Tai ji quan [chin.: tàijíquán 太极拳] has become very popular in the last twenty years or so. Along with Yoga, tai ji is one of the fastest growing fitness and health maintenance activities in thw world. Tai Ji Quan, or Tai Chi Chuan is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced with the aim of promoting health and longevity. It is actually an effective martial art. Initially, Tai Ji was practiced as a fighting form, emphasizing strength, balance, flexibility, and speed.
Through time it has evolved into a soft, slow, and gentle form of exercise which can be practiced by people of all ages. Tai Ji Quan is considered a soft style martial art [chin.: nèi jīa 內家] — an art applied with internal power — to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles.
Benefits of Learning Tai Ji Quan
Tai Ji Quan literally translates as “supreme ultimate boxing” or “boundless fist,” but may better translate to “great extremes boxing,” with an emphasis on finding balance between two great extremes. The concept of the “supreme ultimate” is the symbol of the Taijitu (chin.: tàijítú 太極圖) meant to show the principles of Yin and Yang duality of Taoist philosophy. Thus, Tai Ji theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of Chinese philosophy and Taoism in particular.The first noticeable benefit is usually an increase in a feeling of relaxation and well being. In the first few classes, a student will start to sense their own energy or chi. After a short period of time a student will feel this sensitivity increase and begin to improve their energy circulation. Learning to be aware of where tension is held and how to relax and soften (without becoming limp and lifeless) results in a calmer, more relaxed body and mind with an ability to do more at any moment in time. Medical studies of tai chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
Each posture in Tai Ji, contains many Martial applications. In the exercise called Pushing Hands, two people work (pushing hands) to better develop sensitivity and understanding, with the goal of understanding oneself and one’s partner in the same moment. This is done through a series of pushing, pressing, shouldering, and thrusting, in order to get the better of one’s opponent.
Founder of Tai Ji Quan
The founder of Tai Ji Quan, is said to be Zhang Sanfeng (chin.: Zhāng Sānfēng 张三丰) a Taoist hermit who is variously reported as having lived either during the Sung (960-1279) or the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Stories from the 17th century onward give him credit for the internal martial arts. 19th century and later stories give him credit for Tai Ji Quan. Zhang Sanfeng is also said to have been expert in the White Crane and Snake styles of Chinese martial arts as well as in the use of the Chinese straight sword or jian. According to relatively late (19th century) documents preserved within the Yang and Wu family’s archives, the name of Zhang Sanfeng’s master was Xu Xuanping (許宣平), said to be a Tang dynasty hermit poet and Taoist Tao Yin expert.
The Tai Chi Chuan families who ascribe the foundation of their art to Zhang traditionally celebrate his birthdate as the 9th day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.
The practice of Tai Ji Quan
Tai Ji practice requires integrating awareness of mind, thought and emotions, as one cultivates balanced external movements. At the beginning, the movements have to be practiced until they are hardwired into muscle memory and can be retrieved easily. Once the physical movements become effortless and the breathing subtle, one will start to become aware of emotional, mental, psychic and causal sensations that are continuously arising, changing and moving within the body and mind. The spiraling and twisting movements of Tai Ji progressively penetrate the body deeper, thereby causing emotions and mental patterns that are embedded in the tissues to surface. At this stage, one’s energy and awareness have to be strong and stable enough to stay present of the sensations arising. The lower tan-tien, an area in the abdomen, helps to act as an anchor for one’s awareness. Gradually, one learns to dissolve the internal contents that commingles with one’s awareness and experiences these contents as functions of consciousness itself. As the practitioner finds a balance between the swirling polarities of emotional and intellectual thought, he can relax deeply into the core of his being.
There are five major styles of tai chi chuan, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:
Chen style (陳氏)
Yang style (楊氏)
Wu or Wu/Hao style of Wu Yu-hsiang (Wu Yuxiang) (武氏)
Wu style of Wu Ch’uan-yü (Wu Quanyuo) and Wu Chien-ch’uan (Wu Jianquan) (吳氏)
Sun style (孫氏)
There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognised by the international community as being orthodox. Zhaobao Tai Ji, a close cousin of Chen style, has been newly recognised by Western practitioners as a distinct style. The designation internal or nei chia martial arts is also used to broadly distinguish what are known as the external or wai chia styles based on the Shaolinquan styles, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by modern schools. In this broad sense, all styles of tai ji (as well as related arts such as Pa Kua Chang and Xsing-i Quan) are therefore considered to be “soft” or “internal” martial arts.
Because there is no universal certification process, practically anyone can call themself a teacher. Few of these teachers are aware of the martial applications to the tai ji forms and do not teach martially. If they do teach self-defense, it is often a mixture of motions which the teachers think look like tai ji chuan with some other system. While this phenomenon may have made some external aspects of tai ji available for a wider audience, the traditional tai chi schools see the martial focus as a fundamental part of their training, both for health and self-defense purposes. The traditional schools claim that while the students may not need to practice martial applications to derive a benefit from tai ji training, they assert that tai ji teachers at least should know the martial applications to teach correct and safe movements. Also, the ability to protect oneself from physical attack is considered part of “health maintenance.” For these reasons traditional schools claim that a syllabus lacking the martial aspects is not teaching the art, and is less likely to reproduce the full health benefits of tai ji.
In order to standardize tai ji quan for wushu tournament judging, and because many of the family tai ji quan teachers had either moved out of China or had been forced to stop teaching after the Communist regime was established in 1949, the government sponsored Chinese Sports Committee brought together four of their wushu teachers to truncate the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956. They wanted to retain the look of tai chi chuan but create a routine that was less difficult to teach and much less difficult to learn than longer (generally 88 to 108 posture), classical, solo hand forms. In 1976, they developed a slightly longer form also for the purposes of demonstration that still didn’t involve the complete memory, balance and coordination requirements of the traditional forms. This was the Combined 48 Forms that were created by three wushu coaches, headed by Professor Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on simplifying and combining some features of the classical forms from four of the original styles; Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun. As tai chi again became popular on the Mainland, more competitive forms were developed to be completed within a six-minute time limit. In the late-1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized many different competition forms. They developed sets to represent the four major styles as well as combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of wushu coaches in China. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style, e.g., the Chen Style National Competition Form is the 56 Forms, and so on. The combined forms are The 42 Form or simply the Competition Form. Even though shorter, modern forms do not have the conditioning benefits of the classical forms, the idea was to express the distinctive cosmetic features of these styles in a shorter time for competition.
These modern versions of tai ji quan have since become an integral part of international wushu tournament competition, and have been featured in several popular Chinese movies starring or choreographed by well known wushu competitors, such as Jet Li.