains how French missionaries approximately 200 years ago, who met Daoists in China practicing Qi Gong, who when asked what they were practicing described their art as "Gong Fu." Hence, the misrepresentation in the West of the word Gong Fu as martial arts.
Maybe the Chinese really hit on something with the word Gong Fu to describe merit, achievement or skill development. They imply that we find excellence is our practice of something, such as playing sports or doing everyday activities such as cleaning, cooking, drinking tea or moving our bodies. After all is it not all these daily activities that we perform that form us and the reality around us? Many of us underestimate the power of the everyday, like eating regular homecooked meals or having regular movement practice everyday. As the quote by Ovid goes, "Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence." Gong Fu is the art of constancy and perseverance.
Images by ICM