“Bah! You talk about ch’i (气), but you don’t really know what you’re talking about!” scoffed my former Bagua master as he returned to the yum cha table. My fellow-students and I had been talking and joking about ch’i with an interstate visitor, a Tai Chi teacher in his own right who’d been trained privately with our sifu. He was right, of course. You can talk and speculate about ch’i until the cows come home but unless you experience it you won’t really know what it’s all about.
And there were plenty of demonstrations of ch’i when the sifu was teaching his inner circle of senior students. For example, I had never before experienced first hand what it felt like to be pushed and bounced off so lightly, or to have the sifu somehow disappear from my grasp (even though I thought I was squeezing the life out of him with a mean bear hug) before being flung away so effortlessly. What the Bagua sifu never did explain, at least not to me, was how to develop and apply this mysterious ch’i. Perhaps he didn’t know how to explain this with his limited English. But even if he had had a good command of English he mightn’t have been able to explain it in Western scientific terms.
The Chinese language is very profound and symbolic and can never be translated directly. The word ch’i, for instance, is really a very generic term of “energy.” If we say in English that we don’t like the vibe of a colleague at work, the Chinese would use the word ch’i. If we deflect an incoming strike strongly, yet in a relaxed manner, then a Chinese gung fu practitioner might comment you have good ch’i. We need to keep this in mind and not fall prey to notions of a mysterious flow of energy that gets emitted like laser beams through our finger tips. Having said that, however, I do not deny there is a life force, which, by its nature, is rather mysterious. And I am convinced that this life force can be cultivated in order to improve our health and also to power our martial arts.
People often like to classify martial arts into internal vs external, that is, whether or not they mainly focus on this ch’i for powering, or mainly rely on muscles and bones. In truth, you can’t really divide martial arts into internal vs external. Any art has both, as the two are just two sides of the same coin although this simile doesn’t really carry across the idea of a spectrum. A spectrum is more apt in this discussion as some arts do emphasise one at the expense of the other. Or some don’t explicitly mention the internal aspects, even though it would be evident to a trained eye when a practitioner of such an art throws a punch with internal power.
But let us be practical and pragmatic in understanding the internal and external aspects of martial arts. What does it really mean if an art exhibits internal aspects in their training and delivery? It wasn’t until I started training with sifu Yun Hoi that I finally got the no-nonsense and common sense explanation. It is an explanation that demystifies the ch’i hype and appeals more to the rational and scientific mindset of anybody brought up in the Western world. In this brief post, sifu Yun Hoi, also explains why we would bother internally powering our strikes. After all, it’d be so much easier and better to hit the gym, lift weights and overpower our opponents with sheer force. Or is it?
by Yun Hoi
The two adjectives “hard” and “soft” employed to describe different approaches to powering in martial arts are quite misleading. I think it’s better to use the terms “internal” and “external” – given it is understood what is meant by the two terms. External is easiest to describe. It’s the power from muscular contractions. Bigger, stronger people will always have an advantage with respect to external power because it correlates with size and strength. Of course, training – that is, skill – can be an additional factor in determining the outcome of an altercation in the real world. Internal power is more difficult to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. A brief description is that this is the power that is generated by the combination of a number of attributes – physical and mental relaxation, alignment of the skeletal structure, verticality of the spine, mental focus, and skilled targeting. The most important distinction between the two types of power – internal and external – is the difference in durability. With external power there is a natural and inevitable decline as we age. With internal power – which is not contingent on muscle mass or contractile strength – power is not negatively impacted. The Chinese masters of genuine gung fu know this. It is commonly known in China that age, if one practises with internal power, is not accompanied by decline but, with the added experience of decades of practice and less abuse of the physical body from harsh external training, is accompanied by an increase in skill and power. The old gung fu saying: “Beware the monk, the nun, the scholar and the old man” sums up this notion. These groups usually trained not in the external arts but in the internal arts and were deceptive, giving their attackers the impression that they were easy victims.