What is Tai Chi Chuan?

A question that comes up a lot from beginners seems to be “what defines Tai Chi Chuan?”. Non-beginners seem to not worry about this question and just practice, which is for the best, but it seems everybody goes through a stage where their mind needs to define and categorise what it is they’re doing. What makes it Tai Chi Chuan, as opposed to, say, Bagua, or JuJitsu?

I can only answer from my current understanding. I’ve been doing Tai Chi long enough to realise that today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half-truth, so I wouldn’t say this will be my final word on the subject, but it’s something I’ve settled on recently.

When defining what Tai Chi Chuan is I look first at the name – TaiChi boxing/fist. So, it’s a martial art whose chief feature is about TaiChi – the interaction of Yin and Yang. Therefore, for a movement to be Tai Chi Chuan it requires that the interaction of yin and yang is correctly distinguished (i.e. in harmony) in all the movements, and (crucially) also in the fighting strategy (no double-weighting).

That’s it!

On one level my answer sounds like a ridiculous over simplification, and it is, but that doesn’t make it ring any less true. It’s only when you ask yourself ‘what does distinguishing yin and yang mean?’ that you realise how deep the wormhole goes. There are obvious, simple, answers like always having your weight on one leg and not both at the same time, but there are much more subtle answers to do with where force is inside the body, and how it is utilised.

A good place to start with this line of enquiry is by looking at your own form with No.4 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points in mind.

4.) Differentiate between insubstantial and substantial. This is the first principle in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. If the weight of the whole body is resting on the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is insubstantial, and vice versa. When you can separate substantial and insubstantial, you can turn lightly without using strength. If you cannot separate, the step is heavy and slow. The stance is not firm and can be easily thrown of balance.

8 thoughts on “What is Tai Chi Chuan?

  1. Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points is a very well known article by Yang Cheng Fu. I believe it first appeared in his book on Tai Chi Chuan (widely believed to have been ghost written by Cheng Man-Ching).


  2. Leaving a comment that’s longer than the article is a form of rape.

    Where are you getting these ”Yang Ch’eng-fu’s 10 Points” from? And how can the fourth one be the first one? Cheng in his 13 Treatises present 12 points from Yang, and your fourth is his third, the FIRST being relax and the SECOND being sink.


  3. Good question – what about XingYi? Well, nobody knows – it’s too old to support simple classification 🙂 But if I was to have a go I’d say that (in philosophical terms) it’s more concerned with the original unity before the split into Yin and Yang. XingYi does use the terms Yin and Yang now and again (e.g. Yin snake, as opposed to Yang Snake – and its using those terms beyond a ‘simple’ obvious level, since it refers to Yin qualities, like soft and heavy as opposed to Yang qualities like quick and fast).

    So, in a neat little package you could say XingYi is concerned with the original unity, Tai Chi Chuan is concerned with the harmony of Yin and Yang and Bagua Zhang is concerned with the harmony of the 8 trigrams.

    While the definitions I use neatly encapsulate the idea, they don’t reflect the spirit of any art (that’s not their job). For example, if you wanted to understand the spirit of Tai Chi Chuan, then you’d be better off reading Jonathan Newman’s short essay, from http://www.yongquan.org:

    How can you recognise written English? How can you recognise Tai Chi Chuan? – by J Newman.

    How do you know that what you’re reading here is English? What has this got to do with Tai Chi Chuan?

    The characters I’m using come from a standardised and recognisable 26 character ‘Roman’ alphabet. Whether presented in their upper or lower case forms you can recognise them.

    They are grouped together in blocks that we recognise as words. These words are recognised from a standardised “English” rather than, for example, French. Vous comprendez?

    The words are then grouped together into sentences. This grouping is done in accordance with standardised and recognisable rules. Native English speakers may not know the rules but – broken when they are we know.

    Only once all this is in place can we then observe different written styles, techniques, purposes and skills. As writers in English the same applies; before we can start to write we need the basics to be in place.

    Like English there are basic requirements that need to be in place in order for something to be recognisable as Tai Chi Chuan. What distinguishes the practitioner of Tai Chi Chuan from someone imitating them is the adherence to recognisable principals within the Tai Chi Chuan form. In fact, only once a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner has gathered all these principals into their practice do they begin to start to practise the principal that is Tai Chi. Through the practice of that central principal all the other principals will manifest.

    However, to get to this stage takes the combination of a good teacher, a good student and a lot of time. Frequently one, two or all three of these factors are omitted and it is often questionable whether many people have learnt to get beyond the alphabet stage. Imitating the pattern of the written form they effectively draw squiggly lines across a page and in their illiterate eyes claim it to be a well written piece of English, and they are so sure of this because they “enjoyed doing it”, therefore it must be true.

    It is arguable that creative people can break the standardised and recognisable forms of English and thereby create great works of art. But, without exception, all those people have an excellent and profound understanding of the language before they break the rules. The same is true of Tai Chi Chuan or any other martial art.

    To take the understanding of the recognisable principals in Tai Chi Chuan further look at this different analogy.

    Imagine a wheel. The movement in Tai Chi Chuan is the outside of that wheel, the principal that is Tai Chi is at the centre of the wheel (the axle). To connect the outside (the movement) to the inside (the principal that is Tai Chi) you need spokes. Without spokes the rim of the wheel can never meet with the axle. In reality the wheel couldn’t actually exist.

    So in learning Tai Chi Chuan it is essential, from the beginning, to put spokes into that wheel. Spokes that go from the very centre all the way out to the rim. Now the emphasis in training has to shift from looking at the movements in the form from a superficial repetitive perspective, to one where the underlying principals that govern the movements are concentrated on.

    For example, I have heard people say so many times that in Tai Chi Chuan the back is straight and then those same people go on to demonstrate movements where it’s clearly, and correctly, bent. Therefore a straight back is not a principal in Tai Chi Chuan but a consequence of something else. People often correct someone’s Form informing them that, for instance, their hand should be a couple of inches lower, but the reason for this different hand position is a consequence of something else, far better to teach the something else.

    Too many times I have heard people say, “relax”. But what does it mean? It is a very abstract phrase. Most people have taken up Tai Chi Chuan to relax, now someone saying the word to them really isn’t going to be of too much help. They knew the word before and it didn’t help much then, why should it make any difference who is saying it? Relaxation in Tai Chi Chuan is a consequence of following other principals. The greater the practical understanding of those principals the greater the relaxation. The physical posture throughout Tai Chi Chuan is definable. It is the increasing adoption of the correct physical posture that allows the body to relax; other principals take the relaxation further.

    Now some of you may be asking yourselves ” What are these principals?” The more you advance at Tai Chi Chuan the more other principals can be added. I guess in a wheel it doesn’t matter what order you put the spokes in but in Tai Chi Chuan it’s impossible to learn these things in a random order, one principal builds upon the other. If you cannot think what some of these principals might be then I suggest you listen more closely to your teacher, if you still can’t think what they are then I suggest you find another teacher.

    Once all the spokes are in place then what is happening at the rim of the wheel becomes a reflection of what is happening at the centre, and visa versa. At this point it becomes apparent that the wheel in its entirety is Tai Chi and that the closer to the centre you get the simpler it is and the more effortless the movement becomes.

    In push hands and similar training the focus on Tai Chi rather than other principals, methods and strategies becomes an obvious necessity and through this focus the most appropriate movement for the practitioner becomes instinctive. The more they can understand and be consumed by Tai Chi, the greater their skill. Ironically, because practising this way becomes increasingly effortless, the use of previously learned methods becomes surprisingly difficult.

    A point comes when it is possible to increasingly understand at a very practical, rather than intellectual, level that it is not the spokes or the principals that are holding the thing together. It is the emptiness, the stillness at the very centre of the wheel and between the spokes that is truly giving it shape.

    If you want that then try to find a good teacher, try to be a good student and be prepared to be very patient.

    I know that the last description of Tai Chi Chuan does make it sound like some sort of enlightenment, but for me, it’s not that way at all it’s just a description of a very profound physical feeling. Tai Chi Chuan, in my experience, is just that.


