Tai Chi in Principle

There is a joke which goes: ‘There are many paths up the mountain but when you get to the top all you will find is a bunch of martial artists arguing about which path is the true path’.


There is probably more rubbish talked about tai chi than any other subject on the planet. Questions abound:

Is it – was it ever – a martial art?

Is it just an exercise system?

Can it improve your health?

Is this chi stuff real?

And then:

Has your master/instructor received the ‘true’ transmission?

Is what you are being taught ‘real’ tai chi or is it just the movements?

Is he withholding secret practices?

The fact is that, whatever it is, it was developed by men working with the same tools you and I have – human bodies and minds with all of their amazing abilities and awful flaws.

One of the things that keeps it mysterious is the legend that it was developed and passed down by the Taoist immortal San Fan Cheng. He, having retreated to Wu Tang Mountains, observed a fight between a snake and a crane. He was impressed by the swooping, attacking and retreating actions he saw and adapted them to create a martial art which, today, we call tai chi chuan – the great ultimate fist. In earlier times it has been called other things – long boxing and cotton fist being just two examples.

But as amazing and, apparently, magical some of the attributes are there is nothing that some one some where hasn’t worked out.

It is hard not to get carried away with mystical theories. Tai chi practices are based on a system that was devised in the orient. There, there is a general acceptance of ‘energy’ as a force. It is our life force; the Indians call it ‘prana’ the Chinese ‘chi’, in Japan it is ‘ki’. Now I have to say that there are western practitioners – teachers even – who vehemently deny that chi exists at all. There was once a school built around ‘chi-free tai chi’. Whilst it had the laudable goal of ‘re-establishing’ tai chi as a martial art (I’m not sure that aspect was actually lost, but anyway) its chief instructor wrote a number of articles on the subject of chi and its non-existence.

These things mainly serve to demonstrate what closed and prejudiced minds people can have. (Though I am just as prejudiced in the matter – and I can show you.)

Often the point is lost; tai chi is mind and body working together. I have read suggestions – once by a ‘master’ – that the demonstrations of chi that involve the master pushing or stopping a student without physical contact are hypnosis. I am not sure how you define ‘hypnosis’. Certainly tai chi involves you messing about with people’s minds, that’s the ‘mind’ bit of the equation. On the other hand, whatever it is and whatever you choose to call it, what does that matter? If it works, that is all you can ask.
The first real demonstration I can recall was with a partner at a tai chi workshop. The subject was ‘spiralling’. I had been doing tai chi for about nine months and had just got to the end of the Yang long form. It was the first time I had met this guy.

I can’t remember exactly what we were doing but it involved your partner holding onto you and you pushing him away using a spiral. We had been shown the physical action and told to refine it to make the spiral as small as possible, in the end it was supposed to be just in your head!

After a while my partner said to me: “You are very open to chi, that’s good, not everyone here is, it’s nice to work with you.”

We carried on for a bit and then he said: “Look, stop putting in the movement, just push me with your mind.”

Me (thinks): “Oh my god we’ve got a right one here.”

I don’t know quite what I did but a moment later he was obligingly moving down to the floor.

Me: “You are having a laugh.”

Him: “No, no you really did that. It was great.”

Me: “Okay, do it to me.”

The next minute I was sliding down towards the floor and I remember thinking: “I am just doing this to please him. I can stop any time I like.”

The fact is I didn’t and, in the part of my brain that actually controls these things, I couldn’t.

So was that chi or what?

Often when we train and especially when we test postures, we tend to go one way or the other. Either we use force to make things work or, if we have a sensitive relationship with our partner, we just try to use energy. This may work with some people but you need to aware of all aspects of the art. The key is to be soft; if you use a weight shift to make a move then make sure the power comes from below. It should start from your feet and travel through your centre, your hips if you like, your partner should not feel your hands at all.

Then there is the big controversy over the ‘true transmission’ of the art of tai chi.

The problem here is the idea that there is a great secret which the master can pass to his chosen disciples and may choose not to pass on to ordinary students. Now tai chi is multi layered and multi faceted; a bit like three-dimensional chess so you can’t really learn it all at once. At the beginning students generally have to wait to be shown the next move. As far as the form is concerned this seems fair enough, it is complex and each move needs to be grasped and linked to the next. So by the end the student is waiting for the next instruction and, if the form is all (s)he has been taught they won’t have clue what tai chi is really about.

There is no doubt that learning is slow and some students never do latch on to the whole thing. In my teaching I try to be more holistic. So while my students learn the form step by step I introduce them to the concept of softness and energy as they go along. Most people get it and I feel it adds to their experience.

What has always infuriated me is hearing fellow students marvelling at what the master can do and expecting, or at least waiting, for him to show them instead of grabbing a partner and trying to work it out. As I said at the beginning, tai chi was developed by ordinary men. There is no reason why ordinary people cannot understand it and develop themselves in the art. Don’t get me wrong, you need an instructor but, as I said in another article, ‘an instructor only points the way’.

The problem with traditional styles of teaching, and this goes back to the old books – the tai chi classics – there is a lot of ‘what’ but not very much ‘how’. This is where people get paranoid and think that there is a great secret. And some masters and instructors pander to this idea by only giving partial information so keeping students locked into their school and paying-up!

It is quite probable that we in the west come at this from the wrong angle. If you read the history there is little doubt that tai chi – or whatever it was called 200 years ago – was a fighting system. The Chinese villages held competitions, fights, and no doubt bet on the results. Every village had its own system, tai chi was the system of the Chen family. This is where Yang Lu Chan learned the art which he passed on to the rest of the world.

But in the west in the 21st century we are mostly sold tai chi as an exercise system. What we have to do is go backwards to rediscover it as a martial art.

Because it is a ‘soft’ system and because it is tied up with the Chinese qi gung practices it is attractive to older people who find the slow moves easy to cope with. Mention ‘martial art’ to some of these and they will run – or maybe hobble – for the door.

Then there is the other perception: if it doesn’t hurt it isn’t working and you have to go for the ‘burn’, coupled with the idea that martial arts are confrontational and about fighting. Western martial arts, boxing and such are about just that. Also, as a species we are competitive and like to prove we are better than the next guy, or, if we just like to watch, we may get our kicks from betting on the outcome.

There is another possible view: at the highest level a martial art is about not fighting.

If you want to fight then you are not going to take up tai chi in the first place. Western boxing is probably the system for you, or try kickboxing, anything that allows physical contact and competition. (There are tai chi competitions but I have never got involved so I can’t speak about them.)

If what you wish is for an exercise system that gives you everything then tai chi is for you. But if your instructor knows what he/she is doing then you will be learning the ‘martial’ aspects anyway. Tai chi teaches us to connect ourselves together. Nothing moves independently; if your little finger moves the entire body should be in motion, everything in complete coordination. (From Yang Chen Fu’s ten principles.)

If you practice properly and are taught properly – the biggest problem is always finding the right teacher – then I think tai chi has it all. Exercise, stress busting relaxation, self defence and improved health or at least a great sense of well being and confidence.

(The health aspect is often hotly discussed. I like to say that tai chi will ‘heal’ a person rather than ‘cure’ a specific ailment.)

There is nothing mystical; there are no secrets. Yang Lu Chan worked it out for himself after watching the Chen family practising. He was an ordinary man, probably not well educated, he came from a different culture and a different time with a different world view, he may have prectised other martial arts but in the end he was just a guy.

Once you have done your research and cut through the bullshit, then found the right teacher, I think that the real secret is to practise until it is not just second nature but is how you are, how you move and relate to others, and to the world in general. And above all think about what you are doing, work for yourself and don’t wait for the teacher to teach you – like Yang Lu Chan you have to learn.