Wing Chun Kungfu & Chen Taijiquan Compared & Contrasted Pt.1


Here we have two branches of classical Chinese martial arts that are amongst the most widely practiced of all Chinese martial arts throughout the world. On outward appearances, it would seem these arts could not be more different from one another, because Wing Chun Kungfu follows the straight-line principle and Chen Taijiquan follows the circle. But the closer we look, and with more direct personal experience, we come to see there are as many similarities as there are differences.

While Wing Chun certainly offers health benefits, due to its internal training (Neigong more commonly known as Qigong today), most learn it primarily for developing self-protection skills. Few, if any, take up Wing Chun purely as a health activity. In the case of Chen Taijiquan, on the other hand, while it is a formidable battle-tested martial art that still attracts those seeking to develop the combat aspect, many study purely for its comprehensive health benefits. In a sense, Chen Taijiquan can be considered a complete system of Qigong, due to its Standing Pole (Zhan Zhuang) and Silk-Reeling Energy (Chan Si Jin) and, truth be told, it is more beneficial and efficacious than many Qigong styles in the world today that offer only some simplistic movement, stretching and relaxation. But, to really know Taijiquan both form and application must be studied.

In a sense, Wing Chun and Chen Taijiquan can even be considered complementary to one another (though they were by no means created to be). This may be why there are many Sifus, across various continents, offering both arts. They may have learned themselves from Sifus offering both skills or they may have sought out different teachers in the respective skills. The essential difference between the two is the very reason they are complementary. Similarly, there are teachers that offer Xingyiquan (Form of Intention Fist) which is linear, and Baguazhang (Eight Trigram Palm based on Daoist Scripture of Change or Yijing) which is circular, together for the same reasons.

Both arts were created around the same time, around four hundred years ago; at the end of Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Both have their roots in Shaolin Temple, as do most Chinese martial arts. Wing Chun reportedly originated from Buddhist nun Ng Mui, a skilled martial artist, who escaped the sacking of southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province, and devised a new style of fighting, based upon her observation of a snake and crane fighting. Ng Mui passed the skill to Yim Wing Chun, from whence the art took its name. Wing Chun is not like most other Shaolin Gongfu styles that are based on individual animal behaviors. It is more upright, more compact, and features unique hand shapes, techniques and combinations not found in other styles.

Taijiquan originated from Chen Village (Chenjiagou), in Wenxian County, Henan province which is only around fifty miles away from the Northern Shaolin Temple, located in Dengfeng County, also in Henan province. Martial arts had already existed within the Chen family for generations. Taijiquan was created by accomplished military general Chen Wangting, the ninth-generation patriarch, in his retirement. He devised an eclectic martial art by combining General Qi Jiguang’s Canon of Boxing (an assimilation of 16 schools of martial art) with several Shaolin Temple skills including Red Fist and Staff, and Buddha’s Warrior Eighteen Grasping Techniques, along with special techniques from various contemporary masters, covering striking, kicking, grasping, and throwing etc. The physical martial techniques were then combined with his knowledge of internal training (at that time known as Daoyin and Tu Na), and Traditional Chinese Medicine’s theory of the channels and collaterals, together with the principles of Daoist philosophy (Ying/ Yang, Five Elements) found within Yijing (Scripture of Change) and Dao De Jing (Scripture of The Way and Virtue).

With both styles, internal work is the most important aspect, providing the foundation training for all their advanced skills as well as for health and longevity. In fact, there is a saying, “Practicing wushu (martial arts) without internal training will amount to naught”. The “training” here does not mean merely learning: it means working the skill until it is ingrained and has become internal and inseparable from the individual. Otherwise, we just have beautiful forms and impressive punches and kicks, and techniques, that will not serve us well into old age. Internal training requires mental and physical relaxation, sinking Qi, and storing Qi (for health) and strengthening the legs. Trained relaxation means the mind remains calm under pressure, unflappable and most importantly, flexible and adaptable. With tension reduced to minimal the movement of the limbs function optimally and most naturally, which means most effectively. So many modern Western trained fighters and martial artists supplement bodybuilding and weightlifting for strength and know nothing of internal training. This only makes the body bulkier and stiffer, which equals loss of speed, reflexes and reaction time. True power comes from speed, and from the legs (hence the hours of stance training required that ignorant martial artists consider “a waste of time”).

