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Distinguishing the developmental directions from which the Chinese Martial Arts have been formed and defined can be either a straightforward process or a process similar to tracing the threads of tangled balls of yarn just outside the reach of our immediate investigation. From a distance, it seems easy enough to determine the general color, texture, size, and materials composing the threads of each individual ball of yarn. We can see the distinguishing features of martial arts styles and we can categorize our impressions of the patterns which they have formed within our minds. The organizing of martial arts into categories based upon these impression-patterns, can be useful in our aim to understand the developmental directions of Chinese martial arts. If we stop the investigation at this point, then we have followed the straightforward process mentioned above. What we need to remember, though, is that, in the straightforward process, we have done the categorizing of balls with limited information about the threads themselves. From a distance, it is merely the impression of the ball and of the threads which are at our disposal when categorizing. Considering only the cursory information of impressions, we have no access to the discovery of the smaller, yet vital, multiple strands of material which compose each individual centimeter running along the entire length of the thread as it forms into a ball.

As such, when we begin to group balls of martial arts styles together into categories, we first identify the general characteristics of each category. Continuing in our straightforward methodology, we predispose ourselves to looking for a limited number of “salient” qualities; often to the neglect and detriment of other, yet unidentified, “salient” qualities which the balls of yarn might possess. Once the categories have been duly formed, the contrasting and comparing of the “identified” salient qualities begins. Statements are made and theories are formed and they are now ready to be tested for their reliability. What always happens during the examination of these categories, is that they provide an identification of individual balls which do not comply with all the statements made about their predetermined category. Ben Judkins tells us that, “This is the basic purpose of any sort of system of classification. They are useful to researchers precisely because they point out interesting puzzles that may not have been evident before.” In essence, by comparing the balls of yarn and their categories, our attention is brought to pertinent information of which the saliency had yet to be considered. Most people tend to stop their questioning at this point and excuse the aberrant information of non-complying balls within their categories as being “exceptions-to-the-rule”. The categories are then passed on, as is, to others. Others find the categories, the general statements, and their implied theories to be easy on their minds. The transfer of information concerning these can then be quickly infused into discussions of individual balls. Eventually, through continued transfer, the information defining these categories becomes “general knowledge”; and as such, they are accepted as requiring no further investigation.

Woman, claw hands

Such has been the case when the categories of “Northern” and “Southern” Chinese martial arts were created. Ada Chen points out that when dividing the Chinese martial arts, three salient features have determined what falls within the borders of each: religion, applications, and geography. First and foremost, the martial arts styles originating in the northern half of China fall in the Northern category and the styles from the southern half are placed in the Southern category. Secondly, religious affiliations with specific temples and rebellions have been marked as having played important roles in the development of particular martial arts styles within each of these categories. Thirdly, the styles within each category are claimed to have shared characteristics of application. Perhaps the most well-known of the distinguishing application characteristics is expressed through the dichotomy of “Southern Fists, Northern Kicks”. This expression seems to have made the greatest impact in distinguishing our impressions of the martial arts of China into the two main categories of Northern and Southern. “But while the classic saying “Southern fists, Northern kicks” does hold some truth, it’s an oversimplification of the dividing line between the two styles. In reality, there are Northern styles that highlight hand strikes as its main method, and there are Southern styles that feature high and flying kicks. A better way to more accurately classify a style is to take not just its area of origin, but its family, philosophy, and techniques.”- [Ada Chen]

Northern styles collectively belong to the category named, “Changquan”; meaning “long fist”. Southern styles, in turn, belong to the category, “Nanquan”; meaning “southern first”. The naming of these categories is interesting. Why should one category refer to application and one to location? Are these arbitrary names, or do they gain additional meaning when considered within the context of the martial arts history of China? What is known about the naming and the categorizing of these martial arts? These are questions which came to mind when I read the article, “Southern fist, Northern leg”: Picking Apart Northern and Southern Wushu”, published on the Jiayao Wushu website. The two questions which the article noted as being the most frequently asked by those interested in Modern Chinese Martial Arts are, “Which is better?” and “What’s the difference?”. I think it is safe to say that a discussion of which is better is not really to the point of this essay. The question of what the differences are, is more interesting. However, the mention of Modern Chinese Martial Arts, brings me to consider the present use of these categories before traveling back to the more distant past and identifying the differences of the two. “When Taolu was first being standardized for competitions there was only Changquan. This was because at the time, the traditional Chinese martial arts knowledge and material abundant within China only came from Northern styles. As a result, modern wushu Changquan took its standardized movements and techniques from the traditional northern styles of Chanquan, Huaquan (Flower Fist), and Hongquan (Red Fist). A large part of the physical absence of Nanquan was because during the political conflicts in 20th century China, many Chinese martial arts masters, including southern style masters, fled the mainland to escape political persecution by the dominant communist party. Those who did not were killed. It wasn’t until much later, 1980 to be exact, that Nanquan would be fully and successfully standardized in modern Wushu as we see it today. Modern Wushu Nanquan would in turn take its own respective movements from traditional southern styles of Hung Gar (Hong Family), Choy Gar (Cai Family), Lei Gar (Li Family), Lau Gar (Liu Family), and Mok Gar (Mo Family) and Choy Li Fut.”- [Jiayao Wushu]

High kick

The words from the Jiayao Wushu quote are interesting when added to what I already know about the martial arts history of China during the Republican period. During the 1920s, the Republican government sought to institutionalize the traditional martial arts. The initiative came from an elite class of martial arts practitioners from Northern China. With support from the government, the Guoshu system was brought into existence and positions on the teaching staff were primarily filled by Northerners. The founders of the Guoshu chose to divide the martial arts being taught into two categories: Shaolin Martial Arts and Wudang Martial Arts. The name, “Shaolin”, represented several characteristics which were promoted at the time as distinguishing developmental directions which were attributed to particular styles: Buddhism, External training methods, and being of Foreign origin. The name, “Wudang”, represented the attributes: Daoism, Internal training methods, and being of Chinese origin.

During the Republic period, the Guoshu made a somewhat failed attempt at developing organized martial arts competitions of mixed groups. After the Communist formed the People’s Republic of China, national Wushu competitions were organized and carried out. The history of those competitions is staggered in its development due to the purging of many styles of martial arts and the difficulties surrounding the Cultural Revolution. When Wushu competitions finally stood as a well-rooted institution, the measures in the above quote determined the dominance of the Northern styles. Southern styles had no initiative to compete with Northern styles when the adjudication was based on the distinguishing characteristics of the category of Northern martial arts. This might explain the use of Changquan to denote Northern martial arts; long fist indicating the Northern characteristic of extended movements. The Southern martial arts are denoted by their location in the south; possibly indicating that their movements were of a lesser importance than their location for some reason. Why that would have been at the time, I am not sure. What it has grown into at the present is a division primarily based on application of movement.

The most cited distinguishing characteristics used to contrast the Northern and Southern martial arts all fall under the heading of application. The three main concerns noted being: 1.) Difference in posture and basic movement, 2.) Emphasis on power and fluidity 3.) Proportion of hand to leg techniques. What is interesting to me is that the vast majority of Internet articles I have read, write from the assumption that both the Northern and Southern martial arts are primarily distinguished by their physical attributes. I will first present the general impressions given, followed by a more detailed discussion of the three points mentioned above; all of which represent the standard view of the Northern-Southern martial arts developmental directions which typify them for popular writings.

Man wearing glasses

Northern styles are called, “Long Fists”, but are distinguished for their: kicks, legwork, and acrobatics. The explanations for this are varied. Northerners have longer bodies and limbs; attributed to a diet based on grains and meat. It is said that their body type has influenced their fighting style which is geared toward gaining advantage through the use of: high kicks, deep-extended postures, and fluid transitions. In regard to basic Northern movement and posture, the Jiayao Wushu article describes the extended and outstretched stances through the example of the “straight punch”; with full extension of the punching shoulder and the side turned completely in the movement. “Its posture in turn, at least in the modern Wushu sense, includes a tucked in lower back, an outstretched “open” chest, and a simultaneous pinning of the shoulder blades together, activating the trapezius muscles at a low level. On the basic and beginner level, where most, if not all modern Wushu basics are concerned, all fundamental movements and techniques are assumed to be executed with this Changquan posture. Again, it is important to note that historically, during modern Wushu’s development, only Changquan was formulated and used in practice.”

Southern styles are distinguished by their strong and firm stances, large focus on hand movements, while kicks are low and kept to a minimum. The explanations for these characteristics are attributed to their smaller body type; which has made them specialists in the development of their close-combat techniques. The climate in the south is wetter, muddier, and hotter than in the north; influencing the Southern martial arts to create its own set of basics, movements, and techniques. Their applications are said to be distinctly different from those of their northern counterparts. Their shoulders remain squared and they move only slightly when they extend their arms. “While there is full extension in the arms in such movements as the straight punch, it is important to understand that extension in Nanquan is not the same as extension in Changquan; there is no extraneous stretching out of the body present as in Changquan. Stances are also notably higher than Changquan by comparison, yet emphasize a “solid”, ideally immovable foundation of the feet and legs.”- (Jiayao Wushu)

Basically, what the two paragraphs are highlighting is that Northern styles make use of a longer range and extension. The Southern styles are grounded and use solid movements; making the movements short and fast, generating power and explosiveness from their short range. They accelerate their movements over a short distance and time, using tight movements: swinging uppercut, overhead fists, and stepping. The stepping is done in a “one-two” cadence while transitioning from one position to the next. “An example of such acceleration in Nanquan is the emphasis of tight stance traditions, which further attributes itself to the literal solid foundation of Nanquan.”- (Jaiyao Wushu). By contrast, the Northern styles use fluidity and continual movement with few pauses in their forms. The power of Northern styles is generated by their power movements: pounding fist, snapping, and in-step kick which makes a popping sound when executed. The generation is acquired with larger movements and over a longer period of time, ending with a sudden movement.


The comparison most made between Northern and Southern styles focuses on a contrast between hand and leg techniques. Changquan is known for its legwork. However, it is important to realise that they use many hand techniques as well: hand strikes, blocks, sweeps, fist, palm, hook. The same is true for Nanquan. Although they are known for their hand techniques, they use leg techniques such as: side nail kick and back crescent kick. In the article, “Northern and southern kung fu, karate and the question of range”, Dejan Djurdjevic brings the matter of “range”, rather than hand or leg techniques, to the foreground. He calls our attention to the fact that Southern styles use close quarters fighting, whereas Northern styles are more suited for range fighting. “It is important to note that by “greater range” I do not mean to imply “distance fighting”. Distance fighting is commonly seen in sports combat – where fighters will predominantly launch attacks from outside what I call the “melee range” -i.e; the range where you are capable of landing (and being hit by) a punch, strike or kick.”

Djurdjevic tells us that the traditional martial arts systems of China and Japan/Okinawa were designed to operate within the melee range; as they were basically intended for civilian defense systems. He adds that civilian defense begins and ends in a melee situation and, in principle “….they don’t (or shouldn’t) involve sport/prize fighting dynamics where 2 opponents circle each other looking for openings. Nor should they depend on protracted ground grappling. Civilian defence tactics focus on a quick exit strategy and assume attackers might be armed, in company or both.” Both Northern and Southern martial arts are designed for different ranges; but, both function within the melee range. The Southern styles apply themselves primarily within the inner part of the melee range; using mid-range punches to the elbows and occasional short, low kicks. Northern styles perform principally in the outer part of the melee range; using full extension punches and kicks.

Having presented the main points which form the standard conceptualization of the Northern-Southern martial arts distinctions; I now ask the reader to re-assess what has been said; as we ask a question which a handful of scholars have already been asking for themselves; “What are the problems with the classification of Chinese martial arts into Northern and Southern categories?” Ben Judkins is one such inquiring scholar. In his essay, “The Political Economy of Southern Kung Fu: Thoughts on the Rise of Regional Identity within the Chinese Martial Arts”, Judkins takes up this issue, as he examines the Southern Chinese martial arts culture from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Judkins is dissatisfied with the North-South classification of martial arts in China. To start with, he tells us, “Many of the concepts that we use to classify the martial arts are both vague and under theorized.” Lineage charts would have us believe that the boundaries between martial arts styles are much clearer than they actually are. Grouping styles together based on impressions of their similarities can be deceiving and lead to erroneous conclusions.

Man squatting

Judkins gives enquirers the advice to limit the scope of their inquiries to a single area or period rather than taking on a scope so broad as our “Southern fist, Northern kick” categorization. Such broad statements tend to have many “exceptions-to-the-rule” while giving little or no understanding as to why they are exceptions. Judkins, uses the period of 1850-1950 and the region of Guangdong to make his own inquiries into why a distinction has been made between Northern and Southern martial arts. He first notes that the development of Southern martial arts traditions varied from region to region; producing hand combat techniques in some areas and not in others. He secondly notes that there are many techniques, concepts, strategies, and symbolic meaning shared between martial arts styles of the north and the south. Addressing the well accepted “Fist vs Kicking” distinction between north and south, Judkins reminds us that, “One of the recurrent problems in these conversations is that not all southern (or northern) arts actually look the same or appear to be all that closely related. There are southern styles (Mok Gar comes to mind) that place a lot of emphasis on kicking, and northern arts that are fully versed in close boxing and grappling…….Local differences have always existed in hand combat training. But that does not necessarily mean that individuals always saw these stylistic differences as central to their regional identity or an expression of some “essential” element of culture. Instead the widespread belief that a distinctly “southern” culture set of fighting styles existed, and their progressive differentiation (both in technical and in cultural terms) may actually be a later development than most readers might suspect.”

When looking to the Southern martial arts of the late 19th and early 20th century in Guangdong, we see a rising civilian commercial urban class. The most popular style taught was Choy Li Fut. This is an important point in the development of Chinese martial arts in that it marks the beginning of the concept of public martial arts schools. This is an innovation which is recognized as heralding a change in direction from which the future of Chinese martial arts would be greatly effected. Choy Li Fut became a critical element within discussions of Southern martial arts. It has been asked whether Choy Li Fut is a true Southern martial art. Judkins answers with a resounding, “Yes”. Historically and socially it is validated to be a Southern martial art, yet; it gives no claim to ancient lineage, its inventors are known, the dates of invention are known, and the practice locations are known. By contrast, many Southern martial arts have sought validation of their styles by claiming ancient Northern origins in their creation myths. How are we to interpret these claims of influence from the North? And, what influence will our answers have on the validity of the Northern-Southern classifications? With a lack of details from reliable source materials, the tracing of these stories backwards becomes an impossible task. Deduction is the method of investigation most likely to produce valuable insights based on the Social and Economic history of Southern martial arts during the late Qing Dynasty.

Close-up monk

Judkins introduces the research of Hing Chao into his discussion (as translated by Bernard Kwan). Chao was very interested in understanding how Northern martial arts had influenced Southern martial arts. In his findings, he cites three explanations for the martial arts mixing which occurred in the south. 1.) Demographic changes in Fujian and Guangdong, 2.) Role of the Taiping and Nian Rebellions in the transfer of martial arts knowledge and skills, 3.) “Self-strengthening” movement: Guoshu and Jingwu: Nationalist project inviting Northern teachers to the South. “Hing Chao suggests (quite sensibly) that we should think about these large scale military events because they managed to involve such large percentages of China’s population. The Taiping Rebellion alone is probably the largest civil war to ever occur in the history of the human race. An unprecedented number of people were placed under ams (often against their will), trained by individuals from different parts of the empire, and then marched from one province to the next. They mixed with soldiers from various regions and causes, and then went home (or in some cases fled in hiding). It is easy to see how these massive social and political disruptions led to a number of different northern martial arts innovations being imported to the south in the 1850s-1950s.”- [Ben Judkins]

I would add to Judkins’ statement by noting that in such exchanges, not only Southern martial arts would have been influenced by the North; Northern martial arts were sure to have learned from the South, as well. Also, we do well to remember that this was not the first time in history when Northern and Southern martial artists have fought against and/or with one another. With each contact, information is also met and taken home for reflection. After the Taiping Rebellion, Southern martial artists began another serious reflection; one which brought into motion a change in self-image, one which brought themselves to distinguishing themselves as a distinct martial arts community. This trend continued into the critical times of the early 20th century. Fighting systems were changing; evolving in order to survive and to thrive under new marketing conditions. Whereas Judkins and Hing agree on the information provided; Hing focuses on the access of Southern martial artists to Northern martial information; Judkins concerns himself mainly with how these exchanges led to a new sense of group consciousness; expressing, “In some senses the persistent idea of the “Southern arts” is actually harder to explain, and more interesting, than the spread of northern fighting techniques into the region.”

Judkins finds his explanations of identity formation rooted in the “Evolving Political Economy of the Pearl River Delta Region”. He sees Guangdong and Foshan as being at the center of this evolving political economy both before and after the Taiping Rebellion. Guangdong had an official trade monopoly granted by the Qing government, called the “Cohong”. All import and export goods went through Guangdong for transfer; to both in and out of the country. All foreign products were first unloaded in Guangdong before continuing into inner-China for distribution. All products from the four corners of China, traveled to Guangdong before being transferred to foreign ships setting sail to countries abroad. Tea, silk, sugar, opium, iron, paper, medicine, pottery and porcelain trading made Guangdong a lucrative location; attracting merchants, martial artists, and bandits alike. The commercial real estate before 1850s was very high in the province. The population increased; causing an equal increase in economic pressure, with a corresponding decrease in land-labor ratios and increase in rent prices. With a large percentage of local peasants feeling the stress of economic pressure, many took to banditry and piracy. The level of civilian violence had been rising since 1790 and by 1810 the local government could no longer count on the military support of the Qing to provide local protection. This instituted a new market for Private Security businesses. Merchant and passenger ships were all outfitted with their own cannon. Red Boats hired their own personal security guards. And, merchant vessels hired security companies in order to guarantee their deliveries. Domestic merchants, traveling from North to South, brought their own guards and escorts.

Woman yelling

Judkins takes a moment to step back from his presentation of the economic realities of Guangdong during China’s period of great economic crisis during the mid-19th century; bringing us back to our two main concerns of martial arts transfer and identity formation. “While its seems likely that the social chaos of the Taiping period may have accelerated the movement of certain practices, I am not sure that we need to assume that this process was all that unique. Guangzhou and Foshan were incubators for martial art development precisely because of their rich commercial environments and economic dependence on trade. These two cities brought together soldiers, private guards, officials, merchants, pirates, opera performers and gangsters together from across the empire. They were one of the few places in the region where one could expect to earn a living as a martial artist.” It is evident that wars, revolutions, rebellions and revolts have always caused an exchange of martial knowledge for all parties involved. What we see during the late 19th century in Southern China is a militarization of civilians, thriving private professional escort businesses, and a high level of violence and security concerns. From all these, it is to be expected that both Northern and Southern martial artists were taking in any advantageous martial knowledge at hand. Certainly, Northern and Southern martial arts were both evolving as they moved through this highly agitated period of time.

The state of affairs during this particular time and place had come about through a series of cause and effect circumstances; resulting in a complete transformation of Guangdong’s economic reality by the mid-19th century. The basic elements of this cascade were:

  1. British won the Opium Wars: the resulting treaties changed the trading system.
  2. Guangdong lost its Cohong monopoly.
  3. Europeans gained direct access to Guangzhou markets.
  4. Guangzhou lost its privileged access to Western markets.
  5. Other treaty ports opened; such as Shanghai.
  6. Hong Kong was created, with its: deep harbors, better law enforcement, and preferred currency.
  7. Constant political crises: Taiping Rebellion, Red Turban Revolt, tax increases, as well as, loss of gentry and merchant resources through the destruction of life and property.

“Some of the most important results of these political events were much more subtle and are often omitted from our discussion of the region’s history. The Taiping and Nian Rebellions left Guangdong in an increasingly isolated geographic position. The flow of northern goods and merchants dropped almost immediately due to the disruption of both agricultural production and travel routes.”- [Ben Judkins]. Guangzhou had transitioned, in a few short decades, from a thriving global economy into a faltering economy of isolation. With this new form of globalization in place, came an increase in nationalism and regionalism; while relieving some tensions and creating new ones. Many of the martial artists of the south had been revolutionaries who now fled their homelands looking for safety, taking their martial arts with them. A great diaspora had gathered its momentum, creating a flood of political and economic refugees as they made their escapes to neighboring South East Asian countries.

