“Southern Fist, Northern Leg”

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“Southern Fist, Northern Leg”: Picking Apart Northern and Southern Wushu

Written April 7th, 2014

 “There is a saying within Chinese martial arts, ‘南拳北腿 (nánquánběituǐ)’, which roughly translates to ‘Southern Fist, Northern Leg’ (of which the title of this write-up derives its name from).” — Quote taken directly from the write-up

Almost a month ago, I was asked to write about specific styles of Wushu.  For instance, how one would choose a style to practice: Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), also designated as “northern”, or Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist)?  Specifically, I am talking about the modern Wushu umbrella of Chinese martial arts, which these two aforementioned styles fall under.  Which style is better?  What’s the difference between northern and southern?

Right off the bat, I’m going to say that I can’t decide this for any one individual.  I have said before that when it comes to choosing how to train, it is really a matter of personal reference, which, if we’re going to be honest, should not include the opinions of outside parties like me, only your own thought process, and your own decision.  If anything, the expertise of a coach (preferably, your own, if you have one) should supersede the advice of anyone you do not train with or under, much less know personally.  But again, ultimately, the choice should ideally be up to you.  However, this write-up will NOT be a lost cause.  Rather, this write-up will attempt to dissect and pick apart the differences and nuances between northern and southern Wushu, as well as some misconceptions about the practice of each, to help the reader better understand what each style contains.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that I did NOT specialize in Nanquan.  I have not actively practiced Nanquan, nor have I competed in it.  While I am confident enough to say I know enough to teach the style to say a beginner Wushu practitioner, I am by no means an expert in it.  If in the end, you should choose to learn Nanquan, and further wish to achieve a high level of skill in the style, it is highly recommended that you learn from someone who has actually specialized and actively practiced Nanquan, not someone who only learned enough to teach (i.e., not someone like me); this group of people includes professional coaches and instructors who, despite some of them being known as great champions and athletes in their competitive career, did not actually practice Nanquan, and thus do not have the depth of personal experience or understanding of someone who did.  Again, the expertise of someone who has specialized in Nanquan is ideal and the best choice to learn the style from.

To start, let’s introduce some background information and history on these two styles, in order to provide a basic understanding between the two.  As a sport, modern Wushu was standardized into two disciplines; Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), and Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand).  Because the practice of specific Wushu styles, including Changquan and Nanquan, falls under the Taolu discipline, this write-up will only be focused on the basis of forms work.

The first thing distinction that should be made between Changquan and Nanquan, as many proficient Chinese martial artists are no doubt aware, is how the two styles differ by designation and structure.  The general term “Changquan”, as established before, is also synonymous with “northern style” when people refer to the specific style of Chinese martial arts, because traditionally, any style of Changquan historically originated from the northern territories of China, as opposed to Nanquan, which directly translates to “southern style”, due to its own respective development from the southern territories of China.  When Taolu was first being standardized for competition, there was only Changquan.  This was because at the time, the traditional Chinese martial arts knowledge and material abundant within China only came from northern styles.  As a result, modern Wushu Changquan took its standardized movements and techniques from the traditional northern styles of Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), Huaquan (華拳; huáquán; Flower Fist), and Hongquan (紅拳; hóngquán; Red Fist).  A large part of this physical absence of Nanquan was because during the political conflicts in 20th century China, many Chinese martial arts masters, including southern style masters, fled the mainland to escape political persecution by the dominant communist party.  Those who did not were killed.  It wasn’t until much later, 1980 to be exact, that Nanquan would be fully and successfully standardized in modern Wushu as we see it today.  Modern Wushu Nanquan would in turn take its own respective movements from traditional southern styles of Hung Gar (洪家; Hóngjiā, Hong Family), Choy Gar (蔡家; Càijiā, Cai Family), Lei Gar (李家; Lǐjiā, Li Family), Lau Gar (刘家; Liújiā, Liu Family), and Mok Gar (莫家; Mòjiā, Mo Family) and Choy Li Fut (蔡李佛; càilǐfó).

Now that we have established the history and development of Changquan and Nanquan, let’s delve into the differences and misconceptions of these two styles.  This write-up will cover three distinct misconceptions; the difference in posture and basic movement between the two different styles, emphasis on power and fluidity in both styles, as well as the proportion of hand to leg techniques in both.

Posture and Basic Movement


The first and foremost difference that needs to be established between Changquan and Nanquan is the difference in posture and basic movement.  While the difference is clear-cut for those who specialize in one style or the other, it may not be that way to the average beginner.

As its name suggests, Changquan’s movements emphasize fully extended and outstretched postures, and deep stances.  A classic example of this is modern Wushu Changquan’s textbook execution of the straight punch; at full extension, the punching shoulder and side of the body turn all the way out.  Its posture in turn, at least in the modern Wushu sense, includes a tucked in lower back, an outstretched “open” chest, and a simultaneous pinning of the shoulder blades together, activating the trapezius muscles at a low level.  On the basic and beginner level, where most, if not all modern Wushu basics are concerned, all fundamental movements and techniques are assumed to be executed with this Changquan posture.  Again, it is important to note that historically, during modern Wushu’s development, only Changquan was formulated and used in practice.

Nanquan on the other hand, has its own specific set of basics, movements and techniques, to be executed in a specific “southern” posture that clearly separates it from Changquan as a distinct style.  This “southern” posture consists of square shoulders, with little to no movement in the extension of arm movements.  While there is full extension in the arms in such movements as the straight punch, it is important to understand that extension in Nanquan is not the same as the extension in Changquan; there is no extraneous stretching out of the body present in Changquan.  Stances are also notably higher than Changquan stances by comparison, yet emphasize a “solid”, ideally immovable foundation of the feet and legs.

It can be generalized that taller people with long limbs are more suited to Changquan, as they were able to execute the long range techniques of the style.  Again, the idea behind the basic movements and techniques of Changquan, as the style’s name suggests, is generally based on full extension.  Thus, the techniques of Changquan can be generalized on the basis of range and extension.  Conversely, it can also be said that shorter people with shorter limbs have an advantage in practicing the short range power generation and explosiveness of Nanquan.  Nanquan movements are particularly shorter and quicker in motion, in comparison to Changquan movements.

Does this mean that Changquan is only exclusive to tall, long limbed people, and Nanquan is exclusive to short, stocky people?  Of course not!  There are plenty of people with not-so-long arms and legs that practice the full extension of Changquan, just as there are as many people with lanky limbs that practice the grounded and solid movements of Nanquan.  General somatotypes, while playing a factor in the advantage of how one practices a particular style, should NOT influence one’s decision in choosing one style or other, personal preference should.  It all depends on what you want to learn.  However, it is important to understand what the basic and most fundamental principles between the two styles are, and why they are the way they are; understanding the difference in posture and basic movement is the first step in achieving this.

Power and Fluidity


Another difference between Changquan and Nanquan is the emphasis of power, as well as consistent fluidity of movement.  The “flavor” of general movements in between postures in Changquan can described as fluid and continuous with few pauses.  Nanquan’s own “flavor” of movements has a greater consistency of “one-two” acceleration from one position to the next, which also serves as the basis of power for the style.  An example of such acceleration in Nanquan is the emphasis of tight stance transitions, which further attributes itself to the literal solid foundation of Nanquan.  Such stance transitions, like the snapping horse stance-bow stance transition for example, are heavily emphasized in Nanquan, but this example also exists in Changquan.  Beginning practitioners of either style can misinterpret Changquan flavor as and overly elegant with little to no solid power, and Nanquan flavor as rigid and stiff with little to no fluidity.

It is unfortunate that such misinterpretations exist, but this is not the fault of the styles themselves.  Rather, the fault is in how many practitioners, including competitive athletes on the carpet, further contribute to such stereotypes.  However, it is important to understand Changquan still has power, and Nanquan still has some degree of fluidity.

As a complete style, where Changquan has an abundance of fluidity and continuity of movement, it stands to reason that there also exists plenty of power movements to contrast and balance out such a consistent rhythm in forms work.  Examples of these power movements include the popular “pounding fist/hammer fist” (砸拳; záquán), which compliments the slap kick in many of the optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) competitive routines.  There are also many other techniques that employ power in Changquan.  Unlike Nanquan, where power is generated through acceleration over a shorter distance and time, Changquan’s own acceleration generates power at the “snapping” end of its own longer, fluid motions.  Other examples include the nationally and internationally required compulsory movements of tantui (弹腿; tántuǐ, snap/instep kick) and cechuaitui (侧揣腿, cèchuāituǐ, sidekick), which are executed at full extension with a resounding “snap” or “pop” that can be likened to the power of a lightweight boxer.

