You’ve probably heard of Kung Fu, a martial art with origins in Ancient China, alongside other “traditional” martial arts like Judo, Karate, and Tae Kwon Do. Not many people know, however, the different divisions and emphases within a single martial art, especially if they haven’t trained it or are just starting out.
Kung Fu Forms
Kung fu, also known as wushu or Chinese martial arts, is a broad term that refers to the various traditional Chinese martial arts styles. Within the umbrella of kung fu, there are many different styles that have developed over time, and these styles can be broadly classified into two main categories: northern styles and southern styles.
When I first started martial arts, I had no idea what the difference was between Northern and Southern Kung Fu.
There are more than 400 known varieties of martial arts considered “Kung Fu” originating in China. However, two many varieties, Northern and Southern, can be used to describe the martial arts tradition in China. Northern Kung Fu focuses more on kicking and upright stances and position, while Southern Kung Fu focuses on deeper stances, more powerful strikes, and less kicking.
The main difference between northern and southern kung fu styles is the geographical region in which they originated and were developed.
Northern styles originated in the northern part of China, which has a colder climate and a more rugged landscape. As a result, these styles tend to be more practical and utilitarian, focusing on techniques that are effective for self-defense in real-world situations.
Northern Kung Fu
Northern Kung Fu is usually described as any style of Kung Fu originating from north of the Yangtze River. It is also called the “long fist” style. Northern Kung Fu, I found, is historically an older system. In the north of China, people tended to have better diets and to be taller than those in the low-lying, less rocky regions in the south—hence a greater emphasis on high kicks.
The stances in the North tend to be much more upright, and have been described by some as far more elegant and graceful, including some movements that can be considered almost acrobatic.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Northern Kung Fu to be flowery, however—quite the opposite! Northern Kung Fu, while more upright and visually impressive, still remains very athletic and powerful.
Northern Kung Fu
Southern Kung Fu
Southern styles, on the other hand, originated in the southern part of China, which has a warmer climate and a more varied landscape.
These styles tend to be more fluid and graceful, incorporating elements of dance and acrobatics into their movements. They also often make use of a wider range of weapons, such as staffs and spears.
Southern Kung Fu, arising from south of the Yangtze river, is the newer of the two systems. In the south, practitioners used lower, more aggressive stances and more punching: when kicking, their kicks would also tend to be lower.
Why is that?
The reason for using lower stances was to generate more power. Short, low kicks also conserve body motion and are better at targeting weak spots on an opponent such as the groin, while relying on the arms to attack the neck, eyes, and other weak spots in rapid succession.
Southern Kung Fu tends to be less upright and, to some, less “pretty.” Overall, it is better adapted for short-range combat.
Southern Kung Fu
What's the difference?
There are a few cultural and historical factors that can explain the difference between these two divisions of Kung Fu.
The south of China, for example, had a much different geography than the north: misty swamps, woods, and rough, muddy terrain as opposed to the north’s more open areas. There were also more wild animals and danger from groups of robbers or pirates in the south.
Considering the shorter height of its practitioners, Southern Kung Fu seems to have been developed largely as a self-defense method, adapted from the north of China for use in the harsher realities of the south.
Others, however, see the less-populated north as the more dangerous area, prone to bandits and thieves.
Another explanation could be a greater emphasis on weapons in the north. Northern Kung Fu practitioners primarily used weapons when they could. Some have suggested, then, that their unarmed, “fancy” techniques were really more devoted to training and exhibition.
In southern China, people did not usually carry weapons, and if they did, they were shorter and easy to conceal. Because of this, Southern Kung Fu could have focused more on unarmed combat techniques that were powerful, simple to learn, and effective at quickly stopping an opponent: somewhat similar to Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art developed in the 20th century.
Finally, it has been suggested that Southern Kung Fu was influenced by shipboard fighting. On an unstable platform, a lower, more secure stance is more effective, and fighting takes place in cramped and close quarters.
Wing Chun is one Chinese martial art we know originated exclusively from naval combat.
Differences Between Northern and Southern
Which one should I choose?
In the end, what style you choose is up to you.
In general, northern styles are known for their strong, direct movements and powerful strikes, while southern styles are known for their fluid, graceful movements and emphasis on agility and flexibility.
Don’t get me wrong, both Northern and Southern styles have a rich history and tradition, and practitioners of each style have developed a deep understanding of the principles and techniques that make these styles unique.
If you have the option to study one or the other in your area, perhaps try both! That way, you can see which one you like. It is also worth checking out several different schools to see whether other factors (like the size of the school, the quality of the instructors, etc.) might influence your choice.