  4. [quote]You also mention that other arts use a ‘reference to’ Yin and Yang, (like BaguaZhang and Jeet Kune Do) in their descriptions of things, so that can’t be unique to Tai Chi Chuan. I’d argue that most other arts only use them in a simplistic sense – the same way that Karate does – Yin is defence, Yang is attack, for example[/quote]

    What about xing yi? 🙂

    Personally I think that in the case of xing yi it depends what piont in time you go to in the past. The classics refer to energy and structure so maybe they use different terminology? In recent times (last 150 years) then the more defined “taoist” yin and yang have been used in many arts.

    If you go deep into xing yi you understand that a lot of it will lead back to what the “taoist” classification called wuji or empty state, though I’d argue that it is nto empty in terms of Yi but possibly in terms of chi. Again these are just definitions though and i think the simple way you explained the taiji concept was good.

    I like you blog mate I’ll come back again.


  5. Ultimately, I think I have to agree with you. In the philosophy, the ba gua come from the taiji. All the other references seem in passing, now that you mention it. Still, I’m not familiar enough with baguazhang but it’s somewhat interesting to think about taijiquan’s 8 gates vs. baguazhang’s interpretation of the ba gua.

    I really like your explanation of how all 8 taiji energies come from peng and lu, and how that bolsters the argument that taijiquan embodies taiji more. I also like how peng and lu are so abstract and generally useful in any other context or art or style – bringing a little taiji everywhere. And how peng and lu can be simultaneous and how that is so practically useful (I am starting to get it a little). It all does start to seem quite profound (in its utter simplicity).


  6. What is also amazing about Tai Chi, is the health benefits. I found out recently that it is great for relieving shingles. It boosts the immune system, and improves circulation, so your body is better able to fight back


  7. [quote]Usually, “soft”, “internal”, the main energies, the history/legend is enough for a written characterization, I think. [/quote]

    Well, it would be a very long definition, and also I don’t think particularly helpful. I’m looking for something that encapsulates what Tai Chi is in a simple sentence. Its actual defining characteristic.

    If you talk about ‘soft’, then there’s no difference between Tai Chi and other ‘soft’ arts, like Aikido, for example, or Aikijitsu. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s nothing particularly unique to Tai Chi about being ‘soft’.

    If you talk about the 13 postures, I think that’s another dead end. They are the 8 energies + 5 steps. If you look at the 8 energies (picked, beacuse they fit the philisophical ‘bagua’ model) you can trace them back (via the standard splitting of Yin and Yang model) as being different variations of just Peng and Lu, which are the Yang and Yin energies of Tai Chi. The point I’m making here is that you’re just ending back with my definition of Yin and Yang as being the defining characteristic.

    Finally, history/legend doesn’t do much to help you identify what it is that makes it “Tai Chi Chuan”.

    You also mention that other arts use a ‘reference to’ Yin and Yang, (like BaguaZhang and Jeet Kune Do) in their descriptions of things, so that can’t be unique to Tai Chi Chuan. I’d argue that most other arts only use them in a simplistic sense – the same way that Karate does – Yin is defence, Yang is attack, for example.

    Only Tai Chi Chuan actually breaks down what Tai Chi means in all aspects of the art. Turned the other way around you could say that there’s *nothing* in Tai Chi Chuan that isn’t about Yin and Yang. This is not a ‘reference’ – Tai Chi Chuan is a physical embodiment of the Tai Chi principle. Not only is the physical posture about Yin and Yang, but so is the strategy (‘soft’) and so are the techniques and energy usage (8 gates + 5 steps).

    I don’t think there’s another martial art that is so completely about the Tai Chi symbol as Tai Chi Chuan, even though it is used as a concept in many other fields, not just martial arts.

    If you want to get back to the basics of what *is* Tai Chi Chuan, it’s Tai Chi embodied in the physical plane in human terms.


  8. Yang’s 4th point itself is a good definition, well, characterization, I think. Unfortunately it’s a great abstract prescription for success in any soft art, so by itself doesn’t quite capture a definition. A reference to yin and yang doesn’t do it for me, either, as BaGua also makes philosophical reference to Daoist principles, as does Jeet Kune Do, so which of these arts can really claim to fit them and embody them? It’s a circular philosophical conundrum, it seems. The art itself without the overbearing philosophical label is a little easier to describe, if not define. Usually, “soft”, “internal”, the main energies, the history/legend is enough for a written characterization, I think. Of course, writing can’t ever quite define the actual physical art.


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