In Nanquan, there is also a consistent fluidity in between its tight, accelerating movements.  This can be seen in the practice of the three primary techniques, paoquan (抛拳; pāoquán, swinging uppercut fist), guagaiquan (挂盖拳; guàgàiquán, swinging overhead fists), and qilinbu (麒麟步;qílínbù, qilin “step”) of Nanquan, which are also required compulsory movements in national and international optional forms competitions.  In practicing lines of paoquan and guagaiquan (where the practitioner leads and resets repetitions of the technique with the backfist), there is a fluid transition from the starting position, all the way to the end of the motion.  The qilinbu movement is a particularly good example of this idea, in that the three consecutive steps are continuous, from the beginning all the way to the end, whether it is done “old school” stable and controlled, as it was traditionally, or explosive and fast, as it is done nowadays in modern competitions.

This shallow misconception that Changquan is all flowing and soft, and that Nanquan is rigid and stiff can be likened to people’s general understanding of the Daoist yin-yang (阴阳;yīnyáng) concept.  People take the idea of yin-yang to be the idea of opposites at its simplest, which is only partially true.  If one takes the time to look at the yin-yang symbol, there is a small circle within one side of the symbol that matches the color of the opposing side, demonstrating that each side of extremities has a little bit of the other.  And just as yin has a little bit of yang and yang has a little bit of yin, Changquan has power, just as Nanquan has fluidity.  This bit of knowledge allows us a deeper level of understanding of styles as they are completely.

Hand and Leg Techniques


There is a saying within Chinese martial arts, “南拳北腿 (nánquánběituǐ)”, which roughly translates to “Southern Fist, Northern Leg” (of which the title of this write-up derives its name from).  This is a generalization that northern styles of Chinese martial arts have an emphasis on leg and kicking techniques, whereas southern styles have more emphasis on upper body and hand techniques.  However, getting caught up in this generalization, especially in practice, is folly.  There are plenty of hand and fist techniques in Changquan, just as there are plenty of unique leg techniques in Nanquan.

Existent techniques in Changquan include various hand strikes, blocks, and sweeps, all of which derive from the standard hand postures, quan (拳; quán, fist), zhang (掌; zhǎng, palm), and gou (勾; gōu, hook) of Wushu.  An obscure, but classic example of such is the fanquan technique (翻拳;fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch), which is a movement taken from the traditional northern Wushu style of Fanziquan (翻子拳; tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), and was employed by old school Wushu athletes such as Zhao Changjun, and more recently by modern generation athletes like Wang Xi.

Nanquan’s own plethora of techniques includes kicking techniques such as hengdingtui (横钉腿; héngdīngtuǐ, side nail kick), which is another required compulsory movement in optional Nanquan forms.  Another leg technique that is not as well-known is the houbaitui (后摆腿; hòubǎituǐ, back crescent kick), yet it is still present in such routines as the old compulsory Nandao routine.  Unfortunately, because of the prevalence of upper body and hand techniques in Nanquan, the existence of such leg techniques are often overlooked.

Again, these techniques do exist, but it is a shame that they are not nearly as noticed or present in today’s forms work, with the exception Nanquan’s own techniques, which leads to such aforementioned misconceptions.  If we are to truly understand the completeness of what a style has to offer, we should at least know that other such techniques exist, techniques and ideas that can sometimes contradict the generalizations that people put on them, make our understanding of the style well-rounded.

In conclusion, it is important to be able to make an informed decision with as much knowledge and understanding as possible, before you go forward with a choice.  As a reminder, this write-up was only meant to pick apart the nuances of modern Wushu Changquan and Nanquan, as well as clear up the misconceptions associated with each style; the difference in posture and basic movement, emphasis on power and fluidity, and finally the proportion of hand to leg techniques.  Whatever your final decision is, you are encouraged to make it with these thoughts and ideas in mind.  I hope I’ve helped.  Best wishes on your Wushu journey!