What is the point of Tai Chi applications?

Yang Cheng-Fu showing Tai Chi applications from his book.

In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.

The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.

There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.

I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.

That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.

Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.

Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:

I wonder – does the man in the mirror ever punch him back?

If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:

A great title for a video “Killer Choy Li Fut form!” It’s actually a great performance, especially with the drumming in the background.

Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:

Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time. 

Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.

So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.

Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.

If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.

I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.

As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.

Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.

Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!

So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.

4 thoughts on “What is the point of Tai Chi applications?

  1. Here’s an unexpected application.

    Last year while at our farmer’s market I had an interesting experience.

    I found the rare empty table where people sit to listen to live music. My wife and I put our coffee cups down and Cheryl went off to shop while I stayed behind with the coffee. Next to our table was a larger table with four adults and a toddler in a stroller. The back of the stroller was facing the side of our table. I noticed that the parents had locked the wheels.

    The toddler was restless, kicking the table where his parents and friends were sitting. He kept increasing the strength of his kicks, eventually flipping the stroller backwards. The stroller hit the table, causing the table to fall over which tipped our full cups of coffee in the direction of the ground. It was one of those moments in which you can see the impending outcome; baby on the ground, parents and friends freaking out, coffee spilled everywhere and our table laying on its side, but that didn’t happen.

    What happened was this. I lowered my stance. I caught the stroller with my right hand, I caught the table inside my left leg and the coffee inside my left forearm, tucked into my elbow. Before anyone could react I returned the stroller to its upright position as well as our table and our cups of coffee, all in one smooth move and without losing the cups of coffee. Then I noticed the stunned faces of the parents and others nearby. I was still in a squat and feeling self conscious. People started clapping and asking how I was able to do that. I mumbled something about tai chi, but I didn’t care for the attention so I said nothing more.

    So how did that happen? I it definitely has something to do with my long time practice of tai chi, but in tai chi there is no “catch the stroller and save the baby while stabilizing the table and saving the coffee” posture. My interpretation of this event has to do with two aspects which happened within the same moment, neither of which I can take any credit for. One being the spatial awareness that tai chi has taught me as well as something else which felt like bodily wisdom, like my body knew what to do without my conscious awareness.


  2. I agree with most of your points; except perhaps that some hard styles do a better job of using their basic applications. I think in general, ANY basic applications are only useful for getting students to understand where to put their hands and feet in relation to a solo choreography or particular technique {i.e., my opponent punches slowly and then freezes while I swarm all over him or her like a fat man at a buffet!}.

    The better teachers make it clear to their students that basic applications are just that “basic”; the bad teachers use it as a way to always keep their students subservient.

    Does that mean you should skip basic applications when teaching? I don’t think so; but there needs to be a lot of other training methods [application sets, push-hands & da-lu in taiji] to lead each student to functional simplicity of some kind. A certain amount of ‘rough-housing’ is also necessary as well as the occasional bruise or injury — most modern taiji students have no interest in such “investing in loss”. Nothing wrong with that either as long as everyone involved is honest about what is being learned.

    Of course, honesty is often in short-supply in many recreational martial arts schools as soon as the issues of $ and ego-stroking come into play.



  3. Pingback: What is the point of Tai Chi applications? – Roberto Luis Rivera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s