Tai Chi Chuan Basic Principles
Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) translates as ‘supreme ultimate fist’, ‘boundless fist’, or ‘great extremes boxing’. ‘Tai’ means something like ‘too’ much, and ‘ji’ means ‘extreme’ (not the ‘Chi’ or ‘Qi’ that means ‘life energy’). The concept of the Taiji (‘supreme ultimate’), appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, where it represents the fusion of Mother, (Yin), and Father, (Yang), into a single ultimate, unified whole. This is represented by the well-known Taijitu (yin-yang symbol) seen here on the right. In the symbol, the dark area represents Yin – night, dark, empty, female, mother, soft, negative, earth etc. The light area represents Yang – day, light, full, male, father, hard, positive, heaven etc. Both areas of the symbol contain a smaller part of the other area. This indicates that each energy has the potential to become the other, and that both energies also contain some aspect of the other. Therefore, nothing in nature is entirely Yin, and nothing is entirely Yang. Each area is also moving toward the other. This represents the duality of all things in the natural world and the constant interplay between them, just as day moves into night, and night moves into day. Yin and Yang are opposite, yet complementary forces; each requires the other in order for itself to exist. Tai chi philosophy, theory and practice, evolved from ancient Chinese ideologies and teachings gathered from observation of the universe, by the ancient Taoist masters.
The true purpose of Tai Chi practice is to align oneself with the natural forces of the universe, in order to achieve great health, for physical, mental and emotional balance. This ultimately leads to longevity, Spiritual attainment, and enlightenment or self-realisation.
Tai Chi Training
Tai Chi training consists of two main categories. Health and martial; the health aspect of tai chi consists of chi kung (qigong) breathing exercises, such as tao yin and Taoist yoga, as well as solo hand and posture routines called forms. For the serious advocate, attention to diet and lifestyle is also a necessary aspect of tai chi chuan.
The martial (self-defence) side of tai chi consists of self-defence techniques and two or more person response drills such as kicking drills, striking drills, evasion sets, arm and leg controls, ward-offs, parries, arm and wrist locks, push hands, forms and sets, two person drills, weapons, and forms. Tai chi chuan is often typified for its slow and graceful movements. Some traditional schools of tai chi will teach the martial applications of the forms’ postures and individual movements as well as the health benefits. The Taoist Arts Organisation run by Master Tony Swanson is such a school which teaches the Lee family system of tai chi with its many various parts for health and self-defence.
Tai Chi Principles of Movement
The physical movement of the various postures and techniques of tai chi chuan, are described in various texts known as ‘The Tai Chi Classics’ authored by various traditional masters. They describe the movements of tai chi chuan as being created by leverage through the joints. This movement is performed with relaxation and co-ordination, as opposed to muscular tension and physical strength. This ‘principle of tai chi movement’ is utilised in order to yield, neutralize, and/or initiate attacks from or to an opponent. It is this ‘natural way of moving’ through leverage of the joints via relaxation and co-ordination that gives tai chi its great power in a martial situation.
Both the martial and the health enhancing aspects of tai chi chuan require the same basic principles of tai chi movement. Both of these aspects of tai chi chuan training complement the other. A good understanding of the martial applications of the forms of tai chi chuan, will help to develop a deeper understanding of the principles of movement. This is because, if these movement principles of tai chi chuan are not executed correctly whilst practicing with a training partner, the martial applications and techniques will either not work very well, or not at all. Therefore, the martial applications serve as both a training aid to enhance the practitioners skill and understanding of the principles of tai chi movement, and also, as a way of highlighting any in-consistency of these principles.
This will benefit the practitioner from a health enhancing perspective too. To understand this fully, requires a deeper understanding of the natural and correct muscular-skeletal structure of the body during movement, along with some understanding of the principles of Chinese medicine. This can only be truly understood and achieved with some study of Chinese medical theories, along with diligent practice of the tai chi chuan forms and exercises, under the guidance of a good, experienced tai chi chuan teacher.
Health Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan
Since the first widespread promotion of tai chi’s health benefits by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-chuan, and Sun Lutang in the early 20th century, tai chi chuan has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial arts training, only to be practised for its health benefits alone. Medical studies of tai chi support its effectiveness as an alternative form of exercise. As such, it is considered a form of martial arts therapy.
Slow, repetitive practice is the necessary requirement of learning how to correctly employ this ‘natural form of movement’. Thus progress, and a deeper understanding of the principles and movement of tai chi is gradually and patiently acquired over time. Diligent practice will eventually open the joints and channels and increase the internal circulation of qi and blood. This will slowly detoxify and energise the entire system, which, over time, will have health rejuvenating benefits for the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the practitioner.
In China, tai chi is categorized under the Wudang grouping of Chinese martial arts. This group of martial arts is considered soft, and applied with internal power. This is unlike the harder, more external forms of martial arts, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, as practiced by Buddhist Monks. Although the Wudang name suggests these arts originated at the Wudang Mountain, this is not so. It is only used to differentiate the practices of the ‘internal arts’ from those of the ‘hard’ or ‘external’ martial art styles such as Shaolin.
The differentiation between hard and soft martial arts relates to their individual application. Hard martial arts such as Karate, some forms of Kung Fu such as Shaolin and Wing Chun generally are quite forceful in their approach and rely on a certain amount of physical strength and muscle tension for their effectiveness.
Tai chi on the other hand relies on the opposite for its effectiveness. It actually relies on the practitioner to be relaxed in order for it to work well. This is true for both tai chi’s health benefits, as well as its martial, self-defensive applications. The thing to remember is this; there is a big difference between ‘being relaxed’ and ‘letting go’. This is very important because many people get these two mixed up and are actually ‘too soft’ when applying tai chi for martial arts and self-defence. At the same time, we must not be too hard either. Getting the best training you can is essential for this and learning to recognise the difference is very important.
It is believed that focusing the mind entirely on the movements of a tai chi form helps to bring about a state of mental calmness and clarity. This is similar to meditation, and for this reason, tai chi is often referred to as moving meditation. Apart from the general health, and stress reducing benefits of tai chi practice, some or many aspects of traditional Chinese medicine and tuina (Chinese massage) are also taught to advanced tai chi students in some traditional schools.
Many forms of martial arts require students to wear a uniform during their practice. Many tai chi chuan schools on the other hand generally don’t require a uniform. Teachers of both traditional and modern schools do usually suggest that loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes are to be worn though.
History of Tai Chi Chuan
Zhang Sanfeng is a semi-legendary figure. It is said, that he was a Chinese Taoist priest who achieved immortality. A certain amount of mysticism surrounds him, making exact dates of his existence uncertain. However, he is said to have lived around either the late Song Dynasty 960-1279, Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368 or Ming Dynasty 1368-1644. His name is said to have been Zhang Junbao before he became a Taoist priest.
Zhang Sangfen declined an official position and left his property to his family, in order to travel around China to live the life of an ascetic. He spent several years at Hua Mountain before settling in Wu Tang Mountain.
Zhang Sangfen is a legendary cult hero, who is credited by modern practitioners and enthusiats, as having originated the concepts of neijia ‘internal school’ or ‘internal martial arts’, particularly Tai chi chuan. This came about as a result of his mastery of Taoist, Tao Yin (respiration therapy or breathing exercises), and the combination of different systems of philosophical and religious beliefs and practices, such as; Confucianism, Zen Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts. On one occasion on Wudang Mountain, Zhang Sanfeng observed a bird attacking a snake. He was greatly inspired by the snake’s defensive tactics of remaining still and alert during the birds onslaught, until the snake made a well-timed lunge and fatally bit its attacker. It was this battle between bird and snake, that inspired him to create a Tai chi chuan form consisting of 72-movements. Legend also associates him with the Taoist monasteries at Wudang Mountains in Hubei province.
Zhang Sanfeng is said to have been very skilled in Shaolin Kung Fu, and an expert in the White Crane and Snake styles of Chinese martial arts. He was also said to be an expert in the use of the Chinese straight sword or ‘Jian’. Zhang Sanfeng’s master was Xu Xuanping, who was a hermit, poet and expert in Taoist Tao Yin and lived during the Tang dynasty 618–907. This information is taken from 19th century documents preserved within the Yang and Wu family’s archives.
The Tai Chi families who credit the foundation of their art to Zhang Sanfeng traditionally celebrate his birthdate as the 9th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.