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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

China features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

An expert's guide: where to stay in Shanghai

An expert's guide: where to stay in Shanghai

Shanghai has to be a contender for the buzziest city in Asia, a thriving business hub that's brashly modern yet wears its history on its sleeve. Dense with glit…

23 Oct 2017 • Simon Lewis insert_drive_file Article
The best aerial views in the world

The best aerial views in the world

Got a head for heights? If you're craving a new perspective on your travels, the best thing to do is get up high. From mountain-top panoramas to cityscapes, her…

17 Oct 2017 • Olivia Rawes camera_alt Gallery
Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

That ever-growing travel wish list might be putting some pressure on your pocket – but there are plenty of destinations where you'll get more bang for your b…

11 Oct 2017 • Emma Gibbs camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook