The Art and The Tao in Tai Chi Chuan
By Vincent Chu

Chinese Martial Arts are a very difficult, complicated, informative and rigorous form of physical activity. Tai Chi Chuan is one form of Chinese martial arts. The rich and abundant information and philosophy in Tai Chi Chuan is generally divided into two components, one about the Art and one about the Taoist aspects in the art. The Art information includes the fundamental martial arts training and it involves the physical body, so it is visible and tangible. The information regarding the Taoist part consists of advanced martial arts training such as principles, concepts and energy, and these are not involved with the physical body, so it is invisible and intangible.

One can trace the origin, evolution and advancement of everything that exists today. Taoist priests often said that they were studying the tao when they were trying to understand how everything existed and functioned in nature. The Art component is the behavior resulting from these studies. Tai Chi Chuan derives from Taoism. Every movement in Tai Chi Chuan can be interpreted according to Yin/Yang theory. Therefore, Tai Chi Chuan has many functions. It has health and self defense benefits, and is a tool used by the ancient taoist priests to understand and study how everything exists in nature. As a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner, one must spend many years and go through many difficult steps and processes of training to master the Art Component of Tai Chi Chuan. At the same time, one should spend an equal amount of time to master its Taoist Component to complete the training. Otherwise, it is but a calisthenics exercise.

When I speak of the Art Component of Tai Chi Chuan training, I am referring to the visible aspects such as the solo form, push hand exercises, weapons forms and applications. These tangible aspects one can observe, learn, compare and improve. It does not matter what style of Tai Chi Chuan one is practicing, or how often, if one just practices or trains in only this physical aspect, it is not enough. Training under the Art Component will not progress into the Taoist Component, which is a higher, more advance and difficult training.

Although the training remains in the Art Component, because Tai Chi Chuan is based on the principle of Yin/Yang, when one practices Tai Chi Chuan, one is physically interpreting Yin and Yang. Therefore, many Taoist priests say that when they are engaging in Tai Chi Chuan training, it is a methodology to study nature, not intended for striking, kicking or punching as most people might think.

In the Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu said "Tao, the speaking Tao. Name, the speaking name. It is an extraordinary name." He said that the Tao can be explained in words but not completely. The Tao is composed of too many things and has too many meanings. In modern terms, the Tao refers to the energy and power sources behind the natural phenomenon of all things. One cannot see it with the naked eye. However, sometimes one can feel its presence. Therefore, it is difficult to explain in words, but not impossible. In Tai Chi Chuan, the Taoist Component refers to the theories, concepts and principles. The Art Component consists of the body's performance of such things as turns, kicks and punches with the feet and hands. These are visible to the naked eye. The truth is, the Taoist component in Tai Chi Chuan not only refers to the theories, concepts and principles in governing the body's performance, it also refers to the power behind each posture. Therefore, when one practices Tai Chi Chuan, one key aspect is to understand its abundant Taoist teachings. This is the key to one's success in Tai Chi Chuan training.

A. Taoist information
While one is practicing Tai Chi Chuan, what should one practice? What should be expected? Based on individual education, understanding, experiences, and objectives, the result is always different. Some people practice for health, some just to pass the time and some for martial arts applications. I believe the most important thing in Tai Chi Chuan practice is to understand the Taoist information since it is the key to one's progression. From my experiences, the Taoist information in Tai Chi Chuan can be divided into four groups.

1. Morality
The movements in Tai Chi Chuan are slow, relaxed, circular and alive. They look like flowing water. Actually, the movements are steady in motion. This is what Yang Cheng Fu stated in his "Ten Points" in which he said "Seek stillness in movement". This quote contains very complicated principles behind a seemingly simple statement. The slow and relaxed characteristics in practice are to fine tune or train one's patience, endurance, confidence and tolerance. When one practices Tai Chi Chuan in this manner regularly, the practitioner's character will change. One will become a very generous, philanthropic person, and have a good temperament. When a practitioner becomes generous, with a benevolent heart, all rooted by love and compassion, the achievement in Tai Chi Chuan skill is infinite and immeasurable. Therefore, in Tai Chi Chuan practices, morality is very important. This is also supported by the Chinese martial arts community by saying that the student's first lesson should be on martial ethics, not punching and kicking.

2. Adaptability
The physical requirement in Tai Chi Chuan practice is that all the movements should be slow, relaxed, even, circular, balanced and stable. The speed should be even, the postures should be comfortable, and the opening and closing movements should be natural and proper. One should practice in a calm and tranquil mental condition. This is especially true of push hands exercises. It is only from peaceful, calm and relaxed state that one can detect or "listen" to the opponent's movements and intentions via the skin contact. The common weakness among Tai Chi Chuan practitioners today is that they often execute movements quickly without any patience and always look for short cuts. Tai Chi Chuan practice is to train the practitioner to be calm and stable so one is able to react to sudden changes in the situation. In today's complex society, one has to possess this adaptability to survive in this ever-changing environment and to be able to manage all the unexpected changes in daily, job and family affairs. Therefore, proper Tai Chi Chuan practice trains one's adaptability.

