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A Look at Taijiquan

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A LOOK AT TAIJIQUAN: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written December 23rd, 2014

“…it has been observed that Taijiquan is most useful at a close range, namely wrestling range, since again, the basis of application training like tuishou, like chi sao in Wing Chun, is based on ‘sticking’ physically to the opponent at a closer range, where Taijiquan practitioners are often known to ‘displace’/’uproot’ or quite literally throw (read: takedown) an opponent off-balance, as opposed to a longer distanced, striking range such as boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This is the second edition of a segment of write-ups entitled “What You Need to Know.”  This series is dedicated to the promotion of better general understanding of traditional Wushu styles, by sharing information about specific styles I gain knowledge about, preferably after I have some degree of training in them.  Sections of each edition will be divided into background history, training, weapons, and a list of branches of the style.  The look at “traditional Wushu” in this series is not to be confused with the standardized competition and performance routines performed in modern Wushu Taolu, which are also called “traditional” in modern Wushu circles; rather, this is specifically about the actual traditional Chinese martial arts styles themselves, and is meant to share some accurate knowledge about the traditional Chinese martial arts needed to make educated observations about these styles.  This specific edition will look at Taijiquan.

Currently, I am now on winter break from university, and am very much enjoying my time away from school, homework, and exams.  I can safely say that right now I am in my “offseason”, if I can say that, from training, at least from competitive Wushu.  This does not however, mean that I am not training at all.  When I am not training competitively, I alternatively focus on other areas of Wushu, such as Sanshou and traditional Taiji, as I have begun to do in recent years.  It is also important to point out that when I say “Wushu”, I do not simply mean modern Wushu, which is a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, comprised of Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu) competition.  Rather, I mean Wushu in its most literal sense, an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts, which also includes the traditional styles of Chinese martial arts that have been developed and practiced over the course of Chinese history.  This brings us to the focus and topic of this write-up.

My experience with traditional Wushu began with traditional Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), of all things.  Since then, my training, albeit extremely limited and far from impressive, has opened my eyes to many areas and aspects of Chinese martial arts training, aspects such as martial applications, philosophy and cultural history, which I did know existed during my time training only in modern Wushu.  At this point, it should be clear that I am making a distinct difference between modern Wushu and traditional Wushu.  I am also not referring to modern Wushu’s interpretation of “traditional”, which is only restricted to standardized Taolu trained for performance and competition, but rather traditional Wushu styles as a complete systems of martial arts, not just a set of forms.  And as part of an effort to show and increase understanding of the authentic, traditional side and depth of Chinese martial arts, I would like to use Taijiquan as an example.  Better known or mispronounced as “Tai Chi”, it is often seen as a form of relaxing exercise with an emphasis on health.  Bruce Lee, in his famous 1971 interview on the Pierre Burton Show, called Taiji “more of an exercise for the elderly…”  In an interview on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jet Li has defined Taiji as “old man style.”  Today, Taiji experts distinguish the practice of “Tai Chi” for health and exercise, and Taijiquan as a form of martial arts with the context of the Chinese character 拳 (quán, fist/boxing), which in Chinese culture carries a clearly martial meaning in the training or use for fighting purposes.  However, very few people today are aware of its original roots as a traditional Chinese martial arts style.  My mission for this write-up will be the description of Taijiquan as a complete Chinese martial arts system.  This description of Taijiquan will include, but not be limited to, the modern Wushu Taolu interpretation of Taijiquan.

Here, I will attempt to shed some light on the big picture of Taijiquan, by sharing general knowledge about the style needed to get a basic understanding of it, to the best of my ability.  This will be the second edition of “What You Need to Know”, as in what you need to know about traditional styles of Wushu.  This is a look at Taijiquan.

