Tai chi is the common abbreviation for Tai chi chuan (Taijiquan, T’ai chi ch’üan, Tàijíquán, 太極拳, 太极拳) .
Tai chi chuan (literally “Supreme duality martial art”) is the martial art / exercise system based on an understanding of the dualistic nature of the universe.
Chuan (“quan”, 拳, “quán”) literally means “fist” and can refer to boxing or martial arts.
Tai chi (Taiji (太极; 太極; tàijí; ‘supreme polarity’) is the name of a conceptualization of the dualistic nature of the phenomenal universe. It is referenced in various philosophies, martial arts, medical traditions, and scientific treatises. It is a key concept in taoism (daoism), Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism. For more details, see “philosophy” below.
There are many who think of tai chi as a slow moving dance, or a moving meditation, or “old people sneaking up on trees.” These people have likely only seen the art’s characteristic slow moving routine, called a “form” (Chinese: 套路; tàolù). But there is much more to the art than simply learning the “tai chi moves.”
Basic exercises: While many schools start teaching the form to beginners on the first day, there are several types of basic exercises designed to teach flexibility, stable stances, agility, proper arm movements, integration of body movements, balance, etc.
Internal Energy Training (“Neigong” or “Qigong”) (“internal skills” often called “qigong” (say “chee gong”)
The refinement of posture, breath, relaxation, visualization, subtle awareness, and internal energy. (note: the term “energy” has a broad and complex definition, and encompasses many subtle mental and physiological processes and characteristics.
Forms / Routines (套路; tàolù):
The most recognizable element of tai chi is the slow-moving routine that forms the primary context for cultivating the subtle and profound benefits of the art.
Pushing hands (推手; Tuishou):
A two-person exercise which develops profound sensitivity, awareness, internal power, subtle neutralizing skills, and the ability to use softness to overcome brute force.
While forms teach the proper structure and movement, and pushing hands teaches the correct method of engaging an opponent, martial applications teach the actual techniques that can result from proper structure and method. These techniques can include joint control, pressure point manipulation, striking, throws, and more.
Some styles include sophisticated choreographed routines performed with a partner.
Advanced Self Defence training
Tai chi does not typically involve sparring, as it is regularly perceived. But there are many advanced training methods that vary from school to school.
All of the above elements can be extended to include
Philosophy and esoterica
The art is not merely physical. It is based on an ancient set of philosophies. But mostly, it teaches the student to seek the truth in his or her own way.
It is possible, (and quite common) to learn tai chi for health without paying much if any attention to the martial aspect of the art. But it is impossible to study tai chi as a martial art without gaining the health benefits.
The many health benefits of tai chi chuan are a direct result of the search for an effective martial art. Tai chi chuan grew from an ancient bed of knowledge that included traditional medicine, qigong (Chinese yoga), northern Chinese martial arts, daoist philosophy, and the insights of several very dedicated and gifted people.
Whether you are looking for an effective way to feel better, relax, and improve your fitness, or you wish to learn a profound martial art, then tai chi chuan has a lot to offer you.
During recent decades, much research has been done into the broad range of health benefits provided by tai chi. In addition to improvements in general health, tai chi has been shown to improve balance, reduce the risk of falls in older adults, and to reduce injuries due to falls. It can lower blood pressure, reduce cohesion of blood platelets, reduce inflammation, improve rheumatoid diseases such as arthritis, reduce anxiety, and ease depression.
Tai chi as a Martial Art
Tai chi is one of the most popular and most famous martial arts in the world. But it is also one of the least understood. There are innumerable stories about tai chi masters who, in spite of their size, age, or gender, have defeated opponents who were seemingly more formidable than they. But many people today, having only a passing understanding of the slow graceful movements of the tai chi form, see tai chi as “old people sneaking up on trees” and cannot conceive of it being effective for self defence.
Tai Chi Chuan belongs to a category of Chinese martial arts called “internal martial arts”. The primary focus is on the harmonious cultivation of mind, body, and spirit through the refinement of subtle internal alignment, the co-ordination of deep tissue, and the cultivation of qi (internal energy). Martial arts in the “External” category train these aspects also. But the order in which “internal” and “external” aspects are taught is different.
