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How Martial Arts became catagorized as Internal and External

March 11, 2012

The distinction between Internal and External Martial Arts first appeared in 1669 in the Epitaph for “Wang Zhengnan” written by Huang Zhongxi. The original meaning of internal and external martial arts referred to external being arts associated with Buddhism, Shaolin, and having a foreign origin. Internal arts were associated with Taoism and were indigenous to China. Stanley Henning has written extensively on this.

Today many people consider internal martial arts to mean they start with internal development such as building chi and principles for strengthening from the core out, while external arts are thought to be the opposite strengthening the external muscles eventually building internal strength.

Originally Neijia Quan (Internal Fist) was a specific martial art taught by Wang Zhengnan . Neijia Ch’uan fa was first written about in 1676 by Huang Baijia, in the manual he wrote based on the teachings of his teacher Wang Zhengnan. Huang Baijia was the son of Huang Zhongxi.  Neijia Quan implied that it had something more then the common martial arts of its day. It had some unique principles, and concepts. This system has been lost to time. Today internal (Neijia, or Neijia Quan) is commonly used to describe martial arts such as Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tai Chi. These three are sometimes referred to as the “Three Sisters”.

Yang Lu-Chan was a prominent martial artist of his day (1799-1872). He was the first outsider to learn Chen style martial arts in Chen Village, from Chen Changxing the 14th generation Chen family martial arts master.  His nickname was “Invincible Yang” because, he was undefeated as a fighter.  When Yang first started teaching in Yung Nien, his art was referred to as “Cotton Fist” or “Neutralizing Fist”. Many watched his matches, it was the scholar Ong Tong who on observing Yang fight thought he manifested the principles of “Tai Chi” in his techniques. From that day on his art was referred to as Tai Chi.

Chen Bu (late 1360’s forward) is the first person credited with founding Chen family martial arts. It was his 9th generation successor Chen Wangting (1600-1680) that was credited with creating the martial art we call Tai Chi today. Chen Wangting developed the martial art from several contemporary martial arts of his day. As well as Chinese medicine and Taoist philosophy. Chen Fake the 17th generation master of the system moved to Beijing in 1928 and began teaching. He did not call his art Tai Chi when he moved to Beijing, it was the martial arts community there that classified Chen as Tai Chi.

The origins of Xingyiquan are clouded in mystery. Though legend has it that the creator was Yue Fei in the Song Dynasty, it seems very improbable that he created the system. The first written accounts of the system appear about 1750 AD. Some believe it was created by Dai Longbang (1732-1801).

Bagua is the newest of what is commonly referred to as the internal systems (the three sisters). It was created after 1850 by Dang Haichuan. He combined his earlier martial arts training with Taoist circle walking to create this system.

In the 1890’s many masters of various arts came to Beijing and trained together. In many cases these masters would have their students cross train in another art with a master they respected. It was not uncommon for Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tai Chi practitioners to cross train in one or both of the other arts.

Starting in 1914 Sun Lutang, Yang Shou-hou, Yang Cheng Fu, and Wu Chien-ch’uan began teaching Tai Chi to the public at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute. In 1915 Sun Lutang began publishing martial arts texts, that would later be used as the basis for distinguishing an internal art from an external art.

In 1928 several KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) generals organized a national martial arts tournament to screen the best martial artists. This was in order to build a new Central Martial Arts Academy.  For this tournament they divided the participants into two groups Wudang, and Shaolin.  Wudang was considered to have internal skills and was represented by Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-Yi. All others where categorized as Shaolin and by definition external.

The following ideas written about by Sun Lutang were used to distinguish the internal martial arts.

1. The emphasis on using the mind to coordinate the leverage of the relaxed body, not using strength.

2. The internal development chi and chi circulation.

3. The application of Taoist Daoyin, Chi Kung, Nei Kung, and external movement.

This method of categorization is still in use today.

Mike Murphy


Categories: Concepts & Principles
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