Understanding the internal arts

More about the “soft” arts of China and the nature of “qi”

In my article “Internal vs. external martial arts” I explain that the term “internal” is a reference to neijiaquan ("internal method fist") – a group of martial arts in China comprising taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan, as well as some related arts and offshoots (eg. liu he ba fa and yi quan). These are easily identifiable arts with a very specific set of techniques based on common principles.

The internal arts are commonly distinguished from other arts (named waijiaquan or “external method fist”). Many argue that this distinction arises because the former rely on “qi” (“ki” in Japanese) – a term literally meaning “breath” and often used to describe a metaphysical “energy”.

Accordingly the term “internal” is often mistakenly seen as a reference to the “cultivation of qi internally”. In fact the word is just a reference to “inner family” in much the same way as some schools use the term “inner circle”: so neijia is a reference to “the family of martial arts that are of Daoist origin” (mythologically originating in the Wudang mountains in China). “Waijia” (external methods) are those that are not part of this family (traditionally the term is used to describe arts that are/were of Chan/Zen Buddhist origin, ie. the Shaolin school, but today it commonly refers to related offshoots like karate and taekwondo as well). 1

As I will discuss later in this article, internal arts techniques have a unique function. While many people still cling to qi as an “explanation” or “description” of this function, I don’t consider this to be factual/accurate. It is true that this “explanation” or “description” does have a certain internal logic or consistency: the problem is that it doesn’t have any consistency or logic outside its own sphere. For me qi is clearly just a “pre-scientific” paradigm – a philosophical and theoretical framework developed in the absence of our current knowledge of physics.

So how would modern science distinguish the function of the internal and external martial arts? In my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy” I summarise it as follows:

the external arts prioritise power;

the internal arts prioritise impulse – ie. the transfer of momentum.

I wrote the above article partly:

(a) because I was dissatisfied with the articles I have read up to now on the physics of striking/kicking; and

(b) because it seemed to that the biomechanics of “hitting hard” were common to all martial arts – internal and external.

Accordingly I wanted to conduct an analysis that would account for both an external or internal approach (particularly since I had experienced both and could see them producing equally valid results, albeit in different time-frames).

In undertaking this exercise I feel I have resolved, to my own satisfaction, what people mean by “qi” (to the extent that they are honestly and sincerely using the term to refer to practical techniques). I am fairly certain that, for the most part, “the flow of chi” in a martial context equates to “the flow of momentum”.

While internal martial artists like Tim Cartmell2 have referred to qi as “intent”, I think this view is consistent with my physics analysis: mastering a physical skill (eg. a golf swing) involves giving effect to your intent; and you do so by having efficient momentum transfer.

Charlatans and parlour tricks...

For my purposes, what is a rather simple proposition is obfuscated by the myriad people who now describe what they do as “internal martial arts” even when it has nothing to do with the 3 principal internal arts of China or their offshoots. In many cases “internal” has become a label for supernatural “qi/ki” powers. Consider the ridiculous video below:

A purported “internal” arts school demonstrating “ki powers”

The problem I have with such videos is that they do a huge disservice to the internal arts (and, for that matter, the traditional qi/ki paradigm). Because of the plethora of such material available today, people are inclined to confuse the legitimate, traditional internal arts schools with cheap parlour tricks and fakery of the kind demonstrated above. In short, all things “internal” are being tarred with the same (awful) brush.

As an aside, I wonder how many people are actually fooled by such videos. In the above example I particularly like the part where the students are running backwards across a field for the better part of a minute. It should be sketch comedy – it is far more humorous than a satire of qi-based arts could ever be. And yet, I believe the creators of the video were being (somewhat tragically) earnest...

I don’t think practitioners of real internal arts are entirely blameless for the rise of this “fakery” phenomenon; there are many internal schools that use superficially impressive demonstrations of “pushing” to illustrate the “power” of the internal method. The problem is they are just that; demonstrations for public entertainment that have little to do with the actual techniques of the internal arts (which, as I have said, focus on momentum transfer, not “displacement”, “work” and hence “power” – see also my article “Visible force vs. applied force”).

The function of “pushing” type tests in the internal arts is marginal. It usually has to do with testing balance and stability – as discussed in my article “Grounding”. Seen in this light and practised in the context of sensitivity drills such as “push hands” you can see that there is some legitimate base for what has morphed, in some schools, into pure satire. That many students will be acquiescent/non-resistant in the hands of a senior and highly respected teacher only aids this process. Consider the video below where a 94 year old bagua teacher appears to be demonstrating basic principles of balance: his students are letting themselves be pushed/manipulated by their (obviously much admired) teacher3. That he is also not actually demonstrating any bagua techniques is probably lost on those who know nothing about that art.

