Chinese martial arts 101: Bruce Lee popularised them, but what defines them? 4 major types

In Chinese, the term kung fu refers to any skill that can be learned through hard work and practice. However, it became widely used outside China – particularly in Hollywood – to refer to Chinese martial arts after Lee burst onto the scene (in the West, they had been referred to as “Chinese boxing” until then).
Bruce Lee in a still from Enter The Dragon. Photo: Warner Bros.

Although kung fu is by far the most popular term, official Chinese martial arts competitions continue to use wushu. The World Wushu Championships, hosted by the International Wushu Federation, is one example.

A defining characteristic of Chinese martial arts is their adherence to ancient Chinese philosophies and traditions, such as achieving a balance between yin and yang.
Martial artist Zhang Chunyan at the Wushu World Championships in Beijing in 2007. Photo: Xinhua

We delve into four major schools in Chinese martial arts with different approaches to wushu.

1. Shaolin

Shaolin is one of the most well-known schools of wushu globally; there are many videos online showing the extreme discipline and training of Shaolin monks.

This school originated at the Shaolin Temple in the Songshan mountains of central China’s Henan province. The temple was built in around 495AD and is the ancestral temple of the Zen sect of Chinese Buddhism.
Shaolin wushu, also called Shaolin quan, is widely practised in northern China, and while monks are famous for their spectacular jumps and kicks, the spiritual aspect of Zen Buddhism, including practices such as meditation, is just as important in the Shaolin school.

Throughout history, Shaolin monks absorbed techniques from other monasteries and schools of wushu. The Shaolin style is more attack focused, with 371 forms of fist fighting and ways of using weapons, and 72 secret arts.

Historically, Shaolin monks used their skills in battle. In the 7th century, 13 Shaolin monks helped a Tang dynasty emperor fight off an enemy. Nine centuries later, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1844), more than 80 Shaolin monks fought against Japanese pirates.

By the late Ming and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, events such as these had earned Shaolin quan respect as one of the major schools of wushu in China.

2. Wudang

A Wudang practitioner at Changchun Temple, in Wuhan, China. Photo: Getty Images

Although not as famous as Shaolin worldwide, Wudang is just as respected. As the Chinese saying goes: “Shaolin is respected in the north and Wudang in the south.”

The name comes from the Wudang mountains in Hubei province, the birthplace of Taoism. The school’s identity is accordingly more deeply rooted in Taoist ideals – of stillness and flowing with tao (the way) – than other wushu styles.

While Taoists’ aversion to external validation has led to the origins of the martial art being shrouded in mystery, it is believed to have been practised in the Wudang mountains since the early days of Taoism – which developed after the Spring and Autumn period (770-481BC) in China.

Modern scholars say practitioners of Wudang were very protective of their techniques and chose their disciples very carefully. As a result, Wudang was not widely spread – although a school that taught it was founded in Nanjing, eastern China, during the late Qing dynasty.

Wudang, a neijia (internal) style, sits at the other end of the spectrum from Shaolin, which is an attack focused, waijia (external) style of wushu.

In Wudang, the practitioner only strikes after the enemy strikes. There is also more emphasis on cultivating inner strength.

3. Wing Chun

Ip Man’s son Ip Chun teaching Wing Chun in Hong Kong in 2009. Photo: Dickson Lee

Wing Chun is a relatively young school of wushu with close ties to Hong Kong.

It originated in southern China and was consummated by legendary martial artist Ip Man, who was from Foshan, in Guangdong province, but moved to Hong Kong in his teens.

In 1967, he founded the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, a martial arts school which still operates in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighbourhood.

His story of becoming a Wing Chun master is told in the Ip Man film series, starring Donnie Yen. Of Ip Man’s students, Bruce Lee is perhaps the best known.

There are some characteristics of Wing Chun that set it apart. For instance, the basic “sheep riding” stance of Wing Chun differs from the “horse riding” stance of other schools, in which the knees face outwards. Instead, Wing Chun practitioners’ stances are lower, with their knees bent inward to touch.

Uniquely, Wing Chun uses a wooden dummy called a mook yan jong for training. Practitioners practise movements on the wooden dummy to build conditioned reflexes.

Ip Man (left) with Bruce Lee.

4. Tai chi

It is easy to find people practising tai chi in parks not just in China but wherever there is a sizeable Chinese community. Composed of slow and controlled movements, this martial art is one of the most accessible, and offers physical and spiritual benefits.

Tai chi was founded at the Qianzai Temple in Chen village, in Henan province, during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, and comes under the umbrella of Wudang.

Elderly people perform tai chi at a park in Guizhou province, China. Photo: Getty Images

The name tai chi is a romanisation of taiji, a Mandarin term meaning “supreme ultimate”. Simply put, taiji refers to the philosophy of yin and yang.

Tai chi movements are guided by qi – internal vital energy – and directly stem from philosophical concepts.

For instance, tai chi’s five basic foot techniques are based on the theory of five elements – fire, water, wood, metal and earth. Fire corresponds to stepping in, water to stepping back, wood to stepping to the left, metal to stepping to the right and earth to keeping the central position.

Look out for our next Chinese martial arts explainer, about its leading exponents in cinema, on June 13.


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