Taiji Quan (T’ai Chi Chuan) is the most popular Chinese martial art in the world. Each day, millions of people worldwide of all ages practice in parks, health clubs, and martial arts schools. Many people today practice Taiji mainly for its health benefits, and as a kind of moving meditation. Taiji will develop your balance and rooting, will increase your vitality and longevity, and can help you to prevent and heal injuries and illness.
Taiji Quan means ‘Supreme Ultimate Fist’. This Chinese martial art style is approximately 1,000 years old, but the basic movements and principles are known to be much older according to historical documents, so the origin of Taiji Quan is lost to the mists of time. Taiji philosophy is much older than Taiji Quan, and it has existed for thousands of years. The “Taiji diagram” In the west is called the Yin/Yang diagram. Yin and Yang are ancient characters are associated with all complimentary opposites; dark and light, cold and warmth, contraction and expansion… Yin and Yang theory explains the dynamic way in which one thing changes into another, bringing about the phases of nature. Taiji refers to this “great ultimate” process, which makes a balanced and interlocking natural world possible. Taiji philosophy is one of the central concepts of Daoism, which is the study of the Dao, or the Natural Way.
Legend tells that during the 1300s, a Quan Zhen Daoist monk living on Wudang Mountain named Zhang San Feng, witnessed a battle between a snake and a crane, and his recreation of their movements is the origin of Taijiquan. Zhang San Feng is considered by many people to be the patriarch of Taijiquan. At the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in the 1600s, in Henan Province, a militia leader named Chen Wan Ting retired to his hometown, and started teaching martial arts. The use of weapons among non-military fighters was prohibited, and many people at the time were developing new barehanded fighting techniques. Chen Wan Ting is credited as the originator of Chen style Taiji Quan, which most probably was a combination of the ancient Taiji postures and Chen-style kung fu. Taijiquan eventually became divided into family styles as the art was passed down from generation to generation, and many styles exist today.
After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, many martial artists taught openly and the martial arts flourished. Training manuals were published, training academies were created, and national competitions were organized. However, Civil war had already started in 1927, and it ravaged China until 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded under Communist rule. Several times in Chinese history, all martial arts and religion were outlawed, temples were destroyed, and many practitioners were killed. Many Daoists and traditional martial artists fled to Taiwan, and others hid in the mountains.
The new Communist government saw family-lineage styles as potentially subversive, and instead promoted sport-style martial arts. In 1956, the government called for the homogenization of taiji, and the 24-move form was made the standard. From 1966 to 1976 China went through the Cultural Revolution. In China, this was a time of widespread chaos, and social violence. Chinese people were encouraged to “smash the old world” to make way for new changes. Many ancient texts and historical documents were destroyed. Daoism was banned as a superstition, monks were sent out to work, and the monasteries were abandoned or destroyed. Most traditional martial artists and qigong practitioners practiced in secret, or fled to the West where the arts began to flourish again.
Fortunately, for those martial artists who remained in China, the suppression of traditional teaching was relaxed during the Era of Reconstruction. Thanks to the continued effort of martial artists outside China, and the perseverance of Chinese martial artists, the traditional arts are beginning to flourish once more. A new generation of Daoists is struggling to recover our traditions and preserve the Daoist arts. Today, the Daoist temples of Wudang are still active. Every morning and afternoon at Zi Xiao Gong (Purple Cloud Palace), Daoist monks and students gather to read scripture to the accompaniment of traditional music. They learn about Daoist history and philosophy, and practice traditional meditation techniques and martial arts.
Physical exercise is an essential part of the Daoist lifestyle. While the mind and the body’s vital energy (known as Qi In Chinese) can be trained through meditation and breathing exercises, the bones, muscles, and tendons must also be trained. The Internal martial arts of Wudang Mountain specialize in training the mind, body, and spirit simultaneously. Because they incorporate Daoist breathing, and meditation techniques into the martial arts, these practices can also be used for healing. The Internal martial arts emphasize developing the Qi energy within the body rather than on only building up the external muscles. This abundant Qi is then circulated through the body within the relaxed and soft movements of the Wudang arts. The more relaxed and flowing the body is, the stronger your Qi circulation can be led to support your martial art technique, and the more power you will manifest.
Cultivating the Qi energy within your body is an art which gradually develops over time and effort, through your practice of Meditation, Qigong, Taijiquan, and other Internal martial arts. The body’s energy should feel heavy, so that your center of gravity and the origin of movement is low within your body. It is also important that throughout the Taiji form, your movements must follow your Qi. Your body’s energy, breath, and intention must all be in harmony with your movements. While other martial arts may use the force of a single arm or leg, Wudang Taiji teaches us to use whole body power, where the entire body is used as a single unit.
However, in order to practice Wudang Taijiquan accurately, it is important to learn the purpose and application of each movement, which will be instructed later, one by one. When the soft and flowing movements of Wudang Taiji are performed at full speed, each movement has a martial art application, usually specializing in striking vulnerable acupuncture points, and dislocating your opponents’ joints. The principle of “overcoming hardness with softness” means that the practitioner does not rely on the use of brute strength to defeat the opponent. Wudang Taiji practitioners wait to use an opponent’s own strength and momentum against them. This idea of ‘waiting until the proper moment’ is rooted In the Daoist theory of “Wu Wei”. “Wu wei” is often translated as ‘non-action’, but this concept doesn’t mean that you aren’t supposed to do anything at all. It means waiting to do something until the time when you’re action will be the most effective, and then acting in accord with the “Dao” – the laws of nature.
By learning to attach and adhere to an opponent, a Wudang Taiji practitioner can sense the opponents’ intention, and then neutralize and redirect the incoming force with a skillfully applied counter-attack at the proper moment. By keeping the body soft and relaxed, you can respond and adapt to problems faster than one that is hard and tense. Though water is soft, it can carve stone and flow around any obstacle.
There is nothing softer and weaker than water,
And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.
For this reason there is no substitute for it.
All the world knows that the weak overcomes the strong and the soft overcomes the hard.
But none can practice it.
Whether you are practicing for self-defense or your health, your body and mind should be relaxed, calm, and centered. Taijiquan practice will transform your body and mind, and the more you practice, the more profound its effects will be. In Chinese we talk about a processes called “nei wai he yi 内外合一”. This literally means that the Inner and outer will be harmonized. The inner and outer refer to the mind and body, as well as the individual and the outside world. While we usually think of these things as separate, they are actually part of a greater totality, which exists in harmony. Through your practice of Taijiquan you can become a more balanced person, and bring serenity to all aspects of your life.