Bridging the gulf between karate and the internal arts: Part 2

Introduction: isolating the essential “yi” (concepts)

In Part 1 of this article I discussed the interest many karateka have in the Chinese martial arts, particularly the internal arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. I also discussed how many karateka are dissuaded from pursuing a study of the internal arts (or any other Chinese forms) because of their perceived complexity and “overly ritualistic” nature.

Accordingly I suggested that it might be possible to create a “plug-in” for karate that teaches some of the essential concepts of the Chinese internal arts (what is known as the “yi”) without requiring a lengthy, laborious study of the exact (and complex) forms (the “xing”).1

Would some information be lost? Undoubtedly. It is not possible for a “plug-in” to teach all of the subtleties and intricacies of the concepts of the internal arts. For that you have to study the full systems themselves. But I believe it is possible to extract certain pivotal concepts (“yi”) and translate these to physical forms (“xing”) that are more familiar to the karateka and therefore present less of an obstacle to “taking ownership” of these concepts.

Starting with an appropriate “platform”

Experiments in fusion are really not that uncommon in martial arts; I hold it to be self-evident that every teacher ultimately teaches his or her own “style”, regardless of how hard the instructor attempts to keep a particular historical art “pure”.

Mostly changes or adaptations to suit an instructor are confined to small, unconscious ones.2 But occasionally there is an overt attempt to create a hybrid, and I thought I’d look to the best ones I’ve seen as inspiration for my own attempted fusion.

Chen Pan Ling personally designed 2 forms that blended shaolin, xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. He called these forms “feng quan” (mountain top boxing) using his nickname “Feng” (meaning “mountain top”) as inspiration. These comprise some of my favourite forms. They were kept secret until fairly recently, when his son (my teacher) Chen Yun Ching started teaching them publicly. I am fortunate to be among the first Westerners to learn these forms. Chen Yun Ching has invented a third feng quan form, comprising his own research and I look forward to learning this one day too.

Feng quan 1: the first of the hybrid external/internal forms developed by Chen Pan Ling

So how are these forms designed? The first thing a researcher will note is that they are built on an “external arts” platform or floorplan – in this case longfist (taizuquan). The reasoning behind this is simple: it is hard to graft external arts movements onto an internal floorplan.3 Not only are the 3 internal arts quite different from the external arts, they are also quite different from each other. And none of these has a recognisable “floorplan” of the kind one associates with shaolin or karate. The concept underlying solo practise of the internal arts is really quite different to that found in most “form/kata-based” systems.4 Had the floorplan (such as it is) of one of the internal arts been chosen as the platform for the fusion, the form would have irrevocably become more a subset of that art rather than any true hybrid.

By contrast, the external arts of China (and by extension, arts such as karate) do have a “floorplan” onto which practically anything can be grafted. They are generally purpose-built, with an eye on pragmatic issues such as the size of your practice area, the number of turns, balancing the use of left and right sides, etc. In short, the external floorplan is a superior “all-purpose” platform.

Feng quan 2: the second of the hybrid external/internal forms developed by Chen Pan Ling

As wonderful as the feng quan forms are, they can’t fulfil the brief I have set in this article: for a start, longfist (taizuquan) will be almost as alien to the karateka as any of the internal arts.5

Another example of hybrid forms is Hong Yi Xiang’s tang shou dao bridging forms, which I have discussed previously. Again, these use a longfist platform (with southern influences). The strong xingyi flavour means that they are quite linear and require a great deal more room for practice. While I am very fond of these forms, they are, once again, far too alien to serve as a platform for my proposed hybrid.

Da peng zhan chi – a hybrid form designed by Hong Yi Xiang

The platform for a karate-internal hybrid

By now the reader should be aware that the most relevant platform for my hybrid would have to be one used in a karate kata. But which one? Karate has myriad kata which use multiple “floorplan” designs, ranging from the popular “H” (eg. pinan) and “X” (shisochin/seiunchin) formations to the more linear ones (naihanchi, sanchin) to everything in between.

In the end, I am once again guided by the experience of others. In creating the gekisai kata, Chojun Miygai used an elegantly simple “+” floorplan. The usefulness of this floorplan has been amply demonstrated: Over the last 50 years multiple successive martial artists have used it for their own elaborations or experiments. Seikichi Toguchi used it as the platform for his gekiha and kakuha kata. More recently, Patrick McCarthy has used it for his “chokyu” form. Accordingly I think I could do a lot worse than avail myself of this platform as well.

Moreover, the gekisai platform is particularly useful for this project precisely because it will permit comparisons - not only with the original gekisai kata, but also the newer external creations (eg. the chokyugata of Patrick McCarthy). Such comparisons will assist in highlighting (and explaining the reasons for) the differences occasioned by the incorporation of internal arts concepts.

Gekisai dai ni which provides the floorplan for my experimental kata

Features common to karate and the internal arts

Before I start discussing the differences between karate and the internal arts, it is useful to set out the common ground (and there is a lot). These elements are as follows:

The corkscrew punch and palm heel strike

Purists will already howl in protest at this assertion! They will point out that none of the internal arts features a full corkscrew punch. And they are right. There is no full corkscrew. But there are many partial corkscrew punches (ie. to vertical fist). As I discuss in my article “Why corkscrew your punch” the full turn-over is merely a function of a full range (the fist turns from vertical fist to palm down only in the last few inches of full extension).

Apart from that, it is worth noting that taiji, bagua and xingyi all use a palm heel strike, which is simply the open handed version of a full-range punch (both finish with the palm down – what is known as “yin quan” or “yin fist”).

The preference for the internal arts to use a vertical fist really reflects their preference for mid-range fist punching. Once a full-extension thrust is required, they default to palm heel strikes. Why? With the greater force generated with full-range strikes comes a greater risk of injury to your hands. This was something Richard Norton reminded me of recently when he was in town; one of the most frequent injuries one sees among one’s martial friends is broken fingers resulting from a committed, full range punch. If you don’t have conditioned fists, it is wise to substitute a palm heel thrust in those circumstances. This is something else I will incorporate into my hybrid form.

Waist chambers

All of the internal and external arts of China, as well as karate, chamber punches and other techniques at the waist/hip. Accordingly I propose to include this in my hybrid form. I discuss the reasons for such chambers in my article “Chambering punches”.

The front snap kick

As I've discussed in my article "Enter the front snap kick" I regard the front snap kick to be the most useful kick of all and accordingly I propose to insert it into my hybrid form. It occurs (in slightly different guises) in karate and all the internal arts.

Whether you choose to use your ball of foot or heel is something I will leave to the individual practitioner; I will mostly perform the hybrid form with the ball of foot, but I'm increasingly comfortable with using the heel in a snap kick.

I don't propose to put too many kicks into my hybrid form: two will suffice - a front snap kick on the left and a front snap kick on the right. In my view this reflects the fundamental nature and usefulness of the front kick relative to other kicks.

Circular deflection

Both karate and the internal arts use (extensively) the power of the circle to deflect attacks (what I have previously termed "soft" blocks as opposed to "hard" ones). While internal arts deflections are often more subtly expressed, they follow more or less identical principles; they use either an arc inscribed by the forearm or they use the rotation or spiral of the forearm to redirect attacks.

They also both utilise a secondary or “back-up” smaller circle (what some call the “crossing hand” – a term that is actually used in xingyiquan).

The rising block

All 3 internal arts use the deflection known in karate as “age/jodan uke” (the rising block).

What differentiates their use is that the forearm is usually kept “in place” as the strike is landing (ie. a “simultaneous” block and strike) – eg. pao quan from xingyi

As I discuss in my article “Raising your shoulder girdle in the rising block: fact and fallacy”, even the raising of the shoulder girdle is a non-issue; in both the internal arts and karate this can and should happen naturally, safely and effectively after the deflection is effected and as the body is angled into the attack. So in this respect, internal and external roads lead to precisely the same destination.

Chest-level deflections

Contrary to karate, internal arts “chest level” deflections tend to be “formless” – ie. they do not have any particular defined shape, but rather arise in the context of general movement. However, conceptually they work in much the same way.

So for example, the opening corkscrew movement of the forearm in xingyi’s pi quan can be used to deflect. The curving arc of the forearm in heng quan’s strike can also be used to deflect. The final move in each bagua palm change can deflect attacks using both an arc and the reverse spiral of the forearm. Similar moves of all these kinds are found in taijiquan.

While most “chest level” deflections in the internal arts seem to combine both arc and forearm spiral, I don’t propose to complicate the form by using both at the same time. This is consistent with Chen Pan Ling’s design of the feng quan forms where he uses a deflection that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the hiki/kake uke of karate (and which is used at least once in karate). This deflection uses the arc, but not the spiral.

Lower deflections

As I discussed in my article “Low “blocks” against kicks: are they ridiculous?” lower deflections are very useful. They are not “ridiculous” as some might think. They occur in all the Chinese external and internal arts as well as karate.

In the internal arts, lower deflections tend to be open palm and sweep around in an arc (eg. brush knee from taiji), or cut downwards (eg. bagua in the first 2 palm changes). In xingyi the downward deflection is performed using the fist in a circular fashion (eg. after the turn in beng quan).

I propose to use both the taiji open hand and xingyi closed fist circular downward deflections in my hybrid form. In respect of the latter I shall fuse it with the goju gedan barai, which also doubles as a low strike.

Offline evasion

Both karate and the internal arts utilise offline evasion; in other words, the body shifts offline at the same time as a deflection is employed. The offline movement does more than assist in evasion; it allows you to set up a counter, and enables you to utilise your whole body momentum as you do so.

Typically the movement in the internal arts is very subtly offline to the point where it is barely discernible, but nonetheless the concept remains the same. In bagua offline movements are frequently worked into turns. Karate kata turns also contain important lessons about offline movement as I have discussed previously.

There are however important differences in turning in the internal arts – differences that allow one to harness forward momentum more efficiently, which I shall discuss below. Within the constraints of the differences however there is a general consensus that my hybrid form will combine.

Both simultaneous initiative and late initiative

As I’ve recently discussed, karate and the internal arts all utilise both “simultaneous initiative” (ie. a block and counter executed more or less simultaneously) and “late initiative” (where you block/evade first, then counter).

As I discussed in my previous article, simultaneous initiative is superior to late initiative. So why bother including late initiative in my hybrid form? I would do so for the simple reason that it is essential to surviving surprise attacks.

It would be very tempting to say: “Simultaneous initiative is superior, therefore my hybrid form is going to feature only this superior method”. But that would be, in my view, pure folly. There is a good reason that arts I consider to be the most "advanced" have always featured equal doses of both simultaneous and late initiative. Accordingly I propose that my hybrid form should do the same - with one small proviso:

All the late initiative moves must bear the “rolling” or “connected” form of the flowing “block then counter” sequences found in the internal arts (and, I believe, in all but the most basic karate kata). In other words, the block and counter won’t be split into two disjointed/disconnected movements. The momentum from the block will feed seamlessly into the counter so that they flow into one another and become part of one continuous stream of movement.

In my view this “connectedness” is essential to make the (often unavoidable) tactic of late initiative actually work in a civilian defence scenario. I believe that the reason so many people today think block, then counter “cannot work” is because they are used to seeing the block and counter separated into two distinct moves by artificial pauses, perhaps as a consequence of karate’s focus on “kime” (ie. “focus” - providing the ability of a single punch or blow to be determinative due to it’s “power”).

The “disjointedness” of many karate schools’ block and counter sequences is further exacerbated by the modern “power” trends, including the addition of extraneous artificial hip movements or some sort of bouncing “sine wave”. In my view it is self-evident that these trends deviate further and further away from the ability to apply these techniques in a dynamic, resistant context. “Power” (or more correctly, force) and kime are important. But these concepts are not incompatible with flow - nor is flow (or what I call the dynamic context) any less important.

A difference that is too problematic to incorporate into a “fusion” – zhan bu, the “battle stance”

With those similarities in mind, let me enunciate one of the key differences that I won’t be incorporating into the hybrid form precisely because it is too different and will require an inordinate amount of “relearning” in order to be absorbed by the karateka.

Learning a new stance can be the most problematic part of assimilating new martial skill. For an experienced martial artist this requires considerable “unlearning”, particularly when the movement is similar to, but significantly different from, their base art.

