INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL: What Sets Them Apart?
By Tim Cartmell
There has been a great deal of discussion over whether a martial art is internal or external, and the differences between the two. Most people familiar with Chinese martial art probably associate the internal with exercises for health, softness and "chi," and associate the external with strength, hardness and fighting. We should start by defining the criteria which qualify an art as internal or external. It is very popular today to talk about internal martial arts as being methods of cultivating the chi (intrinsic energy), whereas external martial arts favor building physical strength.
The first question is, "What exactly is chi?" And once we have come to what we believe is an adequate definition, the next question should deal with the relationship chi has to martial ability. Finally, we come back to the question of why internal martial arts would cultivate chi in some way that external martial arts do not. The point is, both internal and external martial arts talk about chi development; saying a martial art is internal because it "has chi" is not valid. The difficulty in defining chi has led some martial artists to conclude that chi doesn't exist at all, therefore there is no difference between internal and external martial arts. But there definitely is a difference, and it does not depend on whether or not one believes in chi.
Let's put aside the whole question of chi and talk about similarities and differences among the three orthodox internal styles (as representatives of internal styles in general) and external martial arts from a more tangible point of view. Let's compare and contrast the martial arts from the standpoint of body mechanics, mindset, and application. The real difference between the internal and external martial arts is not chi, softness/hardness, or which is better for health; rather, it boils down to how specific movements are done in a particular mindset, and how these apply to real fights.
The internal myth
The orthodox internal martial arts, namely Xing Yi Quan, Tai Ji Quan and Ba Gua Zhang , have all incorporated Taoist techniques of breathing, meditation and medical theory into their methods of power, development (nei kung) and fighting movements. Although the resultant arts are superior as systems of health cultivation and physical development, health was not the primary concern of the developers of these styles. The primary focus of any martial art is, by definition, martial. The wedding of Taoist practices and martial technique came about because the masters felt movement in accordance with natural principles performed in a meditative state of mind was the quickest way of realizing the goal of absolute potential as a martial artist (fighter).
For centuries, China has had a great variety of therapeutic chi kung and related health systems that are equally as effective as the internal martial arts for restoring, maintaining and improving one's health, and are far simpler to learn and practice than the internal styles. There was no need to invent complex and often extremely physically demanding martial arts to fulfill the same purpose. Although the internal martial arts may be practiced solely as exercises for physical fitness, they were not created with this goal in mind. The internal martial arts were developed for fighting, with their health benefits more or less side effects of training for martial ability.
Body mechanics: An overview
The most basic and important difference between internal and external martial arts is the method of generating power or "jing" (manifest energy). At the root fundamental level, the most important factor which qualifies an art as internal is the use of what the Chinese call "complete," "unified" or "whole body" power (jengjing). This means the entire body is used as a singular unit with the muscles of the body in proper tone according to their function (relaxed, meaning neither too tense nor too slack). Power is generated with the body as a singular unit, and the various types of energies (jing) used are all generated from this unified power source.
The external martial arts, although engaging the body as a whole in generating power sequentially, do not use the body in a complete unit as do the internal martial arts. The external styles primarily use "sectional power" (ju bu li), which is a primary reason they are classified apart from the internal arts. A variation of this sectional power in the external arts is the special development of one part of the body as a weapon (iron palm, iron broom, etc.). The internal tends to forego these methods in favor of even development of the whole body, which m turn is used as a coherent unit.
Xing Yi Quan, Tai Ji Quan and Ba Gua Zhang all have unified body motion as their root; hence, they are internal styles. However, since each of these styles emphasizes different expressions of this unified power, they are not the same style.
Xing Yi Chuan
Xing Yi Chuan provides perhaps the easiest example of the principle of unified movement in action, as motion is stripped to its bare efficient essentials. Traditional five-element based Xing Yi Quan was created on static posture training (Zhan Zhuang). The primary purpose of these postures is to train the feeling of connectedness into the brain and nervous system, as it is easier to cultivate this feeling standing still than moving. One stands until whole body unity becomes the natural state. Only after this has been achieved does the student slowly begin to move while paying attention to maintaining this unity in motion. Typically, a single move such as splitting (Pi Quan) will be practiced exclusively and repeatedly for several months until the student understands bow to move the body without losing its dynamic unity. Once the student "gets the feeling" with a single form, other forms can more quickly be mastered.
