• Tai Chi and the Art of war

When discussing the Taoist roots of Tai Chi, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is usually brought up. It’s seen as the defining document of Taoism and the source of the philosophy underlying the principles of Tai Chi. The imagery of flowing water, and softness overcoming the hard, comes from the Tao Te Ching.

But there was another document that came out of the same time period.  Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, like the Tao Te Ching, was first brought to light around the Warring State Period, around 500 BC.

Both Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu might not have existed. Some researchers claim that both are simply the names assigned to compilations of older texts, edited and assembled around the same time. And both texts are aimed at an educated and elite readership.  The Tao Te Ching was written for a prince, as a guide to good leadership. The Art of War was written for generals.

Both texts seem to be drawing from a common pool of wisdom, an oral tradition that predates both texts by possibly a millennia. The I ching, which is commonly attributed to the 2nd millennia BC, first introduced concepts such as yin and yang, trigrams, Bagua , and the basic nature of reality being change and balance.

Both make morality a cornerstone of their work, and adherence to the Way as the most efficient means of achieving one’s goals. They both describe the wise man as someone who has transcended his ego, whose actions are in synch with the natural ways of Nature.

In essence, they both describe how a Taoist “physics” is applied in their respective field, statesmanship and war craft, a sort of unified set of rules that can be applied equally to internal conflicts and external ones, to politics or to enlightenment.

Both authors see these rules as practical guidelines to be applied in daily life. Both describe an inherently virtuous world which has been corrupted by Man’s ignorance of the Way. And here the Way, the Tao, is adherence to the rules of Nature. The lesson is simple; live in accord with the laws of Nature, and Nature will provide you with a life of peace and equity.

It must be remembered that both books were written during the Warring State period, when war and conflict raged across the land. There must have been a strong desire for peace and order, and for a way to understand the events unfolding across the Chinese landscape. But the Warring States demanded a hard-nosed accounting of all facts, of Nature’s bounty and Man’s potential for cruelty.

Thus the tiles of the books: The Tao Te Ching can be translated as “ The Classic of the Way and Power”, and SunTzu’s work can also translated as “The Art of Conflict”. These are not books describing castles in the clouds.

If we turn to Tung Ying-chieh’s  Secret Method we see:

In Tai Chi Chuan the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not to defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself, but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Tai Chi method is the true Tai Chi method. The ability to teach people the art of self-cultivation and self-defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Tai Chi.

Here we see the teachings of the Tao Te Ching and the Art of War married together in Tai Chi. Both aspects need to be present in order for the practice to be complete.

• A Workout Hidden in a Meditation Wrapped in a Martial Art

A quick note on studying Taijiquan, and how to get what you want out of it:

Taijiquan, no matter what the style, is a complex and demanding object of study. I tend to think of it a three components nestled inside one another, each component requiring it’s own focus.

The first and most immediate level is that it is a physical exercise. This is the level at which most people engage their practice of Taiji. Senior citizens are told to study it in order to have a low-impact exercise which develops flexibility and balance.

On a deeper level it is a meditative practice, a form of moving meditation and Qi development. It is a perfect introduction into the deeper levels of Taoist practice and philosophy.

And finally it is a martial art. This aspect is less well developed in the current Taiji world, but the applications are there, in the form, ready to be studied.

The important point is that each level needs to be addressed independently. Later on, there will be a synthesis of all the elements. But it is possible to do the form as an exercise, and never tap into the meditative aspect of Taiji. It is possible to go through the form as a meditation, without having a clear sense of the applications. But it is not possible to practice the applications without having grappled with the meditative aspect or the physical training.

The point here is to engage the practice with a clear eye; what is the purpose of the study? Some details are important in a meditative context, but less so if one is exploring applications. Some students are not interested in deeper aspects of the form, or in the martial side. And during the practice itself, the focus and change from meditation to application to exercise, and each run of the form will be slightly different.

And yes, the ultimate goal is synthesis of all three levels, but this will not happen automatically, or magically. The Taoist Sage becomes wise in the ways of the Tao through observation, through active participation in the flow of the Universe. Similarly, one must engage Taijiquan with an active and inquisitive mind. The form will not reveal itself to someone who is not actively engaged with it.

