There are hundreds of different styles of Chinese martial arts, each with their own sets of techniques and ideas.
The concept of martial arts styles appeared from around the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Before the Ming period, martial skills were differentiated only by their lineage. There are common themes among these styles which allow them to be grouped according to generalized "families" (), "sects" (), "class" (), or "schools" () of martial art styles. There are styles that mimic movements from animals and others that gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies or mythologies. Some styles put most of their focus into the belief of the harnessing of qi energy, while others concentrate solely on competition or exhibition.
The rich variety of styles has led to the creation of numerous classification schemes.〔Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo (2005), Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey, CA: North Atlantic Books, ISBN 1-55643-557-6〕〔Fuo Hsi Fen (郭希汾) (1920), Chinese China Sports History 《中國體育史》 Shanghai: 上海商務印書館 ISBN 7-80569-179-7〕
Geographical location such as regional affiliation is one well known example.
A particular Chinese martial arts style can be referred to as either a ''northern fist'' () or a ''southern fist'' () depending on its point of origin. Additional details such as province or city can further identify the particular style. Other classification schemes include the concept of ''external'' () and ''internal'' (). This criterion concerns the training focus of a particular style. Religious affiliation of the group that found the style can also be used as a classification. The three great religions of Taoism, Buddhism and Islam have associated martial arts styles. There are also many other criteria used to group Chinese martial arts; for example, imitative-styles () and legendary styles; historical styles and family styles. Another more recent approach is to describe a style according to their combat focus.
The traditional dividing line between the northern and southern Chinese martial arts is the Yangtze River.〔Donn F. Draeger, Robert W. Smith (1981), Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, Oxford University Press (USA), ISBN 978-0870114366〕 A well known adage concerning Chinese martial arts is the term "Southern fists and Northern kicks" (「南拳北腿」). This saying emphasizes the difference between the two groups of Chinese martial arts. However, such differences are not absolute and there are many Northern styles that excel in hand techniques and conversely, there are many different type of kicks in some Southern styles. A style can also be more clearly classified according to regional landmarks, province, city and even to a specific village.
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