Origin of Internal and External

The following is a rough draft excerpt from my book that I am writing on Xingyiquan. I apologize for errors in advanced, the book itself will be far more polished once it’s time to release it. – Dr. Troy Schott

The Internal versus External debate is one that many like to argue within the Chinese martial arts community. Those that profess that their particular style is “internal” like to emphasize the training of Qi over brute strength, and that “external” styles lack the sophistication of “internal” styles. The historical record points to something a little different, however. Qi (氣), frequently spelt as Chi, is often described as energy or life force in the west, the term roughly translates as vapor like that which comes off when cooking rice, and it has many uses. The mention of using Qi for martial arts is largely absent from texts until the early 17th century around the end of the Ming dynasty. In General Qi Jiguang’s military text written in the mid to late 16th century, lacks any mention of Qi from his text especially discussing barehand boxing techniques.[i]


Initial mention of Qi comes from a text on the Yi Jin Jing (易筋經,muscle-tendon changing classic), commonly referred to as a set of qigong exercises, that is often attributed to the legendary Bodhidharma (early 5th century), but the text was written in 1624 CE. It clearly mixes Buddhist Tantric ideas of body hardening with Daoist gymnastics or daoyin (導引) to achieve spiritual ascendency, it was commonly used by martial artists for the natural conditioning that is provided despite its religious overtones. The reference to Internal as well as Wudang developed deeper after the “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (王征南墓志銘) in 1669 during the Qing dynasty. The text is seen as homage to the differences between “internal” and “external” martial arts; however, historians view it as coded language against the Manchurian invaders stating that they are the external invaders against the internal population that is specifically Han Chinese, and thus superior. There is no reference to Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and/or Tai Ji Quan nor is there any mention of a specific Neijia Quan system in the text since these systems had yet to be formed or widespread by the time the Epitaph had been written.[ii]            

Another source of the time was Chang family boxing which came from a scholar named Chang Naizhou (1724-1783). He was well-versed in the Yi Jing or the Classic of Change which is an ancient text outlying the fortune telling oracle related to the eight trigrams or Ba Gua. This is not related to the martial art, Ba Gua Zhang, which like Tai Ji Quan uses the eight trigrams as part of its basis for understanding its philosophical approach to combat. Chang was from an area in Henan province which was relatively close to the Chen family village where some believe Tai Ji Quan to have originated from, and the famous Shaolin Monastery. Chang was the descendant of a Ming dynasty commander, and after taking up martial arts training, he passed the military examinations at a high level. He used his skill in spear, Luo Han Boxing, and Dao Yin practices to develop his Chang Family Boxing system. The system is based on Chang’s theories of Central Qi and twenty-four verses of boxing. This is likely one of the first “internal” systems of martial arts but shows no direct relation to the three arts of Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Tai Ji Quan.[iii]

[i] Ross, David A. Chinese Martial Arts: a Historical Outline. David A Ross, 2017.

[ii] Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.

[iii] Wells, Marnix, and Naizhou Chang. Scholar Boxer: Chang Naizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan; with Complete Translation of the Original Writings. North Atlantic Books, 2005.

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