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Chinese martial arts

A sparring form of Shaolinquan , an external style of Chinese martial arts,

Kung fu and wushu are two popular Chinese terms that are commonly used as a synonym for Chinese martial arts. They appear by this use in many languages, including English and Chinese .

History of Chinese martial arts

In legend, the Chinese martial arts trace their origin thousands of years into antiquity. As the Chinese writing system traces back to the Shang dynasty (1766 BC - 1122 BC), claims of entire books regarding the martial arts being written at earlier times are suspect. The Art of War , written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu , deals directly with military warfare. There are passages in the Zhuang Zi that pertain to the psychology and practice of martial arts. Zhuang Zi , the author of the same name, is believed to have lived in the 4th century BC. The Tao Te Ching , often credited to Lao Zi , contains principles that are applicable to martial arts, but the dating of this work is controversial. Archery and charioting were a part of the "six arts" ( liu yi , also including rites , music , calligraphy and mathematics ) of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC), according to the text Zhou Li .

According to legend, the reign of the Yellow Emperor (traditional date of ascension to the throne, 2698 BC) introduced the earliest forms of martial arts in China . The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous military general, who, before becoming China 's leader, wrote a lengthy treatise about martial arts. He allegedly developed the practice of Jiao di or horn-butting and utilized it in war. [1] Jiao di is believed to have evolved during the Zhou Dynasty into a combat wrestling system called Jiao li which is considered by some to be the first Chinese fighting system, including techniques such as strikes , throws , joint manipulation , and pressure point attacks. [1] Jiao li reportedly became a sport during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC). [1] There exists written references to Jiao li in the Han dynasty (140 BC to 88 BC). Currently, Jiao li is known as Shuai jiao , its modern form.

Taoist monks are claimed to have been practicing physical exercises that resemble Tai Chi Chuan at least as early as the 500 BC era. In AD 39-92, "Six Chapters of Hand Fighting", were included in the Han Shu (history of the Former Han Dynasty) written by Pan Ku . Also, the noted physician, Hua T'uo , composed the "Five Animals Play" - tiger, deer, monkey, bear, and bird, around AD 220. As stated earlier, the Kung Fu that is practiced today developed over the centuries and many of the later additions to Kung Fu, such as the Shaolin Kung Fu style, later animal forms, and the drunken style were incorporated from various martial arts forms that came into existence later on in China and have accurate historical data relating to their inventors.

In regard to the Shaolin style that is currently popular, a legend extant since the 17th century A.D. [ citation needed ] originally attributed Bodhidharma ( Pu Tai Ta Mo in Chinese or Daruma Daishi in Japanese), a visiting Buddhist monk, as the progenitor. According to some versions of this legend, Bodhidharma visited a monastery, and was unhappy to find that some of the monks would fall asleep during their meditations. Deciding that they needed more physical stamina, he introduced to the monks a system of exercises that later developed into the modern Shaolin style. However, the texts that first attributed him to Shaolinquan have been shown to be unlikely forgeries. Historical evidence has shown that the Shaolin monks during and before this time harboured retired soldiers who taught the monks self-defense techniques that they had learned during military training. In around AD 500, the Shaolin monks, in order to protect themselves from bandits and criminals, began to codify what they had learned into a " Shaolin " style.

The fighting styles that are practiced today were developed over the centuries, after having incorporated forms that came into existence later. Some of these include Bagua , Drunken Boxing , Eagle Claw , Five Animals , Hsing I , Hung Gar , Lau Gar , Monkey , Praying Mantis , White Crane , Wing Chun and Tai Chi Chuan .

Types of Chinese martial arts

Often spoken of, but not with consistent meaning, are the terms Internal and External Style. Many simply use these terms as a substitute for soft (internal) and that hard (external). Yet, if we review the full meaning of the characters/usage not just the literal translation, we will find a deeper and greater meaning; one that does not focus and the obvious physical, but more on the attitude of the student and the ultimate achievable.