To practice any traditional martial art is to constantly seek balance and harmony within an inherently violent world. To create peace in our daily lives requires constant effort, and great skill. As long as we think, feel and breathe, then balance and peace will be elusive. We must seek them constantly or lose ourselves to war and death. When we wait for times of war to struggle for peace, it is like starting to dig a well when we are already thirsty. Likewise, if we wait until someone attacks us before we seek balance, we have already lost.
A physical attack is someone trying to upset our balance, by striking us, throwing us, or killing us. Balance cannot be maintained if it doesn’t exist in the first place. So, the martial artist cultivates physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance; and learns that these are all one and the same. When balance is strong, defending it is easy.
The masters who developed tai chi over several generations discovered that technique requires a method of application, and that method requires superior structure, agility, balance, and awareness. That is why tai chi training emphasizes slow movement and stillness over speed and force.
The student learns to stand, breath and move in a way that eliminates internal physical, mental, and emotional conflict. Only when one learns to stop fighting oneself can the opponent be effectively neutralized.
However, once the internal balance is achieved and the method of application is mastered, the plethora of martial techniques contained within the tai chi curriculum are sophisticated, efficient, and potentially devastating.
Is tai chi effective as a martial art?
There is a very good reason for the commonly held belief that tai chi players can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. It is because it is true! The majority of tai chi students care little about the art’s famous martial history. Most are in it for the well documented health benefits. Even so, while the martial aspect is hard to find, it is worth the search.
Is tai chi effective as a martial art?
Well, what it a martial art? Is it simply a way of defending oneself. In that case, the answer to the above question is a resounding qualified yes.
But there are a great many benefits to learning a martial art that go far beyond mere self defence or combat skill. Tai chi fits the bill here, also.
The effectiveness of any discipline or art form in achieving a particular goal is dependent on the student, the teacher, the relationship between the two, luck, timing, and more.
Every style of martial art from the ancient traditions of the Samurai to the modern so-called MMA styles of the UFC have two things in common. Both produce students who can defend themselves, and both produce students who couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag even if they started on the outside.
Tai chi is a proven, profound, and effective martial art. But each student is different.
Tai chi chuan (Tai chi) is practised by millions around the world as a means to better health, fitness, and long life. What many do not know is that this relaxing and invigorating exercise is also practised by many as a martial art. Students who are seeking the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of tai chi often do not want to learn the martial aspects of the art. So, most teachers do not teach the martial aspects. However, since the health benefits are a direct result of the art’s martial history, the best health benefits are achieved by learning from a teacher who at least understands the martial elements. The teacher doesn’t need to teach the student combat skills. But the teacher should understand them.
The masters who created tai chi chuan recognized how important it was for a martial artist to strengthen mind, body, and spirit. They also considered it self-evident that a martial artist should have a profound awareness of mind and body, and be skilled at constantly seeking peace and harmony in an inherently violent world.
These are essential qualities of high level martial artists. But they are also valuable for everyone else. That is why tai chi chuan exercises are part of China’s national fitness program, and have become immensely popular throughout the world.
Tai chi chuan has become so popular, in fact, that it has often been watered down and simplified to make it easier to teach to large masses of people. Today there are even many teachers don’t fully understand the true nature of the art. It is common for people today to see tai chi as nothing but a gentle exercise for old people. However, since the initial wave of popularity, the standards for teaching are increasing, and there are a growing number of schools endeavouring to teach the complete traditional art.
The complete tai chi system includes qigong, basic exercises, solo forms, two-person routines, tuishou, weapon training, martial applications, sanshou, and esoteric training methods.
Why do so few tai chi players develop the art’s legendary skills?
In the late Qing Dynasty, tai chi was taught to people who had already been doing martial arts for much of their lives. Most were already masters of other styles. They were not so much students as they were fellow teachers. Together they developed what was referred to as “Internal Arts.” This was not so much a martial style as it was a way of thinking. They refined the subtle principles of alignment, sensitivity, power, and strategy. While “internal” referred to the resulting power and awareness they achieved, it also referred to the fact that only advanced students were able to grasp the true meaning of the lessons. What this meant was that future generations of students, who learned these advanced principles for the sake of their health, might develop advanced martial skills, but they could never use these skills in a real fight because they lacked any previous martial arts foundation.
It’s like having a Ferrari but not knowing how to drive.Why so slow?
If you can’t maintain ideal alignment and connection while you are moving slowly, you won’t be able to do it quickly. However, once you can do it slowly, speed is the easy part.
When do you speed it up?
Hardly ever. Even at the most advanced levels, the greatest improvement is achieved by moving even more slowly, or not at all.
How does that help in a fight?
A fight is all about balance and the integration of mind and body. If you don’t have balance, you have nothing to defend. If you have true balance, the fight is already won. The fastest way to reach a destination is to already be there.
Technique, Method, Sticking and Following
Each movement or part of a movement has three types of application:
Strike, Throw, and Lock
Each position contains potential for 8 energetic qualities: “expansion,” “rolling,” “cramming,” “pressing,” “plucking,” “rending,” “folding” (elbow or knee), and “against” (shoulder or hip)
Each of these 8 qualities can be expressed in five ways:
“advance,” “retreat,” “focus,” “gaze,” and “root.”
The missing Element!
The ability to “stick & follow in a circle” is practised with an exercise called “tuishou” (pushing hands). This skill has uses in all ranges, but is most effective in the midrange.
With extraordinary mid-range skill, an athlete can find a noticeable advantage over those who lack it.
In the Middle of it All.
Mid-range skills are difficult to master and often frightening to practice. It is a range where everything is possible. That is why so few can use mid-range skills and why those who can are proven to have such a great advantage.“I was just looking for the part of your mind that wanted to get knocked over.”Vicky Hall
We recognize that techniques don’t work if the method of application is incorrect. The method of application will not be effective if the structure and alignment of the body is not balanced and fluid. The structure will not be balanced and fluid if it is not relaxed. The structure cannot relax if the legs are not cooking. If, however, you can fry eggs on your thighs and relax the rest of the structure, we call it “having a solid root.” If you have a root, then technique is incidental.
Then you will be able to “stick and follow in a circle” (stay on target without letting the opponent find us). Next, we harmonize attack and defence and achieve a state called “no enemy.’
The foundations for the creation of tai chi are believed by some to be found in the ancient philosophies, exercises, and martial arts dating as far back as 3 to 5 millennia. The first real documents hinting at exercises similar to tai chi are 2000 years old. However, nothing prior to the late 17th century C.E. is widely considered by academics to be more reliable than myth, or as some Chinese scholars call it, “wild history.”
One such myth tells of a daoist hermit named Zhang Sanfeng learning tai chi from the Yellow Emperor in a dream, and mastering the art literally overnight. Another version tells of him devising tai chi by himself after watching a fight between a snake and a crane.
The popular opinion of martial historians is that a Ming Dynasty general named Chen Wangting (?-1719 C.E.) created the first version of what we know today as tai chi. He is appears to have done this by combining his own military training with his knowledge of the Daoist treatise called “The Yelllow Emperor’s Inner Canon” (Huángdì Nèijīng 黃帝內經.)
The physical foundation of tai chi routines can be found in the chapter “Martial Classics in Thirty-Two Postures” in the book Jìxiào Xīnshū 紀效新書, compiled by Marshal Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588 C.E.)
The style no longer exists exactly as it was taught by Chen Wangting. But the revised and consolidated routines created by his 18th century decedents do. There are several variation of what is now known as Chen style tai chi. There are also several famous and equally respected derivative styles.
History of Tai Chi Chuan
There are two prevailing and somewhat controversial versions of tai chi chuan history. But it is possible that the two versions are not entirely incompatible with each other.
One version, which I will refer to here as the Wudang version, attributes the origin of tai chi chuan to a mythical or (semi-mythical) Daoist named Zhang Sanfeng ( 張三峰 or 張三丰), who is said to have been born sometime between 960 and 1300 C.E.
Zhang Sanfeng is the central character in several folk tales, books, comic books, and movies. While there is no conclusive historical evidence of his existence, he is still revered by many, and his birthday is celebrated by many people around the world. However, there is no reliable historical document that mentions his involvement with martial arts.1
The other version of tai chi chuan history is the “Chen version”, which asserts that Chen Wangting (陈王廷 1600-1680 C.E.), a military officer who retired to his home town after the end of Ming Dynasty, created tai chi chuan and passed it on to descendants who further developed the art over generations.
Both versions converge with somewhere between Chen Wanging (1600-1680 C.E.) and Chen Qingping (陳清苹 1795 – 1868)
The history of Tai Chi is controversial. Some schools seem to have a vested interest in one version or the other. Whether it is a matter of tradition, propaganda, or pride in a lineage, some will strongly promote one version of history over another. However, as with most controversies, there is probably a great deal of truth in both versions. The facts are obscured by rigid traditions, familial and nationalist dogma, the questionable authorship of historical text, different people with similar names, and the simple fact that some teachers of martial arts find a good story to be more useful than historical accuracy.
Most students of tai chi chuan are not particularly concerned with the debates about lineage. Good students are usually less concerned with following in the footsteps of the dead than they are in manifesting the life nourishing benefits of the art itself.
Perhaps the art itself provides all the evidence necessary for determining the source of tai chi chuan. The elements of traditional tai chi chuan practice include qigong, taolu, tuishou, and sanshou. (“Energy and breath cultivation, martial routines, pushing hands, and martial applications.”) Comparing the characteristics of these elements to the arts which predate tai chi chuan may yield some insight into which arts influenced the development of tai chi chuan.
Tai chi chuan appears to come from two sources. While the choreography and movements of tai chi chuan routines appear to be derived from changquan (northern martial arts) similar to those found at the Shaolin Temple, the quality of movement and training methods clearly seem influenced by Daoist qigong, martial arts, and philosophy.
This is ultimately supposition, however, since one cannot rule out the creative element or the possibility of profound inspiration, whether subtle or mysterious. It may be that someone drew aspects of the art “from the ether” without any antecedent influence.
There have been martial arts similar to tai chi chuan dating back at least to the Tang and Liang Dynasties. Examples are sanshiqi (三世七), xiantianquan (先天拳), and Xiaojiutian (小九天), and houtianfa (後天法).
Houtianfa (後天法), created by Hujingzi during the Liang Dynasty, has many similarities to tai chi chuan, including the “eight directions” methods that are the core elements of tai chi chuan.
There have also been exercises that use similar principles dating back as far as the 2nd century C.E.
Zhang Sanfeng Version
Zhang Sanfeng (張三峰 or 張三丰) is widely seen as a mythical or semi-mythical personality. According to various theories, he either never existed or was a combination of several people. The fantastic stories about him certainly describe him more as a mythological or psychological archetype than flesh and blood human.
Some accounts say he was born Zhang Junbao 張君寶 (Zhang “sovereign treasure”) sometime between 960 C.E. and 1300 C.E. He may have been a monk or student at the Shaolin Temple before going to the daoist Mount Wudang and taking the Daoist name Zhang Sanfeng (Zhang “Three Treasures”) . It was at Wudang that he is said to have created tai chi chuan.
One version of the story describes his learning tai chi chuan, in a dream, from the Yellow Emperor. The next day he apparently went down the mountain where he defeated a hundred bandits in combat. Another version describes Zhang Sanfeng observing a fight between a snake and either a crane or a magpie. Zhang saw the attacking and yielding strategies of the adversaries as an embodiment of the principles of yin and yang, and developed his martial art based on the same principles. Yet another version has Zhang developing tai chi chuan over a period of many years based on his understanding of the other martial arts practised by the monks in Shaolin or on Wudang.
Zhang Sanfeng is, at best, a historical uncertainty. If there was a real Zhang Sanfeng, the truth has been so obscured by myth that many historians prefer to treat him as a fiction. He is said to have had purple skin and a bad smell , to have the back of a tortoise and the neck of a crane, to have spear-shaped wiskers and be over seven feet tall, to go for weeks without food and then to eat a bushel of grain at once. It is also said that he could run for thousands of kilometres in a day.
There are historical documents which record imperial quests for Zhang Sanfeng. But there is no record of anyone ever finding him.The second Ming Emperor, Yong-Le, sent assassins throughout the empire to hunt for his rival Jian-Wen. To disguise the true purpose of the search parties, the Emperor invented a quest for the “Immortal Zhang Sanfeng” and even built a temple in Zhang Sanfeng’s honour in the Wudang Mountains. The search for Jian-Wen failed. But the legend of the immortal Zhang Sanfeng spread throughout the empire. This is considered by many to be the likely source of many legends about Zhang Sanfeng.
Sanfeng is a likely name for a Daoist, referring as it does to the “three treasures” (Jing, Qi, and Shen) of daoist alchemy. It is certainly conceivable that more than one Daoist might adopt the name, just as a Catholic nun might adopt the name “Mary” or “Teresa”
The Wudang version contends that tai chi chuan passed from Zhang Sanfeng, through generations of students to Wang Zongyue and Jiang Fa, who brought the art to the villages of Zhaobao and Chenjiagou, where parallel lineages developed during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The two lines rejoined when Chen Qingping (陳清苹 1795 – 1868) married and moved from Chenjiagou to Zhaobao and learned the Zhaobao style.
Wudang Version Lineage
Zhang Sanfeng(張三峰 or 張三丰) (Founder)
- Various Daoists
- Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) (taught Chen Wangting)
- Jiang Fa (蔣發) (taught Chen Wangting)
- Xing Xihaui
- Zhang Chuchen
- Chen Jingbo
- Zhang Zhangyu
- Zhang Yan
- Chen Qingping
Chen Wangting Version
Chen Version Lineage
Chen Wangting (Founder) (taught Jiang Fa and Wang Zhongyue.
- Jiang Fa, Suoyue, Ruxin (Second gen.)
- (Three generations)
- Chen Gongzhao, Chen Bingwang (Fifth generation of Chenshi Taijiquan)
- Chen Youben, Chen Changxing (Sixth generation of Chenshi Taijiquan)
- Chen Qingping (Seventh generation of Chenshi Taijiquan) and founder of Zhaobao style.
The version most widely accepted by modern scholars avers that Chen Wangting (1600-1680) organised a martial system including seven routines. While there is mention of a Chen family style existing prior to Chen Wangting, any references to it are apocryphal. The official PRC history of Wen County mentions that Chen Wangting practised some sort of family martial art when he was young. But the details of the style he practised are not known. It is known that Wangting’s maternal lineage (the Li Family) exerted a daoist influence and that the Li family hired a school teacher named Wang Zhongyue. The Li family practise a martial art called Wujiquan named for the primordial state of non-duality or “emptiness.”2
2 Arthur Rosenfeld http://www.wisdomandpower.com/article-ARChenStyleTaijiquan.html
Chen Wangting became a military officer during the Ming Dynasty, and after retiring to a private life of a farmer (essentially hiding from the Qing) developed a new martial art which he taught to his relatives. This new style incorporated elements from the “Martial Classic Thirty-two Forms” (拳經三二式) created by General Qi Jiguang (戚继光), and the “Daoist Yellow Court Classic” (黃庭經). The Yellow Court Classic is a guide to advanced qigong and meditation and should not be confused with “Huang Di Nei Jing” 黄帝内经 《黃帝內經》 (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Chinese Medicine).
A close friend and training partner of Wangting was Jiang Fa (蔣發), a fugitive rebel who is believed to have contributed to the early development of Chen Taijiquan.
Chen Wangting’s art included seven routines. It also included other training methods such as weapon skills and tuishou.
The Long Routines
This new martial art was passed down mostly to family members and local villagers. Five generations later the seven routines were consolidated into two routines known as yilu changquan (first routine long form) and erlu paotui (second routine cannon fist). This amalgamation of routines was attributed to Chen Changxing, whose variation later became known as Laojia (“old frame”) (a.k.a. “Large Frame”). Chen Changxing taught this style to Yang Luchan, who went on to create Yang style tai chi chuan, which is now the most popular style of tai chi chuan in the world.
A contemporary of Chen Changxing was Chen Youben, who developed a variation of Yilu Changquan and Erlu Paotui that came to be known as Xiaojia (small frame). and were so named because of the amount of detail in the movement. The Chen Youben variation was once called Xinjia (“new frame”) because it was developed after Chen Changxing’s version. In fact, both Laojia and Xiaojia developed at approximately the same time. In fact, there is still some debate in Chen Jiagou as to which came first. They may have developed concurrently with one being taught publicly before the other.
Chen Youben had a student named Chen Qingping, who learned the Xiaojia Chen Style before getting married and moving to a nearby village called Zhaobao. It was at Zhaobao that he and his students developed what is now referred to as Zhaobao style tai chi chuan.
(Remember that this is where the Wudang version of history and the Chen Wangting version of history collide. According to the Wudang version (nowadays promoted mostly by the Zhaobao stylists), Chen Qiingping learned his style at Zhaobao from a lineage going back to Zhang Sanfeng. ) The controversy mostly stops here. After this point, the history of tai chi chuan is more reliably documented.
Yang Style Tai chi chuan
There is a popular story that tells of Yang going to Chenjiagou to learn without permission. According to this story, Yang got himself hired on as a servant and spied on Chen Changxing during class time. Eventually Yang was discovered and had to defend himself against the other students. He demonstrated such extraordinary talent that Chen Changxing took him on as student. This story has been denied by both the Chen family historians and the Yang Family, both of whom say that Yang was openly accepted with the introduction by Chen Dehu.Yang Lu-ch’an or Yang Luchan (楊露禪 1799-1872) was born Yang Fukui (楊福魁) in Yongnian, Guangping, in Hebei Province. He was from a poor family. He worked at various jobs including one at a pharmacy owned by Chen Dehu of Chen Jiagou. Yang had some skill in changquan, and after observing Chen Dehu use Chen style to defeat a group of ruffians, he asked for permission to learn tai chi chuan. Chen Dehu sent Yang to learn from Chen Changxing.
After many years under the instruction of Chen Changxing, Yang Luchan returned to Yongnian and began teaching. One of his students was Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄), a government official who recommended that Yang go to Beijing. Yang did so, and developed a reputation that led to him teaching to members of the Imperial court, imperial bodyguards, and the military.
Yang has two sons, Yang Jianhou (楊健侯 1839-1917) and Yang Banhou (楊班侯 1837-1890), who were famous for their tai chi chuan. (A third son died young)
Yang Jianhou’s third son, Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫 1883-1936) became the best known teacher of tai chi chuan in the world. He was among the first to teach tai chi chuan publicly, first at the Beijing Physical Culture Institute, and later in Shanghai.
A simplified version of Yang style tai chi chuan, called the 24 form, was created in 1956 and became part of the national fitness program of the People’s Republic of China.
Wu Jianquan Style (吳家) Tai chi chuan
Wu Quanyuo (吳全佑 1834–1902) was a Manchu and a royal military officer in Beijing’s Forbidden City. He learned tai chi chuan there from Yang Luchan and Yang Banhou.
When Wu retired, he established his own school in Beijing, and his son, Wu Jianquan (吳鑑泉 1870–1942) became a famous teacher of what was to be known as Wu style tai chi chuan.
This style is sometimes called Wu Jianquan style in order to distinguish it from Wu style (武氏) tai chi chuan created by Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄). When spoken in Chinese, the two words Wu (武) and Wu(吳) sound different due to their tone. But to non-Chinese speakers, the two names sound the same.
Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄) Style Tai chi chuan
Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄 1812 – 1880) was a government official in Yongnian during the late Qing Dynasty. He came from a wealthy family who hired Yang Luchan to teach Wu Yuxiang and his brothers. Yang also introduced Wu Yuxiang to Chen Changxing and Chen Qingping. Wu is believed to have been greatly influenced by the Xiaojia Chen Style of Chen Qingping (who is also credited with creating Zhaobao style.)
Wu wrote many books on tai chi chuan, which are in some ways more famous than the style of tai chi chuan that he created.
Wu Yuxiang’s nephew, Li I-yü (李亦畬 1832-1892), was his most famous student. Li also wrote several books, and taught Hao Weizhen (郝為真1842-1920). Wu Yuxiang Style is sometimes called Hao style or Wu/Hao style by non-chinese people.
Sun Style (孫氏) Tai chi chuan
Sun Lutang (孫祿堂 1861-1932) was a scholar and student of Neo-Confucianist and Daoist literature. He was already in his fifties and a talented master of xingyiquan and baguazhang before he started learning tai chi chuan from Hao Weizen. The style of tai chi chuan which he created, incorporates elements of xingyiquan and baguazhang, but still holds the clear tai chi characteristics.
Sun was taught at the Beijing physical cultural institute between 1914 and 1928.
Tai Chi Philosophy
太極 (太极) “Taiji” or “Tai Chi” (literally “supreme polarity”) refers to the philosophy of yin and yang.
拳 “Quan” or “Chuan” means “fist”, “exercise routine” or “martial art style”
The Taiji (T’ai Chi) Symbol (太極圖) (taijitu or t’ai chi t’u) commonly known in the West as the “yin-yang” diagram, is a graphical reference to the dualistic nature of the Universe as described in many Eastern philosophies.
The Taiji (Tai Chi) symbol.
wújí n. no extremity.
²wújí n. a mind completely devoid of worries, thought, or desiresWuji means “no extremity” and refers to what is often called “emptiness” or “the void.” This is the “infinite nothingness from which all things come.” Wuji is the fundamental unchanging singular reality.
Wuji is a term also associated with a state of consciousness in which the observer is not distinguishable from the observed. Not only is the observer indistinguishable, but all that is observed is undifferentiated. This is the experience of being “One with the Universe.” This state of consciousness is usually achieved through disciplined practice and training of the mind. But spontaneous experiences of this state of consciousness may happen on occasion.
Any science, philosophy, psychology, or religion that discusses the nature of reality will eventually arrive at an impassable point in the conversation. Some things are unknown, others are unknowable, and other things are knowable but un-nameable. The very attempt to describe them takes the listener away from the truth.
This is a long standing joke in Daoist philosophy. The Daodejing, one of the first books in the Daoist canon, was written by an author identified as Laozi (Lao Tzu). Laozi starts the book with the words, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao.” He then proceeds to talk about it for 88 chapters.
Essential Yin and Yang concepts
• Everything in the phenomenal Universe can be described as both Yin and Yang.
• The concepts of Yin and Yang originate in ancient Chinese philosophy and metaphysics, which describes two primal opposing, complementary, and mutually dependent principles defining all things in the universe.
Examples of Yin and yang:
- up – down
- yes – no
- north – south
- existing – non existing
- hot – cold
- Masculine – feminine
- high – low
• All forces in nature can be described as having Yin and Yang aspects.
In Western culture, Yin and Yang are sometimes inaccurately portrayed as corresponding to “evil” and “good” respectively.
Whether a thing can be described as either yin or yang depends entirely upon what it is being compared to and upon the context of the comparison.
- Hot is yang relative to cold, and tall is yang relative to short. But it would be inappropriate to say that hot is yang relative to short.
- A rock is hard and a balloon is soft, in this respect the rock is yang relative to the balloon. But the balloon may be bigger or higher than the rock, and in the altitude of the balloon is yang relative to the rock.
So, yin and yang refer to aspects, qualities, or perspectives on a thing, but not the thing itself. Understanding this will inevitably lead to a widely accepted conclusion about the nature of reality found in Oriental philosophy. That is that anything that can be described, can only be described relative to something else, and that which can be described is only an aspect or nature in principle. Nothing that can be described has any inherent existence. This understanding is at the core of much philosophy and psychology, and as such is a concept found in many religions. The principle itself is, however, not a religious one, but a logical one.
The dualistic nature of things is therefore an illusion. What we perceive as reality is only reality as it is perceived. The entire phenomenal universe does not exist except as an aspect of that which cannot be described. This is where the concept of a non-dualistic source of all things comes into play.
- Neither Yin nor Yang are absolute.
- No one thing is completely Yin or completely Yang. Each contains the seed of its opposite. “what goes up must come down”.
- Yin and Yang are mutually dependent.
- Day does not exist without night. Light does not exist without darkness. Death is defined by Life.
- Yin and Yang each contain Taiji.
- Any Yin or Yang aspect is infinitely divisible into Yin and Yang. Anything that can be measured can be divided.
- Yin and Yang each consume and produce the other.
- Yin and Yang are usually held in balance: as one increases, the other decreases.
- Yin and Yang can each become the other.
- At a particular stage, Yin can transform into Yang and vice versa. For example, night changes into day; warmth cools. This transformation is also relative.
- Part of Yin is in Yang and part of Yang is in Yin.
- As indicated by the two dots in the taijitu, yin and yang each contain aspects of the other. For example: the vulnerability of an infant inspires great compassion and protective instincts in others, the softness of grass contributes to its survival, the height of a tall tree makes it more vulnerable to wind and lightning.
Is Tai Chi a Religion?
No. It is a philosophical concept, independent of any religious concept, although compatible with and co-opted by more than one religion.
The philosophy of yin and yang is an ancient method of describing the dualistic nature of the universe. This philosophical description has been used by intellectuals of all religions, and by those with no religion.
The yin yang symbol is also an expression of the ideal harmonious relationships that humans can have with each other and with the natural world. It also describes the dynamic that maintains homeostasis within the human body. When yin and yang are balanced and flow naturally, the system is healthy and harmonious.
For centuries, the term “Dao” was used by philosophers of many different groups, including Buddhists, Daoists, Confucianists, doctors, politicians, military strategists, and martial artists.
By the 12th century C.E., religious forms of Daoism were beginning to co-opt the term Dao. Today the term Dao and the yin yang symbol are often used outside of the religious context, and are referred to in many streams of thought in Asia and around the world. A version of the yin yang symbol is even seen on the Korean flag.
Yin and Yang in Martial Arts
The philosophy of yin and yang is applied to tai chi in the same way that it is applied to many martial arts.
On a basic level, it teaches us to be like water, yielding to the most subtle force, yet as powerful and irresistible as the ocean. When the opponent uses force, we use softness. Where there is an opening, we flow right through. If they push, we pull. If they pull, we follow. If they miss, we don’t resist.
As a principle, we seek internal balance, and modify our position relative to the opponent’s force in a way that helps to improve our balance. We move at right angles to the opponent’s force, rather than resisting it or surrendering to it. In this way we allow the opponent’s own aggression to disarm them.
Understanding the nature of yin and yang allows us to see our own contribution to the opponent’s attack. It also allows us to find the strengths in our own weaknesses and the weaknesses in the opponent’s strength.
We learn that when the opponent’s offensive energy increases, his/her defensive energy decreases. We also see how the same is true for ourselves.
This leads us to a level of skill which requires balancing attack and defence, and finally eliminating attack and defence as absolutes. Attack and defence become one with each other as we achieve “emptiness. This leads to a state of being and a method of engaging that involves attacking without attacking, and defending without defending. Awareness and “structure” allow us to transcend technique.
This state of emptiness, an internal stillness that exists when the ego and individual emotions are set aside, is what some call being “one with the Universe.” In this state there is no enemy. The opponent defeats themselves by the nature of their own attack.
When you learn the physical skills that are used in combat, you progresses in stages:
- First you learn the basic techniques that are used when the opponent already has you at a disadvantage.
- Next you learn to intercept such attacks and prevent the opponent from getting you at a disadvantage.
- Then you learn to prevent the attack from forming.
- Finally, you learn to prevent the conflict altogether.
The final stage is a level of achievement called “no enemy.” When you reach this level you experience a level of rapport with all things. You understand their needs and fears, and deal with them as if they were your own. Active compassion prevents conflict.
Until you have achieved this highest level of skill, you may need to use lower level techniques. But the point to remember is that the purpose of training is to seek peace and harmony. To attach one’s goals to conflict guarantees defeat.
The most notable military strategist in history was Sunzi, the author of “The Art of War,” who lived in the 6th century BC. His strategies are still studied by military planners today and are still applied in war. He wrote that since no battle is without loss, it is a bad strategy to engage in battle, even when you are victorious 100% of the time. The only true victory is the one that is achieved without engaging in bloody combat.
For more about tai chi philosophy, read the essay, “The Warrior’s Peace” by Ian Sinclair« Back to Glossary Index