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T'ai Chi Ch'uan or Taijiquan (), commonly known as T'ai Chi, Tai Chi, or Taiji, is a nei chia ("internal") Chinese martial art which is known for the claims of health and longevity benefits made by its practitioners and in some recent medical studies. T'ai Chi Ch'üan is known as a soft style martial art, an art applied with as complete a relaxation or "softness" in the musculature as possible, to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard styles which use a degree of tension in the muscles.
T'ai Chi Ch'uan is best known as the slow motion routines groups of people practice every morning in hundreds of parks across China and, increasingly, other parts of the world. In T'ai Chi classes one is taught awareness of one's own balance and what affects it, awareness of the same in others, and appreciation of the practical value in one's ability to moderate extremes of behavior and attitude at both mental and physical levels.
While its practitioners have historically considered it primarily a style of martial art, T'ai Chi Ch'uan is also called an art of moving meditation. T'ai Chi theory and practice is formulated in agreement with many of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to beginning and intermediate level T'ai Chi training, many therapeutic interventions along the lines of TCM are taught to advanced T'ai Chi students in traditional schools. T'ai Chi Chuan as physical training is characterized by its requirement for the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation rather than muscular tension. The slow, repetitive work involved in that process is said to gently increase and open the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, peristalsis, etc.). Over time, proponents say, this enhancement becomes a lasting effect, a direct reversal of the physical effects of stress on the human body. This reversal allows much more of the students' native energy to be available to them, which they may then apply more effectively to the rest of their lives; families, careers, spiritual or creative pursuits, hobbies, etc.
The study of T'ai Chi Ch'uan involves three primary subjects:
- Health - an unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person will find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use Tai Chi as a martial art. Tai Chi's health training therefore concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind.
Meditation - the focus meditation and subsequent calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of T'ai Chi is seen as necessary to maintain optimum health (in the sense of effectively maintaining stress relief or homeostasis) and in order to use it as a soft style martial art.
- Martial art - the ability to competently use T'ai Chi as a martial art is said to be proof that the health and meditation aspects are working according to the dictates of the theory of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
The Mandarin term "T'ai Chi Ch'uan" translates as "Supreme Ultimate Boxing" or "Boundless Fist". T'ai Chi training involves learning solo routines, known as forms, and two person routines, known as pushing hands, as well as acupressure-related manipulations taught by traditional schools. T'ai Chi Ch'üan is seen by many of its schools as a variety of Taoism, and it does seemingly incorporate many Taoist principles into its practice (see below). It is an art form said to date back many centuries (although not reliably documented under that name before 1850), with precursor disciplines dating back thousands of years. The explanation given by the traditional T'ai Chi family schools for why so many of their previous generations have dedicated their lives to the study and preservation of the art is that the discipline it seems to give its students to dramatically improve the effects of stress in their lives, with a few years of hard work, should hold a useful purpose for people living in a stressful world. They say that once the T'ai Chi principles have been understood and internalized into the bodily framework the practitioner will have an immediately accessible "toolkit" thereby to improve and then maintain their health, to provide a meditative focus, and that can work as an effective and subtle martial art for self-defence.
Teachers say the study of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is, more than anything else, about challenging one's ability to change oneself appropriately in response to outside forces. These principles are taught using the examples of physics as experienced by two (or more) bodies in combat. In order to be able to protect oneself using change, it is necessary to understand what the consequences are of changing appropriately, changing inappropriately and not changing at all in response to an attack. Students, by this theory, will appreciate the full benefits of the entire art in the fastest way through physical training of the martial art aspect.
Wu Chien-ch'üan, co-founder of the Wu family style, described the name T'ai Chi Ch'uan this way at the beginning of the 20th century:
"Various people have offered different explanations for the term T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Some have said: 'In terms of self-cultivation, one must train from a point of movement towards a point of quiescence. T'ai Chi comes about through the harmony of yin and yang. In terms of the art of attack and defense then, in the context of transformations of full and empty, one is constantly inwardly latent, not outwardly expressive, as if the yin and yang of T'ai Chi have not divided apart.' Others say: 'Every movement of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is based on circles, just like the shape of a T'ai Chi symbol. Therefore, it is called T'ai Chi Ch'uan.' Both explanations are quite reasonable, especially the second, which is fuller."
T'ai Chi training and techniques
As the name T'ai Chi Ch'uan is held to be derived from the T'ai Chi symbol, the Taijitu or T'ai Chi t'u (太極圖, pinyin tàijítú), commonly known in the West as the "yin-yang" diagram, T'ai Chi Ch'uan techniques are said therefore to physically and energetically balance yin (receptive) and yang (active) principles: "From ultimate softness comes ultimate hardness."
The core training involves two primary features: the first being the solo form or quan or ch'uan (拳), a slow sequence of movements which emphasise a straight spine, relaxed breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of pushing hands or tui shou or t'ui shou (推手) for training "stickiness" and sensitivity in the reflexes through various motions from the forms in concert with a training partner in order to learn leverage, timing, coordination and positioning when interacting with another. Pushing hands is seen as necessary not only for training the self-defense skills of a soft style such as T'ai Chi by demonstrating the forms' movement principles experientially, but also it is said to improve upon the level of conditioning provided by practice of the solo forms by increasing the work load on students while they practise those movement principles.
The solo form should take the students through a complete, natural, range of motion over their centre of gravity. Accurate, repeated practise of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students' bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the forms. The major styles of T'ai Chi have forms which differ somewhat cosmetically, but there are also many obvious similarities which point to their common origin. The solo forms, empty-hand and weapon, are catalogues of movements that are practised individually in pushing hands and application scenarios to prepare students for self-defence training. In most traditional schools different variations of the solo forms can be practiced; fast/slow, small circle/large circle, square/round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low sitting/high sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.
In a fight, if one uses hardness to resist violent force then both sides are certain to be injured, at least to some degree. Such injury, according to T'ai Chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. The collision of two like forces, yang with yang, is known as "double-weighted" in T'ai Chi terminology. Instead, students are taught not to fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and "stick" to it, following its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, the result of meeting yang with yin. Done correctly, achieving this yin/yang or yang/yin balance in combat (and, by extension, other areas of one's life) is known as being "single-weighted" and is a primary goal of T'ai Chi Ch'uan training. Lao Tzu provided the archetype for this in the Tao Te Ching when he wrote, "The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong." This soft "neutralization" of an attack can be accomplished very quickly in an actual fight by an adept practitioner. A T'ai Chi student has to be well conditioned by many years of disciplined training; stable, sensitive and elastic mentally and physically in order to realize this ability, however.
Other training exercises include:
- Weapons training and fencing applications employing the straight sword known as the jian or chien or gim (jiàn 劍), a heavier curved sabre, sometimes called a broadsword or tao (dāo 刀, which is actually considered a big knife), fan, staff (棍), 7 foot (2 m) spear and 13 foot (4 m) lance (both called qiāng 槍). Less commonly known weapons still in use are the large Da Dao or Ta Tao (大刀) or Bagua sabre, halberd (jǐ 戟), cane, rope-dart, Three sectional staff and steel whip.
- Two-person tournament fighting (san shou 散手);
- Breathing exercises; nei gong or nei kung (內功 nèigōng) or, more commonly, qigong or ch'i kung (氣功 qìgōng) to develop qi or ch'i (氣 qì) or "breath energy" in coordination with physical movement. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 50 years they have become more well known to the general public.
T'ai Chi's martial aspect relies on sensitivity to the opponent's movements and centre of gravity dictating appropriate responses. Effectively affecting or "capturing" the opponent's centre of gravity immediately upon contact is trained as the primary goal of the martial T'ai Chi student, and from there all other technique can follow with seeming effortlessness. The alert calmness required to achieve the necessary sensitivity is acquired over thousands of hours of first yin (slow, repetitive, meditative, low impact) and then later adding yang ("realistic", active, fast, high impact) martial training; forms, pushing hands and sparring. T'ai Chi Ch'uan trains in three basic ranges, close, medium and long, and then everything in between. Pushes and open hand strikes are more common than punches, and kicks are usually to the legs and lower torso, never higher than the hip in most styles. The fingers, fists, palms, sides of the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, hips, knees and feet are commonly used to strike, with strikes to the eyes, throat, heart, groin and other acupressure points trained by advanced students. There is an extensive repertoire of joint traps, locks and breaks (chin na), particularly applied to lock up or break an opponent's elbows, wrists, fingers, ankles, back or neck. Most T'ai Chi teachers expect their students to thoroughly learn defensive or neutralizing skills first, and a student will have to demonstrate proficiency with them before offensive skills will be extensively trained. There is also an emphasis in the traditional schools on kind-heartedness. One is expected to show mercy to one's opponents, as instanced by a poem preserved in some of the T'ai Chi families said to be derived from the Shaolin temple:
- "I would rather maim than kill
- Hurt than maim
- Intimidate than hurt
- Avoid than intimidate."
T'ai Chi styles and history
There are five major styles of T'ai Chi Ch'üan, each named after the Chinese family that teaches (or taught) it:
The order of seniority is as listed above. The order of popularity is Yang, Wu, Ch'en, Sun, and Wu/Hao.
