Types of Chinese Kung fu, List and Styles of Martial Arts: Southern Hands, Northern Feet

In kung fu different types or styles of martial arts is epitomised with “southern hands, northern feet”. Due to geographical regions and kinds of techniques, a list of styles of martial arts evolved over the centuries.

In kung fu, the time honoured phrase said to epitomise the distinction between northern and southern martial arts styles is “southern hands, northern feet”. The distinction lies not only in the geographical separation of regions of China but in the techniques and methods themselves which characterise the styles from each region.

Styles which emanate from northern China are known for techniques appropriate for combat in large open spaces. Hence, the trademarks of northern styles include long extended stances, evasive tactics rather than powerful blocks, jumping and kicking techniques.

On the other hand, styles which emanate from southern China are known for short range close quarters combat. Maybe this is reflective of the denser populations the further south one travels in China. Hence, the trademarks of southern styles of kung fu include short, wide low stances, powerful blocks and an emphasis on hand techniques and foot work appropriate for fighting in confined spaces.

One author attributes the difference in style to the severity of conditions in the north –

“Generally, the boxers of the north are heartier than those of the south. The climate there is more severe, the conditions of life more stringent, and the food more conducive to strength. Moreover, most of the great northern boxers have worked as armed escorts for goods convoys: an excellent if dangerous profession in which to test their boxing prowess”.

(The Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing by Robert W Smith, 5th ed 1995).

Superficially, many characteristics of both northern and southern martial arts styles are common to both such that it is difficult to see how such a chasm (or at least a perceived chasm) divides the styles from the north from those of the south.

In this article, we examine the key traits of a hand full of kung fu styles from both northern and southern China and question whether the expression “southern hands, northern feet” remains appropriate. Wushu is a world unto itself and we do not propose to examine it other than obliquely.

Virtually all southern styles of Chinese martial arts can trace their heritage to one of five main temples, namely-

  • Honan Temple (Hunan Temple);
  • Fukien Temple;
  • Omei Shan Temple;
  • Kwangtung Temple;
  • Wutang Mountain Temple.

It is important to note that both the northern and southern styles of kung fu benefited from the heritage of these temples. In many ways one can discern the influence of these temples. Practitioners of internal arts for example can notice the influence of the Wudang (Wutang) Temple whereas those who have a proclivity to the external martial arts can attest to Honan temple's prowess of "hard" kung fu.

Historical records have it that the Honan Temple was destroyed in 1647AD and that 30 years later, the Fukien Temple and the other temples met the same fate. Thereafter, Shaolin kung fu was outlawed and any practise of it was punishable by death. Historians further record that after the third burning of the Shaolin Temple in 1927, a replacement style of martial arts was created hence the birth of Wushu.

The Shaolin temples have been immortalised and nowadays remain one of China’s main tourist attractions. Available learning records that in the pre-eminent days of the temples, students only graduated upon successfully passing through 18 chambers.

In each, a wooden dummy, strategically positioned, made contact with the student striking, hitting or beating the student. If the student successfully fended off the blows, he proceeded to the 18th chamber. If he failed, he was either retained or expelled from the temple. Let’s leave to one side exactly how wooden dummies wrought such damage to already highly skilled apprentice monks.

However, the door to the hallway leading to the 18th chamber was said to be blocked by an urn weighing over 150 pounds containing hot coals, the handles of which were carved with the mark of a tiger’s head and dragon’s body. In order to move the urn thereby gaining access to the hallway and so access to the 18th chamber, each student was required to hug the urn with his forearms. This branded the student with the mark of a Shaolin master.

Among the more famous of the southern styles of kung fu, each emanating either directly or indirectly from the Shaolin Temple are wing chun, mok gar, fut gar, choi li fut and the hung kuen styles such as hung gar and hung fut.

Purists will ascribe substantial and (what they say are) palpably obvious differences in each of these styles. But on closer scrutiny of each style, each being southern in origin and thus traceable to a Shaolin source, the hallmark features are present.

Those features include the five animal forms and the five elements being wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The hung gar style, also called the tiger and crane style, symbolises the fierceness of the tiger and the agility of the crane. Variations of this style emphasise the horse stance and combine long, strong blows, short arm movements, along with a series of battering blows and kicks, both above and below the waist.

Southern styles of martial arts are popular in the areas south of the Yangtze River, especially in Fujian, Guandong, Guangxi, Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Developments in southern styles in those regions are varied, each kung fu style has its own identity and each style can trace its origin to one or more of the main five temples. In Fujian the schools are Hung, Liu, Taizu and Wuzu. In Guandong and Guangxi the schools most popular are Hung, Liu, Chia, Li, Fo. Hunan (Honan) offers the Hung style as well as Yu, Kung, and the Wind Water Fire school. In Jiangxi, Li and Hakka schools are most widespread.

So, what of the northern styles? Are they so very different from the southern styles? Don’t northern styles also use complex hand formations in the same way as the southern styles use complex kicks? The answer is yes.

Among the more notable northern styles are praying mantis, lohan, pa kua (or bagua) and cha chuan. These styles are said to be northern styles because, naturally enough, of their geographical origins.

Northern styles are said to be discernible because of dynamic kicking methods, flexibility, strength, balance, agility and co-ordination along with extensions when striking with deep stances. Nothing in that description distinguishes the so called northern styles from the stances, blows and kicks with which we are familiar in southern styles.

The features of the cha chuan style on which the contemporary wushu long fist "chang chuan" is based, a notable northern style (otherwise called “Shaolin long fist”) include stepping with irregular timing, sudden changes in posture from very high to very low, wide stances and full extension of arms and hands.

Again, the stepping with irregular timing said to come from the north is evident in cross stepping or tiger and crane form, these being southern styles. Sudden changes in posture from very high to very low are evident in one legged stances (in the case of high stances) and snake stances (in the case of low stances). Wide stances of the north are evident in the dragon stances of the south, wide horse stance or riding dragon stances and full extensions of arms and hands are seen in a variety of straight or square punches practised every day in some southern kung fu styles.

The praying mantis style is said to have been created in 17th century China by Wang Lang. Anecdotal evidence has it that the style originated after Wang Lang was amazed at the prowess of a praying mantis when doing battle with a huge cicada. The distinguishing features of this style include quick steps, short and long range punches, grappling, hooks and long and short range punching. Again, all of those features are evident in southern styles, in particular variations of the hung family styles such as the hung gar style and hung fut styles.

What southern styles lacked in acrobatic prowess, they made up in other, more subtle applications. Hence, dim mak is authoritatively attributed to southern styles, especially shaolin styles where monks of diminutive size required more than their kung fu techniques alone to gain the ascendancy over their larger, hardier northern opponents.

That does not amount to a concession of some inferiority in southern styles. Quite the reverse. It points to the ingenuity of southern (more importantly shaolin) styles for devising methods to enable its practitioners to overwhelm larger, longer-ranged opponents.

At higher levels, especially at black belt level, kung fu students at Golden Lion Academy in Melbourne Australia are required to display not only familiarity with but a high degree of proficiency in dim mak. This further preserves the link between the present and the past in a southern style deeply entrenched with shaolin roots.

Lost track boxing and the Lohan styles are northern in origin and are distinguishable because of their darting movements, sweeping long range attacks and acrobatical leaps. True, much of contemporary Wushu with its acrobatic movements is traceable to certain northern styles and in that regard, the distinction between northern and southern styles is made good.

At competition level, a separate nan quan southern styles division and a chang chuan northern styles division differentiates the practice of wushu.

So far as the internal and external martial arts of bagua and hsing-i and concerned, both have northern origins. Whereas bagua is notable for soft, changing circular movements, hsing-i is distinguishable because of its strong, low stances, linear movements and swift re-directive techniques. Nowadays they are practised in combination, as one style, bagua hsing i. Being both internal and external styles, they rely heavily on breathing techniques and the application of chi.

To the highly trained eye, aspects said to be peculiar to the northern styles differentiate those from their southern counterparts. Equally, the highly trained eye will say that southern is to northern style as chalk is to cheese.

True, one cannot deny that some differences do exist between the northern and southern styles, but those differences are subtle. Put another way, so many common features exist in both northern and southern styles that the distinction between northern and southern styles based on an emphasis in kicking or hand work alone is no longer legitimate.

The phrase “northern feet, southern hands” may have originated at a time when northern China was almost inaccessible and the western world’s exposure to kung fu came mainly through southern styles for the simple reason that China’s trading ports were located in Hong Kong and other southern principalities.

As the north of China has opened up and as lesser styles have broken off from more mainstream styles so as to create new styles, aspects of northern styles have blended with aspects of southern styles thereby further blurring the once profound distinction between both northern and southern styles.

There is no reason to suggest that the trend will do anything but continue. Ultimately, only a style, or anyone of the various types of martial arts, which has remained undiluted in any shape or form over hundreds of years will be able to authoritatively and confidently assert that it is true to the phrase “southern hands, northern feet”.

If you would like to attend regular classes, please call us on our central telephone number 9796-1066 for class times and fees or email us through our contact-us form.

Contribution by Joshua D Wilson and Grandmaster Pier Tsui-Po

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