Styles of Chinese Martial Arts

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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. There are themes common which allows them to be group according to generalized “families” (家, jiā), “sects” (æ´¾, pai) or “schools” (é–€, men) of martial art styles.

There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies or mythologies.

Some styles put most of their focus into the belief of the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition and exhibition. This rich variety of styles has created numerous classification schemes.

Geographical location such as regional affiliation is one well known example. A particular Chinese martial arts style can be referred to as either a northern fist (北拳) or a southern fist (南拳) depending on its point of origin.

Additional details such as province or city can further identify the particular style. Other classification schemes include the concept of external (外家拳) and internal (内家拳).

This criterion concerns the training focus of a particular style. Religious affiliation of the group that found the style can also be used as a classification. The three great religions of Taoism, Buddhism and Islam have associated martial arts styles. There are also many other criteria used to group Chinese martial arts; for example, imitative-styles (像形拳) and legendary styles; historical styles and family styles. Another more recent approach is to describe a style according to their combat focus.

Geographical classifications: The traditional dividing line between the northern and southern Chinese martial arts is the Yangtze River. A well known adage concerning Chinese martial arts is the term “Southern fists and Northern kicks” (「南拳北腿」). This saying emphases the difference between the two groups of Chinese martial arts. Although such differences are not absolute and there are many Northern styles that excel in hand techniques and conversely, there are many different type of kicks in some Southern styles. A style can also be more clearly classified according to regional landmarks, province, city and even to a specific village.

Northern styles: Northern styles/Běi pài (北派) feature deeply extended postures — such as the horse, bow, drop, and dragon stances — connected by quick fluid transitions, able to quickly change the direction in which force is issued.

In general, the training characteristics of 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 such training takes 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 the practitioner to emphasis leg techniques rather than hand skills.

Still others suggest that jump kicking techniques were developed to fight Mongolian horseman who used “very short stirrups”. Regardless of the reason, Northern styles exhibit a distinctively different flavour from the martial arts practised in the South. The influence of Northern styles can be found in traditional Korean martial arts and their emphasis on high level kicks.

The group of Northern martial arts includes many illustrious styles such as Baguazhang, Bajiquan, Chāquán, Chuojiao, Eagle Claw, Northern Praying Mantis and Taijiquan. Chángquán is often identified as the representative Northern style and forms a separate division in modern Wushu curriculum.

Southern styles: Southern Chinese martial arts (南派) features low stable stances and short powerful movements that combines both attack and defense. In practice, Nan Quan focus more on the use of the arm and full body techniques rather than high kicks or acrobatic moves. There are various explanations for those characteristics. Some suggest that the physical stature of the Southern Chinese are responsible. In general, the Southern Chinese are generally shorter in contrast to the Northern population and as a result the Southern styles are generally short, direct and powerful. Similarly, it is speculated that the dense urban population and its humid climate made focusing on close-quarter hand techniques more practical then the kicking techniques of the North. Still other suggest that the Southern styles focus on practical fighting techniques that can be master in a short time because Southern styles were founded and used by Chinese rebels. The influence of Southern styles can be found in Goju Ryu, a karate style from Okinawa.

The term Southern styles typically applies to the five family styles of Southern China: Choy Gar (蔡家), Hung Ga (洪家), Lau Gar (刘家), Li (Lee) Family (李家) and Mok Gar (莫家). Other styles include:Choi Lei Fut, Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Wing Chun, Hakka, Southern Praying Mantis and Dragon. There are sub-divisions to Southern styles due to their similar characteristics and common heritage. For example, the Fujian and Hakka martial arts can be considered to be one such sub-division. This groups share the following characteristics that “during fights, pugilists of these systems prefer short steps and close fighting, with their arms placed close to the chest, their elbows lowered and kept close to the flanks to offer it protection”. Nanquan (Southern Fist) became a separate and distinct component of the current Wushu training. It was design to incorporate the key elements of each major Southern styles.

Other Geographical Classifications: Chinese martial arts can also be identified by the regional landmarks, province, city or even village. Generally, this identification indicates the region of origin but could also describe the place where the style have established a reputation. Well known landmarks used to characterize Chinese martial arts include the famous mountains of China. The Eight Great Schools of Martial Arts (八大門派), a grouping of martial arts schools used in many wuxia novels, is based on this type of geographical classifications. This group of schools include: Hua Shan (華山), Éméi Shān (峨嵋山), Wudang Shan (武当山), Mt._Kongtong (崆峒山), Kunlun Mountains (崑崙山),Cangshan (蒼山), Mount Qingcheng (青城山) and Mount Song Shaolin (嵩山少林). Historically, there are 18 provinces (省)in China. Each province have their own styles of martial arts. For example, in Xingyi, there are currently three main branches: Shanxi, Hebei and Henan. Each branch have unique characteristics but they can all be traced to the original art developed by Li Luoneng and the Dai family. A particular style can also be identified by the city where the art was practised. For example, in the North, the cities of Beijing or Tianjin have created different martial arts branches for many styles. Similarly, in the South, the cities of Shanghai, Canton and Futshan all represented centers of martial arts development. Older martial art styles can be described by their village affiliation. For example, Zhaobao style tai chi (趙堡忽靈架) is a branch of Chen Tai Chi originating from Zhaobo village.

