Defining the Internal Martial Arts

The classification of Chinese martial arts into two families—internal and external—is generally accepted without question. Despite its popularity, the precise definition and significance of these families is not universally agreed upon.

What is the origin of the internal/external categorization? And what should it mean to you as a martial artist?

History of the Internal/External Model

Usage of the term neijia with respect to martial arts can be traced back as far as the 17th century. Huang Zongxi, a scholar, philosopher and activist (but not a noted martial artist) attributed the origin of internal martial arts to the Taoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng. Huang explained that the internal martial arts were transmitted to Zhang from the God of War, while Zhang was asleep. (Other contemporary writings suggested that Zhang Sanfeng lived over 200 years and possessed supernatural powers, including the ability to fly.) Huang contrasted Zhang’s esoteric arts with the more common pugilism of the Shaolin Temple.

Did Huang Zongxi have access to the detailed training regimens of the Shaolin and Wudang schools? In 17th century China, martial art was a valuable and practical skill, and such information would not be available to the public. It is more likely Huang intended neijia as a reference to indigenous Chinese Taoism, in contrast to the waijia (external school) of Chan Buddhism imported from India and practiced at the Shaolin Temple.

Sun Lutang
Sun Lutang
Founder of Sun style Taiji

In 1894, masters Cheng Tinghua, Liu Dekuan, Li Cunyi and Liu Weixiang formed a teaching organization for the benefit of their students and the martial arts community. These particular masters were fluent in the arts of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Xingyiquan, and their association was variously described as Neijiaquan (internal family boxing), Neigongquan (internal skill boxing), and Wudangquan (Wu Tang boxing).

This concept of internal martial arts was later endorsed by the Taiji expert Sun Lutang, and mentioned in his famous book The Study of Xingyi Boxing.

Modern Definitions of Internal Martial Arts

The modern meaning of the term “internal martial arts” is hopelessly confused. It seems that every instructor of Chinese martial arts has their own definition of internal and external gongfu. Adam Hsu lists some of the popular definitions in his essay collection, The Sword Polisher’s Record:

  • Hard or fast movements are external; soft and slower movements are internal.
  • Overpowering and destroying the enemy in application is external; neutralizing and using the opponent’s energy against him is internal.
  • Kung-fu with lots of movements is external; simpler, more comfortable movements are internal.

Not only the precise meaning, but also the membership of the internal family is disputed. The schools of Bajiquan and Yongchunquan sometimes claim neijia status, due to the accord of their principles with those of Sun Lutang, whereas instructors of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Xingyiquan insist these trespassers are “external arts”.

The Powerful Secret They Don’t Want You to Know

Every style of martial arts has its own flavor and personality. As solutions to a common problem—effective physical combat—these arts must also share certain characteristics. The arguments over the true meaning of internal martial arts will never be resolved, because the historical and technical facts are irrelevant.

Neijia is and always has been a marketing term. It appeals to the human desire to become an insider and attain a privileged status, preferably through something other than hard work.

Waijia is the straw man. As the story goes, external martial artists are ineffectual because they do not have the correct principles and concepts. Conveniently, these principles and concepts can be learned from a book. Or, perhaps during an expensive weekend seminar, given by a master whose credentials consist mainly of writing books!

(A quick search shows dozens of titles on internal martial arts, and zero specifically about external martial arts. This is marketing at work.)

The inconvenient truth is that principles and concepts are cheap; everyone has them. Mastery of any martial art requires a huge investment of time and effort, and nothing less. Sales pitches suggesting otherwise should be taken with a large grain of salt.

The definitions of internal and external martial arts are too vague and shallow to fuel the deep reflection and analysis that lead to mastery. Dedicated students and teachers of martial arts should move beyond them, without hesitation.


  1. Who said Waijia was ineffectual? Anyone who does Chinese martial arts knows that’s bull. It’s an easy naming convention to help communicate the focus and perspective of the training.

    No IMA book says that it’s easier. Where did you read that?

    I think you are creating straw men of your own.


  2. What is the focus and perspective of internal training? There are 4 different definitions above, and more to be found elsewhere. Pick whichever you like–everyone else does.

    Personally, I am more interested in talking specifics. “Internal martial arts” is anything but specific.

  3. Jesus, aren`t we a little full of ourselves. Do you really think huundreds of years of history and development have been uncovered as fraud by your clever little article here? You sure are a clever boy. Neijia is about hard work. Just because there are white boys (I am white) who have read a book on it and gone on to open a fraudulent shool doesn`t mean neijia is a marketing term. This sort of behaviour isn`t uncommon with anything in life. Pick a niche market and you will find people taking advantage of it. I am married into a closed martial tradition now. The people practicing neijia in this family practice every day for hours. You will rarely find people in modern society who will put in such an effort. Most of them can break a 3inch riverstone(Harder then human bone) with a relaxed slap. When they hit, your muscle feels fine but the energy goes straight through the organs. Its not chi, it isn`t mystical, it is physics, it is conditioning. It takes a dedication to acheive. Just because you aren`t a part of this circle doesn`t mean it doesn`t exist or it is all just marketing. You are a disgrace.

  4. That neijia has been redefined by different people for different purposes is indisputable. Now you are proposing yet another definition: hard work?  Suits me fine; I’ve been working hard all day.

    If you don’t appreciate zhengming, you can blame Confucius.  It wasn’t my invention.

  5. I think that the article makes some good points. The distinction between internal and external in martial arts has not always existed. All martial arts, even ‘internal ones’ are external at the beginning. Even in tai chi you need to use your muscles to move and learn the basic movements. At the higher levels all complete systems of kung fu become internal.
    I think that ‘Grow up’ is overly respectful towards the traditional books and thinking. I suggest that he train with a greater variety of masters and with an open mind. On the other hand, he is not respectful enough towards those with a different opinion to his.

  6. I agree with you, I wrote something simular myself
    Another definition is that there is more Daoist influence in internal arst.
    I teach external arts to people under 25, internal arts to people over 25– with some exceptions.
    External arts “should” be called external because they actually change the external structure of your body AS you are growing. It just hurts when you are older if you try to move that big and that fast.
    I believe that some of Adam Hsu’s students will teach external arts to older people but they modify them so that the techniques are smaller and slower.
    Keep up the good work!
    By the way, I love good marketing!!!

  7. I am 45 and have just begun studying mizong quan; a supposedly external art. I also study tai chi; well known as an internal art. I believe that as people get older they need more movement of the body, not less. All kung fu can have an internal element if you train in the right way. Even practitioners of internal arts begin with the external; after all they have to move their bodies using their muscles.
    Adam Hsu does teach ‘external’ arts to students in their 40’s and 50’s and he certainly does not modify them by making the techniques slower or smaller.

  8. Internal martial arts are very fluid and are mostly for very intelligent people, unlike karate. You can be a very stupid person and learn karate, jujitsu, western boxing… etc. However unless you are a intelligent person capable of understanding esoteric concepts and using your mind to control your entire body, external arts will never be within your grasp. Chris would not be wanted in the internal martial arts, so he can work as hard as his imagination will let him. To my fellow internal practitioners, keep training the real way.

  9. Internal power is developed through specific chi-kung exercises, primarily standing meditation, like holding the ball. Once I became serious about standing medition everyday I began to feel the energy in my movements very distinctly. This energy feels most effortless when applying principles taught in internal martial arts. Principles which include movements that are very strong just from a newtonian physics perspective (whole body motion body, alignment, hips, rotation), many external martial arts have techniques that use these principles, just lack exercises and relaxation to give them internal power.

  10. I train in Xing Yi. Its internal. I also trained in boxing, WC & karate over the last 20+ years. Even though I do an “internal” style I think that questioning it is a great idea. If we can’t elaborate the difference and present it then we really need to reconsider. So the difference – well I’m still working on learning it (I’ve been at XY for 8 years). From my standpoint – whole body power using multiple vectors (note boxers can do this well) combined with the use of a the frame for grounding to strike with relaxed heavy power and not rely on tension to mimimise reflection. That’s on the strike. You can see as similar philosophy on defenses.

  11. Wudang, you are welcome to quote it. Please do not reprint it in its entirety.

  12. Why not train in both.
    Internal training for general health, vitality and cultivation of energy.
    And External training for practical unarmed combat. (ie. mma, full contact, muay thai etc.)

    That way you get the best of both worlds.

  13. Studing internal martial arts since 1983. The question is ” How do you move your body?”. There are many styles of internal martial arts. Although the techniques may vary, they train and move the body the same way. Stay connected, keep the opponent off balance, and control. If your art is complete, then there is not a need to learn another except to know your opponent.

