Taijiquan or kung fu?

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External martial artist

Some students have prior experience in martial arts when they start learning taijiquan.
Usually they trained externally (judo, karate, ju jitsu, aikido, wing chun etc)
They are well accustomed to practice, rigorous training and combat.

Traditional model

With many martial arts there is a heavy emphasis upon hard training.
It is all about strength-building, coordination, mobility, stamina, accuracy, whole-body movement, whole-body power and patience.
This traditional approach was designed to test the resolve of the student and ensure that the necessary fundamentals were established.

Hard training

Press-ups, sit-ups, circuit training, weight lifting, running,
sweating and straining...
High repetitions.
Long gruelling training sessions.
Challenging postures held for sustained periods of time.
This is the external way. But it is not the taijiquan way.

When you do taijiquan, you shouldn't sweat.
Sweating is a sign that the qi (life energy) is being dissipated.
It comes from tension and it's as if you are depleting your bank account.
Doing taijiquan, you want to accumulate qi, not spend it.
So, if you sweat, you should stop and rest.

(Cheng Man Ching)

Taijiquan is an art where all the principles of other martial arts have been turned upside down.
They practice fast, we practice slow.
They practice hard, we practice soft.

(Cheng Man Ching)

There are many similarities between the hard and soft fighting systems; both use animal movements and forms, for example, and both incorporate the five elements, but because of the Taoist influence, the soft arts exhibit a stronger and deeper relationship with the natural world.

Since the Taoist concepts are rooted in the most distant past with the most ancient beliefs of the Chinese, it is difficult for the Western mind to understand them. Therefore, before you can investigate the internal martial arts, you must first back to the very origins of thought in ancient China.

(Howard Reid)

In many martial arts schools the practice was carried out in secrecy and the school's very existence was frequently concealed from the authorities. For example, taijiquan is based on body of theory known to be around 2000 years old yet it was not revealed until 1750.

(Howard Reid)


Taijiquan way

Taijiquan is physically and mentally challenging; but in a very different way to mainstream martial arts.
Long, gruelling training sessions are discouraged.
Overtraining is as bad as not training.
Tired muscles and sore joints are unhealthy.

Is taijiquan kung fu?

This is a debatable issue.
According to
The Sword Polisher's Record: The Way of Kung Fu by Adam Hsu, taijiquan is certainly a style of kung fu.
Other people disagree; regarding 'kung fu' as merely being the martial component of taijiquan.
Taijiquan exponents often see kung fu as being synonymous with 'external'.

Not external

Although taijiquan seeks to achieve many of the same goals as external martial arts, it is not external.
Hard-style training is external
Taijiquan adopts a milder approach; internal.
The difference is not in the aims of Art but in the manner in which the work is undertaken.
Refer to the Wang Treatise.

High repetition

To gain familiarity with the taijiquan movements, high repetition is necessary.
This is the same as external.
The difference lies in the time scale.

Be patient

An external person hammers their body by training intensively; thereby accumulating the required number of repetitions. 
The taijiquan person spreads their training out.
Instead of long, sustained training sessions, they train little and often.
It takes far longer to perform the necessary practice, but there is far less risky of injury and the body is not unduly taxed


This same attitude is applied to strength-building.
Be patient. Give yourself time. Rest.
Allow your body time to grow and change.
Avoid pushing or forcing an outcome

A young boy travelled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist.
When he arrived at the dojo he was given an audience by the sensei.

"What do you wish from me?" the master asked.

"I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land," the boy replied.
"How long must I study?"

"Ten years at least," the master answered.

"Ten years is a long time," said the boy.
"What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"

"Twenty years," replied the master.

"Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?"

"Thirty years," was the master's reply.

"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.

"The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way."

(Joe Hyams)

Combat skill

Taijiquan combat skills take a lot of time to develop.
Alongside applications, striking methods and grappling skills, the student is also discovering how to move in a whole-body, energy efficient manner.
This multi-faceted approach ensures that the training remains intelligent and moderate.
There is no scope for overtraining or being aggressive.

Bad influences

When you read accounts of how traditional masters trained, it can be tempting to commit to a punishing regime.
Ask yourself: is this necessary?
Is it even productive?
By being patient, you are following the Taoist method of not too much and not too little.
Just enough.

The tortoise and the hare

Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare captures the difference between taijiquan and external training very nicely.
The taijiquan training is often slow and steady whereas external is fast.
Speed becomes a major issue later in the taijiquan syllabus when the student learns cold jing and fa jing.
Until then, sensitivity, timing, positioning, agility and jing are cultivated. 

Running on empty

Modern people are often running on empty.
They fail to take adequate rest.
Many of the exercise methods they adopt lead to even greater fatigue.
Stimulants, sugar, caffeine and fatty food enable the individual to carry on when in fact the real solution to fatigue is of course rest.
Training taijiquan as though it were external would only serve to perpetuate this situation...

20-30 rule

In his own training Sifu Waller aims to practice for no more than 30 minutes at a time.
His daily routine is staggered - chunks of 5 mins, 10 mins, 15 mins & 20 mins - throughout the day.
He applies a 20-30 minutes ceiling on most activities: martial arts, DIY, cleaning, shopping...
Train for no more than 30 minutes and then take a break (even for 5 minutes).


Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Do your work, then step back.

(Lao Tzu)

Worth reading

Confusing internal & external training methods
External to internal
Neijiaquan (internal martial arts)  
Technique-based mentality 
Cross-training martial arts
Taijiquan combat

Page created 21 May 2003
Last updated 06 January 2017