Tai Chi vs Wing Chun – Comparison and Key Differences

Tai Chi vs Wing Chun – Comparison and Key Differences

While tai chi and kung fu are the largest and most practiced Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun is right up there in terms of popularity. This is not only due to the fact that the Master himself, Bruce Lee, was a Wing Chun practitioner and that it has been popularized by Donnie Yen in the recent Ip Man movies. It is also effective for fighting and self defense. If you are choosing between studying tai chi vs wing chun, these are some key things you need to know.

While both arts originated from China, the differences between tai chi vs wing chun are great. Wing chun is an external martial art with limited stance work and a focus on linear attacks. Tai chi is an internal martial art with larger, slower, circular movements and a curriculum that includes more forms, stances, and weapons.

There are huge benefits from studying tai chi or wing chun and even more from studying both! Let’s talk about why this is and compare the benefits and differences of both arts. We have to start with a bit of history though because with the popularity of Wing Chun also comes some folklore that we need to wade through to get to the good stuff. If you are new to martial arts, Wing Chun is a great place to start if you are interested in sparing. If you are a practitioner of both arts, read down to see how martial artists are studying both to advance their external and internal martial arts skills.

Tai Chi vs Wing Chun – Origin and Key Differences

Wing chun dates back to the 17th Century and it’s origin is not clear for a handful of reasons. It was passed down verbally from teacher to student so there are very few written records. Secondly, it is believed that wing chun practitioners were associated with rebel groups working against the Qing dynasty so not only were practitioners targeted during the 17th and 18th centuries, but they were not establishing open schools. We do know that wing chun was a prolific martial art because by the 20th century there were several unassociated wing chun masters. The most famous wing chun master was Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s teacher.

wing chun master ip man and bruce lee image

Wing Chun Origin Story

The most accepted origin story about wing chun is that it was developed by a Buddhist nun in Shaolin Temple named Ng Mui. It is believed that she developed the art from more of a scientific standpoint using concepts of leverage and force to enable a fighter to beat someone that is stronger or bigger. Ng Mui was forced to flee the Shaolin Temple after the monks were accused of being and harboring rebels. In her travels, she took on a student Yim Wing Chun who had learned kung fu from her father to protect herself as a traveling tofu vendor. Yim incorporated what she learned from Ng Mui with what she knew to develop a new art that was named after her. Yim soundly defeated a man who was trying to force her to marry him. She challenged him to a fight with the agreement that if she won she wouldn’t have to marry.

Like all great origin stories, a debate either way can’t be proven so it’s best to just enjoy the history for what it is. What we do know is that Wing Chun looked nothing like the other martial arts of that region and time. And, it’s techniques do level the playing field for fighters of any size.

Choosing Between Tai Chi vs Wing Chun – Which is Better?

Choosing between tai chi vs wing chun is a very important decision because they attract very different people. I want to take a minute here to describe why and then head into each of the areas specifically so that you can make a choice for yourself. Even though I am a tai chi practitioner hopefully you can see that I have an amazing respect for wing chun and love sparing with WC practitioners to put push hands up against sticky hands. It’s a lot of fun! But I have seen a lot of students that are new to the martial arts quit martial arts entirely because they began at a wing chun school, it wasn’t what they wanted, and they thought it was what all Chinese martial arts were like.

Wing chun is very distinct in that it had its origin in kung fu but has removed much of the form work. There is very little talk about philosophy or internal development. This isn’t a criticism of wing chun and is exactly why many people love it. They want to spend most of their time focusing on sparring and partner work.

Let’s compare tai chi chuan vs wing chun in seven ways and then at the end I made a table to summarize the comparisons.

Tai Chi vs Wing Chun Fighting and Self Defense

Wing chun is better as a fighting art, it’s that simple. If fighting and sparing are a primary goal of yours and you are trying to choose if wing chun or tai chi is better, go the wing chun route. Yes both tai chi and wing chun have open hand forms and drills, but all of wing chun’s work is directly tied to fighting. They focus on arm movements with the purpose of intercepting and attacking. They have form work with the intended purpose of improving turning, punching, kicking, and stepping. Lastly, they focus on sensitivity training which is the one focus that has the greatest amount of overlap with tai chi. Tai chi has a concept called ting jing or listening energy which is akin to wing chun’s sensitivity training where they work to remain soft and relaxed as they pay close attention to the opponent’s attack.

What better way to see the difference than with a “real” fight! Real in the sense that both styles are represented here in pure forms. Watch this:

Tai Chi vs Wing Chun Fight

As if having Bruce Lee as a practitioner wasn’t enough to add to its popularity, film maker and martial artist Donnie Yen took up the Ip Man story and made it even more famous for modern martial artists. It’s not exactly true that Donnie Yen is a wing chun practitioner. In an interview he explained that he grew up practicing tai chi and kung fu and worked diligently with wing chun masters for the year leading up to making the first film.

Physical Fitness

As far as physical fitness goes, wing chun wins over tai chi as the training for sparring requires strength and stamina. Overall, wing chun can be a good workout as a practitioner can use the forms to stay in shape as well as working with a wooden dummy to practice which you then test out with a sparring partner. Tai chi has a similar process IF you are doing push hands in your practice. The processes still look quite different. Check out the differences between chen tai chi vs wing chun chi sau (sticky hands) in these sparring examples.

Wing Chun Sticky Hands Video

Chen tai chi push hands

Popularity / Availability of Both Arts

Tai chi and wing chun are by far two of the most popular martial arts. In most western countries you can find associations related to different teachers of wing chun where as tai chi is organized by families. I know that for many wing chun practitioners who move or whose school closes, the other wing chun schools are very different and not always a great fit. Whereas tai chi practitioners have an easier time finding others who practice their style. That being said, if you are on either coast in the US or in big city throughout the world, you can probably find a school.

Ability to Practice

Comparing Chen tai chi vs wing chun, I think the structure of the schools are very similar. Both arts have solo work such as forms and partner work such as push hands and sticky hands. Chen tai chi has weapons forms to develop specific energies and wing chun has the mu ren zhuang wooded dummy. When looking at other styles of tai chi chuan vs wing chun it is not always as good of a comparison if they do not do push hands.

Wing chun also gets good marks on the availability of wing chun videos to aid in a person’s development and teach things that might not be covered in their schools. There are also tons of wing chun books on forms, theory and applications to provide enough reading for a lifetime. Overall, I rate tai chi higher in a person’s ability to practice and make progress because a person can successfully learn tai chi by working alone and with wing chun that is not the case.

Community / Socialization

Wing chun gets high mark in this area because wing chun schools can be found throughout the world and schools within linages have workshops and tournaments so they can interact and share information. In addition to that, having to work with partners continually creates a really fun and active environment in many schools.


Wing chun, like tai chi, is not an expensive art to practice. There would be dues associated with attending a school of course but nothing out of the ordinary.

Need for Gear / Location

WIng chun as an art is heavily dependent on sparring practice so all the schools I have visited to watch tournaments or practice at least had a set of mats. Wing chun practices with a wooden dummy called mu ren zhuang which is a post that typically has at least three wooden arms sticking out of it to practice arm movements and tactics that avoid grappling. I think this is a brilliant aspect of wing chun because it gets around the need to always have a partner that some of the other martial arts face.

A Comparison Chart of Tai Chi vs Wing Chun

ConsiderationTai ChiWing Chun
Self Defense / Fighting37
Physical Fitness57
Popularity / Availability108
Ability to Practice106
Community / Socialization77
Need for Gear / Location108

Combining Wing Chun and Tai Chi?

With the differences between wing chun and tai chi being pretty polar opposite in many ways, you might be surprised to hear that may practitioners are combining wing chun and tai chi and experiencing greater development in both arts. Each art trains in specific theoretical directions and it is easy for a practitioner to get good at the skillset they are focusing on and forget about the other. Training in both arts introduces you to the full picture.

  • Wing chun sticky hands focuses on strikes, tai chi push hands focuses on grappling and throws.
  • Wing chun is pretty linear in attacks, tai chi is circular
  • Wing chun is aggressive. Tai chi is more responsive.
  • Wing chun movements are practiced up to speed more often and tai chi remains slower.

So by saying the arts are complimentary it is not saying they are similar. It is saying that by combining tai chi and wing chun you can be a more balanced martial artist and fighter. Here is an example:

There was a very dedicated student who attended our tai chi class for several years and then let us know that he met some people who were studying wing chun and wanted to give it a go. A few years later, he was back at our class and said he “finally got it.” Throughout his studying with us, his posture was relaxed but not “full” in the way that would demonstrate great tai chi. By swinging the pendulum and studying a hard, aggressive style for awhile, he landed in the middle. His tai chi was full and stable. He reported that his wing chun sticky hands were softer and quicker than many of his classmates.

Choosing Between Tai Chi and Other Martial Arts

This is one of a series of articles covering the similarities and difference between tai chi and other martial arts. We all have very different personalities and luckily there is a martial art for everyone. What is important is that more people on the planet are pursuing fitness that is functional and addressing their external and internal development. Whatever you choice and where ever you are in life, we all benefit by having more people improve themselves and interact with a like-minded community. Check out how all the major martial arts compare to tai chi be clicking on the headings.

ConsiderationTai ChiKung FuWing ChunKrav MagaMuay ThaiMMAAikidoBJJKarateTaekwondo
Self Defense / Fighting35710101031075
Physical Fitness587810104978
Popularity / Availability1088359101088
Ability to Practice1010433467610
Community / Socialization7775467877
Need for Gear / Location10786444487

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

Recent Posts