June 3, 2014

Language of Martial Arts

The Chinese language is overflowing with subtleties, nuances, and layers-upon-layers of meanings that go far beyond the scope of most modern Western languages.  At times, it can even be a dramatic understatement to call it “poetic”.  As a result, the vernacular of Chinese martial arts has long been complex and chaotic, especially from the point of view of most Westerners.
There are many words, although commonly used, which are not clearly defined.  This can be attributed to several factors.  Although several words have, strictly speaking, the same definition, their connotations are drastically different.  Understanding the connotations of many words requires a fairly deep knowledge of Chinese history, culture, or traditions with which most Westerners are not familiar.  Also, many of the words have commonly used English (or other Western) translations that only serve to confuse, due to the lack of knowledge during the time period in which they were translated.  This is most often the case with translations dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Another point of confusion is that some words are meant to be used in combination with others, but at times some of the “required” words are left out.  This is due to the use of slang by some native Chinese speakers.  It is somewhat analogous to dropping the understood “you” in the English sentence, “Come with me.”  Although this makes perfect sense to a native speaker of English, it is unclear to someone who is not familiar with the practice of “dropping” the subject of some sentences.

There are several words that seem to occur quite often when dealing with Chinese martial arts terminology, regardless of style.  A more accurate and in-depth understanding of these words can only serve to benefit practitioners, students, and instructors.  These words are (with their corresponding pinyin tones):
  1. fa3
  2. quan2 (pronounced “chuan”)
  3. men2
Fa means “method”, or “way”.  This is derived from the phrase, “as the water flows” (fa comes from the ancient character for “water”), meaning “the way something is”, or “its method”.  Fa is commonly used in the name of forms or exercises.  It usually refers to things on a much smaller scale than the other terms and, hence, would not be used for descriptions of a large scale, such as zhong guo fa (“Chinese Methods”).  It is more often used in conjunction with a person’s name, or at most, a family’s name.  For example, yang fa could be used to mean “The Method(s) of the Yang [Family]”.  It can also be used together with specific types of training.  For example, an exercise that develops various aspects of the horse stance could conceivably be called ma bu fa (“Method(s) of the Horse Stance”).

Quan literally means “fist”.  However, this word goes considerably beyond its dictionary definition.  Depending on context, it can mean a single fist, a variety of hand techniques, a form or set (kata, in the more familiar Japanese terminology), or even an entire martial arts system.  Many Chinese martial arts styles have the word quan in their names.  In the 19th century, Westerners translated this word as “boxing” (in the sense of the Western sport).  Most Westerners had never been exposed to Chinese martial arts before, and boxing was the most similar concept they could come up with.  So even though it is technically inaccurate, the translation of “boxing” has not only survived, but has proliferated.  It is commonly used in the names of such styles as he quan (Crane Boxing)  or hong jia quan (Hong Family Boxing).  Names of styles like these could also be (more accurately) translated as “Crane Fist” or “Crane Fighting”, as well.

Quan is also commonly paired with the term fa into the phrase quan fa, which means “Method of Fighting”.  This is usually the case when it is used to refer to a specific form, rather than an entire style.  So, a style called “Tiger Fighting” may be written as hu quan, but a specific form called “Methods of Tiger Fighting” would be written as hu quan fa.  Something that can often lead to confusion is the fact that a lot of time quan fa is what is implied, but only quan is written;  the fa is assumed.  This means the name of the specific form could also be written as hu quan.  It is worth noting that adding the word fa to the name of a style is rarely, if ever, done.

The literal meaning of men is “gateway”, specifically a double-doorway.  However, it is also used to refer to a school (especially a school of thought), a system, or a sect.  So a name such as bei shaolin men could be translated as “Northern Shaolin School”, “Northern Shaolin System”, or “Northern Shaolin Sect”.  As a result, it can refer to the actual school (the physical location), the system that is taught at that school, or the group of people that practice the style.  Sometimes, the phrase men pai is also used, which simply means “men style”, but the pai is usually left out.

What is the difference, then, between a system named using quan and a system named using men?  Believe it or not, there are specific criteria for naming a system one way versus the other.  These differences can give one a clearer perspective on the art they study.
There are five criteria that absolutely must be present for a style to be a men style (see Table 1).  If any of the five are not present, the style cannot be considered a men art, and is, by default, a quan art.

Table 1:  The Five Criteria of a Men Art

Tao Lu
“Forms”, or “Sets”
The system must contain forms training.  This means it cannot be just a grouping of techniques.
Dui Lian

“Two-person drills”
Partner training is essential for a complete art.  This can include things such as self-defense techniques, two-person forms or exercises, or sparring.  Note that just sparring “for fun” would not qualify, as it must built upon the comprehensive concepts of the entire system.
Qi Xie
This refers to various items and tools of training.  Examples would be a makiwara board or a wooden dummy.  Weapons are also included in this, which automatically means that a system that only does empty-hand training cannot be considered a true “men” art.
Li Lun
The system must have accompanying information of a theoretical or conceptual nature.  Note that these concepts don’t have to be written down in order to be considered valid.
Gong Fa
“Method of Effort”
There must be a systematic structure to the style.  Concepts, theories, and ideas must be comprehensive and cohesive.  The art must teach not only how to do things, but why they are done that way.  Everything required for the system to be effective must be provided by the system itself, and not be dependent on outside knowledge.  This means that a collection of various martial arts concepts that may encompass the other four criteria still would not qualify as a “men” style if it wasn’t systemized.

