A concise (and troubling) history of the term “internal” (Nei Jia)

23 Mar

Frequently, I lament the fact we can not travel back in time. I am a historian by training, and I suppose every historian in a way is trying to help everyone travel back in time. Where Chinese martial arts are concerned, the ability to reconstruct the past would be quite a service, a service to help clean up the clap-trap of myth, fantasy and fake history that has accumulated in the community.

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Those who practice the so called “internal arts” (Nei Jia Quan) of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua might be rather confused if they stepped into a time machine and exited in mid 19th century China. These so called “internal arts” were in fact popular among those who used these methods for fighting. There was probably very little discussion of Daoist philosophy or health maintenance. More importantly, they would not call what they do “internal” (Nei Jia Quan) and would have no idea what you were talking about!

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The association of the term “internal” (Nei Jia) with these arts is easy to pinpoint. In 1894, Chen Tinghua, Liu Dekuan, Li Cunyi and Liu Wei Xiang found their methods shared many common points and created a group which adopted the name “Nei Jia Quan.” The problem? The term “Nei Jia Quan” had already been established and had a complex background story. Were Chen, Liu, Li and Liu aware of the pre-existing “Nei Jia Quan” and it’s background? That is a matter still subject to debate. That the general public associated (“confused”) the three arts of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua with the original Nei Jia Quan is NOT subject to debate.

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The first recorded reference to “internal” in relationship to Chinese martial arts is “the Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610-1695 A.D.). This work also introduces the claim that Zhang Sanfeng as the founder of “Nei Jia Pai”. However, it must be noted that the “epitaph” does NOT link this Nei Jia Pai to any of the three current “internal systems”.

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Huang Zongxi’s son, Huang Baijia, was apparently a student of Wang’s and subsequently published the manual “Nei Jia Quan” in 1676. The manual demonstrates a method with little in common with the current “internal” arts but expands upon the Daoist origins of the book’s particular “Nei Jia Quan” and again links it to Wu Dang mountain. Despite the fact neither the “Epitaph” nor the manual connect this “Nei Jia Pai” to the current “internal” arts, and there is nothing at all to document or confirm this story of Zhang Sanfeng or Wu Dang (and in all likelihood it was just a story to boost the credibility of the art), the general public neither questioned Huang’s pseduo-history NOR made a distinction between Huang’s “Nei Jia Quan” and the NEW 1894 group using the same name. Thus, the public incorrectly associated the three arts of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua with Zhang Sanfeng, Daoism and Wu Dang.

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There is even more to this story, as historians such as Stanley E. Henning and Peter Lorge have both suggested alternate understandings of the original “Nei Jia” references. Henning addresses the improbability of Zhang Sanfeng as a martial arts originator; outlining the Zhang Sanfeng legend as having three phases:

Phase I: (prior to 1669) merely claims that Zhang was a Taoist immortal
Phase II (after 1669) claims that Zhang originated the “internal” school of boxing
Phase III (post 1900) claims that Zhang originated Taijiquan.

Henning notes that the Zhang Sanfeng legend evolved during the Ming period (1368-1644), based on the close association of early Ming rulers with Daoism. Emperor Chengzu spent considerable funds to reconstruct war-torn monasteries on Mount Wu Dang, and Emperor Yingzong canonized the elusive Zhang in 1459. However, throughout this formative phase of the Zhang Sanfeng legend there is no mention of Zhang’s involvement with martial arts.

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So how did Zhang become associated with “internal” martial arts and eventually Taiji? Henning refers to the “the Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669) as rather “the ultimate act of political defiance through literature” and suggests the real significance of this piece at the time lay not so much in its reference to boxing but in its anti-Manchu symbolism.

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Huang Zongxi (1610-1695) is a figure of which we can say many things with certainty. He had participated in the Southern Ming resistance and was anti-Manchu. As Huang was a noted historian, the Manchu had hoped Huang would assist in writing the official imperial Ming history, but Huang refused. Instead he composed “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” extolling an individual who had fought against the Manchus, attributing Wang’s martial art to the Daoists whom the Ming emperors had favored.

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As Peter Lorge argues, no Han Chinese in Qing imperial China could openly criticize the Manchu, but you COULD critique the “foreign” religion of Buddhism. Daoism, of course originated in China and was distinctly Chinese. Furthermore, consider the concept of “internal”, the man who appears weak but with “internal power” is actually stronger than the muscled barbarian. This contrasted the apparently weak China, compared to the apparently strong steppe warriors of the Manchu. “In reality” the weak was actually STRONGER and BETTER than the “external” who appeared strong. Thus, rather than serious martial arts history, it is veiled political commentary. Perhaps this is why Huang even included a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the content of the Epitaph. He never intended for it to be taken literally, yet 100 years later it was taken just that way and in many sectors continues to be embraced as gospel.

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