  14. Yin/Yang…..this is the foundation of all styles thus,when one claims to seperate internal from external,or soft from hard,then this person is putting him self in bondage.These two factors are one, and are never appart.karate [china hand], aikido [way of harmony], gung-fu [physical skill],to put restrictions on any of the hundereds of styles out there will put restrictions on ones way of self defense.A martial art is very personal and when one trains,be it slow,fast,hard,soft,direct or circular the one “training”will develope chi and will become one with the elements of the universe.One must never stop training to find the bliss of the martial art…..sincerely,joe kuk sool practitioner and founder of “kyo shin tao”

  15. wat i want is to learn internal martial arts. like how one point in the artical said how external is more like braking bones kind of thing while internal is like stoping or preventing ur opponites energy. i want to learn how to stop my enemy without accualy hurting them (beating up). i dont like to fight like that, fighting till someone brakes something and gives in, i rather just stop my enemy asap without blood shed or broken anything. i want to learn that but i dont know were to go to find someone or some place to teach me how. so can anyone tell me were and who? (e-mail me at [email protected] if you have an answer) thank you

  16. Martial art is not limited to a style or a school,or what color belt one uses to hold his pants up…The martial art is very personal,one says “I like the hard linear style” and another might say”I like the soft yieldiing circular style”My friend the mysterious concept of the true martial art is “chi”,the life energy of all,living and dead.Thus,never limit your self to a stlyle or a belt color,but train with sincere focus of the unlimited bliss of the martial art and her eternal sister chi….much love, joe……fouder of kyo shin tao

  17. Internal Martial arts focuses on one’s structure, the tendon, the bone, the fascia, not muscle. Tendon and bone are made from collagen, a liquid crystal, triple helix molecule , and the most abundant protein in the mammal kingdom. It conducts light, electricity, transduces mechancial stress into electrical energy. As energy passes through a liquid crystal, the crystal EXTENDS and TWISTS/SPIRALS. It also has the tendency to ALIGN itself with external MAGNETIC FIELD. Practice chi-kung/nei-kung correctly and consistantly and you will feel this as I have. Remember use minimal muscle and use your structure together as one unit, EXTEND. As one does certain chi-kung practices your structure will free itself of conductive resistances, your bones and tendons will become denser, conducting more energy. Building bone is a slower process than building muscle, but like muscle building, requires consistant practice.

  18. Just as you cannot have light without the dark. You cannot have internal without the external. Um/Yang. You cannot have external without the internal. People like to pigeon hole things into neat categories. But in reality, most things are not of one category. Many things are difficult categorize because they incorporate characteristics from often seemingly mutually exclusive paradigms.

  19. Listen buddy! Have you even tried Xsing-yi or Tai Chi? because if you havent here’s a little fact!
    They do work better than external arts and always will! You dont always need an explanation for everything you moron. Its basic, Mind=control ,Nature=chi. in my mind i beleive (chi) is just another way of explaning (matter) the force of all living things. You can internally manipulate chi with your mind. Lets say your about to throw a punch and you want it powerful enought to knock a guy twice your size out cold. You relax and direct matter(chi) into your hand strengthening your tissue. then, PPPPPPPOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    lol, he’s on the ground crying out in pain. So ya beat that external arts

  20. Train train train, find the bliss of balance and technique.. Pay not money nor time,but rather pay close attention to the circumference of movement.. Move like water feel like the wind.. Listen to and follow the Grand masters who seek wisdom and admire the meek.. Be not a stylist but rather an artist in the Martial Art… …… Joe, foundrer of kyo shin Tao

  21. When one practices internal martial arts properly one will change their body energetically. This is a concrete body experience and very unusual, not some idea or theory. I wish teachers would be clear about this in the beginning. Your whole experience of your body as connected to energy will change. It will feel like magic. Among other experiences, you will feel a hydraulic like power being pumped from your legs into your arms as you strike. Unfortunately very few have the discipline to make this happen which results in basically an external normal experience lacking power. Unlike weight lifting, chi exercises must be done daily for several months before one experiences just the beginning of changes (try and find one person that can do these exercises daily). How an internal martial artist uses and experiences their body is on a completely different level than external. Its sad but 99% of my fellow classmates have made close to no progress/experience and I think its a disservice to the art for them to say they practice internal martial arts. I myself have only developed a little but now when I practice just the form of my art bagua or tai chi it feels like magic, it feels beautiful, and gives me deep respect for these special arts and taoist chinese medicine in general.

