Zhang San Feng

Copper Statute of Zhang San Feng, the First Patriarch of Internal Kungfu

Question 1

From your webpage, I do know that both Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan are extremely beneficial to health and can also be used for defending oneself. However, what does not seem too clear to me is the main difference in the benefits between these two. Is Tai Chi Chuan meant more for older people while Shaolin Kungfu is meant for younger people, or do they both give similar benefits with different styles of training? Is that why most masters I heard of practice both?

— Lim, Singapore


Both Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan are great martial arts originally developed by the Chinese but now practised by people of different race, culture and religion. While there are similar in their general aims and benefits, they are also very different in their philosophy and practice.

Generally speaking, both Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan aim to provide benefits attaining combat efficiency, health and vitality, longevity, mind expansion and spiritual joy. The details and approach, however, are quite different. For example, in their practice, Shaolin Kungfu is normally done in a fast, powerful manner, whereas Tai Chi Chuan is performed slowly and gracefully. This gives the general, but not exactly correct, impression that Shaolin Kungfu is “hard”, whereas Tai Chi Chuan is “soft”. What many people do not realize is that if we perform Shaolin Kungfu slowly, it may look like Tai Chi Chuan; and if we perform Tai Chi Chuan fast, it may look like Shaolin Kungfu.

Shaolin philosophy is Zen in nature, whereas that of Tai Chi Chuan is Taoist. Hence, Shaolin techniques are simple, direct and effective, whcih are characteristic of Zen Buddhism. Tai Chi Chuan techniques are flowing and continuous, reflecting the water process regarded as the supreme of the five elemental processes in Taoism.

Shaolin philosophy pays much attention to compassion and wisdom, the two halmarks of Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen Buddhism is a major school. Shaolin disciples, therefore, avoid hurting their opponents in combat, and meditation (the path to cosmic wisdom) constitutes an integral part of their training.

Taoist philosophy pays much attention to going along with nature, and attaining longevity and immortality. Tai Chi Chuan disciples, therefore, flow with their opponents' movements (instead of going against them), and chi kung (the art to good health and longevity, and for those who are ready, to immortality) forms an essential part of their practice.

It is not true that Shaolin Kungfu is for the young and Tai Chi Chuan for the elderly. Both arts are for people of all ages. My oldest student, Robert Trout — you may view his photograph here — started Shaolin Kungfu with me when he was 87! Tai Chi Chuan training can be very tough: most untrained youngsters cannot remain at the Tai Chi Stance for more than 5 minutes. Nevertheless, Shaolin gymnastics (not real Shaolin Kungfu) is more suitable for younger people, and Tai Chi dance (not real Tai Chi Chuan) more suitable for older people.

Whether Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan give similar benefits with different styles of training, depends on how we look at the question. In general terms, the answer is yes. In more detailed analysis, the answer is no, or sometimes yes and no.

In its widest sense the fundamental benefits of Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan are similar; in a narrower sense, they are not. For example, relatively speaking, Shaolin training makes a person agile, whereas Tai Chi Chuan training makes him stable.

In its widest sense, the fundamental training of Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan are similar: both involve the training of body, energy and mind. In a narrower sense, they are different. Relatively speaking, Shaolin training is “forceful”, whereas Tai Chi Chuan training is “graceful”.

Shaolin masters and Tai Chi Chuan masters practise only their chosen one art, not both. Some of them may know both arts, but they devote most of their time to the practice of only one. I am refering to real masters, not teachers who readily teach one or the other according to the demand on the market. If a Shaolin master teaches Tai Chi Chuan, or vice versa, it is usually due to special circumstances. If you look at history, not a single Shaolin, Tai Chi Chuan or other masters, claimed to be equally good at any other martial art.

Some recent examples are as follows: Hoong Hei Khun, Wong Fei Hoong, Chen Herng, Huo Yuan Jia and Wang Zi Ping — Shaolin masters. Yang Lu Chan, Wu Yu Xiang and Hou Wei Zhen — Tai Chi Chuan masters. Yang Lu Chan was good at Shaolin Kungfu before he learned Tai Chi Chuan from Chen Chang Xin. But after he had mastered the art, Yang Lu Chan practised and taught only Tai Chi Chuan.

