Differences Between Internal and External Styles

By Grandmaster Shou-Yu Liang, Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, and Master Wen-Ching Wu

Ben Yang and Helen Liang - Xing Yi An Shen Pao
Ben Yang and Helen Liang - Xing Yi An Shen Pao

Before we go into the differences between internal and external styles, you should first recognize one important point: all Chinese styles, both internal and external, come from the same root. If a style does not share this root, then it is not a Chinese martial style. This root is the Chinese culture. Throughout the world, various civilizations have created many different arts, each one based on that civilization's cultural background. Therefore, it does not matter which style you are discussing; as long as it was created in China, it must contain the essence of Chinese art, the spirit of traditional Chinese virtues, and the knowledge of traditional fighting techniques which have been passed down for thousands of years.

Martial artists of old looked at their experiences and realized that in a fight there are three factors which generally decide victory. These three factors are speed, power, and technique. Among these, speed is the most important. This is simply because, if you are fast, you can get to the opponent's vital areas more easily, and get out again before he can get you. Even if your power is weak and you only know a limited number of techniques, you still have a good chance of inflicting a serious injury on the opponent.

If you already have speed, then what you need is power. Even if you have good speed and techniques, if you don't have power, your attacks and defence will not be as effective as possible. You may have met people with great muscular strength but no martial arts training who were able to defeat skilled martial artists whose power was weak. Finally, once you have good speed and power, if you can develop good techniques and a sound strategy, then there will be no doubt that victory will be yours. Therefore, in Chinese martial arts, increasing speed, improving power and studying the techniques are the most important pursuits. In fact, speed and power training are considered the foundation of effectiveness in all Chinese martial arts styles.

Moreover, it does not matter what techniques a style creates, they all must follow certain basic principles and rules. For example, all offensive and defensive techniques must effectively protect vital areas such as the eyes, throat, and groin. Whenever you attack, you must be able to access your opponent's vital areas without exposing your own.

The same applies to speed and power training. Although each style has tried to keep their methods secret, they all follow the same general rules. For example, developing muscle power should not be detrimental to your speed, and developing speed should not decrease your muscular power. Both must be of equal concern. Finally, the training methods you use or develop should be appropriate to the techniques which characterize your style. For example, in eagle and crane styles, the speed and power of grabbing are extremely important, and should be emphasized.

It is generally understood in Chinese martial arts society that, before the Liang dynasty (540 A.D.), martial artists did not study the use of Qi to increase speed and power. After the Liang dynasty martial artists realized the value of Qi training in developing speed and power, and it became one of the major concerns in almost all styles. Because of this two part historical development, we should discuss this subject by dividing it into two eras. The dividing point should be the Liang dynasty (540 A.D.), when Da Mo was preaching in China.

It is generally believed that before Da Mo, although Qi theory and principles had been studied and widely applied in Chinese medicine, they were not used in the martial arts. Speed and power, on the other hand, were normally developed through continued training. Even though this training emphasized a concentrated mind, it did not provide the next step and link this to developing Qi. Instead, these martial artists concentrated solely on muscular power. This is why styles originating from this period are classified as external styles.

Then, the emperor Liang Wu invited the Indian monk Da Mo to China to preach Buddhism. When the emperor did not agree with Da Mo's particular Buddhist philosophy, the monk fled across the Yellow River to the Shaolin Temple. There he saw that many priests were weak, and fell asleep during his lectures. Da Mo went into meditation to discover how to help the monks. After nine years of solitary meditation, he wrote two classics - the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and the Xi Sui Jing (Marrow/Brain Washing Classic). After Da Mo died, the Shaolin priests continued to practice his methods, especially the Yi Jin Jing, to strengthen their bodies and spirits. They soon found that the training not only made them healthier, but it also made them stronger. During these times, even priests needed to know martial arts in order to protect themselves from bandits. When they combined Da Mo's Qi training with their traditional defence techniques, they became very effective fighters. As Da Mo's training methods spread out from the Shaolin Temple, many forms of martial Qigong were developed. This topic is explored more thoroughly in Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Cleansing Chi Kung by Dr. Yang.

The Yi Jin Jing was not originally intended to be used for fighting. Nevertheless, students training the martial Qigong based on it were able to significantly increase power, and it became a mandatory course of training in the Shaolin Temple. This had a revolutionary effect on Chinese martial arts, leading to the establishment of an internal personal foundation, based on Qi training.

As time passed, several martial styles were created which emphasized a soft body, instead of the stiff muscular body developed by the Shaolin priests. These newer styles were based on the belief that, since Qi (internal energy) is the root and foundation of physical strength, a martial artist should first build up this internal root. This theory holds that when Qi is abundant and full, it can energize the physical body to a higher level, so that power can be manifested more effectively and efficiently. In order to build up Qi and circulate it smoothly, the body must be relaxed and the mind must be concentrated. We recognize at least two internal styles as having been created during this time (550-600 A.D.): Hou Tian Fa (Post-Heaven Techniques) and Xiao Jiu Tian Small Nine Heavens). According to some documents, these two styles were the original sources of Taijiquan, the creation of which is credited to Chang San-Feng of the late Song dynasty (around 1200 A.D.)

In summary: The various martial arts are divided into external and internal styles. While the external styles emphasize training techniques and building up the physical body through some martial Qigong, the internal styles emphasize the build up of Qi in the body. In fact, all styles, both internal and external, have martial Qigong training. The external styles train the physical body and hard Qigong first, and gradually become soft and train soft Qigong, while the internal styles train soft Qigong first, and later apply the built up Qi to the physical techniques. It, is said that: "The external styles are from hard to soft and the internal styles are from soft to hard, the ways are different but the final goal is the same." It is also said: "External styles are from external to internal, while internal styles are from internal to external. Although the approaches are different, the final goal is the same." Again, it is said: "External styles first Li (muscular strength) and then Qi, while internal styles first Qi and later Li." The preceding discussion should have given you a general idea of how to distinguish external and internal styles. Frequently, internal and external styles are also judged by how the Jin is manifested. Jin is defined as "Li and Qi," (Li means muscular strength). It is how the muscles are energized by the Qi and how this manifests externally as power. It is said: "The internal styles are as soft as a whip, the soft-hard styles (half external and half internal) are like rattan, and the external styles are like a staff." If you are interested in this rather substantial subject, please refer to Dr. Yang's book, Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan.