What is the ‘Internal’ in Internal Boxing – Part 1

Posted on August 5th, by Michael in Uncategorized. No Comments

There is often much discussion about the relative merits and characteristics of the Internal/External schools of Chinese boxing. Most of these discussions seem to be generated by practitioners who seek clarity on what has become a cloudy and often misunderstood martial classification. Interestingly it seems to be a conversation that means more to the practitioners of the so called ‘Internal’ schools than those of the ‘External’ schools. In addition it is also a conversation that is more likely to be had amongst western practitioners than amongst Chinese practitioners who in my experience see less conflict in the two terms.

In the spirit of shedding some light on the discussion, I have decided to put down some comments based upon my own experience and from what I have learned from my years of study under my Master Li Li Qun and more recently my Da Shi Xeong Master Liu Ji Fa. ( Shanghai Ma Yueh Liang lineage of Wu Style) I’ll also add in stuff that has accumulated from my other teachers and many other sources I’ve picked up along the way. I’ll try and keep it as clear and simple as possible which in itself is a major task given the complexity of this subject. I hope it is of some help. Also you can expect several blogs on this subject since I can see already that this is going to be a long piece.

Firstly for clarity the ‘Internal School’ is referred to as Nei Jia Quan which means Inner Family boxing whereas the ‘External Schools’ are referred to as Wai Jia Quan or Outside/External Family boxing. As I understand it, these terms were coined in the mid 17th Century probably simultaneously as a way of differentiating two very different boxing theories, means of training and stylistic characteristics. This does not mean however that those theories, methods and styles where not already in the making somewhere in China before they appeared in print.

As a rough guide I generally think of Wai Jia as most likely referring to the Shao Lin Buddhist styles and Nei Jia the Wu Dang Taoist styles. (It is worth noting that Nei Jia Quan as a style is not mentioned in General Qi Ji Guang’s comprehensive text on the periods martial and military training dated around 1584 and so it is generally assumed it evolved or was given its name much later). A further and common classification of these two stylistic classifications is also ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ which describes training methods, stylistic characteristics and fighting/contact strategies. So ‘Internal’ is considered a ‘soft’ style and ‘External’ a ‘hard’ style. This classification will get further attention when I get a bit deeper into the whole subject.

The three key martial arts that are now associated with the Nei Jia boxing are Taiji Quan, Ba Gua Chang and Hsing Yi Quan. There are however many others that come either partially or wholly under the ‘Internal’ designation. As I understand it these three outwardly quite different and essentially Northern systems where not grouped together until the late 19th century. What typified them as ‘Internal’ styles seems to be the theories and philosophy that underpin them not their stylistic appearance or training methods which are quite different. These three distinctive martial arts owe more to Daoist practices than Buddhist. More on this later since it would be a mistake to think that Buddhist practices do not incorporate ‘Internal’ methods and Daoist practices do not incorporate ‘External’ methods. Historically the two have always borrowed from each other both in theory and in practice (In China that is) but it is an important distinction in understanding the ‘Internal’styles and methods.

The period of the late Ming and subsequent Ching Dynasty when Taiji Quan probably became a fully realised system are considered to be the real flowering of Chinese martial arts and so it should be no surprise that systems evolved and theoretical frameworks became built into the training and the styles as well as secrecy and possibly superstition and mythology. Remember that many successful systems where secretive so as to give advantage to the style. As martial systems became militarised they probably had to become more sytematic and standardised whereas styles that evolved from successful individuals/clans could remain far more idyiosincratic. Emergence of successful masters whose reputations spread gave massive status to different styles and their methods of training. Don’t forget that being a martial artist in those times was a risky but often paid profession as well as a necessity to defend yourself and your clan/land/Emperor etc in times of trouble. (Loads of Kung Fu films about this)Success then was measured by survival and reputation and consequently styles were given value and linked to those individuals and their particular methods.

It seems obvious that successful, experienced and renowned fighters who may have trained in many common methods of the day synthesised their skills into systems each with specific characteristics. These individuals became the role models and originators or developers of the styles even though the roots of their skills may have predated the eventual formalising of their own style. This is a common theme in the mythology of martial arts evolution. Nobody really knows where anything comes from even though we attribute systems to certain individuals. Time and the passing on of skills to selected students inevitably changes the emphasis within systems and over time could potentially see some systems die out and others morph and take on new attributes; ‘Internal’ being one of those attributes. Even today it is high level individuals and their take on the theories and methods who give a system its value and whom serious practitioners seek out to learn from. Systems like Ba Gua, Taiji and Hsing Yi have split into schools that carry the names of acclaimed individuals or sometimes geographical regions where they could be mostly found. Each system as it evolves over time and through the lense of different key masters developes different and identifiable attributes. If that master dies without disciples or record, that branch of a system might die out or become reabsorbed into a more general expression of the style. In short a designation like ‘Internal’ may be dependent upon who is teaching and wether emphasis is put on those characteristics that are historically considered to make a style predominantly ‘Internal’ or ‘External’. Chinese martial arts are complex and a style can morph easily within one or two generations.

Since the cultural revolution in Chinese recent history we know that many martial systems and unique skills and training methods were lost. China’s attempts to gather together and organise their martial cultural heritage since the late 1970’s has undoubtedly seen a homogenising and an institutionalising of systems. Even in my life time and according to my teacher the methods of training and the depth of knowledge as well as expectation and cultural value has changed. His generation which will have started studying before Communism and specifically the Cultural Revolution took hold are the last who probably received older knowledge and training methods and skills. Luckily his generation and their teachers are still remembered by enough people to keep those styles fertile and alive though it is doubtful if anyone will reach the skill levels or breadth of knowledge that previous generations had. The world has so significantly changed that such skills are very difficult to acquire now and in most cases unnecessary. It seems now that many styles we associate with Chines martial arts, both ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ have lost some of their ‘inner’ workings and exist only as demonstration forms and examples of cultural history.

There are many ‘tales’ of ‘Internal school’ Masters whose exceptional skills seem to deny our common perception of reality. There are some who are still alive and teaching though I suspect not many by now. Their skills are not easily explained according to simple striking, grappling, locking and throwing analysis and hard to reproduce. Anybody studying these arts would most definitely want to understand how such a level of skill is achieved and what are the ‘active’ ingredients that are necessary to train and understand a system that at least historically had a reputation of being one of the highest level martial arts in China (Taiji Quan was taught to the Imperial body guard in the Ching Dynasty….remember though that they will have been taught several if not many different styles which would be designated as ‘external’)

Before I get into ‘Internal’ on a more more technical level, it remains to say that in China, many Masters (mine included)who we identify as exemplifiers of an ‘Internal’ system studied many different styles before they came to the ‘Internal’. Shao Lin boxing would be a typical place to start your martial arts journey. This would be usual and it makes lots of sense especially if you start young which would have been the norm in China in the past. Master Li use to tell me that this was how he began and on his journey to the ‘Internal’ methods he studied different systems that laid either more or less emphasis on the ‘Internal’. He arrived at Taiji Quan and settled there.

Taiji he said exemplifies most profoundly the theories that underpin the ‘Internal’ styles; notably the Daoist theory of Yin and Yang from which Taiji took its name. His view was that eventually even the styles we refer to as ‘External’ or ‘hard’ had to embrace the ‘Internal’ so that the styles and the practitioners could grow in skill level and deepen their achievement on three levels; martial, civil and spiritual.
More to come on this subject soon.


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