Question 2

Recently I have been reading about Shaolin kungfu and have been impressed especially by the opinions and philosophies you describe on your website. It seems to me that Shaolin kungfu may be the “complete” martial art I am looking for. One good for health and spiritual development but equally effective as a fighting art.

— Janowskis, New Zealand


Shaolin Kungfu is the complete martial art. I say so not because I practise Shaolin Kungfu, but it is precisely that it is the complete martial art that I practise it. In my much younger days, if I had wanted it, I had the opportunity to practise judo, karate, taekwondo, western boxing, Siamese boxing, silat, aikido, hapkido, kendo and various styles of kungfu (including taijiquan) — indeed I practised some of them — but I have chosen to devote my time to Shaolin Kungfu because I have found it to be the greatest martial art. If I had found any art better, I would have practised that art. Please refer to Why Shaolin Kungfu is the Greatest Martial Art.

I must add that I was extremely lucky to have found real Shaolin masters to teach me real Shaolin Kungfu. Had I learned Shaolin gymnastics — which pays attention only to external form but not to training of energy and mind, and only to demonstration and not to combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation — I would probably have abandoned it for other arts like taekwondo and aikido.

Question 3

I often ask myself and my Sensei whether Aikido would be effective in a combat situation. I ask myself whether I could execute my techniques with sufficient speed and skill to be effective. I feel that while our grappling skills and general techniques work very well my experience of boxing and Wing Tsun makes me think that this may not be enough.


I shall give my honest opionion of aikido for fighting as it is asked of me, and I must stress that it is only my opinion.

I think that aikido is effective for real combat only when the opponent is not trained in martial arts. An aikido practitioner has to make many moves before he can effectively execute a typical aikido lock or throw.

If in between these many moves, the opponent makes a counter-move, such as turning the body to neutralize the leverage advantage of the aikido practitioner or moving the feet appropriately to recover balance — not to mention a strike to the eye or groin by a vicious opponent — the aikido practitioner would be unsuccessful in his effort even though he might have succeeded in his intial moves.

The beautiful aikido locks and throws we see in exhibitions are possible when the performing partner freezes his movement to allow the practitioner completes his many moves. This seldom happens in real fighting.

Moreover the aikido practitioner is seldom trained to attack. He usually responds to an opponent's attacking moves. This places the aikido practitioner in a big disadvantage.

My opinion, however, is not a slight on aikido when we realize that its founder and early masters did not intend aikido to be a fighting art. Like the founders and early masters of judo and kendo, they intended their art ot be a sport. If you enjoy aikido as a sport, you have made a good choice.

Question 4

I want to study Shaolin kungfu but I also enjoy my Aikido. In your experience can a student honestly study two systems or is it better to choose one and stick with it?


In my experience, it is always better for a student to stick to one system; he will get better result this way.

He may, and sometimes he should, learn from other systems, but his learnings are a suppliment to, not a parallel development of, his chosen system.

Question 5

Finally I wish to ask for some advice. I plan to travel early in the next year in order to study martial arts intensively and am currently researching my options. Do you accept foreign students for training in kung fu and qi gong for periods of time longer than the 1 week intensive course (i.e. 2-3 months)?


For your study (and practice) of martial arts, my advice is as follows:

  1. Study (but not yet practise) both the scope and depth of various martial arts.
  2. Evaluate your needs and aspirations, as well as the sacrifice (like time, effort and money) you are prepared to make to attain your needs and aspirations.
  3. Decide on, in an order of preference, a few martial arts that can serve your needs and aspirations with the sacrifice you are ready to make. You have to be practical, not idealistic, in your decision-making. Many people, for example, may dream of practising kungfu in an exotic temple, but this is not practical for most of them.
  4. Sample (by practising) these few martial arts in your surrounding areas, if your priority for practising martial arts is not very high, and then select one to stick to. If you are convinced that your selected martial art can substantially enrich your life, spend some time searching for the best availble teacher, then learn from him.