A Last Note On Tai Chi in History – Why Do Tai Chi?

I’ve been asked this question often: Why study Tai Chi? What’s the point of dedicating countless hours to a practice that brings no obvious benefits beyond what you would get from a yoga class or a mild exercise routine.

It’s a fair question. And I think most of us Tai Chi practitioners have poor answers. Most of us would mention that it just FEELS good to do it. But then again, so does yoga, and it has some of the same health benefits without requiring the added hours dedicated to memorizing sequences of movement.

There is also a definite romantic element to it. It’s fun to practice a martial art. Start doing the sword form and tell me years of watching swashbuckling movies don’t come up.  Tai Chi is gentle enough that we can fantasize about the adventures without living the reality of bruises and over-sized egos found in hard martial arts.

But the real reason is, I think, found in the historical crucible that created Tai Chi in the first place.

The principles behind Tai Chi have existed for a very long time. Ancient martial arts like the Long Fist are ancestors of Tai Chi, and have existed for millennia’s. The idea of combining Taoist principles and martial arts is not new to China.  But Tai Chi is the form that suddenly exploded in the Chinese consciousness and stayed there.

If you look at when Tai Chi became famous, the dominant mood in China was fear. The world was changing very fast, and not for the better. The crumbling Qing Dynasty and the invading Western powers were a double blow to Chinese self-esteem and physical safety. China was the Sick Man of Asia, and many must have felt powerless to change the situation.

Tai Chi starts to spread during this period of instability because, in my opinion, it offers a way to regain control over one’s life. To those in turn-of-the-Century China, it reinforced Chinese identity while teaching how to become safe in the face of physical threats. To us in turn-of-the-Century Earth, facing the chaos of a global economic crisis and the acid bath of globalization on cultural identity, it offers a similar safe haven.

Tai Chi washed upon the American shores smack in the middle of the 60s. A young population eager for something different immediately took to it. The 60s in America felt as chaotic as China must have felt. Between Kent State, the Civil Rights marches, the Hippie movement and the Weather Underground, it must have felt like the country was tearing itself apart.

And this new century is not much better, with threats of new extremisms rising from all sides and an economic situation getting more fragile by the day, we are all in dire need of a way to cope.

And that is where Tai Chi comes in.

Tai Chi, by declaring itself a martial art, uses conflict as the main metaphor for our relationship with the outside world. Everything can be understood as two opposing forces meeting at the point of contact: opening a door (your mass vs. the inertia of the door), stepping out of the way on a crowded sidewalk (vectors of force colliding), or even a conversation (ideas, goals, clashing in a dialog).

The next question Tai Chi addresses is therefore, in the face of conflict, what is the best response? And it comes up with two answers.

From the outside view, where other martial arts teach active resistance, Tai Chi teaches flexibility.  In Tai Chi you don’t block, you Roll Back. You don’t impose your will on the other, you flow with him or her, disappear from under the push. And the truth is that in most of our lives, we have very little power to change our circumstances. You cannot use hard martial art principles on your boss, but you can use Tai Chi.

From the inside view, Tai Chi trains us to relax in the middle of the storm. It creates a self-contained center, a core which belongs to us, which cannot be affected by external events, our connection to a greater whole. No matter what happens in the outside world, we connect to our dantian and through it to the vast Oneness of the Universe itself. “Find stillness in the movement, and movement in the stillness” the Tai Chi Classics tell us.

And that’s what makes Tai Chi different than Yoga, or a mild exercise routine. Whether you are conscious of it or not, Tai Chi teaches you tools to cope with the modern world. It creates a set of mental habits that shield you from the daily horror of modern life.

• The Four Aspects of Combat

The Chinese divide fighting techniques into four categories: hand attacks (fists, elbows, push…), feet attacks (kicks, knees,…), wrestling (throws, grappling) called Shuai Jiao, and joint locks  (or Qin Na).

These are broad categories that are common to ALL martial arts. It is simply a way to talk about techniques. And some techniques have a mix of two or more categories; kicks that become throws, etc….

Different martial arts have a mix of some or all of the categories. For example, Southern and Northern Chinese martial arts are known for their emphasis on either hand techniques or kicking techniques.

It is very useful to think in those terms when dealing with the Hand Forms in a Tai Chi style. It is possible to find many applications in the form that were “hidden”, or less obvious. A clear example, found in Master Wang’s 2nd Volume, is the punch found in Drag Down as an alternative application.

The Joint Locks and the Wrestling applications are more difficult to find. I think that there is a bias within Tai Chi practitioners against the wrestling moves found in the form. Wrestling tends to be a very physical, forceful practice, at odds with the more gentle, health-oriented practice that most people are familiar with.

They also require a far closer range. There are many techniques in Chinese wrestling that use the armpit as a way to pin an opponent’s arm. Leg throws require you to step into the personal space of your partner.  These are not the arms-length techniques that you find in Push Hands.

But the joint-locks and wrestling moves are everywhere. And sometimes they are the more likely application in a technique. For example, in Single Whip, the usual and somewhat awkward application of the Bird’s Beak hand performing a 1-2 push to the side has been that it is a quick punch to the face of the opponent, with the Talisman hand supporting the wrist. Perhaps. If the finger position is perfect, the Talisman hand MIGHT be a good support for a punch made with an open fist.

But… if the Talisman hand is seen instead as performing a wrist lock, then the application makes perfect sense. The two extended fingers of the Talisman naturally wrap around the fist of the opponent. The three other fingers loosely close around the wrist. The first push brings the Talisman hand vertical, which TWISTS the opponents hand painfully down. The second push shoves the opponent down, the joint lock making it impossible for him/her to resist.

I found it useful to go through the entire form with one category in mind. Find all the hand strikes. All the kicks, all the knee strikes, all the sweeps, the joint locks, the wrestling moves… By being methodical about the four categories, a multiplicity of applications are revealed.

And..that’s the way the originators of Tai Chi would have thought about it.

A Note on Drag Down

It might just be me, but there seems to be some confusion as to what the move Drag Down actually is. It is usually connected to the Chinese term Tsai, and is considered one of the eight basic moves ( or Eight Gates).

But Drag Down is a poor translation of Tsai. First off, Drag Down implies a direction, as if the only way to Tsai is downwards. But that is not the case! You can find Tsai in many other places, in different directions. For example, in Single Whip, there is a Tsai to the side (made with the hand in the Crane Beak position, when the upper body turns to the right).

Tsai can also be translated as Pluck, a short, sharp jerking motion that can be done in any direction.

From now on, I will use Drag Down to describe the move which is found in the 13 Postures: the shifting of the weight, the rising knee, the push with the Tiger’s Mouth. The basic move Tsai will be associated with the idea of Pluck.


• Circles and Squares

Another core idea is that one uses:

Circles to Deflect, Squares to Attack

This means that moves that are considered offensive will follow straight lines. Moves that are defensive will be circular.

Defensive Moves are Ward Off and Roll Back. These two moves are actually mirror images of each other. They both draw a line around the body as the arm sweeps through space, with the hips the center point. It’s as if one is wearing a barrel which spins around, deflecting attacks.

Ward Off is considered Yang, powerful, and is used to push an attack away.

Roll Back is considered Yin, soft, and is used to deflect and redirect an attack.

Offensive Moves are Push and Press. The other Moves are also offensive, but are considered secondary. They will be covered later.

Push covers all and any projection of energy in a straight line away from the body. A punch is a Push. A two-handed shove is a Push. A Push is like shooting an arrow.

Press is a compression strike, sending a short shockwave through an opponent. The energy is not sent through the opponent, but into his or her center. A Press is like slamming a hammer down.

Pluck, Twist the Joint, Elbow Strike and Shoulder Strike are offensive moves which are less general than Push or Press. They have their own bio-mechanics and can only be used in specific ways. Push and Press, on the other hand, describe types of energy.


Welcome to the first post!

The purpose of this blog is to host my ramblings on topics related to Tai Chi and Taoism. It is mostly an easy format for me to jot down the thoughts that have been bumbling around in my head regarding the place of Tai Chi in our modern world. It will also, hopefully, be a resource for students who are interested in deepening their practice.