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The Art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan


What is T'ai chi ch'uan?


T'ai chi ch'uan, also written taijiquan or shortened to t'ai chi or taiji, is a Chinese martial arts school that has existed for centuries. It can be translated in several ways, but the most common interpretation is “supreme ultimate fist.” It can also be translated as “supreme ultimate boxing” or “boundless fist.” T'ai chi ch'uan is a form of wushu, or Chinese martial art, and is practiced not only as a form of self-defense training, but as a form of meditative art. T'ai chi ch'uan is typically broken into hard and soft martial technique, as with many other forms of Eastern martial arts.


Soft and hard martial arts refers to the force a practitioner applies to strikes, throws, and so on, whether sparring with an opponent or on his or her own. Soft martial arts are typically practiced as a form of meditation or exercise, or to improve one's form and self-control rather than raw power. Soft and hard martial arts can refer to both armed and unarmed combat.


Because T'ai chi ch'uan has such a long history, both modern and traditional techniques are still practiced today, and there is a good amount of variety between all the respective techniques. Some forms of T'ai chi ch'uan are specialized more toward physical combat and hard martial technique, whereas others are not truly designed for fighting and make heavy use of soft martial technique.


T'ai chi ch'uan's Benefits


T'ai chi ch'uan is a unique martial art, and can be practiced in a number of different styles and for many different reasons. It is popular around the world among various cultures, and is used to benefit people in a variety of ways. Modern T'ai chi ch'uan is used to treat both physical and mental ailments, though its most common form as a treatment method is in physical therapy and geriatric medicine. T'ai chi ch'uan can be found in physical therapy centers in hospitals as well as in the form of private and public classes worldwide.


Because of the calm, sweeping motions of the yin aspect, older practitioners may experience less difficulty. Older people who perform T'ai chi ch'uan may experience a decrease in risk of falling in daily life, improved balance, and improved psychological and physiological condition, according to a review in 2011. Practitioners of T'ai chi ch'uan report a greater sense of mental peace and ability to focus for longer periods of time. Beneficial effects on more severe illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, arthritis, and so on are still a subject of debate, as no conclusive evidence to support beneficial effects has been found.


The Schools of T'ai chi ch'uan


Most forms of T'ai chi ch'uan, both modern and traditional, can have their origins tied back to the five primary T'ai chi ch'uan schools. The Sun school produced a uniquely smooth, almost gentle style of T'ai chi ch'uan. It does not have as much leaping or crouching as other styles, and the footwork of Sun stands out from other styles in that each foot follows the other when advancing or retreating. Sun style is popular today as a meditative art as well as in physical therapy and exercise.


Wu style was developed by a military cadet in the mid-nineteenth century CE, and focuses on pushing hand motions and parallel footwork. Wu style is slightly different than other schools in its more aggressive techniques, such as joint breaks, leg sweeps, throws, grapples, and weapon technique. Advanced users also learn pressure point leverage, tumbles, and more. Wu (Hao), not to be confused with the previous Wu style, is a less common school that focuses on subtle movements of the body and hands, and balance of the the body overall. The development of the chi is also very important in Wu (Hao) style.


The Yang style is the most popular form of T'ai chi ch'uan practiced today. Its major forms include the Hand and Weapon, with the former being a slower, steadier variety of movements and the latter using a more energetic and vigorous style of movement. Lastly, Chen style is the oldest form of T'ai chi ch'uan, and is still practiced today. The thing that makes Chen style instantly recognizable is known as silk reeling, which alternates between slow, sweeping movements and brief bursts of energy. It can be practiced both as a healthy exercise or as a martial art.


The History of T'ai chi ch'uan


The influences of early T'ai chi ch'uan can be traced back to the Taoist and Buddhist temples of twelfth-century China, but it is difficult to trace when the martial art's true origins arose. The earliest confirmed history seems to place the formation of the art somewhere around the seventeenth century, though it was not known as T'ai chi ch'uan until roughly a hundred years later.


T'ai chi ch'uan came to the United States in 1939, with the teacher Choy Hok Pang, who was trained under the teacher Yang Chengfu. Choy Hok Pang's son Choy Kam Man went on to become one of the first teachers of T'ai chi ch'uan in San Francisco's Chinatown ten years later, where he stayed until his death in 1994.


Today, T'ai chi ch'uan is widely popular as a physical therapy and form of exercise among all ages, especially among older people. It is also practiced as a martial art, of course, though certain schools are more suited for this than others. Others still practice the art primarily for its aesthetics, and competitions of form are held in order to showcase the self-discipline and physical strength that more advanced techniques require.


Training in T'ai chi ch'uan – Techniques


The two primary forms of training in T'ai chi ch'uan are solo and partnered, though both of these types have several sub-forms. Solo forms (Taolu) of T'ai chi ch'uan include neigong (or qigong) and zhan zhuang, which means “to stand like a post.” Neigong refers to “internal skill,” while qigong means “life energy cultivation,” and these are used in tandem with zhan zhuang to train the spirit and body alike. Solo form can also be subdivided into empty hand and weapon styles.


Partnered T'ai chi ch'uan is more often used in training as a martial artist, though there are movement-based spiritual and meditative partnered exercises. In combat, T'ai chi ch'uan practitioners rely on reacting to their opponent's movements, often using their opponent's center of gravity against them. The goal of each strike in T'ai chi ch'uan is to disrupt the opponent's center of gravity, which is accomplished by focusing the yin aspect in the form of slow, thoughtful, careful movements, then unleashing yang in the form of a sudden, high-impact strike.


There are a number of different weapons that can be used in T'ai chi ch'uan as well, both in solo practice and performance as well as partnered sparring. A few of the more common variants on the weapons used in T'ai chi ch'uan include jian, which are straight swords with two edges, dae, which are curved, longer, broader swords similar to a scimitar, and gun, a straight wooden staff roughly two meters in diameter. Other weapons include the tieshan, a folding fan, qiang, which refers to spears and lances (between two and four meters), and ji, or halberd (a broad-bladed polearm). There are a few rarer weapons as well, such as the wind and fire wheels (feng huo lun), chain whips, and the sheng biao (rope dart).


The Philosophy of T'ai chi ch'uan


T'ai chi ch'uan is based heavily on the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism, though there have been a number of other influences on the martial art throughout its years, such as Legalism, the concept of feng shui, and traditional Chinese medicine practices. The philosophy of T'ai chi ch'uan relies heavily on the concept of balance, and carries the idea of yin and yang (contrasting opposites) into many of its physical, spiritual, and disciplinary techniques.


Yin and yang is present in almost every aspect of T'ai chi ch'uan. In the physical form, yin manifests as soft martial techniques, such as the sweeping, graceful hand motions and expansive gestures, as well as the strong, solid stances and footwork. Yang manifests as abrupt, powerful motions that take energy conserved by performing yin and channels it into powerful blows or nimble repositioning.


In keeping with the theme of yin and yang, T'ai chi ch'uan uses two polar aspects of its art to convey spiritual and martial components: the martial aspect of T'ai chi ch'uan is represented in the application, while the spiritual aspect is represented in the essence. According to the teacher Yang Pan-hou, there are three levels of spiritual and martial expertise in T'ai chi ch'uan. He says that while the martial art is externally soft, it is internally very hard, and that a master is able to keep softness in his mind even while expressing hardness with his body. Masters of T'ai chi ch'uan maintain an outward serenity, even during intense combat. We carry a complete line of Tai Chi Swords. Click to visit all of our Tai Chi Swords.