Tai Chi in Principle

I used a shorter version of this article in the winter edition of Tai Chi Chat. This is the full version and I am questioning the ethics of the kind of teaching that passes for tai chi in many classes


If you are a runner nobody asks you: “What is running?” The same goes for any 'athletic ' pursuit, so you wouldn't you ask a boxer: “What is boxing?” But take up tai chi (or tai chi chuan to give it its full name) and everyone, even other practitioners, asks the question.

I suppose it is not surprising; we can all run and jump, even box if we have to, but tai chi? 'All those strange arm movements – can it really be doing anything? It is, surely, just some weird new-age exercise that someone dreamed up for old people? Even all those people doing it in the parks in China (so I hear) have been taken in. The orientals are all off with the fairies anyway, believe in spiritual stuff, all this magic 'chi', you can't measure it, it is all rubbish!


All of my life I have never been really good at anything physical. At school I avoided sports as much as I could. Kicking a leather ball around a field in, often, the cold and wet, seemed totally pointless. Watching others do it, equally so. I have no eye for a ball and wasn't (aren't) co-ordinated enough to catch, so anything that involved a small object being thrown at me was equally futile if not potentially fatal. And then, at the age of sixty I discovered tai chi.


'Discovered' is not quite accurate. I was aware of it though had no more idea of what it actually is than do a lot of students when they start. Many practitioners do have a martial arts background so come at it from that perspective but many more don't. In 1978 I did, briefly, practise karate for about six weeks or so. It wasn't my thing but the instructor was different from the usual thug-type that you often find teaching external arts. He was very much interested in 'ki' (chi). He taught that that is what powered karate, not muscles. He demonstrated it to us new students. He said: “This is something that the Japanese will never teach you, but it is what you are aiming for.” As I said, six weeks later I decided that it was not for me and left. But the ki demonstration stayed with me and 25 years later I started tai chi and discovered it again.


From India to China and Japan, in fact across the orient, there has always been a belief that we are more than our physical bodies. The idea is that we are sustained by a life force – prana in India, chi in China and in Japan ki – it is all the same stuff and, the belief is, that by cultivating it and developing it we become stronger, live longer and remain healthy. Some believe that it can be transmitted as a healing power from one person to another.


For millennia the Chinese have been interested in the idea that certain exercises would help to develop chi thus promoting good health and longevity. It is from Taoism that we get these exercises, not quite Chinese yoga but serving the same purpose.

As far as tai chi chuan is concerned it is tempting to say that its origins are lost in the mist of time. The truth is that the whole thing is confused by the politics which seem to surround martial arts in general. The research that I have studied is in itself confusing. The (modern) Taoist sources tend toward their own 'mystic', shamanic origins and those concerned with research into tai chi get confused with who started it, when it started and which is the 'real' tai chi form.


One of the things that holds peoples' interest is the legends. We all like a good mystery cloaked in the mists of time. Just think about the Arthurian stories, a collection based on old French tales written by a near-do-well knight languishing in gaol. They still grip us to this day. So how much more, a mysterious oriental tale of the Taoist immortal Chang San-feng who, on retreat in the Wudang mountains, witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane. The swooping, coiling, advance and retreat of the animals inspired him to develop tai chi. This was 4,000 years ago – or 3,000, or 2,000 – you can pick your own number.


Before the system which we call tai chi was developed – by men, by the way, not by 'immortals' – there were other 'internal' martial arts practised in China. The internal ideas developed from Taoist neigung exercise practices The neigung, or internal, exercises were (indeed are) designed to develop chi. They are soft, rather than muscle-powered, vigorous movements and, done properly, serve to co-ordinate the body so that it moves as one unit. Martial artists discovered that by being soft, by adopting Taoist principles, they could employ chi in their movements and have much greater power than just muscles alone could deliver.


Tai chi as we know it is about 200 or maybe 300 years old. It was developed by the Chen family, probably by adapting other martial systems. According to Chen family records the system was developed sometime in the 17th century. It remained a private, family practice until it was was made public by a man called Yang Lu Chan. There are various stories about how Yang Lu Chan came to be taught it; the most popular says that he worked for the Chens in some capacity – one version has him as a pharmacist in which case he was probably well educated – and he spied on them while they were practising. When he was caught, Chen Chang Hsing made him fight his sons and he beat them all – five of them! Strangely no one questions this. Given the way we are taught these days, how is it that Yang was able to learn the whole thing to a high level, apparently, by just watching? And in a short time too.


It is probable that he was already accomplished in another martial art so had no problem working out what was going on. Culturally, if not personally, he would be aware of Taoist practices and certainly there were other 'internal' martial arts. Taoism developed from an early shamanic culture and from there developed exercise systems designed to build chi to promote good health and longevity. Martial artists realised the power that could be generated from the energy and adopted these exercises as part of their own practice. Perhaps combining the individual exercises to create 'forms'.


It appears Yang Lu Chan knew a good thing when he came across it. He realised that people would pay him to teach them this new system. He took it to Peking and fought all comers earning himself the title 'Yang the Invincible'. Allegedly, although he beat all of those that he fought, he never hurt anyone. His prowess earned him an appointment as instructor to the imperial guard.

Strangely, it is about this time that the legend of Chang San-feng seems to have been promoted. It seems Yang could also have had a good career as a marketing man.


Chang San Feng


It appears that, in fact there were two Chang San-fengs. One lived in the 5th century and the more recent in the 13th. He is one of the people to whom the '13 postures' is attributed.


As the Chens tried to keep it in the family, it seems probable that, to a degree, so did Yang. He taught his sons Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou the system and there are sources that suggest that he was pretty brutal. Pan Hou is said to have run away – but was brought back. Chien Hou tried, unsuccessfully, to hang himself. Various sources suggest that Yang did teach different things to the family and to outsiders. The question is what did he not teach?


There is much talk about the 'true' transmission of tai chi. Did your master/teacher receive it? Are you, indeed, receiving the true transmission? On top of this there is the idea that at the core of tai chi there is a great secret that is being kept back by the 'establishment' – by which I mean the masters and lineage holders.


I have to say that I have never heard this denied but it actually makes no sense to me at all.

One problem is cultural. In the west we are educated to achieve goals. We are expected to go for the gold medal, the A levels, the degree. We don't want to wait, the study is a means not an end in itself. Chen Man Ching got the point. Invited to New York to teach the Chinese community he soon realised that the Americans would pay for his services too. However, according to his biographer Wolf Löwenthal, Chen would adopt a different approach with his American and Chinese students. The Chinese were happy to practise a move until they perfected it, the Americans were focused on the result rather than the journey. They wanted to get to the end and receive the certificate.


Secrets and Lies


What these days we call tai chi is a great system for personal development. OK it's roots are Chinese but that is no reason to think that we, with our western education and attitudes, cannot take ownership and use it for our own benefit. It just takes an intelligent approach and, you might say, a willing suspension of disbelief because we do have to accept certain things our culture says are impossible. Though it should be noted that orthodox, western medicine, is coming around to the idea that this oriental stuff might not be the codswallop it thought it was.

But, as things stand, students are faced with dishonesty, poor instruction and often poor value for money. Teachers get away with it because they present things as 'Chinese' – “this is the way things have always been taught, it is traditional”. So someone who wants to learn tai chi may be required to stand and practise a move from the form until the teacher decides that they have perfected it and can move onto the next move. Western teachers, many of who learned from Chinese 'masters' continue to teach in this way. And it is all about 'the form'. If nothing else this system can serve to prolong the learning process and the instructor's bank balance.

This kind of attitude has allowed a mysticism to grow around tai chi with all sorts of people claiming to teach it. Some know nothing and just teach a set of movements, no better or worse than any other exercise system. Yoga has largely gone the same route. Others claim allegiance to one or other great master and lineage of grand masters. Very few teach the real stuff and, worse, even those who know the real stuff often don't teach it, just take their student's money on the promise that they might one day impart the true 'secrets' of tai chi. I have frequently been disappointed to see otherwise intelligent people waiting for 'sifu' to show them how it 'works'.

To make matters worse, there are teachers who promote the mystery by taking on 'behind the door' students. These privileged individuals usually undergo an interview to make sure that they are 'worthy'. The selected students are supposedly given the 'real secrets'. So, I must ask, what are these people teaching their other students that is worth them paying for?

I have said before, and I believe it is well worth repeating: tai chi was developed by ordinary men. They no doubt had strong backgrounds in martial arts and were culturally steeped in Taoism and the concepts of chi; it was the bringing together of all of these that gave us tai chi. They were adept and brilliant at what they did but they were otherwise ordinary men. Sadly, as with other concepts – politics, religion, both – those who come after take a simple concept and use it as a way to make money or to exercise control over others.