Since ancient times, martial arts practice has been deeply rooted in Chinese culture and lifestyle. The Chinese have developed various martial arts styles throughout history, which have greatly influenced and inspired the creation of many other martial arts around the globe.
With that in mind, have you ever wondered how many different styles of Chinese martial arts exist and how they are categorized?
Overall, Chinese martial arts styles can be classified based on their geography and philosophy. The most common classification is based on geography, with “Southern” styles like Wing Chun and “Northern” styles like Shaolin Kung Fu.
Philosophical classification is based on styles that can be classified as either “External,” which emphasizes strength and cardio, or “Internal,” which centers around manipulating energy and force within, which is known as “qi” energy.
Let’s explore the history and popular styles of Chinese martial arts.
History of Chinese Martial Arts
Legend has it that Chinese martial arts practice dates back 4,000 years to the Xia Dynasty. The story goes that the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, a mythological figure, developed the earliest combat systems to help the military. These systems focused mainly on grappling techniques and weapon training for Chinese soldiers.
However, the first evidence of martial arts practice in China points to “juélì,” a wrestling-based system developed in the 5th century BCE. Apart from wrestling, juélì also included hard and soft striking, joint locks, and pressure point attacks. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE), there was weapon-based practice (shoubo) and sports (juélì).
The first organized Chinese martial arts began to emerge with the establishment of Shaolin temples (500 CE). The first Buddhist monks, Huiguang, Sengchou, and Huike, were skilled in martial arts, possibly due to their military background before joining the monastic life. The trio developed a system that would later become known as “Shaolin Kung Fu” during the Ming dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries.
At this moment, it’s worth mentioning that “Kung Fu” is an umbrella term. People outside of China tend to use it to describe a single fighting style. But in reality, kung fu is a general term for just about all Chinese armed, unarmed, or hybrid combat practices.
The popularity of Kung Fu styles skyrocketed in the 20th century with the changes within Chinese society, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and the creation of the Chinese Republic. During this transition, martial arts practice became more accessible to the general public.
The Chinese government created numerous organizations that utilized martial arts as a means to boost national strength and pride. Some of the styles that emerged during the Republican period were:
- Drunken Boxing
- Wing Chun
- Tai Chi
However, Chinese martial arts would undergo another reform during the Chinese Civil War and later the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1969–1976). During this time, they established the All-China Wushu Association to unify and standardize martial arts practice. Wushu practice was also integrated into the educational system and became an integral element of Chinese popular culture.
Chinese Martial Arts Styles
Throughout history, the Chinese have created over one hundred different styles. Each of these styles has different characteristics, philosophies, legends, principles, techniques, and religious influences. As you would assume, this makes classifying these arts quite difficult.
To simplify it all and make it easier to understand, let’s classify the most popular Chinese systems into four different styles based strictly on their orientation:
- Striking arts
- Grappling arts
- Weapon-based arts
- Hybrid arts (a combination of two or more of the above arts put together)
Chinese Striking Arts
Although Wing Chun includes limited grappling techniques such as trips and throws, it is primarily known as a striking martial art. It is a self-defense combat system designed for close-range hand-to-hand combat. Its origins come from traditional Shaolin Kung Fu practices, and it is classified as a Southern Kung Fu style.
The concept of Wing Chun revolves around intercepting attacks with fast strikes. The main goal is to stick with the opponent’s centerline and back them off using rapid punches, kicks, and elbow and knee strikes.
Practitioners are trained continuously to maintain high spatial awareness, which allows them to out-position the opponent, intercept their attacks, and fire rapid counters. They stand in a narrow, relatively high stance, with their elbows slightly forward from their bodies.
Next, students learn how to use dirty tactics such as eye pokes, strikes to the groin area, or pressure points. There are also unconventional techniques, such as slapping, which is used as a defensive maneuver to force the opponent to move from their centerline.
The learning curriculum puts a lot of emphasis on forms and the execution of techniques in a soft and relaxed manner. Students must learn how to control their minds, breathing, and energy to develop Chi. But unlike many other similar arts, modern Wing Chun includes sparring. This is where students simulate self-defense scenarios to learn how to apply these techniques in real life.
In the Western world, Wing Chun was popularized by the famous grandmaster, Ip Man, who is directly responsible for spreading the art outside of China. Ip Man’s most famous student was the actor Bruce Lee, who would later move to the US, where he became a martial arts icon.
Chinese Grappling Arts
Shuai Jiao is one of the oldest Chinese martial arts; it was developed over 6,000 years ago and is considered a precursor to Chinese wrestling. The word “Shuai” stands for “to throw onto the ground,” while Jiao translates to “wrestle or trip using the legs.”
It is believed that this style has emerged from Jacket wrestling, where two contestants wear jackets and belts and use them to take each other down and subdue them on the ground utilizing pins and joint locks. The system emphasizes skill, technique, explosive strength, weight distribution, balance, and grip strength.
- Gear — Shuai Jiao Gi jacket, which is very similar to Kyokushin karate, Gi pants (Shuai Jiao Kuzi), shoes, and belt.
- Age limit — 18–45 years
- Match format — continuous sparring where the match is stopped only for offenses and warnings.
- Match duration — each match includes 2 rounds, with each round being 3 minutes long. Women’s matches last 2 minutes. In case of a draw, there is a 3rd round, which is 90 seconds. If contestants are tied after a 3rd round, the match continues, where the first contestant to win the point wins the match.
- Points: 3 points for a perfect throw. The opponent must land on their back. 2 points for throws where the opponent’s knee, hands, or elbows touch the mat. 1 point is given to the contestant who forces their opponent out of bounds or if they land on top of their opponent after a throw.
- A competitor that manages to gain a 6-point lead automatically wins the round.
Over centuries, Shuai Jiao has developed into various sub-styles throughout the country. The most common are:
- Zhili/Hebei style
- Beijing style
- Tianjin style
- Boading style
- Shanxi style
- Mongolian style
Chinese Weapon-Based Arts
China has a long history of combining different weapons with its traditional martial arts practices. As a result, the majority of systems that are categorized as “hand-to-hand” also have military variations that include different types of weapon training. A good example is Wing Chun, a style of Kung Fu primarily designed for unarmed combat that also includes butterfly swords.
Generally, there are eighteen main weapons utilized in Chinese martial arts, known as the “Eighteen Arms of Wushu.” However, there exist various versions of the “Eighteen Arms,” such as Wuzazu, Shaolin, and Water Margin.
It is unclear where the list of 18 weapons originated from, and there has been controversy about which weapons are supposed to be among the eighteen. In spite of the disagreement, all different versions of the eighteen-armed list share at least one or more of the following weapons:
|Wuzazu list of eighteen weapons|
|2. Bow and Arrow|
|4. Chinese sword (Dao)|
|6. Hand-to-hand combat (considered a part of a weapon)|
|7. Hoko yari (spear)|
|8. Ji (spear)|
|9. Jian (double-edged straight sword)|
|10. Jian (sword breaker)|
|12. Mace (a club with a heavy head on top)|
|14. Qiang (spear)|
|15. Rake (Toothead bar fixed to a handle)|
|16. Rope Javelin|
|18. Trident (three-pronged spear)|
Chinese Hybrid Arts
Jeet Kune Do
Editor’s note: Some people consider Jeet Kune Do (JKD) to be a system rather than a martial art. There is debate about whether JKD should be classified as a Chinese or American martial art.
Bruce Lee, a legendary martial artist, created the self-defense combat system known as Jeet Kune Do (JKD). In some ways, JKD shares similarities with MMA in that it aims to train fighters for all styles of combat, including striking and ground fighting. This is because Lee himself believed a real “fighter” must be adaptable to any situation in combat and not bound by any specific style.
Bruce Lee challenged the norm that one particular fighting style was superior to others during his time. This was a very controversial view since all martial artists believed at the time in the superiority of their fighting style. However, Bruce believed that a fighter should be open to learning any style of fighting technique that could be useful in combat, rather than being limited to just one style.
For this reason, Lee believed in cross-training in various martial arts to avoid the rigidity of any one style. He believed that true art should evolve and incorporate useful techniques from other styles of fighting.
As a result, Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do (JKD) by combining various fighting styles with a core philosophy of continual evolution, simplicity, and avoiding limitations. This philosophy is the central focus of JKD teachings.
Thus, he designed a hand-to-hand system that includes only the most effective techniques from different martial arts, such as:
Sanda (or Sanshou) is also known as the Chinese kickboxing. But it is considered a hybrid martial art as it also includes grappling techniques.
The concept primarily revolves around punching and kicking at close range. Practitioners can also execute different types of wrestling takedowns, throws, trips, sweeps, and, in some rule sets, strikes using elbows and knees. The majority of techniques originate from martial arts, such as:
- Kung Fu
- Shuai Jiao
Although Sanda includes standup grappling, practitioners are not allowed to strike grounded opponents or subdue them with joint locks or chokes. This makes Sanda quite similar to Japanese shootboxing, which has similar rules. Cung Le is an example of a successful Sanda practitioner who has competed and won in various MMA promotions, including the UFC.
The main governing body responsible for promoting the sport is the “International Wushu Federation. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also recognizes the sport, which suggests that it might one day be an Olympic sport. There is also the military variation known as “Junshi Sanda,” created for Chinese military.
Sanda attacks and defends, utilizing all parts of the body as weapons, which are based on four core techniques:
- Upper body striking (Da) — punching with closed fists, open hands, elbows, shoulder strikes, forearms, fingers, and headbutts.
- Lower body striking (Ti) — different types of kicks, stomps, and knees.
- Throws (Shuai) — takedowns, trips, and throws that originate from wrestling and Judo.
- Seizing (Chin-Na) — joint locks and chokeholds.
Why Are Chinese Martial Arts Not Used in MMA?
While some Chinese martial arts styles can be very effective in MMA, traditional Chinese martial arts, in general, have digressed due to ineffective teaching methods and a lack of realism. As a result, this has hindered the evolution of Chinese martial arts in modern times and hurt practitioners’ ability to demonstrate their skills’ effectiveness in real-life situations.
For this reason, most MMA fighters do not incorporate Chinese martial arts into their training due to skepticism about their effectiveness.
Many traditional Chinese martial arts styles prioritize forms and chi energy, but these may not necessarily improve one’s fighting abilities. Additionally, some styles may overly focus on one aspect, such as intercepting attacks.
Muay Thai fighters, for example, spar daily to practice applying techniques against a fully resisting opponent. However, Kung Fu students rarely get the opportunity to spar, as it is not typically included in their training.
Generally speaking, Chinese martial arts have maintained their traditional forms of teaching and learning that have deviated from the practicality of real-life situations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it does make it less probable that MMA fighters will utilize Chinese martial arts techniques without first witnessing their effectiveness in actual combat.
LEARN MORE: Why Are There No Kung Fu Fighters in MMA?