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Soft martial arts

Updated on November 20, 2012

Internal kung fu styles

The three main internal kung fu (neijia) styles are taijiquan (tai chi chuan), baguazhang (pa kua chang) and xingyiquan (hsing-i chuan). Practising these arts has a profoundly beneficial effect on health, as well as building self-confidence and self-defense ability.

All three stem from the Daoist tradition and aim towards cultivating chi or internal energy. They are called soft martial arts because they do not ever meet force with force. It is the opponent's force that is exploited, which means people of all statures and ages can become proficient.

A note on spellings

Since written Chinese is pictographic, several methods have been developed to romanise it. The two generally accepted systems are the Wade-Giles and the pinyin systems. Pinyin is gaining wider appeal, but I will use both in this lens, referring firstly to the pinyin romanisation followed by the Wade-Giles version in parentheses:

eg. taijiquan (taichichuan)

My martial background

From external to internal

My personal journey through the martial arts started 20 years ago, when I started learning a northern Shaolin style of kung fu. Actually the style was a mix of all sorts, heavily influenced by the tiger claw system but with seven other animals styles added, and some choy li fut and pak mei. It involved lots of stretching - the splits was a kung fu stance we had to do, called 'character one stance'! And it was an extremely external style, very physical.

I took some time off training when I moved to another town, and then tinkered for a while with praying mantis kung fu, before deciding to move from external to internal styles.

My internal styles are the Cheng Man-Ching style of taiji, Gao style of bagua, and Hebei style of xingyi. These days, I'm pretty minimalist, practising mainly 'the eight methods' of taiji, the five-elements of xingyi, and the 64-palm straight line forms of bagua.

Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan)

Supreme Pole Boxing

There are several distinct styles of taiji (tai chi), each having its own history, exponents and methods. Some of the major styles are:

  • Chen style

  • Yang style

  • Wu style

  • Sun style

There are numerous other styles which can trace their roots back to these four - for example, the Wudang style and the Cheng Man-Ching style.

(Picture of Yang Chengfu performing Single Whip posture. Public domain image.)

Taiji Empty Hand Form - Cheng Man Ching, Chen and Wu styles

Taiji Advanced Forms - San Shou, Two-Person and Fast Taiji

Taiji Weapons Forms - Fan, Spear and Straight Sword

Internal martial arts reference - Taijiquan

Baguazhang (Pa Kua Chang)

Eight Diagram Palm

Baguazhang is a complex art which falls between taijiquan and xingyiquan on the 'scale of softness'. As the name of the art makes clear, bagua is primarily - though not exclusively - an open hand art. Some punches are used, and are similar to those of xingyiquan.

To an observer, baguazhang (often referred to as simply bagua) is perhaps the strangest of all martial arts. The practitioner moves at high speed in circles and spirals, swooping down and then back up again, rapidly changing direction. In fact the defining characteristic of bagua is change. It can be a beautiful art when performed fluidly, but the moves contained within are extremely effective for self-defense.

Bagua is a relatively young martial art, its historical records going back only 300 years, but the philosophy behind the art dates back over 3000 years - to the ancient Chinese classical text called the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

Training methods in baguazhang

Circle walking, mud-stepping & mega-weapons

There are three main training methods in baguazhang:

  1. Qigong (Chi Kung)

  2. Empty hand forms

  3. Weapons forms

The qigong training is very good for improving balance, posture and health, as well as providing a solid foundation for the more martial aspects of the art. Most styles of bagua have a circle-walking form containing eight fixed arm positions. For example, the picture of Sun Lutang shows him demonstrating the Lion Plays Ball posture.

There are numerous empty hand forms, many of which also consist of circle-walking, and at certain points on the circle, performing a set of self-defense movements. Each form concentrates on a particular aspect of the training, whether it be stances, or opening the shoulders, or issuing force (fa jing).

Bagua has a comprehensive set of weapons for training. The deer-horn knives are typical of bagua, used as a pair, and each having four sharp points. Bagua also employs some of the largest weapons in the martial arts world, for example, the bagua giant broadsword. These oversized weapons are designed to exhaust the practitioner's arms and shoulders (while strengthening them)! The real power generation in taiji, bagua and xingyi comes from connection with the earth by the practitioner sinking his weight and directing the force via the waist. This is easier to practise when the arms and shoulders are exhausted. Otherwise, the arms are used instead, which is incorrect.

Examples of baguazhang - Forms, weapons & applications

Styles of baguazhang

Several styles of bagua (pa kua) have been developed, and include:

  • Yin style

  • Jiang style

  • Cheng style

  • Liang style

  • Gao style (and also a Beijing Gao style)

  • Fu style

Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Chuan)

Form & Will Boxing

Xingyiquan (hsing-i chuan) is a profound martial art, which has been described as 'easy to learn but difficult to master'. To the casual observer, it looks like an external art, and is indeed the hardest of the three soft martial arts.

The mental focus is on relentlessly advancing on an opponent. But the ultimate aim of xingyi is to control the body using the mind; in using will to control external manifestation.

Training methods in xingyiquan

San ti, five elements & twelve animals

There are four major aspects to training in xingyi:

  1. San ti shi - a form of standing meditation

  2. Five element fists

  3. Twelve animal forms

  4. Linking forms

Each of these is described in more detail below.

The Three Body Posture

San ti shi

The standing meditation called san ti shi - or Three Body Posture - is at the root of xingyi. Standing meditation (zhan zhuang, pronounced 'jam jong') is a form of qigong (chi kung) commonly used in most Chinese martial arts, internal and external. In the picture above, Sun Lutang demonstrates the san ti shi posture.

It is sometimes referred to as the 70:30 stance as 70% of your weight is on the back leg and 30% on the front. If you have your right leg forward, then your right hand should be held up at face height, palm forward-facing, the left hand down at waist height, palm downward-facing.

Points to consider when training this:

  • Weight should be sunk, as if sitting on a stool

  • Shoulders relaxed and sunk

  • Elbows sunk

  • Head held as if suspended from above

  • Chin tucked in

  • Tongue on roof of mouth

  • Breathe down to abdomen (dan tien)

  • Gaze should be off into the distance

When you can hold the stance for an hour, you'll be doing pretty well! But as with bagua broadsword, the training really only starts once your palms and soles are burning and your legs are shaking, as this is a meditation designed to develop your mind, not your body.

Five Element Fists


The Five Element Fists are the fundamental moving forms in xingyiquan. Each technique has a basis in the Chinese philosophy of the five elements - metal, water, wood, fire and earth - and their interrelationships, both productive and destructive.

It is also claimed that each technique has a beneficial effect on the organ that relates to that element. The five elemental fists are as follows, with the name of the element and organ it relates to:

  • Pi Quan (Splitting fist) - Metal - Lungs

  • Zuan Quan (Drilling fist) - Water - Kidneys

  • Beng Quan (Crushing fist) - Wood - Liver

  • Pao Quan (Pounding fist) - Fire - Heart

  • Heng Quan (Crossing fist) - Earth - Spleen/stomach

Each of these techniques is demonstrated by expert Luo De Xiu in the Five Elements clip below.

Practising these exercises can help improve chronic conditions - for example, hypertension can be helped by doing the pounding fist technique.

The Twelve Animal Forms

And the linking form

The twelve animal forms are the more advanced aspects of xingyiquan, and many of them use movements and punches from the five elemental fist techniques. It is therefore usually better to become proficient in both the san ti shi and the five element fist training before progressing onto the twelve animal forms.

The twelve animals add a bit more variety to the repertoire of xingyi, with new hand shapes, and footwork and movements that mimic the animals the forms are named after. These are the twelve animals of the Hebei style of xingyiquan:

  1. Dragon

  2. Tiger

  3. Monkey

  4. Horse

  5. Snake

  6. Rooster

  7. Swallow

  8. Sparrow Hawk

  9. Turtle (sometimes also referred to as Alligator)

  10. Tai - a Chinese mythical animal like an ostrich

  11. Eagle

  12. Bear

For an example of one of these advanced animal forms, see the clip below Luo De Xiu performing the xingyi rooster form, along with some self-defence applications.

There are several linking forms in xingyi, which you will not be surprised to hear, link together techniques from the five element fists, and some aspects from the twelve animal forms, to produce a form. They may look similar to, for example, kata from karate, but each technique has its own feel according to which element or animal technique is being used.

Examples of xingyiquan

Styles of xingyiquan

The three major styles of xingyi (hsing-i) are:

  • Hebei style

  • Shanxi style

  • Henan style

In reality, the boundaries separating styles of xingyi - and bagua - are very blurred. A great deal of 'cross-training' happened during the development of all these styles, and in fact, it is extremely common for xingyi and bagua to be taught together.

