Many people practice Wing Chun for health reasons or as a fitness system. Some practice the art as a part of their tradition or the tradition they want to be part of. There are those who practice the art as a surrogate religion or spiritual path. If you belong to any of these categories, this article is not for you. This article is for people who practice, or believe to practice, Wing Chun as a martial art, a system of combat.
At some point Wing Chun became an “internal” art, that is the latest trend in Wing Chun business. If the style is not “internal” it is not good enough, it is “inefficient”, not original, in one word worthless. There are a lot of teachers who effortlessly “win” over a larger opponent in sticky hands drills and exercises, Wing Chun is done slowly and softly, like Tai Chi, they are doing inch punches and perform a lot of different “internal” power demonstrations. All these demonstrations look really cool and leave an impression of great skill and power, and with an aggressive marketing they are making audience to believe that those skills and power are genuine. Unfortunately truth is very much different from that impression.
Truth to be told, some of these teachers have good grasp of basic “internal” concepts, good, but unfortunately not complete, or they do but do teach it because their customers cannot accept it. Most of them are completely lost and have totally wrong understanding of what “internal” is.
Before we define what internal training is we must explain the place of Qigong in internal martial arts training. First thing that must be said is that Qigong and internal martial training are not same thing. These two disciplines are completely unrelated. Qigong is way older than any of the martial styles practiced today and had been developed and practiced independently of martial arts for the most part of its history. Qigong became a part of martial arts less than 100 years ago, during the republican period in China(1911-1948). Although incorporated in so called “internal” martial styles Qigong is still independent discipline and it is practiced separately from martial aspects of the these arts. So why many people believe Qigong is connected to martial training? Confusion came from Chinese teachers who are using term Qi describe some points is both disciplines. Term Qi, at least in earlier times was also used as a description of many other things, weather for example , but no one today mix weather conditions in martial arts training. Mixing Qigong with internal martial training or Neigong is one of the worst things that happened to kung fu after Boxer rebellion. Instead to be properly trained, people believe that breathing exercises and the lightest possible fitness training (what Qi gong in essence is) will increase their fighting abilities. “Qi” just bring martial training to the area of esoteric practice and once there martial arts are unrepairable damaged, at least for fighting purposes. Tai Chi is the best example, once extremely efficient combat style today is nothing more than a light exercise system and most of Tai Chi instructors do not teach ,even on theoretical level , any fighting applications. Historical sources are telling us that members of Chen village, a birth place of Tai Chi, had several successful fights and they repelled several attacks on their village in 19th century (they used spears and swords to defeat large number of gang members who tried to raid their place). Today ,Tai Chi is concentrated on Qi cultivation and martial aspect of the art is for the most part lost. While practicing Qi gong may have some health benefits, it certainly does not have any combat value, it does not increase someone’s fighting abilities for even a smallest part. It is important to say that Qi gong in its essence is an esoteric art which main purpose, for what it was invented for, is reaching eternal life. People often forget this fact, or do not know it, or do not want to know it. Qi gong and martial training ,including neigong, can be parallel but they cannot be mixed .
Neigong or internal training is nothing more (and nothing less) than biomechanical efficiency. Often times Chinese teachers call this efficiency –Qi, making a lot of confusion. Every single teacher of “internal” arts claiming and some deeply believe in their claims, they are the only one who know the “secret” of internal training , or at least they are doing it better than others. Every one of them have couple of “secret” details which will be shared only with the most loyal students (those who payed the most). And most of them, I cannot say all because I haven’t seen all, insist that internal training is the opposite of external training in every possible way. They , insist that expression of “internal” skills must look exactly as they picture it, soft , fluffy , powerless and effortless. They also do a lot of things they to prove their stuff works. But this is, I have to be blunt here , complete bullshit.
Classification that divides styles on internal and external is a nonsense. History of that divide leads us to 1928 when Goushu academy organized a tournament and for pure marketing reasons, in order to advertise styles practiced by leading people of the academy, called their styles “internal” while all other styles were called “external” Shaolin styles. Before 1928 we don’t have such classification. The fact is one without another do not exist. Every martial style practiced long enough will eventually become internal. Internal is nothing else but the level of efficiency someone is using his body. At the beginning of every training, movements will be inadequate, led by conscious thought, not precise, performed with too much power ect. As the training progresses the efficiency of the movement will increase until eventually become internal. This is valid for all martial styles, not only Chinese. There are teachers who teach and believe that only specific body structure and power generation can be considered “internal”. That is very far from truth, first, there are many different “internal” styles with different body structure and different ways of power generation, second , many style which are not considered “internal” also base their foundation on specific body structure ,relaxation, and explosive power (fajin).
Can some art be practiced internally from the very beginning? Yes, it can, and that is exactly what “internal” teachers are selling to their customers. From the very beginning they insist on the quality of movements that comes only after years of serious martial practice. And people quickly learn these things and develop them further. But there is a catch. If “internal” skills are developed form the very beginning that means only one thing, people cannot fight with them. The reason for this is simple. Like I said before, for internal skills are considered those which are relaxed , without too much muscle power, precise , fast etc. To develop these skills normally, a lot of extremely hard and painful , so called “external “ training is necessary. It is first necessary to be exposed to the real force that is used in real fighting, At the beginning there will be a lot pain, fear, uncomplete control of the body… but in time, body and mind are learning how to deal with the incoming force more efficiently until they reach such a level of coordination and effectiveness that they enter the domain of “internal” skills. Practitioner will through experience learn how to relax, how to instinctively and with a smallest amount of effort to deal with an incoming force. Only through hard training practitioner will be able to rely to internal power generation in real fight. These skills are gained through hard and painful process and they will work in a real fighting situation, because they are trained and learned in similar conditions.
On the other hand, if “internal” skills are practiced “internally” from the very beginning, to be achieved and refined to match what is considered “internal” by most of the teachers today all hard training (read sparring, realistic combat drills, training under the stress of the real fight) must be left out. All we can see in this approach is chi sao\push hands as an ultimate test of the skill. Of course in controlled and safe environment, where everyone does and think the same, where all people are compliant, these “internal” skills are working perfectly. Every time when these people get out of their comfort zone and try to prove their systems work, they got their ass kicked.
I never saw anyone with internal skills passed basic level. Many believe that they achieved the highest level of skill but they are wrong. Level of their skill maybe the highest in their system and maybe high for noncontact discipline, but for full contact fighting these skills are just the basic foundation. Avoiding full contact training, instructors loose perspective and develop the skills in totally wrong direction, instead to be focused of real effectiveness they pay much more attention on visual effect. Of course, good visual effects brings more students which means more money. There is another reason for this. After being involved in kung fu since high school, almost 30 years now, I have noticed that vast majority of people involved in kung fu do not really want to fight, nor they want to learn fighting skills , they want to be a part of kung fu school for many reasons but fighting is not one of them. Also a large number of people simply lie them self and they practice light noncontact disciplines believing they will achieve great fighting abilities, especially through “internal” training and “qigong”. That is why it is so important for so many teachers to make their arts visually attractive. People who really want to fight, usually are going to classical boxing, kick boxing ,Muay Thai or similar disciplines, which are not visually attractive but everyone knows their fighting effectiveness.
Like I said, there is no one I saw whose internal skills passed level of siu lim tao , level where all these structure tests and chi sao were done. Chum Kiu level should be fighting level and at this level all these internal skills achieved previously ( and so nicely demonstrated by so many masters and grandmasters) should be applied in real combat . I still didn’t see anyone who can do that , further more I never found anyone who even talks about it , who even have an idea how to practice internal skills for real fighting.
To conclude this article, there is no difference between Internal and External training, only the difference is level of biomechanical efficiency. If the training is not hard, painful, physically and emotionally demanding it is not martial training , it is fitness. If “internal” skills are practiced as the opposite to “external” that system is simply teaching wrong things.