Tai Chi for Health, or Tai Chi for Self Defence?

I see the debate about tai chi as a martial art, versus tai chi for health, has quietly raised its head again. In our last newsletter Brian Gregson wrote an article about students needs and quoted a letter to Tai Chi Magazine. The author of that letter, a Ralph Johnson, "laments the fact that there is an 'explosion on the fighting aspects of tai chiÖ..why do we have all these so called experts writing about Tai Chi and telling everyone that unless you know the fighting aspects you don't know Tai ChiÖ..I know the real Tai Chi when an older woman who has had high blood pressure for 20 plus years no longer needs to be on medication".

I have a distinct feeling of dťjŗ vu, because we've had this debate before. When we discussed this, a couple of years ago, I was unequivocally on the health side. I remember well the few short exchanges I had with John Hartley in South Australia through the newsletter and the web site. Like Ralph Johnson I was shaking my head at the same insistence Ė "if you don't know the martial then you don't really know tai chi". I came to tai chi myself because it was recommended to me for health reasons. Iíd been working for almost 15 years with a number of excellent teachers who taught tai chi purely for health, and I was firmly convinced that the forms were all you need to know to get the benefit of tai chi. I agree wholeheartedly with Brian on the point of nurturing students, but I have to say, my experience over the last couple of years has given me a totally new perspective on tai chi. This time I want to wade into the debate with a completely different point of view!

I wrote an article once about an encounter I had in a park at Cabramatta years before. I described how the teacher there, (I found out later his name is Roman Czerniawsky), stirred the beginning of an understanding when he said to me "tai chi IS a martial art". It took me a long time to get there, but for the last couple of years I've been training with Roman, and frankly my attitude and response to this debate have now done a complete about face. The trouble is, it's frustratingly difficult to make other people understand, because my insights have largely been the result of feelings I've had during our classes. I read the things that were written in our past debates, and later I even watched demonstrations of push hands, but nothing made any difference until I actually felt it.

Let me try and explain. One of the first revelations was a simple exercise in the bow (or "forward") stance. I'd been doing and teaching bow stances for years and figured I knew all about them. When Roman asked me to take a bow stance and then proceeded to push me off balance, (with just one finger in fact), it was my first inkling that something was wrong. When I began to do some simple pushing exercises, I was made to realise again how important it was to relax and sink into my stance. When I didn't, (and it is important to recognise that it was only the experience of push hands that made me see this), I was given the feeling of "floating" and of being uprooted again. I learnt how easy it is to be uprooted when I didn't maintain proper alignment ("suspend the head top"), and I felt what it's like to be deflected by the use of four ounces. In other words, I was feeling the principles in action, and the effects of someone with real skill playing with my energy. These examples are simplifications of course, but there are many more of them, and they typify the things that made me realise very quickly that push hands is not a separate exercise that has nothing to do with form. In fact the two go hand in hand to develop your skill. The ideas you learn and practise in pushing have to be taken into your form, and the reverse is also very true, lessons taken from the form help in your pushing.

These feelings have brought the art, and the principles we talk so much about, to life for me. There is a big difference between a theoretical discussion of the principles, or the applications, and the revelation of having them shown to you by someone who has a real understanding that comes from practising the martial. I'm totally convinced now that the martial side of the art, the push hands, and the forms, are inseparable. If you pull tai chi apart and only learn movements, you are denying yourself an incredibly fascinating experience and limiting your knowledge of the art. You are also possibly denying the added health benefits that actually come with learning the martial side of tai chi! We talk about how important it is, for example, to be relaxed, and I used to believe I was relaxed while I was doing my forms. I can say "used to" because push hands showed me otherwise. After many years of thinking I was soft, and constantly encouraging my own students to "relax", it took just a moment pushing with someone to show me I still had a great deal to learn!

I'd like to share a very interesting article I read in a book called "The Taijiquan Classics - an Annotated Translation", by Barbara Davis. Iíve always wondered what happened to tai chi. Itís impossible to read any book on tai chi and not wonder how it changed so much. In the "old" days it was understood without question that "tai chi IS a martial art". Schools started and foundered on the reputation and skill of their teacher. If a master was defeated by a challenger he would often close his school and follow the person with a greater skill. If he didnít, then his students certainly did. This is not just an interesting fable, like the story of Chang San Feng, itís the reality of tai chiís history! This part of a chapter in the book goes a long way to explaining what happened -

The communists took control of mainland China in 1949, establishing the People's Republic of China. Martial arts, with their lineage allegiances and perceived ties to secret societies and uprisings, were seen as a threat to government authority. They were considered to be remnants of the feudal past, embodying hierarchies, master-disciple loyalty, and in some cases magic and superstition. Yet these same martial arts were undeniably an established part of the social fabric, whether people treated them as self-cultivation, combat, entertainment, or exercise.

The government established commissions to create a standardised synthesised style. The goal was to better serve the masses by using the martial arts as a health exercise and a support for national competitions; in the process, lineages were forced out of the picture. A simplified taijiquan form was created, drawing influences from the lineage based Chen, Yang, and Sun styles. Taijiquan soon became the ultimate health exercise for the masses and a leisure activity for the retired. It found currency as an exotic spectacle for foreign visitors to view, and has now become a recognisable icon of Chinese culture and wholistic health.

Numerous martial artists fled mainland China at the end of the civil war in 1949, moving to Hong Kong, Taiwan and to foreign countries where they developed followings. Others stayed in the mainland, working within the new political system, or quietly keeping their teachings to themselves. With the Yang lineage still predominating, taijiquan spread to overseas Chinese communities including Singapore and the United States. By the 1960's, masters such as Cheng Man Ching began teaching western students who, following their own societal trends, had become interested in Eastern traditions.

I found this part of the book really interesting. (In fact the whole book is a great read). It was the first time I've seen it written by someone else that there seems to have been a deliberate effort by the Chinese government to develop a health exercise based on a martial art, as a way of encouraging people to participate in a simple exercise program, and (more to the point in our debate) as a way of deterring people from the martial arts they saw as a threat. Itís this "standardised synthesised style" that most of us have been learning.

No one can deny that modern tai chi is a popular and a very effective exercise system. My intention is certainly not to criticise anything done by the many teachers Iíve had in the past, because I know first hand the benefits people get from their teachings. Iíve seen it in my own classes! Nevertheless, Iíve been extremely lucky to see another side to this art, and what I want to do now is encourage, even challenge, other tai chi people to take off their blinkers. If youíre really interested in your tai chi, if youíve ever wondered what the books really mean when they talk about an opponent, then you owe it to yourself to try push hands with someone that understands the subtlety of yielding and softness. Then youíll understand what I mean when I say it brings the ideas and principles of tai chi to life!

Let me make one other point about tai chi as a martial art. I know that in some schools they practise applications and even get into sparring. But the Cheng Man Ching devotees I'm training with now have some very interesting ideas about the martial art. They believe that practising applications is actually counter-productive. (The practising that is, not the understanding, there is a big difference). They talk about the development of what they call "the tai chi body", by practising the form correctly, with a real understanding, and the creation of an awareness of energy through the practise of push hands. The combined effect of the two leads the tai chi person to simply be in the moment and able to deal with an opponent, (there's that word again), without any preconceived ideas of how a particular move should be used. It is of course a very long learning curve, but that's what makes it so interesting, and my experience has shown me that no one should fear the idea of learning tai chi as a martial art. It won't hurt at all, well, not in Romanís class anyway! Itís not about abandoning all the ideas we hold dear in tai chi, itís not about competitiveness or aggressiveness. Itís all the same ideas but with a much greater understanding.

I mentioned John Hartley earlier. John is another traditional tai chi teacher who understands the martial side of tai chi. In fact he wrote a very interesting letter that was published in this newsletter saying it's impossible to separate the "civil" from the "martial" if you are to learn the art properly. There is an article by John on the Association's web site and I would encourage everyone to read it again, (it's titled "Tai Chi Chuan, by Sifu John Hartley"). I think John puts the point much more succintly than I ever could. I shudder to think I read his comments a couple of years ago, and still couldnít see his point.

TCAA began with an aim of promoting tai chi of all styles, and I guess that despite our differences, ultimately we all have to learn to live with each other. Yes, the martial artists have to accept that "tai chi for health" is a fait accompli thatís not going to change. But the real and greater shame is that the "health" tai chi players have such immense difficulty recognising that there are other levels to tai chi. I seriously hope that the "explosion of martial art tai chi" continues and that more people seek exposure to it. Itís not something to be feared, and it deeply enriches your tai chi experience. The fact that doing the movements improves your health is NOT sufficient reason to say thatís all there is (or needs to be), to tai chi!

Just by way of a footnote, some of us in TCAA have discussed forming a group (within the Association) to discuss and promote push hands. If anyone is interested, or if youíd just like to talk about the idea, please contact me either by phoning 0417406921, or send an email to johnmills2@bigpond.com.

John Mills


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