Internal vs. external martial arts

What do I mean by “internal” and “external”?

When I refer to the "internal" arts, I mean a specific set of techniques and methods of movement, the details I cannot go into in a short article. These methods are found (in varying but compatible forms) in the "big 3" internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji (liu he ba fa being a combination of the 3 to some extent). These techniques are very specific to these arts: I feel very strongly that they do not appear in the Fujian/Hakka schools (except some modified xingyi in bak mei/mantis). They certainly do not appear in karate (either Naha te or the shorin school). For example there is nothing like a xingyi's "pi quan" or "beng quan" (splitting fist and pounding fist) in karate - there are only "external" equivalents indicating some partial influence. The differences are subtle but substantial. This is not a "bad" or "good" thing: they are just different.

The “big 3”

I could call the group comprising taiji, bagua and xingyi something else; the "Big 3" perhaps (as I have already done). Or maybe the "Daoist school" (given the philosophical underpinnings of texts such as the Lao Tzu and Yi Xing). But for now I default to neija quan - the internal arts. This is what my instructors have always called them to distinguish them from the Buddhist Shaolin tradition (with which the Fujian schools are commonly associated).

“Soft” vs. Hard”

I deliberately refrain from calling them "soft" because this is misleading: xingyi can, if anything, manifest as quite "hard", especially in comparison to taiji. It can manifest as much harder than some "soft" crane. Hong Yi Xiang was renowned for teaching his own forms that combined the softest crane with the hardest xingyi. I still practice and teach 3 of these forms today as a "bridge" between karate and the "big 3".

Is aikido internal or external?

It may surprise readers that I consider aikido to be an "external art" in my terminology. It is a "soft" external art, for sure. But aikido does things in ways that are diametrically opposed to how they would be done in any of the "Big 3". I studied aikido for a while and I have nothing but respect for aikidoka, so this is not a criticism. It is "soft"- but its inherent architecture remains (surprisingly) more akin to karate than it ever has to, say, the throwing moves in bagua and taiji.

Same goal – different starting points

I have another important reason for calling the Big 3 "internal arts" and the others "external" quite apart from historical/cultural convention (which is disputed by many - Chen Yun Ching for example, calls the remainder "Shaolin" but doesn't seem terribly interested in the "hard/soft" dichotomy). My reason is simply this: the internal arts not only anticipate the use of the kind of efficiency inherent in the “Big 3”; they rely completely on it (to varying extents between the 3). In short, the Shaolin arts (karate among them) can be practised hard from day one with some effect, or (later) softer (ie. more efficiently). On the other hand taiji practised hard from day one is pointless and worthless.

[For a discussion as to the physics applicable to internal arts vs. external arts, and what I mean by "efficiency", see my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy".]

Chen Pan Ling said the that goal of every "external" artist should be to become softer. Correspondingly the goal of every "internal" artist should be to become harder. Karate starts out hard and becomes softer. Taiji starts out soft and gradually ends up harder. The most effective artists meet in the middle somewhere (the "half hard, half soft" of uechi and the "hard/soft" of goju). But the approach of internal and external is from opposite ends, technically as well as philosophically.

It is what makes karate, for example, immediately more usable, while the saying in taiji is "15 years before you leave the training hall" (ie. before you should attempt to test your skills in reality). I doubt most taiji practitioners I know have any real fighting skill, but then again, most of them do it for health reasons only anyway. This doesn't take away the fact that taiji is a devastatingly effective martial art when it is utilised by an experienced practitioner. It doesn't mean "grand ultimate fists" for nothing. But it sure isn't easy to learn and apply.

“Internalising” external arts and vice versa

By way of interest, one interesting project I have undertaken over the last 15 years is to reconcile my aikido and internal arts knowledge - ie. how would aikido look if it were performed like the "big 3". I am quite happy with the result. Curiously I note that I have ended up with something quite similar to Tim Cartmell's methodology (Tim is a bagua man formerly based in Taiwan who is tough as nails and a fantastic full contact fighter/grappler extraordinaire). I cannot claim Tim's ability - merely that I understand his where he is coming from.

My "compliation" of stray "internal" throwing techniques I call "touxing chu" or "nagegata sho", plus applications.

Applications from my second throw form "touxing da" or "nagegata dai".

However mostly I maintain t a distinction between my "soft external" arts (eg. karate) and the internal arts: My karate remains "external". Note that I do not regard this as any form of criticism, but merely a means of categorization.

I have tried to "internalise" seisan, for example, by changing it to match xingyi type movement. It was an interesting exercise, but ultimately all it produced was arguably “second-rate” xingyi. My karate works well enough as it is. (The “xingyi” type seisan is still worth a look-see for those who are interested; I just wouldn’t include it on the syllabus.)

In this respect I think karate is like some of the long fist styles that are clearly distinguishable from the majority of the hard shaolin styles in terms of efficiency of power generation, but they are external nonetheless.

I have also tried performing internal arts like one would karate and all I got was second rate karate.


It is my strongly held view that the Big 3/Daoist school etc. of taiji, bagua and xingyi are clearly distinguishable on a technical level and approach from most of what we generally call the Shaolin based southern and northern Chinese systems and all of the Japanese systems of martial arts. Amongst practitioners of the Big 3 and certain offshoots (yi quan [mind boxing], liu he ba fa [water boxing] etc.) they are described as neija quan - the internal arts. But this is just a label. It doesn't mean that there is no "internal" or "soft" aspect to karate or any other "non-big 3" art. However the direction from which one comes to the "hard/soft ideal" is opposite in each case.

If my karate contained the principles of the big 3 internal schools, I wouldn't bother adding them to my study and practice. Are these principles essential to making an effective martial artist? Probably not. You can get to the same destination via many different routes. I am sure that your and my martial art takes a lifetime to perfect anyway. However I have always been a man with a foot in many doors, and I suspect this will never change.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic