Someone asked the very good question of what kung fu system would be best for them. Naturally, this is informed by many factors such as what you want to get out of kung fu, what you are willing to put up with, if a master is willing and able to teach you, etc. Here is what I replied with:
I can’t say that Southern or Northern Shaolin is a “better” or more efficient martial art. Both of them are excellent martial arts aiming at very noble aims, from the lowest levels of good health and combat efficiency to the highest levels of mental and spiritual cultivation. Many different things can inform your choice of martial art like any personal qualities you have that you want to take advantage of, any personal weaknesses that you want to work on, and of course (perhaps the most important), how far you are willing to go to learn from an excellent master.
I would recommend reading my grandmaster’s book, The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu, if for no other reason that it has an excellent survey of various kung fu styles at the beginning. This would be a part of getting to know the scope of the arts before making a decision.
I suppose I can get you started by giving a brief overview of the styles that I myself am aware of. By all means, do your own research; I am being brief for necessity of time and space:
“Northern” kung fu: most well known for flowing and powerful movements, for valuing sequences of constant motion rather than individual patterns. Also often called “Long Fist” because the practitioner’s movements are as constant and flowing as the Long River of China, or “Chang Quan” (which translates as “Long (as in length) Fist” because the practitioner’s movements are often long-reaching and extended.
- Lohanquan (“Monk’s kung fu”): considered the archetype of all kung fu. I don’t know many of its specifics.
- Taizuquan (“First Song Emperor’s kung fu”): The oldest separately named Long Fist style. I don’t know many of its specifics.
- Tantui (“Spring Pond Kicks”): Perhaps the most popularly practiced Northern kung fu style, forms the “basis” or holds the “essence” of Northern kung fu. Very famous for subtle and tricky kicking techniques.
- Tanglang quan (“Praying Mantis kung fu”): Well known for the mantis hand-form (used to hook, sweep, and strike at vital points) and tricky kicking movements. The inventor, Wang Lang, traveled China and collected the eighteen best features of kung fu that he could find to develop this style.
- Hou quan (“Monkey kung fu”): One of the oldest “animal” styles of kung fu, features many deceptive movements, agile footwork, and vicious movements like plucking someone’s eyes or genitals.
- Taijiquan (“Cosmos kung fu”): aka Tai Chi, separated into several major schools: Wudang (most known for being practiced by Daoist monks for spiritual cultivation), Chen (emphasizes combat application), Yang & derivatives like Guang Ping, Wu, Wu-Hao, and Cheng (emphasizes health). All are known for soft, flowing, and very fluid movements.
- Ying Jow Pai (“Eagle Claw kung fu”): Practiced by General Yue Fei’s soldiers, includes many tricky and elaborate fighting movements, including “hidden” eagle claws to hassle or set someone up for a decisive strike.
- Xingyiquan (“Mind-Intent kung fu”): Taught to General Yue Fei’s generals, this style looks very simplistic, but five basic movements are trained to the point of handling all combat situations (the “Five Elemental Fists”), with supplementary “animal forms” to handle special situations. My brother practices this one.
- Baguazhang (“Eight Trigrams Palm”): My personal style, this style is “built” on an exercise called Circle Walking. It emphasizes palm strikes, kicks, and agile footwork; adepts are well known for being able to get to an opponent’s back without the opponent realizing it.
“Southern” kung fu: most well known for extremely powerful strikes, tricky hand movements, and solid stances. Often said to use the “force” method of consolidating their strength such their arms and legs are like battering rams or iron rods to smash into an opponent. More likely to include external training like Iron Palm, Iron Arm, etc.
- Southern Shaolin: Kung fu from one of the two Southern Shaolin temples. Baihe Quan (see below) came from the earlier temple in Fujian and also influenced Wuzuquan (see below). I’m unsure of this temple’s kung fu’s characteristics. The second temple at Nine Lotus Mountain had kung fu that emphasized hard force and quickly aiming for combat efficiency using sets like the Great Majestic Set (called the “Triple Stretch” set in Shaolin Wahnam) and its fundamental set, Cross-Road at Four Gates.
- Wuzuquan (“Five Ancestors kung fu”): Composed of the best qualities from five different kung fu systems, this, like Xingyiquan, is a “profound application with simple-seeming movements.” I don’t know much about it.
- Baihe quan (“White Crane kung fu”): Famous for long-reaching arm movements and “whipping” movements to hold opponents at bay, as well as for subtle kicks.
- Hoong Ka, aka Hung Gar (“Hoong Family kung fu”): Considered the archetype of Southern kung fu, is most well known for emphasizing Tiger aspects (hard force, tiger claws, and pressing into opponents in a linear fashion) and Crane aspects (whipping crane wing attacks and shadowless kicks).
- Choi Li Fatt (“Combination of Choi Family, Li Family, and Buddha Family kung fu”): Often regarded as a brother style to Hoong Ka, it emphasizes long reaching and swinging arm attacks called “Whirlwind Fists.” Originally developed for mass battle fighting, especially against hordes of people with low skill level.
- Wing Choon, aka Wing Chun (“Lady Wing Choon’s kung fu”): Developed by the lady Yim Wing Choon after learning from the Shaolin nun Ng Mui, emphasizes vicious short-range hand attacks and is especially apt for one-on-one fighting at the master’s level. Famous for Sticking Hands, chain punching, and clutch kicks.
I do apologize if I missed anyone’s styles, these were just the ones I could come up with now. If anyone can contribute more, go for it!
As an aside, all of these styles, except perhaps Baihe quan (White Crane) can be found in Shaolin Wahnam (though I’m sure some of my seniors have learnt White Crane from somewhere; likewise, I know at least one of my seniors knows Lohanquan), usually in the form of a representative set. Most sets can be found at this website, though you may have to search a little more to find pages demonstrating their application, and there are some sets named there that I didn’t name here because I didn’t remember them at the time of drafting this message, and I want to head off to eat dinner. =P
About the Red Junk styles: +JP Gilbert , great point on the “Red Junk” styles, I’d entirely forgotten about those! Such styles tended to be popular amongst anti-Qing dynasty revolutionaries, and their kung fu tends to be hard and fast to attain combat efficiency as quickly as possible.
It’s also funny that you mention Southern Mantis kung fu. My family name is “Chu,” the same character as the deposed Ming royals (though I doubt I have any Ming blood in me, haha!) A pal of mine told me that one variant of Chow family kung fu is named for the deposed Ming’s. He said I should totally learn my “lost family art.” =P
You also bring up a great point, which I did not mention in my post. There are three great influences at work here: the master, the student, and the art. If one learns a great art from a great master and you are a great student, that’s the best situation (also the rarest). Even learning a “low level” art from an amazing master is better than learning a “high level” art from a shoddy master, or being a shoddy student yourself. Seek out the best, certainly. That’s all the advice I can give you now.