The Charm of Tai Chi Quan

By Zhantao Lin

We all know the charm of Tai Chi Quan, but I think it’s worth repeating the old talk.

First, Tai Chi is not just a simple boxing. It is a school of thought or intellectual tradition, a fitness workout in the form of martial arts, an artistic form and an inter-disciplinary study.

1.  From the cultural perspective, Tai Chi is deeply rooted in the ancient Taoism melting with the ideas and thinking from Confucianism and hermeneutics. In contrast to other types of boxing, Tai Chi Quan, relying on the dialectical concept of Yin and Yang as a guide, has established a complete system of theory and practice. Being nurtured by thousands of years’ civilization in China, Tai Chi also provides a platform to learn Chinese history and culture from different perspectives.

2.  Health and fitness. The ultimate goal of Tai Chi is not attack and defense, but healthy living and wellbeing. The “Song of Thirteen Forms”, as part of the classic Chinese literature, has the saying “through mindful exercises what do we want to accomplish? It is for healthy living and staying young. … If we don’t seek this goal, it would be waste of our effort and all the practice.” Many friends of this group have mentioned that after they practiced Tai Chi, they felt refreshed and energetic throughout the day! This feeling is like drinking water—hot or cold they themselves know well. This experience is worthy of exchange and sharing. I should stress that Tai Chi, like any forms of arts, is endless. As Zhang Sanfeng said in his “Meditation Song”: “For the endless beauty (in doing this), no word I can find to tell. I feel the energy residing in my whole body from head to toe”. Practicing boxing and meditation in the forms of standing or sitting is absolutely fundamental for Tai Chi practice, which is beneficial for physical and mental health. There is a mention about Yang Chengfu, a great master of Tai Chi, passing away in his 50’s. Yang Chengfu was heavily involved in technical attack, and indeed in that field, Tai Chi practitioners tend to have been short lived. Examples are numerous. However, Yang Chengfu contributed greatly to make Tai Chi available to strengthen the health and self-esteem of his fellow Chinese. Back then, Japan and other big powers regarded the Chinese as the sick men of East Asia, and he knew that everyone needed to strengthen their health and fitness. He dared to break the ancestral rules of keeping the martial arts within the family to start spreading the boxing to general public. There were many families of internal martial arts back then, but only the Yang family stood up and did what they did. Another example is The Yang family is so reputable that their ancestors were nicknamed “invincible Yang,” Jiang Zhongzheng, the President of the Republic of China once made a pro-Yang inscription, which is another evidence suggesting how much pressure Yang Chengfu was under in his days. Li Xiaolong, one of the greatest martial arts boxer facing countless challenges. He also lived a short life, but left a hug legacy behind him.

3. Technical attack and defense. Boxing and any form of martial arts are for attack and defense. The creation of Tai Chi Quan brought Chinese martial arts to a whole new level. Contrary to the conventional doctrine of boxing, which promotes fast attack and strong fights weak in first reaction, Tai Chi advocates for “responding to nature” in second reaction, through practicing quan to eliminate the tendency of using natural instinct in first reaction.

4. Tai Chi study include hand forms or quan, standing meditations, push hands, and instrumental forms such as sword, saber, and gun or stick, which forms a complete system.

5. Tai Chi has its artistic character, may be part of the performing arts.

6. Tai Chi is a multi-disciplinary study, which includes Chinese medicine, human anatomy, physics, mechanics, physiology and psychology and so on.

Second, Ta Chi Quan, as martial arts, was used in fights. Unfortunately, several events and movements in the modern Chinese history seriously weakened Tai Chi’s ability to attack and defense. 1. The aristocratic elegant movement in the period of the Republic of China (a sovereign state in East Asian founded in 1912, after Qing dynasty and before the People’s Republic of China, PRC, founded in 1949) made Tai Chi a form of fitness fashion with mediocre dignitaries. In the 1950’s, master Yang Zhenji was assigned to the sports team in Hebei Province. His job was not to train the martial arts students, but to teach boxing at the homes of high-ranking government officials. 2. Also after the PRC founded in 1949, in order for the central government to maintain long-term social stability, Tai Chi’s technical attack and defense was restricted and closely monitored. In the subsequent years, Tai Chi Quan becomes part of performing arts and was modified as a form of dance and gymnastics.

Third, The traditional Tai Chi Quan study is broad and profound. It was unfortunate that a one-size-fits-all approach was adopted to the Tai Chi teaching. In the 1950’s, the 24-form Tai Chi Quan was created, which emphasized neither on the idea of Ying-Yang mindfulness and nor on martial art moves. It became a broadcast fitness exercise, popular but lack of substance. This was seriously misleading. It has been circulated that there is a plan now in China to derive a 13-form Tai Chi Quan for a world-wide promotion of Tai Chi… Will it help or hurt?

If the trend continues, a number of hall-mark Tai Chi moves mentioned by @光叔 will no longer exist.

Tai Chi Quan is a discipline. As a discipline, it has three levels in its connotation: quan, 功 and 道。

Talking about a. Quan, there are several stages. At the first stage, you learn the forms and make sure you have the right moves and postures. At the second stage, once you have learned all the forms, you want to weave in the mindfulness in every move and knowing each move deeply for its purpose in attack and defense. At the third stage, you want to elevate your knowledge and ability from knowing well the moves to understanding Jin (i.e., Dong-Jin, to understand the mechanics and the patterns of motion for Tai Chi technical attack), stay relaxed but not negligent, practice push hands and learn technical attack. Knowing well how to apply each and every move helps you to have good postures. And good postures promote health and wellbeing. At the fourth stage, since you have known well all the moves and Dong Jin, you can move on to cultivate the brilliant cleverness by blending the Eight Jins and compounded Jins to achieve the “responding to nature” second reaction.

Many of people who practice Tai Chi have practiced for 10-20 years. However, as soon as they are countered with challenges, they were beaten up. This is not surprising because even after those many years, they stayed at an intermediate level, with empty shelves. It is very important to go through the first two stages—those are foundation. For many Tai Chi practitioners, it is relatively simple to just practice the first two stages. For those who are motivated to go further, they will continue to improve through the subsequent stages.

This article was translated by Dongchun Wang
April 23, 2018