An elderly bagua teacher demonstrating principles of balance with (highly obliging) students

By contrast, if you want to see an accurate example of an elderly man (Xie Pieqi) demonstrating bagua, you should watch this video (featuring a young Tim Cartmell as “uke”):

Xie Pieqi (1923-2003) demonstrating bagua techniques on a young Tim Cartmell

You’ll have to wait until the 1:25m mark for some applications which provide the contrast between this video with the previous “bagua” video above.

Yes, Tim Cartmell is not being resistant. But is there really any doubt that Xie is performing honest martial arts techniques?

You’ll notice an absence of jumping, pointless falling or other histrionics by Mr Cartmell... No magic, no running backwards across fields etc. Just some straightforward bagua techniques. Not impressed? Whoever said internal arts had to look like magic? What is impressive to me is that this old man could still apply some decent, direct and simple fighting skills (particularly suitable when it is clear that a person his age could not rely on “power” – eg. a massive shin kick to a heavy bag).

If arts like karate have suffered dilution over time (as I have previously argued), the internal arts have (especially on and from the Cultural Revolution) suffered an even greater dilution. This (together with its unfortunate nexus with “new age” fads in the West) has led to what I consider a great deal of misunderstanding about the principles of internal arts and their application. People often expect the internal arts to be about something “paranormal” or magical. They are not.

But if the internal martial arts are not “magic”, what are they? How do they develop “efficient momentum transfer”? What does this mean anyway?

External vs. internal training methodology

I’ll start my explanation by analysing the contrasting the training methodologies of the internal and most external arts:

Most external martial arts focus on practical training. External martial artists today will often don gloves and begin sparring the day they first walk into the studio. Emphasis is placed on this “live environment” and on physical conditioning, such as hitting bags or striking posts and strength training. Even if an external martial arts school doesn’t emphasise free sparring (and many traditional external schools do not) it will commonly contain a higher degree of “application-based” training than its internal counterpart.

By contrast, internal techniques are usually grooved in isolation – much as one might groove a golf swing or tennis shots in a “non-live environment” (ie. not in a game).

Let me put it this way: you could train to hit a golf ball further by weight training (ie. increase your strength and your power output), or you could train to do so by perfecting your technique. In golf it is easy to see how the latter is better: many a “senior citizen” can hit the ball right up to the green where a young muscled beginner can only hit the ball a few metres.

Similarly in tennis “power” is seldom useful against even slightly superior technique. Rather, a premium is placed on spending time practising moves in isolation with your coach – even long after you’ve started training in a “live environment”, but particularly before you do so. Consider that my tennis coach trained me for a full 2 months before he reluctantly said I was ready to go to the local club and play some doubles – he said they wouldn’t have even let me join before that (I wasn’t very good, nor I am to this day)!

I believe that it was in the context of such “skilled application of force” that the myth of “magical power” crept into the internal arts folklore. It was observed that internal artists were applying the same force but needing to “work” less, hence use less power and require less muscle, than comparable Shaolin practitioners. In the traditional “qi paradigm” internal arts were said to develop/build something other than muscle – an “internal” strength rather than an “external” or physical strength (another example of misreading the term “neijia”).

Surely qi would account for, say, an old man’s ability to apply successfully a vastly greater force to a little ball than a far stronger man in his prime?

As I’ve said previously, the qi paradigm was developed in the absence of our modern understanding of physics, physiology and biomechanics. The old golfer can apply a greater force because of his momentum transfer is far better. He has this ability thanks to many years of grooving an efficient motion to his technique (obtained by a “staged activation of body parts” – again see my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy”). He has “superior technology” to the young body-builder standing next to him on the driving range. And, as Arthur C Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 4

So on one end of the spectrum you can say that some martial artists spend most of their time refining momentum transfer in isolation (whether it be practising forms or walking the circle in bagua etc) before they attempt to apply their techniques.

On the other end of the spectrum, untrained “big hitting” street fighters will spend all their time “applying” techniques, and never isolating them (like a self-taught tennis player might tell you he has no time to practise his backhand and forehand baseline shots because he’s “too busy returning balls”).

These are extremes. Most martial arts schools – external or internal – adopt a methodology well within the spectrum. But the noted extremes do serve to illustrate generally the difference between the “internal” and “external” approach to martial training.

