Forget Taoism, is Tai Chi Chuan really a Neo-Confucianist martial art?

Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi -(1130-1200AD. This man has a lot to answer for 🙂

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. 

The caste system is based on the Four Occupations of Confucianism:

Theatre performers and martial artists are lower than no.4. They were “mean people”: jiànrén.

The noun is also used to mean “bitch” or “bastard”. The pronunciation can be found here:

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.[1]

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.

Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan

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.[24] 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 instrumentcymbals, 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

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.

Zhu Xi

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). 

Here it is:

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.

The Taiping Rebellion and its influence on Taijiquan

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.

Hong Xiuquan

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:

The Myth of Taijiquan part 1

The Myth of Taijiquan part 2

The Myth of Taijiquan part 3

Tai Chi throws

A new comment on one of my older YouTube videos called simply “Tai Chi Throws”, made me realise that it’s now got 13,000+ views on YouTube. It was nice to watch it back and remember those times 🙂

There are applications for many popular Tai Chi moves here: Single Whip, Diagonal Flying, Needle at Sea Bottom, etc.

Here it is:



Make Xing Yi wild again

animal animal photography avian beak

Photo by Pixabay on

Rewilding is an environmental process that brings nature back to life and restores living systems. Apex predators and keystone species are reintroduced and we let nature reclaim parts of the landscape, without human intervention.

The coronavirus pandemic has lead to a kind of enforced rewinding of the urban world. As the human race retreats indoors for the next few months it’s a chance for nature to reclaim parts of cities. As tourists left corona-stricken Venice, swans, fish and even dolphins returned to the canals. In England, the constant background hum of traffic is dimmed as people stay at home. As I stand in my back garden and look up at the last of the blossom on my cherry tree I can see more birds flitting about in its branches than normal. I can hear more bird song than usual.

One of my favourite martial arts, Xing Yi, was once a wild and untamed martial art, but over time it has become a rather domesticated and pale version of its former self. Human ideas have come to dominate in Xing Yi, where once nature was its real inspiration. But now Xing Yi can no longer be practiced freely with other people maybe we should take this time to do the same thing with it and other martial arts — rewild them and return them to the source.

animal close up country countryside

Photo by Pixabay on

Our hook into the natural world

After trees and fields, our next point of entry into the natural world is usually from seeing wild animals. Even in cities, animals are all around us, but we rarely pay much attention to them. Foxes roam our streets at night, magpies land on our rooftops and birds of prey can even hunt in our gardens. In the past animals provided inspiration for many martial arts. Xing Yi, with its various animal ‘shapes’, in particular, was one of them. Unlike humans, wild animals aren’t separated from nature by civilisation. Even our pets can unexpectdly reveal their wild side on occasion.

Unusually, I was first introduced to Xing Yi Animals as part of my Tai Chi training. My teacher’s teacher had learned Xing Yi, along with various other martial arts in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK in the 1970s, but rather than teach the whole art to his UK students he used the 12 Animals as coat hangers for techniques which suited their individual body types and attributes. The main arts he taught my teacher were Tai Chi Chuan, Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Lee Fut, but to help his students become more effective in sparring he saw a lot of value in using the Xing Yi animal strategies. So, for example, one student who was good at straight punches would be given Horse to work with in sparring, and another, who was more stocky and good at rounded punches and kicks would be given Bear.  Learning in this way was very individual. You were given some sample movements, and it was then up to you to build from there by adding in other techniques that you found worked well in combination.

My own teacher also used the Xing Yi animals in the same way and from this little dip into the art my curiosity for Xing Yi was piqued and I became hungry to learn more. My search for Xing Yi-proper lead me to eventually meet an actual teacher of the full art, who was kind enough to take me on as a student. And while his techniques had more variety and specialisation, and the body methods looked more distinctively “Xing Yi”, (they required a good grounding in the 5 Element fists first, and were quite different to Tai Chi Chuan) I was pleased to see that his overall approach to the animals was roughly the same. After first learning a set sequence, he would then introducing variations to help you get the flavour of the animal through free experimentation. He encouraged you to actually observe the animal in question. Rather than being prescribed an animal to work with, his students tended to naturally gravitate towards one animal or two; the ones that suited their personalities and abilities.

Xing Yi Snake

The author practicing Xing Yi Snake with Glen Board, author of Xing Yi – A study of Tai and Tuo Xing . Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

A proficient Xing Yi practitioner however, he taught me, should always be able to switch between animals freely, as required by the situation. Tiger, for instance, is good at entering from a distance while striking heavily on the opponent. Bear, for example, is good at close infighting and Snake is good at close quarter grappling. Moving between all three in an encounter may take only a few seconds.

Ultimately, the goal for a Xing Yi student is to get good at all 12, rather than just one or two, then leave them behind entirely and just practice “Xing Yi” itself. Of course, this training progression assumes you have hours of free time to practice, since this was the traditional way. The reality of adapting Xing Yi to our busy, modern lives is somewhat at odds with this expectation, so I found that focussing on an animal or two that suited me personally was perhaps a better use of my limited time. Bear-Eagle, Chicken and Monkey were my favourites.

Rewilding Xing Yi

In modern times, Xing Yi animals have taken something of a back seat to the 5 element fists, or set linking forms. Rather than expansive fighting strategies derived from nature they have become somewhat domesticated, reduced and institutionalised. Really, each animal should be practiced like a mini martial art in itself, yet it is often shrunk down to a single move repeated over and over.

Rewinding Xing Yi would involve putting the focus back on the 12 animals and expanding them. And that’s starts with research.

We live in a time when it’s possible to view Xing Yi from all over the world on your laptop at home. Between all the different lineages of Xing Yi there is enough animal content preserved to fully flesh out the characters of each animal. If we start to look at as many variations of them as we can possibly find between both Xin Yi and Xing Yi, we can build up a bigger picture of what a Xing Yi animal represents.

Even better, find another Xing Yi practitioner and share your animal methods.

Xing Yi Chicken

The author practicing Xing Yi Chicken. Photo by Emma Heeney (c) 2020 Somerset Valley Publishing

And let’s not forget that we can still do with a lot of the Xing Yi animals what the founders of the Li tradition of the Song Dynasty tried to do, which is to get back to nature through direct observation. Amongst the 12 animals, there are several which it’s possible to observe directly yourself in the countryside and woodlands of the United Kingdom. For instance, chickens can be found in farmyards. Horses can be found in fields, and swallows still perform their aerial acrobatics in our skys. While there are a goshawks living in Wales and Scotland, Sparrow hawks are common throughout Brtain, and you can at least find birds of prey on display at many centres throughout the UK.

The other way we can rewild our practice is to change where we practice. My teacher always taught outside, in nature, because that was the way he learned in China. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, if he said he was going to be there, he was there. In fact, if you turned up to practice in a snow or rainstorm he’d be happier and teach you something especially good! Experiencing the weather directly is one way to get closer to nature. You can only learn to take the environment into account in your practice if you have to deal with it on a regular basis. Practicing at night under the night sky where you can see the stars is another great way of turning your head back to nature. Stop practicing indoors. Training in village halls is fine, but that perfectly flat wooden floor is making life too easy for you. Get outside and feel the wind on your face, it will do you good.

brown and white eagle

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the fundamental principles of Xing Yi and adopt a delusional approach to practice, where our only judge of what’s correct is our own opinion. Animals living wild in nature don’t have the luxury of opinions. Their methods of hunting for prey or defending against predators either work, or they starve or get eaten.

The principles of Xing Yi are not derived from old sayings or old books. They’re derived directly from nature.

We’ve been ignoring nature for a long time now. As the coronavirus sweeps the world an old, uninvited guest has returned to the table. To quote the excellent poem, Sometimes a Wild God, by Tom Hirons,

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

We can fear this guest, or we can embrace him.

Let’s let nature be our teacher once more.

Let’s make Xing Yi wild again.

woman walking on a log in the forest

Photo by Brady Knoll on

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on




The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2] – a new interpretation

The Tai Chi Classic [Part 2]

Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.

girl thumbs through the old book

Photo by Kaboompics .com on



All movements are motivated by Yi,
not external form.

[Yi is usually translated as “intent” and refers to the mind. It doesn’t mean ‘your intent to do something’ – a closer English translation of that would be “will”, and it definitely doesn’t mean what a lot of people end up thinking it means, which is your intent to hurt or attack. People talk about having this kind of killer, or predator, mindset. No, that’s not what it’s talking about.]

[What these lines are saying is that the guiding action for a movement comes from your mind leading the body. It’s your internal self leading your external self. In Taijiquan your dantien leads the physical movement, with your body kind of trailing behind, but here we are told that before that happens, your mind starts the movement, with your dantien kind of trailing behind that.]

