Difference Between Internal and External Kung Fu


Division between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Arts

These days when talking about Kung Fu, people tend to divide them into ‘internal’ and ‘external’ arts, or that Shaolin styles are external and Wudang styles are more internal. Some even say that and Taoist methods are internal whereas Buddhist methods are external. So, the names are divided and judgement based on Shaolin and Wudang, Toaist and Buddhist, which is very superficial. In fact, within this kind of categorization, there is actually no distinction being made between internal and external Kung Fu. 

Shaolin is a temple; Wudang is a mountain. When Kung Fu Martial Arts are named after a place, there is no indication in any way of whether they are good or bad. In the end to label something Shoalin instead of Wudang is simply as good as otherwise! 

Difference Between Internal and External Kung Fu explained by Master Sun Lutang
Sun Lutang Master of Chinese neijia (1860 – 1933) picture credit to Wikipedia

Styles of Kung Fu

According to the Martial Arts of the Shaolin Temple, there are many styles of Kung Fu, and they have a very wide range of names, having been passed down by many generations and repeated over and over in detail.  This is not the case with the Wudang styles of Kung Fu because there have been so few practitioners, and even the elders and senior practitioners of its society do not know for certain which Chinese province Wudang belongs to, and this is not an exaggeration! Is Zhang Songxi of Zhejiang not a direct descendant of Wudang? Then so far why is it that the people of Zhejiang have never heard of him?

It’s only In the past ten years that people have begun to know a little about the value of the Wudang Kung Fu arts. The reason for this situation with Shaolin and Wudang is that one school is on display while the other is mysterious. How then can they so easily be put into classifications of internal and external forms of Kung Fu?

In other words, there is no distinction between internal and external in Kung Fu, so why then is there a judgment of hardness and softness in the techniques of the arts? I do not know that one trains to go from soft (internal) to hard (external), and the other trains to go from hard to be soft. Although the hard and the soft are divided, the achievement in either direction is the same. In martial arts, harmony is used, and in harmony one knows the courage to prepare for combat.

From My Experience

I have been practicing Kung Fu for decades. At the beginning, I too accepted these common views: Every day, through my internal practice the self-proclaimed Qi was accumulated in the dantian, making the lower abdomen as hard as a stone and so I was able to throw an opponent some 10 feet away. Whether sitting, standing, laying down or moving, at any time it was thus, meaning that the inner strength in my Kung Fu was acquired. And that those who cannot sink their Qi in the lower abdomen of the dantian were all of the external arts. 

One day, Song Shirong, an senior (elder Kung Fu practitioner)from Shanxi sent a letter requesting an appointment to visit him during my trip to Shanxi.

Qi and Internal and External Kung Fu

After the greeting, when asked about the judgment of internal and external, Mr. Song said: “Breathing is divided into internal and external, and that Kung Fu has no difference between internal and external. Those who are good at cultivating Qi are doing internal Kung FU, and those who are not good at cultivating Qi are doing external Kung Fu. Consider the phrase [Mengzi, chapter 2a] “good at nurturing one’s noble energy”. Surely it reveals the profound meaning of the internal art.

The function of Kung Fu is to seek stillness through movement, and the function of sitting meditation is to seek movement from stillness. In fact, there is movement in stillness, and stillness is movement. This system is one, representing a single true essence, and they cannot be separated into two. The extremes of stillness lead to movement, the extremes of movement lead to stillness, and movement and stillness are intertwined. If you think that there is a distinction between internal and external Kung Fu, how would this not be a case of miscalculating by an inch and being off by a thousand miles?

What I have said in breathing is that there are internal and external. What’s the difference? Those who don’t know Kung Fu and those who practice Martial Arts for the first time, their breathing often stops in the mid torso and chest, before it returns up, which means that the breath is blocked. If it (breathing) is extremely hindered or suppressed, the blood and energy are wasted and not functioning optimally, and their temperament is affected making them brave and ruthless with a combative nature.  

Such a level of internal Kung Fu fire burns them up until they themselves are burnt.

