What is Tai Chi Quan and How has it Developed?

(You will also see it spelled T'ai Chi or Taijiquan.)  

     Tai Chi means the Grand Ultimate.  It means improving and progressing toward the unlimited.  Tai Chi is guided by the theory of opposites, Yin and Yang.  The two powers are always conflicting, yet balancing each other. When this philosophy was incorporated into a martial art program, Tai Chi Quan, which translates to Grand Ultimate Fist, was created. 

     The original Chen style of Tai Chi Quan was created by Chen Wangting.  He was a seventeenth century royal guard from what is known today as Chenjiagou Village in the Henan Province of China. Chen Wangting was a garrison commander and government official who fiercely opposed the new rule of the Qing Dynasty and was forced to flee to his home village where he was hidden from the government authorities for many years by the local community.  Chen Wangting developed an eclectic fighting system that incorporated many of the most effective techniques of the day.        

     Before the invention of firearms, the purpose and attitude of martial arts was to protect and defend your family and community.  Survival was its foremost purpose, however the practitioners did develop considerable health benefits.  Central to Chen Wangting's boxing, or we would call it bare hand method, was the ancient concept of Yin and Yang, the all-encompassing concept of complimentary opposites.  Within the parameters of Tai Chi Quan, the Yin and Yang theory is applied in a practical way.  The aim is to harmonize opposing elements until they reach a state of balance, be they physical or mental, for health or martial skill. 

     For five generations, the skill remained a closely guarded secret taught only within the Chen family.  The first outsider to be taught the art was Yang Luchan (1799-1872).  Yang Luchan went to Beijing after leaving the Chen village.  The Qing Dynasty rulers of the time (who had originally invaded from Manchuria) heard about the sophisticated art of Tai Chi and requested Yang Luchan to teach them.  Unwilling to teach the Manchus, yet unable to say no, Master Yang modified the Tai Chi meditation forms to be a slow-moving outer exercise while not teaching the inner philosophy. He omitted many of the explosive movements, deep postures, stamping and variations in tempo that identify the Chen style.  This exercise style was encouraged and practiced by the Imperial Family. It soon became the fad of the leisure class. This "Public Style" of Tai Chi is still widely practiced as a mild physical exercise without any inner energy work.

    Master Yang trusted only his sons with the inner philosophy of Tai Chi, which continued to be passed down privately in the Yang Family. The slow, even, gentle pace of Yang Family style was taught and further revised by Master Yang's grandson, Yang Chengfu who developed the "Big Frame" which has become the most widely practiced form today, both in China and throughout the world.

    Chen style continued to practiced almost exclusively in the Chen village, despite its being the source of Tai Chi Quan. Chen style truly became a public art as late as 1928 when Chen Fa-ke of the seventeenth generation of Chen Clan went to Beijing at the invitation of his nephew.  His demonstrations caused astonishment among Tai Chi circles familiar only with the slow and gentle Yang style of movement.                  

     Yang and Chen style Tai Chi Quan are the best known, but you will find other styles being practiced.  Wu Style is a modification of Yang's small frame. It emphasizes the rotation of the waist with a focus on mind consciousness rather than the circular movements of the hands. The feet are kept closer together and movements of the arms are also closer to the body.  The form is very compact, performed in uniform slow tempo, and devoid of any leaps or jumps. Sun style, one of the most recently developed, has high stances, even tempo, and a minimal number of kicking and punching movements.  There is more emphasis on small, tight, agile stepping.  Other popular forms have also been formulated in recent years.     

    Each style of Tai Chi has its own characteristics, yet in the structure of the form and the requirements of the body and mind, they share the same principals.  Over time the various forms may have changed, but the basic theory remains the same. In all of its forms and styles, practicing Tai Chi movements and principals harmonizes the body and mind, promotes energy circulation, and builds a strong and well balanced body.  Tai promotes relaxation, mental calmness, and inner strength, sometimes being called a moving meditation.


Philosophy of Yin/Yang

     Thousands of years ago, Chinese Taoists formulated the theory that there is an eternal power that moves the universe.  They called this ultimate power Chi.  According to the legendary theory of Yin and Yang, Chi exercises its powers ceaselessly, moving in a balanced manner between the positive (constructive) yang, and the negative (destructive) Yin.  It is the interplay of constructive and destructive forces that causes the essence of life to materialize and the material world to manifest.  The spiraling movements of these forces seems endless.  The two equal powers of Yin and Yang continually oppose, yet complement each other.  And as you see in the Tai Chi symbol,  there is a little of the black   (Yang) in the white(Yin), and vice versa.

     Yin and Yang represent the perpetual process of change in nature such as between night and day, hot and cold, soft and hard. Whether a thing is classified as Yin or Yang depends on the role it plays in relation to other things, and not on its own intrinsic nature. The relationship of a Yin-Yang pair is not a static one, but is seen as a continuous cycle in which each tends to become dominant and receptive in turn. Night gradually becomes day. Winter follows summer. When a course reaches an optimum point, it will change into its opposite state.

