External vs. Internal Chinese Martial Arts

In general, Chinese fighting arts have been classified as external or internal, hard or soft. This classification system depends on the source of the energy applied: In theory, an art may apply muscular and structural force (the external element) activated by forceful muscular contraction (the hard aspect), or it may depend on control of the circulation of an inner force called qi (chi) (the internal factor), which can be accumulated in the dantian (area below the navel) by physical and spiritual exercise and can flow only through a relaxed body (the soft aspect).

An alternative approach to these categories focuses on the mechanics of the application of force. A soft art is one in which the martial artist yields in the face of an opposing force, either evading the force entirely or redirecting it without directly clashing. These systems may couch explanations in terms of “borrowing” force from an opponent (which involves applying force in the direction in which an opponent moves while evading the attack itself). The movements are rounded or even circular in such systems, and great emphasis is put on relaxed, or even relatively slow, motions involving the body working as a whole, rather than on using the limbs divorced from the trunk. These systems employ throws, joint locks, kicks, and punches. Evasion and redirection are favored over blocking.

Hard styles call for a confrontation of force by force, with the defending force generally applied at angles to the oncoming force. The movements are categorized as linear and applied with maximum power and speed. The limbs are said to operate independently from the rest of the body. These martial arts tend to favor strikes over locks and throws and blocking over evasion.

The principal soft martial arts are taijiquan (tai chi ch’uan), xingyi-quan (hsing i ch’uan), and baguazhang (pa kua ch’uan). As well as being fighting systems, these arts are regarded as physically and spiritually therapeutic, due to the stimulation of qi. Many traditional explanations of the beneficial effects of these martial exercises rely on Daoist alchemy. In fact, the internal arts in general have been associated with the boxing of the Daoist Zhang Sanfeng (Chang Sang-feng) of Wudang (Wu Tang) Mountain.

The most popular hard styles are those that are believed to be derived from Shaolin Temple boxing systems. Therefore, these arts are associated with Buddhism. Damo (Ta Mo; Bodhidharma), who, according to tradition, brought the doctrines of the Chan (Zen) sect from India to the Song-shan Temple of Henan province, is looked to as the progenitor of the Shaolin arts. Many of the fighting arts familiar both in China and internationally are based on these systems. They are regarded as more easily and quickly learned than the soft arts.

Philosophically, then, the soft or internal arts have been associated with Daoism, while the hard or external arts have traditionally been connected to the Chan Buddhism practiced at Shaolin Temples, especially the one in Henan. Attempts to connect the respective styles to wandering monks, Daoist hermits, or temples are traditional in the martial arts. All these etymologies reflect shared understandings of the arts by practitioners but, given the oral traditions on which they rely, may be heavily laden with mythologizing.

Not only the origins of the respective styles, but the veracity of this classification system itself have been questioned. The presence of softness, circularity, and even postures similar to those of taiji and the other “internal” soft styles has been noted for Shaolin styles. For example, the popular Southern Shaolin art of yongchun (wing chun) embodies relaxation, yielding, and clinging energy in its chi shou (chi sao; sticking hands) techniques, along with linear punches. By the same token, Chen-style taiji utilizes forceful stamping and explosive movement as well as rhythmic, whole-body motion. Xingyi is linear and forceful, its internal classification notwithstanding.

In this vein, Stanley Henning has presented compelling historical arguments that the distinction between internal and external is spurious. Tracing the first reference to an Internal School (Wudang Boxing) as distinct from an External School (Shaolin Boxing) to the Qing dynasty (16441912) and to historian and Ming supporter Huang Zongxi (1610-1695), Henning puts forth the hypothesis that the split developed as a misinterpretation of work that was intended as an anti-Manchu parable alluding to the fall of the Ming to the Manchu Qin dynasty. He goes on to note that the principles of both soft/internal and hard/external are apparent in Chinese fighting arts in general, regardless of the labels imposed under the soft-hard dichotomy. Both the political motivations of the initial division of the arts during the Qing dynasty and the artificiality of an internal-external split are transmitted orally within Chinese Boxing, although a variety of hypotheses coexist.

Nevertheless, the popular opinion holds that there is a meaningful distinction between the internal and external schools. Robert Smith, Chinese martial arts master and author of the first topics in English on the arts of baguazhang, taijiquan, and xingyiquan, in a body of work spanning three decades, steadfastly maintains profound differences between the two categories on all levels. At least through the end of the twentieth century, the internal-external taxonomy prevails.

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