Internal martial arts reference - Xingyiquan

Traditional Uniforms - Suitable for all Chinese martial arts

Traditional martial arts clothing has always evolved - and will continue to do so. These uniforms appeared from around 1700 AD after the Manchu invasion and establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644AD.

Your comments on the internal martial arts

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very good information about all the different styles nice one.

    • ArtSiren LM profile imageAUTHOR

      ArtSiren LM 

      6 years ago

      @TonfaGuy: You're right. Maybe that's something I could add to this article later on. I have concentrated on martial arts that I have studied myself. Of course, there is also the other famous soft Japanese art of aikido, as well as other internal Chinese ones such as Liuhebafa and Yiquan. Maybe I'll revisit this later on and add some new information once I've done a bit of research (as I have only done a tiny bit of training in yiquan, and never trained in the others). Thanks for the comment!

    • TonfaGuy profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting that you don't mention Judo as a soft martial art.

      Every Judo technique is inspired by the energy of your attacker.

      Great lens though..

    • theoxingyi lm profile image

      theoxingyi lm 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for putting this up, good primer to point people at.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      A beautiful way to evolve your knowledge in the world is to try something new! A great lens on how to do just that-bravo!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Love to learn the term SOFT martial arts. Tai Chi is really slow maybe that's why it is soft. LOL.

    • drifter0658 lm profile image

      drifter0658 lm 

      8 years ago

      I am actually bookmarking this lens for a couple of reasons. One is to have a research reference for a growing interest in martial arts as a mental and physical workout that I am going to try.

      The other reason is because this lens is a very well constructed reference lens.


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i love martial arts so much... I'd been confident with my own safety and my family because of my skills in the art. It's keeping me safe for a long time and it's my mission to keep other people safe to by sharing too what i know.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i love martial arts so much... I'd been confident with my own safety and my family because of my skills in the art. It's keeping me safe for a long time and it's my mission to keep other people safe to by sharing too what i know.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I enjoyed this lens. Very thorough!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for introducing to these martial arts styles, i love that they still have deep martial art traditions back in china. 5*

    • ArtSiren LM profile imageAUTHOR

      ArtSiren LM 

      9 years ago

      [in reply to Frazen] Hi Frazen. I believe neijiaquan is a 'catch all' name encompassing all the internal martial arts. So taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan are all branches of neijiaquan. I'll also include some future sections here about the two lesser-known arts of yiquan and liuhebafa when I get time.

      It's a bit like using the term 'Shaolin kung fu', which is actually a whole set of diverse external arts.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Rated 5*. Do you have any Nei Jia Quan information? I hope to learn something about that.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I am enjoying your lens and appreciate all of the time and effort you have obviously put into it. I am a student of Bagauzhang and had to laugh when I read "to the observer bagua is perhaps the strangest of martial arts". Yes, I suppose our circle walking training methods, snake-like movements and evasive footwork might appear strange but are indeed effective when performed by a skilled practictioner! ;)

    • religions7 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

    • BusyQueen profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It's well done. 5 *****'s

    • A RovingReporter profile image

      A RovingReporter 

      10 years ago

      A great five-star lens giving the martial art enthusiast useful background knowledge.

    • stuartqwh profile image


      10 years ago

      Muay Thai used to be my martial art until a decade ago...

      I believe I might like to to try a soft martial art now having read your great, well put together, informative lens.

      Thank you for the inspiration!

      Thank you.

    • kephrira lm profile image

      kephrira lm 

      10 years ago

      Great lens - welcome to the kung fu group! I do kung fu and qi gong myself, and I am very interested in the internal styles even though I don't practice one (strictly speaking). Take a look at my Martial Arts Ebooks lens for some interesting texts, including on the Shaolin internal arts.

    • ArtSiren LM profile imageAUTHOR

      ArtSiren LM 

      10 years ago

      Yes, Tae Kwon Do is very popular here in the UK. I did a northern kung fu (ie kicking) style, when my legs were still flexible, many, many eons ago!! So I gladly moved to the internal styles shown here 'cos they hardly ever kick above waist height, phew! lol

    • RuthCoffee profile image

      Ruth Coffee 

      10 years ago from Zionsville, Indiana

      Although it's been a number of years ago now, I did take Tae Kwon it, this is a great intro to some of the martial arts.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Ok Siren thanks for this lens nice and informative 5 stars for great easy to follow reading.


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