Many people have seen Tai Chi, the slow, rhythmic exercise favoured by many Chinese and increasingly by people around the world. But what is it? What does it do? What is it for?
Origins of Tai Chi
Tai Chi can be considered the physical application of Taoist philosophy, which stresses that all good comes of the fundamental harmony between man and natural forces. According to legend the Taoist monk, Chang San Feng, witnessed a snake fighting a crane. He was intrigued by the flowing movements displayed in their fight, and developed his art from his observations.
One story, possibly closer to the truth, has Yang Lu Chan visiting the village of Chenjiakou, Hunan province, China, in the 19th Century, where he found they practised a form of 'soft' martial art. He learned this art, and taught it to the somewhat effete members of the Manchu Court. These are the origins of the Chen and Yang forms of Tai Chi. The Wu, Sun, and Hao styles developed later. There is also a Lee style, although it developed separately, and bears few of the hallmarks of the other Tai Chi systems.
What is Tai Chi?
The literal translation of Tai Chi Chuan is 'Supreme Ultimate Boxing'. Tai Chi is, in origin, a method of fighting, despite all protestations to the contrary. Tai Chi encourages correct posture and body mechanics in order to hit people as efficiently as possible.
Tai Chi is one of the three internal martial arts of China, the others being Pa-Kua and Hsing-I. The difference between internal and external arts has been a hot topic of debate, but it can be said that the internal arts are more concerned with how the body controls and generates the strength to cause damage. The differences don't mean much, however, because at the highest levels of any martial art, it's all exactly the same. A punch is a punch is a punch; and how power is generated is less important than how it is delivered to the target.
The muscular and postural efficiency which Tai chi promotes gave rise to many health benefits, and this is where Tai Chi gets its reputation as a health art. Many of the Tai Chi exercises can be practised without reference to their martial applications. This aspect of Tai Chi is by far the most popular. Unfortunately, without the martial references, much 'health' teaching has degraded to the point where the benefits may often have become more psychological than physical. Tai Chi is not placebo therapy; it is a physical art, requiring physical effort to gain physical benefits.
Chi, or Qi, is understood in the West to be the vital energy deep within us all, which can be developed and manipulated. Chi is a Chinese term, and loses much of its meaning when removed from its proper context. Simply put, Chi is the Taoist concept of an underlying lifeforce, which is said to circulate in specific patterns in the body. The benefits to good health associated with Tai Chi practise derive from maintaining the flow of chi. Many manifestations of Chi can be explained using quite normal vocabulary, without recourse to mysticism.
Spread of Tai Chi
One of Yang Lu Chan's descendants, Yang Cheng Fu, became possibly the best known Tai Chi master, because he taught outside the Yang family in the early part of the 20th Century. He is the main reason why Yang style (and its derivatives) is the most popular style of Tai Chi in the world today.
Most Tai Chi principles are common to all styles, but emphasis and methods change from style to style. Professor Cheng Man Ching learned from Yang Cheng Fu, and over the years changed his emphasis and training methods. Professor Cheng's Tai Chi is so different from the traditional Yang that many now consider it a style in its own right.
In Malaysia, the Chinese are an ethnic minority, and the martial arts taught there are necessarily quite... pragmatic, shall we say. This is distinct from the Professor's American students, who have been able to take a more technical and hypothetical view.
There are many different styles, but none is inherently better than any other.
Forms are a set routine of movements and postures, often referred to as 'sets', which are performed slowly and under exquisite control. This is what most people would recognise as Tai Chi. Each style of Tai Chi has its own form. The Long Yang form has 108 movements, while Cheng Man Ching's version has only 37, because it has relatively few repetitions. The form is the framework for learning Tai Chi principles.
This is the application of Tai Chi principles. Two partners attempt to sense and exploit weaknesses in each other's posture and balance. It is not a shoving match; emphasis is placed on redirecting the opponent's power to best advantage. It is not unusual to see a match where nobody moves for several minutes, waiting for a weakness or some misapplied power. The tactile sensitivity involved is extremely difficult to acquire, and is one of the highest skills in Tai Chi. It is known as Ting Jing.
Pushing hands competitions are commonplace, with a variety of rules and regulations. These competitions generally promote a less subtle form of pushing hands, where passive Ting Jing is not emphasised as much as in pure training. In a competition, there are time and space constraints on the match, which necessitate a more aggressive approach if one is to win in the time allowed. As an analogy, you very rarely see soccer players ball juggling in the middle of a game, because the skill is not necessary in the context of match play. When players do juggle, it is often to spectacular effect. So it is with pushing hands competition.
There are a number of traditional weapons in Tai Chi. They include broadswords, straight swords, staffs, spears and walking sticks... Yes, walking sticks! Each weapon trains different aspects of Tai Chi.
This is a faster form performed by two people. It is a simulated fighting set, with each move choreographed so that partner A's technique is countered by partner B. Once the sequence has been learned, real power and intent are put into the techniques. San Shou allows the student to use Tai Chi principles in a structured but realistic manner.
Tai Chi Principles
Not relaxation as we tend to think of it - true relaxation is a nice deep sleep. This is more a controlled relaxation of the body, where only necessary muscles are working. As a consequence, the few muscles that are working, work extremely hard. Most Tai Chi postures are very strenuous on the thigh muscles.
The weight of the body is supported by only one leg at a time. The transference of weight from one leg to the other, while remaining balanced, is a core skill in Tai Chi. It is best learned by diligent study of the Form.
Moving the body as a unit is easier said than done... but necessary. Tai Chi stresses using the whole body all the time.
Learning Tai Chi
Firstly, why do you want to learn? It's no good going to a 'health' teacher if you want to learn to fight, and vice versa. Besides, Tai Chi's fighting skills are learned in a much longer timescale than say, Karate, for instance. After six weeks, a Karate student may have learned some blocks, a couple of punches and a kick, while a Tai Chi student may still be learning how to stand up properly.
Find a Good Teacher
There really is no other way. Be careful when choosing a teacher, because there is lot of very poor Tai Chi being taught. When talking to a prospective teacher, ask them about their training history and their teachers. Even in the West, good students become disciples of the Chinese Masters, and can quote their lineage.
Tai Chi is a difficult art to learn, encompassing several skills. It is both mentally and physically challenging, and it is recommended to practically everyone.