In the traditional sense, a style is internal, if it teaches its practitioners to focus on self-improvement and growth with minimal external comparison or motivation. A style is external, if it focuses predominantly on outward comparisons and motivations including, competitions, fighting and championships! Tai Chi and Chi Kung have often been practiced as internal styles in recent history. Hung Gar, Choy Lee Fut , Wing Chung, etc., predominantly physically focused kung fu styles, were taught for fighting and conflict.

Yet, in the modern world, we are finding our way through to the old ways of balance and wholeness. Tai Chi can be found in competitions; Chi Kung Forms, although often stationary are being used for strength, stamina and fitness. Fighting styles including Wing Chung and Hung Gar on the other hand are increasingly incorporating internal aspects including Chi Kung exercises, Tai Chi style training, Yoga stretching and many styles of meditation.

Rarely though, will a kung fu style be 100% the one or the other. To preserve the style and art, the master must offer a large range of 'motivation' and focus to students, both internal & external! Yet, there is still a significant difference between the two. Ultimately internal Kung Fu Styles, such as Tai Chi, will seek to gain and achieve self-improvement and self-control, with the aim of reaching enlightenment. The external kung fu style, such as Wing Chun, will mainly focus on domination, winning and control over others. This is not to be understood as a judgement , just as a reflection of the students and teachers needs at the time of training!

Styles of Chinese martial arts

The Chinese martial arts Taijiquan being practiced on the Bund in Shanghai .

Hundreds of different styles of Chinese martial arts have developed over the past two thousand years, many distinctive styles with their own sets of techniques and ideas. Also, there are many themes common to different styles that lead many to characterize them as belonging to generalized "families" ( jia ) of martial art styles. There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies. Some styles put most of their focus into the belief of the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition and exhibition.

Chinese martial arts can be split into various categories to differentiate them: For example, external and internal (or hard and soft ) . Chinese martial arts can also be categorized by location, as in northern and southern as well, referring to what part of China the styles originated from, separated by the Yangtze River ( Chang Jiang ); Chinese martial arts can even be classified according to their province or city. Chinese martial arts can also be divided according to religion, aspect (such as imitative- styles ) , and more. For a list of styles, see list of Chinese martial arts .

Styles of Wushu (to be merged)

Literally hundreds of different styles and schools of Wushu still exist in China , but generally they can be divided into a few distinct branches. Geographically, Wushu can be divided into Northern Shaolin -style Wushu and Southern Shaolin -style Wushu , mainly corresponding to either the Northern Shaolin temple or the Southern Shaolin temple, although nowadays the terms cover all kinds of styles originating either from the north or the south. The main difference about these two are that the Northern styles tend to emphasize kicks, jumps and generally fluid and rapid movement, as the Southern styles focus more on strong arm and hand techniques, and stable, immovable stances and footwork. Examples of the Northern styles include Changquan and the sword and broadsword routines used in contemporary Wushu competitions, and examples of the Southern styles include Nanquan , Houquan (monkey style) and Wing Chun .

In terms of methods, Wushu can be divided into either the External styles, which include most of the Wushu styles in existence, and the Internal styles, which number only a few, Taijiquan being the most famous one. External styles are more traditional fighting arts, with emphasis on strength, speed, explosive power and stamina. Internal styles focus in the precise control of movements, the balance of bodily energies and the concept of Qi (same as the Japanese Ki ) , the life energy supposedly flowing through every human being. As said above, External styles include all other types of Wushu , except for Taijiquan , Xingyiquan , Baguazhang and Liu He Ba Fa .


External styles ( wàijiaquán)

These styles are what most people associate with Chinese martial arts. They are generally fast and explosive, focusing on physical strength and agility. External styles can be both the traditional styles focusing on application and fighting, as well as the modern styles adapted for competition and exercise. Examples of external styles are Shaolinquan , with its direct explosive attacks and high-kicking aerial maneuvers from which is developed the Korean Taekwondo , and the many animal styles inspired by the movements of certain animals. External styles begin with a training focus on muscular power, speed and application, and generally integrate their qigong aspects in advanced training, after their desired "hard" physical level has been reached.

Internal styles ( nèijiaquán)

Xing Yi , the most well-known internal style of Chinese martial arts, Photo by Grandmaster shou -Yu Liang and Master Tao He

Internal styles focus on the practice of what they call "internal" elements, such as awareness of the spirit, mind, qi (breath, or energy flow) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension, tension that soft stylists call "brute force". Some internal stylists say that the difference between internal and external for them is mostly the distinction of the inside and the outside of the body. The reason for the label "internal," according to most schools, is that there is a focus on the internal aspects earlier in the training, once these internal relationships are apprehended (the theory goes) they are then applied to the external applications of the styles in question. Because of the extended periods of time that beginning students are expected to work on very basic principles in most internal schools, and perhaps also the prevalence in recent years of many Western " New Age " oriented schools who are accused by traditionalists of emphasizing philosophy and speculation at the expense of hard work (see the next paragraph), many people believe internal styles lack "external" physical training. In the older schools, however, much time is spent on basic physical work, such as stance training ( zhan zhuang ), stretching and strengthening of muscles, as well as on empty hand and weapon forms which can contain quite demanding coordination from posture to posture. Also, many internal styles have basic two-person training, such as pushing hands . Some forms in internal styles are performed slowly, though some also include sudden outbursts of explosive movements, such as those the Chen style of Taijiquan is famous for teaching earlier than some other styles (e.g. Yang and Wu ) . The reason for the generally slow pace is to improve coordination and balance by increasing the work load, and to require the student to pay minute attention to their whole body and its weight as they perform a technique. At an advanced level, and in actual fighting, internal styles are performed quickly, but the goal is to learn to involve the entire body in every motion, to stay relaxed, with deep, controlled breathing, and to coordinate the motions of the body and the breathing accurately according to the dictates of the forms while maintaining perfect balance. Internal styles have been associated in legend and in much popular fiction with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan in central China .

Today, only a few traditional schools teaching internal styles train martially, even though such training was originally a part of all internal styles. Most schools teach forms that are practiced for the health benefits only, as this is what most modern students are looking for and as these students seldom have the time or devotion to reach far enough in their training to start focusing on the martial aspects. To condition oneself well enough to become adept at the internal style martial arts is a long-term proposition; many simply lose interest after a few years and never finish the program. Most have no hope as their teachers know little. Many people who have not fully learned the martial aspects of their style judge themselves qualified to teach what they do know publicly anyway, leading to a further diminution of the martial applications taught in many schools. Some of such instructors supplement what they are teaching with elements from other schools, internal and external, and their training becomes further removed from the original art. While this gradual watering-down of technique has made some external aspects of internal styles available for a wider audience who are interested in the purported health benefits of the internal schools, traditional schools see a complete martial syllabus as a fundamental, defining part of their art, both for health and self-defense purposes. They claim that while the students may not need to practice external applications to derive a benefit from the training, their teachers should know the applications well, to ensure that the movements are trained correctly, effectively and safely. For these reasons traditionalists feel that a school not teaching martial aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, that they have "graduated themselves", and that they are much less likely to be able to reproduce the health benefits that have made complete internal systems famous in the first place.

While the principles that distinguish internal styles from the external were described at least as early as the 18th century by Chang Nai- chou , the modern terms distinguishing external and internal styles were first recorded by Sun Lutang ; who wrote that Taijiquan , Baguazhang , and Xingyiquan were internal arts. Later on, others began to include other styles in this definition, including Liuhexinyiquan , Liu He Ba Fa and Yiquan .

Northern styles

It is said that northern styles put more focus on legwork, kicking and acrobatics. Some say this is because the northern Chinese were generally taller than those living in southern China , and that they made their styles take advantage of their greater range of motion, especially in their legs. Others claim that the terrain of northern China is more suitable to kicking techniques, or that the cold of the northern Chinese winter caused any focus upon hand techniques to be physically damaging to the practitioner's hands. An example of a northern style is the modern Changquan (Long Fist) that is the most popular style in the forms division in most contemporary Chinese martial arts competitions held around the world today. There are many northern styles; some of them are Tanglangquan , Chuojiao , Bajiquan , Taijiquan , Baguazhang , Bayingquan , Yingzhaoquan , and Chaquan . Most Korean martial arts are analogous to Northern Chinese Style martial arts.

Southern styles

Southern styles are styles originally practiced in southern China , in the provinces south of the Yangtze River ( Chang Jiang ). There are sayings that because of their shorter height, the southern Chinese developed styles that were direct and powerful, mainly developing their upper body strength and speed. Similarly, it is speculated that the dense urban population of the south and its humid climate made focusing on close-quarter hand techniques more practical there than the north's focus on jumping and kicking. A generalized Nanquan (Southern Fist) style has become a popular class in modern Chinese martial arts competitions. It is similar to Changquan (Long Fist) but includes more rapid punches and blocks, and less legwork and jumps. Some Southern styles include Hung Gar , Wing Chun , and Choy Lay Fut . ....

Shaolin Kung Fu

Shaolin , considered as the centre of the World (for China) was a balanced style incorporating both internal and external, northern and southern, long and short, quick and slow, etc. It seeks to find the ultimate balance between the material and immaterial, physical and metaphysical, with the aim of reaching enlightenment. Although often highlighted, the external focus defence & fighting was only practiced by 5% of Shaolin Monks. These were the Warrior Monks (a sort of olden day bouncers), that focused on the Hard, External and Quick aspect of Shaolin kung fu. The remaining 95% of monks practiced Shaolin Kung Fu for health and fitness.

The peak of this style was achieved around the 12th century. At a time when a multitude of styles were practiced in Shaolin , including 10,000 Bees, Horse, Frog and even Rooster ( Phoenix ), Shaolin incorporated this into the 5 Animal style. With an extremely clever combination of animal styles and secondary shadow animal styles, this Shaolin combination of all/most of the styles in existence at the time, was systemised into a logical matrix of 4, (Tiger, Panther, Crane & Snake). This saw the birth of the pan-ultimate of Shaolin 5 Animal Kung Fu style. In this, the Dragon, the animal that is not, was used as a symbol for Mastery of the four basic styles.

With the 5 Animal style (one style not 5), the Shaolin defined a system that is still in use today and finds application in Personality Typing, Problem Solving, Strategy, training Styles and Conflict Management.

Buddhist styles

Buddhist styles are styles that were created or trained mostly within Buddhist temples (primarily Chan Buddhism ) or by Buddhist monks, later on spreading out to laymen. These styles often include Buddhist philosophy, imagery, numbers, and principles. The most famous are arts from the Shaolin Temple and descendant arts, like Shaolinquan , Luohanquan , Hung Gar , Wing Chun and White Crane . Shaolinquan places much emphasis on having a balance between the hard (offensive) and soft (defensive) elements.

Daoist styles

Daoist styles are popularly associated with Daoism, the credulous may believe that they were created or trained mostly within Daoist Temples or by Daoist ascetics, which often later spread out to laymen. These styles include those trained in the Wudang temple, and often include Daoist principles, philosophy, and imagery. Some of these arts include Taijiquan , Wudangquan , Baguazhang , Liu He Ba Fa and Huolongzhang .

Muslim styles

Muslim styles are those that were practiced traditionally solely or mainly by the Muslim Hui minority in China . These styles often include Muslim principles or imagery. Some of these styles include Chaquan , Xinyiliuhequan , and Qishiquan .

Training in Chinese martial arts

Most styles of Chinese martial arts contain practice of the application of techniques (both as prepared drills and as free sparring), but also the practice of what is known as forms , or taolu ( tào lù ) in Chinese . Forms are a pre-choreographed series of techniques and movements, performed alone or with one or more partners.

Another important part of the training, as in most other physical activities, is what is referred to as basics , such as various exercises for strengthening the body, and regular stretching.


Basics are a vital part of the training, as a student cannot progress to the more advanced stages without them; without strong and flexible muscles, many movements of Chinese martial arts are simply impossible to perform correctly. Basics include such things as stretching, strengthening of muscles, bones and tendons, stamina training, and basic stances, kicks and punches. Some styles also consider jumping, jump-kicks and acrobatics basics. In addition, many styles teach a few basic techniques as well, before moving on to forms. These techniques are normally the most common techniques of the specific style, found in many of the style's forms.

Chinese martial arts pay considerable attention to stretching. Common stretching exercises include general warm-up stretching, stretching in pairs, and various types of stretch kicks, usually practiced with speed. As many Chinese martial arts are formed to suit children and higher-level students who have been practicing since childhood, they can include basic exercises that require very high flexibility in order to be possible to perform at all.


Forms or taolu are series of techniques put together after one another so they can be practiced as one whole set of movements. Some say that forms resemble a choreographed dance, though martial artists often argue that a general difference is the speed and explosiveness seen in most external styles, and that the movements are actual fighting techniques.

These forms sought to incorporate both the internal and external of kung fu. A kung fu form needs to be both practicle, usable and applicable as well as promoting flow, meditation, flexability, balance and coordination. Often kung fu teachers are heard to say "train your form as if you were sparring and spar as if it were a form".

Types of forms

There are two types of forms in Chinese martial arts. Most common are the solo forms, performed alone by one person, but there are also "sparring" forms, which are a type of choreographed fighting sets performed by two or more people.

Many styles consider forms as one of the most important practices, as they gradually build up the practitioner's strength and flexibility, speed and stamina, and teach balance and coordination. They also function as a tool for both the students and the teacher to remember the many techniques taught by the style, and sort them into various groups.

A style can have many compartments, both empty-handed and with weapons. In most styles, empty-handed techniques are the most common, but many styles also contain forms using a wide range of weapons of various length and type, utilizing one or two hands. There are also styles that only practice a certain weapon, containing only forms with the specific weapon.

Forms are meant to work the body. Once a basic structure is able be maintained in the body forms are then used to work that structure. Forms develop a sensibility of moving from position to position. This teaches the body to react.

Appearance of forms

Even though forms of Chinese martial arts are based on martial techniques, the movements might not always be identical to how the techniques they symbolize would look when applied in combat. This is due to the way many forms have been elaborated, on the one hand to provide better combat preparedness and on the other hand to look more beautiful. One easily understood manifestation of this tendency toward elaborations that go beyond what most often might be used in combat is the inclusion of lower stances and higher kicks. The regular practice of techniques while using lower stances both adds strength to the same techniques when used with higher stances, and also facilitates using the same techniques in the lower stances when the realities of combat make doing so the most appropriate choice.

In recent years, as the perceived need for self-defense has decreased, many modern schools have replaced practical defense or offense movements with acrobatic feats that are more spectacular to watch, thereby gaining favor during exhibitions and competitions. The mainland Chinese government has especially been criticized by traditionalists for "watering down" the wushu competition training it promotes. Appearances have been important in many traditional forms as well, seen as a sign of balance but not the most important requirement of successful training. Some martial artists have looked for supplementary income for performing on the streets or in theaters, although in the most traditional schools such performance is forbidden.

Another reason why the martial techniques might look different in forms is thought, by some, to come from a need to "disguise" the actual functions of the techniques from outsiders (from rival schools or from the authorities as legend has it happened in Okinawa ). The intention was to leave the forms in such a state that they could be performed in front of others without revealing their actual martial functions, while retaining their original functionality in a less obvious form.

Modern forms

As forms have grown in complexity and quantity over the years, and many forms alone could be practiced for a lifetime, styles of modern Chinese martial arts have developed that concentrate solely on forms, and do not practice application at all (see wushu (sport) . These styles are primarily aimed at exhibition and competition, and often include more acrobatic jumps and movements added for enhanced visual effect compared to the traditional styles. Those who generally prefer to practice traditional styles, focused less on exhibition, are often referred to as traditionalists . Many traditionalists consider the evolution of today's Chinese martial arts as bad, saying that much of its original value is lost.