[It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the thinking part of your mind here. I quite often liken Yi to thinking in directions. You want to raise your arm up, you think in that direction and let the body follow. What this does is dispense with the intellectual, thinking, part of the brain, and just gets you in touch with the physical body directly, with no barrier in between.]



If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to the right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.

[I think there are two, related, ideas going on here. The first is that (paradoxically) if you want to push somebody up and away, you first let your dantien area sink downwards and connect to the ground, then the power comes up from the feet]

[Previously we talked about power up from the ground. Now we get into the nitty-gritty of how we make that actually work without just using brute strength from the legs. If you sink the dantien area – think “drop” – then there is an instant ground force reaction that comes back in the opposite direction. Provided the body is ‘threaded together’ and relaxed enough, where force this goes is guided by the part of your brain the Chinese called Yi. Here are two photos attempting to illustrate this, but remember, it’s all happening simultaneously, rather than in two separate steps.]

drop 1

Sink down from the dantien.

drop 2

Issuing force with jin.


[The other idea presented here is that of being aware of the left and right, and when advancing being aware of withdrawing. On a simple level, it’s saying don’t overcommit, but I connect this idea to a phrase in one of the other classics which says “if you empty the left, you must fill the right”. Just like the Taiji symbol, everything in Tai Chi is circular and in harmony. So if you move something left, then another part of you must move to the right simultaneously, as you rotate around a central point, otherwise, you will be out of balance]

[The Taiji symbol is perfectly balanced, and you need to achieve the same state in your body].




Alternating the force of pulling and pushing
severs an opponent’s root
so that he can be defeated
quickly and certainly.

Full and empty
should be clearly differentiated.
At any place where there is emptiness,
there must be fullness;
Every place has both emptiness and fullness.

[Here we are getting towards the fault of double-weighting. In Taijiquan, you need to have your weight more on one leg than the other at all times. If your weight settles in an equal position then your Taiji symbol has stopped ‘moving’ and is now flat – it has become two separate halves, not a spiraling mix of energy. There’s more to double-weighting than that, but see the link above for that. ]

[As your weight shifts from one leg to the other in push hands, for example, you are ‘alternating the forces of pushing and pulling’. If you can do this while staying in balance then your opponent will become disrupted.]

[But again, you must stay in balance. So if you advance something – here represented by fullness – then you must withdraw something else – here represented by emptiness – at the same time.]


The whole body should be threaded together through every joint
without the slightest break.

[This is a return to the theme at the start of the classic of threading the body together, making it connected and keeping everything balanced. After reading the words between the start and these lines you should have a better idea of what that means. The emphasis on keeping the joints open and relaxed in particular is that these are usually the problem points where we lose connection.]


Long Boxing is like a great river
rolling on unceasingly.

[It’s interesting that the classic calls the art “Long boxing”. These days there are different martial arts in China called Long Boxing (Chang Quan) that aren’t Taijiquan.  Perhaps this indicates that the name Taijiquan was not universally adopted when the classic was written, but more likely it is simply that the classic is a collection of already popular martial arts sayings. The Taijiquan form is a long sequence of movements, so “long boxing” is quite descriptive of the art.]


Peng, Lu, Ji, An,
Tsai, Lieh, Zhou, and Kao
are equated to the Eight Trigrams.
The first four are the cardinal directions;
Ch’ien [South; Heaven],
K’un [North; Earth],
K’an [West; Water], and
Li [East; Fire].
The second four are the four corners:
Sun [Southwest; Wind],
Chen [Northeast; Thunder],
Tui [Southeast; Lake], and
Ken [Northwest; Mountain].
Advance (Chin), Withdraw (T’ui),
Look Left (Tso Ku), Look Right (Yu Pan), and
Central Equilibrium (Chung Ting)
are equated to the five elements:
Fire, and
Taken together, these are termed the Thirteen Postures

[This last section is almost a bit of admin. It lays out the fundamentals that define Taijiquan – the 8 energies and the 5 directions].

Is there really only one style of Tai Chi?

