Tai Chi in Principle


I think in the west we have a big misunderstanding about martial arts; especially the martial aspect of tai chi. Mention the words and people immediately have an image of fighting and violence. This idea is promoted by moviemakers – both western and eastern – and the general idea is disapproved of by an establishment which is itself actually responsible for quite a lot of violence.


I spent a brief time practising karate. We never got involved in combat. The whole time was spent perfecting ‘katas’, the stylised moves, like a tai chi form, which are designed to practise the various blocks and blows. My sensei was a slightly built, gentle mannered man who believed that the power of karate came from ‘ki’ not muscle power. He used to tell us that the aim was not to hit with your fists but to hit with your spirit.


Many years later I introduced my children to karate thinking it would be good for their development. But karate had moved on. The sensei was a huge thug; aggressive, no doubt a bully. And they engaged in ‘fighting’ from an early point. Gloves were required and I wondered whatever happened to ‘open-hand’, which, I was told, was the meaning of karate.


And there is no doubt that over the years teachers from the east, both Chinese and Japanese have taken advantage and taught limited-editions of their arts to gullible people who wanted to learn how to be ‘invincible’. There has always been the rumour that there are secrets that are not being passed on.


What nobody tells you is that, at the highest level, any martial art is about not fighting. The whole concept is really about self-improvement, learning how your body works and how to integrate mind and body so that you work as one unit. Which actually is what you are.


This is something that seems to be missing from western teaching. It probably always was; the Chinese masters who decided to introduce us to their marshal arts were not daft, they knew that western students were focussed on the result not the work needed to get there. Moreover we were prepared to pay handsomely to get the certificate. In the 2010 Karate Kid movie Jackie Chan makes the point. He says: “Kung fu is not for fighting; kung fu is for study and self development.”


In the west, somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century, we lost the holistic approach. Bodies became regarded as machines and the various moving parts became the subject of specialised study. So by the time we reached the 20th century western medicine had split into specialised fragments with the ‘general’ practitioner acting as the clearinghouse, directing patients to the appropriate specialist. Or, perhaps, prescribing drugs which, with a very few exceptions, simply served to quell symptoms.


On top of this the mind had its own specialists and had nothing to do with the body.


In the east – certainly in ancient China – the whole approach was different. The approach was holistic which was largely made possible because traditional Chinese medicine overlaps with both Chinese philosophies and martial arts. Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism all had things to say about the mind and everyone acknowledged that the body was reliant on its internal energy (chi) to function. (And from my experience of teaching Chinese students, especially the older ones, this is taken as a matter of fact. When it comes to using energy they need very little instruction.)


Tai chi is one of several ‘internal’ practices that use chi and, indeed, incorporate systems to develop chi. When you take it up you are, whether you like it or not, learning a martial art. When I say that to new students I often feel them recoil. No doubt they are thinking they will have to jump, kick and punch, bearing in mind that many are middle aged-plus and just looking for some gentle exercise. But they need not worry; tai chi does not work that way.


What the form is teaching you is how to stand, how to move and how to balance. As I said before, it may be a martial art but it is about not fighting. The problem is, we watch movies, we want to see the ‘good guy’ win. Whatever we do competitively, it doesn’t matter whether it is sport or a board game we want to feel the satisfaction, not just of winning but also of being seen to win. We want the other guy to know we have beaten him fair and square; punch the air triumphantly – yes, yes, yes!


Well that’s in the movie. In reality winning might just amount to walking, even creeping, away in one piece.


Master Chen Man Ching gave us the phrase: Invest in loss. It is a much-used phrase, often quoted by training partners as they put their whole weight behind a push and send you reeling. Often quoted and not really understood. Learn from your mistakes is an obvious interpretation but it is more than that. It tells us to quell our egos; when your training partner heaves you across the room don’t be tempted to retaliate. In tai chi terms it is actually his (or her but when it comes to putting your muscles into a push it is usually his) loss. He missed a training moment, an opportunity to use softness, to connect to you and with, perhaps, the smallest of weight shifts, send you reeling just the same.


It is nice to think that we can ‘handle’ ourselves; the truth is that very few of the type of people that take up tai chi would stand a chance in a street fight.

The first level of self-defence is being aware of your surroundings. We train to develop sensitivity to other people: through ‘pushing’ hands practice – that’s what we call it, ‘sensing hands’ is a better description – we also develop sensitivity through testing form postures, using ten jing – listening energy – to sense what our partner is doing.


Your aim is to be totally aware of your surroundings, to avoid situations that make you uncomfortable; if it feels wrong it probably is wrong. So walk away, walk out, cross the road, don’t use the badly lit underpass.


And don’t ever feel that you need to be a martial arts hero.