Developmental Training in the Four Basic Systems of Kung Fu


Marilyn Cooper

Kung Fu is as old as Chinese culture. This body of ancient wisdom has been sustained and developed by generations of practitioners. It offers a wealth of knowledge that is vast and varied.

The intent of this article is to:

  1. Evaluate progressive training in the 4 main systems of Kung Fu and
  2. Describe and compare the differences in the content and physiological effects of the practice of these systems.

The systems will be described separately in their preferred order of assimilation. The "external" or movement/performance oriented style is learned first and the "internal" or feeling oriented styles follow.

Northern Shaolin

Northern Shaolin evolved in the Buddhist temples of China. It had many earlier influences; regional fighting styles, Chinese folk dance, and Yoga from India. (Yoga and Kung Fu are both mind/body health systems. The Indian impulse was one of reverent spirituality; the Chinese concern was with practical and beautiful fighting maneuvers.)

Northern Shaolin is foundation training for all the other systems. It is characterized by lots of fancy footwork, high kicks, jumps and spins. Its displays of elegant, extravagant movement thrill the onlooker and exhilarate the student. It is extremely challenging for literal self-defense in that its primary function is a particular kind of conditioning. The fighting applications are fused with aesthetics that train coordination and develop strength and endurance. It is best learned starting at a young age as it is a physically demanding discipline, requiring flexibility and youthful exuberance.

Its importance should not be overlooked by the internal stylists. The range of movement 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: Preying Mantis, Southern style Shaolin, White Crane, Wu Shu, even Karate. Wu Shu, which has become the national art of China, is a dramatic, stage oriented practice that incorporates elements of ballet and gymnastics. However, the altered posture (arched back, locked joints) are contrary to the alignment necessary to develop 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.

In my experience, the loosening and strengthening effects and coordinated conditioning of Northern Shaolin practice cannot be duplicated by any other process than rigorous, repetitious and increasingly complex form training.

Tai Chi

The lofty title of Grand Ultimate Boxing is well deserved. It is the most beneficial system in terms of its functions and universality. The movements reside on set principals, which are reflected upon constantly during practice. These principals are:

  1. slow, synchronized movement radiating from the waist
  2. relaxation
  3. light stepping

The slowness allows the mind to constantly examine the body movement for timing, footwork, and breathing. This constant self scrutiny replaces extraneous thoughts. The attention to posture generates a mind/body energy stream which explains the effect of emptying the mind. The movements originate in the mind. (This is true of all the systems 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.

It seems incongruent that the student will develop by practicing slowly. How can speedy responses in fighting be the outcome? A firm root (weight sunk directly on the legs and a straight back) generates power through reflexive arm movement (this is also true of the other systems, just felt more acutely in Tai Chi).

Consider this Zen story:

A student asks his teacher how long it will take him to become enlightened. The Master answers, "Ten years". Disappointed, the student asks how long it will take if he's very diligent in his meditations. The answer - "Twenty years". The student, surprised, asks, "How long will it take if I try harder than any previous student?" The Master's answer is "Forty years."

The significance of this story to Tai Chi, and fighting in general, is that so long as one is fixated on the goal and not fully experiencing the process, the "Now", or the moment, is lost. In terms of fighting, one feels and uses ones opponents energy without preconceived intentions. Tai Chi embodies this notion by the nature of its movement. Shaolin reaches, strives and overextends. Tai Chi centers. The movements appear to come of themselves, effortlessly. Shaolin arrives at center by concentrating on arms and legs. The extension of the extremities forces the waist to twist.

Tai Chi allows the arms and legs to relax so that the moves must come from the center, rather than arrive there. Put differently, Shaolin comes from the outside-in (external), and Tai Chi from the inside-out (internal).

Tai Chi is considered the "softest" of the internal styles. Energetically, Shaolin represents expenditure and Tai Chi accumulation. Shaolin can exhilarate and then possibly tire the student, whereas Tai Chi relaxes and energizes. Traditionally the student, full of youthful abundance, will find an outlet in Shaolin, and later in life, patiently explore the many aspects of Tai Chi training.

One gets the sense that, in part, Tai Chi is Shaolin broken down into increments. Transitions are given as much weight and attention as completed moves. In terms of fighting function, Tai Chi's emphasis is on circularity, deflection and penetration evolved as a counter to the more linear Shaolin.

The most profound value of Tai Chi is the way its slow movement stretches and encourages energy flow along the meridian lines in the body. Simply put, the practice of Tai Chi forms generates an inner calm, strength and reserve of energy.

Tsing Yi

Tsing Yi is the oldest and most primitive of all the Kung Fu systems.  The
movements are direct and simple.  The body movements of 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 as well as imitate its motion visually.

The crouching and pouncing require a kick off the back leg.  This spring-like
action causes the muscles to contract and relax quickly for the leap and
resulting pounce.  The Tan Tien (the body's center of gravity) must be the
source of the movement, or the pounce will be off balance or top heavy.