Before I begin, I should point out my personal experience with this style, in order to establish where my perspective is coming from.  Every time I’ve introduced Taiji to an audience at a formal event, I would normally start with a pop quiz of the following questions: “How many of you know what Taiji is?”  “Okay, now how many of you know that Taiji is a martial art?”  “Okay, well now you’re learning!”  Just like everyone else, my initial perception of Taijiquan was that of “Tai Chi”; it was that Chinese thing that old people did with slow, relaxing and beautiful movements.  It has been purported and marketed to have many health benefits, which has easily supported from firsthand accounts and scientific research.  My first inkling that Taijiquan could in fact be a martial art, was the Jet Li movie Tai Chi Master, known by its original Chinese name Taiji Zhang Sanfeng (太极张三丰; Tàijí Zhāngsānfēng), which was released here in the US under the title of Twin Warriors (Ironically, Jet Li’s latest Wushu-related movement was an online program co-founded with famous Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, called “Taiji Zen”, which was obviously more specifically Taiji-oriented as opposed to overall Wushu, and has quietly been “suspended.”  I don’t know which is sadder, Jet Li’s lack of involvement in Wushu today, or the failure of this program…).  That was when I was when I was a kid.  I also saw traditional Taijiquan at my Wushu school during classes and Chinese New Year performances when I was still a kid, a couple years starting out in modern Wushu Taolu.

In July 2012, I formally began to learn Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan under Christopher Pei, head coach of the US Wushu Academy, who was also my first modern Wushu Taolu and Sanshou coach.  Technically, I had a choice; US Wushu Academy offered instruction in both Chen Style and Yang (杨; Yáng) Style Taijiquan, which was the main style that modern Wushu Taijiquan was standardized upon.  Although modern Wushu Taijiquan was technically based on all the five recognized styles of traditional Tajiquan, Chen, Yang, Sun (孙; Sūn), Wu (吳; Wú), and Hao (郝; Hǎo, also known as 武; Wǔ), of the options available, I made the decision to learn Chen.  My thinking process was that since Chen was the oldest, it would therefore be the most “purest” and most martial form of Taijiquan, though this is not to say that other styles of Taijiquan are any less martial or valid.  After I entered college, the collegiate Wushu club I was a part of, hired a Chen Style Taiji instructor, Mac Colestock of Jing Ying Institute of Kung Fu & Tai Chi, as part of an effort to increase better understanding of Chinese martial arts in general, not just modern Wushu.  Needless to say, from the time I’ve started learning Chen Style Taijiquan, to my ongoing and current training in it, my eyes have been opened to the amount of depth and knowledge that traditional Chinese martial arts have to offer.

Now that I’ve gotten my personal history with Taijiquan out of the way, it’s time to start to actually get to talking about Taijiquan itself.  Because this is all general knowledge, the majority of the information here will not be new, but rather knowledge that is quite easy to research on your own, if you know where to look.  I should also point out that given my personal experience, most of my knowledge will come from Chen Style Taijiquan.

Background History 

Unfortunately, due to the existence of more than one theory and belief regarding Taijiquan’s creation, the specific origin and development of Taijiquan is not clearly established.  The most popular belief, or at least as the legend goes, is that Taijiquan was invented by the Daoist figure Zhang Sanfeng, who dreamed of a fight between a snake and a crane.  The legend of Zhang Sanfeng was depicted in the aforementioned movie Tai Chi Master.  However, today contemporary experts in the study of Chinese martial arts are challenging whether or not this legend is true, or even if Zhang Sanfeng even existed at all.  The other established belief, as held by the Chen family, is that Chen Wangting was the founder of Taijiquan, who created the martial art from a combination of Chinese philosophy and his experience in war as a Ming dynasty general.

The name of Taijiquan itself is another peculiar thing.  The original term and idea of “Taiji” (太极; Tàijí, grand ultimate) comes from Chinese philosophy.  It is interesting to note that the title of “Taiji” was not conferred onto the martial art until after the rise of Yang Luchan, the founder of Yang Style Taijiquan, who learned Chen Style.  This is said to be the result of a scholar named “Ong Tonghe”, who witnessed Yang Luchan’s skills, and wrote a poetic verse to express what he saw as the physical manifestation of Taiji.  It is because of this that the art is now known as Taijiquan since then.  Prior to this, the oldest known form of what we call “Taijiquan” was simply known as either “Mianquan” (绵拳; miánquán, literally “soft” or “cotton fist”, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style of the same name), or simply “Chenjiaquan” (陈家拳; Chénjiāquán, Chen Family Fist/Boxing).  Though the saying goes that Yang Luchan “stole” the art from the Chen family, it is also established that he was in fact taught by Chen Changxing, a Chen family master, and as such was the first “outsider” of the Chen family to learn what is now called “Taijiquan.”  This story was also depicted by the recent films Tai Chi 0 (太极: 从零开始; Tàijí: cōnglíngkāishǐ, Taiji: Starting From Zero) and Tai Chi Hero (太极 2: 英雄崛起;Tàijí 2: yīngxióngjuéqǐ, Taiji 2: Hero Rises), both starring former modern Wushu champion and Shanxi Wushu Team member Yuan Xiaochao (oh jeez).  From Yang Luchan’s knowledge and influence, Taijiquan was eventually shared and spread out into what we see today.

Today, Taiji enjoys a status as both a popular form of exercise for health, but even more importantly as a well-known and respectable style of Wushu in Chinese martial arts communities.  Many Chinese martial arts instructors, both of modern Wushu and traditional gongfu, market and teach Taiji alongside their specific curriculums, due to its mass awareness and popularity.  Indeed, Taiji, whether people truly understand it or not, is known to virtually everybody.  As such, it can be a viable vehicle of awareness for Wushu, and possibly a potential representative of Chinese martial arts culture.

Training 

In terms of classification, Taijiquan is categorized as an “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”) style of Chinese martial arts, as opposed to “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”), where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques, and “internal” refers to the training of qi (气; qì, vital energy), intent, spirituality, internal health.  This fact gives basis to the observation that Taiji can be practiced for health purposes.  An exception to this is modern Wushu Taijiquan, which trains only the external appearance and performance value of forms, and which I will touch on later in this write-up.

There is also the strange, yet nonetheless interesting belief, that Taijiquan is in fact a category of Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist).  It is interesting to note that whichever theory of Taijiquan’s origin is believed, both versions consist of a founder with some preexisting background in some traditional Long Fist style; Zhang Sanfeng is said to have learned Shaolin Wushu in addition to White Crane (白鹤拳; báihèquán, White Crane Fist) and Snake (蛇拳; shéquán, Snake Fist) Style, which can easily be attributed to the “dream” in the aforesaid legend, and Yang Luchan had prior experience in Hongquan (洪拳; hóngquán, Flood Fist, not to be confused with the traditional southern style of 洪家; hóngjiā, Hung Gar, which is also called Hongquan) before learning from Chen Changxing.  It is also interesting to note that Chenjiagou (陈家沟; Chénjiāgōu, Chen Family Village), home of the Chen family and Chen Style Taijiquan, is situated in Henan, the same province where the original Shaolin Temple lies.  Whatever the possible influences or roots these Changquan styles may have in Taijiquan, is an interesting subject to pursue, but not clear.  However, today Changquan and Taijiquan are indisputably classified as different and separate styles.  More importantly, Taijiquan and Changquan, regardless of what style of either we are talking about, are fundamentally different in the sense of posture and basic movement; Taijiquan, while it may have some extended movements and open postures, it does not have the full extension and stretched out movements and postures that Changquan styles have, or at least modern Wushu Changquan.

Perhaps most familiar to people when looking at traditional East Asian martial arts styles, is the practice of forms, and Taijiquan is no exception.  Virtually everybody that knows about Taiji is familiar with its practice of Taolu, even if they don’t know it by name; forms, routines, all can be defined as Taolu within Chinese martial arts.  Because there are many existing styles and branches of Taijiquan, each alone have their own set of Taolu, which, given my experience in only Chen Style, I know next to nothing about.  But based on my personal, albeit limited, experience training in Chen Style Taijiquan, I can say that the Taolu can at least give a basic understanding of how exactly Taijiquan is a martial art; Taijiquan is NOT simply a beautiful form of exercise, it is very much a martial art in the traditional sense—whether or not is a “good” style a matter of opinion, but it is unquestionably a martial art in the “martial” sense.  Virtually every movement and posture has a martial application.  Whether it’s a simple warm-up or basic movement, or specific technique from a form, each has a specific purpose, either directly for attack and defense, or for training fundamentals.

In a quick aside, there is also the training of Taolu for sport and competition, which is where the place of modern Wushu is.  Because the practice of specific styles and forms fall into the Taolu category of Wushu competition, modern Wushu Taijiquan is specifically a Taolu event.  Modern Wushu Taijiquan has been criticized by traditionalists for lacking the training aspects of traditional Taijiquan, as it is trained specifically for performance based on a certain set of rules, only having the external “appearance” of Taijiquan with none of the internal content apparent in traditional Taijiquan, and has even been called “Changquan with slow movements.”  In recent years, modern Wushu Taijiquan has incorporated nandu (难度; nándù, difficulty movements) into optional (自选; zìxuǎn, individual) events, as with all modern Wushu Taolu competition events, in addition to the preexisting standard compulsory (规定; guīdìng) forms.  On the surface, I can see what the traditionalists are saying are somewhat true, having trained in traditional Taijiquan, and thus am able to distinguish the embellishments and deviations that modern Wushu Taijiquan athletes make from the traditional forms.  But modern Wushu Taijiquan, despite being trained specifically for performance and competition, and not in the traditional way, is not necessarily completely empty or devoid of Taijiquan; first of all, modern Wushu Taijiquan is based on the five recognized styles of Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, and Hao, as mentioned before, and takes movements and techniques from these styles into its practice, so it cannot be said that modern Wushu Taijiquan is not Taijiquan at all.  Also, conversely coming from a predominantly modern Wushu background, I can also say that despite all the truth that modern Wushu Taijiquan lacks the traditional depth of traditional Taijiquan, I still like and appreciate it.  I said in “‘Traditional’ In Modern Wushu: Clarifying the Distinction” that part of being able to appreciate modern Wushu as a sport and competition item is being able to understand that it is not the same as traditional Wushu; in fact, this recognition is central to appreciating modern Wushu, especially when considering the big picture of Chinese martial arts culture.  Modern Wushu Taijiquan was never meant to be the same as traditional Taijiquan, it was designed simply to be a performance and competition item, and it does its job just fine (and is the only case of music Taolu events I’m okay with).  Grandmaster Zeng Nailiang, coach of the modern Wushu “Taiji Prince” (太极王子; Tàijíwángzǐ) Chen Sitan, said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “Is Modern Wushu Taiji Real Taiji” by Emilio Alpanseque and Brandon Sugiyama, “Taijiquan…has continued to evolve under different parameters into the 21st century.  Competitive wushu or jingji wushu (竞技武术) is one of these areas of development which certainly includes taijiquan.  Therefore, I see nandu taiji clearly as an integral part of taijiquan culture.  How could it be any different?”  Therefore, at least in my opinion, it is important to understand that modern Wushu Taijiquan, while not the same as traditional Taijiquan, it is still a part of Taijiquan.  This applies to modern Wushu in general, which, while not the same as traditional gongfu, is still a part of Chinese martial arts culture due to its development out of it, as I have always said.

However, the most basic elements of traditional Taijiquan, regardless of style, can be divided into thirteen basic concepts, also translated as the “Thirteen Postures” of Taijiquan.  To be precise, the “Thirteen Postures” are eight “energies”/“methods”, and five “steps” or directional movements (八门五步; bāménwǔbù, literally “eight gates, five steps”).  The first eight listed here are the energies/methods, also known as “bājìn” (八劲; literally “eight energies/powers”) or “bāfǎ” (八法; literally “eight methods”), and the last five are the “steps” or directional movements (步; bù, literally “step”).  It is the sum of these thirteen concepts that form the basis for all movements and techniques within Taijiquan.

  • Peng (掤; ward-off) 

Of all the concepts in Taijiquan, I have found this one to be the most central and all-encompassing.  It is essentially the idea of “roundness” in physical posture, which when done properly, creates an immovable posture and theoretically allows all force to be neutralized.  A good analogy is that of the roundness of a ball, which supports its structure.  Peng is achieved by the principle of “hanxiong babei” (含胸拔背; hánxiōngbábèi, “hollow the chest, round the back”); this consists of “rounding out” one’s physical posture, namely by “hollowing”/concaving the chest and shoulders inwards towards the body; this includes the rounding out of the shoulder blades as a result.  This is usually trained in addition to the rest of the physical foundation of Taijiquan, in the stationary standing practice of zhanzhuang (站桩; zhànzhuāng, literally “standing post/pole”).  Maintaining peng is vital for any successful Taijiquan practice, whether it is Taolu or tuishou, or even applying Taijiquan in any sense.  A lack of adequate peng will result in the failure of the physical execution of any and every Taijiquan technique.

  • Lǚ (捋; rollback) 

In physical movement, lǚ consists of literally “rolling back” in response to contact with the aggressive, forward energy from the opponent towards oneself.  This can be seen as “yielding.”  However, it is important to understand that “yielding”, does not mean completely giving up ground to the opponent.  Rather, “yielding” ideally in theory leads to exposing an opponent’s weakness in their advancing aggressiveness, which can be exploited; essentially, this is the basis for the idea of “going with the opponent” and “using the opponent’s own force against them”, a concept common in many other martial arts styles.

  • Ji (挤; jǐ, press) 

Not to be confused with an.  Whereas an is pushing outwards, ji is “pressing”, or literally to “squeeze”, as in squeezing one’s force into a specific area of the opponent.  Ji can be furthered applied by drawing movement, and therefore power, across one’s body, or on a horizontal axis.

  • An (按; àn, push) 

Not to be confused with ji, an is perhaps the simplest of concepts to grasp in Taijiquan; it is simply the idea of pushing outwards with the hands.

  • Cai (採; cǎi, gather) 

Similar in the physical sense to lǚ, cai is to “gather” or literally to “pluck” physically downwards, in the same way that one would “pluck” or “pick” fruit from a tree above.  This is usually applied in the form of grab and downward pull, usually of the opponent’s wrists or arms.

  • Lie (挒; liè, split) 

Lie is to “split” or “separate” energy, specifically in two separate directions.  The most primary example is the physical separation of the hands in separate, usually opposite directions.  Conversely, this can also be applied in the sense of “splitting” or “separating” the energy of the opponent into (primarily two) separate directions, thereby throwing them off-balance.

  • Zhou (肘; zhǒu, elbow) 

The use of the elbow is a very unique method in Taijiquan, but nonetheless direct in terms of martial application.  In Taijiquan Taolu, applications with the elbow are obvious in specific techniques, and can also be hidden in extending arm movements, and seen when breaking down the sectional movement of arm extension by joint.  For obvious reasons, the elbow is used in place of the fist or palm, at a shorter range of fighting.

  • Kao (靠; kào, bumping with various parts of the body) 

Any close range bumping with the torso can be qualified as kao.  A primary, but not exclusive example, is the use of the shoulder to bump against the opponent.  Speaking from personal experience, I have found this to be a directly applicable technique in Sanshou, specifically in a single leg takedown technique.  One of my Chen Style Taijiquan seniors of the Wushu school I used to go to, has said that, being a former American football athlete, he found this concept to be a very direct and valid technique in fighting.

  • Jin (进; jìn, advance) 

Given that jin is a type of “bù” in Taijiquan, jin means to “advance forward.”  Interestingly, when jìn coupled with the Chinese character of 步 itself, the resulting term is 进步 (jìnbù), which means to improve.  In the literal sense for Taijiquan, this means to step physically forward.

  • Tui (退; tuì, retreat) 

In Chinese martial arts, tuì is used in conjunction with 步, making up the term tuìbù (退步), which means to physically step backwards.  In the general Chinese language, where “jìnbù” means improvement, “tuìbù” means regression.  However, in the case of Taijiquan, tuìbù simply means to step backwards.

  • Gu (頋; gù, left) 

The complete term is “zuǒgù” (左頋), which means to “look left”.  Conceptually, this encompasses leftward movement in general, from simply looking left, to turning one’s body to the left, to a literal step to the left.

  • Pan (盼; pàn, right) 

The complete term here is “yòupàn” (右盼), which means to “gaze right.”  Just as gu is the idea of leftward movement, pan is the idea of rightward movement, from looking right, to turning one’s body to the right, to a step to the right.

  • Ding (定; dìng, centering/settling) 

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  The idea of “centering”, or “settling” into a stable stance is one of the most basic aspects of virtually all Chinese martial arts styles, not just Taijiquan, and is something that is trained to literally build a good foundation, namely the strength and stability of one’s legs and stance.  This can also be translated as “rooting” oneself to the ground, by allowing one’s center of gravity to literally “sink” straight down through the legs into the ground, which establishes a good stance and foundation as a result.  Folding in the body at the kua (胯; kuà, hips) is key to training this.

In addition to Taolu, there are also combat drills directly related to martial applications and fighting ideas, as well as the aforementioned practice of zhanzhuang and its derivatives in training both physical posture and internal aspects from a fundamental standpoint.  Unique to the practice of internal styles of Chinese martial arts, namely Taijiquan, is the sensitivity drill of tuishou (推手; tuī​shǒu, push hands), which also exists in Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm) and Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”).  There are many kinds of tuishou, but all consist of a two-man exercise at the core of the practice.  Many practitioners and observers of Taijiquan are most familiar with the tuishou exercises that are a group of preset or predetermined movements, like Taolu.  Consequently, many people see tuishou as just another “pretty” or “beautiful” exercise with no real martial meaning.  However, this only encompasses a basic understanding and beginner level of tuishou, and the complete of tuishou is an idea that is more than just preset routines.  At the more advanced level, the practice of tuishou gradually becomes more freestyle and spontaneous, ranging from stationary tuishou, to moving feet tuishou.  The ultimate goal of tuishou is to build physical sensitivity to the opponent’s movement and forces upon physical contact with opponent.  In this sense, it is parallel to the sensitivity exercises of other Chinese martial arts styles, such as chi sau (黐手; chīshǒu, sticking hands), in that the fighting applications are trained on the basis of physically “sticking” or “listening” to the opponent, usually by contact with the hands or arms, and responding based on the principles of the style.  Eventually, tuishou training achieves the bridging of the gap between forms and fighting application in a completely freestyle format, which is denoted as “Sanshou.”  It is interesting to note that the term Sanshou and was an idea that existed long before the modern Wushu version.  Sanshou is an idea that exists in many traditional Chinese martial arts styles, and can range from freestyle albeit controlled combat drills, to actual freestyle sparring.

In terms of specific techniques, all real Chinese martial arts styles train four specific elements of fighting: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná).  Taijiquan contains both obvious kicking techniques in forms, as well as hidden kicking applications in virtually any raised leg posture.  This idea exists in many traditional Chinese martial arts styles and forms as well; any time a leg is raised, it is implicitly implied that a kick can be done as well, even if it is not done obviously.  Additionally, Taijiquan also contains knee strikes.  Fist techniques in Taijiquan range from straight punches, to traversal punches, to downward back fist strikes.  There is also obviously the presence of openhanded techniques such as pushes, palm strikes, chops, and circular “blocks/parries” as well.  As mentioned before, there are also elbow strikes in Taijiquan.  As with all other styles of Chinese martial arts, throws and takedowns also exist, which are hidden in the stances, and movements into stances within forms.  The existence of the takedowns and wrestling aspects of Taijiquan, or the rest of Chinese martial arts for that matter, are not as obvious to the casual observer, but is very much a big part of the martial and fighting aspect of Taijiquan.  The use of throws and takedowns is especially prevalent in advanced tuishou practice, and many of the techniques are parallel to those of Shuai Jiao, (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), as well as Japanese judo and jujutsu.  Based on this, there is also a belief that Taijiquan may have been influenced by Shuai Jiao in its development.  But perhaps the most profound, or rather least “obvious”, of all the fighting aspects of Taijiquan, is the existence of qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) techniques, of which there are many in Taijiquan, which range from manipulation of the hands, fingers, and arms.

At this point, it is important to understand how Taijiquan can be applied as a martial art.  Although there is increasing awareness that Taijiquan is a form of martial arts, there is still the question of, “Why is Taijiquan done slow?” or “How can Taijiquan be used to fight if it is slow?”  Most of the misunderstanding of Taijiquan being “useless” in a fight is due to the lack of understanding of the martial arts training of Taijiquan, and its fantastical, exaggerated portrayal in movies.  I can say that to this day, there is no movie that has adequately portrayed Taijiquan as a real martial art.  I said before in “Martial Arts in Media: What It Does and What We Can Do About It” that we should deemphasize the fictional images of Wushu, including Taijiquan, in media, and portray it in a realistic, unvarnished light.  Once again, I will refer to what I have said in “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu Training”, that forms and fighting are not necessarily the same thing.  Even experts in Wushu and Taijiquan say that trying to do things “slow” or trying techniques as they are exactly from a form, in a real fight is ridiculous; you’d practically get knocked out trying something like that.  When commenting on the training of Taijiquan for fighting, Wushu Grandmaster Cai Longyun says in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Big Dragon with the Magic Fists”, “‘…when you want to strike someone, if you move too slowly, you will never hit them.  You have to react fast to hit your target.’”  Rather, the “slowness” that is seen is Taijiquan practice is more a training of specific details, such as “relaxation”, getting rid of tenseness, and achieving a good physical sense of Taijiquan techniques, movements, and core concepts.  In the actual training of Taijiquan applications, as is evident with advanced practitioners of Taijiquan in tuishou and Sanshou practices, techniques and movements are indeed trained fast; this is a given, as in fighting, speed is crucial.  As for the effectiveness of Taijiquan in fighting, it has been observed that Taijiquan is most useful at a close range, namely wrestling range, since again, the basis of application training like tuishou, like chi sao in Wing Chun, is based on “sticking” physically to the opponent at a closer range, where Taijiquan practitioners often move to “displace”/“uproot” or quite literally throw (read: takedown) an opponent off-balance, as opposed to a longer distanced, striking range such as boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai.  Personally, I have no doubt that Taijiquan can be applicable, since the head coach of the Wushu school I used to go to, extracted all the takedown techniques in the school’s Sanshou curriculum from Chen Style Taijiquan.  Also, many such takedown techniques already exist in the standard curriculum of modern Wushu Sanshou that is taught in both professional Wushu schools and sports universities in China.  This should attest to the fact that Taijiquan undeniably has direct martial application in fighting.