The first section of Wing Chun’s first form, Siu Lim Tao, comprises internal work exclusively. Siu Lim Tao translates literally as “Small Thinking Head”, but it means a method to minimize thoughts; in other words, to empty the mind. An empty mind (paradoxically) equals the state of mindful awareness, a mind uncluttered that is able to receive more information, which allows for greater sensitivity of both our own internal body and of the opponent’s movement, and reaction in the present moment, at precisely the right moment. It develops patience, like a cat waiting for a mouse, and calms the emotions, both of which are necessary to avoid making rash, reckless mistakes. (Stillness also allows for wisdom to develop, and for Buddhists wisdom is the first step towards Enlightenment.) The first section should be practiced slowly, anywhere from ten minutes minimum to half an hour, but can be forty-five minutes to an hour, or even more. The longer the better! The legs and trunk remain still to develop strong legs and strong bones, which are the source of internal strength (Gong Lik) and power. Only the arms move, while maintaining specific hand shapes, extending forwards and withdrawing, along the centerline, ideally slower than the second hand on a clock. This develops internal strength and “Elbow Energy” needed to keep the arms in front of the body and maintain the defense of the center line, which is the essence of Wing Chun. Without internal training, if the arms are not strong and become tired, they will drop and also withdraw to the body, allowing the opponent space and reach. Many martial artists today skip this step and concentrate on fighting technique only. When they are beaten, they will blame the skill, and claim it is not practical while they lacked the necessary foundation.

Chen Taijiquan’s foundation/ internal training comprises Standing Pole (Zhan Zhuang), which is a form of static Qigong, for developing and storing Qi, and a type of meditation. This is even practiced by non-Taiji practitioners as a separate exercise. It is not dissimilar in principle and purpose to Wing Chun’s Siu Lim Tao; the only difference being that nothing moves outwardly at all. Internally, however, there is movement as the lungs are expanding and contracting from the work, the heart is beating, the blood flowing stronger as Qi is mobilized (and for some the legs are certainly shaking!). Like Wing Chun’s Siu Lim Tao, Chen Taijiquan’s Zhan Zhuang develops leg strength for power, drills the postural requirements of the skill, and fosters a still, calm and aware mind, relaxation of muscles and joints and sinking Qi to store and use. But, with Chen Taijiquan there is an added component which is to reinforce the Mind-Dantian connection. The primary goal of Standing Pole is to support the existence of the Dantian. The Dantian is the energy center where all the Qi in the body passes through, like a major transport hub, located within the lower abdomen and connects with the waist movement. Mind (Yi) leads Qi; and Mind, Qi, Dantian, and whole body become one. One of the gravest and most common mistakes Taijiquan practitioners make is the failure to involve Dantian in the movement, because the Mind-Dantian connection has not been formed. Without Dantian involvement the form or skill is not internal at all, and Qi cannot flow smoothly through the entire body. This not only hampers potential combat functionality, by limiting the ability to generate maximum power and neutralize the opponent’s force, but also limits its efficacy as a health exercise. Like Siu Lim Tao, Zhan Zhuang can be practiced ten minutes minimum. Twenty to thirty minutes is respectable, up to an hour is most excellent, and two hours is exceptional! With both Siu Lim Tao and Zhan Zhuang, the longer we stand the deeper we understand the skill and the internal body, and the more balanced and calm our minds become, leading to wonderful experiences of deep peace and expansive awareness.

Chen Taijiquan internal training also includes Silk-Reeling Practice (Chan Si Gong), which are isolated exercises that develop the Silk Reeling Energy (Chan Si Jin) that is or should be present throughout the entire form, for both martial application in attack and defense, advancing or retreating, and for health. It is the invisible bond, linking all the external movements together in a smooth, unbroken thread. The first goal of Silk Reeling Practice is to open the acupuncture channels and smooth the Qi, so the exercises can be practiced separately as a type of Qigong. Silk Reeling takes its name from the action of the silkworm manufacturing its silk, as the external movements of the form resemble this twining movement. Silk Reeling Practice teaches and instills the movement principles of Taijiquan, which is to unify and coordinate every part of the body through the Dantian. The action internally is like wringing the water out of a wet towel, but instead of using just the hands, it involves the whole body as if the body is wringing itself out. From the Dantian, Qi travels up the back to the shoulders and outwards along the arms to the hands and fingers and back again. Simultaneously, Qi travels down the legs, through the knees and ankles, to the toes and back. As the waist and Dantian revolve the hands rotate, outward and inward, accordingly. As the waist changes the hands change. If the waist ceases to move the hand stops. The first principle of Silk Reeling is to be natural, and not use force. So integral to Taijiquan is the spiral energy that that 16th Century master Chen Xin stated, “Taijiquan is a spiral force. If you don’t understand spiral force, you don’t know Taijiquan”.

Wing Chun, compared to Chen Taijiquan, is a relatively short system, and does not require as much space to practice. Southern styles do tend to be more compact than the northern styles. It comprises just three short empty hand forms. The first form is for internal training, releasing power (Faat Ging) and developing basic hands for defense and attack. The second form (Tsum Kiu) develops the footwork and kicking techniques, while the third form (Biu Jee) covers special and short-range techniques, especially elbow strikes and finger thrusts. There are just two weapons forms covering different ranges. These are Eight-Cutting Knives (Baat Jaam Dao) and Six- And-A-Half-Point-Pole (Luk Dim Boon Guan). Unique to Wing Chun, and one or two other southern styles, is a special training aid known as “The Wooden Dummy” (Muk Yan Jong), that takes the place of a training partner, and is used to develop correct position and distance. The Dummy form consists of one hundred and eight techniques. Wing Chun is fast and easy to learn and apply, and appeals to many for this reason alone, but difficult to master! We can learn simple self-protection techniques reasonably quickly, though to understand how to execute them most effectively, to know which techniques are best suited for different situations, and to develop sensitivity, and use the opponent’s energy against him, all the while using the least amount of energy, this is the high level of Wing Chun. And, it is impossible to acquire this rapidly; it all takes much time and experience, touching many different hands, and understanding all different types of opponent.

Chen Taijiquan, whether you study Old Frame (Laojia), a synthesis of the original forms of Chen Wangting compiled by 14th generation grandmaster Chen Changxing, or New Frame (Xinjia), created later by 17th generation grandmaster Chen Fa Ke, both consist of two barehanded forms (distilled down from an original five). The first, known simply as “First Routine” (Yilu) is eighty percent internal or soft (Rou) and twenty percent external or hard (Gang) while the Second Routine (Erlu otherwise known as Pao Choi or Cannon Fist) is the opposite i.e. eighty percent external and twenty percent internal. Together, this equals complete Taiji. The first form develops Qi, strength, and stamina. The second uses this strength, with sudden changes of direction, leaping and dodging, and more frequent releases of internal power (Fajin) or shaking force, requiring vast resources of energy. Sufficient internal energy reserves must be consistently developed and maintained through dedicated practice of Zhan Zhuang and multiple repetitions of First Routine. In fact, five repetitions of the first form are recommended to just one round of the second. Otherwise, risk of injury to the external body (back, elbow joints etc.) becomes increased and also to the internal body as depletion of internal Qi results in exhaustion and chronic fatigue over time, and then Taijiquan would become a health liability! Classical Chen Taijiquan features several weapons forms including the classical straight or double-edged Sword (Jin), Broadsword (Dao), Double Broadsword, Spear (Qiang) and Staff, and Halberd (Da Dao also known as Guan Dao), among others.

Maintaining the center is essential to both skills. However, “center” has different connotations and usage between the two. With Chen Taijiquan the center is the Dantian (located in the lower abdomen). This is the center of gravity as well as the main energy center and source of power, for both storing Qi and propelling force through the body. The Dantian must communicate with every part of the body, through the open jinglou or meridian channels. This is dependent on drilled good posture in static and in motion. Everywhere in the body that tension exists that communication is lost, so relaxation of every single part of the body. By itself, the Dantian has no force but when it connects with the body it can generate a lot of strength and power. The Dantian is like the center of a sphere and once it moves the whole body responds accordingly. It connects to the cells and muscle and bone which moves together with the hands and feet. When the Dantian is not involved in whole body movement, and able to link the power from the legs and ground to the fist, then punching alone involves just the arm, this means striking is executed with only a small fraction of its functioning potential. If the Dantian does not rotate then no part of the body should move, and when the Dantian moves every part of the body moves and is connected together, like a string of pearls, in a coordinated effort which enables the body to yield and empty to avoid force when it needs to, and affords the body powerful concentrated strength in attack.

The Dantian is used to center each movement. When the posture and balance of the Dantian are not maintained the body can be top heavy and unsteady, thereby easily controlled and defeated by the opponent. Similarly, in Taijiquan we seek to find and attack the opponent’s Dantian, all the while hiding our own center, by subtly rotating the Dantian throughout its infinite axes. This is the meaning of, “I know my opponent while my opponent does not know me”. So, the body becomes like a ball that cannot be toppled. When the Taijiquan exponent is able to turn the waist, and does so at the right time (neither too early nor too late) he can dissolve the opponent’s force (“One Ounce Deflects A Thousand Pounds”) and lead the opponent into emptiness from which it is difficult to recover. It is during the momentary recovery phase that weakness can be exploited. When the opponent’s force comes to us, and is in excess of what we can withstand, if we are unable to rotate the waist and Dantian to dissolve the force, the Mingmen acupoint (located at the base of the spine) becomes closed and Qi becomes blocked there causing the entire body to tighten up and Qi to rise (instead of sinking to the ground), thus rendering the body light and under the complete control of the opponent, making defeat almost inevitable.

When the center is discussed in Wing Chun it is not referring to the Dantian, but the center line, known as “Jik Sin”, which is the vertical line running through the middle of the body, Along this line lies the most vulnerable and sensitive areas, such as the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, solar plexus and groin. Protecting and defending this centerline is therefore most important, but it is also this centerline that is attacked on the opponent, predominantly. So, all turning to avoid attacks is done pivoting or revolving (“Shifting”) on this vertical line. Attacking the centerline also disturbs the opponent’s balance, making it difficult for him to launch any effective attack or counterattack. There is another center called Ji Ng Sin which is the meridian line that joins our Jik Sin to the Jik Sin of the opponent The concept in Wing Chun is that if you control the opponent’s centerline you control him and are always in the most advantageous position to win, and this is the shortest distance between two points, and follows the main principle of Wing Chun which is “Direct”.

Both arts emphasize the use of “Releasing Power”. This is known as “Faat Ging” in Wing Chun circles from Cantonese as it is a southern skill of Foshan, Guanzhou, and Hong Kong, and called “Fajin” in Chen Taijiquan parlance from Mandarin, with the skill coming from northern China. Releasing Power demands relaxation (“Song”) in order to achieve this, but both skills use it in different ways. The Wing Chun Centre-Line Punch (Jung Kuen) is a vertical punch, snapping out from the elbow, with the elbow down, using the three bottom smaller knuckles. The weight remains on the rear leg, with no transference of weight. This punch is safer and more defence-minded. With no commitment it is not as strong as when the weight shifts, which is why the Wing Chun punch is often used as a “chain punch” on rotation, whereby one strikes forward as the other retracts, in a position to be able to defend if counter-attacked and loaded, cocked, or primed to strike forward again in rapid succession. This kind of punching is the equivalent of the German “Blitzkrieg” or U.S. “Shock and Awe” military strategies, unbalancing and overwhelming the opponent, offering little to no time to react, until the conflict is over. The Chen Taijiquan punch is horizontal, spiraling out from the chest in a straight line, like a bullet, or an electric drill, and contacts using the two largest knuckles. The Chen punch demands the rapid transference of weight between the legs with the coordinated whipping torqueing action of the waist and revolving of the Dantian, and a rippling of the chest. The whole body expands with the strike and relaxes and contracts upon contact or extension. Due to the amount of potential power generated, when contact is made, just one punch (or two) should be sufficient to end the fight. Technically, in Taijiquan we can use Fajin with any part of the body that makes contact with the opponent and Fajjin with elbow, shoulder, and hip employs short range power.

With Wing Chun there are also two kinds of power: Long Bridge Releasing Power (Cheung Kiu Faat Ging), which means the forearm is long or extended and the power released is actually short range. This is better known in the West as the “One Inch Punch”, made famous by the late Bruce Lee. The power is released toward the end of the extension, so no energy is wasted, as opposed to the “haymaker” where the arm is brought back and wound up, primed, like cocking the hammer of a gun, and then the energy is released early. It gathers momentum along the way, generating more power, but uses more energy, and also telegraphs to the opponent which is why they can be more easily avoided or intercepted. It is the accumulation of missed punches that causes fighters to become quickly exhausted, and their need to work harder on stamina. Wing Chun also uses power released from a further distance called Dyun Kiu Faat Ging which is Short Bridge Releasing Power, but this tends to be used judiciously, or following control or trapping.

By Adam Wallace