Tai Chi – Introduction

T’ai Chi Ch’uan also spelled Taijiquan , commonly known as T’ai Chi or Taiji , is a Chinese martial art which is known for the claims of health and longevity benefits made by its practitioners and in some recent medical studies.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan is known as a soft style martial art, an art applied with as complete a relaxation or softness in the musculature as possible, to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard styles which use a degree of tension in the muscles.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is best known as the slow motion routines groups of people practice every morning in hundreds of parks across China and, increasingly, other parts of the world. In T’ai Chi classes one is taught awareness of one’s own balance and what affects it, awareness of the same in others, and appreciation of the practical value in one’s ability to moderate extremes of behavior and attitude at both mental and physical levels.

Overview

While its practitioners have historically considered it primarily a style of martial art, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is also called an art of moving meditation. T’ai Chi theory and practice is formulated in agreement with many of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to beginning and intermediate level T’ai Chi training, many therapeutic interventions along the lines of TCM are taught to advanced T’ai Chi students in traditional schools. T’ai Chi Chuan as physical training is characterized by its requirement for the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation rather than muscular tension. The slow, repetitive work involved in that process is said to gently increase and open the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, peristalsis, etc.). Over time, proponents say, this enhancement becomes a lasting effect, a direct reversal of the physical effects of stress on the human body. This reversal allows much more of the students’ native energy to be available to them, which they may then apply more effectively to the rest of their lives; families, careers, spiritual or creative pursuits, hobbies, etc.

The study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan involves three primary subjects, in the following order:

  • Health – an unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person will find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use Tai Chi as a martial art. Tai Chi’s health training therefore concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind.
  • Meditation – the focus meditation and subsequent calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of T’ai Chi is seen as necessary to maintain optimum health (in the sense of effectively maintaining stress relief or homeostasis) and in order to use it as a soft style martial art.
  • Martial art – the ability to competently use T’ai Chi as a martial art is said to be proof that the health and meditation aspects are working according to the dictates of the theory of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

The Mandarin term “T’ai Chi Ch’uan” translates as “Supreme Ultimate Boxing” or “Boundless Fist”. Training T’ai Chi involves learning solo routines are known as forms and two person routines known as pushing hands as well as acupressure related manipulations taught by traditional schools. T’ai Chi Ch’üan is seen by many of its schools as a variety of Taoism, and it does seemingly incorporate many Taoist principles into its practice (see below). It is an art form said to date back many centuries (although not reliably documented under that name before 1850), with precursor disciplines dating back thousands of years. The explanation given by the traditional T’ai Chi family schools for why so many of their previous generations have dedicated their lives to the study and preservation of the art is that the discipline it seems to give its students to dramatically improve the effects of stress in their lives, with a few years of hard work, should hold a useful purpose for people living in a stressful world. They say that once the T’ai Chi principles have been understood and internalized into the bodily framework the practitioner will have an immediately accessible “toolkit” thereby to improve and then maintain their health, to provide a meditative focus, and that can work as an effective and subtle martial art for self-defense.

Teachers say the study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is, more than anything else, about challenging one’s ability to change oneself appropriately in response to outside forces. These principles are taught using the examples of physics as experienced by two (or more) bodies in combat. In order to be able to protect oneself using change, it is necessary to understand what the consequences are of changing appropriately, changing inappropriately and not changing at all in response to an attack. Students, by this theory, will appreciate the full benefits of the entire art in the fastest way through physical training of the martial art aspect.

Wu Chien-ch’uan , co-founder of the Wu family style, described the name T’ai Chi Ch’uan this way at the beginning of the 20th century:

“Various people have offered different explanations for the term T’ai Chi Ch’uan . Some have said: ‘In terms of self-cultivation, one must train from a point of movement towards a point of quiescence. T’ai Chi comes about through the harmony of yin and yang . In terms of the art of attack and defense then, in the context of transformations of full and empty, one is constantly inwardly latent, not outwardly expressive, as if the yin and yang of T’ai Chi have not divided apart.’ Others say: ‘Every movement of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is based on circles, just like the shape of a T’ai Chi symbol. Therefore, it is called T’ai Chi Ch’uan .’ Both explanations are quite reasonable, especially the second, which is fuller.”

T’ai Chi training and techniques

As the name T’ai Chi Ch’uan is held to be derived from the T’ai Chi symbol, the Taijitu or T’ai Chi t’u , commonly known in the West as the “yin-yang” diagram, T’ai Chi Ch’uan techniques are said therefore to physically and energetically balance yin (receptive) and yang (active) principles: “From ultimate softness comes ultimate hardness.”

The core training involves two primary features: the first being the solo form or quan or chuan , a slow sequence of movements which emphasize a straight spine, relaxed breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of pushing hands or tui shou or t’ui shou for training “stickiness” and sensitivity in the reflexes through various motions from the forms in concert with a training partner in order to learn leverage, timing, coordination and positioning when interacting with another. Pushing hands is seen as necessary not only for training the self-defense skills of a soft style such as T’ai Chi by demonstrating the forms’ movement principles experientially, but also it is said to improve upon the level of conditioning provided by practice of the solo forms by increasing the work load on students while they practice those movement principles.

The solo form should take the students through a complete, natural, range of motion over their centre of gravity. Accurate, repeated practice of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students’ bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the forms. The major styles of T’ai Chi have forms which differ somewhat cosmetically, but there are also many obvious similarities which point to their common origin. The solo forms, empty-hand and weapon, are catalogues of movements that are practiced individually in pushing hands and application scenarios to prepare students for self-defense training. In most traditional schools different variations of the solo forms can be practiced; fast/slow, small circle/large circle, square/round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low sitting/high sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.

In a fight, if one uses hardness to resist violent force then both sides are certain to be injured, at least to some degree. Such injury, according to T’ai Chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. The collision of two like forces, yang with yang, is known as “double-weighted” in T’ai Chi terminology. Instead, students are taught not to fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and “stick” to it, following its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, the result of meeting yang with yin. Done correctly, achieving this yin/yang or yang/yin balance in combat (and, by extension, other areas of one’s life) is known as being “single-weighted” and is a primary goal of T’ai Chi Ch’uan training. Lao Zi or Lao Tzu provided the archetype for this in the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing in pinyin) when he wrote, “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.” This soft “neutralization” of an attack can be accomplished very quickly in an actual fight by an adept practitioner. A T’ai Chi student has to be well conditioned by many years of disciplined training; stable, sensitive and elastic mentally and physically in order to realize this ability, however.

Other training exercises include:

  • Weapons training and fencing applications employing the straight sword known as the jian or chien or gim , a heavier curved sabre , sometimes called a broadsword or tao , fan , staff , 7 foot spear and 13 foot lance . Less commonly known weapons still in use are the large Da Dao or Ta Tao or Bagua sabre , halberd , cane , rope-dart , Three sectional staff and steel whip .
  • Two-person tournament fighting;
  • Breathing exercises; nei gong or nei kung (nèigōng) or, more commonly, qigong or ch’i kung (qìgōng) to develop qi or ch’i (qì) or “breath energy” in coordination with physical movement. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 50 years they have become more well known to the general public.

T’ai Chi’s martial aspect relies on sensitivity to the opponent’s movements and centre of gravity dictating appropriate responses. Effectively affecting or “capturing” the opponent’s centre of gravity immediately upon contact is trained as the primary goal of the martial T’ai Chi student, and from there all other technique can follow with seeming effortlessness. The alert calmness required to achieve the necessary sensitivity is acquired over thousands of hours of first yin (slow, repetitive, meditative, low impact) and then later adding yang (“realistic”, active, fast, high impact) martial training; forms, pushing hands and sparring. T’ai Chi Ch’uan trains in three basic ranges, close, medium and long, and then everything in between. Pushes and open hand strikes are more common than punches, and kicks are usually to the legs and lower torso, never higher than the hip in most styles. The fingers, fists, palms, sides of the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, hips, knees and feet are commonly used to strike, with strikes to the eyes, throat, heart, groin and other acupressure points trained by advanced students. There is an extensive repertoire of joint traps, locks and breaks (chin na), particularly applied to lock up or break an opponent’s elbows, wrists, fingers, ankles, back or neck. Most T’ai Chi teachers expect their students to thoroughly learn defensive or neutralizing skills first, and a student will have to demonstrate proficiency with them before offensive skills will be extensively trained. There is also an emphasis in the traditional schools on kind-heartedness. One is expected to show mercy to one’s opponents, as instanced by a poem preserved in some of the T’ai Chi families said to be derived from the Shaolin temple:

“I would rather maim than kill

Hurt than maim

Intimidate than hurt

Avoid than intimidate.”