New Article From Phillip Starr: Is Your Martial Arts Practice “Hard Style” or “Soft Style?”

Posted by – April 23, 2014
Categories: Martial Arts

Phillip Starr writes,

Is your style of karate or kung-fu considered a “hard style” or a “soft style?”  Most Western practitioners of these disciplines are able to answer this question in a heartbeat.  They may elaborate on the subject a bit, but they immediately understand the question and what it implies; “hard styles” rely on the development and application of brute, muscular force while “soft styles” emphasize relaxation, minimal muscular effort, and the utilization of qi (internal power).  I remember when the terms “hard style” and “soft style” were first introduced to Western martial arts enthusiasts by the martial arts media back in the 1960’s.  I’d never heard of these phrases and I asked my teacher, Master W. C. Chen about them.  I was astounded when I saw that he was every bit as confused as I was.  These appellations have never been used in China or any other part of Asia.  They were, as nearly as I can determine, created by the martial arts magazines of the day.

Some karate and kung-fu enthusiasts elaborate a bit further and explain that “hard styles” utilize techniques that travel in straight lines and “soft styles” promote the use of circular techniques.  I’ve never understood how anyone could accept this terribly flawed explanation and when would ask for some elaboration, the answers I received were almost comical.  “We use straight punches”, they would say.  I would counter this statement and remind them that the so-called “soft styles” utilize exactly the same type of forefist thrust.  Moreover, this type of direct punch employs a (circular) turn of the hips as well as a (circular) screwing motion of the wrist just prior to contact.

Not to be so easily dissuaded, they would argue that their kicks were directed along a straight path.  They would happily demonstrate a front snap kick and a side thrust kick as proof of this.  I countered easily and showed them that both kicks travel along arcs (as they must, since they are chambered from the height of the kicker’s knee).  I would also show them techniques such as sword-hand and backfist strikes, both of which travel along semi-circular paths.

Even so, they would not be dissuaded.  “Our blocking techniques are circular but our punches are straight”, they argued.  I had to shrug my shoulders.  There’s no point in quibbling with a closed mind.  Their convictions were based on remarks made in their favorite monthly martial arts publications, so there could be no doubt as to their validity, right?

You bet.

These were the same magazines that avowed that “soft styles” such as taijiquan and baguazhang didn’t require the application of any muscular effort whatsoever.  Many aspiring martial arts masters understood this to mean that any “98 lb. weakling” could easily become an expert at time travel by knocking his larger opponent into next week!  The few taiji schools that were available were soon packed to the gills with students and the cash flowed quickly and easily.  But the truth got lost in there somewhere.

Some karateists prided themselves on practicing systems that were touted as being both hard and soft.  Goju-ryu is a prime example.  “Go” means “hard”, they would say.  And “ju” means “soft.”  So there you have it, right?

No, not quite.  Like the early practitioners of judo, who believed that the “ju” of judo meant “soft, gentle”, they didn’t bother to learn something of the Japanese language and culture.  The word “ju” does NOT mean “soft.”  Not by a long shot.  Rather, it refers to a type of pliability such as we might see with the flexible limbs of a young tree.  Push against it and it gives way easily.  It does not, however, collapse entirely.  When you release it, the limb will snap back to it’s original shape.  This kind of elasticity is what “ju” refers to.

All martial arts, from karate to kendo, aikido, kung-fu and kendo underscore the importance of doing more with less.  That’s a fancy way of saying that one shouldn’t use any more (muscular) strength than is absolutely necessary.  Ever.  A highly skilled practitioner of karate, which is generally referred to as a “hard style”, will perform his techniques with celerity but without excessive brute force.  I have trained and socialized with some of the finest karate masters of the last century such as Hidetaka Nishiyama and Seiyu Oyata.  Their techniques were crisp and quick, delivered with minimal muscular effort.  To the novice, such techniques would appear to be lacking any real destructive power but those senior practitioners who had had the dubious pleasure of being on the receiving end of those techniques knew better.

At the same time, I have known a great many practitioners of taijiquan who prided themselves on their ability to push a foe some distance.  The fact is that their pushing technique was seriously flawed and was more of what I call  a”shove” rather than a “push.”  And in any case, I’ve never known a push to end a serious conflict!  Taijiquan, as well as baguazhang and xingyiquan (the three classical “sister” styles that are generally referred to as “soft” or “internal”) utilize a wide variety of punching, striking, and kicking techniques that, when applied correctly, are terrifically powerful.  But if you’re thinking of finding someone who can demonstrate such skill to you, you’d best plan to travel for a long, long time.  Such skill nowadays in the “soft styles” is extremely rare, even in China.

The terms “external style/school” (waijia) and “internal style/school” (neijia) are often used interchangably with “hard” and “soft”, respectively.  Again, such phrases are rarely used in China.  They were originally coined by a famous teacher of the neijia, Sun-Lutang, back in the 1930’s.  Some people argue that they actually refer to where a given style originated; those that originated outside of China were called “waijia” and those that were native to the Middle Kingdom (that’s China for you rednecks) were referred to as “neijia.”  Put simply, this argument is wrong.

Sun wanted to differentiate between styles that rely on the development of “coiling power” (chansi-jin) and the manipulation of small, inconspicuous, internal tissues and those that focus solely on the use of the larger, overt muscle groups.  Such a distinction does, in fact, exist.  Most contemporary karate styles do not utilize coiling power at all.  However, my research indicates that the early Okinawan forms of karate did.  Over the generations, most of this information has been lost or forgotten.  However, this would qualify such styles as forms of neijia!  That statement probably won’t help me win any martial arts popularity contests, but it’s true.

So, hard or soft, internal or external, what counts is that you learn to perform your techniques and form correctly.  Hard and soft eventually become one.  And THAT is where real skill lies.

PHILLIP STARR began studying martial arts in 1956, including judo, Kyokushin karate, Shito-ryu karate, Baixingquan (a form of Northern Shaolin kung fu), baguazhang, taijiquan, xingyiquan, and Filipino arnis. In 1976 he won the United States Karate Association’s Grand Championships, becoming the first kung-fu stylist to win the title of National Champion. He is also a two-time winner of the Amateur Athletic Union’s Chinese Martial Arts National Tournament. He has authored four books on the martial arts: The Making Of A Butterfly, Martial Mechanics, Martial Maneuvers, and Hidden Hands, as well as numerous articles for various magazines and e-magazines, including Inside Kung Fu and Truwaza. Starr lives in Liuzhou City, Guangxi, China.

Tags: Chinese Martial Arts Kung Fu

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