The primary difference is that men is much more encompassing than quan.  When comparing the two terms, it is most appropriate to translate men as a system, and quan as one part of that system, or a sub-system.  Therefore, men systems contain within them one or more quan systems. However, not all quan arts are part of a larger men style.  The quan arts that stand alone are usually incomplete sub-systems that were either never fully developed, or were “cast out” of a larger style.

A men system is usually considered a foundational system.  Although this is not a strict requirement for a men system, most of them satisfy this criteria.  A “foundational system” means that the system either:
·         didn’t evolve from any other style (it is an “origin style”), or
·         it has evolved sufficiently from its predecessor that, for practical purposes, it can “stand on its own”

In modern usage, these terms are sometimes used in a confusing fashion.  This is due to the fact that the names of many Chinese martial arts became part of the cultural vernacular, so people were reluctant to change them.  So if a men art lost knowledge throughout the years, for whatever reason, it was not renamed to a quan art.  This is why there are men arts today that do not meet all five of the criteria.  This sometimes happened the other way, too;  a quan art would, in time, acquire or develop enough knowledge to become a men art, but it would not be renamed.  For example, the art of tai ji quan contains forms, two-person exercises (push hands), weapons training, extensive theories (the classics), and a solid conceptual foundation for teaching the system.  It can also be considered a foundational system because, although it did evolve from other arts (most likely), it is sufficiently different from them to be able to stand on its own.  Therefore, it is a men art and should, more accurately, be called tai ji men.  It is worth noting here that there are those who would argue that tai ji quan really is a quan art, just as it is named.  The argument is that the system is missing key components necessary for development, such as qi gong exercises.  Development of qi is essential to successful tai ji quan practice, yet the system itself contains no qi gong exercises to further this goal.  Most practitioners use qi gong exercises from other systems.  This would violate gong fa (criteria number five in Table 1).  In either case, however, the name tai ji quan has become so engrained in the culture (Eastern, as well as Western), that it would be unreasonable to change it at this point in time.

A second reason that can cause confusion is that some arts were renamed on purpose.  There were many reasons why people renamed their arts.  Some of the more common reasons were:
·         They wanted to hide the real art they were practicing from the general public, as secrecy was common in many Chinese arts.  This was especially true of the men arts, since they contained more complete and comprehensive knowledge and, therefore, had more reason to protect it.
·         They wanted to try and associate their relatively unknown or newly formed art with a more famous one in an attempt to gain instant notoriety.
·         They were trying to disassociate their art from past involvements, usually political in nature.  This could be due to the fear of persecution, or to newly changed political ideals and agendas.

One example of an art that changed its name on purpose is won hop loong chuan (“Complete Harmonious Dragon Fist”).  At first glance, the name of the art, won hop loong chuan (wan he long quan, in pinyin) seems to be a quan art (as a side note, pyong hwa do is a Korean phrase and, therefore, not relevant to this discussion).  The key to understanding the name of this art is to first realize that the phrase won hop loong chuan was actually derived from the name of a specific form in the style, and was not the original name of the art itself.  It is worth mentioning that the name of the form, won hop loong chuan, does not end in the phrase quan fa (i.e., won hop loong chuan fa), which is a usual ending for names of forms.  While it could be simply assumed that this ending was implied (which is a legitimate naming scheme), it could also have been left off on purpose.  The implication there would be that won hop loong chuan refers to an entire sub-system, rather than a single form.  In fact, in a typically paradoxical fashion, it is most likely that the quan fa ending was left off on purpose and assumed to be there at the same time;  won hop loong chuan refers to a specific form, which itself can be considered a sub-system.

Getting back to the larger system as a whole, it becomes clear, upon closer inspection, that the art has forms training, two-person (and more than two-person) drills, weapons and other apparatus training, a vast repertoire of concepts and theories, and a complete, systemized way to teach it.  Also, due to the long history and age of the art, it is almost certainly a foundational art.  Therefore, it seems to fit all the criteria for a men art.  This conclusion is an accurate one, as further analysis of the style’s history would show that it is indeed a men art and was named so from the very beginning.  In fact, not only is it a men art, but historically it seems to be one of the first and oldest men arts still in existence.

Clearly the Chinese language contains a depth of subtleties not present in most other languages, especially when discussing martial arts.  The amount of information contained in just a few words about a style’s history and purpose can be staggering.  Of course, there are many more words used commonly in martial arts than just the three presented here.  There are actually dozens of martial arts terms in common usage that can help all practitioners to gain a more accurate and effective understanding of their own art, as well as others.

NOTE:  All Chinese terms in this article were notated using the modern pinyin romanization system.  The only exception to this rule is for the name won hop loong chuan, which is rarely, if ever, written using the pinyin romanization system.  It was left in its more commonly seen form.


Bakos, Miroslav, mbskp@ms26.hinet.net, Kung Fu Mailing List, Sep. 5, 1999.

“Chinese Characters – Genealogy, Dictionary, Readings”, http://www.zhongwen.com, ã1999 by Rick Harbaugh.

“China Language Website”, http://www.chinalanguage.com, ã1995 by Thomas Chin.

Choy, Rita Mei-Wah, Read and Write Chinese:  A Simplified Guide to the Chinese Characters, China West Books, San Francisco, CA, 1990.

Kung Fu Mailing List Archives, owner-kungfu@leper.tamu.edu, September, 1999.

Wieger, Dr. L., Chinese Characters:  Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification, and Signification, Paragon Book Reprint Corp., New York, 1965.


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