The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Chinese martial arts

Chinese martial arts, often abbreviated as CMA, refers to the enormous variety of martial art styles native to China. Chinese martial arts are also often referred to as wushu or incorrectly as kung fu.

link title==History of Chinese martial arts== Many Chinese martial arts, and several Japanese martial arts, claim to have originated from the teachings of the Buddhist culture hero Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Temple (a Chan Buddhist monastery) when he is said to have moved to China sometime circa the 6th century. Researchers regard the claim that all components of Chinese martial arts derive from Bodhidharma with considerable skepticism, since the historical record and modern archaeology report earlier sources for some techniques and schools. However, the Shaolin Temple, located in the Henan province near the city of Dengfeng , has had centuries of long tradition of fostering the martial arts as it has provided refuge for martial artists with widely differing techniques from all over China. ALLAH!!!!


Styles of Chinese martial arts

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. Also, there are many themes common to different styles that lead many to characterize them as belonging to generalized "families" (家, jiā) of martial art styles. There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies. Some styles put all their focus into the belief of the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition and exhibition. Many styles also make use of the broad arsenal of Chinese weapons. For a list of styles, see list of Chinese martial arts.

Chinese martial arts are split into two broad categories: external and internal (or hard and soft). The difference is what type of training is the main focus of the style, even though most styles contain both external and internal elements. In addition, external styles in particular are often divided into northern and southern as well, referring to what part of China the styles originated from, separated by the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang).

External or hard styles (外家 wi jiā)

These styles are what most people associate with Chinese martial arts. They are generally fast and explosive, focusing on physical strength and agility. External styles can be 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 high-kicking aerial maneuvers that resemble those of Korean Tae Kwon Do, and the many animal styles inspired by the movements of certain animals. 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.

Internal or soft styles (內家 ni jiā)

Internal styles on the practice of what are considered internal elements, such as awareness of the spirit, mind and the qi, or breathing. Some internal stylists say that the difference between internal and external for them is mostly the distinction of the inside and the outside of the body. The reason for the label "internal," according to most schools, is that there is a focus on the internal aspects earlier in the training, once these internal relationships are apprehended (the theory goes) they are then applied to the external applications of the styles in question. Because of the extended periods of time that beginning students are expected to work on very basic principles in most internal schools, and perhaps also the prevalence in recent years of many Western "New Age" oriented schools who are accused by traditionalists of emphasizing philosophy and speculation at the expense of hard work (see the next paragraph), many people believe internal styles lack "external" physical training. In the older schools, however, much time is spent on basic physical work, such as 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. Also, many internal styles have basic two-person training, such as pushing hands. The forms of most internal styles are performed slowly, though some also include sudden outbursts of explosive movements, such as those the Chen style of Taijiquan is famous for teaching earlier than some other styles. The reason for the generally slow pace is 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. At an advanced level, and in real fighting, internal styles are supposed to be 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 historically, in legend, and in much popular fiction with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan in central China.

Today, only a few traditional schools teaching internal styles train martially, even though such training was originally a part of all internal styles. This is especially evident in schools located outside of China. Most schools teach forms that are practiced for the physical benefits only, as this is what most modern students are looking for and as these students seldom have the time or devotion to reach far enough in their training to start focusing on the martial aspects. To condition oneself well enough to become adept at the soft style martial arts is a long-term proposition; many simply lose interest after a few years and never finish the program. Also, many people who have not fully learned the martial aspects of their style judge themselves qualified to teach what they do know publicly anyway, leading to a further diminution of the martial applications taught in many schools. Due to the current fad for "mixed martial arts", many such instructors have an opportunity to supplement what they are teaching with elements from other schools, hard or soft, and their training becomes further removed from the original art. While this gradual watering-down of technique has made some external aspects of internal styles available for a wider audience who are interested in the purported health benefits of the internal schools, traditional schools see a complete martial syllabus as a fundamental, defining part of their art, both for health and self-defense purposes. They claim that while the students may not need to practice external applications to derive a benefit from the training, their teachers should know the applications well, to ensure that the movements are trained correctly, effectively and safely. For these reasons traditionalists feel that a school not teaching martial aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, that they have "graduated themselves", and that they are much less likely to be able to reproduce the health benefits that have made complete internal systems famous in the first place.

Northern styles

These are styles that have evolved from northern parts of China such as Henan province and the Shaolin Temple. It is said that 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 that they made their styles take 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. An example of a northern style is the modern Changquan (Long Fist) that is the most popular style in the forms division in most contemporary Chinese martial arts competitions held around the world today.

Southern styles

Southern styles are styles originally practiced in southern China, in the provinces south of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). There are sayings that because of their shorter height, the southern Chinese developed styles that were direct and powerful, mainly developing their upper body strength and speed. A generalized Nanquan (Southern Fist) style has become a popular class in modern Chinese martial arts competitions. It is similar to Changquan (Long Fist) but includes more rapid punches and blocks, and less legwork and jumps.

Training in Chinese martial arts

Most styles of Chinese martial arts contain practice of the application of techniques (both as prepared drills and as free sparring), but also the practice of what is known as forms, or taolu (套路 - to l) in Chinese. Forms are a pre-choreographed series of techniques and movements, performed alone or with one or more partners.

Another important part of the training, as in most other physical activities, is what is referred to as basics, such as various exercises for strengthening the body, and regular stretching.


Basics are a vital part of the training, as a student cannot progress to the more advanced stages without them; without strong and flexible muscles, many movements of Chinese martial arts are simply impossible to perform correctly. Basics include such things as stretching, strengthening of muscles, bones and tendons, stamina training, and basic stances, kicks and punches. Some styles also consider jumping, jump-kicks and acrobatics basics. In addition, many styles teach a few basic techniques as well, before moving on to forms. These techniques are normally the most common techniques of the specific style, found in many of the style's forms.

Chinese martial arts pay considerable attention to stretching. Common stretching exercises include general warm-up stretching, stretching in pairs, and various types of stretch kicks, usually practiced with speed. As many Chinese martial arts are formed to suit children and higher-level students who have been practicing since childhood, they can include basic exercises that require very high flexibility in order to be possible to perform at all.


Forms or taolu are series of techniques put together after one another so they can be practiced as one whole set of movements. Some say that forms resemble a choreographed dance, though martial artists often argue that a general difference is the speed and explosiveness seen in most external styles, and that the movements are actual fighting techniques.

Types of forms

There are two types of forms in Chinese martial arts. Most common are the solo forms, performed alone by one person, but there are also "sparring" forms, which are a type of choreographed fighting sets performed by two or more people.

Many styles consider forms as one of the most important practices, as they gradually build up the practitioner's strength and flexibility, speed and stamina, and teach balance and coordination. They also function as a tool for both the students and the teacher to remember the many techniques taught by the style, and sort them into various groups.

A style can have many compartments, both empty-handed and with weapons. In most styles, empty-handed techniques are the most common, but many styles also contain forms using a wide range of weapons of various length and type, utilizing one or two hands. There are also styles that only practice a certain weapon, containing only forms with the specific weapon.

Forms are meant to work the body. Once a basic structure is able be maintained in the body forms are then used to work that structure. Forms develop a sensibility of moving from position to position. This teaches the body to react.

Appearance of forms

Even though forms of Chinese martial arts are based on martial techniques, the movements might not always be identical to how the techniques they symbolize would look when applied in combat. This is due to the way many forms have been elaborated, on the one hand to provide better combat preparedness and on the other hand to look more beautiful. One easily understood manifestation of this tendency toward elaborations that go beyond what most often might be used in combat is the inclusion of lower stances and higher kicks. The regular practice of techniques while using lower stances both adds strength to the same techniques when used with higher stances, and also facilitates using the same techniques in the lower stances when the realities of combat make doing so the most appropriate choice.

In recent years, as the perceived need for self-defense has decreased, many modern schools have replaced practical defense or offense movements with acrobatic feats that are more spectacular to watch, thereby gaining favor during exhibitions and competitions. The mainland Chinese government has especially been criticized by traditionalists for "watering down" the wushu competition training it promotes. Appearances have been important in many traditional forms as well, seen as a sign of balance but not the most important requirement of successful training. Some martial artists have looked for supplementary income for performing on the streets or in theaters, although in the most traditional schools such performance is forbidden.

Another reason why the martial techniques might look different in forms is thought, by some, to come from a need to "disguise" the actual functions of the techniques from outsiders (from rival schools or from the authorities as legend has it happened in Okinawa). The intention was to leave the forms in such a state that they could be performed in front of others without revealing their actual martial functions, while retaining their original functionality in a less obvious form.

Modern forms

As forms have grown in complexity and quantity over the years, and many forms alone could be practiced for a lifetime, styles of modern Chinese martial arts have developed that concentrate solely on forms, and do not practice application at all. These styles are primarily aimed at exhibition and competition, and often include more acrobatic jumps and movements added for enhanced visual effect compared to the traditional styles. Those who generally prefer to practice traditional styles, focused less on exhibition, are often referred to as traditionalists. Many traditionalists consider the evolution of today's Chinese martial arts as bad, saying that much of its original value is lost.


Application training or sparring refers to the training of putting the martial techniques to use. When and how applications are taught varies from style to style, but in the beginning, most styles focus on certain drills where each person knows what technique is being practiced and what attack to expect. Gradually, fewer and fewer rules are applied, and the students learn how to react and feel what technique to use, depending on the situation and the type of opponent.

Nowadays, many Chinese martial arts choose not to practice much application at all, as the need for self-defense has become less significant in the societies of today. The introduction of firearms such as guns has made the traditional weapons and empty-handed martial arts lose much of their power, as even a completely untrained person can kill a master of any style by firing a gun from a safe distance. Before guns existed, however, knowledge of martial arts could save both your and your family's life. Because of this, the applications of the techniques were often considered sacred, and were commonly kept secret from all but family and the closest friends. Today, the views on this tradition of keeping things secret are very mixed, and some schools openly teach applications to anyone willing to learn. Others still require the students to show that they are worthy before teaching applications, "worthy" usually meaning that the students can be trusted that they will not use their knowledge to a bad purpose.

There are also modern styles that practice application and even focus solely on them, though these are aimed mostly at competition. One such style that has grown quite popular is called Sanda (or Sanshou). It is similar to Muay Thai and is a type of sparring competition where the competitors wear protection and gloves, and get points when scoring a hit on the opponent or performing a successful throw.

Use of qi in Chinese martial arts

The concept of q or ch'i (氣), the inner energy or "life force" that flows through the body of every living being, is encountered in almost all styles of Chinese martial arts. Internal styles are reputed to pay more attention to its cultivation than external styles.

Many believe that one's qi energy can be improved and strengthened through the regular practice of various physical and mental exercises known as qigong. Though qigong is not a martial art itself, it is often incorporated in Chinese martial arts, and practiced as a complement to strengthen one's internal abilities.

There are many ideas regarding controlling one's qi energy to such an extent that it can be used for healing oneself or others: the goal of medical qigong. Some styles believe in focusing qi into a single point when attacking and aim at specific areas of the human body (similar to the study of acupressure), to cause maximum damage or disable certain functions of the body. Some go so far as to think that at an advanced level it is (or was, as some believe such abilities to now be lost, if they ever existed) possible to cause harm without even touching the opponent, a popular concept in Chinese martial arts movies.

Chinese martial arts in movies

In modern times, Chinese martial arts have spawned a popular genre of cinema. The films of Bruce Lee were instrumental in the initial burst of Chinese martial arts' popularity in the West, and lately, actors such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan have appeared in many Western films. This type of martial art film is often referred to as "Kung Fu movies" (see martial arts film, wuxia).

A US network TV western series of the early 1970s called Kung Fu also served to popularize the Chinese martial arts on television.

Last updated: 08-25-2005 14:56:17
Last updated: 09-01-2005 02:43:46