The inherent potential of the Tai Chi form

More thoughts inspired by Chen Taijiquan Illustrated

“Training the form helps one to learn the core substance of Taijiquan. Practicing the various push hands methods trains how to apply its inherent potential.”

The function and reason for forms (tao lu) in Chinese martial arts continues to fascinate me. Were they planned to be like this all along, or is the usage of tao lu a happy accident born out of ancient religious ritual festival celebrations and the hiding of marital arts in theatrical traditions? The answer is probably a bit of both, and more of the “wrong” answer than you’d like to admit, no matter which of the two views you take.

I think all Tai Chi practitioners, beyond the mindless followers practicing in parks, 12 rows deep from the front, have a basic understanding that the Tai Chi form contains martial applications which can be brought out in push hands. But it’s the wording of the quote above that caught me: “the inherent potential” of the form.

That’s exactly it – the form isn’t explicitly martial. Certain compromises are necessarily made to maintain an aesthetic and flow to the movements. If it wasn’t then Tai Chi would look more like more practical Shuai Jiao solo drills or jiujitsu kata. And I think that’s what bugs a lot of people who laugh at the idea that Tai Chi can be used as a martial art. The martial essence is there in the movements, but it’s not on the surface. It’s buried, inherent potential that you’ll need to mine if you want to discover it.

3 thoughts on “The inherent potential of the Tai Chi form

  1. You bring up a couple of loosely linked thoughts in this post, which prompt separate comments. I also am interested in the origin of the notion of forms and history of martial training. I think such explorations can be enlightening and enriching.

    I think you have the right of it. “Art imitates life, and life imitates art” is probably an apt model for the evolution of forms as a tool for learning a martial art in conjunction with shamanic rituals, which evolved into religious ritual theater. By the time Babylon fell to the Persians (539 BC), a long time ago, there were staged portrayals of military victories in China, which required choreography to convey martial usage to the audience. Likely, there was an ebb and flow that ran one direction and then the other through the ages.

    Asking which came first is likely to produce evidence on both sides of the question. Asking which is more prevalent will depend on circumstances at a given time period. Even trying to substantially separate the two may create artificial distinctions. So, for me, I am not sure these are the most productive lines of questions.

    Other lines of questioning (why, what is the purpose, how are they used, is the teaching method effective) may prove more practical.


  2. I interpret your often short blog entries as writing prompts inviting a variety of comments and discussion. If you’d rather be the “sage on the stage,” convey that, and I’ll be happy to keep my thoughts to myself and respond with a “like,” or something very brief.

    To your points, why “inherent potential”? And, your statement, “the form isn’t explicitly martial….” Here is some context from a Chen practitioner’s perspective.

    Traditional taijiquan is taught in multiple phases. The phases are most evident in Chen Taijiquan, where there are two distinct “roads,” but phases are seen in other styles of Taijiquan too, where they are often called frames. The specific goals of the phases will vary from style to style, so I am not making statements about systems other than the ones in which I have been trained.

    In its purity, the first phase of training does not teach martial arts, at least, not what we would usually think of as martial arts, striking, kicking, take-downs, joint locks, breaks, or even, pushes, etc. Instead, it is about learning to control oneself, and then, one’s opponent, and specifically, in modern terms, their potential and kinetic energy and “attacking” force. The objective of the first phase is to move so that one becomes the antithesis of an opponent’s biomechanics.

    The first phase:
    Curriculum: First Form, traditionally aka, Thirteen Movements form.
    Training method: Push hands
    Core training: Foundation training (jibengong)

    Chen style foundation training has been misunderstood, ignored, replaced, modified, or hidden, and all but forgotten. Essentially, it teaches how, where, and when to rotate, expand, contract, connect, and breathe. In the public mind, Chen jibengong has morphed into Silk Reeling Exercises, but these often are taught so they lack the essence of practical foundation training, which should progress the student toward the skill to disrupt the opponent’s biomechanical structure.

    The second phase:
    Curriculum: First and Second forms, traditionally aka, Thirteen Postures and Cannon Fist forms.
    Training method: Cut the stem and dig up the roots.
    Core training: Martial self defense and weapons

    With the ability to counter opponents’ biomechanics, the second phase, focuses on quickly disabling the opponent with an injury(-ies). Weapons were added to make injury more efficient, and since entering a battlefield or protecting a caravan empty-handed would be unwise.

    This presents the “paths” in their purity, but notice the First Form is used in both phases. It is more accurate to say, PRACTICE of the First Form is not inherently martial, however with taijiquan fundamental skills, PRACTICE of the First Form becomes explicitly martial. However, this has allowed the lines between phases to be blurred.

    Students are frequently interested in Chen taijiquan for its martial reputation. Modern teachers have to cater to students’ interests to some degree (Chen taijiquan is a martial art, so let’s see some martial arts.) in order to guide them where they need to be to really learn. So, teachers bring information, techniques, or demonstrations from one phase into another.

    My observation is, with a teacher with demonstrable skill, if students empty their cup and follow instructions, it can take as little as three years of deliberate training to complete Chen style’s first phase. If students hold on to past teachings, relentlessly pursue martial applications, or constantly question why this and why that, it takes about ten years, if ever. This process is not automatic. Many practitioners miss the mark or fail to put in the work and never realize the “inherent potential” of the art.


  3. Pingback: El potencial intrínseco de la forma de Tai Chi - Artes Marciales

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