Time to address some more comments generated by my Whole body movement post. Oliver Gerets writes:

“The body can move/coordinate in an almost unlimited number of ways. These kind of oversimplified comparisons are useless and misleading. There is no general/right way of “whole body movement” in Taijiquan. Every school/lineage is at least slightly different. “

This is an interesting point. Are all the different styles of Tai Chi actually different martial art styles, or are they all one? The generally accepted wisdom on the matter (Chinese government-backed) is that (in theory) there is only one style of Tai Chi. But when you get on the ground, in amongst the weeds, then it’s really hard to see how somebody doing Sun style Tai Chi is doing the same thing as somebody doing Chen style, and how either of them are doing the same thing as somebody doing Yang style. Sure, if you follow the sequence of their long forms, they follow roughly the same order, but the stances are all different and the type of body movement looks different. They might have had the same starting point, but over the years, they seem to have diverged significantly.

Or have they? Let’s return again to the three principles I listed as the essence of Tai Chi whole body movement in my last post.

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

You can argue that these 3 things are happening in all Tai Chi styles. 


Sun style.


Yang style


Chen style


But, the hard truth is that number 1 is not always observed in most practitioners, and number 3, is most often dropped entirely in the styles that don’t start with a letter C in their name.

Is that a bad thing? It’s point 2 that is the most important. Point 2 can be done without point 1 and 3 and you still have a functional martial art. Point 2 is also the thing I see that ties together all the “internal” arts in the most obvious way – Bagua, XingYi and Tai Chi Chuan.

We only have so many hours to train a week. I think you could make an argument that if you want to get anywhere in Tai Chi, then you’re better off spending most of your time working on point 2 anyway.

If you add in points 1 and 3 then you get even better movement. It’s a different type of movement. I think it’s worth investing time in learning points 1 and 3 as well, but make no mistake – it’s a significant investment of time. A good place to start is a simple single arm-waving silk reeling exercise:

Oliver’s final point is:

“There is no sense in moving like a cheetah, only if you want to run in a similar way. Which is not useful as a human being.”

It’s peculiar that he’s written this in a Facebook group (Ancestral Movement) which seems to enjoy looking at the way animals move and what we can learn from them. As mammals, our bodies really aren’t that different. Generally, we all have a spine, 4 limbs and a head.


I’m not suggesting that we should pretend to be a horse or a cheetah, but the principles of movement in mammals are shared amongst all species. Even us.

Here’s a review of an Ancestral Movement seminar, if you want to find out more about it.

Tai Chi whole-body movement revisited

gray dragon statue

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So, my last post on what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi Chuan got some interesting reactions on the interwebs. I thought answering the comments might make a good subject for a few more articles. So let’s get going with the first of them.

On the Ancestral Movement group, Andrew Kushner writes:

“Whole body motion” is a lousy coaching cue. It neither helps people move more correctly nor is it an accurate description of what’s going on. It is possible to have “whole body motion” with only one limb moving apparently, and it is also possible to have the entire body involved but still ‘disconnected’ from an IMA perspective.

In fact this is the case with most athletic movements. Do you really think boxers and judoka don’t involve their whole body when they go to express power?

Firstly, yes, I’d agree that ‘whole body motion’ is a bad coaching cue, since it is so undefined. That’s really what my post was about – how there are different possible interpretations of what whole-body motion could mean, and what it actually means in the context of Tai Chi Chuan. Like most of the writings in ‘the classics‘, Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points is only useful if you already know what he’s talking about. Which makes them good as reminders, but rubbish as coaching cues.

The second point about boxers and judokas is interesting. Yes, I agree that boxers and judoka involve their whole body when they go to express power. But they do it in a different way to Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Or at least they generally do. Sure, you could do both boxing and judo with a Tai Chi Chuan type of whole-body power, if you wanted to. But in Tai Chi you want to use as little physical effort as possible to get the job done. It’s difficult to even understand what that means and even hard to actually do it. Tai Chi movement is subtle and tricky and there’s no real incentive to train that way in combat sports where results matter and there are quicker, easier ways to get them.

boxers inside a ring

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It’s not like boxers don’t use their legs when throwing a punch. Of course, they do, but do they do it in the exact way we do in Tai Chi Chuan? I don’t think so. Let’s remind ourselves what the Tai Chi Chuan way of moving is again –

1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

That’s difficult. A strong, athletic 20-year-old in Judo can fire his hips into a throw with more than enough speed and power to get the job done. It doesn’t need to have all come from the ground to work.

“Second, there is more in common between the “robot dance” and CIMA than Graham acknowledges. It wasn’t until I learned other ways of moving e.g. Systema and dance that I realized just how blocky and ‘robotic’ the CMA’s are at their core, even flowy and ‘natural’ looking ones like taiji. In fact I think a lot of their power derives from this similarity — simple movements done well.

Still for all the similarities there are important differences between CMA and the robot dance, so it is instructive to consider what those might be.”

That’s interesting. I don’t know what Andrew’s individual experience of Chinese Martial Arts has been, but I’m always a bit wary of using my individual experience to generalise and speak for all of Chinese Martial Art. It’s a very broad church and it contains pretty much every possible version of movement you can imagine.

Is he talking about modern Wu Shu training? The 1920s GouShu experiment that got exiled off to Taiwan? The pre-twentieth century martial arts that were forced underground? Wrestling styles?

I guess, compared to Systema any martial art could be called ‘blocky’ and ‘robotic’ since Systema has no routines or patterns and has no stance, just the four pillars: movement, breath, posture and relaxation. It also looks utterly ridiculous at times. I’m actually not adverse to Systema at all and I think there’s some great stuff in there. I’ve got a good friend who is a teacher and I do want to check out his class sometime. (But it would mean time spent not doing Jiujitsu, and that’s a serious consideration, so some tough choices will have to be made!)

On balance I think there is some merit in Andrew’s criticism of CMA here. A lot of it is just a lot of forms. But again, it depends on how you train it. Are you just training forms for forms sake? I think a lot of Chinese martial arts is like this. I’ve never been attracted to systems that had a lot of forms. A form for this, a form for that. I think that misses the point entirely.

I think of ‘forms’ as being like the raft in the parable of the Buddha crossing the river.

But then Andrew flips it around and praises “Simple movements done well” I think this references to things like XingYi, which has 5 fists as its base. These are quite often practiced over and over, for years. until you get very good at them. Personally, that approach didn’t appeal to me. I found the more varied animals much more interesting to practice and also more alive, less robotic, more spontaneous and useful for actual sparring. I think that’s where real power of Chinese Martial Art lies – not in practicing simple thing over and over, but in not getting too fixed down into any particular method or technique and keeping things fluid and “in the moment”.

But each to their own.

Tai Chi: One part moves, all parts move


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I’ve been thinking of the way to describe what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi. The problem is describing a specific feeling, or body movement using words, which leaves the meaning open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

In Yang Cheng-Fu’s Ten Important Points, No. 7 says:

“7.) Coordinate the upper and lower parts of the body. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say “the motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers.” Everything acts simultaneously. When the hand, waist and foot move together, the eyes follow. If one part doesn’t follow, the whole body is disordered.”

This is an expanded version of the more condensed and often heard phrase: “One part moves, all parts move”. But it’s also misleading.

If you take the line “Everything acts simultaneously” at its literal meaning you don’t have Tai Chi movement. You have robot dancing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like robot dancing as much as the next Peter Crouch fan, but it’s not Tai Chi. When you see a performer doing the robot dance she often swivels the waist sideways, or dips the hip with the arm locked to the body. With the dip the whole torso and arms all move downwards together, simultaneously. Something like this:


It’s fairly obvious that this is not what is meant by Yang Cheng Fu when he says to move the body parts simultaneously, and yet I do see people falling into this trap quite often. They obviously had no intention to set out moving like a robot, but when the brain gets the idea that the body must move as a unit, the resultant expression can often end up far from the mark.

Instead, the way the body moves in Tai Chi should be more like ripples emanating from a stone dropped in a lake. The central point is the dantien. The waves begin there and ripple out to the extremities (feet, head and hands).


When you move, the dantien moves first, and the rest of the body follows in a coordinated action, almost as if dragged by the dantien. It is loose, connected, relaxed and powerful, rather than stiff, jerky and ’empty’.

The parts of the body don’t all move together at exactly the same time, otherwise you’ll end up like a robot. Instead, you want to be more like the way an animal moves. Animals demonstrate some of the best, most graceful, full-body, co-ordinated movement you’ll ever see.

The Cheetah is the classic one that’s used to illustrate open and close in the body, but also the directed head position. Just look at how the head helps with the coordination when running here:


While we run with a torso held in the vertical plane and the Cheetah runs with the torso in the horizontal plane, the head position remains key.

Point 1 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points is:

1.) Head is held upright to let the shen rise to the top. Don’t use li, or the neck will be stiff and the chi and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise.

In the Cheetah, the engine is the dantien area. The torso does big opening and closing movements as it sprints and the head points the way, keeping the spine flexible, but extended.

Be less robot, be more Cheetah.