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When I hear anyone talk about a specific Chinese martial art, it falls into either a Northern Chinese or Souther Chinese style. I have learned that the general differences between the Northern and Southern styles is that Northern styles have more legwork, acrobatics, and jumping moves. Contrastly, Southern Chinese kung fu systems focus more on short moves and stable stances.

If Chinese martial arts fall into either of these categories, what is the explanation for it? Since the divide is geographical, are the development of Chinese kung fu systems related to regional, environmental factors? What are the historical roots that would also influence the development of these two general categories of Northern versus Southern?

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

If anyone can bring solid historical evidence (or even solid oral history, e.g. "Master Po in 1600 wrote down that he put a lot of close-range techniques in the style because he fights on rice paddies") to bear on this one, I'd start and assign a bounty. I'd love to avoid a bevy of answers based on hearsay and conjecture. – Dave Liepmann Aug 15 '12 at 21:54

Northern styles have more legwork, acrobatics, and jumping moves. Contrastly, Southern Chinese kung fu systems focus more on short moves and stable stances.

Actually, that describes the differences between the unarmed techniques, to an extent the weapons forms are the other way around. The way I heard it (at least 20 years ago, and I have forgotten the source) was that the Northern Chinese were more likely to be armed, so their weapons techniques tended to be more practical, since they were more often needed, while their unarmed techniques tended to be flashy.

The Southern Chinese tended to be less often armed, and when they were it was with shorter, more concealable weapons, so their unarmed techniques were more important and more practical, while their longer weapons forms tended to be stuff for showing off and for general development in training, rather than for practical use.

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Good point. I had never thought of that. Do you know why the Northern Chinese were more likely to be armed though over the Southern Chinese? – Matt Chan Aug 17 '12 at 20:07
I'm not a student of Chinese history, so I don't know how accurate it is, but I heard it was because the North wasn't as densely or as evenly populated as the South, and there were often bandits in the wilder areas of the North. The primary crops of the North and South tend to support this, since the wheat grown in the north requires rotation, which means at least a third of the fields are not going to be cropped at any given time. While the rice paddy agriculture of the south needs maintenance of the irrigation and can be farmed continuously. – William B Swift Aug 18 '12 at 0:43

Geography, population differences, influences, etc. Same reasons everything is different over space.

For example, one reason I've heard is that southern styles were influenced by ship-board fighting, for which large, sweeping moves are contra-indicated, and short, stable stances are a necessity because of deck motion. Oceans in the south, mountains in the north; southern styles would tend towards being influenced by where a lot of fighting took place, and the people fighting.

Once trends are set in motion, they tend to snowball on themselves. A cooking ingredient becomes regionally popular, more regional dishes will use it. Variations on the theme are created and propagate. Sometimes something moves outside of a region. Sometimes a foreign region influences local flavors.

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A good part of the answer seems to genetics, distance, and culture.

Northern Chinese people are, on average, inches taller than people of Southern China. Body breadth, skin coloring, and other patterns of physicality are often cited as being clearly different North to South. Different physical builds naturally lead toward different athletic expressions.

China is also geographically enormous. One has to cross ~1,000 miles (~1,500km) to get from the Northern Shaolin Temple at Zhèngzhōu to the Southern Monastery at Fujian, or to another at Quánzhōu. (Whether you believe these sites are the "true" sources of whatever style is another matter.)

Prior to the advent of modern vehicular transportation, 1,000-mile distances would have been inherently isolating, naturally leading to independent development and regional divergence (see also Dave Newton's answer). There'd be good reasons to have strong differences even if they spoke the same language. Which they don't.

Considering the different physical builds, different languages/cultural history, and regional distances, it's surprising that we think of Chinese martial arts in as unified a way as we do.

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And these vast distances and genetic and cultural differences would suggest disparity generally, not towards any specific types of disparity, e.g. such-and-such techniques for the south and such-and-such stances for the north? – Dave Liepmann Aug 16 '12 at 1:07
Long distances and different languages/cultural traditions explain divergence, but not any specific divergence. Different body types go further. My understanding: The larger, taller bodies of Northerners lead toward, encourage, and support their typically higher kicks and more expansive movements (e.g. "Long Fist"), while the shorter, more compact bodies and more populated/crowded cities of the South motivate their more constrained, close-in techniques (seen in e.g. Hung Gar, "shadowless kicking," Wing Chun). If argued those factors are suggestive but not conclusive, I'd have to agree. – Jonathan Eunice Aug 17 '12 at 18:50
I agree strongly w/r/t distance and language/culture; I think incorporating your comment into your post would improve it. I don't really see the mechanism for longer limbs promoting longer movements...if everybody is 4'11'', kicking people in the head is the same as if everybody is 6', no? – Dave Liepmann Aug 17 '12 at 18:59
Those with longer reach (for kicking or punching) are more likely to use and evolve moves that involve longer reach. A large guy, I know I emphasize moves where my height, mass, and reach give me advantage (over opponents of whatever size). I don't emphasize moves that require moving my entire body super-fast, or dropping very low, or otherwise fighting my natural inertia. This isn't something I can "prove" played deeply into Northern/Southern style differences, but I've heard it said many times by sifus (of Northern, Southern, and Korean arts), and it makes sense to me. YMMV. – Jonathan Eunice Aug 21 '12 at 16:26

I am a Wushu practitioner and what my master said is that Chang Quan or Northern Fist and Nanquan or Southern Fist are equally well and represent the style that evolved thousand of years ago in the North and South regions of China. The people of the South are more stronger and their style is very firm like the tiger claw, dragon claw, etc. The Southern style is the style of the ironsmith, whereas the Northern style is very dynamic.

Nonetheless both are difficult to master and require a lot of patience and practice to develop. Nowadays in modern Wushu both Nanquan and Chang Quan emphasises jumps and movements which requires great agility. They are difficult but with practice can be acquired. I would also like to add that practice either Chang Quan or Nanquan. Don't go for both because the body language in both differs. If you try both it will lead you to nowhere. Try a single style and become the master of it.

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Thank you for your answer, but you hardly address the question. Do you know how it comes that the Northern and Southern style are so different? – THelper Dec 3 '13 at 12:25

There is a well circulated myth that is related to the features of the northern and southern sections of China. The south tends to be hotter, muggier, and wetter. Conversely, the north is dryer and more rocky. Thus the southern systems don't use large movements from the legs because even if you can jump out of a patch of mud up to or above your ankles (think rice patties), your landing will most likely be uncertain and slippery. Southern styles tend to focus on hands and sure-fire stances because falling is a good way to get compromised.

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I feel that while all of the posts are sound ideas of what makes the difference between northern and southern styles. But the lack of acknowledgment of the Northern styles that are compact and explosive like traditional chinese Baji Quan and the repeated claim that southern stylist lack traditional kicking ability is a clear example of the lack of Wushu knowledge presented here. Tiger, dragon and snake styles all from the south have standing, jumping and flying kicks, and some of the kicks represented in snake style Wushu are incredibly difficult to master. As an FYI I am not referring to the Shaolin schools of Wushu for I am not a Shaolin practioner so it is not my area of expertise. The history of the country plays a large part in the evolution of the styles.. Long fist using large sweeping arm techniques To defend against long weapons, like a spear from a mounted mongol attacking during the Qing dynasty. Smaller frame styles gain their compact representation of techniques due to over crowded training areas thanks to a military regimented influence of Wushu techniques. And then there is the Government's over all influence on Traditional chinese martial arts which caused a dramatic decline in martial knowledge among the people and the development of government standardized sport Wushu which is most of what anyone has seen and is a dramatically watered down version of the style compared to its more martial and now outlawed original style.

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The differences between northern and southern gung-fu mainly came about due to the climate differences between the two different regions.

With the north being colder, kicking became more common since it's easier to kick for a longer period of time in a colder climate than a warmer one because kicking takes more energy and generates more body heat. Northerners are also taller so again, that is another reason for the propensity towards kicking.

The south being warmer and with a higher annual rainfall, meant that that the ground is softer and so the southern gung-fu styles, which has low stances for stability and less kicking, along with lower kicks since it's harder to maintain your balance on softer and/or wet ground. Southerns were generally shorter than northerners so this also meant that kicks were not as effective as a long range weapon as their taller northern counterparts.

Diet also played a factor as the northerners are taller so that also led to them develop more kicking styles, and with the southerner being shorter, again, less kicking and more hand strikes because shorter legs meant that kicking was not as effective as a long range weapon than their taller northern counterparts.

This is why gung-fu men that are known as kickers, are called northerners, while hands men are called southerners.

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What do you mean specifically about diet? I don't understand that part. – Matt Chan Dec 18 '13 at 19:02
Northerners ate more grains and meat due to the cold, so that is believed to be part of why they were generally taller than their southern counterparts. The height difference, with their longer legs and arms, affected the difference in how they fought, such as northerners using more kicks, more extended kicks and longer strikes. The Long Fist style is one example of a northern style being created to take advantage of the longer limbs of northerners, in this case, their longer arms. Southerners ate a more vegetable based diet which often doesn't add as much bulk or size, including height. – JediWitness Dec 18 '13 at 19:07

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