Although many styles of Neijia exist around the world, three "internal" martial arts are most widely known... Taijiquan (T'ai Chi Ch'uan), Baguazhang (Pa Kua Ch'ang), and Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Ch'uan). Several other martial arts such as YiQuan (I-Ch'uan) must also be recognized because of its close adherance to the basic principles of Neijia as well as Aikido, a Japanese martial art.

Neijia differs from other "external" martial arts in that all movement begins deeply within the body, then moves outwards towards the skin. It is theorized that this "internal" work (Nei Gung) was discovered and developed by esoteric Daoists (Taoists) to increase their health and spirituality, many thousands of years prior to making its way to martial arts. The Shaolin and other martial arts systems adopted many of these techniques, developing them further into what we know today as the Neijia, or "internal" martial arts.

Basic Principles

"Internal" or "soft" styles, although quite different from one another, share the basic principles that define all internal martial art styles.

Some of the basic principles of Neijia are: Heightened awareness of one's internal body posture and structure; Release of tension, both externally and internally; Release or letting go of physical, muscular strength to perform techniques and postures; Sinking of the "qi" (chi) or energy and the development of "root", where the center of gravity and origin of movement is lowered within the body; linking of internal organs to assist the flow and movement of "qi" or energy; and the development of an internal peace or calm emotional state.

Most of these basic principles take years of dedicated practice and study to develop, and few persons throughout history have truly mastered any of these Neijia styles.

Why Bother

With the possibility of mastering one of the internal styles so remote, why would anybody want to even try? It is obvious that for self-defense or physical fitness, it would be much easier to study a "Weijia" (external style) martial art, or to just go to a local gym for physical conditioning.

One positive aspect of beginning the study of a Neijia style is that while a student may not be able to use it as a self-defense art until quite experienced, the health benefits (physical, mental, and emotional) can be realized quickly. A posture as simple as standing still (zanzhuang) for extended periods of time each day can have dramatic effects on the practitioner.

Cultural Problems for Western Students

One of the problems that many Westerners have when first beginning the study of an "internal" style or a "qigong" routine, is the very simplicity of the movements. Western students expect a complicated system of choreographed movements, along with a systematic, structured teaching routine from their instructor, complete with "grades" or "levels" of completion. It is often difficult for the Western student to "let go" and allow the "qi" to develop naturally. Many times, hard work does not necessarily speed the process, yet it takes consistent and dedicated practice to make even the slightest progress.

While it is true that many of the styles contain forms that are so complex that it takes a lifetime to master one, the true "internal" power of these forms are not in the complex postures, but in the understanding of the basic principles of Neijia.

Another concept that is difficult for Westerners is the realization that they must study forever, perhaps never quite reaching their goals. It is said that when a Neijia master thinks that they have mastered their art, their knowledge is already in decline.


Second only to Taijiquan in popularity is the internal martial art of Baguazhang (Pa Kua Ch'ang). Within this one family style, there are many variations, ranging in movement from flashy performance routines that amaze onlookers to no-nonsense combat styles designed to devastate an opponent within seconds.

"Ba" means "eight" and "Gua" refers to the trigrams of Chinese philosophy from the "Book of Changes" (I-Ching). "Zhang" means "palm", so Baguazhang is a martial art where the palms follow the ever-changing eight trigrams of Chinese philosophy. As a martial art, its emphasis is on horizontal delivery of internal power.


The first specific reference to Baguazhang is in 1796, when it was recorded that a Shandong boxer taught the art to others. But it was a poor, country boy from Hobei province named Dong Haiquan who is credited with making Baguazhang popular. Dong, after having a few fights in Beijing, traveled to Mt. Omei in Szechwan province where he studied with two Daoists (Taoists) who taught him Baguazhang for eleven years. Dong then returned to Hobei, and finally to Beijing, where he taught a number of students.

There are many stories about Dong Haiquan's martial ability, such as his ability to jump 20 feet in the air. The most famous story (although many scholars disagree on its legitimacy) was his battle in Beijing against the famous Guo Yunshen of the Xingyiquan style. It is told that the two battled for several days with Dong finally becoming the aggressor and soundly defeating Guo. So impressed with each other's fighting abilities, they formed a pact requiring all their students to train in the other's discipline as well as their own. Even today, this pact is still honored by many instructors of the individual arts.

Another story about Dong was told by Wan Laisheng, one of his students. It seems that everyone thought that Dong has passed away and he was placed into a casket, ready for burial. Many of his students had come to pay respect and they began to pick up the casket to move it to the burial site. But when they tried to pick it up, it would not budge. They tried several times, but the casket was if it was nailed to the floor. Then suddenly a voice came from within, saying: "As I've often said, none you you has even one-tenth my skill!" He then passed away and the casket was easily moved. Dong was 81 years old when he died.

Sun Lutang

One of Dong Haiquan's highly skilled students was Cheng Tinghua, who continued to teach Dong's Baguazhang style in Beijing. One of his Cheng's students was the famous Sun Lutang (1859-1933) who had learned Xingyiquan directly from Guo Yunshen, and later created the Sun family style of Taijiquan. Sun was quite impressed with Cheng Tinghua's Baguazhang skills and stayed in Beijing for a number of years to study with him, even though most of his training from Cheng was limited to walking the circle and standing postures.

Once, a southern boxer came to challenge Cheng, and soundly defeated all of Cheng's senior students. Sun Lutang offered to fight for Cheng, despite his limited Baguazhang training because Cheng had "nothing to lose" at that point. Sun easily defeated the challenger with his very basic skills. Cheng was quite pleased and taught Sun the entire system, including the sword and spear. In fact, it was Cheng who gave Sun his given name of Lutang (he had been previously called Sun Fuquan) and encouraged him to travel to Sichuan Province to better understand the theory of the Yijing (I-Ching).

After returning home, marrying, and having a child, he did return to Sichuan and studied with Taoists monks there for some time. Sun Lutang was quite famous in his day and afterwards, both for his martial skills as well as his literary skills. His knowledge of philosophy, Taoism, Confucusism, and Buddhism was remarkable, and he was one of the few martial artists who mastered more than one Neijia style.

He wrote five books about martial arts. His first, "The Study of Xingyiquan" was published in 1915. The second book, "The Study of Baguazhang", was published in 1916. His Taijiquan book, "The Study of Taijiquan" was published in 1921, and his book "The True Essence of Boxing" was published in 1924. His book "The Study of "Bagua Sword" was published in 1927. Another book, "The Study of Xingyi Spear" was never published, although most of the work and research had been completed.


Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Chuan) roughly translated means "xing", the form or shape of something; "yi", the mind or self; and "quan", fist. Thus, it is usually translated as "Mind-Form Boxing" or "Form-Mind Boxing". It is pronounced something like "shing-yee chwan" and is described as a martial art in which the mind and intent forms the postures.

Xingyi, although a true neijia or internal art, stresses powerful, linear movements that do not hide the martial intent of the form. Emphasis is directed towards the goal of destroying the target, utilizing efficient and sometimes explosive use of "neigong" or internal power. This makes it a good option for those martial artists who want to study a neijia style, but are frustrated with the slowness of Taijiquan practice.

Unfortunately, Xingyiquan has not been publically promoted for its meditative, health, and conditioning benefits as much as other neijia styles like Taijiquan and Yichuan, but this does not mean it is not effective as such.


Most people believe that Xingyi was created by the famous Chinese general, Yue Fei in the Song Dynasty (960-1127). Legend has it that he developed two arts, Xingyiquan and Eagle-claw boxing. Eagle-claw was taught to his foot soldiers and Xingyiquan was reserved for his officers. He based his Xingyiquan training on existing spear techniques, thus the noticable linear patterns of the forms. This original "Shansi" style (named after the province where it was taught) included 5 element and 12 animal forms.

There were several variations of Xingyiquan practiced as the art was handed down through numerous teachers. Two of the most popular still existing in the early 19th century were a Muslim-influenced Xingyi style from the Honan province, and the famous Hobei Xingyi school which became influenced by another neijia style, Baguazhang. This, sometimes unintentional, blending of the two internal arts resulted in a strong system with emphasis on the study of the 5 element forms and less on the animal forms.

A famous story (although many scholars disagree on its legitimacy) was a battle in Beijing that pitted Hobei Xingyi school's Guo Yunshen against Dong Haiquan, a famous Baguazhang stylist. It is told that the two battled for several days with Dong finally defeating Guo. So impressed with each other's fighting abilities, they formed a pact requiring all their students to train in the other's discipline as well as their own. Even today, this pact is still honored by many instructors of the individual arts.

Although traditionally, Xingyi practice contains no formal sparring forms, it proved its martial worth in Chinese boxing competitions. Xingyi practitioners won competitions in Nanjing in 1928, Shanghai in 1929, Hangzhou in 1929, and Nanjing in 1933. Numerous legends exist about Xingyi masters easily defeating numerous opponents, even some about masters who could injure others by simply touching them lightly.

The 5 Element Fists

According to traditional Chinese medical theory, five energies (Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, Metal) balance the internal organs and flow of energy within the body. Xingyiquan uses 5 hand techniques that move the energy along paths of force or power. These are:

  • Chopping/Spiltting Fist (Pi Quan) related to the metal element

  • Drilling Fist (Zuan Quan) relating to the water element

  • Crushing Fist (Beng Quan) relating to the wood element

  • Pounding Fist (Pao Quan) relating to the fire element

  • Crossing Fist (Heng Quan) relating the the earth element.

    The 12 Animal Forms

The twelve styles represent twelve kinds of animals that come from the heaven and earth. These animals include, but are not limited to:

  • Tiger Form (Hu Xing)

  • Monkey Form (Hou Xing)

  • Horse Form (Ma Xing)

  • Water Lizard Form (Tuo Xing)

  • Chicken Form (Ji Xing)

  • Hawk Form (Yao Xing)

  • Swallow Form (Yan Xing)

  • Snake Form (She Xing)

  • Tai Bird Form (Tai Xing)

  • Eagle Form (Ying Xing)

  • Bear Form (Xiong Xing)

San Ti

Probably, the most important posture in any Xingyiquan training is the Trinity Posture or "San Ti". It is done by holding a static standing posture with ams in the air. Classical Xingyi schools hold the Pi Quan posture (chopping/splitting fist), others modify it slightly. One branch of Xingyiquan build its entire framework on this practice, creating the unique neijia art of YiChuan (I-Chuan).