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Given China’s tumultuous ancient history – of warring clans, warring states and eventually – warring dynasties – it’s unsurprising that so much energy has been invested in the development and fine-tuning of the martial arts. In a society unable to rely on the government for pro­tection, being a capable martial artist was often an essential skill, especially at time; of large-scale revolution. Fighting techniques evoked in almost all isolat­ed communities, from Buddhist and Daoist temples down to clan villages, often acquiring unique characteristics which were taught solely to members of that group. It’s only – in very recent times that outsiders – even less so, foreigners – have been able to learn these distinctive styles, though sonic have now become so popular that even the government has approved formal versions of them.

Styles and techniques

Thousand; of martial art, have devolved over the centuries in China , but all can be classed into two basic types. External or hard styles (w aiji a) concentrate on developing li. or physical strength, to literally overpower opponents: for exam­ple, conditioning hands by punching plate iron and slapping concrete blocks thousands of time, until one is able, by sheer force, to break planks of wood and stone,. Internal or soft styles (neijia) concentrate on developing the internal energy known as qi, which circulates around the body along acupuncture meridians and is also one of the central aspects of Chinese medicine. Qigong – which means “breath skills” – is used to build up an aware­ness of qi and an ability to move it at will around the body, eventually replacing excess muscular action and making all movements fluid and powerful.

In practice, however, such distinctions are blurred, at least for the beginner. Initial internal training tends to be overwhelmingly physical, as it requires years before sufficient awareness of qi develops to allow it to be used effectively in fighting. Many external styles also utilize qigong techniques, just as most inter­nal styles rely on some brute force. And, from the outside, internal and exter­nal styles can look very similar, as both use forms – prearranged sets of move­ments – to develop the necessary speed, power and timing; both use punches, kicks and open hand strikes as well as a wide variety of weapons; and both often incorporate animal movements – for instance, in monkey-style kung fu the practitioner behaves and mows like a monkey while fighting. The following gives brief accounts of some of the better-known martial arts, which you might well see being performed in public parks in China.

Shaolin kung fu

One of the most influential people in the development of Chinese external martial arts w as the sixth-century Indian Buddhist monk Boddhidarma, who spent many years at the Shaolin temple. Here he taught the monks movement and breathing exercises, which were later combined with indigenous Martial arts to form Shaolin kung fu. “Shaolin” is a very nebulous term in China today, indiscriminately used to describe a host of fighting styles which probably have very little historical connection with the temple.

Nonetheless, it’s a vigorous art best known for it powerful kicks and animal styles – especially eagle, mantis and monkey. The classic Shaolin weapon is the staff and there’s even a drunken form, where the practitioner behaves as if inebriated – an athletic and surprisingly effective technique.

Xingyi quan

Xingyi quan translates awkwardly as “shape through intent boxing”, reflecting its guiding principle that the body should act directly from the mind. Believed to have been developed from Shaolin kung fu spear forms by the famous Song dynasty general Yue Fei, xingyi is now an internal art, though using qi rather differently from either bagua or tai ji. Xingyi schools emphasize either twelve animal or five elements methods; irrespective of this, attacks are very linear, smashing straight through an opponent’s defences and defeat­ing them as directly and effectively as possible. In this uncluttered philosophy, and the use of relatively few techniques, xingyi is probably the easiest of the internal arts to learn and use for fighting. The health benefits common to all the internal arts are rarely emphasized in xingyi.

Bagua zhang

Bagua zhang’s history is murk, but its most famous practitioner and stylist was Dong Hai Chuan (1798-1879).The name means “bagua palm”, refer­ring to the eight-sided Daoist divination symbol in the I Ching, of which bagua zhang is a martial expression, and to the fact that strikes are almost invariably made with the palm. Bagua is one of the most distinctive martial arts to watch being performed, employing fast footwork and characteristic twisting move­ments to simultaneously evade attacks and place the defender behind the aggressor, and thus in a position to strike back. An internal art, it nonetheless uses some physical force, and tends towards devastating overkill in its response to attacks. The various schools use circle-walking forms to develop qi – if you see somebody walking endlessly around a tree in a Chinese park, they’re practicing this – as well as less abstract linear forms to learn fighting skills. Bagua’s continuous twisting pumps qi from the spine around the body, and bauga practitioner s are famous for their health and longevity.

Tai ji quan

Tai ji quan (yinyanq boxing) is the worlds most popular Martial art, but it’s seldom taught as such. The original form, known as Chen taiji, is closely relat­ed to Shaolin kung fu though emphasizing qi usage; a later form developed by Yang Luchan (1799-1872), is entirely internal and the hardest of any style to learn for practical fighting. Despite this, these older forms are effective martial arts, relying on acute sensitivity to anticipate attacks and strike first; counter­ strikes are made with the entire body in a state of minimal tension, creating tai ji’s characteristic “soft” appearance, and increasing qi flow and power. Strong qi flow means good health, and Yang Luchan’s grandson, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936), slowed tai ji movements and stripped it of obvious martial con­ tent in order that the elderly or infirm could learn it and so avoid illness – it’s versions of this simplified form which are most widely taught today. A two per son sensitivity training technique common to all tai ji styles is tui shou (push hands), where practitioners alternately attack and yield, learning to absorb and redirect their opponent’s force.