Steel Wrapped in Cotton
"I'll never say I'm number One, but I'll never admit to being number Two." -Bruce Lee
The famous kung fu phrase "steel wrapped in cotton" is commonly used to describe a physical developmental objective of "internal" accomplishment; what is popularly understood to be "soft power," where the muscles are soft externally yet the body feels solid inwardly, and thus is claimed by the so-called Internal styles such as Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I. We feel that this is too general of a description of the phrase, as it encompasses far more than a mere state of physical training, and it is not/should not be confined to only those styles that call themselves "internal."
In terms of physical training in kung fu, the terms "internal" and "external" refer to POINTS OF REFERENCE in the training; that is to say, if the initial focus of the training is the speed/strength of the limbs/extremities, ie., THE THINGS WE CAN SEE, then one can say it is "external," while if the training initially focuses on the mind, feeling, breath control, ie., THE THINGS WE CANNOT SEE, then one can say that it is "internal." However, these are only STARTING POINTS IN THE TRAINING; when the training has matured or been completed, the accomplishment starting from the extremities reaches the core, and vice versa. This is what is meant by the phrase "external from out to in, internal from in to out."
From the perspective of skill/power, properly understood, external power/skill means SHALLOW/IMMATURE/YOUNG skill; the time/effort has not yet been put in to achieve the requisite standard. Internal power/skill means DEEP/MATURE/OLD skill; the practitioner has the requisite effort, time and progression to exhibit an experienced development. His/her movement is highly refined and expenditure of energy is highly efficient, hence we say the power/skill goes "to the bone."
Thus the phrase "steel wrapped in cotton" not only refers to proper physical development from the Chinese military perspective REGARDLESS OF STYLE, but it is also a description of the result of the CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT as a result of submitting to the immense time and effort requirements to obtain the physical development.
But that is not the highest aspect of the phrase. In martial arts, we have both Mo/martial and Mun/scholarly development and pursuits; one without the other is incomplete. I teach my children in my kids class that to be a martial artist you must be both strong and smart; if you only strong but not smart then shrewd people will use and take advantage of you, but if you are only smart and not strong all you will have is good ideas; you'll know right from wrong but will have no power to stand for the right. The phrase "steel wrapped in cotton" speaks directly to this in that we are to be INWARDLY MARTIAL YET OUTWARDLY CIVIL. In this way our thoughts and actions, specifically with respect to the proper handling of others, will be guided by Kindness, Temperance and Benevolence, yet supported by Justice. Ghandi was once quoted as saying that True Humility always comes from a position of strength; anything else is not humility, but cowardice.