Again, you need to be practical. For example, ideally you may want to practise Shaolin Kungfu. But if you examine your needs and aspirations realistically, you may find that because combat efficiency is actually not so necessary in today's law-abiding society, and that you may cultivate spiritually in other ways, you may decide to stick to aikido after all.

For various reasons, I am at present not accepting students for longer periods than those stated in my intensive courses.

Wudang Temple

Purple-Summit Temple at Wudang Mountain where Internal Kungfu originated

Question 6

I read from books that a large number of Tai Chi Chuan masters including Chang San Feng, Yang Lu Chan, Chen Wang Ting and even you, reached the profundity of Tai Chi Chuan, thereby fighting effectively because once they all had already practiced Shaolin Kungfu which familiarized them with different attacks and finally helped them to defeat enemies easily with Tai Chi Chuan tactics.

— Bodhi, United Kingdom


Congratulations for your sharp observation. This is very perceptive of you.

Indeed, the greatest of Tai Chi Chuan masters, Chang San Feng, Yang Lu Chan and Chen Wang Teng practised Shaolin Kungfu earlier and were expert at it.

Surprisingly, I have not thought of it before. Thank you for pointing this out.

Question 7

Does this mean that Tai Chi Chuan in combat situations can be powerfully developed only for those who have already practiced Shaolin techniques before?


While it is true that Tai Chi Chuan masters who also have been trained in Shaolin Kungfu before, have a far wider range of techniques and therefore they will be in an advantageous position when they employ Tai Chi Chuan tactics (like the great masters you mentioned above), I do not think having learnt Shaolin Kungfu previously, while advantageous, is a necessary factor to powerful combat in Tai Chi Chuan.

In his fights where he defeated all challengers, Yang Lu Chan used Tai Chi Chuan techniques and tactics. In fact, he mainly usd the Tai Chi Chuan pattern “Grasping Sparrow's Tail”.

On the other hand, one may also argue that Yang Lu Chan could fight superbly because he had prior Shaolin training, which I think was probably true. But there were also Tai Chi Chuan masters, like his son Yang Jian Hou and his contemporary Chen Jing Ping, who had not practised Shaolin Kungfu before, and could fight very well using purely Tai Chi Chuan.

Question 8

Even today, several people turn to be fond of Tai Chi Chuan after they have long practiced Karate etc.


Yes, and I think they have made a wise choice. In my opinion, Karate training is only “hard”, which is, at a high level, disadvantageous to both combat efficiency and health. All things being equal, which is seldom true, at a high level a “hard” style martial artist is no match against one with internal force.

This, of course, does not mean that Karate practitioners will be defeated by Tai Chi Chuan practitioners; in fact the reverse is generally true today, because the majority of those who practise Tai Chi Chuan, or more correctly Tai Chi forms, do not develop internal force and train sparring.

Question 9

Could you also exemplify Tai Chi Chuan exponents who solely practiced Tai Chi Chuan and could fight effectively in the past.


Two modern examples are Wu Gong Yi and Wong Seng Yen.

In the 1940s or 50s in Hong Kong, some martial artists from White Crane Kungfu commented that Tai Chi Chuan could not be used for fighting. Subsequently a public match, with the proceedings going to charity, was arranged between the Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan master Wu Gong Yi and the White Crane master, who was well known for his fighting ability and also much younger than the Tai Chi Chuan master.

It was a much publicized fight. When blood was flowing profusely from the White Ctane Master's face, the referee stopped the match and declared it a draw. It was a tribute to both sides that they gracefully accepted the referree's wise decision, and remained friendly.

(Editorial Note: The above answer was written before videos became widely available. Later, after viewing the fight shown in YouTube, Sifu Wong said he was quite disappointed.)

In the 1950s in Singapore a duel was arranged between a Malaysian Tai Chi Chuan master Wong Seng Yen and a Singaporean international wrestling champion. The wrestler was in his prime age, whereas Wong Sen Yen was in his 50s. It was a serious duel.

