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. There are themes common which allows them to be group according to generalized "families" (家, jiā), "sects" (派, pai), "class" (門, men), or "schools" (教, jiao) of martial art styles. There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies or mythologies. Some styles put most of their focus into the belief of the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition or exhibition. This rich variety of styles has led tp the creation of numerous classification schemes.

Geographical location such as regional affiliation is one well known example. A particular Chinese martial arts style can be referred to as either a northern fist (北拳) or a southern fist (南拳) depending on its point of origin. Additional details such as province or city can further identify the particular style. Other classification schemes include the concept of external (外家拳) and internal (内家拳). This criterion concerns the training focus of a particular style. Religious affiliation of the group that found the style can also be used as a classification. The three great religions of Taoism, Buddhism and Islam have associated martial arts styles. There are also many other criteria used to group Chinese martial arts; for example, imitative-styles (像形拳) and legendary styles; historical styles and family styles. Another more recent approach is to describe a style according to their combat focus.

Geographical classifications

The traditional dividing line between the northern and southern Chinese martial arts is the Yangtze River. A well known adage concerning Chinese martial arts is the term "Southern fists and Northern kicks" (「南拳北腿」). This saying emphases the difference between the two groups of Chinese martial arts. Although such differences are not absolute and there are many Northern styles that excel in hand techniques and conversely, there are many different type of kicks in some Southern styles. A style can also be more clearly classified according to regional landmarks, province, city and even to a specific village.

Northern styles

Manchu banner soldier, a caste of professional martial artists active in Chinese society as recently as a hundred years ago

Northern styles/Běi pài (北派) feature deeply extended postures — such as the horse, bow, drop, and dragon stances — connected by quick fluid transitions, able to quickly change the direction in which force is issued.

In general, the training characteristics of 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 such training takes 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, or that the cold of the northern Chinese winter caused the practitioner to emphasize leg techniques rather than hand skills. Still others suggest that jump kicking techniques were developed to fight Mongolian horseman who used "very short stirrups". Regardless of the reason, Northern styles exhibit a distinctively different flavour from the martial arts practised in the South. The influence of Northern styles can be found in traditional Korean martial arts and their emphasis on high-level kicks.

The group of Northern martial arts includes many illustrious styles such as Baguazhang, Bajiquan, Chāquán, Chuojiao, Eagle Claw, Northern Praying Mantis and Taijiquan. Chángquán is often identified as the representative Northern style and forms a separate division in modern Wushu curriculum.

Southern styles

Southern Chinese martial arts (南派) features low stable stances and short powerful movements that combines both attack and defense. In practice, Nan Quan focus more on the use of the arm and full body techniques rather than high kicks or acrobatic moves. There are various explanations for those characteristics. Some suggest that the physical stature of the Southern Chinese is responsible. The Southern Chinese are generally shorter in contrast to the Northern population and as a result the Southern styles are generally short, direct and powerful. Similarly, it is speculated that the dense urban population and its humid climate made focusing on close-quarter hand techniques more practical then the kicking techniques of the North. Still others suggest that the Southern styles focus on practical fighting techniques that can be mastered in a short time because Southern styles were founded and used by Chinese rebels. The influence of Southern styles can be found in Goju Ryu, a karate style from Okinawa.

The term Southern styles typically applies to the five family styles of Southern China: Choy Gar (蔡家), Hung Ga (洪家), Lau Gar (刘家), Li (Lee) Family (李家) and Mok Gar (莫家). Other styles include:Choi Lei Fut, Fujian White Crane, Dog Style Kungfu, Five Ancestors, Wing Chun, Hakka, Southern Praying Mantis ,Bak Mei and Dragon. There are sub-divisions to Southern styles due to their similar characteristics and common heritage. For example, the Fujian and Hakka martial arts can be considered to be one such sub-division. This groups share the following characteristics that "during fights, pugilists of these systems prefer short steps and close fighting, with their arms placed close to the chest, their elbows lowered and kept close to the flanks to offer them protection". Nanquan (Southern Fist) became a separate and distinct component of the current Wushu training. It was designed to incorporate the key elements of each major Southern style.

Other geographical classifications

Chinese martial arts can also be identified by the regional landmarks, province, city or even village. Generally, this identification indicates the region of origin but could also describe the place where the style have established a reputation. Well known landmarks used to characterize Chinese martial arts include the famous mountains of China. The Eight Great Schools of Martial Arts (八大門派), a grouping of martial arts schools used in many wuxia novels, is based on this type of geographical classifications. This group of schools include: Hua Shan (華山), Éméi Shān (峨嵋山), Wudang Shan (武当山), Mt._Kongtong (崆峒山), Kunlun Mountains (崑崙山),Cangshan (蒼山), Mount Qingcheng (青城山) and Mount Song Shaolin (嵩山少林). Historically, there are 18 provinces (省)in China. Each province have their own styles of martial arts. For example, in Xingyi, there are currently three main branches: Shanxi, Hebei and Henan. Each branch have unique characteristics but they can all be traced to the original art developed by Li Luoneng and the Dai family. A particular style can also be identified by the city where the art was practised. For example, in the North, the cities of Beijing or Tianjin have created different martial arts branches for many styles. Similarly, in the South, the cities of Shanghai, Canton and Futshan all represented centers of martial arts development. Older martial art styles can be described by their village affiliation. For example, Zhaobao style tai chi (趙堡忽靈架太極拳) is a branch of Chen Tai Chi originating from Zhaobao village.

External and Internal

The distinction between external and internal (外内) martial arts comes from Huang Zongxi's 1669 Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan.[13] Stanley Henning proposes that the Epitaph's identification of the internal martial arts with the Taoism indigenous to China and its identification of the external martial arts with the foreign Buddhism of Shaolin—and the Manchu Qing Dynasty to which Huang Zongxi was opposed—may have been an act of political defiance rather than one of technical classification.[14] Kennedy and Guo suggests that external and internal classifications only became popular during the Republican period. It was used to differentiate between two competing groups within The Central Guoshu Academy. Regardless of the origin of this classification scheme, the distinction becomes less meaningful since all complete Chinese martial art styles have external and internal components. This classification scheme is only a reminder of the initial emphasis of a particular style and should not be considered an absolute division.

External styles

External style (外家; pinyin: wàijiā; literally "external family") are often associated with Chinese martial arts. They are characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility. External styles includes 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 many Wushu forms that have spectacular aerial techniques. 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. Most Chinese martial art styles are classified as external styles.

Internal styles

Taijiquan, the best-known internal style of Chinese martial arts, being practiced at the Fragrant Hills Park, Beijing

Internal styles (內家; pinyin: nèijiā; literally "internal family") focus on the practice of such elements as awareness of the spirit, mind, qi (breath, or energy flow) and the use of relaxed leverage rather than unrefined muscular tension, tension that soft stylists call "brute force".[16] While the principles that distinguish internal styles from the external were described at least as early as the 18th century by Chang Nai-chou, the modern terms distinguishing external and internal styles were first recorded by Sun Lutang; who wrote that Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Xingyiquan were internal arts. Later on, others began to include their style under this definition; for example, Liuhebafa, Zi Ran Men, and Yiquan.

Components of internal training includes 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.[19] Many internal styles have basic two-person training, such as pushing hands. A prominent characteristic of internal styles is that the forms are generally performed at a slow pace. This is thought 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. In some styles, for example in Chen style of Taijiquan, there are forms that include sudden outbursts of explosive movements. At an advanced level, and in actual fighting, internal styles are 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 in legend and in much popular fiction with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan in central China.

Religious classifications

Chinese martial arts being an important component of Chinese culture are also influence by the various religions in China. Many styles were founded by groups that were influenced by one of the three great religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Islam.

Buddhist styles

Buddhist (佛教, Fojiao) styles include Chinese martial arts that originated or practised within Buddhist temples and later spread to lay community. These styles often include Buddhist philosophy, imagery and principles. The most famous of these are the Shaolin (and related) styles, e.g. Shaolinquan, Luohanquan, Hung Gar, Wing Chun, Dragon style and White Crane.

Shaolin Kung Fu

The term "Shaolin" is used to refer to those styles that trace their origins to Shaolin, be it the Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province, another temple associated with Shaolin such as the Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province, or even wandering Shaolin monks. More restrictive definitions include only those styles that were conceived on temple grounds or even just the original Henan temple proper. The broadest definition includes just about all external Chinese martial arts, though this has much to do with the attractiveness of the Shaolin "brand name". One common theme for this group is the association with the philosophy of Chán (Zen) Buddhism.

Taoist styles

Taoist (道教; taojiao) styles are popularly associated with Taoism. They include Chinese martial arts that were created or trained mostly within Taoist Temples or by Taoist ascetics, which often later spread out to laymen. These styles include those trained in the Wudang temple, and often include Taoist principles, philosophy, and imagery. Some of these arts include Taijiquan, Wudangquan, Baguazhang and Liuhebafa

Islamic styles

Islamic (回教; Huíjiào) styles are those that were practiced traditionally solely or mainly by the Muslim Hui minority in China. These styles often include Islamic principles or imagery. Example of these styles include: Chāquán, Tan Tui, some branches of Xingyiquan, and Qishiquan.

Other classifications


Imitative-styles are styles that were developed based on the characteristics of a particular creature such as a bird or an insect. An entire system of fighting were developed based on the observations of their movement, fighting abilities and spirit. Examples of the most well known styles are white crane, tiger, monkey (Houquan), dog and mantis. In some systems, a variety of animals are used to represent the style of the system. For example, the Five Animals of Shaolin Boxing includes the imagery of the Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Snake and Dragon. Similarly, there are twelve animals in most Xing yi practise. Another type of imitative styles concerns the state of the practitioner.

Legendary and historical styles

Many Chinese martial arts styles are based or named after legends or historical figures. Examples of such styles based on legends and myths are the Eight Immortals and Dragon styles. Example of styles attributed to historical figures include Xing yi and its relationship to Yue Fei and Tai Chi which trace its origins to a Taoist Zhang Sanfeng.

Family styles

Family affliations are also an important means of identifying a Chinese martial arts system. Heavily influenced by the Confucian tradition, many styles are named in honor of the founder of the system. The five family (Choi, Hung, Lau, Lei, Mok) of Southern Chinese martial arts are representative of family styles. Family styles can also denote branches of a system. For example, the families of Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun represents different training approaches to the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

Other styles

The variety of classification schemes, like the subject of Chinese martial arts, are endless. Some styles are named after well known Chinese philosophies. For example, Baguazhang is based on the Taoist philosophy of the eight trigrams (Bagua). Some styles are named after the key insight suggested by the training. For example, Liuhebafa is a system based on the ideas of six combinations and eight methods.

Another popular method to describe a particular style of Chinese martial arts is to describe the style's emphasis in terms of the four major applications. The four major applications are: kicking (踢), hitting (打), wrestling (摔) and grabbing (拿). A complete system will necessary include all four types of applications but each style will differ in their training focus. For example, most Northern styles will emphasize kicking, Southern styles have a reputation for their intricate hand techniques, Shuai jiao trains predominately in full body closed contact techniques and Eagle claw is noted for their Chin na expertise.