Because the ancient Xing Yi Quan masters knew that using the body in a unified manner produced the greatest amount of power, they developed five basic movements (the five elements) which allow one to issue power (fa jing) in a unified manner. These movements are splitting (issuing power downward), crushing (issuing power straight forward), drilling (issuing power upward), pounding (issuing power outward) and crossing (issuing power inward). The developers of Xing Yi Quan saw these five basic variations of unified power as covering the range of motions useful to fighting. Hie 12 animal forms of the style are further elaborations and variations of the five original "themes". The simple beauty and profundity of the art of Xing Yi Quan as an internal boxing style is in its logical development from a single principle, using the body in a unit, to the basic energies that can be generated from this unit, the five elements, to the further elaboration of these five basic energies into the 12 animal forms.
Tai Ji Quan
In the first passage of the Tai Ji Classics, Jang San Peng (the legendary founder of Tai Ji Quan) states that the body must be light and agile, and that it must be connected throughout (gwan chwan). This is the basis of Tai Ji Quan as a martial art. The most basic energy of this art is the ward off energy (peng jing). Ills energy is the same as using the body as a unit. As the masters say, "No peng jing, no martial art." The reference here is not to the actual technique of ward off from the forms, but rather to the ward off energy that must permeate the whole body connecting it with unified power, from which all subsequent variations in power are based.
The basic postural requirements for Tai Ji Quan practice (head floating up, shoulders sunk, chest lifted) are the physical prerequisites of unified body power. As in the other internal styles, the student begins by standing in static postures for a considerable length of time to cultivate the body's peng jing body before singular postures are practiced and mastered one at a time. Single technique practice (dan ba lian) and issuing power (fa Jing) are practiced until all the various postures of Tai Ji Quan can be executed with whole body power. Finally, the student is taught to link the postures into a continuous sequence that trains sensitivity to postural changes (listening energy or tingjing) and the ability to flow from one technique to the next without disconnecting the body. One of the fundamental reasons most Tai Ji Quan forms are practiced slowly is 'so the student can constantly adjust and monitor the body to make sure it is always moving in a unit. This is much easier to feel moving slowly than quickly.
Eventually, the student develops the body into a strong, supple unit which allows the frame to act as a spring against the ground (jyc di jr Ii), enabling the boxer to absorb incoming energy and rebound it into the opponent This type of power is impossible unless the body is always maintained in a unit, just as a spring is one continuous thread of steel
Ba Gua Zhang
Although there are much older versions of Ba Gua Zhang, most of the variations of the art found today can be traced back to Dong Hai Chuan, who taught during the last years of the Ching dynasty. Dong Hai Chuan already was an accomplished martial artist before he learned the Ba Gua circling method of the Taoist school. As with the other internal styles, Ba Gua Zhang training begins with singular movements which develop unified power. Next, the student progresses to holding various postures while walking in a circle, Here again, the primary purpose of these exercises is to train the body to maintain a balanced unity in motion. Once the basic movements have been mastered and the student can walk the circle to complete the eight basic palm changes with unified body power, the necessary groundwork has been laid for martial application.
Just as the Xing Yi Quan masters developed the five elements to represent the basic ways power may be produced and applied from the foundation of unified motion, the Ba Gua Zhang masters created the single palm change. The single palm change includes all the basic energies and footwork used in Ba Gua Zhang as a martial art. The single palm change, double palm change and eight mother palm changes are not fighting techniques in themselves, but rather methods of developing whole body power to be used in separate fighting techniques created around these basic types of power.
Although the three orthodox internal styles have very different movements, they all developed from the same fundamental principle of using the body in a unit. This is why, from a body mechanics point of view, these arts are classified as internal.
External martial arts
Although body mechanics and movements of external martial arts may vary greatly from style to style, the major difference between these and the internal styles is that external styles, while generating power through the coordination of the body as a whole, lack unity of motion in the internal arts sense. For example, many external martial arts strike using the power of the waist and upper body from the base of a stable stance, the blow would be relaxed during delivery, then tightened for an instant at impact This type of strike is capable of generating a great amount of power, with the force being produced mainly by the waist and striking limb. This whipping of a limb and tensing at impact is referred to as "sectional power" ju bu li) and differs from the whole body power of internal martial arts.
