Taijiquan (pronounced tai chi chuan) is the best known of the three traditional Chinese “Internal” martial arts. The other two are Bagua Zhang (or Pa Kua) and Xingyi Chu’an (or Hsing yi). All three are designed to be very effective fighting systems. Taijiquan Kungfu is perhaps best known in the Western world as it has received more publicity and attention. Almost any visual feature on China has to include a short clip of middle aged or old people carrying out a ritual of slow synchronised movements in a public park. This is the image of Taiji that we in the West are most familiar with. It is not a deceptive image, but it is incomplete.
Taiji is not a form of standing up Yoga, nor is it a synchronised folk dance.
The exact origins of Tai Chi are not altogether clear, and many theories abound as to when and where it started and who actually did start it. There are four main schools of Tai Chi which are the Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun schools. Again there are conflicting claims as to which gave rise to the other. In reality, these claims and counter claims are not important at all.
What is important is to keep in mind that the ultimate aim of Taichi is self protection through the correct use of the natural weapons that the human body possesses, and through the correct use of man made weapons such as sword, spear, staff and many, many others. So far, one might easily say that there is nothing remarkable about any of this. These characteristics are surely held in common by any fighting system from traditional Shaolin Kungfu to Savate to Krav Maga.
Taichi is different in that it is based on the system of traditional Chinese medicine. All its actions have been developed over the centuries to enhance the flow of life force known as Qi (pronounced Chi) through the body. The repetition of Taiji exercises is really an exercise known as Qigong. Qigong is the manner in which, through exercise, mental discipline and visualization, the practitioner self energizes and preserves and improves his health and general well being.
Energizing oneself carries two immediate benefits. It carries on a continuing self healing process in the practitioner, and secondly, whilst enhancing his general health, it prepares the practitioner to be ready and instantly alert and effective in dangerous situations.
Practicing the ritualised forms is as far as most Tai Chi practitioners will get. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Practice of forms (Taolu) is not only a fascinating life long search for perfection in balance, poise, complete accuracy of movement, and application of energy, in other words, true Kungfu. It is an exercise in continuous rejuvenation, and stimulation of energy. Just a few minutes of practice on the coldest day will not just warm your freezing hands but will lift your whole spirit.
How so? Taiji is Qigong. The exercises are all intended to encourage the flow of energy through the meridians. Learning the correct body movements and weight transfers and the application of energy to an imaginary opponent, will change your perception of yourself forever. One other thing. If anyone thinks that because forms are performed very slowly, there is no exercise benefit, let them think again. The practice of forms is not hard. It is gruelling! The practitioner develops legs like steel springs, and an upper body which is pliable and capable of delivering great force into an opponent with hardly any visible movement. In parts of the form certain postures may be performed in unrealistically low positions in order to enhance Kung Fu (ability/skill). In studying form the practitioner commences by learning a series of external movements intended to improve stance, alignment, grounding sure footedness and agility. When this sequence has been mastered, the pupil begins all over again, this times internalising the movements through the practice and study of neigong (internal work)
This brings us to the second aspect of Tai Chi, which is the martial or combative aspect. Because of its basis in traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi the healing art can become Tai Chi the fighting art. Knowing which areas of the body are vital for well being and health means that the practitioner knows which areas of the opponent’s body to disable.
The first basis of Taijiquan Kungfu as a martial art is Tuishou or Pushing Hands. This starts as a series of ritualised exercises between partners with opposing hands in contact. The idea is to learn to “listen” to the opponent’s energy and his intentions with your hands and body. The ultimate aim of Taiji is encapsulated in one very classical adage: “My opponent is still, I am still; my opponent moves, I move before him”. Taiji does not train the body, it trains the whole person. It trains the person to achieve such a degree of sensitivity to the aggressor’s intentions, so as to forestall the aggression. This is achieved by training oneself to achieve “Sung”. Sung is often erroneously translated as relaxation. Sung certainly requires us not to be stiff and rigid, but neither does it require relaxation. The best I can come up with it is that it requires a powerful fluidity that emanates from deep co-ordination of the whole body and mind. Unlike the action/reaction training common to other martial arts, Taiji does not ask you to react to a movement, it teaches you to anticipate, neutralise and counter in one action even before the opponent has finished the attack. All this is impossible without an understanding of Neigong.
The gradual attainment of Sung and the study of Neigong renders possible the development of the next step. This is Chansi Jin, also referred to as spiral energy or silk reeling energy. Chansi Jin is really the essence of internal martial arts. The practitioner learns how to generate and project force through a wave like chain of circular movements inside the body. In external martial arts, a blow is delivered principally by the muscular action of the limb which delivers it. Admittedly a good practitioner of such an art would also take great care to project as much of his body weight behind such a strike, to render its effects more telling on the opponent. In internal arts, energy travels up the legs and through circular movements of the waist, chest and shoulders is final projected through the arm in the case of a punch. However the arm itself travels only few centimetres before connecting with the target. If performed with full speed and co-ordination, the blow would be nearly invisible to an onlooker.
This sudden explosive release of such force is known as Fa Jin or Fa Lin. It is the highest level that a taijiquan practitioner can reach. This seemingly inexplicable power does not depend on size or build, but is achievable by the frailest looking individuals through constant study and application.
Because these movements are small they are difficult to demonstrate, more difficult to perceive and understand, and most difficult to replicate!
As a result it can take years of constant practice to achieve any sort of competence, never mind mastery. My personal view is that this is what attracts me most of all about Taiji. It’s a never ending journey. You can never get bored with it, because if you practice it in the right frame of mind, it constantly updates itself within you, with new insights and nuances. You may practice a form thousands of times; no one will feel exactly like the one before it.
How does all of this tie in with the title of this presentation? The mission statement of the Malta Chen Taijiquan Association is symbolised by the characters pronounced “Zhen di” or True Meaning. In the practice of Tai Chi it is common to find schools that teach movements or forms which look like Tai Chi but are not Taiji. They simply teach a sequence of movements which can look pretty and graceful, but is meaningless. It can be an empty choreography. True Taijiquan is where the whole mind and body act with one intent; where energy is gathered from within, stored and released at the right moment in a precise direction at a determined point.
That is the True Meaning.
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