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Episode 2:What is Tai chi Made Of?

What John Cleese and other Klingon warriors can tell us?


There is something about the tai chi curriculum, that you might not know. 

You might know about the forms, the breath work, the energy work, silk reeling, two-person exercises, the mental and physical conditioning, core training, the medical and therapeutic applications, martial applications, throws, joint control, esoteric blindfolded training, the forms competition options, the combative sport options, and so on. 

But do you really know what tai chi is made of?

If you ask some people what tai chi is made of, they will tell you, “Water, black tea leaves, milk, sugar, cardamom, ginger, and maybe some cinnamon and fennel.”

To which I would say. That would be correct if we were talking about chai tea. Except chai means tea, so when we say “chai tea” we are saying “tea tea”. Do you see what I mean. Redundant.

But I digress.

I do that sometimes when I teach tai chi. Digress. I suspect that my students find that to be one of my more endearing qualities.  

It is actually a feature of my pedagogy. It is part of the way that I teach. When my students are working so hard on something that their concentration turns to consternation, I will deliberately talk about something completely unrelated and take them along on what may seem like a shaggy dog story for a few minutes until I eventually come back around to the topic at hand, but from a refreshing new direction.  I think it helps to reinforce those neural pathways and helps them learn faster and better. 

But even on those rare occasions when my digressions seem to get out of hand, it can lead to some very interesting and useful lessons.

In fact, I remember one time when I digressed so much that by the time we got back on topic we were all speaking Klingon. You see, I have been in habit of beginning my formal classes with a standard Chinese greeting. I begin with a palm/fist salut and say “Tongxuemen, hao,” which means “Hello, fellow students.” and they respond with “Laoshi hao.” Which means, “Hello teacher.”  It is a simple thing. But when a famous Chinese master comes to visit our school, it helps to present the illusion that my students have good manners, and gives the visiting teacher hope that they might know what they are doing.” 

So, one day, just for fun, I replaced my standard Chinese greeting with  “ghojwI’, may’ qeq.” Which is Klingon for, “Students, prepare for battle.” 

Then, all of my students except one, responded with a conditioned response, “Laoshi Hao!”  except for one student who said “lupDujHomwIj luteb gharghmey.”, which is Klingon for, “my hovercraft is full of eels.“ Which drew raucous laughter from the klingon-speaking Monty Python fans in the class. And then, it led to some very insightful discussions about the comparisons between Oriental martial cultures and Klingon warrior culture are expressed in the language, and that, if you want to understand a culture, it is a very good idea to learn their martial art. 

Oh! Speaking of Monty Python, Did you know that John Cleese was once offered the equivalent of a knighthood by the Klingon high council? He was declared a Dahar master after his glorious battle against the City of Palmerston North, New Zealand, in which he forced them to name the local landfill after him. They called it “Mount Cleese”, because that it what everyone wanted to do after the battle. 

But Cleese rejected the Klingon title for two reasons. One reason I won’t go into, except to say that it involved an altercation with the order of the daughters of THaless. The main reason was Cleese’s frustration over the fact that the Klingons refused to learn how to say his name properly. “For heaven’s sake,” he said. “It is pronounced ‘Cleese’, like ‘cheese.’ I could not bear to go through life being called Dahar master ‘John Tlis!’ 

But I’m getting off topic. Back to the thing about language. We were comparing the 14 dialects of a poly-tonal language like Chinese, with the approximately 80 poly-gutteral dialects of klingon. 

Although some people were questioning whether or not Chinese actually qualifies as a real language.   

 It was then that one of my students pointed out that, instead of saying, “lupDujHomwIj luteb gharghmey”, one could have simply said, “lubloymoH gharghmey.” This brought up the fact that Klingon is a language based on an adaptive syntax, comparing that to the partially adaptive syntax of Chinese. 

This led me to point out that the tai chi curriculum itself, is less adaptive in some cultural and linguistic contexts, than it is in other cultural and linguistic contexts.  

For centuries, tai chi styles have been well guarded secrets, passed through families from generation to generation. But no two people would do it exactly the same way, with each person changing it to suit their own needs, abilities, and understanding. On those rare occasions when the art passed to a completely different family, a distinctive new style would be created, due to the different experiences and circumstances. 

Tai chi styles have mixed with other martial arts, like Xingyiquan, baguazhang, yiquan. Some famous tai chi masters were also masters of Shaolin, or wrestlers, or sword masters. Some were doctors or generals or aristocrats, who had their own unique perspectives on the art. So, Tai chi is, in fact, a mixed martial art. 

Teachers will adapt the curriculum to suit their students. If am teaching an octogenarian beginner in Canada, who has just heard about tai chi for the first time, then I will not give them the same curriculum as the 5-year-old in Chen village, who practises 6 hours per day in the same place where his style has been practised for 20 generations. 

In some places, the style adapts to become more standardized. And this is good. These places become touchstones, where serious students can go to discover the essence and origins of a style, and to see what happens when you practice it this way, full-time, for decades. But even in these places, the art will change and refine itself over time, and individual masters do,  thanks to the nature of the art itself, transcend the structure of the style. 

As tai chi spreads throughout the world, it changes and mutates. Some of these changes will be tested and some will not. Some that are tested will survive, some will not.

I have learned 8 different versions of Yang Style tai chi, 5 different versions of Chen style, 2 different versions of Wu style. I have also studied Wu’ style, Sun style, zhaobao style, and others that I dare not name. I have also learned from the martial arts of 6 different continents.  All of this research has informed, improved, or corrupted what I teach. I also teach different types of qigong and neigong, and these influence my curriculum. 

Some of what I teach has been thoroughly tested. Some of it, not yet. Oh! I have experimented a lot. But that is not the same as getting tested. 

What I teach to my students is designed for them, not for me. So, the art I teach is not the art I practise. For me, as a teacher, the real test of a curriculum is how well it benefits the individual student.