The after-effects of Tsing Yi training are intense.  One feels like something
not human or reflective, but mindless, primitive and reactive - like a one
celled organism, a tree, or a river.  One student asked to be taken off Tsing
Yi training and resume Tai Chi because he was being more than abrupt with
people at work who irritated him.

Tsing Yi is considered the hardest of all the internal systems.  However,
this does not mean the body should be tight or tense.  The body should be
just as relaxed as in Tai Chi, the softest internal system.  As in Tai Chi,
hand and foot move together.  The difference lies in the pace or rhythm.  Tai
Chi is a continuous, gentle flow while Tsing Yi is a spasmodic "fast and
freeze" movement.

The sprinter-like crouch and ensuing pounce results in a stop and go action,
causing an interplay of tensing and relaxing the muscles.  This is the
opposite of Tai Chi, which necessitates an all-over light contraction of the
musculature, due to the slow constant pace.

Viewing the historical development of systems, Tsing Yi predates Shaolin by
thousands of years. It is linked with early Chinese cosmology, insights into
the physical world and ancient boxing techniques.  When training Tsing Yi,
imagine the opponent, and when fighting, imagine no opponent.  This outlook
is very desirable.  When fighting, much is lost due to self-generated
resistance.  Tsing Yi blasts through all barriers.  It is crude, unrefined
and direct.

Pa Kua

Pa Kua is the most therapeutic of all the systems in that it targets vital
areas (hips, shoulders, spine, neck and eyes) for increasing energy 
flow.  Pa Kua also is reputed to heal the glands.

The basic mechanics of the movement are organized around a circle.  The
sustained weight sinking while stepping around the circle, focusing the eyes
on the center and maintaining extended arm positions causes the vertebrae to
twist and stretch.  Hips and ankles are stretched as well, causing increased
energy flow through-out these vital areas.

Pa Kua is considered the middle ground between the "hard" Tsing Yi and the
"soft" Tai Chi.  The breathing deepens during the practice. There is an
overall sinewy, smooth quality to the movements not experienced in any
previous systems.

Due to the centrifugal focal point, Pa Kua is intensely meditative.  Post
training, one can still feel the movement internally, like a whirling
sensation in the Tan Tien.

Pa Kua can be compared to Tai Chi in that it deflects and is very controlled.
They both fight at close range.  Often, Pa Kua sidesteps with a coiling and
uncoiling motion whereas Tai Chi absorbs the attack and penetrates (they both
seek to uproot).

Pa Kua's rooted stepping trains the ability to get behind, under, around and
through the opponent.  It  develops an inward, spiraling type of momentum
that generates great power.

The timing is the most naturalistic in feeling.  Compared to Tai Chi's forced
slowness, Tsing Yi's abrupt speediness and Shaolin's overextended snappiness,
Pa Kua has a comfortable smooth pace.  In conclusion, each system works to
improve the others.  Shaolin training causes the student to be limber and
coordinated enough to perform all the internal material.  The feeling is then
developed from the amount of time and attention paid to practicing.  Tai Chi
improves on Shaolin because balance, timing and waist movement are improved.
Tsing Yi contributes an explosive power to the Shaolin, and Shaolin in turn
develops looseness and footwork so the Tsing Yi can be executed with speed
and coordination.  Pa Kua contributes stamina, looser hips, more synchronized
movement and tremendous upper body mobility.  Put more simply, the rooted
feeling in the legs, hips and Tan Tien, lead to the feeling of upper body
buoyancy and suppleness in the waist which is common to all the systems. The
resulting effects of stress relief, improved posture, deeper breathing,
better circulation and mental clarity can be expected from practicing any of

Form training must be precise.  Some Masters will sometimes disregard the
exacting nature of the forms and claim feeling and content are the only
essentials.  One must keep in mind that it is only through the precise
execution of the forms that the feelings are generated.  Also,  respect must
be paid to their exact historical preservation.

The after effect of training is one of pure exhilaration with no subsequent depression (provided one doesn't overtrain).  It compares with "runner's
high", or to the feeling of ecstasy experienced by musicians playing together.  The desire to engage oneself in such engrossing and beneficial
activity is renewed after time, food and rest have replenished the system. Fascination and excitement motivate the individual to train, rather than cold
self discipline.

Kung Fu represents a bulk of knowledge too vast to be absorbed by any one individual.  The training represents unlimited growth potential as it is the
accumulation of awareness and not mere muscular exertion.  Call it refined coordination.  When blockages are overcome, one feels the sensation of pure

Mastery is a misnomer.  For those enjoying daily practice, there is no "knowing", just "doing".  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 at the "ego" level.  The
knowledge of the art can be directed to healing, especially by those Masters who understand herbal medicine, diet, Chi Kung, meridians, etc... 
The significance of training for the individual then becomes infinitely expanded due to the ability to maintain his or her own health and to exert
a positive force on others. 

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