     Tai Chi Quan is the practical application of Yin and Yang.  Movements that are slow and relaxed are Yin, while movements that are fast and strong are Yang.  Closing movements where energy is being stored are Yin, while opening movements where energy is being released are Yang.  The non-weight-bearing side of the body is considered Yin, while the weight-bearing side of the body is Yang.  There is a constant interchange of Yin and Yang.  There is always some Yin in Yang and vice versa.  A balance of Yin and Yang energies will always be present in the body and a Tai Chi Practitioner works with feeling and guiding this balance while doing their Tai Chi Form.         

What is Chi? (Qi)

     Traditional Chinese Philosophy proposes that there is an ultimate power (or source of energy) which moves the universe.  That energy is Chi.  Chi is what powers the human body and creates life.  The Chinese word "Chi" literally means "air', "power", "motion", "energy", or "life".  It is the development of Chi in the body that makes the art of Tai Chi Quan such a unique mental and physical system of exercise. 

     Everyone has possessed Chi since birth. It remains with the individual throughout life, dispersing only at death.  Chi flows ceaselessly in the human body.  This energy circulates through a pathway of meridians throughout the body. 

Whenever there is an interference of the flow, or the path is blocked, sickness occurs. Traditional Chinese doctors advise that cultivating and strengthening the body's Chi is a path to good health.

     There are two main ways to cultivate Chi within your body, Meditation and Movement.  In properly done Tai Chi exercise, we are working with both ways of cultivating our Chi.

      DO not ignore your Chi or try to help it grow.  You can, however, become sensitive to it with practice. The sensation of Chi circulating within the body can be felt.  As you learn to relax more, and to pay attention to how your body feels, you will become aware of your Chi. Mental and physical relaxation are both important.

     The sensation of the awareness of Chi usually begins as a warmth in the palms or tingling in the fingers.  It is also manifest as a sensation of fullness or warmth throughout the body.

 Right arm circles by scooping up, turning palm down, and pulling across at chest height while left arm drops (Weight shifts from side to side)

     Tai Chi Quan is a highly developed system of harmonizing the external body with internal energy.


Breath and Chi 

     "Chi" and "air" share the same word in the Chinese language.  Gradually one can sense that, throughout the entire body, Chi circulates with the air.  To efficiently build up and guide Chi, we must return to "childhood breathing".  We all know how to do this, we breath this way during Sleep. However, for a variety of reasons, we often restrict our breathing during our daily activities.

     To practice normal abdominal breathing, first make yourself comfortable and relaxed.  When you inhale through your nose, draw in the air in a slow, continuous flow.  Allow the air to be drawn all the way down into the abdomen, which will expand as it inflates with air.  Wait a moment until you feel the need to exhale.  Then slowly allow the abdominal muscles to contract as you push the air upward and back out your nose.  Be careful not to force your breathing to the extent that it becomes uncomfortable.     

     After a few full breaths, use your mind to lead the chi through visualization.  The stronger you can establish your target image, the stronger the Chi will flow. Breath in a full breath and as you exhale, imagine sending the air to the part of the body where you wish the Chi to go.  The more you practice, the more natural and stronger the Chi's flow will become.

     During your Form practice allow your breath to come naturally.  Relax and check to see that your breathing is not too shallow, but do not try to regulate when you inhale or exhale.

     Perhaps the greatest innovation of Chen Wangting was the assimilation into his martial arts system of the ancient health method of daoyin (leading and guiding energy) and tu-na (expelling and drawing energy), in addition to Daoist theories on consciousness guiding movement.  Tai Chi Quan became a holistic training system in which the practitioners' mental concentration, breathing and movements are intimately co-ordinated. This paved the way for Tai Chi Quan's future use as an exercise system suitable for all, regardless of age and health status, applicable to all aspects of health care.           

     Note:  Qigong is a practice related to Tai Chi which studies breath control coordinated with simple body movements.           


 Tai Chi Classics

     Traditionally, Tai Chi instruction was carried out either in the temple or in the master's house, and the training

was conducted on a personal basis.  The principles were transmitted mainly by word of mouth.  Tai Chi was passed down verbally from generation to generation.  The few attempts that were made to commit Tai Chi principles to writing were hampered by the limitations of a primitive printing process, which depended on the use of carved wooden blocks and presses.  As the method was costly and time-consuming, articles to be published tended to be as condensed as possible.  The language was often cryptic and the use of one word for multiple meanings was common.  Also, the tendency of Tai Chi practitioners to monopolize instructional materials further reduced the availability of written texts. 

     There exist today only several brief pages of early manuscripts that stand as an authentic source for the correct study and practice of the art of Tai Chi.  These texts are known as the Tai Chi Classics I, II and III and are sometimes referred to as the Tai Chi Bible.  Because of archaic language, complicated concepts, and use of certain technical terms and forms of sentence structure, the many attempts to translate them into modern English or Chinese have given rise to a great deal of controversy. 

     If you wish to read the Tai Chi Classics, I recommend a translation and commentary by Wayson Liao.  A handy pocket size version is called The Essence of T'ai Chi published by Shambhala Publications.