Application training or sparring refers to the training of putting the martial techniques to use. When and how applications are taught varies from style to style, but in the beginning, most styles focus on certain drills where each person knows what technique is being practiced and what attack to expect. Chinese martial arts usually contain a large arsenal of techniques and make use of the whole body, efficiency and effectiveness is what the techniques are based on. However many chinese martial arts appear to be flowery and 'fancier' than other arts but the movements are very meaningful in terms of application. Gradually, fewer and fewer rules are applied, and the students learn how to react and feel what technique to use, depending on the situation and the type of opponent.

Nowadays, many Chinese martial arts choose not to practice much application at all, as the need for self-defense has become less significant in the societies of today. The introduction of firearms such as guns has made the traditional weapons and empty-handed martial arts lose much of their power, as even a completely untrained person can kill a master of any style by firing a gun from a safe distance. Before guns existed, however, knowledge of martial arts could save both your and your family's life. Because of this, the applications of the techniques were often considered sacred, and were commonly kept secret from all but family and the closest friends. Today, the views on this tradition of keeping things secret are very mixed, and some schools openly teach applications to anyone willing to learn. Others still require the students to show that they are worthy before teaching applications, "worthy" usually meaning that the students can be trusted that they will not use their knowledge to a bad purpose. It must be pointed out in fairness that some of the masters were in fact members of the criminal underworld (although they may have perceived themselves as righteous) and that some of the actual skill and applications of the various systems were developed in real and extremely violent confrontations both armed and unarmed. This dichotomy did and still does exist. An example: a relatively well known New York Chinese kung-fu master who killed a man (although with a firearm) in some quarrel and went to prison (later released on parole).

Weapons training

Most Chinese styles also make use of training the broad arsenal of Chinese weapons for conditioning the body as well as coordination and strategy drills.

Use of qi in Chinese martial arts

The concept of or ch'i , the inner energy or "life force" that is said to animate living beings, is encountered in almost all styles of Chinese martial arts. Internal styles are reputed to cultivate its use differently than external styles.

One's qi can be improved and strengthened through the regular practice of various physical and mental exercises known as qigong. Though qigong is not a martial art itself, it is often incorporated in Chinese martial arts and, thus, practiced as an integral part to strengthen one's internal abilities.

There are many ideas regarding controlling one's qi energy to such an extent that it can be used for healing oneself or others: the goal of medical qigong. Some styles believe in focusing qi into a single point when attacking and aim at specific areas of the human body (similar to the study of acupressure ), to cause maximum damage or disable certain functions of the body. Some go so far as to think that at an advanced level it is (or was, as some believe such abilities to now be lost, if they ever existed) possible to cause harm without even touching the opponent, a popular concept in Chinese martial arts movies.

Chinese martial arts in movies

In modern times, Chinese martial arts have spawned the genre of cinema known as martial arts film . The films of Bruce Lee were instrumental in the initial burst of Chinese martial arts' popularity in the West, and lately, martial artists and actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan have appeared in later films. Martial arts films from China are often referred to as " Kung Fu movies " (see also: wuxia , Hong Kong action cinema ).

A U.S. network TV western series of the early 1970s called Kung Fu also served to popularize the Chinese martial arts on television.

The show was disliked by many Chinese people due to its racism and the lead character ( David Carradine ) being white. Also, the fight sequences were slow for the Chinese, who were already used to fast fighting sequences.

Chinese martial arts appears numerous times in Japanese anime and manga . For example, the action manga Fist of the North Star uses the concept of internal and external fighting styles and various (albeit fictional) dead points of a human body. The Dragon Ball Z series also uses many concepts from wuxia and Chinese fantasy novels.


^ a  b  c Chinese Kuoshu Institute. History of Shuai Jiao . Accessed January 30, 2006.
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