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The Chinese martial art of tai chi
Tai Chi Chuan (Tàijí – 太极 or táijíquán – 太极拳) is a Chinese martial art. A common misconception is that tai chi is not used for fighting – it can be, and it can be very effective.
To the unindoctrinated, a person practising tai chi looks as if they’re fighting an invisible person in super-slow motion. Hence tai chi also came to be known as ‘Chinese shadow boxing’ in the West.
Head to any park near the centre of Beijing between 5 and 8am and you can’t avoid seeing rows and rows of Chinese (most of retirement age) practising the ancient martial art of tai chi as their morning exercise.
‘Tai chi chuan’ translates to ‘supreme ultimate fist’. This sounds like a violent fighting technique, where brute force counts. Tai chi is not like this at all. The ‘tai chi diagram’ is the Chinese name of what we in the West know as the symbols of Yin and Yang.
Tai chi is actually all about balancing Yin and Yang, hard with soft and speed with slowness, and not to do with iron fists punching through brick walls. Tai chi can be extremely effective in a fight, but it teaches students how to read their opponent, absorb their energy, and counter, not how to win through strength.
Today, the forms of tai chi most commonly taught are simplified version of the style of tai chi invented by tai chi master Yang Chengfu (1883-1936). This version was initially developed specifically as exercise for old people, a way to help avoid illness, and was hence devoid of martial content.
Over time many varieties of tai chi have developed, but the basic characteristics are the same – tai chi is a soft martial art, which views meeting strength with strength as the worst possible tactic. Some versions of tai chi use weapons, including swords and in rare instances, more exotic weapons like whips and chains.
In combat situations, tai chi masters rely on sensitivity to sense their opponents attacks and strike first. When counter striking, the body must be in a state of minimal tension, hence tai chi’s characteristic softness.
Tai chi movements are slow and gentle different from the fast and forceful movements of Shaolin Kung Fu.
A characteristic and easily recognisable tai chi exercise involves two people brace hands, and alternately attack and yield. This improves the ability to sense an opponents actions, and teaches how to absorb and redirect attacks.
Masters of tai chi claim that it improves the flow of energy around the body, sharpens the mind, and leads to spiritual development and increased longevity.
Although many see tai chi simply as a way of keeping fit, masters heavily emphasise the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the art.
Even if you have no interest in martial arts, the names of some of the moves and positions will bring a smile. Personal favourites include:
‘Gorilla Pulls Rope’
‘Jade Girl Threads Shuttle’
‘Use Sword To Cut Fish Head’
‘Big Boss Removes Helmet’
‘Lion Opens Mouth’
‘Gorilla Washes Face’
In tai chi, Qi Gong (chi kung), the principles of Yin and Yang, and the ancient teachings of Chinese scholar Lao Tzu, father of Daoism, and his classic Tae Te Jing (Dao De Jing)- ‘Ethics’, are all also of paramount importance.
Many masters claim that the physical aspects of tai chi are useless without a correct understanding and application of the philosophy, theory and mental aspects of tai chi.
Qi Gong (chi kung) in Tai Chi
Tai chi without qi gong would be nothing more than an elaborate dance. Qi gong (also written chi kung’) would translate literally to something like ‘the art (gong, kung) of energy (qi, chi)’ and is really an umbrella term referring to all the different systems that develop cosmic energy, particularly for combat, health, and spiritual and mental cultivation.
Tai chi teaches breathing techniques and demands that practitioners visualise cosmic energy flowing into them as they breath in, and down into their arms and hands as the breath out.
Many people claim to be able to feel themselves growing stronger, and feel heat or energy gathering in their palms as they practice these techniques. Whether this is because qi really exists, or simply that they’ve convinced themselves it does, remains open to debate.
Yin and Yang in Tai Chi
Tai Chi is also sometimes known as ‘yin and yang boxing’, and with good reason. Yin (Yīn 阴) and yang (Yáng 阳) are among the most widely known of Chinese concepts, but are often misunderstood. A full discussion of yin and yang would take us far away from the subject of tai chi. In short, yin and yang are not, as is popularly believed, fundamental opposing forces which constitute the universe. They are, rather, symbols representing the way things compare to each other. They emphasise the fact that hot is only hot relative to cold. Yang is only yang relative to yin.
Yang represents, among other things, up, masculinity and light. Thus the sky (which is up) is yang when compared to the earth, but on a cloudy and overcast day it can be yin when compared to the lighter earth. The same cloudy sky is yang in comparison to the even darker night sky.
Tai chi combines and balances yin and yang. Tai chi movements are at once slow, soft and gentle (yin), but are also capable of being fast and forceful (yang). Physical movements (yang) is countered by breathing techniques and visualisation (yin).
In combat situations, strength is met with softness. An opponent’s straight, sharp (yang) punches are met with flowing, circular deflections (yin). Circular, flowing yin attacks (like roundhouse kicks) and countered with straight direct yang thrusts (e.g. a thigh kick).
Tai Chi and the Tao/Dao
Taoism (or Daoism) is a major Chinese philosophy. Its foremost authority was Lao Tzu and his classic the ‘Dao De Jing (Tao Te Jing)’ – ‘The Book of Ethics’. The Dao De Jing was written around 2600 years ago. Much of the philosophy and practice of tai chi, basic principles of combat like not struggling, and not initiating an attack, derive from the Dao De Jing.
Tai chi masters imitate the softness of like water, which can rust metal, put out fire, wash away earth and erode stone.
Section 78 of the Dao De Jing reads:
Of the softest things in the world,
Nothing is softer than water,
Any hard objects in the way,
Will be defeated by water.
But water never changes.
Hence soft defeats hard,
Weak defeats strong.
Everyone knows this,
But few practise it.
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