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Wǔdāngquán, is a classification of Chinese martial arts known more generally as nèijiā. The name Wudang refers to the Wudang Mountains of Hubei Province. Chinese legends/myths say that Zhang Sanfeng created tai chi chuan there. The word "quan" translates to English as "boxing" or "fist". The pinyin standard spells it "quan"; the Wade-Giles standard spells it "ch'uan", as in T'ai Chi Ch'uan.

Internal or "soft" styles of Chinese martial art are sometimes referred to as Wudang styles regardless of whether they originated in or were developed in the temples of the Wudang Mountains, just as external or "hard" styles are sometimes called Shaolin regardless of whether the individual style traces its origins to the Shaolin tradition or not.

Wudangquan incorporates yin-yang theory from the I Ching as well as the Five Elements of Taoist cosmology: water, earth, fire, wood, and metal. Animal imagery is evident in some of their practices. These motions are trained to be combined and coordinated with the neigong breathing to develop nei jin, internal power, for both offensive and defensive purposes.

In 1669, Huang Zongxi was the first to describe Chinese martial arts in terms of a Wudang or "internal" school versus a Shaolin or "external" school. However, this classification did not become prevalent until 1928 when Generals Li Jing Lin, Zhang Zi Jiang, and Fung Zu Ziang organized a national martial arts tournament in China; they did so to screen the best martial artists in order to begin building the Central Martial Arts Academy.

The generals separated the participants of the tournament into Shaolin and Wudang. Wudang participants were recognized as having "internal" skills. These participants were generally practitioners of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Xíngyìquán and Bāguàzhǎng. All other participants competed under the classification of Shaolin. The famous BaGua master, Fu Chen Sung, was one of about 12 winners in the tournament.

At that time, Sung Wei-I was the apparent grandmaster of the Wudang Sword. He taught Wudang Sword to General Li (who was nicknamed "God Sword Li") and to Fu Chen Sung. General Li also taught Wudang sword to Fu Chen Sung, and would later employ Fu to train the Chinese army.

The two major lineages of Wudang Chuan were passed down from General Li Jing Lin. These lineages went to Fu Chen Sung and Li Tian-Ji.

Fu Chen Sung worked the rest of his life to develop Fu Style Wudang Fist. The basis of the system was to train the mind and body for optimal performance, gradually working the martial aspects into the training. The system included exercises, empty hand and weapons sets in Tai Chi, BaGua, Hsing-Yi—and Fu Chen Sung's signature form, Liang-Yi Chuan. In his lifetime, Fu had many notable students, including General Sun Pao Gung and Lin Chao Zhen. In 2008, there still remain two living students: Liang Qian-Ya in San Francisco and an unknown man in Hong Kong.

Fu's oldest son, Fu Wing Fay (Fu Yong Hui), became Fu's prodigal son. Wing Fay grew up among many of the greatest martial artists in the Golden Era of Martial Arts in China. Wing Fay learned well from his father and the other great masters. Wing Fay practiced hard, and began developing Fu Style Wudang Fist even more. Wing Fay had two top students: his son, (Victor) Fu Sheng Long and Bow Sim Mark.

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Yi quan, also known as dacheng quan, is a martial art system which was founded by the Chinese xingyiquan master, Wang Xiangzhai (王薌齋).


Having learned xingyiquan with Guo Yunshen in his childhood,[citation needed] Wang Xiangzhai travelled China, meeting and comparing skills with masters of various styles of kung fu.[citation needed] In the mid-1920s, he came to the conclusion that xingyiquan was often taught wrong,[citation needed] with too much emphasis on 'outer form', neglecting the essence of true martial power.[citation needed] He worked to return to what he felt was the true essence of the art using a different name, without the 'xing' (meaning form), and began teaching and practicing accordingly.

The style

Yiquan is essentially formless, containing no fixed sets of fighting movements or techniques. Instead, focus is put on developing ones natural movement and fighting abilities through a system of training methods and concepts, working to improve the perception of one's body, its movement, and of force. Another thing that sets yiquan apart from other eastern martial arts, is that traditional concepts, like qi, meridians, dantian etc. eventually were discarded, the reason being that understanding ones true nature happens in the now and that preconceptions block this process.

Yiquan seems to have been influenced by various other arts that Wang was exposed to, include Fujian hèquán,Tai chi chuan, bāguàzhǎng,, and Liuhebafa. But in fact it was the internal core of these other arts that made them effective. It was this core that master Wang perceived. In essence there is only one principle of merit in all martial arts, one core, one moment of truth.


The actual training in yiquan can generally be divided into:

  • Zhan zhuang (站樁) - Standing pole postures, where emphasis is put on relaxation, working to improve perception of the body and on developing Hunyuan Li,"Natural living force" or "all things that make the whole". Zhan zhuang can also be divided into two different types of postures; health postures and combat postures.
  • Shi li (試力) -Testing force- moving exercises, trying to bring the sensations of Hun Yuan Li developed through Zhan zhuang into movements.
  • Moca bu (摩擦步) -Mud stepping- Shi li for the legs.
  • Fa li -Emission of force.
  • Shi Sheng -Producing sound with voice.
  • Tui Shou -Pushing hands.
  • JiJi Fa -Combat.

Principle of Nature. That all truth and action occur in 'Shunjen the split second of now. Everything before and after this moment is 'Wu' the Void, and thus unknowable. All objective and preconception is fixed and not in accordance with this undetermined state of Nature. "The Dao that is called the Dao is not the eternal Dao"


Two of the teachers of modern yiquan are Yao Chengguang (姚承光) and Yao Chengrong (姚承榮), twin sons of Yao Zongxun (姚宗勛) Others include Cui Ruibin of Beijing. Schools include the Han xing Yuan(韓星垣) School, the Han xing qiao (韓星橋)School,(Wangs adopted son and the teacher of Yao Zongxun),The Han Shi Yiquan school [(Han Jing Chen)], Son of Han Xing Qiao, and the Li Jian Yu (李見宇) School.

International links:

  • - Beijing Yiquan Academy, Master Yao Cheng Rong
  • -Yiquan The master in Russia (Moscow)-Vadim Ignatov
  • Yiquan - Master Yong Jun Wang - São Paulo - SP - Brazil.
  • - Orange County
  • - Yiquan Academy
  • - European Yiquan Academy
  • - French Academy of Kung Fu Wushu and Qi Gong - Yi Quan by Ilias Calimintzos, student of Master Cui Rui Bin
  • - Yiquan and Qigong Institute Walter Marek
  • - HanShi Yiquan Hawaii
  • - Academy Yiquan (Russia)

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Zi Ran Men

Ziranmen or Zi Ran Men (simplified Chinese: 自然门; traditional Chinese: 自然門; pinyin: zìránmén; Wade-Giles: tzu-jan men; literally "the ziran ["natural"] style"), also known as Natural Boxing, is a Northern internal style of kung fu that is taught in conjunction with Qigong breathing techniques. The style traces its lineage to Dwarf Xu, who based it on ancient Taoist philosophy. Du Xin Wu, the next bearer of the lineage, served as a bodyguard to Sun Yat-sen, then the provisional president of the Republic of China. Wu imparted his knowledge of "Natural Boxing" to Wan Laisheng, a prominent twentieth century martial artist.


Zi Ran Men/nature boxing is based on ancient Taoist philosophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine and, most importantly, the philosophy of "One and Zero". It combines physical training, Chi kung, meditation and combat techniques. Through training, Zi Ran Men is said to enhance the spirit of the mind, regulate the circulation of Chi and develops physical sensitivity. According to practitioners when the body is in harmony, you will live a long and healthy life.

Zi Ran Men Theory

动静无终, 变化无端, 虚虚实实, 自然而然。 This is the entire theory behind the Zi Ran Men Art, which roughly translates to:

There is no beginning or end to the movement (implying both physical action and progress). Change is a constant and varying. Use softness as hard power, and if applied successfully, [true power] comes naturally.

Zi Ran Men Chi Kung

Chi Kung is the primary concern in Zi Ran Men. It is divided into two components: Physical training, and combat techniques. These two components combine for one purpose, which is said to enhance the health of body and mind.

Combat Techniques

Initially, students learn particular forms and follow certain rules. Through practice, these movements progress from awkward to natural. When this level is reached, you can fight successfully. The methods of Zi Ran Men combat follow the rules of nature - apply the techniques without thought, movements come from nothing.


When still, the stance resembles an ancient Chinese General holding a decree tablet. This is known as "Bao Bei Shou". When moving, the feet remain in the shape of the letter 'T' and the hands hold the form of "Ghost Hands".

Fighting the enemy

Avoid the attack. Retaliate when his force is spent, before he has time to regather. Move when the enemy moves, attack when he attacks. Exploit the situation, be light and nimble. Attack is within defence. Defence is within attack, both real and apparent.

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Liuhebafa (Simplified Chinese/Traditional Chinese: 六合八法拳; Pinyin: liùhébāfǎquán) (literally Six Harmonies Eight Methods) is a form of internal Chinese martial arts. It is also called "Xinyi Liuhebafa" and is often referred to as "Water Boxing" (shuǐquán 水拳) due to its principles. The legendary Taoist sage Chen Tuan (Chén Tuán 陳摶, also known as Chén Xīyí 陳希夷) is credited with its origin and development. He was associated with the Hua Shan Taoist Monastery on Mount Hua in Shaanxi Province.


The Liuhebafa form "Zhu Ji" (zhújī) 築基 was taught in the late 1930s in Shanghai and Nanjing by Wu Yihui (1887-1958). It is said he had learned the art from three teachers: Yan Guoxing, Chen Guangdi, and Chen Helu.

Many of Wu Yihui's students had martial arts backgrounds and modified the form to merge it with their own knowledge. This is one of several explanations for its similarities with other martial arts such as Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Taichi and Yiquan.

Six Harmonies and Eight Methods

The Six Harmonies and the Eight Methods are the guiding principles of Liuhebafa that give it its name.

Six Harmonies

  1. 體合于心 (Pinyin: tǐhéyúxīn) Body and Mind Combine
  2. 心合于意 (xīnhéyúyì) Mind and Intent Combine
  3. 意合于氣 (yìhéyúqì) Intent and Chi Combine
  4. 氣合于神 (qìhéyúshén) Chi and Spirit Combine
  5. 神合于動 (shénhéyúdòng) Spirit and Movement Combine
  6. 動合于空 (dònghéyúkōng) Movement and Emptiness Combine

Eight Methods

  1. 氣 (qì) Chi
  2. 骨 (gǔ) Bone
  3. 形 (xíng) Shape
  4. 隨 (suí) Follow
  5. 提 (tí) Rise
  6. 還 (huán) Return
  7. 勒 (lè) Retain
  8. 伏 (fú) Conceal


Wu Yi Hui
performing Liuhebafa

The system of Liuhebafa, called Huayue Xiyi Men, as taught by Wu Yi Hui contains several forms (套路 taòlù), including bare hand and weapons forms as well as Qigong methods.

Hand forms

  • 三盤十二勢 Sān Pán Shí Èr Shì - 3 Divisions, 12 Spirits (1.Dragon, 2.Phoenix, 3.Tiger, 4.Crane, 5.Leopard, 6.Ape, 7.Bear, 8.Goose, 9.Snake, 10.Hawk, 11.Roc, 12.Kylin)
  • 築基 Zhú Jī - Discovering the Foundations
  • 呂紅八勢 Lǚ Hóng Bā Shì - 8 Essences of Lǚ Hóng's Fist
  • 龍虎戰 Lóng Hǔ Zhàn - Dragon and Tiger Fighting
  • 螫龍遊 Zhē Lóng Yóu - Coiled Dragon Swimming
  • 螫龍拳 Zhē Lóng Quán - Coiled Dragon Fist

Weapon forms

  • 心意棍 Xīn Yì Gùn - Heart of Intent Staff
  • 露花刀 Lù Huā Dāo - Dew Mist Broadsword
  • 玉川劍 Yù Chuān Jiàn - Jade River Straight Sword

Internal exercises

  • 韋佗功 Wéi Tuó Gōng - Standing meditation
  • 太陽功 Tài Yáng Gōng - Solar Meditation
  • 一杰混元功 Yī Jié Hún Yuán Gōng - Primary Definitive Force
  • 先天座 Xiān Tiān Zuò - Pre-Heaven Meditation
  • 三盤推手 Sān Pán Tuī Shǒu - 3 Divisions Push Hands
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Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan

The Chen family style (陳家、陳氏 or 陳式 太極拳) is the oldest and parent form of the five main tai chi chuan styles. It is third in terms of world-wide popularity compared to the other main taijiquan styles. Chen style is characterized by its lower stances, more explicit Silk reeling (chan si jin) and bursts of power (fa jin).

Today tai chi chuan is typically practised for a number of widely varying reasons: health, external/internal martial art skills, aesthetics, meditation, athletic/competition sport (sometimes called "wushu tai chi"). Therefore a teacher's system, practise and choice of tai chi chuan routines usually emphasises one of these characteristics. The five traditional family styles tend to retain the original martial applicability of tai chi teaching methods. Some argue that Chen style schools succeed in this to a greater degree.


Origin Theories

The origin and nature of tai chi is not historically verifiable at all until around the 1600s when the Chen clan of Chenjiagou (Chen Village, 陳家溝), Henan province, China appear identified as possessing a unique martial arts system. How the Chen family came to practise their unique style is not clear due to lack of documentation from the formative period and irreconcilable views on the matter abound. What is known is that the other four modern orthodox family styles of tai chi chuan are traced to the teachings in the Chen family village in the early 19th century.

The Chen Family Origin Story

According to interviews with Chen clan family members (Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai) there was a family art which Chen Bu (the founder of Chen Jiagou) brought with him. The family had brought this martial art from Shanxi when the clan was forced to leave. While there are few written sources, this history should not be dismissed too quickly because Shanxi is also the traditional origin of Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Chuan, which share some of the bio-mechanical foundations with Tai Chi Chuan.

Sourced histories center around Chen Wangting (1600-1680), who codified pre-existing Chen training practice into a corpus of seven routines.This include five routines of tai chi chuan (太極拳五路), 108 form Long Fist (一百零八勢長拳)and Cannon Fist(炮捶一路). Wangting is said to have incorporated theories from a classic text by General Qi Jiguang 戚繼光, Jixiaoxinshu 繼效新書 (new book of techniques from different schools.) and Huang Di Nei Jing《黃帝內經》 (Yellow Emperor's Canon of Chinese Medicine), which described martial arts from 16 different styles..

According to Chen Zhenglei, citing works from oral tradition, it was in Chen Wangting's time that Jiang Fa (Jian Bashi) was captured by Chen Wangting. Jian Fa was a skilled martial artist in his own right. The two became very close friends and their exchange of ideas was fruitful. A portrait of Chen Wangting, with Jiang Fa behind him is often reproduced.

Other Origin Stories

Some legends assert that a disciple of Zhang Sanfeng named Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) taught Chen family the martial art later to be known as taijiquan.[2]

Other legends speak of Jiang Fa (蔣發 Jiǎng Fā). Reputedly a monk from Wudang mountain who came to Chen village, he is said to have radically transformed the Chen family art for the better when he taught Chen Changxing (1771-1853) internal fighting practices. However there are significant difficulties with this explanation: it is no longer clear if their relationship was that of teacher/student or even who taught whom.[2] It should also be noted that Chen Chang-Xing produced a comprehensive encyclopedia of the art form as he knew it. If there were a Jiang Fa around then, some written record should have survived, but there isn't and it contradicts the current oral history of Jiang Fa being a contemporary of Chen Wangting.

Chen Village (Chenjiagou)

Historically documented from the 1600s, the Chen family were originally from Shanxi, Hong Dong (山西洪洞). First generation, Chen Pu (陳仆), shifted from Shanxi to Wen County, Henan Province (河南溫县). Originally known as Chang Yang Cun (常陽村) or Sunshine village, the village grew to include a large number of Chen descendants. Because of the three deep ravines (Gou) beside the village it became to be known as Chen Jia Gou (陳家溝) or Chen Family Village. Chen village has since been a center of tai chi learning. Ninth generation Chen Wangting (陳王廷) is credited as performing the first formal codification of Chen family martial art practice.

Perhaps the best known Chen family teacher was 14th generation Chen Changxing (陳長興 Chén Chángxīng, Ch'en Chang-hsing, 1771-1853). He further synthesized Chen Wangting's open fist training corpus into two routines that came to be known as "old frame" (老架) (lao jia). Chen Changxing, contrary to Chen family tradition, also took the first recorded non-family member as a disciple, Yang Luchan (1820), who went on to develop his own family tradition (Yang style tai chi chuan). Tai chi proved very popular and the other three traditional styles of tai chi chuan further sprang from Yang family tradition, some of these styles also borrowing from the Chen family "Small Frame" tradition (see immediately below). Chen family teaching remained hidden and was not taught publicly until 1928.

Chen Youben (陳有本), of the 14th Chen generation, is credited with starting a mainstream Chen training tradition that differed from that created by Chen Changxing. It was originally known as xinjia (新架) (New Form) as opposed to Chen Changxing's lao jia. It gradually became to be known as xiao jia (小架) or small form.

Small Form eventually lead to the formation of two styles with Chen family influences -- Zhaobao jia and hulei jia (thunder) which are not considered a part of the Chen family lineage.

Recent History

In recent decades Chen style Taijiquan has come to be recognized as a major style of martial art within China. In Western countries Chen style is rapidly growing in popularity for either martial art (interest in its neijia skills) or healthy life-style (more lively than Yang style) reasons.

This more recent popularity can be seen to be grounded on "promotional" efforts made by leading Chen style masters at two major periods during the 1900s:

In the late 1920s Chen Fake (陳發科, 陈发科, Chén Fākē, Ch'en Fa-k'e 1887-1957) and his nephew broke with Chen family tradition and began openly teaching Chen style - providing public classes in Beijing for many years. Chen Fake's influence was so great that a powerful Beijing Chen style tradition survived his death; it was centred around his "New Frame" variant of Chen Village "Old Frame." His legacy spread throughout China by the efforts of his senior students (e.g. Hong Junsheng, Feng Zhiqiang, Li Jingwu, Chen Zhaokui, Gu Liuxin, Lei Muni, Tian Xiuchen, Xu Rusheng, and Li Jianhua).

At this time mention must also be made of the first in-depth book ever written on Chen style. It was written by a 16th generation family member Chen Xin 陳鑫 (Ch’en Hsin, 1849-1929) called Taijiquan Illustrated 太極拳圖說 (see classic book) and proved very popular but was not actually published until 1932, well after Chen Xin's death.

A second significant "promotional wave" in Western countries began in the 1980s. It can be traced to changes in Chinese foreign policy and the migration of Chinese Chen stylists around the world. On a more organised level mention must be made of Chen Village's international "roaming ambassadors" known as the "Four Buddha Warrior Attendants." These specially trained sons of Chen Village are Chen Xiao Wang (Chen Fake's direct grandson), Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai. They are extremely well known internationally on account of their many years of relentless global workshops and talks.

Other well known 19th generation Chen teachers active in China or overseas include: Chen Yu 陳瑜(grandson of Chen Fake), Li Enjiu 李恩久, Zhang Xuexin 張學信, Zhang Zhijun 張志俊. Growing in more recent popularity are Chen (Joseph) Zhonghua 陳中華 in Canada, Wu (Peter) Shi-zeng (a senior student of Hong Junsheng) in Australia, Chen Xiaoxing 陳小星 (Chen Village), Chen Xiang 陳項 (Chen Village).

Chen Peishan and Chen Peiju (20th generation) have been influential in promoting the less well known Chen Village Small Frame tradition (see below). They continue to travel and teach Small Frame Chen taijiquan around the world.

Chen style schools with links back to Chen Village and Beijing have blossomed rapidly in Western countries in the last twenty years - offering a significantly different alternative to Yang family style (effectively the only tai chi known in the West before that time). Such countries with strong links back to Chen Village include USA, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Chen forms

Chen Wangting's Corpus of Seven Routines

Chen Wangting (9th generation) is generally credited with codifying less structured practices of his family's art into a corpus of seven training forms/routines. In addition to these "open fist" sets there was also practise of weapon forms and a two person combat "form" called tui shou (Push Hands).

Big frame/small frame split

Around the time of the 14/15th generation Chen Village practice appears to have differentiated into two related but distinct practice traditions which are today known as big frame (sometimes called large frame) and small frame. The various practise routines embodied in big/small frame traditions modified and assimilated Chen Wangting's seven set corpus and the original practise routines are now said to have been lost. (Though recent claims are being made that Chen Wangting's 108 form has been rediscovered from two possible sources: senior Beijing disciples of Chen Zhaokui; Chen relatives back in Shanxi Province)

There are conflicting claims about which of these two traditions came first. Western theories and most of the famous masters from Chen Village (see Chen Zhenglei's English language book) tend to favor the view that big frame tradition came first (noting that "small frame" tradition was originally called "new frame"). There is a minority view from outside of Chen Village that tend to favor the reverse view.

There are also conflicting stories about the reason for the differentiation into these two traditions. Zhu Tian Cai comments that small frame tradition routines tended to be practiced by "retired" Chen villagers (and mimicked by younger children). It seems this was because the more demanding leaping, stomping, low frame, and intensive Fa jin of the advanced big frame tradition routines have been eliminated and the retained movements emphasize the training of the soft internal skills. Keep in mind that this is only a tendency and a master of the principles may use them to add fa jing, leaping, stomping, and low frame back to the small tradition at will. Just as a master of the large frame can perform the set small, large, smoothly, with fa jing in every movement, low, middle, or high. The traditions are only significantly different because the elder practitioners tend to focus on longevity and may develop injuries if they practice in the same manner as the younger practitioners.

