group of students practicing martial arts outdoors in China
Photo by Robert W. Young

Decipher the confusing spellings seen in the Chinese martial arts!

The major obstacle in any discussion of the Chinese language is its many dialects. China is a vast country that has absorbed numerous subcultures. Furthermore, Chinese words can be written in English using two systems: the Wade-Giles Romanization system and the Pinyin system. All that makes it hard for Westerners who take up kung fu to learn the relevant terminology.

I wrote this essay to address the spelling variations one sees for some frequently encountered Chinese terms. I’ve used the more academically common Pinyin system to spell the words that are most often seen or heard in Mandarin. The Wade-Giles version appears afterward when appropriate.

landscape in China showing mountains and a river Photo by Robert W. Young

baguazhang (pa kua chang): System arguably founded by Dong Hai-quan based on the eight trigrams in the classic text The Book of Changes or Yi-jing (I-Ching). It is known as one of the three major “internal” styles. A modern wushu version has been developed by China and is taught around the world.

choy li fut: Southern style of kung fu that best represents the fusion of southern hand techniques and northern kicking artistry. The name comes from the surnames of the three Shaolin masters who taught the system’s founder Chan Heung. It is also Romanized as choy lay fut, choy lei faht and tsoi li fut.

fut ga: Buddhist style of kung fu that was born of a pooling of knowledge from the five main masters of the southern Shaolin Temple (Choy, Hung, Lau, Li and Mok). Also spelled fut gar.

martial arts master executes an open-hand strike Hung ga kung fu expert Bucksam KongPhoto by Thomas Sanders

hung ga: The trademark system of southern Shaolin kung fu that emphasizes powerful low stances, strong arm-bridging blocks and heavy blows. It was made famous by Wong Fei-hung during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An alternate spelling is hung gar.

lao shi (lao shih): Mandarin term for “teacher” that is used by many martial arts instructors.

ngor chor kun (wu tsu chuan): “Five ancestors” style from Fujian province that represents another fusion of knowledge from five different sources. The system is popular in Southeast Asia where Chinese expatriates of Fukienese descent abound.

qi gong (chi kung): Exercises designed to build and develop conscious control over internal energy. Contrary to popular belief, it is part of every Chinese art to one degree or another.

qin na (chin-na): Literally, “seizing and holding.” It is not a separate style. The term refers to the skills found in all Chinese arts that deal with grabbing and joint-manipulation techniques.

martial arts master trapping an opponent's arm and counterattacking Shuai jiao master Chang Dung-shengBlack Belt Photo

shuai jiao (shuai chiao): The oldest of the Chinese martial arts. It is a wrestling system based on powerful and debilitating throws. Many local styles of it have variations in rules and techniques.

sifu: Cantonese term that refers to a martial arts teacher. It is composed of two Chinese characters: siis the word for “teacher,” and in a traditional martial arts context fu refers to “father.” Thus, a sifu is someone who not only imparts technical knowledge to his students, but also assumes responsibility for them as human beings and raises them with the same care that a father would show his own children. Also spelled shifu.

tai ji quan (tai chi chuan): The most popular of the Chinese arts, commonly used as a slow-motion fitness routine by senior citizens. Often referred to as Chinese shadowboxing, it is one of the three main internal styles. Derived from the Shaolin martial arts and imbued with Taoist philosophy, it is arguably the most difficult of the Chinese arts to apply in combat.

martial arts master uses his open hand to strike an opponent near the chin Wing chun master William CheungPhoto by Robert Reiff

wing chun: The most widely practiced of the southern Chinese martial arts. It was made famous by Bruce Lee and popularized around the world by his classmates and their students. The system was founded during the Qing dynasty by a woman, Yim Wing-chun, and spread by generations of capable fighters. The different spellings of this art are related to different political factions: wing tsun, ving tsun and wing tzun.

Wudang (Wutang): A famous mountain in Hubei province renowned for its Taoist temples and martial arts.

xing yi quan (hsing-i chuan): Literally, “form-and-intent” boxing. It is one of the three main internal styles of the Chinese arts. Unlike the other two systems that emphasize smooth, flowing movements, it focuses on abrupt, explosive and crisp movements.

About the author: Mark Cheng is a California-based freelance writer who researches the Chinese martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine. To contact him, visit his website.

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