Weapons 

As a complete style, Taijiquan, like many other traditional styles of Chinese martial arts, also includes the training and practice of weapons.  Interestingly, the most famous, and sometimes only weapon that is openly shared from the Taiji style is Taijijian (太极剑; tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword).  Traditional Taijiquan also includes weapons such as dao (刀; dāo, saber/broadsword), gun (棍; gùn, staff), and qiang (枪; qiāng, spear).  Other weapons in Taiji also include shuangdao (双刀; shuāngdāo, double saber/broadsword), shuangjian (双剑; shuāngjiàn, double sword/straight sword), and many others.  When looking at the forms of these other weapons, it is interesting to see that the stereotypical “softness” and elegance seen in Taiji seems to disappear, giving way to more “direct”, and more obviously martial appearances.  This may attest to the military roots of the style.  The broad arsenal of these weapons within traditional Taijiquan also demonstrates how it is a complete culture of Chinese martial arts all on its own, in addition to being a part of an entire Chinese martial arts culture with many other styles.  However, the single most prevalent and recognized weapon of Taiji is the jian (劍; jiàn, sword/straight sword), which I will highlight here.

  • Taijijian (太极剑; tàijíjiàn, Taiji straight sword) 

For some reason, Taijijian is the most widely seen and taught weapon in Taijiquan curriculums today.  Perhaps it’s because it is closest in appearance to the image that most people, even general practitioners have of Taijiquan.  In modern Wushu Taolu, Taijijian is the only standardized weapons event for professional competition under the Taijiquan style.  But despite the fact that it contains the typical Taijiquan “aesthetic” on the surface and is no doubt beautiful to watch, Taijijian has obvious techniques and movements which are clearly martial in nature.  In traditional Taijijian practices, there are also sensitivity drills equivalent to tuishou in empty hand practice, which are trained on the basis of maintaining contact with the blades.  However, given my obviously limited experience, and having only learned bare hand Taolu, I have no formal or actual knowledge about the practices of Taijijian, or any Taiji weapon for that matter.

Branches 

As with many styles of Chinese martial arts, there are subsets, also called “branches” or “lineages.”  Though all branches of a specific style are conceptually the same style, it is important to understand that there are inherent differences that only become apparent when observing or studying in-depth the unique aspects of each specific style.  Of course, there are more styles other than those that are listed here, but the styles mentioned in this write-up are perhaps the most recognized and well-known.

  • Chen Style Taijiquan 

The oldest known form of Taijiquan.  What distinguished this style of Taijiquan apart from all the other styles is perhaps its specific emphasis on fajin (发劲; fājìn, literally “released power”) and chansigong (缠絲功; chánsīgōng, silk reeling skill), which is the foundation of all movements in Chen Style Taijiquan.  While this is not to say that other styles of Taijiquan are lacking in these aspects of training, it is commonly observed that Chen Style emphasizes these the most.  Despite the fact Yang Style is the most prominent Taijiquan both in traditional practice and modern Wushu, I have observed a rise in awareness and popularity in Chen Style in general.  I have also seen an increase in Chen flavor and movements in modern Wushu Taijiquan as well.  But maybe it’s simply my own relative perspective within Chen Style.  The most well-known and respected proponents of Chen Style Taijiquan today are the “Four Great Diamonds” (四大金刚; sìdàjīngāng) of Chen Style Taijiquan, Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian, and Zhu Tiancai.

  • Yang Style Taijiquan 

The most popular style of Taijiquan today, founded by Yang Luchan, who studied Chen Style under Chen Changxing, as established before.  If you were to take a trip to China and see the elderly practicing Taiji, either in the park or other open areas, chances are its Yang Style, or at least some version of it.  As stated before, it is also the “main” style of Taijiquan from which modern Wushu Taijiquan was based upon.  Other branches of Taijiquan also stem from Yang Style, namely Zheng Manqing (郑曼青; Zhèngmànqīng) Style, founded by the eponymous Zheng Manqing.

  • Sun Style Taijiquan 

Founded by Sun Lutang, who studied Hao Style Taijiquan under Hao Weizhen, and also founded Sun Style Baguazhang and Sun Style Xingyiquan.  Personally, I know very little about Sun Style Taijiquan, other then what I have been told about the founder by the head coach of the Wushu school I used to go.  I have also been told that Sun Style Taijiquan is bound to have some Bagua moves, and given that Sun Lutang trained in Cheng (程; Chéng) Style Baguazhang under its founder Cheng Tinghua, as well as Xingyiquan under Li Kuiyuan and Guo Yunshen, and later founded his own styles of each, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some overlap between the three styles of his branch, or of the parent styles that he trained in.

  • Wu Style Taijiquan 

The development of Wu Style Taijiquan can be said to have started with Wu Quanyou who studied Yang Style Taijiquan, and was one of Yang Luchan’s top students.  Thus, Wu Quanyou can be effectively be seen as the founder or “father” of Wu Style Taijiquan, though his son, Wu Jianquan, is also credited with the founding of the style.  Compared to other styles of Taijiquan, namely Yang Style Taijiquan, Wu Style Taijiquan has a smaller body frame and smaller physical movements with higher stances.  Behind Yang Style Taijiquan, Wu Style Taijiquan is also one of the most popular styles of Taijiquan known today.  If I understand correctly, this is the style of Taijiquan that Yuan Wenqing learned prior to his competitive career in modern Wushu Taolu, at least as I’ve heard (for all I know, it could be the other “Wu”).

  • Hao/Wu Style Taijiquan 

Also known as “Wu” Style Taijiquan, not to be confused with Wu Style Taijiquan founded by Wu Quanyou/Wu Jianquan.  Like the other Wu Style Taijiquan, Hao Style Taijiquan also has physically smaller movements and much higher stances compared to other styles of Taijiquan.  What is known as Hao Style Taijiquan today was founded by Wu Yuxiang, who studied Yang Style Taijiquan and was another top student of Yang Luchan.  The discrepancy of the name between “Wu” and “Hao” is said to be due to the teaching of Wu Yuxiang’s nephew Li Yiyu’s student Hao Weizhen, who in turn taught Sun Lutang, the founder of Sun Style Taijiquan.

If you are interested in learning this style, you are encouraged to seek out ant take the opportunities to do so!  In the spirit of sharing knowledge, I have decided to share some education links at the end of this write-up, for those that are interested in learning more about the style.  I hope you have gained some knowledgeable insight into this traditional style of Wushu, or at least know enough to adequately understand it from an intellectual standpoint! [Symbol]

Chinese Wugong (中华武功; Zhōnghuáwǔgōng, literally “Chinese Martial Skill”) Internal Martial Arts Episode:

Kung Fu Quest (功夫传奇; gōng​fuchuán​qí, literally “Gongfu Romance”) Taijiquan Episode:

Experience Real Gongfu (体验真功夫; tǐ​yànzhēngōng​fu) Taijiquan Episode:

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda and traditional Chen Style Taijiquan. He is a four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member and Pan American Champion, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.

  • Fede Sanchez

    Great article! as a humble practician of Modern Wushu’sTai chi, I am glad to see this today, I would like to point out also that sadly no many teachers understand and therefore teach this style as a martial application, so I have a nice curriculum of empty forms as I see it…either way I would love to change that one day.

    • Matthew Lee

      Hi, Fede! Thanks for your continued comments and support! 🙂

      -Matt Lee.

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