Chinese martial arts

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Fighting art or martial art?

Some styles of martial arts were designed to be fighting arts; for individual combat, personal protection and self defence.
Other methods were adopted and employed by the Chinese military - these were martial arts, not fighting arts.

'Martial' means military

Military combat is quite different from self defence or sport; more serious... And it is usually features weaponry. In tai chi, the old/classical Yang style is the only style actually used by the Chinese military.
The other tai chi styles are technically speaking fighting arts.


The modern off-shoot of Chinese martial arts is called 'wushu'. It combines martial arts-style movements, gymnastics, acrobatics and dance choreographed to look exciting.
Wushu is all about aesthetics, theatrical displays and entertainment. Traditional Chinese martial arts are not performance art, nor sport.

Chinese boxing

The popular book Chinese Boxing by Robert Smith refers to kung fu as being 'Chinese boxing'. Is this term correct? The 1899 Boxer Rebellion in China was a historical event in which kung fu exponents sought to expel foreign influences from China, so the term has been used for some time. The question is - did the Chinese exponents call themselves 'boxers' or the terms Western in origin?

Kung fu

Although most people think of Chinese martial or fighting arts as being 'kung fu', the actual term kung fu is fairly recent and only came into more common use in the 1960's.


Most martial arts rely on strength, tensed muscles, speed, force against force, locked joints, aggression and using the arms independently of the body. This is thought of as being 'external'.

Internal martial arts (neijiaquan)

A handful of Chinese martial arts use the body in a very different manner, relying upon timing, balance, relaxed muscles, whole-body strength, whole-body movement and whole-body power.
These arts are called 'internal' or neijiaquan. The training methods are more advanced and harder to learn.


Tai chi was created in the Wudang Mountain range in Hubei, China. This mountain region is famous for Taoism.
Although bagua and xingyiquan are often referred to as 'Wudang', neither of those styles originated in the Wudang Mountain range. Only tai chi is from Wudang. Bagua is from Emei.

Advanced martial art

Internal martial arts (neijiaquan) cultivate a very different attitude in the student. They necessitate an unfamiliar approach to body use, combat and living:

  1. Health and combat are equally important

  2. Age is less of an obstacle

  3. Significantly more refined, detailed and sophisticated than mainstream martial arts

  4. Strength is built using unconventional means

  5. Cross-training: massage, leg stretches, qigong, neigong, form, partnered work, martial sets & drills, combat and weapons

  6. Physically and mentally challenging; but in a very different way to mainstream martial arts

  7. Body must be trained to move in a manner that is unfamiliar

  8. Organic, natural, flowing

  9. Striking and grappling are trained together

  10. Hidden, restrained, subtle

  11. Uses 4 ounces of pressure, stickiness, sensitivity

  12. Incapacitation is the aim

  13. Composure is vital

  14. Allowing, leading, misdirecting, listening, sensitivity, adaptation

  15. Close-quarters

  16. Circular

  17. Reliance upon spontaneity and timing

  18. Being in the body and sensation-oriented

  19. Blending rather than blocking

  20. Feeling your vulnerability

  21. Loose, fluid and relaxed musculature

  22. A highly developed technical understanding is cultivated

  23. An understanding of the meaning and application of the martial Classics

  24. The art is a vehicle for exploring the many insights offered by 'taoism'

  25. The training is done carefully, gently - in a controlled manner - without exertion or strain

In tai chi we do not train ourselves so our bodies are distorted in one way to achieve something special.

(Chungliang Al Huang)


Page created 25 March 1994
Last updated 16 June 2023