“Think over carefully what the final purpose is:
to lengthen life and maintain youth.”
– Song of the 13 postures.
I’m basing today’s sermon on this often overlooked couplet from the Song of 13 Postures. You see, there’s a lot of talk on online discussion forums asking where it all went wrong for Tai Chi Chuan. How did this deadly pugalistic art of the Chen and Yang families from the bloody 1800s in China become this watered-down, series of sanitised slow-motion movements for old people to do in parks?
As this line from the classic points out, it was never just about fighting anyway. Tai Chi Chuan was always about something more. The argument for staying healthy is a strong one. Even if your main purpose in pursuing the art is to acquire fighting skills what good are they if you’re overweight, ill or have limited movement in your joints? If you’re not healthy then that’s going to seriously inhibit your ability to defend yourself. Yet, do the historical masters of Tai Chi Chuan live up to this ideal? Sadly not. The famous Yang Cheng-Fu was also famously obese and his most famous student, Cheng Man-Ching, was often famously inebriated. Neither of these two unfortunate facts takes anything away from their skill levels in the art.
Is Tai Chi Chuan enough for health? Bear in mind when the words of the Song of 13 Postures were written. Daily life was much more of a grind in 1800s China than it is for us today, with all our fantastic labour (and boredom) saving devices. These days very few of us lift heavy objects, walk very far or move about as much as people used to do on a regular basis. We also eat a lot more, and most of it is high-sugar, high-fat crap.
Quietly, to myself, I often ponder whether the health benefits to be gained by Tai Chi Chuan match up to those that can be gained by, say, going ballroom dancing twice a week. In conclusion, I’d say ballroom dancing is probably the more healthy option, but you can’t go ballroom dancing for those brief 10 minutes in the morning when you’ve got the kitchen to yourself before the kids charge down the stairs and start wrecking the joint. You can’t ballroom dance in that last half hour of the day while the wife is catching up on her soap operas and you slip, unnoticed into the back yard to do a little bit of the form under the stars. And most importantly, for me, you can’t ballroom dance your way out of a violent confrontation.
So, I’m left with Tai Chi Chuan. The great all-rounder. It’s hard to but a label on what it is exactly. It doesn’t specialise in one area too much, but touches on many. Jack of all trades, master of none, or universal panacea? You decide.