As I understand it, the most widely recognized and accepted Western definition of taijiquan/tai chi chuan is “The Supreme Ultimate”.
You can interpret that loosely as “Tai Chi: The Best of the Best”, or perhaps “Tai Chi: The Most Massively Amazing Thing Ever” and even, “Tai Chi: A Whole Lot of Awesome Amazingness”. You can cut that down short to simply, “Tai Chi: Massive Awesome”.
That is a pretty bold statement to make about a martial art, I daresay.
(linguistics tip): tai chi: pronounced, “Tie-Jee” and uttered quickly “TieJdgee”)
As a prospective student, or a someone who has been practicing for a few months or years, what is the point of your training? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you think it is you are practicing?
The image of tai chi that the average European/American has of the practice itself, may be that of an elderly or senior Chinese or Western practitioner, moving slowly, deliberately, methodically, and mindfully, through a Yang style, or Wu style short or long form.
I am going to lay out my own spin on this and it will depart somewhat from what most people think of as Tai Chi in the West.
The origin of modern tai chi, as best we can tell, is mostly likely Shaolin Kungfu. When we think of Shaolin, we often conjure images of young bald monks doing hundreds of jumping kicks or punching into buckets of sand, or doing forms over “Plum Flower Pillars”, wooden posts that have been driven into the ground at varying heights. To say that traditional Shaolin is very physically demanding and creates fantastic athleticism, is an understatement.
Yet when we see Shaolin Animal Forms in action, we generally see fast and hard movements, or fast and soft movements mixed together. Rarely, except in romanticized Kungfu movies, do we see a “purely soft” Shaolin fighter, but in some dramas between martial arts communities, a Shaolin Monk is sometimes bested by a Taoist Priest from a nearby village or mountain retreat.
The Taoist is often portrayed as having relaxed, effortless, spontaneous, even formless gongfu, and in possession of certain abilities, like “Soft Palm Dim Mak” or pressure point mastery (Chin Na) or amazing neutralizing skill, able to keep a Shaolin Fist and Foot Master confounded and frustrated. When the move calls for it, we see an effortless strike by the meditation master, have the effect on their opponent, of being hit with a very hard, extremely Yang, energetic force, that causes their opponent sudden crippling injuries, or causes them to simply “fly away” as though caught by gust of wind, or a tidal wave that literally moves them from point A to point B in space, seemingly from out of nowhere.
The take away from that, is that an energy master, a meditation and martial arts master, a Taoist fighter, or old, wizened Shaolin Elders with decades of intermixing the soft aspects of Shaolin Kungfu has command of both a soft, relaxed, flowing power, as well as a firm, forceful, hard power. It is the sudden interchange between a relaxed, soft energy movement, suddenly transforming or remodulating or manifesting as an unbelievably hard energy force – and it is that hard force energy that is usually the cause of deep bruises, internal organ injuries (Bas Ruten’s infamous liver punch) and broken bones.
If you practice Wu or Yang and even, I have noticed, Chen style taiji, and you only focus on the soft aspects, you are only getting half of the Tai Ji. Allow me to use an icon to illustrate.
The Taiji device, is usually the Yin/Yang symbol, sometimes with a small dot of the opposite power inside the larger power. By practicing only ever in a soft, relaxed manner, you only really grow the “tai chi grace”. You cultivate softness, and relaxation, yes, and this is good even great, for everyone, no doubt about it.
For Westerners with ingrained, habitual tension in their muscles, tissues, and body language, it is probably for the best to train as though you were a brittle elderly person gingerly moving about, gently, cautiously, with “listening attentively to your internal being” intention – trying to rebuild their body to enjoy their remaining time on earth – regardless of how old you are. That goes for a twenty year old, to an eighty year old practitioner.
That is what I did in my early twenties, and it was tremendously healing, and gave me a greater facility at “Ting Chin” or “Listening Energy”, as well as deeply relaxing my body, from my outer skin and muscles, to the deep tendons and soft tissues that wrap, bind, and support our skeletal bones and postures.
It is how one develops “soft aliveness” and “Yielding Power” or what i call, submission power. The ability to allow someone to invade, press, or compress on you or into you, and you allow that force, that pressure, that compression to compress you, move into you, and you absorb it. You can allow that force, to “stack” your body tissues and bone structure and joints, compressing you into a spring, that can instantly project force back the way it came. Alternately, you wrap their force around inside you, and issue the force like a solar flare arcing out from the surface of the sun, or the lash of a coiled whip.
That is pretty advanced kungfu/gongfu, and it only comes from being able to sense incoming force, accept it, absorb it, and redirect, reflect, or release it in different ways. It is dependent on you becoming very aware, very sensitive, and very relaxed, possessing “sung energy” while maintaining outward expanding or stretching body movements or alignments called “peng energy”. So from extreme “sung” we can absorb, then emit “peng”, often called the “mother” of all the taiji energies. Once you have sung, and peng, everything is else is permutation.
Some teachers would opine, from that description alone, that all you need is to train softness and relaxation. They may state, or quote another teacher, or a book authored by a tai chi expert or master, and basically repeat that one teacher’s particular point or perspective. So, in convos I have had with some of my older taichi brothers, usually, middle-aged or old men who were influenced by Chen Man Ching’s Yang style when he came to New York in the 70s, and they would state the defining trait of taichi, and the power you are training is “soft energy” and they would be correct, in my opinion, and experience, but only up to a point.
During my twenties, I studied bagua zhang, hsin i and taiji with Bruce Frantzis, a man who not only spoke Chinese, and lived in China tracking down “The Greats” and getting them to divulge their tips, secrets, or practical advice, but whom had also studied with a variety of taiji masters, had this to say about becoming a “complete” taiji boxer:
Gang Rou Hsiang Ji – hard and soft seamlessly combine
Tai chi, on the other hand, has to fulfill not one or two, but three agendas. First, its speciality, the “soft” energy of Roll Back; second, its “hard” internal projecting powers, including Ward Off, Press Forward, and Split; and third, the complex agenda of seamlessly melding the two, called in tai chi classics gang rou hsiang ji or “hard and soft combine together”. – Bruce Frantzis
During my trip to China for a few months to learn the Hong Practical Method Chen Yilu from Masters Chen Zhonghua and Sun, I kept the bulk of my training experience to myself, and after engaging Master Chen Zhonghua in simple Tui Shou push hands exercises, I noticed immediately that he was not shy about projecting hard, fast, forceful energies from his hands, forearms, elbows, shoulders, waist, thighs and lower legs. I recognized this is a higher level taiji, instantly, as I had built up “hard” yang energy from doing Hsin I San Ti and The Five Element Fists, and “radiating” yang “heaven” energy Bagua Single Palm Change.
I asked him very humbly, and as politely/respectfully/inquisitively as I could, as a foreigner to China, a student at Da Ching Shan, and a Chen-style devotee, to explain the meaning or intent of Master Chen’s hard energy, his forceful-feeling fajin, and his “dynamic” for lack of a better word, taiji change – from soft, to hard, to soft, to hard, to soft again.
I believe it was for the purpose of invalidating every single push hands practitioner in the United States, that I asked him to confirm that “hard energy” “yang extension” and “force” was supposed to be deliberately trained and practiced between two push hands wrestling players.
His answer was pretty simply stated, as ‘That is what makes taiji, The Supreme Ultimate. Yin and Yang. Soft, and Hard. Combine, and separate.”
I didn’t actually record him saying that, and it was two years ago, but I am positive if you asked him, he would most likely say the same thing again and again, perhaps differently worded.
The takeaway from this experience training in Shangdong is that, I had my training methodology set properly in my 20s, by Bruce Frantzis, and eighteen years later, I had it confirmed by a Chen style master who is part of Chen Fake’s lineage through two masters: Feng Zhiqiang, and Hong Junsheng, both of whom can be seen demonstrating a taiji that flows from soft to hard constantly.
Two year after that, I made my Big Bang Breakthrough, by merging my BaGua spiraling neigong, to my TaiJi spiraling neigong, and unleashed a whirlwind inside me.
I adore and respect and understand the most common taiji device, but between you and I, the taiji diagram that best illuminates or depicts what my taiji (and bagua) is, is this symbol here:
Please note the similarities: