What’s in a Name?

Terms Associated with Qigong and Chinese Martial Arts


One of the challenges people find when starting to read about practices such as Qigong and the internal martial arts is that there seems to be a dizzying array of terms associated with them. Chinese is a notoriously difficult language for most westerners to learn, making these terms even more confusing. Moreover, Chinese is not written with an alphabet, but rather with characters. There are several systems of Romanizing (i.e., writing with the Roman alphabet) Chinese into Western languages such as English. For example, did you know that Peking and Beijing are the same? They’re just different ways of spelling the same place name in Chinese, originally written 北京.

Here is a list of some terms with brief descriptions of their meanings and interrelationships. We hope this helps, and if other terms come up please contact us and we will add to this ongoing list!


Qigong 氣功 – Qigong is a compound term in Chinese made up of two characters. The first is qi (氣), which actually means a wide range of things including breath or internal vitality. The second word,gong (功), is a type of skill or accomplishment, honed over time with effort. In modern usage it refers to an incredibly wide range of practices encompassing meditation, movement based practices, martial arts, and in some circles the acquisition for supposed miraculous practices. The word Qigong was chosen only as recently as the 1950s to serve as a general umbrella term to bring together many different practices and schools of thought. For more information on the history and theory of Qigong click here.


Gong Fu 功夫 – Gong Fu, more commonly written Kung Fu, is a word associated with Chinese martial arts. While it can refer to martial arts, Gong Fu actually means a kind of skill that is obtained by long term repetitive practice. For example, an experienced chef, or a talented artist have Gong Fu. Likewise, a doctor who is good at treating patients also has Gong Fu. Generally speaking, the word Gong Fu is used as a term to describe martial arts practice in the south of China, and among English speakers (the term is not used commonly in this context in the north of China)


Nei Gong 內功 – Nei Gong, literally ‘internal skill’, is an older term that refers to breathing and movement exercises to develop internal power. This word is closely associated with internal martial arts power development.


Jing Gong 靜功 – Jing Gong means ‘stillness practice’. This refers to practices similar to meditation where there is no physical movement.


Nei Dan 內丹 – Literally ‘internal elixir’, Nei Dan encompasses breathing and movement exercises, and especially meditation practices, that were associated with religious training in the Daoist, and sometimes, Buddhist traditions.


Zhan Zhuang 站樁 – Zhan Zhuang means ‘post standing’. This is the practice of holding various standing postures in stillness for sustained periods of time (e.g., from 10 minutes to over an hour each standing). Standing postures develop strength, and improve posture and alignment. These exercises are commonly association with schools of Nei Gong and Internal Martial Arts.


Chan Si Gong 纏絲功 – Chan Si Gong is ‘silk reeling skill’. Silk reeling is an essential part of Chen Style Taiji, the original system of Taiji. These exercises use circular movements to increase flexibility and strengthen joints. Although they are important for developing fighting skill, they for the basis of the modern practice of Taiji Therapy.


Dao Yin 導引 – Dao Yin is another ancient practice now subsumed under the modern term Qigong. Dao Yin means ‘pulling and stretching’, and is somewhat like Yoga. These exercises both prevent and treat disease by combining stretching movements with breathing and visualization. One example of a Dao Yin exercise series is the 24 Seasonal Node Qigong (originally called the 24 Seasonal Node Seated Dao Yin 二十四氣坐功導引).


Nei Jia 內家 – Nei Jia literally translates as ‘internal family’, although usually it is translated as ‘Internal Martial Arts’. The Internal Martial Arts are characterized by using slow and deliberate movements in practice so that internal strength is developed before external strength. It also combines Qigong-like breathing and visualization practices with martial arts movements. The Internal Martial Arts most likely originated in the late Ming (1368 - 1644) to the early Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasties in China. Although they were originally taught as both an effective method of self-defense as well as a health promoting exercise, in modern times they are most often taught as the latter. The three main systems of Internal Martial Arts are Taiji, Xinyi and Bagua.


Wai Jia 外家 – Wai Jia, ‘External Family’, is usually translated as ‘External Martial Arts’. Unlike the Internal Martial Arts, the External family first trains the physical body with vigorous and fast moving patterns and conditioning exercises. One example of a Chinese External Martial Art would be Shaolin Gongfu. Okinawan Karate or Korean Tae Kwon Do would also be categorized as External Martial Arts


Taiji 太極 – Taiji (also sometimes spelled T’ai Chi) is one of the three main Internal Martial Arts and the most widely practiced of the three. It is also called Taijiquan (lit. ‘Grand Ultimate Fist’). Taiji was first developed by Chen Wanting in Henan Province, China during the early 1600s. As one of the internal martial arts it incorporates methods of fighting (both with and without weapons) and breathing or meditation techniques to create an art useful for both self-defense and health preservation. While Taiji was originally a secret method of the Chen family, starting in the 1800s it was taught to outsiders (the first being Yang Luchan) who helped spread Taiji first throughout China and then the world. After that it developed into different schools of practice, and currently the main schools are the Chen (the original system), Yang (currently the most popular worldwide), Wu, Wu-Hao and Sun. More recent offshoots include the Hunyuan Chen Style, Zhaobao, and Wudang schools. To read more about Taiji click here.


Bagua 八卦 – Bagua (also sometimes spelled Pakua) is the second most popular of the Internal Martial Arts. It is also known as Bagua Zhang (lit. ‘Eight Trigram Palm’). It was first developed by Dong Haichuan in the mid 1800s, although Dong claimed that he learned the method from Daoist priests. Bagua makes heavy use of circular movement patterns and one of the main exercises is known as ‘circle walking’.


Xingyi 形意 – Xingyi, or Xingyi Quan (‘Form Intention Fist’) is the third main Internal Martial Art, and its historical origins date back to the 18th century. Unlike Taiji and Bagua which specialize in complex circular movements, Xingyi places heave emphasis on straight movements. It is said that the movement patterns were modeled after military spear fighting techniques. Zhan Zhuang (Post Standing, c.f., above) is an important traditional part of Xingyi practice.