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.
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.
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.
See Archives for more messages from Grandmaster.
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
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.
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.
At some point in China's martial arts history someone realized that by moving
our 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
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
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.
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
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
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