Thousands of martial arts have evolved in China, usually in isolated communities that had to defend themselves, such as temples and clan villages. All, though, can be classed into two basic types: external, or hard, styles concentrate on building up physical strength to overpower opponents; the trickier internal, or soft, styles concentrate on developing and focusing the internal energy known as qi. Both styles use forms – prearranged sets of movements – to develop the necessary speed, power and timing; as well as kicks, punches and open palm strikes, they also incorporate movements inspired by animals.
The most famous external style is Shaolin kung fu, developed in the Shaolin Temple in Henan province and known for powerful kicks and animal styles – notably eagle, mantis and monkey. The classic Shaolin weapon is the staff, and there’s even a drunken form, where the practitoner sways and lurches as if inebriated.
But the style that you’re most likely to see – it’s practised in the open air all over the country – is the internal tai ji quan. The body is held in a state of minimal tension to create the art’s characteristic “soft” appearance. Its emphasis on slow movements and increasing qi flow means it is excellent for health, and it’s a popular workout for the elderly.