“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.
My copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated arrived, and I’ve almost finished it. It’s an easy read since the word count isn’t very high – it’s essentially a series of high quality training notes, illustrated, which I think really helps to convey the message in a way that text alone cannot. I’m not going to do a full review for a while, I’m going to let the book sink in first, but I might do a series of posts on ideas it has sparked in me.
Here’s the first one.
The thing I wanted to talk about today was how similar Chen style (as described in this book) is to Yang style. I think a Yang stylist would get almost as much out of this book as a Chen stylist. While the content and methods described in the book all clearly derive from Chen style, as do the illustrations, I’d say 90% (or more) of what’s described here is exactly the same as Yang style.
So what’s different? Bits and bobs on silk reeling, some stepping methods and stance details and the bits on fajin. But even then, they’re not something alien to a Yang stylist, and would be easily within reach of anybody who wanted to take their practice in that direction.
What’s the same? The emphasis on posture is really good here – how to round the back, contain the chest, round the kua, the eight energies, the 5 steps, push hands strategy and training methods, quotes from the classics, being centred and upright, rooting, the dantien, martial applications, etc.
What was I surprised not to find more of? Opening and closing using the 5 bows, and empty and solid. Perhaps more on using the force from the ground… There are mentions of these things throughout, but the book never really goes deeply into them. Perhaps it was too complex for the illustrated book-based approach? There’s only so much you can fit in one book, and there’s plenty of content here.
However, the emphasis on the body requirements of Tai Chi, and explanation of why these things are done, is excellent and transfers effortlessly across Tai Chi styles. It’s reminded me a lot how similar Yang style and Chen style are ‘under the hood’, so to speak. I wrote a post recently where I talked about them being similar but different. I still kind of think that. My view is that at some point Chen style incorporated the ideas contained in “Taijiquan” wholesale from Yang Luchan’s lucrative teaching business in Beijing into its larger, pre-existing, village style (which was more militia fighting and weapons-based) – it absorbed it whole – a bit like a whale swallowing a smaller fish. It was easy because all Chinese styles are similar to some extent. But of course, this means that the Yang style is still there inside Chen, and it’s impossible not to see how ‘almost the same’ they are when reading this book. (I think the spiraling and silk reeling stuff was from the pre-existing Chen style). Your opinion may be different. Food for thought!
I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..
“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”
“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”
“Seems quiet different then…”
And on and on and on…
Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West.
He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.
Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it.
But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it?Can you show it to me?
If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?
If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.
So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”
Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:
“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”
To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.
Filmed, edited and directed by Tim Cash. Follow members of the Oregon Tai Chi Wushu team as they travel with their teacher (JianFeng Chen) to China in search of the meaning behind a thousand year old art form : TAI CHI
A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!
From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.
You can see the trailer here:
Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.
Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:
I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.
Why do we exercise? It may be that we have been told we must by a doctor because we are facing some sort of health crisis, for which the most obvious solution is to take up more regular exercise. Usually these problems are related to being overweight and the multitude of health problem this can exacerbate, or indeed cause. But sometimes it can be something more subtle, like just not feeling comfortable in our body. We know when our body feels weak, soft, stiff or unused and needs exercise. The sense that we need to move, to stretch or to run is always there within us, if we choose to listen to that inner voice.
The Stoics were very big on the idea of accepting “voluntary hardships” as a kind of “shortcut to virtue”. Like the Cynics before them, or the holy men of India at the time of the Buddha, they would often become beggars, or live like poor people for extended periods of time to refocus on what was important in life, or to simply stop themselves from getting too soft. In life we generally try and avoid pain and discomfort in all areas, and this can lead us into tremendous difficulties in the long run. By seeking to avoid pain we let small problems fester until they become big problems.
“although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up. That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent. It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue.”
Which brings me on to Tai Chi. Generally motivating yourself to get out of bed, or off the couch, to practice Tai Chi involves the same mental toughening up process that is involved in motivating yourself to do any other form of exercise. There’s no difference there, but the difference is in the type of exercise.
Tai Chi is a slow burn. It requires a different type of resilience. You need to develop the resilience to work slowly and patiently at something when your mind is telling you that you’re bored now and you should really be doing something much more exciting or intense.
To some extent you can turn your mind off during sets of star jumps, squats and push ups and just blast through them, maybe while listening to pumping music to help keep you going. In contrast, the first thing you are asked to do in Tai Chi is to stand still and connect with your breath before you even lift a finger. Then you are expected to keep your mind on the job throughout.
But if you try it, you’ll find that this “getting in touch with yourself” first before exercising can lead to a different kind of experience. It’s the gateway to marvels. Maybe you won’t burn as many calories as you do down the gym with your mind on autopilot, but your body will feel better for it, reconnecting with the living spirit of nature that flows through you, and (if Obi-Wan Kenobi is to be believed) all things.
It starts with the breath. Become aware of the breath. Don’t interfere with it, just watch it rise and fall. Once you do that you’ll find that facing minor adversity doesn’t feel like such a big problem anymore, and you can just do it.
Our recent Heretics Podcast series on the history of Tai Chi Chuan keeps generating interesting feedback. Here’s a particularly good one I got today:
My compliments to Damon and Graham on their podcast about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan. I particularly liked mapping martial art history to the general history of the period. From a strict reading of the available evidence the podcast cannot be faulted. Where there maybe problems is in the interpretation provided, which it could be argued commits the error of anachronism. Here is a good quote from a Wikipedia article: “In historical writing, the most common type of anachronism is the adoption of the political, social or cultural concerns and assumptions of one era to interpret or evaluate the events and actions of another”. The interpretation basically argues that Tai Chi Chuan was a bonding exercise in the Imperial Court because of the political decline in the Qing state. A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values. That looks like an interpretation of Chinese History filtered through the prism of 21th century corporate culture.
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I really like well thought out criticism, especially when it’s delivered so succinctly.
Let’s explore a few of these ideas, and see where it takes us.
I see our podcast on the Myth of Tai Chi as “what Damon thinks really happened based on the available evidence”.
So, there will always be a lot of interpretation involved. History is essentially how you join the dots together. I think what Damon is doing is joining the dots together in a new way that makes a lot more sense than the stories we have been given by our teachers (in some senses the last people you should be asking about real history are martial artists), which all have parts that don’t make sense:
1. The original story we were given was about Tai Ch Chuan (Taijiquan) being created by a Taoist immortal called Chan San Feng. He’s a semi-fictional character who appears at various times throughout Chinese history. Most people who don’t believe in spirits of the ancestors walking amongst us (a common belief in China then) now dismiss this story. Li Yiyu even removed it from his hand written copy of the Tai Chi classics as early as the 1880s. I think this is one for the flat-earthers out there 🙂
2. The next story is that he learned in Chen village where Tai Chi was created by Chen Wanting in the 16th Century. This story was officially adopted by the General Administration of Sport of China who awarded Chen Village, Henan, a commemorative plaque acknowledging its status as ‘the birthplace of taijiquan’, in 2007 (See Fighting Words, Wile, 2017, Martial Arts Studies (4).) however this plaque had to be removed after just two months after a “firestorm” of new claims to the Tai Chi $ appeared, including the newly ‘discovered’ Li family documents.
But apart from that the story is full of holes. i) For a start nobody in Chen village used the name “Taijiquan” until long Yang used it. ii) There is also no actual evidence he was in Chen village at all. iii) Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan meet in Beijing for the first time, yet both have separate connections to an obscure village in China? iv) Then there’s the issue of why they taught an outsider like Yang, but only him – they didn’t teach anybody else, ever! v) Then there’s all the extra content (lots of other forms, weapons, etc) not found in Yang style, but found in Chen style, vi) Chen village records crediting their martial art to the earlier Chen Bu, not Chen Wanting, vii) the emphasis on silk reeling found in Chen style… the list goes on and on. It just doesn’t add up. However, it still needs explaining why the Chen old form and the Yang long form follow the same pattern (see the upcoming part 6 of Heretics podcast series for Damon’s explanation).
3. There are other theories of Tai Chi Chuan being ancient – really ancient, sometimes a thousand, or two thousand years old (that’s the White Cloud Temple claim) – and coming from Wudang mountain, via various unverifiable people, and ending up in the hands of Yang LuChan somehow – but nobody takes these claims seriously.