The five family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training. There are also several groups teaching what they call Wu Tang style T'ai Chi Ch'üan:
The designation Wu Tang Ch'üan is also used to broadly distinguish internal or nei chia martial arts (said to be a specialty of the monasteries at Wu Tang Shan) from what are known as the external or wei chia styles based on Shaolin Ch'üan, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by individual schools. In this broad sense, among many T'ai Chi schools all styles of T'ai Chi (as well as related arts such as Pa Kua Chang and Hsing-i Ch'üan) are therefore considered to be "Wu Tang style" martial arts. The schools that designate themselves "Wu Tang style" relative to the family styles mentioned above mostly claim to teach an "original style" they say was formulated by a Taoist monk called Zhang Sanfeng and taught by him in the Taoist monasteries at Wu Tang Shan. Some consider that what is practised under that name today may be a modern back-formation based on stories and popular veneration of Zhang Sanfeng (see below) as well as the martial fame of the Wu Tang monastery (there are many other martial art styles historically associated with Wu Tang besides T'ai Chi). There is also a modern T'ai Chi style going by the name Wudang as a term of convenience that is fairly well-known internationally, especially in the UK and Europe, originally taught by a student of the Wu (吳) style.
When tracing T'ai Chi Ch'üan's formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, one has little more to go on than legendary tales from a modern historical perspective, but T'ai Chi Ch'üan's practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Sung dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions, esp. the teachings of Mencius) is readily apparent to its practitioners. The philosophical and political landscape of that time in Chinese history is fairly well documented, even if the art later to become known as T'ai Chi Ch'üan's origin in it is not. T'ai Chi Ch'üan's theories and practice are therefore believed by some schools to have been formulated by the Taoist monk Chang San-feng in the 12th century, a time frame fitting well with when the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. Therefore the didactic story is told that Chang San-feng as a young man studied Tao Yin (導引, py dǎoyǐn) breathing exercises from his Taoist teachers and martial arts at the Buddhist Shaolin monastery, eventually combining the martial forms and breathing exercises to formulate the soft or internal principles we associate with T'ai Chi Ch'üan and related martial arts. Its subsequent fame attributed to his teaching, Wu Tang monastery was known thereafter as an important martial center for many centuries, its many styles of internal kung fu preserved and refined at various Taoist temples.
circa 12th century
Tai Yi Zhenren *
Ma Yun Cheng *
Wang Zongyue *
TAI CHI CHUAN
Zhang Song Xi *
THE 5 MAJOR CLASSICAL FAMILY STYLES
Chen Wang Ting
1600-1680 9th generation Chen
Chen Changxing Chen Youben
1771-1853 14th generation Chen circa 1800s 14th generation Chen
Chen Old Frame Chen New Frame
Yang Lu-ch'an Chen Qingping
YANG STYLE Chen Small Frame, Zhao Bao Frame
| | | |
Yang Chien-hou Yang Pan-hou Wu Yu-hsiang
1839-1917 1837-1892 1812-1880
| Yang Small Frame WU/HAO STYLE
| | |
Yang Ch'eng-fu Wu Ch'uan-yü Li I-yü
1883-1936 1834-1902 1832-1892
Yang Big Frame | |
| Wu Chien-ch'üan Hao Wei-chen
| 1870-1942 1849-1920
| WU STYLE |
| 108 Form |
| | Sun Lu-t'ang
| | 1861-1932
| | SUN STYLE
MODERN FORMS |
| | lineage to Chen Old Frame
| | |
| Cheng Wing-kwong Qi Min-xuan
| ????-???? | ????-????
| | |
+----+-------------+ | |
| | | |
Cheng Man-ch'ing | Cheng Tin-hung
1901-1975 | 1930
Short (37) Form | Wudang style
Chinese Sports Commission
Beijing 24 Form
42 Competition Form (Wushu competition form combined from Sun, Wu, Chen, and Yang styles)
Notes to Family tree table
Names denoted by an asterisk are legendary or semi-legendary figures in the lineage, which means their involvement in the lineage, while accepted by most of the major schools, isn't independently verifiable from known historical records.
The Yang Pan-hou lineage is considered senior to the Yang Chien-hou lineage (as reflected by their respective ages), although it may appear otherwise in the formatting of the Family tree table above.
The Cheng Man-ch'ing and Chinese Sports Commission short forms are said to be derived from Yang family forms and appear to be in the Yang family transmission above, but neither are recognized as Yang family T'ai Chi Ch'uan by current Yang family teachers. As well, the "Wudang style" isn't recognized as representative of their style by the Wu family organisation. The Chen, Yang and Wu families are now promoting their own shortened demonstration forms for competitive purposes.