  22. I was surprised reading this article. Being into Kungfu I was hardly aware of the classical categorization of Chinese martial arts. It is really informative.

  23. perhaps internal and external refer not so much as a category of martial arts but more to the very way we learn the arts? could tai chi, for example, be learned and expressed externally, and even some “practical art” such as krav maga be learned internally, and expressed as such? hmmmm…..ommmmmm…

  24. @Fredo
    your post really hit home. 1 1/2 years into this IP stuff with no formal learning, just a lot of reading research + youtube vids and luckily some practical experiences with a fellow martial practitioner that allowed me to feel the difference between internal vs external. i will be going for chi gung classes that hopefully will teach me more about internal stuff. And this internal stuff is certainly more fun than the external stuff and a lot more deceptively effective too.

  25. @ABCrane

    My push-hands teacher had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, an external martial art. Long ago, while practicing Tae Kwon Do, he had the opportunity to learn I-Chuan (standing post) from a high level woman, madam Yu, wife of then deceased Yu Pung Shi. The teacher simply had him hold post (standing meditation) for 45 minutes everyday (not easy). He did not understand the practice. After reaching a basic level according to his teacher, he went back to spar Tae Kwon Do. When now sparring Tae kwon Do, his blocks would cause his opponents to recoil in pain and ask if he was trying to hurt them. To him his effort was no different. So yes definitely one can and will use the power developed from the internal exercises in all physical aspects of their life. It can be used in boxing and other “external martial arts” like grav magra. If you develop enough you will be faster and stronger in general and have magnetic experiences. If this doesn’t happen its cause one hasn’t done standing enough or properly which is most people. Internal martial arts at its base I would say is rehabilitation of the body back to a natural state and strengthening. You can practice any martial art or “internal or external” with or without internal power. Most “internal” martial arts teacher will start teaching techniques before any power is developed which makes it identical to “external”. “Internal” minus internal power and principles equals external. I think the words external, internal, soft and hard are misleading. The aim is to be fast, powerful, and like steel when hit (which is not soft or slow). The way in which the art is practiced, the conditioning can at times look soft and slow. In standing post one appears to be doing nothing at all. People often comment how strong or fast I am and a lot of it is from this standing practice.

  26. In Pentjak Silat Sera one definition of internal is as simple as internalizing. Meaning you know your art without thinking about it, like breathing.

  27. Chris,

    A friend of mine was excitedly expressing an interest in “internal arts,” and suggested that I practice an “internal” art. I (perhaps like you), did not exactly know what to think of this, because I had no solid definition to go on. I did know, however, that Wing Chun is often considered such an art. So I suggested that I have already been learning one (though I knew not how to demonstrate my “internal” skills). He wasn’t quite convinced, and asked what does “internal” really mean. I expressed that I didn’t really know, but that there are popular ideas.

    The conversation lead me to try a Google search, and I’m happy to say that your page was at the top of the list. Well done!


    P.S. Playing with some stuff in Guangzhou and Foshan. Hope your training is going well.

  28. My understanding is different than those mentioned thus far. For one – that the internal styles (Xingyi, Taichi, Bagua) were termed as such because of their geographic origins on the planet – being internal to a specific region of China. Secondly, I understand that they are Taoist in origin (related to the region at that time), and the physical movements of these arts directly relate to Traditional Chinese Medicine (ie, 5 element, yin/yang, and zangfu organ theory). The movements stimulate specific meridians in the body, and result in specific positive health effects. For example, the 5-elements of TCM correspond directly to the 5 fists of Xingyi, which correspond to the organs in the body related to those elements. Practicing pounding fist (related to Fire) will stimulate the heart, pericardium, and triple warmer for example. The internal arts are deeply intertwined – because of the rich Taoist philosophy – with all aspects of your life, so the training expands far beyond the martial aspects alone and into how you respond to the world around you. An enormous amount of time in these arts is also devoted to the practice of specialized meditations (ie, sea of chi, standing animals, etc) – specifically intended to circulate energy (avoiding stagnation that results in disease) and re-generating jing (our life essence) in the kidneys to restore vitality. These energetics practices also enhance the issuance of force through “intention” as chi (or whatever you would like to view as the physical kinetics) is directed by the mind’s intention. The entire practice is holistic in nature and thoughtfully integrated into a much greater philosophy than those of the “external” styles. That is my understanding.

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