The sequence of training in external martial arts also differs in purpose. In the early stages of training, external martial arts place greater emphasis on increasing strength and endurance as the "raw material" to be refined later into precise technique. Whereas the goal of internal style stance training is to train the nervous system into the feeling of a unified body, the external martial artist stands to increase the strength, endurance and flexibility. As a consequence, external stance training is usually lower and wider than that of the internal. Although an oversimplification, it may be said that the internal martial artist stands to cultivate feeling, while the external martial artist stands to develop strength.
External martial artists often spend considerable time conditioning specific areas of the body, either to withstand impact or to increase sectional power. An external martial artist may especially condition the head, fists, elbows, shoulders, fingers, or emphasize a specific movement, resulting in the development of a specialized weapon. This is another example of the development of sectional power in the external martial arts. Once the martial artist has a strong foundation, form and technique training begins. Once again, the forms and techniques emphasized in external styles are designed around the sectional power developed through basic training.
Mindset of the martial arts
Another major difference between internal and external martial arts is in the approach they take to training the mind. The internal places great emphasis on mind/body unity. The Taoists realized that a relaxed body controlled by a quiet mind produced a holistic entity, capable of fulfilling its potential. At the outset of training, the internal arts place the greatest emphasis on refining and training the nervous system to control the body. In contrast, most external styles emphasize increasing strength and endurance (external power) as the base upon which martial technique will be built. Students of the internal, through mind/body unity, seek to balance the nervous and hormonal systems, thereby producing a power from within the body (nei jing or internal power). The unified power is completely dependent upon fine neuromuscular control, which is completely mentally directed. The internal martial arts also talk at great length about practicing with a quiet mind. It is often quoted that, "There should be stillness in movement," and internal martial artists seek to remain calm in spirit as they move. One of the primary reasons internal martial arts are good for health is that one may simultaneously exercise the body and rest the mind.
Turning to external martial arts, much less emphasis is placed on a quiet mindset. In many external styles, cultivation of a state the Chinese call the "killing air" (sha qi) is preferred. The spirit is raised and directed outwardly toward the opponent, rather than inwardly, much like athletes "psyching up" before an event. An externally observable manifestation of the different mindsets is apparent in the facial expressions of the individual practitioner: the external martial artist often shouts and grimaces fiercely, while the internal boxer looks calm and may even be faintly smiling during a fight.
The third major difference between the internal and external martial arts is in how they are applied to a live opponent, as well as the various methods of training martial application. The students of both schools first develop their power, balance, feeling and body mechanics from solo training. The next step is to bridge the gap between form and function. This type of training will be determined mainly by a particular school's theories of combat. The internal schools stress sticking to, following and going with the opponent's power, borrowing energy, the avoidance of force against force directly, and the issuing of power only after one has "the right opportunity and advantageous position." External styles vary greatly in theory (some following principles almost identical to the internal), but in general, whereas an external stylist may punch through his opponent's defenses, the internal stylist never fully issues his power until he has the opponent in an unbalanced position either physically or spatially.
Most internal styles also have some variation of "push hands" practice. The primary purpose of pushing bands is to develop "listening energy" (ting jing) or become sensitive to outside pressure from the opponent in relation to one's own balance. Finally, both internal and external martial artists practice footwork drills, repeated single-technique practice, issuing power on a live opponent, and eventually free sparring to develop practical fighting skill.
This article has shown the similarities and differences among the three orthodox internal styles of Chinese martial art and external styles in general. It's clear that external and internal styles are indeed different, in theory, practice and application, and the factors that classify an art as either internal of external are clear-cut and concrete. This classification of an art as either internal or external is based solely on adherence in practice and use to a specific set of principles, and not on particular forms or posturing. It is important to remember that all arts, both internal and external, were originally intended for fighting. Finally, no judgment as to the superiority of one art over another is intended. After all, any martial art is only theory until a human being moves, and the value of any art lies ultimately in the skill and understanding of the individual artist.
July 1992/Inside Kung-fu Magazine