Many people in both East and West only know that Taiji is a health exercise, but they do not know that Taiji is also a martial art, good for self defense. Just during the last couple of months, I have encountered many people, including Caucasians and to my surprise also many Chinese and Chinese Americans, who have the above belief. When I mentioned to them not only that Taiji is a martial art, it was invented as a fighting art , they were startled to learn that.
One reason for the above mis-conception is that they know or at least have seen that Taiji involves slow and soft movements, and they thought that such slow and soft movements cannot be good for self defense. This article provides a short explanation of why Taiji is an effective martial art.
First, let’s explain the fundamental nature of Taiji as a martial art. In Taiji, one doesn’t try to oppose an attacking force head-on, because then whoever is bigger and stronger will win. Taiji, instead, adds a supplemental force (doesn’t have to be large) along the direction of the opponent’s attacking force to lead the opponent to move further in his attacking direction, thus potentially causing the opponent to lose balance. Or alternatively, the Taiji practitioner could apply a force that is perpendicular to the attacking force. Since the attacking force has no component of force in the perpendicular direction, a small force could deflect that strong attacking force. This is the reasoning behind the famous Chinese saying “Four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.”
When the opponent realizes that he is being led further in his attacking direction and may be losing balance, he may change direction and then move in the opposite direction. Part of Taiji practice is to be very sensitive to that kind of changes of motion. So upon sensing that change of direction, the Taiji practitioner also changes directions and now applies a force in an opposite direction (opposite to the original direction but now along the direction of the opponent’s new movement). Again, the Taiji practitioner is not trying to oppose the opponent’s force head-on, but is trying to use his own force to complement the opponent’s force. This complementary nature of applying one’s force to supplement the opponent’s force and the constant change of motions are symbolized by the Taiji symbol
To be able to sense the opponent’s motions and changes of motions, the Taiji practitioner must be very relax. Furthermore, the more relax the Taiji practitioner is, the more difficult for his opponent to sense the Taiji practitioner’s intentions and movements. Relaxing the body and mind also facilitate the generation and circulation of Qi as part of Qigong mentioned later in this article.
To accomplish the above, the Taiji practitioner needs to change directions frequently. To facilitate the ease and speed of change of directions, the Taiji practitioner keeps his upper body upright. The change of directions is accomplished by shifting and bending of the legs’ knees. Keeping one’s upper body upright also makes it more difficult for the opponent to cause the Taiji practitioner to lose balance.
Even though during practice, the movements are mostly soft and slow , when applying it in self defense situations, the movements are fast and with force at the time of contact. Furthermore, the force of a strike does not come solely from the arm or leg, but also from a rotation of the hip, resulting in a much larger force. In addition, the positions of the Taiji practitioner’s legs, hips, and shoulders are strategically placed to increase leverage. Thus a smaller, weaker, and older person could defeat a bigger, stronger, and younger opponent.
Finally, Taiji, being an internal martial art, utilizes Qigong. Through practice of breathing and internal generation and circulation of Qi in Qigong exercises, a Taiji practitioner can significantly increase the power of his attacks and at the same time also increase his ability to absorb blows. For a more detailed discussion of Qigong, see the article “Brief Comparison of External and Internal Martial Arts“.
In summary, for the reasons summarized below, Taiji with proper instruction and practice, can be an effective martial art:
- Does not oppose an opponent’s attack head-on, but supplements his force with your own force along the direction of his momentum to try to get him off balance, or deflect an opponent’s attack with a small perpendicular force
- Depending on the opponent’s movements, constantly change directions to get your opponent to lose balance
- Relax all parts of your body to increase your ability to sense your opponent’s motions and intentions, and decrease your opponent’s ability to sense your own motions and intentions
- In self defense situations, apply your movements with speed and with force at the point of contact
- All strikes are supported by rotation of the hips to increase the power of the strikes
- Strategically place your legs, hips, and shoulders to increase leverage
- Supplement external practice with internal Qigong practice to increase internal power for attacks and for defense
 In ancient China, Taiji, as well as other martial arts, was used, e.g., by peasants and others to defend against bandits. People with such skills were also employed as bodyguards to provide safe journey for people and goods in being transported from one place to another place.
 Although all Taiji styles basically utilize soft and slow movements in their practices, some styles, e.g., the Chen Style, utilize a mixture of soft and hard, and slow and fast, movements.