Martial Arts and Magic, Part 3: Internal VS. External Styles
All right, here we go again–talking about martial arts, movement, and magic systems! If you haven’t read the previous articles in this series, Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. Last time, I was talking about hand techniques, so let’s continue with kuji-kiri, the ninja practice of using hand seals.
The reason I’m going into kuji-kiri is that it’s an even more granular practice than baguazhang when it comes to hand movements: baguazhang gives palm changes, strikes, and modes of movement symbolic meanings, but kuji-kiri shows that even the configuration of one’s fingers can become filled with deep meaning, which offers a good starting place for a magic system. It’s already been directly adapted for use in Naruto, though they use slightly different hand signs and names:
Kuji-kiri is based on nine symbols and hand positions, each of which has a different meaning, such as harmony or spirit. These hand positions are used for meditation, but they were also allegedly used by ninjas to gain powers like invisibility and heightened senses. Here’s a video demonstrating the nine positions:
In kuji-kiri, the right hand symbolizes the yang principle (of the generally recognize yin/yang idea), which is associated with the concepts of spirit, light, heaven, or fire. Meanwhile, the left hand symbolizes the yin principle, along with the concepts of the physical body, darkness, earth, and water. In this sense, kuji-kiri is a symbolic merging of opposites and a microcosm for the self, as well as the universe.
It’s relatively easy to imagine associating hand positions similar to those found in kuji-kiri with various magical effects, like elemental manipulation or weather control, and the practice of using different fingers for the same position (like steepling the middle fingers instead of the index fingers for ‘rin’) offers the potential for variations on the nine central hand positions—using a different finger might carry a different meaning.
Another layer of meaning to kuji-kiri is each position’s association with a different chakra point on the body—for example, the navel chakra or the heart chakra. This means kuji-kiri-inspired magic has a basis for enhancing the user’s body, the way ninjas (supposedly) did.
All right, that wraps up the look at hand techniques—let’s move on.
INTERNAL VS EXTERNAL STYLES
One of the big divides in the martial arts world is between hard, “external” styles and soft, “internal” styles. Generally, the distinction comes down to martial arts that focus on cultivating physical power and those that cultivate “inner” power, usually in the form of qi or chi.
In essence, the use of qi is already a kind of magical practice: instead of physical strength, the user relies on channeling power from the universe through the body by using distinct movements with symbolic meanings:
In the internal martial arts power is generated through Chi (or qi) energy with the whole body moving as a singular unit. Practitioners’ bodies move in a soft, fluid and relaxed manner. Movements are continuous and circular. In external martial arts power is usually generated through bursts of muscular tension. It’s usually hard, linear and aggressive.
Alternatively, here’s a definition that doesn’t involve the use of qi:
A soft art is one in which the martial artist yields in the face of an opposing force, either evading the force entirely or redirecting it without directly clashing…The movements are rounded or even circular in such systems, and great emphasis is put on relaxed, or even relatively slow, motions involving the body working as a whole, rather than on using the limbs divorced from the trunk.
I’ve written a whole article about qi in fantasy, but I’d rather talk about the patterns in movement found in inner vs. external styles, and the character of each.
You can see the difference between hard and soft martial arts in kata, which are practiced sets of moves used to train students. Check out the two videos below—the first demonstrates a ‘harder’ style of martial art, karate:
The one below is a baguazhang demonstration, which is considered a softer material art:
You can see pretty clearly how karate uses mostly linear motion and moves the arms independently of the trunk, while baguazhang uses more circular motion and engages more of the body. What makes this interesting is that ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ styles of martial arts line up broadly with the concepts of yin and yang: soft styles are more passive, flowing, and gentle, while hard styles are more active, abrupt, and strong.
These are two ideas that can help inform the philosophy and application of a movement-based magic system—in Avatar: the Last Airbender, for example, waterbending is inspired by tai chi, a soft martial art, and can be used for healing as well as combat. This doesn’t mean every type of movement magic has to become pigeonholed into hard or soft, however–at one point in Avatar, the character Iroh demonstrates how he incorporated the ‘soft’ technique of redirection into the ‘hard’ system of firebending to create a way to redirect lightning bolts, as shown here:
Some of the more interesting martial arts are ones that blend the techniques of both hard and soft, but if you’re creating a new magic system from scratch, it might be easier to stick with the general principles and see how you can adapt those philosophies and styles of movements to the kind of magic you have in mind.