The basic stance of xingyi (seen in the “san ti” posture and used in bagua stepping) is a stance I call “zhan bu”. I propose to cover this stance in some detail at another time. For now it is sufficient to note that the stance is, at first appearance, not dissimilar to karate’s kokutsu dachi (back stance) except that it is slightly wider, shorter, not so back weighted and the hips are squarer. After karateka make these adjustments I’ve found that they start to move into something resembling a neko ashi dachi (cat stance). In short, the stance is simply too alien to absorb in a short space of time. I’ve seen karateka labour for the better part of a year and not look “right”. Even if they can adopt the stance statically, they simply “lose the plot” when they start to move quickly. Inevitably their feet drop into more familiar foot patterns.

Now this battle stance is really quite critical for xingyi and bagua. I will explain why this is so when I write my article on this stance. For the time being you’ll have to take my word for that fact and that karateka don’t really cope with it. Accordingly this is the first, and most obvious, feature of the internal arts that I propose to dispense with in my “hybrid” form.

What shall we use instead? I adhere to the view that karate’s sanchin stance is used for similar purposes. It doesn’t confer all of the advantages of the battle stance, but karateka (particularly those of the Naha te tradition) will find its familiarity reassuring. At least they won’t be caught on the first obstacle, like a Dalek at the bottom of a stairwell.

Apart from the battle stance, taijiquan makes use of a variety of other stances familiar to karateka, including gong bu (zenkutsu dachi), chi bu (cat stance or neko ashi dachi) etc. All of these can be incorporated without difficulty into the hybrid form.

Conclusion: other differences that are to be incorporated

By now it should be apparent that the other differences will, to a lesser or greater extent, be incorporated into the hybrid form. This is because it precisely the purpose of the form; to build onto a karate-like platform the "advanced" features of the internal arts.

But before I go into my hybrid form, I need to dedicate at least one further article to describing some of the unique "advanced" mechanics of the internal arts. So that is precisely what I propose to do next time.


1. You will note that the characters for “yi” (concept) and “xing” (form) are the characters used in the art of xingyiquan (ie. “form/concept fist”), the oldest of the 3 internal arts. The movements used in xingyi to teach these concepts were inspired by broader concepts in nature (eg. the 5 elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal) or by the specific movement of animals (the 12 animals of xingyi).

The forms of xingyi are however not literal representations of the elements/animals upon which they are based. Nor do they teach you literal fighting form. Rather the “xing” (forms) of xingyi comprise movements that teach you essential concepts for fighting.

2. Wang Shujin and Yang Chen Fu were both large men, and it is said that their internal arts were adapted to suit their expanded girth. I happen to know more than a few students of Wang Shujin do their Chen Pan Ling taijiquan in a manner almost identical to mine – except that their arms move further from their bodies to accommodate a phantom waistline!

3. Xingyi moves almost exclusively backwards and forwards, leading to forms that require a lot of room for practice. Bagua solves the space issue by practising moves in a circle, however this is inherently impractical for moves other than those designed for use in a circular context. And taijquan’s meandering floorplan is almost featureless.

4. I think that the internal arts are not really “forms based” arts. I know this might sound odd, but hear me out:

Xingyi is not about forms – rather it comprises what is essentially a selection of short defence/attack sequences (“block/counter” combinations, if you will). These are practised in a line, repeated endlessly. There is no “form” or “pattern” beyond these basic sequences. Even the 12 animal forms are really just variations on the 5 basic defence/attack sequences.

Bagua has 8 “palm changes”. Again, these are short “defence/attack” sequences. They are not “forms”. The 8 palm changes can be practised sequentially, but they don’t have to be.

Taijiquan is a series of “qi gong” exercises. Again, these are really just short defence/attack sequences. The “long form” is really just a way of practising, and remembering the variations of, the dozen or so principal sequences of taijiquan. So when choosing a floorplan for a “pattern” or “form” (xing) it is pointless looking at an art that essentially does not have any!

5. I have heard it said that northern longfist (taizuquan) is the progenitor of taijiquan, and there are indeed quite marked similarities in certain respects. Certainly the building blocks for the techniques are often startlingly similar. However the concepts of momentum conservation unique to taijiquan are absent. And it is these that are most critical in differentiating taijiquan. It is also these concepts that make taijiquan far more difficult for an external artist to “internalise” than taizu – which, while quite different in physical form, is really not conceptually very different from an art like karate. I have found teaching taizu forms to karateka much, much easier than any of the internal arts.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic