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Is Tai Chi A True Martial Art

Updated on September 7, 2014

Is There More To Tai Chi Than Meets The Eye

It's probably hard for some people to connect Tai Chi as they see it performed in the parks using slow, graceful movements, with the concept of a martial art.

The way martial arts are so often portrayed on television or in video games, with vigorous leaps and kicks and a certain amount of inherent violence, it may seem that there's nothing farther from arts such as these than Tai Chi.

Yet there's more to this discipline than generally tends to meet the public eye.

And despite its inherently relaxed and graceful nature, this is a genuine martial art like its more strenuous brethren.

The Five Families of Tai Chi
The Five Families of Tai Chi

The Five Families of Tai Chi

Most people are unaware that when they see people practicing the slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi, there are several possible schools to which those practitioners may be adhering.

In fact, all forms of Tai Chi appear to have descended from the martial art form originally taught by a single family.

From that one form came the five main historical branches of Tai Chi, followed by a few variations in more recent times.

The original style, and the original family, is the Chen. Legend has it that the Chen clan left Shanxi, now a province in China, and moved to Chen Village in Henan province, bringing with them a unique martial arts training form. It's not known whether they truly originated the form, or combined their own teachings with those of a couple of other influential teachers who passed through the village in the beginning.

But it appears that this art form was first codified by a clan member named Chen Wangting, sometime in the mid-seventeenth century. Since that time, this village has remained a center of Tai Chi teachings and practice, and the other four branches grew out of this original form.

In the early nineteenth century, a man named Yang Lu-ch'an studied under one of the Chen masters and then went on to develop his own style of Tai Chi, the Yang style. The Chen style contained a certain degree of leaping and stomping, and Yang removed these elements and other abrupt movements from his own form of Tai Chi.

This became what people recognize most readily as Tai Chi today, and it probably gained the popularity it did, now being the most widely known style in the world, because Yang was hired by the Imperial Family of China to teach this form to the Palace Battalion of the Imperial Guards.

Around the same time, a scholar named Wu Yu-hsiang studied with Yang, and also studied for a short time with one of the Chen family. Wu created yet another form of Tai Chi, emphasizing small and subtle movements, focusing more on inner development, sensitivity, and balance. Wu and his nephews taught this form of the art, and several members of the Hao family learned from one of Wu's great nephews.

For this reason, this particular form is sometimes called the Wu/Hao form, or even just the Hao. This is despite the fact that there are no longer any living members of the Hao family left to teach it. The last Hao teacher, Hao Shao-ju, taught in the 1920s.

The fourth form of Tai Chi is also called Wu, which is misleading in English, since this name is an Anglicized version of a name that is pronounced and written differently in Chinese from the "Wu" in the Wu/Hao name. This form was initiated by Wu Ch'uan-yu, who was a member of the Imperial Guards Brigade when Yang Lu-ch'an was teaching his second form of Tai Chi.

It was Wu's son, Wu Chien-ch'uan, who really perpetuated the new version, and the big difference between this and other styles is the Wu emphasis on grappling, throws, jumping, tumbling, and other more vigorous actions. As well, when the slower movements are practiced, the feet are placed closer together than in the Yang or Chen styles. This Wu version is second in popularity today only to the Yang style.

The final Tai Chi form, the Sun, was created by Sun Lutang, who originally studied with the first Wu's nephew. Sun was another who eliminated the crouching and leaping of other styles, and he added unique foot and hand movements to his form. Practitioners stand taller and assume more gentle postures as well.

Since these styles have been developed there have been some modifications and even some combinations of principles and moves taken from more than one style. Most of these changes have been for the purpose of turning Tai Chi into a sport for competition and judging.

The changes have concentrated mostly on the external look of the forms, which have been considerably simplified. But for really serious Tai Chi students, interested in the underlying philosophy as well as the external appearance, the five original styles, or Tai Chi families, continue to be the standard.

The Ideas Of Tai Chi

When you drive by a park and see people doing their slow, graceful, peaceful Tai Chi exercises there, you might think that that's all there is to this martial art form.

The peace and grace of these movements is what the public sees most often, and this attitude is no doubt an integral part of this discipline. But there is a reason Tai Chi is considered a martial art.

The ideas behind the forms are much more complex than just "peace and grace."

The name "Tai Chi," or as it is more fully known, "Tai Chi Chuan," means something like "supreme ultimate force" or even "supreme ultimate fist." (There's that hint of the martial art again.) The phrase "supreme ultimate" is very significant, because it is a concept that refers to a merger of the yin-yang principles.

Many ancient eastern philosophies have seen this duality of principles reflected in the world (light-dark, male-female, active-passive, etc), and Tai Chi seeks to bring them together into one "supreme ultimate." So this physical and mental discipline works in agreement with other philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism.

The goals of Tai Chi are several, yet all interrelated as is the philosophy itself. People who observe the practice done by those individuals in the parks are probably aware of a duality, even in those exercises. The practitioners are obviously seeking the goal of a meditative, almost trance like state.

Yet in order to perform the movements correctly and with grace, they also need considerable physical discipline. The controlled physical movements help to create the tranquil frame of mind, and the meditation helps foster the balance and control of the body.

What is learned through the practice of Tai Chi is the intricacies of the movements of the body. The flow of movement from one muscle to another, one joint to another, teaches physical balance as well as control of those bodily movements. This understanding naturally merges into the aspects of the form that are less well known to most people, which comprise the application of Tai Chi to martial arts.

Despite the possible implications of the phrase, "supreme ultimate force," the martial art aspect of Tai Chi is not meant to embody forceful attack. Using the understanding of the fine movements of the body, a practitioner instead responds to attack, moving with it, diverting it, or yielding to it, in order to neutralize it.

For this reason, Tai Chi is considered what is called a "soft" or "internal" martial art, something that is the opposite of brute force. The discipline seeks to harmonize internal movement and breath, creating a flexible, even economical response to external compulsion.

The goal of Tai Chi, as with so many other eastern martial arts and disciplines, is to channel the body's energies in ways that work with the body rather than against it. Mind and body are brought together as one consistent whole, so that neither of them contradicts or inadvertently undoes the others work. The discipline seeks to create a calmness in both mind and body, to the benefit and unity of each.

Tai Chi Weapons
Tai Chi Weapons

The Less Than Benign Origins of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is today and what it was originally created to be are very different things.

It may not be popular at present to describe this martial art as something used as a weapon to harm and possibly even to kill, but it's very unlikely that it had any other rationale when it first developed.

Even the translation of Tai Chi Chuan, its complete name, which can be something like "supreme ultimate force" or even "supreme ultimate fist," gives hints that it simply wasn't originally intended to be solely a method of defense.

The fact that it was an art that was guarded by an entire clan and taught very carefully to apprentices suggests that it was viewed as something extraordinary. Some believe that the art was developed, not just to defeat other people, but as a defense against wild animals as well.

And the fact that some of the branches use weapons, lunges, kicks, and other offensive moves also suggests that it wasn't solely designed to react to someone else's attack.

Consider the creation of the second historical style of Tai Chi, the Yang style. Yang Lu-ch'an studied for a while under a master from the original clan, before becoming a teacher and master in his own right. While it was true that he removed some of the more abrupt movements from the Chen style, like stomping and leaping, it was also true that the Imperial Family of China hired him to teach Tai Chi to the Palace Battalion of the Imperial Guards.

One might be forgiven for being skeptical at the thought that Yang was hired to teach a purely benign, self-defense-only style of martial arts to the guards whose job it was to protect the palace and the royal family. Is it not more reasonable to assume that he taught them a martial art form with which they could attack and kill enemies?

Some modern practitioners acknowledge the roots of this art, reasoning that one of the purposes for learning the breath control, relaxation techniques, and body movements was to be able to kill an opponent more efficiently.

Yet this acknowledgment does not have to taint the modern practice of Tai Chi.

It's entirely possible for this art to have had more violent roots and violent intentions at its inception than it does now, and to have developed greater enlightenment and spirituality through the centuries. While it's important to understand the truth of Tai Chi's origins, that does not stop the art, the philosophy, or its practitioners from continuing to grow.

More Resources On Tai Chi

Books and DVD's to help you understand Ti Chi and its concepts.

If you are already practicing Tai Chi and would like to share your experience please do so by adding a comment below.

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