T'ai Chi in the present
Recently there has been some divergence between those who say they practise T'ai Chi primarily for fighting, those who practise it for its aesthetic appeal (as in the shortened, modern, theatrical "Taijiquan" forms of wushu, see below), and those who are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health. The wushu aspect is primarily for show, the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability. More traditional stylists still see the two aspects of health and martial arts as equally necessary pieces of the puzzle, the yin and yang of T'ai Chi Ch'üan. The T'ai Chi "family" schools therefore still present their teachings in a martial art context even though the majority of their students nowadays profess that they are primarily interested in training for the claimed health benefits. T'ai Chi has become very popular in the last twenty years or so, as the baby boomers age and T'ai Chi's reputation for ameliorating the effects of aging becomes more well-known. Hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers are all hosting T'ai Chi classes in communities around the world.
Along with Yoga, it is one of the fastest growing fitness and health maintenance activities, in terms of numbers of students enrolling in classes. Since there is no universal certification process, and most Westerners haven't seen very much T'ai Chi and don't know what to look for, practically anyone can learn or even make up a few moves and call themselves a teacher. Relatively few of these teachers even know that there are martial applications to the T'ai Chi forms. Those who do know that it is a martial art usually don't teach martially themselves. If they do teach self-defense, it is often a mixture of motions which the teachers think look like T'ai Chi Ch'uan with some other system. This is especially evident in schools located outside of China. While this phenomenon may have made some external aspects of T'ai Chi available for a wider audience, the traditional T'ai Chi family schools see the martial focus as a fundamental part of their training, both for health and self-defense purposes. They claim that while the students may not need to practice martial applications themselves to derive a benefit from T'ai Chi training, their teachers at least should know the applications well enough to ensure that the movements they teach are done correctly and safely by their students. Also, working on the ability to protect oneself from physical attack (one of the most stressful things that can happen to a person) certainly falls under the category of complete "health maintenance." For these reasons they feel that a school not teaching those aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, and will be much less likely to be able to reproduce the full health benefits that have made traditional T'ai Chi Ch'uan's reputation in the first place.
In order to standardize T'ai Chi Ch'uan for its citizens' daily exercise, and because many of the family T'ai Chi Ch'uan teachers either moved or stopped teaching after the Communist regime was established in 1949, the Chinese Sports Committee brought together four T'ai Chi experts who truncated the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956. They wanted to somehow retain the essential principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan but make it less difficult to learn than longer (generally 88 to 108 posture) classical family T'ai Chi Ch'uan hand forms. Because shorter forms don't have the conditioning benefits of the classical forms, they wanted more difficult forms for the purposes of further studies and demonstration that didn't have the demanding martial requirements of the traditional family forms. In 1976, the Combined 48 Forms were created by three T'ai Chi experts headed by Professor Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on combining and condensing elements of the classical forms of four of the major styles; Ch'en, Yang, Wu, and Sun. The idea was to take what they felt were distinctive features of these styles and to express them in a short space of time.
As T'ai Chi again became popular on the Mainland, competitive forms were developed to be completed within a 6 minute time limit. In the late 1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized the many different competition forms. It had chosen the four major styles and combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of T'ai Chi experts in China, but not by direct representatives of most of the T'ai Chi families themselves. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style, e.g., the Ch'en Style National Competition Form is the 56 Forms, and so on. The combined forms are The 42 Form or simply the Competition Form, as it is known in China. In the 11th Asian Games of 1990, wushu was included as an item for competition for the first time with the 42 Form being chosen to represent T'ai Chi. It is likely to be the official form in the 2008 Summer Olympics. 
Representatives of some of the traditional families do not necessarily agree with the assessments of the Chinese Sports Committee, however. T'ai Chi Ch'uan has historically been seen by them as a martial art, not a sport, with competitions mostly entered as a hobby or to promote one's school publicly, but with little bearing on measuring actual accomplishment in the art. Their criticisms of modern forms include that the modern, "government" routines, being what they see as a mostly random combination by committee of some external elements of the traditional styles, have no standardized, internally consistent training requirements. Also, that people studying competition forms rarely train pushing hands or other power generation trainings vital to learning the martial applications of T'ai Chi Ch'uan and thereby lack the quality control traditional teachers say knowing the martial aspect of the art is essential for.
T'ai Chi as a form of traditional Chinese medicine
Researchers have found that long-term T'ai Chi practice had favorable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in elders. The studies also reported reduced pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects. Other studies have indicated improved cardiovascular and respiratory function in healthy subjects as well as those who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Patients also benefited from Tai Chi who suffered from heart failure, high blood pressure, heart attacks, arthritis and multiple sclerosis (See research citations listed below).
Citations to medical research
- Wolf SL, Sattin RW, Kutner M. Intense tai chi exercise training and fall occurrences in older, transitionally frail adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003 Dec; 51(12): 1693-701. PMID 14687346
- Wang C, Collet JP, Lau J. The effect of Tai Chi on health outcomes in patients with chronic conditions: a systematic review. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Mar 8;164(5):493-501. PMID 15006825
Last updated: 05-21-2005 14:04:32