Iron shirt qigong

Hing Chao points to such demographic flows during the political instability of the mid 19th century and the early 20th century “nation building” projects to explain the changes taking place within the “traditional martial arts” of both the north and the south. Hing’s research is about explaining the popular distinguishing categories of “Southern fist, Northern kicks”. However, Judkins is looking at the same material from a very different angle when he writes, “……why are we starting off with the assumption that the southern martial arts were in some substantive sense radically different from what was seen in every other region of China? Given that we have so little detailed information about these fighting systems in the 18th and early 19th centuries it may be useful to question our assumptions here. Secondly, even if these styles were different on a technical level (which, to be totally honest seems likely given the regional nature of the martial arts), should we really accept that these variations formed the basis of self-conscious conceptual categories on the part of practitioners. Put another way, when thinking about Kung Fu prior to 1850, would “Northern” vs “Southern” seem more or less relevant to a local practitioner than “Opera” vs “Militia” or “Cantonese” vs “Hakka”?”

Judkins tells us that the concept of Southern martial arts, as a category containing a unique traditional martial arts system, can only be traced back to the early 20th century; and its creation is a reflection of the development of a regional cultural identity during the “progressive strengthening” movement from 1920s-1930s, and from 1950s-present. “In short, the “discovery” and drive to preserve the southern Chinese martial arts seems to parallel the simultaneous “discovery” of a distinctive “southern” regional identity more broadly. While Hing Chao set out to discover why “Northern” techniques sometimes appear in the south, what he has actually done is to suggest a number of factors that led to the isolation, identification and reification of the southern arts as a distant expression of local identity. This can be seen in the published works of authors like Sun Lu Tang or the Jingwu Association. As the rhetoric was spread to the south by various publishing companies and reformers, local martial artists, facing new competition from northern styles, had no trouble appropriating this logic and turning it around. They were then able to argue that the local arts were in fact an expression of “southern” cultural values and worthy of veneration.” – [Ben Judkins]

Looking over my notes, I take the time to consider the information from all of the articles, essays, and research material I had gathered in preparation for writing this 12th essay of the Taiping Rebellion series. It occurs to me that, for those who have already read the preceding eleven essays, the presence of the Taiping Rebellion should be silently palpable in this discussion of distinguishing the developmental directions from which the Southern martial arts have evolved. Bits and pieces of this story are to be found in the explorations of topics from the earlier essays; as they each addressed a different angle of approach to understanding the phenomenon of the Taiping Rebellion. For those without the advantage of having read those essays, the Taiping presence in this essay may well seem lost and undeveloped. For those readers, let me explain that the essay series, is a series of which each essay is intended to add to an understanding of the whole. As such, parts overlap and reinforce each other; changing the image of the whole with the addition of each essay. Being the next to the last essay in the series, this essay joins the already well-formed globe-like structure of the Taiping Rebellion series together. “Distinguishing Directions” is an essay which also connects how we view “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts” with the realities of the world of the Taiping.

Power punch

It should be apparent to the reader by now, that the presentation of information passed down through many years of cultural influences, bring us images and impressions which are not always borne by the sound foundations of historical facts. This is true for what we think we know about the Taiping Rebellion and this is true for what we think we know about the phenomenon of Tradition Chinese Martial Arts in general, and of Tai Chi in particular. In the case of “Distinguishing Directions”, attention has been brought to the simple and seemingly innocent categorizing of China’s martial arts into Northern and Southern, and the further condensation to the catchphrase of “Southern fists, Northern kicks”. Well-meaning authors have been very generous with their time and efforts as they explain the differences between Northern and Southern Chinese martial arts; presented as a service to their readers. It bears mentioning that my intention in writing this essay and in the choosing of my words has been threefold: To bring attention to the information we accept and pass on without question; To bring attention to the relatedness of multiple causes which determine developmental directions; and, To bring attention to the Taiping Rebellion; as being greater than the sum of its parts. Hopefully, my intentions will be remembered long after my words have been forgotten; because, in time, there will come new discoveries by scholars which will either refine or refute what has been set down in writing here today. By retaining these three simple “attentions”, readers make room for their own new questionings; for the development of their own new insights; for making their own new contributions to discussions of the Taiping Rebellion and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.

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