How to differentiate & recognize the Real Tai Chi Chuan

By Grandmaster Fang Ning

Translated by Master Vincent Chu and Robert Anderson
(adapted from an essay that originally appeared in “Qi” magazine)
Today, inside and outside China, there are many people teaching Tai Chi Chuan and there are millions of people who practice it daily. If asked, however, why Tai Chi Chuan is called “Tai Chi Chuan,” many of these people could not come up with a proper explanation. Some might answer that it is because of its slow movements; although it is true that slowness is one of the characteristics of Tai Chi Chuan, Tai Chi Chuan does not have that name simply because of the slowness of its movements.

Why do I raise this question? Because Tai Chi Chuan is a treasure of Chinese culture, a gem of traditional martial arts; today it is also a health-maintenance exercise practiced worldwide. One can think of it as an art a person is involved with on a daily basis for one’s whole life. Is it necessary to find out why it is called Tai Chi Chuan, and whether what one is practicing is the real Tai Chi Chuan or not? Is this important?

Generally, the names of things are clues to the true nature of those things. If the name is not correctly explained and does not have a clear definition, it is difficult to come to a true understanding of what that named thing actually is. Otherwise, for example, people might mistake glass for diamonds. Since this art is called Tai Chi Chuan, we obviously need to find out what tai chi is and the relationship between tai chi and Tai Chi Chuan.

First of all, “fist” in Chinese is called chuan, and it denotes a kind of martial art, such as Tai Chi Chuan, Shaolin Chuan, Tiger or Dragon Chuan, White Crane Chuan, etc. The origin of the term tai chi lies in Daoist culture. Tai chi is based on the idea that “tai chi came from wu chi.” Wu means “none”; chi means “extremity.” Wu chi literally means “no extremities” or “no limitations.” In Daoist thought wu chi describes the state of the original pre-universe, or chaos. This wu chi chaos represents a state of hazy vastness with no limitations of space or time; it is a dim state where neither yin nor yang is clarified. In Chinese tai means “greatest”; so tai chi means the “greatest extremes” in both space and time. Tai chi refers to the beginning state of the universe, or cosmos, when yin and yang began to separate. In the cosmos, the “myriad things” are divided into yin and yang, negative and positive, day and night, male and female, etc.

In Western philosophical terms, tai chi corresponds to the field of cosmology. In the wu chi-chaos state, there was a big explosion that formed the cosmos with all its celestial bodies. Scientists today refer to this grand event as the “big bang,” whereas ancient Daoists said, “Tai chi came from wu chi.”

Tai Chi Chuan is a product of the ancient Chinese sages and their observations of the steady, continuous, and circular motions of the celestial bodies. It was created as an exercise to benefit one’s health as well as to be an art of self-defense. As a martial art it is sophisticated in its philosophy, physiology, and dynamic combat aspects. The movements in a martial art of this kind should be similar to the regular rotational movements of the sun, moon, and earth: circle after circle, soft and continuous, without stops or abrupt changes, with yin becoming yang and yang becoming yin in a continuous process of interchange. When one part moves, none of the other parts stop. Since it mimics the regular and cyclical movements of the celestial bodies, it is compatible with the concept that our human body is a microcosm of the cosmos; because the exercise coordinates these movements of the cosmos, it is therefore called Tai Chi Chuan.

Concerning the actual practice of Tai Chi Chuan: at first we stand still in a nonmoving state, getting ready to begin; this is called the “wu chi posture” or “wu chi stance.” Then we begin—at once moving with slow, cyclical, nonstop motion, right and left, up and down, forward and backward—our hands, legs, and body dividing into yin and yang; therefore this is called “practicing” or “playing” tai chi.

From the above, we can sum up with the following specifications and conclude that if a martial art is named Tai Chi Chuan it should abide by them:
1. The exercise as a whole must consist of circular movements.

2. These movements must resemble those of the sun, moon, and earth: slow, relaxed, continuous, in a circular fashion without any stopping (except at the beginning and the end and also the “cross-hands” posture used as connections between parts).

3. These circular movements must consist of circle after circle, circles that connect circles, with top and bottom parts moving together, following each other; when one part moves no other part stops; all parts move in a coordinated way as a whole.

4. Within these circular movements the yin and yang components must carry on a nonstop interchange. Yin softly turns into yang and then yang softly turns into yin without any abrupt changes—as depicted in the tai chi diagram.

5. These circular movements must take Lao Tzu’s maxims as a guiding philosophy: “Concentrate the mind and breathe softly like a child…. With extreme softness gallop freely in the extreme hardness of the world.” The exercise must contain extreme softness like that of a child. The softer one is, the more abundant one’s life force; therefore the movements must not show the least bit of hardness. The main purpose of Tai Chi Chuan practice is for rejuvenation and gaining good health.

What follows is the history of Tai Chi Chuan that has been orally transmitted from generation to generation. Tai Chi Chuan originated with Zhang Sanfeng on Wudang Mountain. Zhang Sanfeng was a remarkable Daoist priest, an “immortal” who was “reborn” in his coffin during his own funeral ceremony. Hearing loud noises coming from the coffin, his disciples opened it to discover him alive. When the emperor heard this story, he sent people to investigate. After this, the Wudang Mountains and the Wudang school became famous, and the emperor sent 300,000 laborers to rebuild the Wudang Daoist temple and also sent monks to worship Zhang Sanfeng for the next ten years. All of this, including the story of Zhang’s rebirth, has been formally recorded in the official history of the Ming Dynasty. At the end of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics it is written: “This treatise was left by the grand-ancestor Sifu Zhang Sanfeng, the purpose of which is to let all the heroes of the world gain rejuvenation and longevity. It is not just for the trifling purpose of fighting skill.”

Tai Chi Chuan went from Zhang Sanfeng to Wang Zhongyue, who passed it on to Jiang Fa. Jiang Fa passed it on to Chen Changxin in the Chen Village; then Chen Changxin passed it to Yang Luchan. Chen Changxin wrote in his autobiography of how he got his skill from his Sifu, Jiang Fa; in this work he narrated the history of Tai Chi Chuan as described above. He said that he did not derive his skills from his Chen family members, which they claim. (Jiang Fa was buried in the Chen Village burial grounds disgracefully, without a formal tomb.) There was a different martial-arts routine that came from Chen Pu, first generation of his family, named Hong Chuan. Hong Chuan is an external martial art; as such its routine often displays hardness.
In the middle of the Qing Dynasty, Yang Luchan, who had mastered Tai Chi Chuan kung fu, went to Beijing where he defeated all challengers and became widely known as “Invincible Yang.” Thereafter, Luchan and his sons and grandsons with their excellent martial-arts skills made Tai Chi Chuan famous in China and subsequently the rest of the world.

The real Tai Chi Chuan is an internal martial art, the routine never showing any hardness but only soft circling, and it belongs to the Wudang orthodox school. In China, Shaolin and Wudang are the two most famous martial-arts schools. People wonder how Tai Chi Chuan can prohibit showing any hardness and still be an effective martial art, and also why so few people who practice Tai Chi Chuan have any real kung fu. To answer these questions we must first understand that Tai Chi Chuan, being a rare gem of traditional Chinese martial arts, has some secrets behind it. This art was nearly lost, and truly to grasp it one must study with a real successor (and not every successor has real kung fu) of the Wudang orthodox school. Then one can get to know what real Tai Chi Chuan is and why it is an internal martial art of high skill. One will then understand the saying in the Tai Chi Chuan Classics, “From extreme softness one can then attain extreme hardness.”

After one has digested and understood the above information, we can say the following: If movements lack continuity and circularity, they are not similar to the motion of celestial bodies and therefore the exercise is not real Tai Chi Chuan and should not be called Tai Chi Chuan. Zhang Sanfeng said in the Tai Chi Chuan Classics, “There should be no deficiency, no excess and no hollows, no pauses or sudden chopping.” This indicates that in Tai Chi Chuan’s soft circular movements there should not be any movement that is not circular, nor should movements be sometimes fast and sometimes slow. This also indicates that the circular movements should not have any stops. Since alternating slow and fast movements would mean discontinuity and unevenness, this kind of motion would obviously be different from the smooth, even, and circular orbiting of the earth, moon, and other heavenly bodies. Therefore, when one quickly launches a punch or other strike or loudly stomps on the ground, this would cause the routine’s circular movements to be other than even and smooth, and the Tai Chi Chuan practitioner would not be following the above Tai Chi Chuan principles.
The last and most important point has to do with the breathing. All Chinese martial-arts practitioners understand the significance of breathing. It is said among the Chinese martial-arts community, “Externally, practice to train the tendons, bones, and skin; internally, practice to train the breath.” Ancient practitioners of Daoism understood that in sitting meditation it is better to breathe in a way that is deep, tranquil, slow, and soft. Therefore, Lao Tzu, in his Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), said, “Can we concentrate the mind to breathe softly like a child?”

Over the years, practitioners realized it is better to do some physical movement after long hours of sitting meditation in order to prevent the body’s qi [intrinsic energy] from stagnating. This is what people often refer to as “dynamic and static training.” How to practice this “dynamic” or physical movement? The emphasis is on smooth, even, circular movements with the mouth held as if closed and also as if not closed. Eventually the breathing will then become slow, even, and tranquil and by itself will naturally become coordinated with the movements. This method is beneficial to health with no negative result to the practitioner and is, therefore, the most common technique employed by people practicing Tai Chi Chuan today. It is not recommended, however, to have any strong, powerful, and abrupt stopping or chopping in the routine to interfere with the tranquility of the slow, relaxed breathing, or any other kind of sudden movement that doesn’t harmonize with the unified, relaxed, circular motions.

If one practices Tai Chi Chuan regularly in this way, it will provide many health benefits to the practitioner. One notable result is sweating; during Tai Chi Chuan practice sweating occurs without raising the heart rate and causing exhaustion. If one incorporates these Tai Chi Chuan principles correctly—when one part moves no other part stops, the whole body moves harmoniously, the breathing is slow and even—this will cause the blood to circulate smoothly to all corners of the body, bringing tremendous benefits to our physiological systems.

A few words regarding the push-hands exercise. There are people who believe that the push-hands exercise exists solely in Tai Chi Chuan. This is not true and is sometimes misleading. One can observe push-hands training among many Chinese martial-arts systems. Push-hands is a true martial-arts training method for developing martial skill. It is not a decisive factor in determining whether the martial art is Tai Chi Chuan or not. Therefore, today we see many participants competing in push-hands tournaments without any real understanding of Tai Chi Chuan.

In summary, after one has trained the body to perform slow, soft, and circular movements modeled after those of the sun, moon, earth, and other celestial bodies, with the guiding principles of circle after circle, circling connecting circling, cycling movements that are continuous, without excess, deficiency, or hollows, and without any abrupt stopping or sudden chopping, with the upper and lower parts of the body following each other, with yin and yang constantly interchanging, and with breathing that is even, soft, deep, tranquil, and long—then one can easily judge what the real Tai Chi Chuan is. Strictly speaking, not any style of martial art should freely call itself Tai Chi Chuan and one should not simply trust it by its name alone—or else glass might be confused with diamonds.

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