“Internal versus External”
This is a slightly different approach to a topic on a previous blog about “internal” and bragging rights, but I’ve been thinking about the way terms are used and how confusing it is for a lot of people to decipher the jargon.
I use the phrase “internal strength” a lot because it is the best or most-convenient translation of the word “Neijin” where “nei” is “internal” and “jin” refers to the trained body usage of the forces from the earth and the air. That’s the original “internal strength”. My initial interest was in jin skills when I started doing Taiji around 1982; I didn’t really start investigating or thinking much about the dantien until the late 1980’s. So it was the “jin” in “neijin” (internal strength) that was my primary interest for a long time.
The problem with jin skills, conditioning skills, real dantien involvement, and so on, is that most of the Chinese martial arts have these things to some degree in one way or the other, but those arts are still divided into “external” and “internal”, regardless. Over the years I’ve learned to trust the idea that an “internal martial-art” tends to use the dantien more than an “external martial-art”, but there can be overlaps. It’s a good rule of thumb, though.
As I’ve mentioned before (see the blog on Silk-Reeling), it’s a fairly common Chinese martial perspective that the Six-Harmonies view of movement was predominant at an earlier time. There are still many arts that have “Liu He” (“Six Harmonies”) in their formal names, but the number of arts now actually using those movement skills has decreased greatly as hand-combat has declined in the face of distance-weapons (pistols, etc.).
The Six-Harmonies type of movement depended a lot on the dantian strength, articulation, and connection to the rest of the body. Why is that important? It added power. If you have felt a room shake from, say, someone demonstrating a powerful p’i chuan (not everyone can do this in Xingyi) or a room shake during a standing one-legged shake from a Chen-style expert, you would better understand that this type of power is unusual. How does that relate to actual martial-application? That’s something worth investigating and thinking about on your own. What are the roles of the dantian in Six-Harmonies movement? More than most people in the West understand, if you read some of the wild comments on current martial web-forums. It’s all an interesting puzzle.
Can someone not using Six-Harmonies movement be strong through neigongs (internal exercises, usually involving breath, pressure, beating of the body, and other things)? Of course they can be strong and hit very hard. But to focus on just strength is to miss the point and the many factors that make Six-Harmonies movement so complex and interesting.
Is a different type of training “internal” even though it does not depend on dantian-centered movement. Well, that’s the common confusion: there is a difference between a style that strengthens the internal membranes, tendons, and so on, and a style that truly moves in the manner of one of the “internal martial arts”. It’s a common debate with no resolution in sight.
The point, though, is that the old famous Six Harmonies type of movement, using the dantian, was considered the peak of martial-movement styles in the old days and that’s why so many of today’s arts, whether “internal” or “external” still quote from the classical admonitions that were attached to Six-Harmonies movement.
This type of actual movement (as opposed to someone claiming it, but not actually doing it), is probably the easiest distinguishing mark of what would nominally be the “internal martial-arts” as compared to those that are “external”. It’s tricky to differentiate all the arts into one category or another, but I’d suggest that actual, not superficial or partial, use of Six-Harmonies movements would be one of the best movement-skills to look at to determine what is “internal”.
Is your style “internal”? Well, it’s pretty easy to spot in the basic movement, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get an opinion from a real expert. It’s similar to watching much of the bull-like struggles that amateurs often call “push-hands”… a lot of Chinese experts I’ve seen just shrug and say “that’s not Taijiquan”. It’s fairly easy for an expert to see what is missing, not just in Taijiquan, but in six-harmonies movement; it’s easy for an amateur to not see what he does not know in the first place. We all go through that as part of the process.
Many very different types of training resulting in very different types of body conditioning are passed off as being “internal strength”. In other words, there are so many conflicting stories out there that it’s probably wise to do as much investigation as possible before committing yourself to years of study.