Internal Styles of Chinese Martial Arts
Written by Committee   
Monday, 05 September 2011 00:46

Author: Tyler J Rowe

Tyler is a fully qualified instructor in Wushu at Taichi For Life, Frankston. You can find this article, and read more about him at his website:

Within the rich history and vast family tree of Chinese Martial arts there exists both 'hard' and 'soft' styles, both 'external' and 'internal' arts. The incorrect assumption is often made that all internal styles are slow, such as Taijiquan (Taichi), and that all the remaining faster styles are external. Also the term Wushu is often mistakenly applied to only these 'faster external styles'.

In fact the term Wushu is all encompassing and includes both the internal and external styles, including Taijiquan. Many 'external' styles of Wushu contain 'internal' aspects or routines, and Taijiquan is not all slow either, as proponents of Chenjia Taiji 'Chen Style Taichi' will attest.

The differentiation of internal and external styles is not then in the speed of the movements or even the force generated, therefore terms like 'soft' and 'hard' styles are misleading. Of the three most popular internal styles only Taijiquan 'Grand ultimate fist' is regularly practiced at slow speeds, the other two - Baguazhang 'Eight trigram palm' and Xingyiquan 'Form and will boxing' are performed quickly and continuously.

All these styles generate tremendous amounts of force or power, which hardly makes them 'soft'. It is this generation of power that is the true differentiating factor between 'internal' and 'external' styles. In 'external styles' like Changquan 'Long fist' or Nanquan 'Southern fist' power is generated predominantly through flexion and extension of the muscles, sinews and joints - i.e. the outer parts of the body. Whereas in 'internal styles' power is generated inside the body, through relaxing the muscles and focusing one's qi (chi) 'energy' through the jinglou 'channels'. the cultivation and directing of qi 'energy' internally also has the additional benefit of assisting in maintaining health - preventing disease and allevating illness or injury - essentially applying Daoyin Qigong 'Meditative Breathing Exercises' to the martial arts, and also one of the other key factors that differentiates the internal from the external.

This is not to say though that there are no health benefits from practising external styles, or that the qi 'energy' is not developed, just that the internal styles concentrate more deeply on these aspects of Wushu. But the line between the two is often blurred.

Since the early 20th century when Sun Lutang, Master of Baguazhang, Xingyiquanand inventor of the Sun style of Taijiquan, defined the three main internal styles (mentioned above), many other styles have been created or classified as internal also. Some of the more popular are Bajiquan 'Eight extremes boxing', Yiquan 'Intent Boxing' and Tongbeiquan 'Back through boxing'. Most internal styles include not only routines, but partner exercises as well like Tuishou 'Pushing hands', and almost all rely heavily on Chinese Philosophy in their foundation theory (Taijiquan - yin & yang, Bagua Zhang - eight trigrams and Xingyiquan - five elements).

altSun Lutang performing Xingyi (1861 - 1933)

So to be truly called 'internal' a style must use a relaxed body state, generate and direct qi internally and also have health benefits beyond that of regular exercise. As to whether the internal styles all owe their origins to Wudang mountain and the external to Shaolin temple as is popularly believed? That's for another article..



The Hollywood version of Xingyi and Bagua, starring Jet Li in 'The One'. Can you tell which is which?