External and Internal: The distinction between external and internal (外内) martial arts comes from Huang Zongxi’s 1669 Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan. Stanley Henning proposes that the Epitaph’s identification of the internal martial arts with the Taoism indigenous to China and its identification of the external martial arts with the foreign Buddhism of Shaolin—and the Manchu Qing Dynasty to which Huang Zongxi was opposed—may have been an act of political defiance rather than one of technical classification.

Kennedy and Guo suggests that external and internal classifications only became popular during the Republican period. It was used to differentiate between two completing groups within The Central Guoshu Academy. Regardless of the origin of this classification scheme, the distinction becomes less meaningful since all complete Chinese martial art styles have external and internal components. This classification scheme is only a reminder of the initial emphasis of a particular style and should not be considered an absolute division.

External styles: External style (外家, pinyin: wàijiā; literally “external family”) are often associated with Chinese martial arts. They are characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility. External styles includes 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 many Wushu forms that have spectacular aerial techniques. 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. Most Chinese martial art styles are classified as external styles.

Internal styles: Internal styles (內家, pinyin: nèijiā; literally “internal family”) focus on the practice of such elements 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”. While the principles that distinguish internal styles from the external were described at least as early as the 18th century by Chang Nai-chou,[16] 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 their style under this definition; for example, Liuhebafa, and Yiquan.

Components of internal training includes 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. Many internal styles have basic two-person training, such as pushing hands. A prominent characteristic of internal styles is that the forms are generally performed at a slow pace. This is thought 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.

In some styles, for example in Chen style of Taijiquan, there are forms that include sudden outbursts of explosive movements. 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.

Religious classifications: Chinese martial arts being an important component of Chinese culture are also influence by the various religions in China. Many styles were founded by groups that were influenced by one of the three great religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Islam.

Buddhist styles: Buddhist styles are those styles that originated or practised within Buddhist temples and later spread to lay community. These styles often include Buddhist philosophy, imagery, numbers, and principles. The most famous of these are the Shaolin (and related) styles, e.g. Shaolinquan, Luohanquan, Hung Gar, Wing Chun, Dragon style and White Crane.

Shaolin Kung Fu: The term “Shaolin” is used to refer to those styles that trace their origins to Shaolin, be it the Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province, another temple associated with Shaolin such as the Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province, or even wandering Shaolin monks. More restrictive definitions include only those styles that were conceived on temple grounds or even just the original Henan temple proper. The broadest definition includes just about all external Chinese martial arts, though this has much to do with the attractiveness of the Shaolin “brand name”. One common theme for this group is the association with the philosophy of Chán (Zen) Buddhism.

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

Islamic styles: Islamic(回教; Huíjiào) 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 Chāquán, Tan Tui, some branches of Xingyiquan, and Qishiquan.

Imitative-styles: Imitative-styles are styles that were developed based on the characteristics of a particular bird, animal or insect. An entire system of fighting were developed from the observations on the movement, fighting abilities and spirit of the animal. Examples of the most well known styles are white crane, tiger, monkey (Houquan), dog and mantis.

In some systems, a variety of animals are used to represent the style of the system. For example, in the Five Animals of Shaolin Boxing includes the imagery of the Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Snake and Dragon. Similarly, there are twelve animals in most Xing yi practise. Another type of imitative styles concerns the state of the practitioner. For example, in drunken boxing, the performer tries to imitate the random uncontrolled motions of an intoxicated person inorder to execute techniques that are completely relaxed and unexpected.

Legendary and historical styles: Many Chinese martial arts styles are based or named after legends or historical figures. Examples of such styles based on legends and myths are the Eight Immortals and Dragon styles. Example of styles attributed to historical figures include Xing yi who was founded by Yue Fei and Tai Chi which trace its origins to a Taoist Zhang Sanfeng.

Family styles: Family affliations are also an important means of identifying a Chinese martial arts system. Heavily influenced by the the Confucian tradition, many styles are named in honor of the founder of the system. The five family (Choi, Hung, Lau, Lei, Mok) of Southern Chinese martial arts are representative of family styles. Family styles can also denote branches of a system. For example, the families of Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun represents different training approaches to the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

Other styles: The variety of classification schemes, like the subject of Chinese martial arts, are endless. Some styles are named after well known Chinese philosophies. For example, Baguazhang is based on the Taoist philosophy of the eight trigrams (Bagua). Some styles are named after the key insight suggested by the training. For example, Liuhebafa is a system based on the ideas of six combinations and eight methods.

Another popular method to describe a particular style of Chinese martial arts is to describe the style’s emphasis in terms of the four major applications. The four major applications are: kicking (踢), hitting (打), wrestling (æ‘”) and grabing (æ‹¿). A complete system will necessary include all four types of applications but each style will differ in their training focus. For example, most Northern styles will emphasize kicking, Southern styles have a reputation for their intricate hand techniques, Shuai jiao trains predominately in full body closed contact techniques and Eagle claw is noted for their China expertise.