3. Intelligence
In Tai Chi Chuan push hands and applications it is strongly recommended that one put to use the sayings of like "softness overcomes hardness", "four ounces overcomes a 1000 pounds", and "strike second but get to the target first." All these concepts have something in common. They ask that the practitioner use her intelligence, do her homework and prepare before executing any action. We are living in a complex society, conflicts are a fact of life. When it comes to problem and conflict resolution, Tai Chi Chuan does not believe in direct confrontation. It recommends that the practitioner look for alternatives and other options. The concepts of yielding and neutralization in push hand exercises are some of the options that result from using one's intelligence. Therefore, practicing Tai Chi Chuan helps one to train and apply one's intelligence and creativity.

4. Cultivation
Tai Chi Chuan has a very complicated philosophy and is very difficult to understand. A practitioner's skill is determined by how one understands the philosphy, principles and theories and then how much time is spent to practice according to the philosophy, principles and theories. Without this, Tai Chi Chuan practice is nothing more than a calisthenics exercise. Therefore, in order to improve one's Tai Chi Chuan skills, one has to have knowledge and information about Chinese philosophy, literature, medical theory, physics, music and fine art. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics were written by ancient practitioners recording their experiences. Without any understanding of background in Chinese literature, one cannot understand the Tai Chi Chuan Classics. Tai Chi Chuan has a complicated philosophy. Without understanding about yin/yang theory, one cannot correctly put it into practice. The mechanics in Tai Chi Chuan movements are related to the skeletal system, meridians, muscle groups and joints. If one does not have any knowledge of Chinese medical theory or physics, one cannot execute the movements correctly or properly with power. Today, many people like the graceful motions in Tai Chi Chuan movements, but without any background in fine arts and music, it is difficult for one to appreciate the graceful circular movements' coordination, rhythm and balance. Therefore, Tai Chi Chuan practices encourage one to educate oneself, and always obtain more knowledge and improve oneself.

B. Art information
The art information is the result and function of practicing Tai Chi Chuan's solo form. It is considered secondary and was often ignored by ancient practitioners. Therefore, no documents can be found. There are two obvious groups.

1. Martial applications
The function in martial art applications are physical. It is tangible. One can see the technique's applications and variations. All martial art systems have and include applications. The difference in Tai Chi Chuan is that it is based on characteristics of slowness, gentleness, relaxation and circularity, so it is suitable for practitioners of all physical conditions and it is also a complete system to train beginning students in practices from the solo form to push hands exercises to weapons and sparring.

2. Health
As its function as a martial art, practicing Tai Chi Chuan's solo form can improve one's health conditions. This outcome can be measured by medical equipment. It is documented that one of the original purposes of Tai Chi Chuan practice was for longevity.

From what I explained above, one can see that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan has many functions and not all are easily understood because they are related to practical experiences. It is more than simply learning the Tai Chi Chuan solo form's movements. It is often said that among experienced practitioners that learning the solo form's movements are only the first step in Tai Chi Chuan training.

The philosophy governing martial arts is very complex, a practitioner's morality is equivalent to a tree's seed. It has the potential to grow up to be a tall and strong tree if it can overcome the internal and external obstacles. In the past, a student often spent many years to search out a knowledgeable instructor. The same is true from an instructor's perspective to search out a student with high moral standards, and an ability to learn and pass on information. When it comes to internal and external obstacles from a martial arts perspective, people often say that a student without internal qualities such as confidence, patience, self-esteem, and courage, cannot make use of the skills, knowledge and training in confrontational situations. Without these internal qualities in training, one cannot be disciplined and work hard in practice, or be humble and curious regarding new information and proper training and execution temperaments, the three important characteristics that many instructors consider essential criteria to transmit the knowledge and information. Martial arts is about unpredictable situations and preparation. The better one is prepared, the higher the chance one will win. In Tai Chi Chuan training, the function of adaptability will prepare the student for all situations. The winner of any war was not determined by how much fire power a party had. Rather, it was based on how well the general utilized his resources and strategy. Martial arts confrontation share the same philosophy. Therefore, the function of intelligence in Tai Chi Chuan training is very important. Anything without innovation will be eliminated by the competitor in an open market. The same is true in many styles of Chinese martial arts. Therefore, the function of cultivation in Tai Chi Chuan training is to help a student inherit knowledge and information from the instructor on one hand, and combine the inherited information with experiences to provide innovation on the second hand. The combination of the two puts one in an advantageous position. This is why I said the Taoist information is much more important than the Art information in Tai Chi Chuan training. One has to spend more time to work on these Taoist aspects in order to improve his skill.

In order to obtain all the possible benefits from Tai Chi Chuan, one must clarify the information presented in these two important areas to better compose oneself. When one masters the art information, it benefits the health and is useful in combat applications. When one mastered the Taoist information, one is skillful and has become a true person.

Copyright © V. Chu. All rights reserved.