Of course, Damon isn’t saying that Tai Chi Chuan was created out of thin air, but rather it is the content of Northern Shaolin arts that Yang LuChan (a good martial artist) knew, adapted to fit certain traditional Confucian Court values thanks to Wu Yuxiang, and with a backstory added by Wu to make it appear ancient.
A class-based society
Chinese society was class-based, and teaching martial arts would make Yang LuChan the same class as theatre performers, i.e. the lowest of all classes.
From the Wikipedia article above: “There were many social groups that were excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. People who performed such tasks that were considered either worthless or “filthy” were placed in the category of mean people (賤人), not being registered as commoners and having some legal disabilities.”
So, Yang LuChan was a Jianren, yet, there he was inside the Forbidden City, teaching (and mixing with) the most high-level people in the system.
I think this can be verified: The only students we know he had were all in senior positions, like Wu Yuxiang, and Wu Quan Yu, for example. Those are the facts of the matter, and viewed through our eyes that does make him something like an external consultant, but only superficially. Compared to a consultant of today the power dynamic would be very different. I imagine Yang would be doing a lot of bowing and kowtowing to these senior people he’s teaching.
But is that anachronism or just a reading of the facts? The teaching of martial arts as a hobby or binding action for the court, was indeed a unique innovation, but I don’t think somebody of the lowest class being used to entertain the court is that unusual at all – there is plenty of historical precedent: Theatre entertainers, for example, were regularly brought to the Forbidden City to entertain the Confucian court, throughout Chinese history:
“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace. They performed for the court. ”
Jingxi (Peking Opera) was certainly popular in the Ching court too:
“In music, the most notable development of the dynasty probably was the development of jingxi, or Peking opera, over several decades at the end of the 18th century. The style was an amalgam of several regional music-theatre traditions that employed significantly increased instrumental accompaniment, adding to flute, plucked lute, and clappers, several drums, a double-reed wind instrument, cymbals, and gongs, one of which is designed so as to rise quickly in pitch when struck, giving a “sliding” tonal effect that became a familiar characteristic of the genre. Jingxi—whose roots are actually in many regions but not in Beijing—uses fewer melodies than do other forms but repeats them with different lyrics. It is thought to have gained stature because of patronage by the empress dowager Cixi of the late Qing, but it had long been enormously popular with commoners.” – from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qing-dynasty
So, I think we can establish Yang in the position we say he is in (the Royal Court). But let’s get to the meat of the matter!
“A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values.”
I agree, but it’s hard to know what form that evidence could take? The Smith hypothesis is that it was Wu Wuxiang who was performing some sort of re-instigation of Confucian values, and Yang LuChan was just being used as a gun for hire. We know he was there, in the royal court, but the question of what he was doing there is the key issue.
Tai Chi Chuan as Neo-Confucianist martial art
Everybody knows Tai Chi is based on Taoist principles, starting with Yin and Yang. But wouldn’t you expect the martial art Yang and Wu came up with to be more Confucian in flavour than Taoist? Why then was Yang teaching a martial art that people instinctively know is Taoist in philosophy? Tai Chi Chuan (a soft, internal martial art) is, after all, based on those great symbols of Taoism – the Yin Yang symbol, the 5 elements, the 8 Bagua, etc..
So, how do you explain that contradiction? Well, I can add one more piece of evidence. I wouldn’t call it a smoking gun, but it does add to the overall narrative:
If we look at the content of what he was teaching (Tai Chi Chuan) – then you’ll find it kind of is based on traditional Confucian values, rather than anything Taoist. I’ll explain…..
People talk about Tai Chi as being Taoist a lot, but Taoism is this shaggy, messy, nature-loving, outdoorsy, shamanic, magic, smokey, rich, spiritual, earthy thing involving things like spirit possession and exorcism – it’s not very Confucian at all. Or indeed, very like Tai Chi Chuan.
The best description of Taoism I’ve heard was by Bill Porter (Red Pine), who likened Taoism to “house-broken shamanism”.
The philosophy we find in Tai Chi Chuan – yin and yang, 5 elements, 8 powers, etc. uses the symbols of Taoism, but is all very heavy on categorisation – it’s very clean, neat and orderly. In fact, very… Confucian!
Or, rather, it’s what scholars call “Neo Confucian”. At the time that Buddhism was gaining popularity in China, as a threat to Confucianism, the Confucians needed something to combat it, because they had nothing very “spiritual” in their religion, whilst Buddhism and Taoism were both full of spiritual stuff.
The Confucians plugged the gap with what became known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism adopted the signs and symbols and ideas of these more spiritual religions (yin and yang, Taiji symbols, 5 elements, etc), but it was really just repackaged Confucianism 101. The scholar responsible for all this was Zhu Xi, who lived during the Song Dynasty, from 1130-1200AD. He effectively sanitised all these Taoist ideas and related it all back to the 4 classic texts of Confucianism. His impact in his lifetime was not so great, but to later periods it was absolutely huge – his ideas formed the basis of the Civil and Martial exams that people had to pass to enter government/senior positions, for example.
Damon did an excellent episode about Zhu Xi’s impact on Chinese society and martial arts as part of the Heretics Xing Yi series (the same Neo-Confucian philosophy ends up being dumped on Xing Yi during a later period).
Give that episode 5 of Xing Yi a listen. To me it makes sense.
I should add some rumour control, since I think that Tai Chi people will generally not like this Neo-Confucian angle:
1. I don’t think saying that the philosophy of Tai Chi is actually Neo-Confucian, rather than Taoist is a diss to the art – an actual Taoist martial art I imagine would not be as practical! It would be messy, unfocussed and a bit wild. A martial arts form repeated over and over in the same sequence each time would probably be a strange concept to a Taoist!
2. I also don’t want to diss the Chen family – their reputation during the Ching Dynasty was of them being practical and expert martial artists who actually used their martial skills to fight bandits and escort caravans. They were the real deal! Their family martial art is older than the appearance of Taijiquan in the 1850s by far – and as any good Confucian knows, older is always better! 🙂
What matters to me about Taijiquan is that it works, not what you call the philosophy behind it.
This is Hong Xiuquan, the extremist Christian who orchestrated the biggest and most bloody civil war in history, the Taiping rebellion. It happened around the same time as the American civil war, and shared a lot of similarities.
The Taiping’s had some previously unimaginable beliefs in China, like equality for men and women (women fought in their army, which reached a million people) and no private ownership of land.
From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Taiping Christianity placed little emphasis on New Testament ideas of kindness, forgiveness, and redemption. Rather, it emphasized the wrathful Old Testament God who demanded worship and obedience. Prostitution, foot-binding, and slavery were prohibited, as well as opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and use of tobacco and alcohol. Organization of the army was elaborate, with strict rules governing soldiers in camp and on the march. For those who followed these rules, an ultimate reward was promised. Zeng Guofan was astonished when, after the capture of Nanjing, almost 100,000 of the Taiping followers preferred death to capture.
Under the Taipings, the Chinese language was simplified, and equality between men and women was decreed. All property was to be held in common, and equal distribution of the land according to a primitive form of communism was planned. Some Western-educated Taiping leaders even proposed the development of industry and the building of a Taiping democracy. The Qing dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it never again was able to establish an effective hold over the country. Both the Chinese communists and the Chinese Nationalists trace their origin to the Taipings.
We believe these historical events contributed directly to the creation of Taijiquan. Without the Ching court being rocked to its core respected Confucian court officials like Wu Yuxiang and his brother would not have even interacted with a low-level martial artist like Yang Luchan. But the Taiping rebellion was not the only crises happening in China at the same time. A dynasty can survive one crisis, but several at once? No chance. The Yangtze river flooded leading to a catastrophic famine and loss of life and the British and the French started the second Opium war. There was also the Nian rebellion in the North.
The Taiping’s were eventually defeated with help from the Mongols and British. (The British wanted to sell opium, to sustain their empire and the Taiping’s were against that). If the rebellion had suceeded, just imagine the different China that would have emerged.
We cover all this in the 3rd part of your history of Taijiquan, and the crucial moment when the Wus first meet the Chens:
Ok, here it is, part 2 of our history of Tai Chi Chuan. In this episode we examine the context in which the relationship between Yang Luchan, Wu Chengqing and Wu Yuxiang developed during the years of the Taiping Rebellion and the new regime of Emperor Xianfeng.