Developmental Training in the Four Main Systems of Kung Fu

Developmental Training in the Four Main Systems of Kung Fu

Kung Fu is a vital part of Chinese culture. This body of ancient wisdom has been sustained and developed by generations of practitioners for thousands of years, and offers a wealth of knowledge that is vast and varied. The systems of Kung Fu are described in their preferred order of assimilation, external to internal and the feelings and abilities they develop. The distinction between the two categories of external and internal can be described as the strength of the vessel and the quality of the material inside of it, or the body and ones energy.

• Northern Shaolin
• T’ai Chi Ch’uan
• Xing Yi
• Bagua

Northern Shaolin

Northern Shaolin, also called Shaolin Temple Boxing, evolved in the Buddhist temples of China. Thousands of years before the legendary monk Bodhidharma introduced Buddhism to China, Taoist health practices prevailed. The rigorous impulse of Buddhism injected the Taoists with a new ferocity. Northern Shaolin is foundation training for all the other systems. Characterized by low, wide stance work, high kicks, jumps and spins, its extravagant displays of movement thrill the onlooker and exhilarate the student. Fighting applications are fused with aesthetics. Northern Shaolin is best learned at a young age because it demands flexibility and youthful exuberance. Internal stylists should not overlook its importance. The range of motion required by the forms develops a specific structure and liberates a course for the energy flow generated by the internal styles. The main branch of Northern Shaolin has many offshoots. Wu Shu, Preying Mantis, White Crane, Wing Chun – even Karate – all owe their existence to the Shaolin Temple. Wu Shu, which has been sanctified as the national art of China, is a dramatic, stage oriented practice that incorporates elements of ballet and gymnastics into its forms. However, the altered posture (locked joints, arched back) are contrary to the alignment necessary to develop real fighting feeling. Although the athletic demands of Wu Shu are not in harmony with the needs of the body in the long run, it is a wonderful performance art.

Northern Shaolin stances provide the basis for all subsequent systems. The loosening and strengthening effects and coordinated conditioning of Northern Shaolin can not be duplicated by any process other than rigorous, repetitious and increasingly complex form training. And one “Cannot enter the gates of T’ai Chi without passing through the halls of Shaolin.”

T’ai Chi

The lofty title of “Grand Ultimate Boxing” is well deserved. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the most beneficial system in terms of its functions and universality. The movements reside on set principals: slow, synchronized movement radiating from the waist, relaxation and light stepping. The slowness allows the mind to constantly examine the body for the synchronization of details such as timing, footwork, breathing, posture and hand positions. This constant self scrutiny replaces extraneous thoughts. The attention to posture generates a mind/body energy stream. In turn, the increase in circulation stimulates mental activity. A stimulated but empty mind is fertile ground for creativity. The movements originate in the mind. This is true of all of the systems of Kung Fu and the essential characteristic that makes Kung Fu training healing, meditative and not bound by physical limitations. Awareness evolves into instinct which is then reexamined; instincts improve and are refined. The non-strenuous, aware, controlled nature of the forms allows for a lifetime of practice and progress. Paradoxically, the student will develop best by practicing slowly. How can speedy responses in fighting be the outcome? A firm root, with the weight sunk directly over the legs and a straight back, generates power.

Much like a spinning gyroscope, the waist is the central axis from which force emanates through the arms and legs. The waist pulls force up from the ground vertically through the legs and sends out it through the arms. As the classics say, “The mind is the emperor disseminating the edicts to the general. The general is the waist delivering the command to the soldiers. The soldiers are the hands and feet who then carry out the orders.”

A student asks her teacher how long it will take her to become enlightened. Master answers, “Ten years.” Disappointed, the student asks how long it will take if she is very diligent in her meditations. The answer, “Twenty years.” The student, surprised, asks, “How long if I try harder than any previous student?” The Master’s answer is “Forty years.” The significance of this story to T’ai Chi and fighting in general is that so long as one is fixated on the goal and not fully experiencing the process, the present moment, or the “Now” is lost. In terms of fighting, one feels and uses the opponent’s energy without preconceived intentions. T’ai Chi embodies the seemingly contradictory notions of patience and spontaneous response simultaneously. Contained in the nature of its movement , transitions and completed moves are given equal time and attention. In other words, being there and getting there are one and the same. No moment or movement is passed over. Ideally, in terms of fighting, there is no faulty movement because everything is felt instead of anticipated. As the old Masters say, “Listen to the energy.”

On the spiritual plane, T’ai Chi embodies the notions of Taoism and Shaolin, those of Buddhism. Shaolin predates T’ai Chi by thousands of years and yet the more ancient ideas are expressed by T’ai Chi. In terms of fighting function, T’ai Chi’s emphasis on circularity, deflection, and penetration evolved as a counter to the more linear Shaolin. Shaolin reaches and strives while T’ai Chi absorbs and generates. Energetically, Shaolin represents expenditure and T’ai Chi, accumulation.

Ideally, the student, full of youthful abundance, will find an outlet in Shaolin and later in life patiently explore the many aspects of T’ai Chi training. The most profound value of T’ai Chi is the way its slow, extended movement stretches and encourages energy flow along the meridian lines of the body. Simply put, the practice of T’ai Chi forms generate an inner calm, strength and reserve of energy.

Xing Yi

The movements of Xing Yi are direct and simple. The 5 elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) and the 12 animals (dragon, bear, tiger, horse, monkey, snake, turtle, dove, falcon, eagle, rooster and sparrow) evoke the feeling of that element, or animal, and imitate the way the animal moves when fighting. Most of the stance work is based on a crouch and pounce, much like the proverbial cat on mouse.

Xing Yi translates as mind-intent boxing. This is ironic because its simplistic stance work requires less thought than the other systems. The meaning is probably based on its fighting content. When training Xing Yi, imagine the opponent, and when fighting, imagine no opponent. When fighting, much loss can be attributed to self generated barriers. Without that interference, movements are direct, concise and unimpeded by fear.

The after effects of Xing Yi training are intense. They include feeling mindless, primitive, and reactive, like a one celled organism. One student asked to be taken off Xing Yi training and resume T’ai Chi because he was being more than abrupt with people at work who irritated him.

Xing Yi is considered the hardest of the internal systems. But this does not mean that the body should be tight or tense. The body should be relaxed but alert, as with T’ai Chi, the softest internal system. The difference is in the pace or rhythm. T’ai Chi flows evenly and continuously, whileXing Yi is a spasmodic “fast and freeze” movement. In Western terms, on a purely physical level, T’ai Chi involves a “slow burn” while Xing Yi utilizes “quick twitch muscle fiber”. Xing Yi blasts through all barriers. This revitalizing energetic system is unembellished and direct.


Bagua is considered the middle ground between the hard Xing Yi and the soft T’ai Chi. The pace is faster than T’ai Chi and more even than Shaolin or Xing Yi. The movements have an overall sinewy, smooth quality not experienced in any previous system. The breathing deepens and easily corresponds to the even pace.

Bagua is reputed to heal the glands. The intricate twisting and writhing from toe to head moves stagnation from vital areas. This turning allows for unpredictable changes in direction for defense and unleashes a dynamic offense. Bagua’s rooted stepping trains the ability to get behind, under, around and through the opponent and develops an inward, spiraling type of movement that generates great power.

The basic training of Bagua is organized around a circle. Stepping around the circle with the weight sunk into the ground while focusing the eyes on the center necessitates a constant state of attention. Even a momentary loss of focus results in losing footing or falling over. In order to sustain the movement, and because the rhythm resonates with the breathing, a deeper level of control is reached than with any other system. Generating an intensely meditative state, due to the acute degree of internal balance, Bagua allows for the small turns and inner uncoiling. After training the movement is internalized, like a whirling sensation in the dantien.

As in T’ai Chi, Bagua uses a coiling and uncoiling motion to defend and attack. However, the coil is wrapped much tighter and smaller in Bagua. The feeling of control is more acute and the attack more focused. The rhythm is the most natural in comparison with the other systems. After climbing through the foothills of Shaolin’s syncopated rushes, T’ai Chi’s forced slowness and Xing Yi’s jerky speediness, Bagua is a high plateau of supernaturalism.

Historically, Xing Yi and Bagua have been linked due to a legendary, two day fight between masters of both systems which ended in a draw. The linear directness of the former and the devious circuitousness of the latter are opposite approaches.

In conclusion, each system works to improve the other. Xing Yi contributes an explosive power to the Shaolin, and Shaolin in turn develops the range of motion for the performance of any of the systems. Bagua gives a more acute sense of balance to T’ai Chi (like turning on a dime). T’ai Chi flows back into Shaolin, giving it waist momentum. Ability in multiple systems also creates a richly woven response to attack. The awareness of the distinctions between each of these systems keeps the training fresh, alive and challenging. Common to them all are the wondrous benefits of mental clarity, better circulation, improved posture, stress relief, deeper breathing and self defense ability.

Form training must be precise. Some Masters disregard the exacting nature of the forms and claim that only feeling is essential. Keep in mind that feeling is generated only through the precise execution of the forms. The claim that classical training is not helpful in fighting is as absurd as asserting that the ability to read music damages the ability to play it. If not taught exactly, the forms which generate fighting ability can degrade over time. Respect must be paid to their exact historical preservation.

Fascination and excitement rather than pure self discipline can motivate the student to train. The effect of training is one of exhilaration with no subsequent let down. It compares with the “runner’s high,” or to the feeling of ecstasy experienced by musicians playing together. Breath, blood and sinew all function harmoniously. The Kung Fu player feels like a part of all other living organisms and in synch with the movements and changes of the planet.

Kung Fu encompasses a bulk of knowledge too vast to be absorbed by any one individual. The accumulation of awareness, not mere muscular exertion, allow unlimited potential for progress.

Kung Fu Masters often express themselves with great humility because their fighting responses are so deeply instinctual and highly refined that they are not felt on the ego level. For those enjoying daily practice, there is no knowing, just doing. Energy can be directed towards healing, especially by those Masters who understand herbal medicine, diet, qigong, etc. The significance of the training for the individual then becomes infinitely expanded due to the ability to maintain his or her health and to exert a positive force on others.

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