Taijiquan: An Introductory Oveview

Earlier this month I was invited to give an introductory overview presentation and a demonstration of Taijiquan at a high school in central NJ to help celebrate the Chinese New Year. Below is a slightly modified version of that presentation. Although much of the material in this article is already contained in earlier articles published in this website, I thought that it is still useful to include this article in the website, because the different aspects of Taijiquan are now described in this single article. If the reader is interested to read more details about any of these aspects, he/she can find more details about the different aspects in the appropriate article on the “Taiji” page. 

What is Taijiquan: Taijiquan[1] was originally invented as a fighting art, i.e., a martial art. In recent years, Taijiquan is often known, especially in the West, as a form of exercise that is good for health. Taijiquan is actually both: A form of exercise that is good for health and a martial art that is good for self defense. 

Because of the mostly slow and gentle movements of Taijiquan, its practice has low impacts on the body. This is why Taijiquan can be practiced by young and old, and it has become a favorite health exercise for senior citizens in China.

Taijiquan’s Origin: There is some uncertainty on how and when Taijiquan was invented. It is possible that it was invented by the Daoist mystic Zhang San-Feng (张三丰) about 900 years ago in the Wudang Mountains (武当山) in Hubei Province (湖北省). But it is more likely that it was invented about 350 years ago by Chen Wang-Ting (陈王庭), in the Chen village in Chenjiagou (陈家沟) in Henan Province (河南省).

Different Styles of Taijiquan: There are many different styles of Taijiquan. The original style is the Chen Style, which gave rise to the Yang Style, when Yang Lu-Chan (场露禅, 1799-1872) from Hebei Province (河北省), went to the Chen village to work, and then for about seven years also learned Taijiquan from Chen Chang-Xing (陈长兴, a 14th generation Chen). Then Yang went back to Beijing in Hebei Province and taught Taijiquan. Because many of his students were from the imperial court’s aristocratic class, instead of soldiers, laborers, and farmers, he modified the Chen Style Taijiquan to make it less physically demanding and more suitable for the aristocratic class (but not necessarily decreased its effectiveness as a martial art). During the next hundred or so years, several other leading practitioners of Taijiquan made their own modifications and extensions of the Chen Style Taijiquan and gave rise to the Wu Style (吴式), Sun Style (孙式), and Wu/Hao Style (武式). Today, the Yang Style is the most commonly practiced Taijiquan style in the world.

Because there are so many different styles as well as different forms even within the same style, it was difficult to evaluate and give scores during competitions. Therefore, certain standardized sets were agreed upon in China. The Simplified Yang Style 24 Form was established in 1956, the first standardized set established.
Fundamentals of Taijiquan and Relationship to Yin-Yang Theory: As a martial art, Taijiquan makes extensive use of the yin-yang concept, represented by the yin-yang symbol

Taiji Symbol

which has two main characteristics:  Complementarity and constant change.  Complementarity means that the whole is made up of two complementary parts of opposites, such as black and white, large and small, strong and weak, forward and backward, left and right.  Constant change means that the complementary components can constantly change into the other. 
With respect to martial arts application of Taijiquan, this means that one does not confront an opponent’s force head on.  Instead, the counterattack often allows the opponent to continue in the direction of his force, and utilizes that momentum to cause the opponent to lose his balance.  For example, a large force from an opponent from the front is countered by a small force in the direction toward the back, or a large force from an opponent from the front is deflected by a small force perpendicular or at an angle to the direction of the original force.  This illustrates the “complementarity” aspect, and is the basis for the Chinese saying “four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.”
Once the opponent senses that he may lose his balance and moves in the other direction, one also changes direction and counterattacks along the momentum of the opponent’s new motion.  Thus one is constantly changing directions and utilizes the yin-yang complement of the opponent’s motion.  This illustrates the “constant change” aspect.
To facilitate the constant changing of directions, one needs to keep the upper body upright.  The changes of directions are accomplished by the movement of the legs.  Furthermore, to increase one’s sensitivity to the opponent’s movements and intentions and therefore to be able to counterattack more effectively, one needs to keep one’s body, muscles, and mind relax.
Another fundamental aspect of Taijiquan is that the power doesn’t just come from the strength of the arms, but also from the power and momentum of the movement of the legs and especially the hip/waist.  Coupling this with utilizing the opponent’s force to counter attack, together with the strategic placements of one’s legs, arms, and body relative to those of the opponent in order to generate more leverage, a smaller person can defend successfully against a bigger and stronger opponent.
As one progresses into Taijiquan, proper breathing is very important, especially in generating more power and enhancing one’s health.  However, beginning students already have too many things to learn and remember, and therefore beginning students are told to just breathe naturally..  As one progresses beyond the beginner’s level, then one should start paying more attention to breathing.  The general rule is that when one is exerting force (e.g., pushing out to punch or pushing downward to block/deflect), one should breathe out.  And when one is pulling in or making a movement to set up an attack, one should breathe in.  When one progresses to more advanced levels, then in order to generate the power of Taijiquan as an internal martial art, one needs to practice more sophisticated breathing techniques, in particular, lower abdominal breathing, instead of the usual upper chest breathing.

Taiji and Health:  Because of the slow and soft movements of Taiji, it has low impacts on the body.  Therefore, it is an exercise that can be practiced by young and old, including people who may not be completely healthy.  Because of its utilization of the yin-yang concepts and because of its gentle movements, Taijiquan as a martial art, unlike other martial arts, can still be effective when people become older, even when they become senior citizens.
There is another health benefit of Taiji which is often not mentioned.  When one does Taiji, one should use the mind to lead the form.  This means that even though the Taiji practitioner should remove other thoughts from his mind, he should use his mind to think of the form (how it should be done and why it should be done that way) and to lead the physical implementation of the form.  This means that the mind, as well as the physical body, is also being exercised while doing Taiji. 
In the last 20 years or so, there has been a lot of scientific research in the west to investigate the health benefits of Taiji.  Although not yet definitive, it seems that the research is indicating that there are multiple benefits of Taiji.  For example, it can improve muscle strength in the legs and arms, improve balance and flexibility, and reduce the risk of falling, which is especially important for senior citizens.  A recent study indicates that Taiji can boost immunity to shingles, a painful nerve condition that is caused by reactivation of the chickenpox (varicella) virus and generally affects people older than 50.  The research found that practicing Taiji can increase the effectiveness of the vaccine against the varicella virus.

Taiji, Qigong, and Traditional Chinese Medicine:  I want to discuss a little bit about Qigong, a subject that many people might not have heard of.  In many Chinese martial arts, especially an internal martial art like Taijiquan, cultivating the Qi in one’s body is an integral part of advance training, whether it is for health or for martial art.

What is Qi?  Qi is often defined as an energy, some sort of bioelectrical energy, that exists inside the human body.  However, the effects of Qi are not limited to just inside the body; it can be felt outside of the human body.  For example, the strength of the electromagnetic field around the hands of an expert Qigong practitioner could be substantially larger than that of an average person.  To some extent, all people have Qi in their body, but the amount may be small, not noticeable, and stagnant.  Through appropriate practice, one can increase the amount of Qi in one’s body and increase the circulation of Qi within one’s body.  It is important to increase the Qi in the body, because Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is considered to be the essence or vital force of life.  However, Qi must also be balanced in the body.  There should not be an excessive amount of Qi in one part of the body, while at the same time there is a deficiency of Qi in another part of the body.  That is why the ability to circulate Qi is so important; it is the mechanism that can keep a proper yin-yang balance of Qi.  In modern physiological terminology, balancing the Qi is equivalent to attaining homeostasis.  The term “gong” means the power to produce an effect via steady practice.  Therefore, the term “Qigong” can be defined as the practice that increases the Qi and its circulation within the body. 

TCM believes that the development of illness is due to the upsetting of the natural balance (or yin and yang) of Qi inside the human body from pathogenic influences, such as germs.  To treat any illness, one needs to eliminate the pathogenic influences.  Both increasing the Qi in the body and balancing the Qi in the body will help to fight against the pathogenic influences.  Because the Qi imbalance may be occurring in non-adjacent parts of the body, TCM stresses that to heal, one should look for the cause of the illness, and one should not treat only the head if the head hurts, or treat only the foot if the foot hurts.

What is the relationship between Qigong and Taiji?  Many of the concepts that are important for Qigong are also important for Taiji.  For example, many Qigong exercises are done very slowly while undergoing slow and deep breathing, which is also the case for doing Taiji.  The slow movement also allows the body to be in a relaxed state, again also the case for Taiji.  In Qigong exercises, the mind is supposed to be freed of scattered thoughts, and the mind should focus on the activities at hand, e.g., the body movements and the breathing.  As a matter of fact, the mind is supposed to lead (or regulate) both the body movements and breathing, again exactly the case for Taiji.  Because of the many similarities between Qigong and Taiji, many of the exercises for Qigong and Taiji are similar.  As a matter of fact, Taiji Qigong is one of the most popular types of Qigong, although there are many other types of Qigong.

Qigong plays a key role in Taiji’s two main objectives:  To improve health and for self defense as a martial art.  We have already explained that the ability to increase Qi and to circulate Qi is key to good health.  How does Qigong help Taiji to achieve its second objective as a good martial art?  Basically, Qigong can increase the martial artist’s striking power and to train the martial artist’s body to better resist punches and kicks.  The theory behind increasing striking power can be understood in the following way.  Dr. Jwing Ming Yang, a Taiji master and the author of about two dozen books on Taiji, said that “the average person generally uses his muscles at under 40% maximum efficiency.”  The martial artist can use the mind to lead the Qi to the muscles to energize them to a higher level, thus increasing the martial artist’s fighting effectiveness.  Similarly, leading Qi to the skin and muscles can enable them to better resist a blow without injury.  This is clearly demonstrated in those martial arts exhibitions when a martial artist can resist a pointed spear pointed to a spot below his throat (the esophagus area).  As a matter of fact, the martial artist not only can avoid the puncture of that area of the body, but can actually bend the spear.
In Summary:  On the one hand Taiji is a simple form of exercise.  On the other hand, Taiji is also subtle and complex both as an exercise or as a martial art.  Taiji is an exercise that can be practiced by both young and old.  Unlike most other exercises, one doesn’t have to stop practicing it as one becomes a senior citizen.  Besides being an exercise that is excellent for health, Taiji is also a good martial art. 

[1]  Also known as Taiji, Tai Chi, T’ai Chi, Tai Chi Chuan, or T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

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