Kung Fu’s Qi

If the breathing is practiced to move in the downward direction, directly to the dantian, then over time the heart (the peak active organ)  and kidneys (the peak passive organ)  will meet and cooperate the water and fire will be mutually beneficial [as in hexagram 63 (made of water ☵ on top of fire ☲)],  and so the internal fire will not be inflamed upwards, and the breathing can be natural, and will not return as soon as it reaches the chest and mid torso the middle. Practicing Kung Fu in this manner, the body can be thought to be connected inside and out.

Qi is self-contained and smooth, so the breath can reach the lower part. Kung Fu’s Qi is basically only one kind of energy, and it is mistaken for two. The problem is when it is blocked or kept from flowing through.  Ziyu said: “Please rest assured, take it with confidence, and then the Taoist mind will arise.” That is Taoism, The principle of watching and listening internally.”

I said: “So then is all that is attained, I can say that I have attained the inner strength of Kung Fu? The Qi has sunk, and the lower abdomen is as hard as a stone.”

Mr. Zong said, “No! No! Although your Qi flows through your lower abdomen, if you don’t transform your firmness, you will end up exhausted, and that is not the highest level of achievement of Kung Fu.” I asked again how to transform it?

The master said: “If there is nothing, the reality is empty (rather than fullness). The firmness of the belly is not the true way. Mengzi said: ‘Doing by benevolence and righteousness is not the practice of benevolence and righteousness’. All have physical functions. Kung Fu also emphasizes neutrality and benevolence and righteousness. 

The Principles

If you don’t understand this principle, even if you practice till you’re as fast as a bird and strong enough lift a ton, then you will always be of the external style of Kung fu.  Rather if you have Benevolence and righteousness, moving with centered harmoniousness, and be just to all, even if the person does not have the strength of a hundred catties, he can be said to be an internal Kung Fu practitioner. The cultivation of qigong is deep, penetrates inside and outside, evaluates existence, is the greatest and toughest, nurtures energy with integrity, and it is everywhere. Yes, in hiding it away or expressing it, its use will be broad even though its presence may be slight. In the past, people said, “‘Every single thing is a grand polarity. Every single thing is a single passivity-activity (Yin and Yang).”

“Approach the body near and take things far away with Kung Fu. We inherently possess the Qi (harmonious energy) of the universe, for are we not each a grand polarity unto ourselves?! The mind is inward and manages things around it; things are outside, but it is in the mind, in pother words ‘The mind is internal, yet its reasoning extends to all things. Things are external, yet their principles are all there in the mind.’”

Kung Fu is the Way of Heaven

It was after I had respectfully heard him out, that I first realized that the way of Kung Fu is the way of heaven, and the way of heaven is the way of humanity. I Also knew that although the names of the Styles of Kung Fu are different, the principle is the same. For those who think that there is a distinction between inside and outside, what they see is incomprehensible, and their understanding is not clear. Therefore, the words should be peaceful, and the actions should be natural. When we are involved in the world, we are sincere inwardly and thus in our outward actions, and why would Kung Fu be an exception to this?

Internal and External Kung Fu in History

Look at the famous generals in ancient times, such as Guan Yu or Yu Qian, etc., all of them understood the righteousness of the Spring and Autumn Period, taught rituals and music, and learned poetry and books. Ruo Tian Kaiqiang, the descendants of Gu Ye, just got the name of a brave warrior. 

In the examples of those said famouse men, the internal and external are consistent [those men being both righteous and celebrated], everything fulfilled whether it is what was in them or what is displayed to us, whether we view them generally or in detail. But in the case of the other men, they are merely politely remembered, mourned for doing their duty, granted sighs.

Mr. Song also said: “Kung Fu can change a person’s temperament.” Examining myself, I cannot see any evidence that I am living up to this, and I’m constantly haunted by the lessons that I have learned from my predecessors. This is the year that the Jiangsu Provincial Martial Arts Museum is publishing its 18th yearly annual publication. I have been serving in the museum for two years. My knowledge is shallow, but I’ve been given a sinecure which I do not deserve. Therefore, here I would like to only say a few words on this reality of Kung Fu, as I feel ashamed and hold a sense of unworthiness.

– by Sun Lutang (1929)

More by Sun Lutang here: Origins of Kung Fu Martial Arts

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