This article is from the Martial Arts FAQ, by Matthew Weigel firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
There are many ways in which martial arts can be divided. Here are a
few of them that might be useful to use in defining Martial Arts and
discussing them. These are not necessarily consensus definitions but
they are commonly held.
It is also useful to remember that very few of these martial arts are
just one way or another...they are all mixtures of these elements in
various degrees. When we say a style is "hard" what we mean is that
the predominant expression of that style is hard. If we say Shotokan
is linear, it does not mean Shotokan has no circular techniques.
"Sport" vs "Fighting Art" vs. "Exercise" vs. "Philosophy"
These are usually NON-useful comparisons because people tend to be
very strongly opinionated on this matter. Most people want to think
their art is an ancient "fighting art" and can be applied thus on the
street. Some styles truly are all four, and to some degree all styles
contain all four elements.
In discussions of a style it is most useful when people highlight
which area or areas their style emphasizes.
"Linear" vs. "Circular"
This distinction refers to lines of movement, attack and defense.
"Circular" styles use circular movements to block, attack, or move.
Around and aside... "Linear" styles use direct, straight-on movements,
attacks, or head-on blocks. In and out...
Styles can, and sometimes do, mix circular blocks with linear attacks.
This is a subtle distinction and not absolute, but it gives some
"Soft" vs. Hard"
"Soft" styles tend to redirect energy, channeling and diverting
momentum to unbalance an opponent, or to move them into striking
range. They tend to be lower commitment and use less force. Thus,
they are less likely to be unbalanced and can recover from redirection
easier. Examples are Taiji, Aikido, Ninjutsu, or many Gongfu
styles and sub-styles.
"Hard" styles tend to direct energy outward and meet energy with
energy. They will tend to strike more, and deliver more force with
each strike. Hard stylists will often damage with their blocks,
turning them into attacks. They deliver more power, and thus are
harder to turn aside, but they are higher commitment, and thus don't
recover as well from mistakes. Examples are Karate, Tae-Kwon-Do, Muay
Thai, and some Gongfu styles and sub-styles.
"Internal" vs. "External"
"Internal" styles are styles that emphasize the more non-tangible
elements of the arts. They utilize chi/ki/qi flow, rooting, and those
elements which some people consider "mystical". They tend to
emphasize meditation, body control, perception, mind control (self,
not others!), and pressure points. `Typically' internal styles are
soft. Taiji is an internal style.
"External" styles tend to emphasize body mechanics, leverage, and
applied force. They tend to use weight, strength, positioning, and
anatomy to optimal advantage. `Typically' external styles are hard.
Tae-Kwon-Do is an external style.
"Complete Art" or not
The term "complete art" is sometimes applied to arts that include
strikes, kicks, throws, pressure points, and joint locks. The arts
most often mentioned in this regard are some Gongfu styles, Jujutsu,
and Hapkido. Although some arts contain more techniques than others,
no art is "complete" in the sense that it includes all the important
techniques from other arts. In general, every art has its strong and
weak points, and each has something to offer to the lexicon of martial