The concept of a style is a rather complicated one, and Chinese martial arts claim as many as 1500 different styles. By "style" we mean a particular school of martial practice, with its own training methods, favored techniques, and emphasis on attack and defense. While it is impossible to quantify differences between most styles, it is easy to see the distinctions between such disparate approaches to combat as practiced by Tiger, Crane, and Monkey stylists. In choosing a style (a contemporary priviledge; traditionally, styles were assigned by the teachers), try to find one that suits your physical attributes, interests, and sense of utility. It does no good to study the graceful single-leg and flying techniques of White Crane if you have the flexibility and grace of a turtle! On the other hand, and gung fu practice will enhance your physical skills, dexterity, and alertness, and it is not uncommon for a beginner in one style to change to a more "appropriate" style later. Whatever else may be said of styles, the first year basics are almost universal--punches, kicks, and stances show little variation at the beginner's level.
Hard vs. Soft, External vs. Internal
The concept of hard/soft and external/internal is not one easily described. In terms of styles which most people are familar with, Karate would be an example of a hard style and Aikido or T'ai Chi examples of soft styles. A hard style is generally considered one where force is used against force; a block is used to deflect an incoming strike by meeting either head on, or at a 90 degree angle. A soft style does not use force against force, but rather deflects the incoming blow away from its target. There are uses for both hard and soft techniques. A practitioner may wish to break the attacker's striking arm with the block. On the other hand, a much smaller opponent would not be able to accomplish this, so instead may wish to deflect the incoming attack.
An external style is one which relies primarily in strength and physical abilities to defeat an opponent. In contrast, an internal style is one that depends upon ch'i and timing rather than power. Aikido (at the master's level) would be an internal style, while most karate styles are external. However, the concepts of hard/soft internal/external are finding fewer proponents among senior martial artists. Both conceptual twins are impossible to separate in reality, and masters will generally acknowledge that any distinction is largely only a mattter of subjective interpretation. Arguments about the reality of the concepts are often waged by novices and philosophical dilettantes, ignorant of the inseparable nature of duality. They see yin and yang as elements that can exist independently, while philosophical and physical reasoning demonstrate that they cannot. Without their union (=tao), neither can exist. Ergo, a "hard" technique such as a straight fist is guided by the soft power of mind and the internal component of ch'i. Equally, the sofest projection of aikido requires the "hard" element of physical contact and movement, coupled with actively redirecting the opponent. In short, preoccupation with distinguishing soft from hard is a distraction from learning martial arts and moving towards a unifying technique and mastery.
Gung Fu Styles
Gung Fu styles may generally be divided into three classes: Shaolin Temple styles, temple-derived non-temple styles, and family styles, or pai. Within the Temple styles are those arts generally and consistantly taught in the temples, with many having their origins in pre-Shaolin history. There are two major divisions in Shaolin Kung Fu. The southern temples are predominantly hand technique oriented, while northern temples put more emphasis on kicks and foot techniques.
The northern Shaolin styles primarily consist of Northern Praying Mantis, Black Crane, and Black Tiger.
The southern Shaolin styles primarily consist of White Crane, Tiger, Dragon, Leopard, Snake, and Southern Praying Mantis.
There were also styles that had their roots in the Shaolin temples, such as Wing Chun and Hung Gar. Many of the movements were representations of the behavior of animals. A system sometimes comprised the maneuvers of one specific animal and no other. All the blocks, attacks and stances were done in imitation of the bird or beast. Each system had certain aspects peculiar to it since each of the animals was designed differently by nature. However, most styles were not so rigid and limited; northern praying mantis, for example, uses mantis and tiger hand techniques, and monkey and generic northern style footwork.
Differences Between the Styles
In general terms, the styles followed specific training objectives (but there are always exceptions). The dragon movements were devised to develop alertness and concentration. These movements were executed without the application of strength, but with emphasis on breathing in the lower abdomen along with the coordination of mind, body and spirit. Movements are long, flowing and continuous, and provided Shaolin practitioners with the equivalent of t'ai chi or pakua.
The tiger movements were formed to develop the bones, tendons and muscles. The execution of these movements was the opposite of that of the dragon, since emphasis was placed on strength and dynamic tension. Movements are short, snappy and forceful.
The snake movements were used to develop temperament and endurance. Breathing was done slowly, deeply, softly and harmoniously. Movements are flowing and rippling with emphasis on the fingers. The crane movements were used to develop control, character and spirit. Emphasis is placed on light, rapid footwork and evasive attacking techniques. Movements in the one-legged stance are performed with a considerable amount of meditation.
The Shaolin systems were developed from animal actions and were divided into low systems and high systems. The list used below is from the temple from the Honan province during the Ch'ing dynasty. The low systems of the Shaolin were choy li fut, crane, cobra, and tiger. The high systems ofthe order were snake, dragon, Wing Chun, and praying mantis. The primary features that separate high from low are the fantastic economy of movement and the differences in application of ch'i in the high systems. The low systems were so called because they had their basis both in physical maneuvers and in earthly creatures. Choy li fut was based on a posture called a riding horse stance, so called because when adopted, one appeared to be straddling a horse. The movements are very stiff and hard, depending primarily on muscular power to perform adequately. There are only three kicks in the original system, although recently the style has adopted many techniques ofthe Northern Shaolin system. According to legend, it was designed for use on the house boats of the south where a stable stance and powerful hand techniques were necessary. The certain portion of its history is that the system was named for two Chinese boxing masters, Choy and Li. Fut means Buddha, serving in this instance to refer to the Shaolin temple's Buddhist influence.
The next system is crane, one of the traditional Shaolin systems. A legend is also attached to its birth. One day a monk stumbled on a battle between an ape and a crane. It seemed as if the ape would rend the bird in two. However, the bird continually stymied the ape, flapping its wings and darting in and out with its beak; at last the animal was driven away. The graceful movements of the bird were copied as well as its one leg stance. The principle weapons of the system are its long range kicks and a hand formation, the crane's beak.
The cobra system is a strange, nearly dead system. Its basis is a stance that resembles a cobra risen from the grass with spread hood. The maneuvers are strictly defensive in nature, devastatingly effective and swift. Cobra is designed for speed and tenacity for once the reptile strikes, it hangs on and makes certain that its opponent will die. Most of its techniques are hand maneuvers aimed at the eyes and throat. It is primarily a dim mak style.
Tiger is another natural system, this the opposite of crane. It is a vicious method of fighting utilizing powerful kicks and grim clawing motions. Like the tiger, its practitioner fights fiercely, rending, tearing and breaking any open space of skin or limb that is left unguarded. It is highly defensive in nature, waiting until being backed into a comer, then unleashing an unstoppable assault. Its principle hand weapon is the tiger claw, also useful for unarmed defense against weapons. By clasping the weapon between the hands or enmeshing it in the crushing grip of the hand, the enemy's advantage is lost.
Snake is an interface between the high systems and low systems. It is one of the easiest systems to learn and also one of the most deadly. The reason that it is a transition system is because it has the movements of a spiritual system and the physical applications of a low system. The spiritual movements are all flowing and continuous, akin to the movements of a cloud. Physical applications of such movements are seen by the stabbing hand motions to the face, throat and genitals. Ch'i is present in the practitioner as his body mimics a snake in its coiling, undulating motions; for only through ch'i can the proper flow be achieved to allow the technique to work. It is an earthly animal by nature, yet still somewhat spiritual due to its mysterious character. The snake has thus been appointed as the guardian ofthe dragons.
The basis of the dragon systems is ch'i, the inner power of Taoism. The movements and applications of the dragon systems are dependent on the use of ch'i. The special flow that distinguishes it from the flow ofthe crane system is due to ch'i. Also, the ch'i is substituted for muscular strength. For example, a tiger stylist would break a rock by sheer force and physical technique, while a dragon stylist would shatter it by ch'i projection.
The praying mantis has as its watchwords silence and determination. Although it is a physical system in terms of its origin, it nonetheless is classified as a high system. Praying mantis warrants its prominence because of its extreme efficiency. Despite the fact that it is hand oriented and lacks the fancy leg maneuvers of dragon, it is versatile and overpowering. Characteristic of mantis, as well as dragon and snake, is the virtual lack of blocks. Since blocks are inefficient, the high systems follow the advice of the ancient sages and yield in order to conquer. Also, it combines ch'i and extreme awareness to be virtually invincible.
The systems of the Shaolin can be arranged on the pyramid illustrated below. The best method for this is to take the tiger family as a representative of the low systems and the dragon family as a representative of the high systems. The remaining Shaolin systems will be placed in the appropriate tiers singly.