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Tai Chi Analyzed

Part I: The Foundation
Part II: Choosing a Style

The Early Days

Until recently even the name of Tai Chi Ch'uan was not well known in this country. Only because Americans are now more conscious of health has this ancient art become popular.

grandmaster In reality, Tai Chi had been practiced in New York's Chinatown well before the arrival of any noted masters. Cheng Man-ch'ing was one of the first noted masters to arrival in New York's Chinatown. His school was on Canal Street on the second floor of a small building. It was here Tai Chi was introduced to the American people. Before that, only the Chinese knew of it, as they themselves brought it with them from their homeland.

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On a summers days you could see the Chinese in Chinatown's small park practicing their Tai Chi. Few Americans knew or even cared what about this art and its enormous benefits. Only small inner circles of American martial arts people knew what Tai Chi was. So in the beginning Cheng Man-ch'ing was surrounded by Chinese and American martial artists eager to learn from him.

Since then, much has changed. Now Tai Chi is known from coast to coast and more people are joining Tai Chi schools each day. Even American doctors are now recommending the practice of Tai Chi for good health. Yes, the Chinese secret is out, and people are flocking to the schools all over the country to share in the wonderful benefits Tai Chi offers those who practice it.

Yet there is still an air of mystery surrounding this art. The many styles and variations of styles that have emerged over the years confuses people.

So what does this mean when you choose a style for your own learning?

The Formation of Chi Kung Exercises

With so many masters revealing their particular styles of Tai Chi, what is the average American to make of this flood of Tai Chi knowledge? How many styles are there, and which is best for you?

To answer these questions you have to understand that Tai Chi is based on the internal methods of Taoists, who were noted for their chi kung practices for revitalizing natural energies. Through certain practices, chi (internal energy) can be nurtured and replenished, thus achieving good health and long life. In this respect all Tai Chi styles are the same.

At some point in China's martial arts history someone realized that by moving our bodies in certain ways they felt invigorated and renewed.
The early origins of Tai Chi are unknown. There are many theories as to its origins, but they are just theories. Simple logic provides us with the best answers as to where it all probably started. At some point in China's martial arts history, some people realized that by moving their bodies in certain ways they felt invigorated and renewed.

From there, various modes of movement were developed to help stretch the body and stimulate blood flow. Soon peoples from all over China were doing these exercise to maintain good health. This became known as Shang-Sya Chi Kung (countryside Chi Kung.) Different practitioners had different movements they favored, but generally it was all very much alike.

To better understand what I mean allow me to give an example. My mother-in-law is a Chinese women, who came from the mainland and now lives in Taiwan. Each morning she goes outside and begins a series of stretches and bends. I once asked her to explain her reasons for doing what she did and why. Her reply was, "I do it to open the body us and move the blood." She added, "It helps me feel much better. more limber."

She went on to say she had no idea what the movements represented, she just copied what she had seen most of her life in China when growing up. These moves had no martial arts application; they were done and are still to this day done purely for health maintenance.

(In my class we start with a exercise known as Push the Mountain and Move the Sea. This can be considered countryside chi kung, and has it has little to do with any specific fighting application. The Tai Chi form follows this exercise but the moves are much more oriented toward the defensive applications. You can actually see the difference between the two types of movements.)

It was the warrior class, the martial artists, who added moves that better reflected their way of thinking. They created moves that served all the same purposes as the countryside chi kung but also had self defense application. This was the beginning of the two classes of chi kung seen today. Although any move can be changed to suit a self defense application, Tai Chi as seen in the various forms today is suited primarily for fighting applications, whereas countryside chi kung has little to do with fighting.

It was the external martial artists who saw a way to practice the best of both worlds: health and defense. They added certain Shao-lin postures to the chi kung exercises, moves that suited the gentle nature of Tai Chi. There were as many variations as there were people doing it. Somewhere along the way, martial artists realized all these moves could be used and combined and modified to create what we call now the internal arts.

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Tai Chi incorporates into its forms and philosophy the theories of Taoism, and the forces of Yin (soft) and Yang (hard). Tai Chi advocates the use of chi (internal energy) both for health and chi for defense.

