T’ai chi ch’uan (simplified Chinese: 太极拳; traditional Chinese: 太極拳; pinyin: tàijíquán; Wade–Giles: t’ai chi ch’üan; literally “Supreme Ultimate Fist”), often shortened to T’ai chi or Tai chi in the West, is a type of internal Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training and its health benefits. It is also typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: its hard and soft martial art technique, demonstration competitions, and longevity. As a consequence, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims. Some of t’ai chi ch’uan’s training forms are especially known for being practiced at what most people categorize as slow movement.
Today, t’ai chi ch’uan has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of t’ai chi ch’uan trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu, and Sun.
Training and techniques
The core training involves two primary features: the first being the solo form (ch’üan or quán, 拳), a slow sequence of movements which emphasize a straight spine, abdominal breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of pushing hands (tui shou, 推手) for training movement principles of the form with a partner and in a more practical manner.
The solo form should take the students through a complete, natural range of motion over their center of gravity. Accurate, repeated practice of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students’ bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints, and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the forms. The major traditional styles of t’ai chi have forms that differ somewhat in terms of aesthetics, but there are also many obvious similarities that point to their common origin. The solo forms — empty-hand and weapon – are catalogs of movements that are practiced individually in pushing hands and martial application scenarios to prepare students for self-defense training. In most traditional schools, different variations of the solo forms can be practiced: fast–slow, small circle–large circle, square–round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low-sitting/high-sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.
In addition to the physical form, martial t’ai chi ch’uan schools also focus on how the energy of a strike affects the other person. A palm strike that looks to have the same movement may be performed in such a way that it has a completely different effect on the target’s body. A palm strike that could simply push the opponent backward, could instead be focused in such a way as to lift the opponent vertically off the ground, breaking his/her center of gravity; or it could terminate the force of the strike within the other person’s body with the intent of causing internal damage.
Other training exercises include:
- Weapons training and fencing applications employing the straight sword known as the jian or chien or gim (jiàn 劍), a heavier curved sabre, sometimes called a broadsword or tao (dāo 刀, which is actually considered a big knife), folding fan also called san, wooden staff (2m. in length) known as kun (棍), 7 foot (2 m) spear and 13 foot (4 m) lance (both called qiāng 槍). More exotic weapons still used by some traditional styles are the large Dadao or Ta Tao (大刀) and Pudao or P’u Tao (撲刀) sabres, halberd (jǐ 戟), cane, rope-dart, three sectional staff, Wind and fire wheels, lasso, whip, chain whip and steel whip.
- Two-person tournament sparring (as part of push hands competitions and/or sanshou散手);
- Breathing exercises; nei kung (內功 nèigōng) or, more commonly, qigong (氣功 ch’i kung) to develop qi (氣 ch’i) or “breath energy” in coordination with physical movement and post standing or combinations of the two. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 60 years they have become better known to the general public.
Tai chi chuan’s fighting effectiveness
Most practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan accept the martial origins of the art. As a martial art, Tai Chuan Chuan had traditionally been held in high esteem within the Chinese Martial Arts community. However, due to its increased popularity amongst various segments of the population and shifting emphasis on health rather then self-defense, the fighting effectiveness of the practice in the modern era is up for debate.
The question of martial effectiveness of Tai Chi Chuan is part of the larger narrative concerning the effectiveness of form training in traditional Chinese Martial Arts as well as the difference between Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and the development of the Sport of Chinese Martial Arts (Wushu). In general, such questions are ill poised, since the concept of martial arts has changed. Martial Arts, once considered to be a matter of life and death, is now a contest between individuals. For some Tai Chi Chuan practitioners who follow a traditional training method, the martial arts component still exists. As an illustration, anecdotal evidence and expert testimonials are presented to support this view. Conversely, opponents point to the the lack of systematic and documented evidence as ample proof that Tai Chi Chuan is no longer an effective modern martial art.
Historically, within China and prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic, the issue of effectiveness is settled in private matchs between martial artists. From most available records, the reputation of Tai Chi Chuan was clearly held in high regards. For example, Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936), Sun Lu-tiang (1861-1932) and Chen Fake (1887–1957) are usually acknowledged as martial artist of the first rank.
In the modern era, private challenges are no longer used to settle such disputes. The reputation of Tai Chi Chuan as an effective martial art are still being promoted. Its effectiveness is demonstrated by stories of Tai Chi Practitioner’s overcoming various challenges. For example, in 1945, Hu Yuen Chou (known in Hong Kong as Woo Van Cheuk or Wu Van Cheuk), a student of Yang Cheng Fu who defeated a Russian boxer by TKO in a full-contact match in Fut San, China. Other supporting arguments include the positive comments from martial artists of different styles such as Wong Kiew Kit (Southern Shaolin), Masutatsu ‘Mas’ Oyama (founder of Kyokushinkai karate) and Bruce Lee (Wing Chun, Jeet Kung Do).
Opponents to Tai Chi Chuan as an effective martial arts point to the lack of success of Tai Chi Chuan in the current competitive arena of Mixed Martial Arts. This argument is often countered by the subtle but distinctive difference between Martial Art as a Sport in comparison to the traditional definition of Self Defense.
The following video shows some applications of Tai Chi forms, some of which look very similar in function and princple to Karate bunkai