Other authors, however, say that "big" does not simply mean large exaggerated outer movements and nor does "small" simply mean confined/close outer movements. They argue that in small frame both large and small motions are used - with the smaller motions considered to be more advanced. It is also useful to frame the discussion in terms of human physiology. The large and small frame traditions have similar training methods and are training the same tai chi principles (clear movement of qi, shifting the weight, relaxation, etc.) it is only the external presentation that confuses beginners.

In the book "Chen Style: The Source of Taijiquan" the explanation is given that both the large and small frames were developed at the same time, by two related masters, as distillations and simplifications of the existing routines.

Keep in mind throughout this discussion that no literature of Chen style before 1932 appears to mention anything about New, old, big or small styles. As with so much of Tai Chi history complete comprehension and certainty is hard to find.

Big frame tradition

Chen family traditions were kept secret from the public until around 1928 when the big frame routines were taught openly for the first time. This was started in Beijing by Chen Fake's nephew and then by the legendary Chen Fake himself.

Big frame encompasses the classic "old frame" (lao jia) routines, one & two, which are very well known today. It also includes the more recent "new frame" (xin jia) routines, one & two, which evolved from the classic Old Way/Frame routines thanks to the work of Chen Fake in Beijing in his later years (1950s).

Xin yi hun yuan tai chi is an offshoot of the new frame (xin jia) tradition and blends in material from Feng Zhiqiang's Xing Yi background.

Lao jia – old frame 老架

The Chen lao jia consists of two forms yi lu (1st routine) and er lu (2nd routine) It was taught privately in Chen Village from the time of Chen ChangXing - the 14th generation creator of these routines. These were the very first Chen tai chi routines to be publicly revealed. This happened in Beijing from 1928 onwards - being taught by Chen Fake and his nephew.

Yi lu (the first empty hand form) at the beginner level is mostly done slowly with large motions interrupted by occasional expressions of fast power (Fajing) that comprise less than 20% of the movements, with the overall purpose of teaching the body to move correctly. At the intermediate level it is practiced in very low stances (low frame) with an exploration of clear directional separation in power changes and in speed tempo. The movements become smaller and the changes in directional force become more subtle. At the advanced level the leg strength built at the previous level allows full relaxation and the potential for Fajing in every movement.

The second empty hand form, "er lu" or "cannon fist" is done faster and is used to add more advanced martial techniques such as advanced sweeping and more advanced fajing methods. Both forms also teach various martial techniques.

Xin jia – new frame 新架

An older Chen Fake plays the "xin jia" form he introduced to the world

This style was first seen practiced by Chen Fake in his later years (1950s) and many regard him as the author of the style. Credit for actual public teaching/spread of these two new routines probably goes to his senior students (especially his son, Chen Zhaokui).

When Chen Zhaokui returned to Chen Village (to assist and then succeed Chen ZhaoPei) to train today's generation of Masters (e.g. the "Four Buddhas") he taught Chen Fake's, unknown adaptation of old frame. Zhu Tian Cai recalls, as a young man at the time, they all started calling it "xin jia" (new frame) because it was adapted from classic old frame.

The main difference from old frame (lao jia) is that the movements are smaller and more obvious torso twisting silk reeling and twining of the arms/wrists is employed. This form tends to emphasise manipulation, seizing and grappling (qinna) rather than striking techniques.

Zhu Tian Cai has commented that the xinjia (new frame) emphasises the silk reeling movements to help beginners more easily learn the internal principles in form and to make application more obvious in relation to the Old big frame forms.

In Chen Village xin jia is traditionally learned only after lao jia. Like lao jia, xin jia consists of two routines, yi lu and er lu (cannon fist). The new frame cannon fist is generally performed faster than the other empty hand forms, at the standardized speed its 72 movements finish in under 4 minutes.

Small Frame tradition (xiao jia) 小架

This style was until recently not publicly known outside of Chen Village. DVD material has been made available in more recent times though authentic, public teaching is still hard to find. The reasons for this may be more to do with the nature of small frame tradition itself rather than any particular motivation of secrecy (see below).

Although it recently had the term "small frame" attached to it "xiao jia" was previously known as "xin jia" (new frame). Apparently the name change occurred to differentiate it from the new routines that Chen Fake created (from big frame tradition's "old frame" routines) in the 1950s which then became called "Xin Jia" (by the young men of Chen Village).

Even today some people confuse Chen Fake's altered routines (from big frame tradition's "old frame" routines) with small frame tradition and believe he revealed the secret teaching of small frame tradition as well.

Zhu Tian Cai comments that small frame tradition routines also used to be practiced by "retired" Chen villagers. It seems this was because the more demanding leaping, stomping, low frame, and intensive fa jing of the advanced big frame tradition routines have been eliminated and the retained movements emphasize use of the more subtle internal skills, which is a more appropriate regimen for the bodies of elder practitioners. He also observed that young children used to imitate Small Frame routines by watching older villagers practicing and this was encouraged for health reasons.

Xiao Jia is known mainly for its emphasis on internal movements, this being the main reason that people refer to it as "small frame"; all "silk-reeling" action is within the body, the limbs are the last place the motion occurs.

Closely related Chen forms

Zhaobao Taijiquan

Zhaobao Taijiquan is gaining increasing recognition as minor Chen style tradition in its own right within the Western tai chi community. While Zhaobao and Chen style are obviously related (demonstrations are often mistaken for Chen style) it is independent of present Chen family practice and lineage. It was said to have been created by a Small Frame practitioner Chen Qingping.

Chen Shi Xinyi Hun Yuan Taijiquan

Xinyi Hun Yuan tai chi chuan (Chinese: 陳式心意混元太極 陈式心意混元太极) is much like traditional Chen style Xin Jia with an influence from Shanxi Hsing Yi. It was created by one of Chen Fake's senior students Feng Zhiqiang 馮志強. Specifically, the style synthesizes a large amount of Xin Yi (both Qigong and, to a lesser degree, martial movements). Outwardly it appears similar to traditional Old Frame Chen forms.

"Hun Yuan" refers to the strong emphasis on circular, "orbital" or spiraling internal principles which are at the heart of this evolved Chen tradition. While such principles already exist in mainstream Chen style the Hun Yuan tradition develops the theme further. Its teaching system pays attention to spiraling techniques in both body and limbs and how they may be harmoniously coordinated together.

Modern Chen forms

Similar to other family styles of tai chi, Chen style has had its frame adapted by competitors to fit within the framework of wushu competition. A prominent example is the 56 Chen Competition form (developed by the Chinese National Wushu Association from lao jia routines) and to a lesser extent the 48/42 Combined Competition form (1976/1989 by the Chinese Sports Committee developed from Chen and three other traditional styles).

In the last ten years or so even respected grandmasters of traditional styles have begun to accommodate this contemporary trend towards shortened forms that take less time to learn and perform. Beginners in large cities don't always have the time, space or the concentration needed to immediately start learning old frame (75 movements). This proves all the more true at workshops given by visiting grandmasters. Consequently shortened versions of the traditional forms have been developed even by the "Four Buddhas." Beginners can choose from postures of 38 (synthesized from both lao and xin jia by Chen Xiao Wang), 19 (1995 Chen Xiao Wang), 18 (Chen Zheng Lei) and 13 (1997 Zhu Tian Cai). There is even a 4 step routine (repeated 4 times in a circular progression - returning to start) useful for confined spaces (Zhu Tian Cai).

A comprehensive list of forms, old and new, can be found here.

Weapon forms

Chen Tai Chi has several unique weapon forms.

  • the 49 posture Straight Sword (Jian) form
  • the 13 posture Broadsword (Dao) form
  • Spear (Qiang) solo and partner forms
  • 3, 8, and 13 posture Gun (staff) forms
  • 30 posture Halberd (Da Dao/Kwan Dao) form
  • several double weapons forms utilizing the above-mentioned items

Additional training

Before teaching the forms, the instructor may have the students do stance training such as zhan zhuang and various qigong routines such as silk reeling exercises. These stance training and qigong exercises are done to condition and strengthen the body to have the correct frame and alignment so as to be able to develop silk reeling energy (Chan Si Jing) before moving to the more complicated movements that are in the forms.

Other methods of training for Chen style using training aids including pole/spear shaking exercises, which teach a practitioner how to extend their silk reeling and fa jing skill into a weapon.

In addition to the solo exercises listed above, there are partner exercises known as pushing hands, designed to help students maintain the correct body structure when faced with resistance. There are five traditional phases of push hands in Chen Village that students may learn before they can move on to a more free-style push hands structure which begins to resemble sparring.

Martial application

Chen Taiji Push Hands 2.ogv
A martial trick that has been derived from the form

In contrast to some tai chi styles and teachers, the vast majority of Chen stylists believe that tai chi is first and foremost a martial art; that a study of the self-defense aspect of tai chi is the best test of a student's skill and knowledge of the tai chi principles that provide health benefit. In compliance with this principle, all Chen forms retain some degree of overt fa jing expression.

In martial application, Chen style tai chi uses a wide variety of techniques applied with all the extremities that revolve around the use of the eight gates of tai chi chuan to manifest either kai (expansive power) or he (contracting power) through the physical postures of Chen forms.[1] The particulars of exterior technique may vary between teachers and forms. In common with all neijia, Chen style aims to develop internal power for the execution of martial techniques, but focuses especially on cultivating fa jing skill. Chen family member Chen Zhenglei has commented that between the new and old frame traditions there are 105 basic fajin methods and 72 basic Qinna methods present in the forms.

read more “Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan”

Hakka Kuen

Hakka Kuen (客家拳) is a general term describing a variety of Chinese martial arts originating from the Hakka community of Southern China and is considered to be an important style within Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

The Hakka heartland is located in the inland part of Guangdong Province east of the Pearl River Delta. According to the Dragon style teacher Steve Martin, Hakka Kuen was influenced by the style that the legendary monk Gee Sim Sim See taught in Guangdong and the neighboring province of Fujian in the 1700s.

Regardless of the historical veracity of Gee Sim, the similarities between Hakka Kuen and the Fujian martial arts strongly suggests that the two are related. According to Leung Ting, the head of the WingTsun branch of Wing Chun, "Their common features are that during fights, pugilists of these systems prefer short steps and close fighting, with their arms placed close to the chest, their elbows lowered and kept close to the flanks to offer it protection. Another characteristic of these two systems of kung-fu is, unlike those of Kwangtung Province and Northern China, their boxing forms are rather simple"

The characteristic rounded shoulders and concave chest of Hakka styles are the features that distinguish them from Fujian styles.

Until the generation of masters Lau Shui and Lum Wing-Fay, Southern Praying Mantis was taught exclusively to Hakka. In fact, the general public of the Pearl River Delta referred to Southern Praying Mantis as "Hakka Kuen," according to the traditions of its Kwong Sai Jook Lum branch.

Other styles that are associated with Hakka Kuen include:

  • Bak Mei
  • Chuka Shaolin
  • Dragon style
  • Southern Praying Mantis
  • Vagrant Style (流民派; pinyin: Liúmín Pài; Yale Cantonese: Lau4 man4 Paai1; Hakka pinjim: Liu2 min2 Pai5)
read more “Hakka Kuen”