Over the years, many students have asked me the question: How can the slow
movements of Tai Chi Chuan be a martial art? The question is understandable
since a martial art is supposed to move fast and with power, and Tai Chi Chuan
seems to do the opposite.
The slow Tai Chi Chuan solo form has many functions. It has been used quite
successfully as a healing approach for sick people who were chronically ill. It
has been found to be a meditative and quieting regimen, an extremely relaxing
routine in the face of modern stress. It has also been cited as a means of
communicating with the environment, nature and the self. Although it is true
that this discipline has other goals like centering, relaxation, health, and
longevity, Tai Chi Chuan is first and foremost a martial art. Precisely
because it is slow, the Tai Chi Chuan solo form allows the practitioner's body
to be more relaxed, loose, and nimble. To the Tai Chi Chuan masters, that is the
ideal body to cultivate--supple, at ease, fluid, alive; a body that is hard,
tight and inflexible is associated with death. When the Tai Chi Chuan
practitioner fights, he is alert, supple and sensitive at the same time, his
body responds to any situation however unpredictable.
And it is definitely easier for the teacher and the student to fine tune the
body and correct the posture if the movement is slow rather than fast. There is
also better awareness of the body dynamics when the movement is slow.
The slow Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form also teaches a new vocabulary. It is a
beginning. The body starts to learn a different way, a relaxed way, of fighting.
There are inherent in the slow movements certain combative techniques that can
be developed through Pushing Hand Exercises. The solo form is an excellent means
of teaching and learning the combative techniques.
It is often said that the movements were originally single postures and that
somebody put them together as a sequence. Even now, instructors still show
single, isolated postures for fighting but the intention is only to demonstrate
the correct position. If the instructor also shows the martial application, the
student should not believe that that is the only application of the movement or
posture. Instructors often demonstrate a fighting technique but that is only to
give an idea of one of the many applications of a movement. The demonstration
should in no way limit the possibility of other applications in each movement or
inhibit the movement's potential and student's understanding and self
development. It is usually said that the applications are infinite. There are
refinements and variations. With the shift of the body, the application may
change although the posture is basically the same.
Moreover, for each posture, an application can be choreographed into two
categories: the Yang aspect or the "open movement" and the Ying aspect or the
"close movement". Within these two aspects, the eight hand techniques of warding
off, roll back, press, push, pull down, split, elbow strike, shoulder strike and
their many variations and combinations apply.
While the demonstration of an application is valuable, it mimics the external
system's tendency to emphasize the physical technique. To me, the physical
application such as how to strike is secondary. The emphasis in Tai Chi Chuan
should be on energy circulation. How to internally maximize the effect of the
strike. A misplaced emphasis on training in the application of techniques can be
Many people have mistakenly taken the slow movement of the solo form as the
combative form. Among Tai Chi Chuan practitioners, it is often said that the
slow form is for the body while the push hand exercises are for the application.
After we master the body through total relaxation, every movement becomes
nimble and has offensive and defensive meaning. A practitioner will no longer
rely on any individual movement's application. At this point, all responses will
be based on the opponent's movements. Any part of the body can be used as a
weapon for yielding or sending off power. That is why practitioners often say
that when the intention is there, the chi will be there too and the power will
not be too far behind.
A knowledgeable Tai Chi Chuan instructor does not talk about application all
the time. Rather, he talks about internal power and how to develop more of this
internal power, about how to combined this internal power to the strike. When
the body is loose and relaxed from practicing the slow solo form, internal power
developed from the body coordination. This internal power does not come from the
tension in any part of the body. It is the result of total body coordination
developed through the slow form. It is very explosive, so explosive that it can
send somebody 10 to 20 feet away.
The uniqueness of Tai Chi Chuan's techniques and power is difficult for the
beginner to understand.