One of the longest-running debates in the martial arts world has been that of hard vs. soft and internal vs. external styles – what they are, what kind of techniques they use and often whether they actually exist. Some believe that there are definite divisions among the arts; others, that there is a spectrum upon which a particular art may fall at certain times. My goal is to explore this eternal struggle a bit and offer some food for thought that might help you make your own decisions.
Hard vs. Soft
First it will probably help to list the current ideas pertaining to hard vs. soft styles. Traditionally (meaning in this instance “for the longest period of time”) martial arts have been divided into two distinct types: “Hard” and “Soft”. These distinctions are often made upon appearance alone: a style such as Aikido with its flowing movements and relative scarcity of punches and kicks has been labeled “Soft”, while Taekwondo with its extensive repertoire of punches and kicks has been labeled “Hard”.
Some practitioners use defensive techniques as their criterion: a knife-hand block in Shotokan would be a hard technique while a sacrificial throw in Judo would be termed soft. Also the general defensive strategies of an art are often considered: if you use force-on-force blocking your style is hard; if you use your opponent’s momentum against him it is a soft style.
Of course, these labels are all simply that – labels. You cannot characterize an entire style of martial art based solely upon a few movements. Doing so leads to the endless debates over specific techniques being contrary to an entire style’s categorization. For example, a straight-line punch in Taijiquan is assuredly a “hard” technique, but it’s contained within a “soft” style. Likewise, certain Karate styles utilize softer techniques yet are categorized as being hard styles overall.
Much better I think to consider the philosophies behind the art, whether they advocate force-on-force defenses or retreats, roll-backs and “surrenders” in the majority of their defensive movements. Again, every style will have some mixture of hard and soft but what we’re looking for here is the general overall “tone” of the style.
When it comes to offensive movements things become even more complex. It’s impossible to deliver a “soft punch” with any degree of effectiveness – it’s contrary to the purpose of a punch. A kick is a kick – you can’t “kick softly”. Rather, we should once again look at the guiding principles and philosophies of the art. Soft styles advocate relaxation in one’s movements and postures while hard styles generally stress muscular contraction and tenseness. A soft-style punch will often appear to be an open-hand strike until the moment before contact, at which point it closes and becomes hard. A hard-style punch on the other hand will start off tightly closed and travel the entire distance to its target in that manner.
Internal vs. External
Perhaps an even more confusing distinction that is made among martial styles is that of internal vs. external. These are confusing largely because of the ethereal nature of “internal” components – qi (chi, ki) or internal energy, fa-jing (explosive energy) and several other similar terms. These are derived from both philosophical roots (Buddhism, Taoism) and from the traditional Oriental medical paradigms.
External is on the other hand much easier to understand – it is bone-and-muscle based and uses easily-trained physical techniques. There is no consideration of mystical energy flows, no visualizations of energy pathways or the use of such techniques as “sticking”, “listening” and awareness of spirit that are found in internal styles.
In a general view internal arts emphasize breath control, relaxation, rooting, energy and spirit awareness in their training while external styles utilize more physical strength training, fast and explosive movements and may include aerial and other more agile techniques.
Once again a firm line between internal and external cannot be definitively drawn. Internal styles such as Hsing-I use both but are classified as internal, while a BJJ practitioner may well use internal strength training techniques in their movements.