Three-Circe Stance, Golden Bridge and Chi Flow


What are the major differences between Tai Chi and Kung Fu? They both seem to be “flowing” styles, they both have an emphasis on the internal art, and they are both used for combat. It is my understanding that Tai Chi is more of an internal art whereas Kung Fu is more external.

-- Timothy, Canada


Your question can be answered in different ways. In the most basic way concerning the meaning of the two terms, “Tai Chi” and “Kung Fu” are very different. Tai Chi refers to “the cosmos”, whereas Kung Fu means “martial art”.

But what you actually mean is the difference between Tai Chi Chuan and Shaolin Kungfu, which are often loosely referred to as “Tai Chi” and “Kung Fu”. Both Tai Chi Chuan (also spelt as “Taijiquan”) and Shaolin Kungfu are two different styles of Chinese martial art.

You are right to say that both are flowing styles, have an emphasis on the internal, and are used for combat. They are also used for health promotion and spiritual cultivation.

Apparently Tai Chi Chuan is more internal than Shaolin Kungfu, but this is not exactly true. In fact there are more internal aspects in Shaolin Kungfu than in Tai Chi Chuan, but these internal aspects are found only in some Shaolin schools. Most Shaolin schools practice mainly the external aspects.

What I have written above are true only of genuine Tai Chi Chuan and genuine Shaolin Kungfu, which are quite rare nowadays. What is mostly practice as Tai Chi Chuan today is only external Tai Chi forms, which I refer to as Tai Chi dance. What is mostly practiced as Shaolin Kungfu today is external Shaolin forms without combat application, which I refer to as kungfu gymnastics, or Shaolin forms using other martial art techniques (especially Karate and Taekwondo) for sparring, which I call kungfu boxing.

If we mean Tai Chi dance, kungfu gymnastics or kungfu boxing when we say “Tai Chi” and “Kung Fu”, then neither emphasizes on the internal art nor are used for combat, though both can be “flowing”. Tai Chi dance is sofer, but not internal.


Are there any other significant differences? How do the modes of training compare? Are the techniques similar?


Yes, there are other significant differences. Their philosophies and methodologies are different. Tai Chi Chuan is basically Taoist, and is gentle and flowing. Shaolin Kungfu is Buddhist, and is comparatively forceful and direct. Interestingly, though they have different preferred patterns, their general forms are similar. If you perform Tai Chi Chuan fast it looks like Shaolin Kungfu. Alternatively if you perform Shaolin Kungfu slowly, it looks like Tai Chi Chuan.

In their training, Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes chi or flowing energy, whereas Shaolin Kungfu emphasizes “jing” or internal force. (The use of these terms here is relative and provisional.) Relatively Tai Chi Chuan training is “sofer” and “easier”. In our school, Shaolin Wahnam, where both Tai Chi Chuan and Shaolin Kungfu are practiced, Shaolin Kungfu exponents jokingly say that Tai Chi Chuan is for women and children to play. But don't be misled by this joke. Our Wahnam Tai Chi Chuan exponents may throw or push some of our Shaolin Kungfu exponents about like children!

If we watch a typical performance of Tai Chi Chuan and Shaolin Kungfu in solo practice or sparring, we can readily see that some of the techniques are similar, and some are different. The “peng” technique in “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” and “Jade Girl Threads Shuttle” in Tai Chi Chuan are similar to “Beauty Looks at Mirror” and “Double Bows Tame Tiger” in Shaolin Kungfu.

But actually all the patterns in Tai Chi Chuan can be found in Shaolin Kungfu — except that some of the patterns widely used in Taijiquan may be seldom used in Shaolin Kungfu, hence giving the false impression that they are not found in the latter. For example, “White Snake Shoots Venom” and “Carrying Tiger Back to Mountain” are common in Tai Chi Chuan, but an untrained person may not see them in Shaolin Kungfu. Actually they are similar to the Shaolin patterns “Poisonous Snake Shoots Venom” and “Felling Tree with Roots”.

The above is taken from Questions 7 and 8 Jan 2004 Part 1 of the Selection of Questions and Answers.


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