Both combatants signed an agreement that should there be injury or death, no one would be held responsible. But the match was to be conducted with a referee and umpires awarding points. Wong Seng Yen went round visiting his old friends telling them it might be the last time he saw them.

In the match Wong Seng Yen, using purely Tai Chi Chuan techniques and tactics, easily threw the wrestler about. I could not remember the exact points, but they were something like 359 to 0. The wrestler could not even score a single point!

Manifesting the qualities of a great master he was, Wong Seng Yen did not hurt the wrestler, he merely bounced him off; a lesser fighter would have smashed the wrestler's head or at least broken some of his bones.

Taijiquan combat

The Malaysia Taijiquan master, Sifu Wong Seng Yen, bouncing off his opponent, an international wrestling champion, in a public match. This picture is reproduced from an old kungfu magazine which reported the match.

Question 10

You have already said in your book that “If you want to be effective in self-defence you must develop internal force and practise combat applications” (The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan, p.64). This seems to mean that Tai Chi Chuan is an absolutely independent martial arts. Could you please explain more?


Yes, Tai Chi Chuan is an absolutely independent martial art. By itself, absolutely without having to take anything whatsoever from outside — like taking warm-up exercises from the West, chi kung exercises from other chi kung types, fighting techniques from other martial arts — Tai Chi Chuan is exceedingly effective for fighting.

More than this, Tai Chi Chuan is a comprehensive programme for physical, emotional, mental and spiritual development. It is complete by itself. By practising just Tai Chi Chuan, without having to add anything from outside, one can be radiantly healthy, emotional calm, mentally fresh and may attain the highest spiritual fulfilment. It may sound too good to be true, and it would sound impossible to those who practise only Tai Chi dance, but it is true.

Question 11

Also, in your experienced practices of both Tai Chi Chuan and Shaolin Kungfu, which of the two is superior in term of fighting? I mean if both exponents have ten-year standing of practice of their kungfu without paying attention to the other.


For me personally, Shaolin Kungfu is superior in terms of fighting. This is because my training is mainly in Shaolin Kungfu although I love Tai Chi Chuan and have spent much time in it.

If we have an hypotehetical situation where one trains only Shaolin Kungfu and the other only Tai Chi Chuan, and all other things being equal — a condition which is seldom valid — I think in the first year the Shaolin exponent would be a better fighter. This is because at a lower level, Shaolin Kungfu is mainly external and is more suited for fighting, whereas it takes more time to develop internal force in Tai Chi Chuan.

But after 10 years, I think the better fighter would be the Tai Chi Chuan exponent. This is because by this time he would have developed tremendous internal force as well as fighting skills in Tai Chi Chuan, whereas although the Shaolin exponent would also have developed internal force and fighting skills, he would need more time to attain a similar high level due to the more extensive range of Shaolin Kungfu.

However, after 20 years I think the Shaolin exponent would be better because this long period of training would have enabled him to catch up and then surpass the Tai Chi Chuan exponent. Both of them may be equally powerful and skillful, but the more extensive techniques of Shaolin Kungfu would have given the exponent an edge over his Tai Chi Chuan counterpart.

Question 12

I also read on your website that you have not had proud results treating HIV patients. This is an issue I've often wondered about. As HIV becomes more and more of a plague in our society, and as Western attempts at a cure fail, I can't help but wonder if Chi Kung could provide an answer. Is there any hope for people with HIV?

— Anthony, USA


Theoretically, chi kung is the best answer to the overcoming of AIDS. By definition, AIDS is due to acuired immunity deficiency, and the forte of chi kung is to improve immunity.

On the other hand, and on a practical note, my philosophy is that a teacher should know what he is doing. I do not know enough of what chi will do to the HIV (virus) -- would it activate the HIV and thus cause AIDS?

Personally I don't think so, but I am not sure. Hence I do not feel qualified enough to teach AIDS patients and those with HIV positive. In other so-called incurable diseases like asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart problems, I have hundreds of successful cases; hence I can speak with authority and conviction.

(Please see Answer 21 of May 1999 Part 1.)

Question 13

I have read two excellent books of yours “The Art of Chi Kung” and “The Complete book of Zen” -- they both mention 3 Sinew Metamorphosis exercises out of 12. Would it be possible for you to tell me how I could obtain information about the other nine?

— Nick, United Kingdom


While Sinew Metamorphosis is a set of powerful chi kung exercises, it is seldom explained in books or videos because masters who know it do not want to reveal it publicly for fear that students learning it without proper supervision will injure themselves internally.

On the other hand, mediocre instructors or writers who do not care whether the students will hurt themselves, or who do not believe that such self-inflicted serious injury is real because they themselves have not experienced the art, may want to reveal the art publicly for monetary benefit or for their self esteem; but fortunately they do not have the information.

If you wish to learn Sinew Metamorphosis, you have not only to learn from a master who himself have practised the art, but also to practise it under his supervision at least for some time. Even if you have learnt it correctly, you may later practise it wrongly, and this can cause serious problems. But if you learn from and practise under a master who knows the art, it is safe.

Question 14

I am researching where I might obtain enlightenment along the path of the White Tiger. Of course I would have to learn that which lays before that goal in order to reach it. My primary difficulty is that I know no places locally where I might begin this journey. I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S. Any knowledge would be very deeply appreciated.

— Erik, USA


The term “enlightenment” can be interpreted at many levels. In Western concept, to be enlightened in something means to know, usually intellectually, about that something. In this context, to be enlightened along the path of the White Tiger is to be knowledgeable about the teachings of the White Tiger.

In the Buddhist context, to be enlightened is experiential, not intellectual. In other words, you do not merely know about something to be enlightened in it; you have to directly experience its greatest attainment. In this sense, to be enlightened in White Tiger means you have reached the hightest attainment in its practice, not just in its theoretical studies.

Spiritually speaking, Enlightenment in Buddhism means perfect Enlightenment, or nirvana. It is not a place where you or your soul go to; it is a state of mind whereby you actualize your cosmic reality. In other words, when you attain Enlightenment, you realize that your personal self or soul is an illusion, and even the whole universe is an illusion; you directly experience that you are actually the cosmos.

This concept is difficult for many people to understand or believe; but it is what Enlightenment means in simple terms. People with different religious background will call the same concept variously like return to God's Kingdom (which is inside your heart), merging with the Tao or union with God (which is not you as an entity meeting God as a separate entity, but you and God as one).

The right place to start your path towards enlightenment, irrespective of the level you aim at, is not at Pittsburgh or Washington, not at Kathmandhu or Cairo, but in your heart. A good school or teacher is certainly a great help, but the main task has to be done by you yourself. And the best advice for such a path, given by the Enlightened One himself, is to avoid evil, do good and purify your heart (or mind).

By “White Tiger” I guess you mean White Tiger Kungfu. I do not know of such a style or school, although I have heard of Black Tiger Kungfu, which is a style of Southern Shaolin Kungfu.

Question 15

I'm trying to take up a self-defence art and considering Taijichuan as an option. Is it good to take up Chen Jia Taiji or is a more “external” form better? Is Taijichuan an adequate form of self defence compared to other arts? And how do you go about looking for a good Taiji sifu?

— Hui, Singapore


Taijiquan is an excellent option. If you pay more emphasis on self-defence, Chen Jia Taijiquan (Chen Style Taijiquan) is generally the best choice. But other styles, so long as they are real Taijiquan, are also exceedingly effective for self-defence, as you can read in some of the questions and answers above.

There is no such a thing as an “external form Taijiquan”. If it has only external form but no internal aspects, it is not real Taijiquan; it may be Taiji dance.

You should go about looking for a good Taijiquan sifu in a humble, determined manner. The first thing you have to find out is whether he teaches real Taijiquan (which will include, among other things, training for internal force and combat efficiency).

He will not be easy to find; be aware that many teachers may be well known and have taught for many years, but they may only teach Taiji external form, not real Taijiquan.

Finding a real Taijiquan teacher is difficult enough; getting him to teach you is more difficult. You have to accept the fact that he may have no interest, and certainly no obligation, to teach you even though you may be dying to learn Taijiquan.


January to June 1999

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