This is a new website, and I am still learning how to do everything myself. This Q&A page is one of the things on the list. Members can ask questions by clicking here.
Tai chi for Self Defence / Fighting (3)
” I saw your demonstration video on YouTube, and your Tai Chi fighting seems real to me. Where did you learn your Tai Chi? You seem to have a very strong base, and would be difficult to take down. Have you ever gone against a western wrestler or judo player? Were you able to resist them?
“Do you know any legitimate Tai Chi masters in the Chicago area who teach the combat aspects of Tai Chi?”
To be clear, the videos of me online are not of actual fights, unless someone else has posted one without my knowledge. All the videos I know of are either demonstrations, lessons in progress, or friendly sparring sessions.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, (last century), I would attend classes most days, and train with classmates afterwards. I also taught full-time during most the the 1990s. In addition, I would go to the park to meet with martial artists of other styles in order to “cross hands” and share what we were learning. Vancouver was a hotbed of martial arts at the time, with old masters and ambitious youngsters eager to explore the changing landscape of martial arts.
I was surrounded by people who were much better than I was, and I like to think that I learned a lot from them. Sometimes I would get used to certain tricks always working. For instance, my tai chi tuishou training meant that whenever I sparred with a long-range fighter like a kickboxer, karateka or a TKD student, it seemed as if all I had to do was walk forward and they would fall down. This quickly changed as they got used to me, and I started to get knocked down more. Then I would learn to deal with that.
The grapplers were similar. I didn’t do much wrestling in high school. But many of my classmates were wrestlers and judoka. There was little jiujitsu at the time. But there were other grappling styles, and there were some Aikidoka black belts who were serious challengers. We would play around with tuishou and spend some time going to the ground. Over time, I became more difficult to take down, and they got better at taking me down. I learned a bit about ground fighting, and learned to apply some of the tai chi principles on the ground.
During the past 20 years, I have been fortunate to teach folks who have serious experience in other martial arts. Military combat specialists, martial art teachers and balck belts in karate, BJJ, and a dozen other styles have come to spend days or weeks training here. It is always enlightening and rewarding to exchange knowledge with people who have different perspectives and skill sets.
I did once attend a Judo tournament as a white belt. This was in the days of Koka Judo, when tai chi skill could win a low-level match simply by countering and neutralizing. I could not throw them, and they could not throw me. I could tell that the referee was getting annoyed with me pistol gripping and with the fact that I was failing to do any judo. So, I stiffened up a little and let my opponent have an ippon. I worried that I was not convincing enough. But the other folks consoled me afterwards, saying, “Don’t feel bad. He’s a blue belt but he sometimes wins against black belts. “
Koka Judo is long gone, and I hear that even Yuko is not a point anymore. So the days of tai chi people irritating judo referees are long gone. It reminds me of tai chi tournaments, where the rules had to changed so that wrestlers couldn’t sign up for tuishou tournaments and make a mockery of the game.
At least one of my tai chi teachers had a brown belt in Judo before he switched to tai chi. Another tai chi teacher was a provincial shuai jiao champion in China. Yang Chengfu, the famous Yang Style tai chi master was said to have spent a fair amount of time hanging out with the Wrestling team in Beijing.
One of the strengths of tai chi is its mid-range skill. Strikers don’t like to be that close and grapplers don’t like to be that far away. When you are comfortable in that range, you can surprise a lot of mma folks in the bridge.
Nowadays, I get fewer opportunities to attend throwdowns or to train with people from other styles. This is especially true now. I haven’t even had a student in person since March last year.
Tai chi is not much of a martial art if it can’t deal with grappling.
If you are in the Chicago area, then I suspect you will be able to find some tai chi teachers who also do shuai jiao. I used to manage a directory of tai chi schools around the world. But I’ve let that slide for a while. I could tell you who to avoid. But I prefer not to mention their name.
Not every school is right for every student and not every student is right for every school. Find the one that is right for you.
– Ian Sinclair
Do forms like the 37 short form from Chen Manching help you learn to use Tai chi for self defence?
“Do forms like the 37 short form from Cheng Man-ch’ing help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence? Robert Smith the martial arts writer who knew Cheng Man-ch’ing said that CMC was basically invincible in a combat situation. Was this true? It seems so counter to what we think of as fighting today (Western boxing, Jiu Jitsu and Judo, mma, and physics).” – Alex
Yes. Any tai chi form can help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence, in the same way that having a car and a road can help you to learn how to drive.
“Invincible” is relative term. Robert W. Smith was expressing a sentiment based on his experience. Cheng Man-ch’ing 郑曼青 (1902-1975) had classmates and teachers who were also called invincible. Being invincible can be fleeting. We age. We have bad days. We meet new people.
I regret that I never met Cheng Man-ch’ing. But I have met many of his students, and their skill is real. Cheng and his students have been known to mix it up with boxers, grapplers, fencers, etc. Many of them (and their students) have competed successfully and regularly crossed hands with other martial artists. Some are better fighters than others. Some don’t fight at all.
Some of Cheng’s students were already champion fighters before they started training with him. Others became champion fighters only after training with him.
The 37 short form is not that different from the traditional Yang style. I have practised it and some of its variations, and at least 8 different versions of the Yang style long form. I also practise other styles of tai chi and have learned dozens of other forms from various martial arts.
What I will say is that the form is not the art. It is the context within which you discover the art. Whether you become good at self defence will depend on many things. The form is an exercise which will eventually embody all of the other things that you learn. You will get out of it what you put into it. Any tai chi form can help you learn to use Tai Chi for self defence, in the same way that having a car and a road can help you to learn how to drive.
In the beginning, the form is a way of imitating your teacher’s expression of the art. Over time, you discover the meaning of the movements and learn what your teacher is expressing. Eventually, you develop your own understanding and your own expression. The form you do will be an expression of what is important to you.
Sometimes, I can watch a form performed by several different people and guess that this person is a grappler, that one is a boxer, that one is a dancer, that one is an mma fighter etc. Your form will change as you do.
Self defence is about adaptation. Martial arts must also continually adapt. If you look at film of boxing matches in the early days of film, you might be astonished by what you see. They hardly look like professionals. Boxing changed at the time of Jack Dempsey, and continued to evolve to the present.
It was adaptation that led to their creation in the first place. The tradition ends when they stop evolving.
Thank you for your question
That is a well-phrased question. There are many benefits of learning a martial art that go far beyond dealing with simple self defence situations.
But sure, any martial art is capable of developing skills that can be useful for self defence. How comprehensively they do so depends less on the style and more on the individual teacher… and on the mind of the student. Tai chi schools are no different.
- Some schools are very good at teach awareness and psychological skills that can reduce the chances of being attacked.
- Some teach combat techniques, but are not very adaptive to changing scenarios.
- Some focus on adaptation but do not offer much variety in the way of technique.
- Some emphasize strategy and tactics but don’t develop physical skills.
- Some develop skills but don’t offer much in the way of conditioning.
- Some do lots of conditioning and technique, but do not teach awareness or practise contextual scenarios.
Where does tai chi fit in all of this? Well, that depends again on the teacher and the student. It does not, in my opinion, depend much on the style. I have seen the best and worst of dozens of tai chi styles (all the major styles and many derivatives). Great “fighters” have come from all styles.
There are many components to tai chi training, including conditioning, basic movement, power training, forms, various 2-person exercises, martial techniques (strikes, throws, joint control, pressure point manipulation….), neigong/qigong, weapon training, therapeutic exercises, philosophy, strategy, tactics, history, and much more. But most schools only teach a small fraction of the potential curriculum. And those that do teach a larger curriculum often fail due diligence in their own research.
I have worked with students from many different martial arts, and I have seen what can happen in different circumstances. I have taught long enough that my students have included military personnel with experience in armed hand-to-hand combat in various conflicts over the last 80 years. My civilian students have faced various types of violence from typical North American street thugs, to car-jackers, and AK-47 wielding bandidos. I have also had some personal experience with “real world” self defence, enough I know the difference between self defence and martial sport.
A historical style is the personal expression of someone else’s martial art. It is like trying to imitate a famous singer. It will not be as effective as developing your own style. You need to adapt it to your own body, your own mind, and your own voice. When you imitate a teacher, you are learning how they have adapted to their own strengths and weaknesses. You may even start to mirror their weaknesses. In other words, attachment to another person’s style is like learning their pathology along with their cure. You need to examine your own pathology and develop a cure that is right for you.
The great masters never stop improving and seldom get to teach half of what they know before they die. If you are one of the extraordinary students who learn that 50%, then you will still need to develop your own art, just as your teachers did. But most students only learn a small fraction of their teacher’s art, and those students will teach only a fraction of theirs. This leads to an inevitable dilution of knowledge.
In addition to that, time and context are subject to change. We face different kinds of threats than our ancestors did. So we need to adapt the art to serve our time and place. The weapons and types of attackers that we might face may be quite different from what they faced.
We also have access to knowledge that our ancestors lacked. So, it makes sense to reinterpret their experience from our modern perspective. We might never be able to understand what they were talking about. So we need to find our own words for our own experiences. As we improve, we might get a better sense of what they were teaching. But even if we don’t, our own search may bear fruit. My students might have difficulty understanding “jing” or “qi” or “the six harmonies” or “5 elements in the feet” or “eight trigrams in the hands”. Likewise, as our ancestors might not have understood “proprioception”, “axial rotation”, “6 degrees of freedom” or the relationship between momentum and kinetic energy.
I find that tai chi has been the greatest vehicle for my development as a martial artist. But I also study other traditional and modern martial arts from around the world. That is what my tai chi predecessors did. They did not limit themselves to one teacher or one style. Why should we? The greatest tool in my arsenal, by far, has been the spirit of investigation and critical thinking that has been passed on by my teachers.
Most people who teach tai chi do not have any interest in the martial aspect. Even among those who do, most are unwilling or unable to test their skills or adapt their pedagogy. If you want tai chi to help you in a fight, you must use it as a tool for liberation. Don’t let it be an albatross around your neck.
Do I think tai chi can win a fight? No.
Do I think a person can use tai chi to win a fight? Yes.
Do I think tai chi is a practical martial art for purposes of self defence? Absolutely, especially if you study the difference.