There is no one form that can be categorized as the original Tai Chi form. No one really knows where is all came from. Tai Chi development goes back well before written records.

In the beginning, if you wished to learn you went to a teacher. Tai Chi were passed on in person or by word of mouth, and in poems.

It is said Tai Chi Ch'uan was developed by Chang San-Feng around 1101 A.D. Yet the same principles that Chang San Fang taught have been around as long as the Liang Dynasty( 502-557 A.D.) and were being taught by Chen Ling-Shih and others of that time period.

One thing my research has proved to me is that no one can be sure who is in fact the originator of Tai Chi Ch'uan. So while Chang San Fang is the one most credited as the innovator, common sense tells us this is just formality, a way to point to a beginning. However, we will conform and call him the father of Tai Chi, so we can have a reference point and say it started there.

Over time, Tai Chi grew into the many styles you see today. Even I as you read this, chances are there is another style being created now. In my own life time I have seen styles appear. Even in my own style of Ch'ang Shih Tai Chi Ch'uan, I have seen short forms of Ch'ang style born that the Master never advocated. This does not make it wrong, just different.

This growth continues today with more styles being born from the minds of the masters who wish to see Tai Chi Ch'uan displayed with their own ideas of harmony and unity. There are numerous variations of Tai Chi, none of which are wrong providing the principles of Tai Chi are followed.

Tai Chi form is like music, each song different in rhythm, lyric, and beat, but its all music. Which you like depends on what kind of music you like. The Chen style is said to be one of the first complete system taught openly as the Tai Chi solo form. But Chen style was derived from Chiang style, so where did Chiang style come from? Chen is further divided into and old style and new style. Yang style was derived from Chen style, and many variations were derived from that point forward. The list goes on: the Wu Style, the Sun Style, the Chen Style, the Yang Style etc. From all these there are variations upon variation, yet all is good Tai Chi Ch'uan. It is just a matter of preference which one you will like; your choice is a matter of aesthetics.

My point is that a new practitioner to the arts should not be too concerned about one style being better then another. If the style is following the principles contained in the Tai Chi Classic writings, you cannot go wrong. Differences really lie in the applications of these forms, but more on that later.

Large Frame Styles and Small Frame Styles

It makes little difference which style you pick when good health is the motivation for studying Tai Chi Ch'uan. All the styles advocate the health aspects to one degree or another. Some put stress more on relaxation then others, such as Chang Man Ching short form version.

This style is referred to as small frame Tai Chi. Small frame means the hand forms tend to be close to the body. The arms are not extended as mush as you would see in so-called large frame styles. In the large frame styles the arms are extended further away from the body.

There has to be a reason for this and there is. In the larger frame style there is more emphasis on the combat use of the movement, and in the small frame styles, less is seen of combat emphasis and more on softness and relaxation. Such differences depend on the intent of the creator when the style was developed. It was either for health, or for health and combat use.

I know many teachers who refrain from even discussing the combat use of Tai Chi. In fact I remember a conversation I had with the late Sophia Delza whose teacher was Ma Yueh-Liang of Shanghai. We were discussing her style and she said, "Don't ask me about the self-defense aspects of my style as I don't know them and I really have no need of them." She added she was only interested in the artistic beauty of the art and the health benefits. She taught her style to people who felt the same way.

If it was self defense that you sought, Sophia you would have made a poor choice of teachers. But, if it was for the intrinsic beauty of the art and health aspects, no one better could be found then Master Sophia Delza.

In her last book entitled "The Tai-Chi Ch'uan Experience" you can read about her deep understanding of the very nature of movement. She writes, "I naturally hope that the player will absorb the diverse thoughts - philosophical, aesthetic, physiological - as part of the spirit of Tai-Chi Ch'uan's universal quality; that he/she will have some inner experience with the 'heart' of Tai Chi Ch'uan in relation to the harmony of one's self and will continue to do so 'endlessly' - since the ending is a new beginning on a much higher level."

She will be sorely missed in the inner Tai Chi cycles.

Part II: Choosing a Style
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