What is Tai Chi?
Firstly, I should explain that Tai Chi or T'ai Chi is the popular name for the Chinese martial art called T'ai Chi Ch'uan. But in much the same way that Peking is usually called "Beijing" these days and Bombay is now known as "Mumbai", the modern way of writing T'ai Chi is "Taiji" and the modern way of writing T'ai Chi Ch'uan is "Taijiquan". On the whole, I prefer to use the modern spellings for Chinese words as they give us a more accurate idea of how the words are pronounced by mainland Chinese people. Having said that I do also regularly also use the popular spelling of Tai Chi rather than Taiji or Taijiquan as it is by far the most widely used spelling and its use therefore ensures that my writing reaches the largest number of potential readers and students. Please note that the "Chi" of Tai Chi has nothing to do with the idea of "chi" (properly spelled "ch'i" in the old Wade Giles System or "qi" using the modern Pinyin spelling method), which relates to an entirely different Chinese character and concept.
To avoid misunderstandings, wherever possible I teach entirely in English nowadays. However in this article I have used many Chinese terms in order to explain what they mean, for anyone who is trying to find out more about them. I've also put a pronunciation guide in italics after the Chinese terms if it does not seem obvious.
The word Taijiquan is comprised of three separate words: Tai, Ji and Quan.
Tai means "Highest, Greatest or Biggest"
Ji means the "Utmost Point" or "Extreme"
Quan means "Fist" or "Boxing style".
At its simplest then, Tai Ji Quan means "Greatest Extremes Boxing". The Taijiquan practitioner practices movements that are greatly differentiated, that is to say - extremely slow and extremely fast, extremely soft and extremely hard. At times the Taji fighter is very aggressive, at other times very passive; at times initiating, at other times responsive; at times sticky and persistent, at other times slippery and evasive. Another strong contrast is that sometimes the art focuses on differentiation and extremity and at other times harmonisation and balance. The art develops your ability to overcome any attacker or obstacle by learning how to maximise your own strength efficiency, whilst using skill and intelligence to make the foe or obstacle easier to control.
Taijiquan was invented by the Knight Chen Wangting in the mid 17th Century. Chen is alleged to have defeated 1000 bandits in combat. He incorporated most of the Chinese martial techniques known at that time into his style, drawing from a groundbreaking book which was written by General Qi Jiguang.
Though it is known that the art only became known as Taijiquan around 150 years ago, Chen is said to have fused these martial techniques with Taiji (yin / yang) philosophical theories to create his own martial science methodology, based on differentiation and unpredictability, as well as the harmonisation and balancing of force. Attacks were clearly differentiated (distinguished) from defenses, but it was understood that circularity and a relaxed muscle state could allow a warrior to remain adaptable in combat and flow seamlessly and imperceptibly from one strategy to the other. Yang (forceful) techniques were to be met with yin (yielding) strategies, rather than meeting force with force. Conversely, any sign of retreat, withdrawal or weakness by an opponent could be seen as an opportunity to launch a fierce attack. The Taiji warrior should yield to oncoming force but then fill any gap left open by his foes. As such, the warrior is seen to respond to ongoing events.
"When my enemy advances I get ever further away,
When my enemy retreats, I crowd him all the more."
- Wang Zhongyue's Tai Chi Classic
As Chen got older he spent his time "teaching students and children so they could become worthy members of society."
The original "Chen style" of Taijiquan has very overtly expressed "reeling silk" (martial rotation) movements and expression of "fajin" (released power). The style contains very dynamic movements that switch suddenly and dramatically from hard to soft and from very fast to very slow. Practitioners train their reflexes and muscles to be able to go from a very relaxed state to a powerful explosive state and back again, all within a fraction of a second, enabling them to move incredibly quickly and forcefully when required. A Taiji fighter sometimes moves much faster than a physically tense fighter. At other times his or her movements will be relatively slow and continuous in their execution of power, imbued with a kind of pliable omnidirectional strength known as "peng" (pung). As well as providing the fighter with a broad range of quite different combative functions, this dynamic variability also make his or her actions hard to understand or anticipate.
"Light as scattered flowers, solid as tempered steel. Competing with the Tiger for ferocity, challenging the Eagle for speed. In movement like a flowing river, in stillness like a solid mountain. The spirit gathered at the brink before release."
The Yang family have given their name to the most popular style of Taiji around today. The Yang family name has nothing to do with the philosophical concept of "yang" (as in "yin and yang").
Yang Luchan was the first person from outside of the Chen family to be taught Taijiquan. He passed the art down to his sons Yang Banhou and Yang Jianhou. Yang Banhou was famous for his fast Taiji. Yang Jianhou was known for his dynamic hard and soft style. His Taiji practice was also very simple with techniques practiced in isolation and in simple repetitive straight-line movement sequences called "Forms". Jianhou is also famous for having said "principle first, movement second". Our direct and hands-on teaching style is very much in the spirit of Yang Jianhou's approach. We say that you should not so much as lift a finger without first knowing why, in martial terms.
Yang Jianhou had a son called Yang Chengfu. He taught outside of the Yang family and had a great many students. He mostly taught the movements as a single continuous sequence called the "108 Posture Long Form". The entire Form is usually practiced with large, slow, smooth movements. This is the style that most Westerners are familiar with today, although shortened versions of his Form are very popular too.
Zheng Manqing / Cheng Man Ching Style (Jeng Manching) Style
This is an offshoot of the Yang (family) Style that is quite widely practiced in the UK and USA. Zheng Manqing shortened Yang Chengfu's Form sequence from the 108 postures to a more compact 37. He also stressed the importance of understanding what every movement meant in martial terms, even if the art was practiced primarily for health cultivation. He wrote:
"Each of Taiji's postures has a particular application, just as every object casts a distinct shadow. Taiji Form practise that ignores functional application bestows health benefits that are artificial at best."
A characteristic of Zheng style form practice is momentum. Zheng practiced his form a little more briskly than is typical for Yang style and with very relaxed arms. He advised that one should never practice so quickly as to lose movement quality, nor so slowly as to lose momentum - the upper body should be driven by the momentum generated by the legs and lower body. He once famously told his students "last night I had dreamt I had no arms" and encouraged them to practice their form sequence entirely without using their arms so that they could develop a feel for this momentum.
Something else very significant that Zheng said was that there are many different styles, but if the styles disobey the Classics, the styles are wrong. We take this teaching to heart, ensuring that all of our movements obey the Tai Chi Classics and classical Tai Chi martial principles. Two examples that we'd point out are firstly that Wang Zhongyue's Tai Chi Classic explicitly states that a Tai Chi practitioner should not lean or bend, yet many Tai Chi styles today do just that. Zheng would say those styles are wrong and we'd agree. (One exception in Zheng's 37 move form is the planting punch posture. The reason is that the technique is a low punch being executed in response to being pulled forwards against one's will). Chen Xin's Illustrated Treatise on Taijiquan states clearly that all movements must contain continuous twisting. Again, many styles today ignore this crucial movement principle and again, we would point to the Classics as evidence of their error.
Dong / Tung Style
Another major branch off from the Yang style, named after Dong Yingjie / Tung Ying Chieh. This style is characterised by its practicing of stylistically quite different forms - each serving its own specific purpose. In addition to practicing a very slow and smooth form sequence that is essentially very similar to the long Yang style form, Dong stylists also practice a more dynamic and mobile fast form. Whereas slow form practice helps the practitioner to refine their movements in fine detail, practicing at full combat speed is also essential training if one wishes to be able to use the art for self-defence purposes. Dong Yingjie is another prominent instructor who stessed the necessity of learning Tai Chi as an explicitly martial discipline.
Many more styles of Tai Chi exist - in addition to various branches of the Chen and Yang styles there is Fu Style, Sun Style, Zhaobao Style, Hunyuan Chen Style, Beijing 24 Step, Chen Panling Style and two very different kinds of Wu Style, to name but a few. Very often these styles have absorbed ideas from other martial styles such as Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. Usually such sub-styles are named after their founder.
A fairly prominent style in the UK is the so-called "Lee" Style, though this style is known to have no historical validity - it was called "Lee Style" in a bid to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee in the 1970s. Subsequently its standard bearers have gone to great lengths to claim a link to the style of Li I Yu, though they have had to radically alter their form and make tenuous excuses for its founder in order that this claim be taken seriously. As well as once writing that his art was many thousands of years old, said founder (Chee Soo a.k.a Clifford Gibbs) claimed that his style was the most widely practiced Tai Chi style in China and the world - this at a time when the "lineage" was completely unheard of in China. Sadly, the culture of corruption and commerciality that exists in the international Tai Chi mainstream has led to a growing acceptance of this lineage within certain circles.
Martial Tai Chi™
In our school we practice our own style, called "Martial Tai Chi™" and make no claims for its lineage authenticity. As I never felt that any existing style of Tai Chi was being practiced martially enough to provide truly adequate combat training, I gathered information from various sources and combined them, weeding out unnecessary training methods in the process. Our style is practiced in an almost entirely hands-on manner because contact work is by far the most efficient way to learn martial principles. What we do adheres very strictly to the Tai Chi Classics and fighting strategies and is practiced solely for martial functionality. It is a mongrel small-frame Chen / Yang / Dong / Sun / Zheng Manqing style with some Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Silat, Kuntao and Escrima influences, though our form work probably looks closest to the Zheng Manqing Tai Chi style. Our art has been finely tuned to ensure maximum self-defence applicability and continues to improve the longer we practice it. If you want a good, functional style that gets on with teaching you how to defend yourself straightaway, without any nonsense, we are the school for you.
The Exalted Tai Chi Form
Hopefully by now you'll be getting a good enough sense of the sort of person I am to not be too shocked to discover that here too, I don't do things in the mainstream (by which I mean trendy rather than traditional) way. I do what I genuinely think gets the best results, rather than sticking to popular methods when they've been shown to be inneffective. So I don't teach forms at the start of a student's training, preferring to teach isolated martial techniques and using other hands-on methods (such as partner drills and pad work) that allow the student to feel the difference between correct and incorrect movement in a quantifiable way.
Practicing linked forms certainly does not teach people how to move because a beginner cannot help but practice them wrong. Practicing forms over and over again, particularly when not yet informed of their martial function, only ingrains all of those incorrect movement habits, making it much harder to practice good habits when performing those same movements later on: old habits die hard. It is often said that learning arts like Tai Chi and Bagua takes many years before it starts to be right and this is true if you take the "form practice first" approach. Far better is to learn how to move correctly, so that when you learn forms you already know how to move. That way you can learn forms quickly and they teach your body different things, such as sequential flow and timing.
Linked forms also allow you to work on more generic movement qualities in a variety of different contexts and permutations. That's why I teach rotation / reeling silk drills, undulation and momentum exercises, stepping drills etc. in addition to hands-on fighting techniques, to enable students to gain a conceptual understanding of movement in various specific contexts before moving on to more complex form movements that embrace all of those qualities at once.
Health Benefits of Tai Chi?
These days, Tai Chi is almost exclusively known for its proclaimed health benefits. This is unfortunate, as when practiced solely for health, the art loses its health benefits, just as Zheng pointed out.
The art as it is popularly practiced has become little more than a form of extremely slow and gentle exercise for the elderly and infirm. While health for the elderly is in itself no bad thing, the fact remains that the exercise they practice is not Tai Chi at all. Popular, purely slow-moving and completely abstract "Tai Chi" is a very far cry from the powerful and highly acclaimed warrior art of of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This modern, fake form of "Tai Chi" is no closer to real Taijiquan than ballet. Clearly, in order to allow Taiji's health benefits to retain any kind of credibility, a radical shifting of the goalposts has taken place. One has to ask - wouldn't any kind of gentle, slow-motion exercise achieve the same results?
So are there any health benefits with Real Martial Tai Chi™?
Yes - the same as with any other martial art. Practicing fully martial Taijiquan improves your balance, strength, endurance, lung capacity and breath control. Like any activity, it uses your muscles, which improves circulation and stimulates the lymphatic system - this can help your immune system to function more effectively.
As a fully functional martial art that involves combative speeds and physical contact, Martial Tai Chi™ develops reflexes, mental focus, co-ordination and physical awareness. What is slightly different from some other kinds of martial training is that Taiji also makes you focus on slow detailed movements, as well as fast, powerful ones. The practitioner therefore gets a more holistic kind of physical and mental workout than when performing activities that focus on speed and exertion alone. Skill is emphasised over brute strength and athleticism.
As a fully functional branch of martial science, Martial Tai Chi™ also has an element of intellectual, strategic, philosphical and even moral development. How much more beneficial is that to just standing and waving your arms about?
A Tai Chi Lifestyle
Taiji's often more considered, analytical and steady approach to movement, enables you to work on aspects such as optimal postural alignment. This is not only beneficial for your martial skills, but for all physical activities. As a consequence, Taiji might help you to iron-out persistent joint or back problems. Our strong emphasis on correct standing and walking helps you to re-build collapsed foot arches and correct knee misalignments, which can help to alleviate hip or back problems.
Taiji has the potential to help you to maximise your movement efficiency, thereby enabling you to perform all physical tasks more effectively. Taiji has the potential to help you to improve your co-ordination, agility, flexibility and poise and to teach you how to move more powerfully, more gracefully and with less adverse muscular tension.
It is important to mention that no form of Tai Chi (or Taiji) has any power to do anything in its own right. Tai Chi is just something you can do with your body and mind. How well you do it is down to you. How much benefit you gain from it depends entirely on how much effort you put in, and how diligently you cultivate those fine movement details and postural alignments, both during training and during your everyday life.
How Much Effort Is Required?
Regarding the common perception that Taiji requires little effort, I'm afraid the truth is that authentic Taijiquan is both physically demanding and mentally challenging. The old adage "no pain, no gain" is as true of Taiji as any other form of exercise. The more effort you put in, the more benefits you will get out.
If you want to achieve real benefits, you will have to endure sore muscles and quite probably aching joints while you are learning to re-align your body and teach it to relax. But if you persevere, your strength and stamina will improve. And while you will almost certainly find the physical co-ordination required a little difficult at first, if you stick at it, you will achieve real results.
The vital thing to remember is that you are in control of your body. It does nothing that you don't tell it to. No magical benefits or abilities will suddenly appear overnight. Progress comes from making yourself give up bad old habits and replacing them with good new ones. Nothing will happen that you do not make happen.
De-mystifying The Mysterious (Defining Terms)
Learning Taiji can often feel like you are learning a whole new language. There are lots of books and articles around, but these can often leave us feeling that we don't really understand what it's all about. To be honest, much of what is written about Chinese martial arts per se is, in the words of Sun Xikun, "wasteful lies." If in doubt, remember the saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it's because it is.
Taiji is actually very simple and very practical, although it can certainly seem very deep at times. It's depth is largely due to its simplicity - Taiji concepts seem to be applicable to almost any aspect of life because Taiji is the study of natural physical laws. Really it's a bit like "physics", but using Chinese words and concepts.
Gong Li (gung lee) - "Clumsy Strength"
This one's easy to explain, we just tend to call it "brute force". In every day life we might hear the phrase "in the end I had to use brute force" in relation to some physical task or other. This is an indication that we all know that using force should be seen as a last resort - we should always try to use skill or good technique before resorting to "brute force".
In a situation where we might have to defend ourselves, Taiji teaches us never to try to meet force head on. Trying to simply block an attack will just damage your arm and if an attacker is significantly stronger than you, your arm will probably not stop the attack anyway. Taiji teaches us to "go with the flow" - it is easier to let an attack go on its merry way while we step aside than to try to prevent it from happening.
Taiji also asks us to "move second and arrive first" indicating that we should calmly watch and wait so that we can respond skillfully and appropriately. Even if we are in a stressful or dangerous situation, we shouldn't respond clumsily through haste. In the West we might say "act in haste - repent at leisure".
Now let's look at some alternatives to using brute force:
1) Peng and Song
Peng (pung) - literally like a canopy or umbrella, peng refers to a state of omnidirectional, expansive, springy strength. Thus equated with bouyancy it is sometimes also used to refer specifically to a rising kind of movement that is often of a defensive nature. In this context it is often translated as "warding off".
Peng is used in conjunction with being:
Song (sung) which means "loose", "slack" or "relaxed in the direction of gravity".
These elements combine to produce a flexible and adaptable kind of strength.
As a physical principle, Peng means being "equally expansive in all directions" rather like a tree that has to spread its roots below the ground as much as it spreads its branches above. Having the quality of Peng strength means that your physical posture is perfectly counterbalanced in all directions.
Song means staying very loose and relaxed. Taijiquan requires that you should always be as relaxed as possible.
Rather than using "clumsy strength" or stubborn resistance you should aim to eradicate all excess muscular tension from your body and use only the bare minimum of strength required to maintain your structure, a bit like a flower stem holding up a flower. The amount of strength you need may change under pressure, but you should try to evenly distribute any tension throughout your whole body and use sound postural alignment to channel any excess pressure into the ground.
In Taiji we use "tactical yielding" in much the same way that a flexible willow tree does not try to stand firm against a hurricane. While a stiff old oak tree might get blown down in a storm, the soft, supple strength of the Willow tree will ultimately prevail because the Willow knows to bend in the wind.
2) Chansijin (chan se jin) - Reeling / Twisting Silk Power aka "Martial Rotation"
The classics state that "all movements should contain flowing or counterflowing twisting. This refers to each limb rotating smoothly along its long axis, whether in harmony or against the flow of arcing movement and / or incoming momentum. The whole limb should be involved in the movement as it rotates from the hip or shoulder downwards, the arms driven by the legs and torso. For example, whenever the toes of the foot are turned inwards or outwards, the leg must turn from the hip in order to maintain perfect knee-toe alignment.
An analogy of "Reeling Silk" is used to remind us that the rotation must occur at a smooth and even pace. If we were winding a delicate silk thread onto a reel any sudden changes of speed, tension or angle would snap the thread. Reeling silk does not have to be performed slowly as long as the quality of the movement remains constant.
3) Fajin (faa jin) - Released Power
This term generally refers to a short, sharp, shocking release of power, usually delivered at very close range. This physical quality corresponds to something I refer to as "undulation" or "whipping power". For Taiji you need to cultivate a state of physical softness akin to that of a snake or caterpillar. Your whole body should stay loose and relaxed so that momentum and power can ripple up through your body and into your hands. No chambering of strikes is necessary because the path of the strike occurs inside the body, travelling up through one leg, through the body and down the arm into the hand. Sequential compression of the joints takes place until finally the hand releases power, pushed by the accumulated force of the legs and body. In the original Chen style Taiji it is said that maximum power is generated when twisting power (limb rotation) and whipping power converge.
Important Postural Principles
Baihui (bai huay)
The top of the head, when your head is held up so that you can gaze levelly forwards (not the crown, which is further back.) Your baihui should be pushed upwards so that you can gaze levelly ahead.
Huiyin (huay yin)
The Chinese term for your perineum. Just as the baihui is pushed up, your perineum should sink down. "A big tall tree needs big deep roots." As much as you raise and expand your limbs, you need to sink down low and root yourself deeply.
The hip / inguinal fold, in other words, the crease at the top of your thigh where your leg joins your torso. As much as you bend your knees, you should also bend your kua in order that your spine is kept vertical.
This is the perineal area and inner thighs. It is the part of your body that would be in contact with the horse if you were on horseback. It should be kept rounded, like an arched bridge, with the foot arches raised and the knees pushed out in line with your toes.
Zhong Zheng (jong jeng)
Centrally upright. Your spine should be vertical, "never tilting or bending".
Zhong Ding (jong ding)
Central equilibrium. All actions should be counterbalanced within your body in terms of substantial (relatively tense) and insubstantial (more relaxed). You should be "poised like a balanced scale."
This literally means "elixir field," which is a remnant of ancient Chinese ideas concerning a form of protoscience known as "internal alchemy." Such ideas attempted to understand and explain how people's bodies worked, before dissection and factual anatomical science became known.
The body was considered to have three major "dantian." The one most commonly mentioned in connection with Taiji being the "lower dantian" said to be between your waist and hips, in the very centre of your body. A mental image that was sometimes used was one of a sphere in your abdominal region, acting as a pivotal point for rotational movements in numerous directions. The other two "dantians" were said to be situated in the centre of your chest and your head. I think the only useful thing about this idea is to keep the three centres vertically aligned as shown in the alignment picture below, rather as if they were three points on a fireman's pole that went in through the top of your head and out through your perineum.
Rotation and Undulation Converge
Movements involving long axial rotation of the limbs are combined with undulating movements, surging upwards from the ground into your hands as you push against the ground with your feet (without rising up) and engage your muscles in a sequential "ground up" manner.
I sometimes use the phrase "open, then shift, then turn" to describe how, while your arms are rotating smoothly, the hip of your non-weighted leg will open, instigating an undulating wave, moving up from the ground and through your legs to shift your body into the right position. Once your weight passes the half-way mark, your hips then turn to add rotation to the movement. Your rear foot closes as the new weighted leg continues to fill, until 100% of your weight is falling through it. This weight shift and turning of the body drives the feet and hands into their final position so that the twisting movements are accompanied by an undulating wave, rippling upwards from the ground. These two movement qualities converge to finish at the exact same moment.
1) Feet should spread and gently grip the ground. Keep your foot arches raised. Your weight should fall through the middle of each foot, not just through your heels or balls of the feet. The second toe of your front foot should point forwards.
2) Knees should be well bent well and should always stay in line with your toes. Whenever you move your leg, move the whole leg from your hip.
3) Hips should be kept parallel to the ground, do not tilt your pelvis when turning your body or shifting weight between legs. All movements should be generated by turning your hips.
4) Spine. Your spine should be kept fairly straight and vertical at all times, do not bend from your waist or tilt your body.
5) Head. Your head should sit levelly back on the top of your spine. Without raising or dropping your chin, gently push up the top of your head to slightly stretch your spine.
6) Shoulders should be relaxed down and slightly forward. Do not stick out your chest. Keep your right shoulder over your right hip and your left shoulder over your left hip.
7) Elbows should relax naturally downwards without collapsing your armpits. Whenever you raise your arms you can imagine that your hands are being pulled up by puppet strings and your elbows are gently hanging down.
8) Wrists and Hands should be rounded and stretched. Unless you are making a fist, keep your fingers and thumb separated and extended.
9) Fists should be kept perfectly in line with and supported by your forearms. Punch with your two biggest knuckles (index and middle fingers).
RELAX! RELAX!! RELAX!!! Remember that a tense muscle is a slow muscle. Let your arms and upper body be moved into position by your hips and rely on good structure rather than arm strength. Breathe smoothly, slowly and deeply. Always breathe out when exerting yourself e.g. when pushing, throwing or striking.
The Six Harmonies (3 external + 3 internal)
The Three External Harmonies (san wai he) are the nuts and bolts of posture:
Your hips harmonise with your shoulders.
Your knees harmonise with your elbows.
Your feet harmonise with your hands.
Your hips harmonise with your shoulders means that your shoulders be driven by your hips at all times. The upper and lower body should be connected so that the shoulders remain aligned with the hips. Turning power is generated by the pushing of your legs and the turning of your hips, and your shoulders should follow them. Your limbs should be driven by the turning of your body.
Your knees harmonise with your elbows means that your elbows often stay directly over your knees so that the upper and lower body are in proportion with each other - a large stance allows your arms to exert force further away from the body than a small stance does. When your feet and hands move, your knees and elbows should move with them.
Your feet harmonise with your hands means that you should point your toes at your target and much of the time keep your hands directly over your feet so that again the upper body is kept in proportion with your stance. If your right hand is pushing straight forwards, the toes of your right foot should also point forwards. If your right hand is delivering a sideways (hook) punch towards your left, your right toes should also point to your left. Your feet and hands should also "arrive together" (move at exactly the same time).
Power is generated by your feet and legs. Whenever you strike with a given hand, the foot on that side of your body should push against the ground to shift your weight (substantiality) over onto your opposite leg.
"Power is rooted in the feet, issued by the legs, directed by the body and manifest in the hands".
- from the Tai Chi "Classic of Long Boxing"
The Three "Internal" Harmonies (san nei he) are:
Your fighting spirit or "emotional mind" (xin) harmonises with your intention (yi)
Your intention harmonises with your breath (qi). Please see our 100% Qi-Free page for our opinions on this archaic and typically misunderstood term.
Your breath harmonises with your physical strength (li)
The Eight Methods
Taijiquan is built around eight kinetic concepts. These are broader than specific techniques and may be seen more as general strategies. Examples of the eight methods are things like "an upwards expanding movement" or "a downwards crushing movement." Each method can be used for either attacking or defensive purposes, depending on the circumstances in which it is executed and the quality of movement during execution - e.g. whether the method is applied in a smooth or abrupt manner; very fast or relatively slow; whether the intention of that specific application is to damage, divert or subdue, etc.
Peng (pung) "Ward-off"
Direction - upwards. Quality - expansiveness.
Lu (lyu) "Rollback"
Direction - deflecting sideways in an arc. Quality - softness.
Ji (jee) "Squeeze [in]"
Direction - forwards. Quality - squeezing.
An (aan) "Press"
Direction - Downwards. Quality - using gravity; crushing.
Cai (tsai) "Pluck" or "Pick (tea)"
Direction - backwards. Quality - brisk; pulling sharply.
Lie "Sweep " usually translated as "Split"
Direction - sideways. Qualities - sweeping; chopping; "splitting away from the circle" - an attacking arcing movement.
Zhou (jo) "Elbow"
Direction - any. Quality - folding or unfolding.
Kao "Lean [against]"
Direction - any. Quality - solidity - being sunk and spread.
All of the movements of Taijiquan can be analysed in terms of these fundamental methods. A specific martial application might contain several of the methods at once. All postures and movements should contain Peng in the form of structural integrity and sphericity (awareness of all directions).
For example, a Peng "ward-off" type movement will often contain elements of Ji (moving forwards) and Lie (used here to deflect sideways) as well. A Lu "rollback" type technique still needs to maintain its Peng postural integrity and may contain aspects of An (pressing down) or Cai (pulling back).
Some teachers refer to the eight methods as "eight energies" in an effort to convey that they are not tied to any specific technique, that is to say, the limbs don't have to rotate in any specific direction and the methods can generally be performed whilst advancing, retreating or side-stepping. Personally, I prefer to think of the methods simply as broad, kinetic concepts. Actual execution of these methods requires specific movement qualities as well as any specific shapes. I actively dislike like the term "energies", because it creates a false impression (which many like to perpetuate) that some kind of mysterious energy is at work, for which your body acts as a willing conduit. It is often claimed by advocates of such ideas that absolutely no strength or effort is required, as the movements will happen by themselves when the correct mental (or even spiritual) state is achieved. This is just nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that, which can and does lead some practitioners down dark, occult avenues. Whilst very honed physical techniques can feel very effortless, if no strength at all is used, you simply fall over. Some strength is required merely to stand up, even when your skeleton is aligned perfectly.
The Five Steps
At its simplest, Taijiquan is said to have five basic stepping strategies, namely:
3) Move and face left
4) Move and face right
5) Zhong Ding (Centred Stability) which means standing your ground "poised like a balanced scale"
As with the eight methods, in practice you can combine different stepping directions - so you could, for example, make an advancing left sidestep.
Taiji Theory - yin and yang
"Taiji" or "greatest extremes" is the name given to the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. The art of Taijiquan is based on of recognising or differentiating aspects of yin and yang within a martial context. Let's take a look at some contrasting yin and yang qualities.
Differentiation of Yin and Yang
Empty / Insubstantial
Spiralling (broken circle)
Full / Substantial
Circular (unbroken circle)
The Taiji symbol illustrates an old Chinese philosophical concept. The light side of a mountain was said to be Yang while the dark side was said to be Yin. From this idea came the notion that the universe was divided into two harmonious but quite distinct forces. Whereas yang was said to be an active force, yin was considered to be more re-active. The Sun was considered yang as it gives out its own light; the moon was said to be yin as it receives and reflects the light of the Sun.
The circle around the edge of the Taiji symbol depicted that while distinct, these two forces were considered complementary and mutually dependent. Yin and yang were considered to be two fundamental aspects of a single greater whole - the entire universe.
The spot of black in the white portion of the symbol and the spot of white in the black portion show that even at this most elemental level, nothing was considered to be wholly yin nor wholly yang. The status of a thing was considered to be relative to everything else. For example, the Sun is hotter (more yang) than a small fire, but the small fire will feel warmer if you are stood right next to it. A crescent moon is darker (more yin) than a full moon, but a cloudy night that completely covers the moon and the stars is more yin again.
Natural phenomena were therefore considered to be transient and mutable, with nothing locked permanently into its yin or yang status. Each state was said to contain an aspect of (and the potential to become) the other. For example: day will always become night and night will always become day; bodies that are alive now will ultimately die and replenish the earth so that new life can emerge.
Martially speaking, this concept suggests that we should think of defense and attack as phases within a continuous flow of changing movement. You might need to transition smoothly from a defensive manoeuvre into a counter-attack, or you might need to redirect a strike of your own in mid-flight to deflect an unexpected counter-attack. This does not mean that attacks and defenses should not be clearly defined or committed - one should either be attacking or defending with one's whole self at any given time, but any action must maintain the potential to transform into its opposite, so you should never be over-committed. However much momentum you manage to generate into your strikes, your posture will always be balanced and sunk to prevent you from being uprooted or thrown forwards by your own ballistic impetus.
Yin and Yang in Legs and Arms
A supporting (weight-bearing) leg is called "substantial" and is therefore considered active or yang. It is already engaged in an action, so it is not immediately free to step or kick. It would have to first become yin by becoming empty or "insubstantial". The insubstantial or "floating" leg is yin - it is not currently engaged in action and is therefore ready to become yang at any time by stepping or kicking.
A striking hand is considered substantial or yang, whereas a yielding (neutralising) arm is insubstantial or yin. A striking arm can easily withdraw in order to take a defensive action and a neutralising arm can easily extend to strike.
Substantial and Insubstantial
Substantiality and insubstantiality throughout your body are counterbalanced by using cross-lateral connectedness. This is the same kind of connection your body uses for natural walking and it is therefore easy to learn. When walking, as your weight shifts forwards onto your left leg, it is counter-balanced by your right arm swinging forwards. When your weight shifts onto your right leg, your left arm swings forwards. When pushing or striking, substantiality follows the same principle. For a lead forehand strike, the rear leg will bear the majority of your body weight as your lead arm becomes substantial. For a cross or rear strike, your front leg will bear most of your weight as your rear arm becomes substantial. For backhand strikes (like a tennis backhand swing) the reverse is true.
I have come up with a concept I call "One Circle" to illustrate this.
If you are shifting weight onto your left leg (as in the picture - indicated by the blue foot - your hips should be turning towards that direction too. All arcs made by your limbs should follow this same diection - anti-clockwise in this picture. The feet may rotate anti-clockwise only - usually the lead (here it is the left) foot first and only one foot must ever pivot at any one time. Your arms may fire out in anti-clockwise arcs only (signified by the green arrows). You may not fire out a clockwise movement (signified by the red arrow) as to do so would not be following the momentum of the rest of your body and would therefore require disharmonious muscular tension. A movement would constitute a "leak" in Kung Fu terms if it crossed the black line.
It is often said that as Taiji movements should resemble water, they should "flow seamlessly together". However, we should also remember that water ebbs and flows in distinct tides.
Zheng Manqing reminded us to "look for the square within the circle" so it is crucial to understand where each movement begins and ends. It is better to perform your movements quite mechanically to start with and let your Forms become "worn smooth" over time. Your limbs should always go directly from where they are to where they need to be. This "wearing smooth" process that can come naturally after years of correct practice is rather like the evolution of a river. By always simply "seeking the lowest place", the water in a young river first makes its way down between the mountains and hills following a zig-zag path. Over the course of time, the river wears its path into smooth, meandering curves.
Another factor to bear in mind is that that which appears seamless might not feel seamless. A skilled Taiji student, rather like a ballet dancer, might experience each distinct separate movement while appearing to be in the midst of an effortless flow.
Within the flow of movement the disctinct intention of each separate component part should not be lost. Conversely, clearly defined movements should never become stiff or rigid, thereby losing their fluidity and adaptability.
Another useful analogy might be that of an orchestra or band playing a piece of music. Each individual has to play every distinct note or beat at the exact right time so that the tune can be heard as a single harmonious melody. If any of the players start going out of time, the overall sound will become "muddy", resulting in a distinctly un-melodious cacophony.
Wuji - No Extremity - Limitlessness
Another concept is that of "using stillness to defeat speed". This is a bit like the story of the tortoise and the hare. A Taiji fighter prevails because he / she doesn't leap around showing off and getting tired. Instead she stands calmly so that she can "move second, but arrive first". All movement comes from stillness so we are at our most versatile before we are committed to any specific action. From this state of stillness we are able to respond to whatever is thrown at us. Another line from the Classics states that we should be centrally upright so as to be able to deal with attacks from all directions. By maintaining a level pelvis and an upright spine (so that our centre of balance is always falling straight down through one leg or somewhere between the two legs,) we are able to move with equal ease in any direction. Whenever we tilt our bodies, our centre of balance will be orientated in that direction, thereby limiting our potential movement repertoire.
Before commencing any Taiji linked forms practice, we stand in a Wuji posture, facing forwards with our weight evenly distributed and our arms at our sides.
Rather than adopting any kind of guard stance or fighting posture, some Taiji practitioners like to begin in a Wuji stance, at least when practicing martial applications with their fellow students. The advantage of taking such a relaxed and "uncommitted" posture means that one can go equally well in any direction in response to an attack. Also, training to deal with attacks from such a non-aggressive and completely "unready" posture helps you to develop excellent reflexes, increasing your chance of responding to surprise attacks.
To sum up, Taiji fighters aim to be a bit more "yin" or receptive than many martial artists. That said, a fighter needs to be a lot more yang than a mystic or a meditator. The correct balance is to become an intelligent and adaptable warrior when called to action, rather than standing passively by and letting bad things happen around you, or actively seeking violence.
In order to fight well, we can move fastest from a non-agitated state of awareness and stillness. Rather than becoming anxious and tense, we should stay focussed and calm and only switch on the muscles necessary to perform the task at hand. Martial training really helps you to develop this kind of positive mental state. Hands-on combat training is great fun and such training can gradually make you a lot more confident and less fearful of physical conflicts. Hardness can emerge from such a state of receptiveness and versatility. Where there is no extremity, there is limitlessness.
It is also very important to remember that being soft and receptive does not mean that we have to be completely passive or compliant. In the Chen village (the birthplace of Taiji) it is said that we must not waste time "arguing with the ignorant or fighting with the arrogant," but it is also acknowledged that we might sometimes have to fight to protect ourselves or others. Taijiquan empowers us to be able to make our own moral choices about how much aggression is appropriate for any given situation, and fine control over the deliverance of appropriate force - we become increasingly skilled at applying the right amount for the situation.
We are not forced to "turn the other cheek" because we couldn't fight back even if we thought it was the right thing to do. In the words of Bob Orlando "Warriors may choose pacifism - others are condemned to it."
Being a skilled martial artist helps us to limit our own ferocity and can actually empower us to restrict the amount of damage we do to another person if we are forced to fight. An unskilled fighter can inadvertently hurt someone very badly by lashing out in a state of blind panic. Skilled fighters have better physical control.
Taiji martial training can teach us how to stay calm and relaxed in stressful situations by giving us experience of dealing with physical contact and exerted pressure in a sensitive and skillful manner. To achieve such a balance, solo forms and martial function must be learned side by side, with each constantly informing the other. Perfect function leads to perfect form and vice versa.
Degrees of Difference
As previously stated, another aspect of the Taiji philosophy is that as nothing is wholly yin or yang, such terms are relative. Springtime might be warmer (more yang) than the winter, but it is cooler (more yin) than the Summer. The moon may be more yin than the sun, but the dark side of the moon is more yin again than the illuminated side. This shows that even when two discernable forces are at work, there is room to recognise differing degrees of those forces. In terms of conflict, this concept manifests as the idea that we should always strive to apply just the right amount of force for a specific situation. Intelligent, sensitive and adaptable use of strength is central to Taijiquan theory.
It is therefore essential to maintain the capacity for change within any action. Do not commit to such excessively forceful attacks that you have no way of recovering yourself if things go wrong. Throwing every ounce of your weight into a punch will result in your body being dragged along behind it, literally pulling you off your feet, so a perfectly balanced posture must be employed in order to deliver strikes with perfect control. When defending yourself, ducking, diving, leaning or cowering can leave you in a very vulnerable position. Aim to maintain zhong ding (centred stability) and zhong zheng (being centrally upright) at all times. The pelvis and spine can be seen as being like the cross-hairs of a gun sight: the pelvis must be kept level and the spine must be kept aligned to the vertical axis.
Chen Zhaokui comments that you should "advance like water" which means advancing tentatively to "seep into any gap that might appear in your opponent's defenses". He also states that you should "retreat like fire." The image of fire suggests that as you withdraw you might be able to cling to and consume your attacker as you draw them towards you. At the very least, you should maintain a fierce spirit and a strong upright posture so as to be like a coiled spring - ready to launch an immediate counter-attack.
"Feign defeat, pretend withdrawal, who says it is lost?
Lure and charge back; reclaim the victory..."
- Chen Wangting, originator of Taijiquan
This idea of yin and yang as relative states also reminds us to make our actions appropriate. While we might need to fight quite defensively against a bigger or stronger opponent, we may be able to easily dominate someone who is smaller and weaker than ourselves. With skill, we should aim to use the bulk of a bigger, clumsier fighter against them, letting them charge right into our carefully positioned attack rather than having to take our attack to them. Conversely, we might not need to yield much (or any) ground when faced with a relatively weak attack. We should try not to be phased by a weaker attacker just because they might be acting in a disproportionately intimidating manner. The Taiji fighter should stay calm and relaxed so as to be able to "move second, but arrive first".
Taijiquan gives us the skill to maximise the effectiveness of our own strengths while minimising the effective strengths of an attacker.
Theory and Strategy
To sum up Taiji strategy as quickly and simply as possible I'd say "aim to achieve central equilibrium (zhong ding ) by:
1) avoiding extremes within yourself and
2) counterbalancing the extremeness of others.
In other words, within yourself you should avoid over-committing yourself to any rigid or unyielding perspective or course of action. In martial terms this means never throwing yourself at an opponent in a careless or uncontrolled fashion. It also means we should never become goal fixated: if a technique is not going according to plan, we must adapt to changing circumstances and try another tactic.
Seeking "central equilibrium" in relation to others can manifest itself as the following strategies.
Non-escalation - Avoiding Trouble
Respond to hardness with softness by meeting aggression with calmness or gentleness so as not to unnecessarily escalate any hostilities. On the other hand, you should know how to be assertive and take the lead in order to do what is right when encountering weakness. Failure to do so can lead to an escalation of apathy or lethargy.
If conflict does arise, you can employ the following strategies:
Rather than meeting force head on, a Taiji practitioner yields to oncoming force in order to counterbalance the yang-ness of the attack with an equal degree of yin-ness. In this way, an attacker can be forced to simply throw himself around, which he'll hopefully get tired of and go away.
Wang Zongyue's Classic says "to pressure on the left, I yield the left side; to pressure on my right, my right side melts away", this doesn't mean that you have to yield your whole body. When you yield one side of your body (a yin action), your other side can be simultaneously moving forwards around your vertical axis, typically in conjunction with evasive but advancing footwork (such as an advancing diagonal step) to deliver a counter strike (a yang action).
b) Helping change on its way.
In recognition of the fact that yang is ultimately destined to become yin and yin is destined to become yang, if you are faced with an overly committed strike or push (i.e. one that is not effectively counterbalanced within the attacker's own body), you should not only get out of the way of the strike, you should actively help the attack on its way by pulling on the attacker's arm at the same time. This counterbalances the extreme yang-ness of the attack, by being extremely yin. By increasing the yang-ness of the strike in this way, you tip your attacker over the edge, making them yin (weak). At the same time, by yielding (a yin action) and helping the yang-ness along (an extremely yin action) you go full circle yourself, becoming yang by taking control of the situation.
What is Qigong? (Ch'i Kung)
A term which is very frequently used in connection with Taiji is "Qigong". Most Taiji teachers teach "Qigong sets" which are groups of exercises which boast the ability to increase one's so-called "internal energy". This is due to a prevalent but erroneous idea that performing Qigong exercises is an essential aspect of Taiji practice.
Qigong is actually a relatively modern term which literally means "breathing exercise" though many people define it as "energy exercise". There are two main kinds of qigong around today - static and moving. Static qigong often places a strong emphahsis on visualisation and has emerged out of meditation practices. It is not relevant to Taiji training, although some people have incorporated aspects of it into stance training. In our view, this is untraditional, unnecessary, undesirable and incorrect.
Most of the popular so-called "health qigong" exercises that are around today are loosely based on Taiji movements, many coming from things like Taiji dan lian (single link) training or martial rotation (reeling silk) style exercises. Many such exercises were originally designed to help martial artists to drill and refine specific Taiji fighting techniques or movement qualities. Unfortunately as modern qigong practice has shifted so heavily away from the martial origins of the movements, the accuracy of physical co-ordination, postural alignment and appropriate breathing is almost always overlooked. Consequently any real benefits that might have come from such exercises have been lost.
An older name which was sometimes used to describe the repetition of single Taiji exercises was "nei gong" which means "internal work." This is really just another way of describing refined physical and mental co-ordination. The term reflects the fact that the practitioner should strive to make their entire body and mind work together in unison, co-ordinating martial intention, breath and physical action harmoniously. Such exercises were also frequently used in order to develop greater range of motion, flexibility, fitness and strength. They were then sometimes practiced in a way that was not quite so martially literal, but would develop a fighter's physical attributes in a more general sense.
Correct breathing is not particulary complicated. You should simply focus on breathing fully, smoothly and naturally. Exhale whenever you exert yourself rather than holding your breath or forcing your breath out too quickly. If Taiji is practiced correctly with breathing integrated into the movements, supplementary qigong training is unnecessary and will invariably do more harm than good to both body and mind.
IMPORTANT - while we practice movement quality exercises in our school, we never consider them to be qigong or neigong because we reject such terminologies and methodologies as untrue. While others talk of qigong as a method for cultivating their "qi", by which they mean meaning some mythical universal animating force, I say "I have no qi to gong!". It is only movement, that is all. Skilled movement, sure, but plain old movement nonetheless.
Why We Reject "Internal Arts" Mysticism
Firstly, we see the mystical ideas that have recently grown up around Taiji as bad because they are fundamentally untrue. You can not fire qi from your body to heal or harm others. You cannot attain enlightenment or achieve immortality. There are no mysterious "internal arts" that can help you to transcend the lowly external martial artists and the lowly and ignorant masses. There is no magical path that will grant you unearthly powers if you only meditate long and hard enough. The internal arts methodology relies on practitioners deceiving themselves and others through a combination of trickery, hypnosis, self hypnosis and teaching others to hypnotise themselves. There is no truth in it.
Secondly, the so-called "internal arts" mindset is not only delusional, it is also elitist and immoral. Notions of transcendence, whether in this lifetime or another, here on earth or on some spiritual dimension, invariably serve only to feed the ego, rather than suppressing it. Advocates of such paths try to transcend the ordinary, transcend the physical, transcend the mundane, transcend the earthly, transcend mortality and illness, transcend everyone and everything else in some intangible and esoteric way. Some even think they can transcend morality by becoming "immortals" or "sages": this is an actively immoral path. Even if occult powers were possible, it would be entirely unacceptable to try to cultivate them. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said "When we try to become superhuman, we become subhuman." We second that.