The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Internal and External Martial Arts

I'd like to bring another excellent article from over at King Fu Tea to your attention.

There is seemingly endless discussion about "internal" vs "external" in martial arts. For myself, I don't find the internal vs external distinction very useful. There are simply different ways to go about generating power.

An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here. Enjoy.

Defining Neijia: What are the “internal art?”

Not knowing any better, one might think that there is a social hierarchy in the Chinese martial arts.  In the world of popular (or folk) styles there are a variety of schools and approaches.  Some of the most famous of these claim, or actually have, an association with the Shaolin Temple.  Yet for other students, the Shaolin styles still lack something.  More prestigious still are the “internal” styles (neijia).
What exactly makes a martial art “internal,” as opposed to “external,” is a matter of perpetual debate.  For some teachers it has to do with the sort of energy work, or manipulation of qi, that the martial artist performs.  Training routines for building and channeling “qi” tend to be associated with the internal arts.  Of course the performance teams trained by the Shaolin Temple are more than happy to demonstrate their own feat of qi mastery and “hard qigong.”
Another explanation I have run across is that external martial arts attempt to move the body (perhaps for a punch or kick) by using the muscles, whereas internal arts “stack bones” in the skeletal system so that power in a punch or kick can be gained through mechanical leverage.  You are literally letting physics do the work for you.

I quite like this explanation because when you teach the martial arts, you do become aware that
some techniques and styles rely more on the principal of leverage than others.  This explanation seems to have some value in actually explaining physical observations.  But I am also quite sure this is not what the discussion was originally about.

Understanding where these expressions evolved and how they came to be applied to the modern martial arts is a real puzzle, both for the historical scholar and the practitioner of the modern Chinese martial arts.  We were all taught in graduate school that the first question you ask when you come across a puzzling observation is “What is this a case of?”  The unstated assumption here is that things with similar characteristics and functions might share a similar origin.  Or at minimum, knowing that something fits into a given category of analysis suggests what theories can be used to analyze it.

So for instance, if you tell me that Taiji and Wing Chun are both internal martial arts, this suggests that they might share a common ancestry (perhaps with General Qi Jiquan “32 Forms” as Stanley Henning suggests).  Alternatively, if philosophical and Daoist ideas are important for understanding Taiji, should I spend months translating texts and conducting expert interviews with Wing Chun Sifus in Hong Kong, China, Germany, Canada and the UK looking for similar ideas.  Do I need to familiarize myself with the more esoteric side of the Taiji Classics and the later writings of Sun Lutang?  Or would my time and research budget be better spent working on some other line of questioning?


Paul said...

My take: internal is to begin training from the inside (and then to the outside), and external is to begin from the outside (and then to the inside). In this regard, gymnastic dancers are internal and baseball players are external. In the end, they are all great athletes.

PS: The manifested difference as we see in real-life cases is due to the fact that most people (me included) never come close to the end...:):)

Rick said...

Good insight, Paul!