Descriptive Terms

When discussing kung fu styles, you may encounter the terms, “northern” vs. “southern” and “internal” vs. “external”. The label “northern” vs. “southern” refers to the part of China from which the style originated.

There is a popular perception that northern styles emphasize kicking techniques, while southern styles emphasize hand techniques. Though there are definite differences between northern and southern styles, this is a misconception. The terms “internal” and external” have been interpreted many ways, and are a little harder to grasp. The terms “internal” and “external” do not describe a style as hard or soft. These terms are often used to differentiate between styles that attack the opponent’s external body versus those which are more sophisticated, causing internal damage. Another interpretation of “internal” versus “external” refers to the skill level of the practitioner. During a student’s overture in the style, he or she learns the more highly physical aspects and then progresses to the more subtle and highly technical martial aspects. Yet another interpretation of “internal” vs. “external” kung fu styles uses the labels to describe how a fighting system generates its power.

Would the Real Kung Fu Please Stand Up!

Traditional Kung Fu, taught correctly by a qualified instructor, can impart tremendous skills. But before you run out and join the nearest Kwoon (school), let’s discuss “contemporary wushu”. The term “wushu” means “martial art”. There are some who refer to traditional kung fu as “traditional wushu”, making the two terms fungible. But the most popular use of the term “wushu” is used to describe contemporary wushu – the national sport of the People’s Republic of China.

Communism in China has not been kind to traditional kung fu. Wushu is now the official government sanctioned “martial sport” that looks a lot like kung fu but has no actual fighting applications. It is basically a performance art. It requires a great degree of athleticism to perform and is quite beautiful to watch with their pretty silk outfits and floppy aluminum swords. But it is not kung fu. And I, personally, can’t see the point (each to his own). By the way, before you start kicking sand in the faces of contemporary wushu performers, just because one performs in wushu routines does not mean that he or she does not train in traditional kung fu as well.


Each traditional Chinese style has an interesting history and fighting theory. It’s impossible to give a complete picture of kung fu in one brief article, so in future articles I will profile individual kung fu styles to give readers a better understanding of some of the more popular ones.

There is no “best” style. Ultimately, the burden lies on the practitioner to produce results. The time and effort demanded by traditional kung fu training are tremendous.

But for those willing to make the investment, kung fu offers great fighting skill, rich culture, intriguing history, useful philosophies, and an opportunity to develop qualities that can improve all other areas of your life.

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