It is also worth noting that in combat (unlike golf or tennis) the “pendulum of usefulness” has always swung more towards the external training methodology. Golf , tennis and other ball sports involve very few variables by comparison to free fighting: you can get into playing games and applying your “ideal shots” far more quickly.

Combat, on the other hand, involves almost infinite angles and possibilities – so the variables are much greater, the level of “chaos” is higher and the chance of applying a “clean” technique is reduced. Simply put, in this environment power counts!

Now I don’t wish to be overly narrow in my description of internal training methodology: it is not as if internal arts practitioners fail to apply techniques. They just spend a long time isolating movements before they apply them in a “live” environment (like most martial systems, the internal arts provide for the application of techniques in limited ways right from the start – in semi-free sparring such as push hands etc.).

So traditionally they say that in xingyi you spend 5 years, in bagua you spend 8-10 years and in taiji you spend 15 years before you can rely on the techniques of those arts.5 I think that’s why most people who do internal arts for fighting (as opposed to health/fitness) do so in conjunction with other arts, or after coming from other arts (ie. as a means of adding to what they already know).

As I’ve said in my article “My quest for the martial holy grail”, my primary karate instructor (and his Chinese teacher Hong Yi Xiang) refused to teach the internal arts until substantial mastery of a practical external art (ie. an art that was not one of the xingyi, bagua or taiji group) had been achieved. Others will teach you the internal arts as soon as you wish, sometimes with the caveat that they might not be readily applicable in civilian defence, but more often without. Why?

Many people the practise of internal martial arts for reasons other than civilian defence. For these people they are physical art forms that deliver health benefits – nothing more. Witness the number of “old folks” doing taijiquan, for example. The efficient flow of momentum, the biomechanically sound movement etc. in that art are all good for health (not in any mystical way, but in the sense of good design). My 70 year old internal arts teacher Chen Yun-Ching is an excellent example of the health benefits of the internal arts. He and his elder brother Chen Yun Chow are healthier and more supple in their bodies now than I am in my 40s.

Going back to the issue of combat, xingyi is the “most external” and most immediately practical of the 3 internal arts. This is where I am focussed now from a civilian defence perspective (importantly, I still practise my standard external arts of karate/arnis/kobudo/qin-na etc. – from a combat perspective I do the internal arts as an adjunct). Bagua is “softer” and taiji is the “softest”. They are progressively more “advanced” in efficiency of movement, but progressively harder to apply and hence more “art-like”.

I don’t advocate the internal arts as practical fighting disciplines for beginners or even intermediate (perhaps even advanced!) martial artists. But for those who have reached a point of diminishing returns in other systems, it is my opinion that the internal arts can breathe (no pun intended) a whole new life into one’s civilian defence method. I feel I am moving better now than I did in my 20s or 30s despite suffering arthritis and other health problems as a result of an immunological condition. I’m moving far “smarter” – ie more efficiently. But I don’t think I would have had any value from internal arts in terms of fighting until recently.

Chen Yun Ching has said to me that the internal arts are not only good for health, they are good for defence at a particular time in one’s training. I respectfully agree with him.

Internal arts vs. aikido and other “soft” arts

Clearly there are many schools of external martial arts that have a similar “technique isolation” training methodology aimed at generating efficiency. Often these arts also adhere strongly to a qi/ki paradigm. For want of a better term, I describe these schools as “soft” arts (although quite clearly hitting or throwing someone is never “soft”).6 A good example of such an art would be aikido.

Leaving historical issues aside, why can’t aikido be classified as “internal”? The answer lies, quite simply, in the “skill set” – ie. the techniques – that make up the internal arts of China. These techniques are specifically geared toward generating impulse rather than power (again, see my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy”).

But, the argument goes, surely all good martial artists should develop more efficient momentum transfer.

Clearly, if you use the term “external” to mean “prioritising power” and “internal” to mean “prioritising impulse / momentum transfer” then every system can be considered a mix of “external” and “internal”. Put it this way – no strike can function without power. And no strike can be effective without impulse.

What makes the internal arts of China very different from other arts is that their techniques not only benefit from better momentum transfer – they are designed around this concept. It is my view that the same cannot be said for other “soft arts”.

Aikido for example has very few technical similarities to taiji, xingyi or bagua (although some try to connect it with the latter).7 In fact, aikido’s technical base is far closer to, say, karate, than it is to the internal arts of China. Yes, some locks etc. are congruent (as is the case with judo, jujutsu or modern BJJ). But how you deflect or engage an attack and enter into the lock is very different – as are the footwork, posture, hand movements – practically everything. The mere fact that in aikido one does not oppose force with force does not make aikido techniques “internal”.

Accordingly, even when I refer to other arts as having “internal” features, I do so as a shorthand way of describing features that are technically “internal-like” (ie. “like taiji etc.”) – not similar in philosophy, goal, motivation or training methodology.

Internal arts techniques

I don’t propose to start a detailed description of each internal art’s techniques in this article. If I were to mention a few examples of how internal arts techniques differ from the external equivalents I could point to:

1. the distinct footwork and “staged activation” used in xingyi’s beng quan (as opposed to karate’s lunging reverse punch or the boxer’s right cross); or

2. the hip use in single whip (as opposed to the “double hip” employed in many karate and white crane schools – see my article “Whole lotta shakin: pre-loading the hip”); or

3. the tripping and unbalancing used in bagua (as opposed to, say, ko and o-soto gari).

In future articles I hope to provide further examples of what I mean.

But in the meantime you might well ask whether I can summarise the essential features of internal arts techniques.

Many argue that these are summed up in certain philosophical maxims contained in classic treatises that have traditionally been linked to the internal arts. An example of such a set of maxims is the “six harmonies” (lieu he). 8 Certainly they appear to have an “internal connection” as is evidenced by the naming of the internal art “lieu he ba fa” (6 harmonies, 8 methods – otherwise known as “water boxing”). However maxims such as the lieu he contain very general “rules” that are subject to widely differing interpretations. In any event, many non-internal schools subscribe to such maxims. 9

If I were to offer one distinct feature of the internal arts it would be a totally relaxed flow (in itself very difficult to achieve), punctuated by sudden outbursts of explosive movement – referred to in the internal arts as “fa jin”.10 Fa jin is readily found in xingyi and bagua. While it occurs in the Chen taiji form, it is only implied in the other taiji forms (eg. Yang, Hao and Wu). This does not mean that it is not part of those taiji styles; rather taiji (being the “softest” of the internal arts) places a premium on moving without muscular resistance – the free flow of your own momentum. Accordingly taiji emphasises the perfection of this concept.

The video below provides an example of fa jin in Cheng bagua (see specifically at 0:45m and 1:07m).

Yang Fuqi demonstrating Cheng bagua

So what is fa jin? In physics terms I would describe it as an explosive transfer of momentum - impulse. It is the relaxed application of force. And so we come back to where we started...


From my perspective the label “internal” is as relevant “karate”. It describes a group of Chinese martial arts styles with a similar historical and philosophical background, training methodology and technical base. That technical base is specifically designed to maximise impulse and rely less on power. By definition these techniques are highly advanced – however attaining skill in these techniques requires inculcation over a long period in an isolated, non-live environment. This makes the internal arts difficult to apply in civilian defence.

The term “internal arts” is not a catch-all for “arts that are less aggressive/confrontation-oriented” etc. And “internal” most certainly does not equal “qi-based”.


1. For further background information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neijia.

2. Tim Cartmell, “Effortless Combat Throws”, 1998, Unique Publications, ISBN-13: 9780865681767

3. Nothing illustrates the point about students being overly acquiescent to a revered teacher better than the following video of Morihei Ueshiba (taken just before he died). That he had acquired phenomenal physical skill is well documented; just how much he would have been able to muster on the dojo floor at this point in his life would have been considerably less. Perhaps it is no wonder that, whether consciously or subconsciously, the students in the video were literally “falling over” to be obliging to their master:

4. Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)

5. In taijiquan there is a saying: “15 years before you leave the training hall”. It is important to note that not everyone will agree with this saying – eg. I know that Luo De Xiu competed successfully in full contact at quite a young age, as did Tim Cartmell. Perhaps those gentlemen might view things differently...

6. Readers should be aware that the internal arts of China are also referred to as the “soft” arts in colloquial terms.

7. The only “evidence” that Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, might have studied baguazhang is to be found in a speculation by BK Frantzis on page 118 of his book “The Power of the Internal Martial Arts” (1998 ISBN: 978-1-58394-190-4 (1-58394-190-8)) that Ueshiba might have been introduced to, seen, or practiced bagua while he was in China.

8. See http://www.plumpub.com/info/Articles/art_zoryaliuhe.htm.

9. Shaolin styles like liu he men (see http://www.ziranmen.com/liuhemen/liuhemen.php) and preying mantis (see http://www.sixharmoniesmantis.com/) also subscribe to the “6 harmonies”.

10. See http://www.plumpub.com/info/Articles/art_fajin.htm.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic