There is much discussion today in relation to the relevance of the martial aspect of Tai Chi Chuan. Whether through observation or dream, Chang San-feng, (Taoist of Wutang 1391-1459?), developed the art. Arising from the interaction between a crane and snake and through nature, observed in action, the effectiveness of Taoist philosophy applied in self-defense. Or whether one chooses other evolutionary approaches in the development of Tai Chi Chuan (Supreme Ultimate Fist), its framework remains the same, that of a martial art. What has perhaps changed is that today the health aspects, rightly so, are given high prominence by some, but, can we argue that the martial art and philosophical objectives of Tai Chi Chuan are not needed, or in fact that they are indeed separate from the health objectives?

Today I would suggest that there are a number of teachers, who either do not know, or choose not to teach, or do not focus on the wholistic approach to the art, which encompasses the health and martial aspects. When encompassing the health and martial aspect practice in accordance with the principles is essential, but many say that the times have changed and we need to adapt. Indeed it has, and yes we do, however we need be mindful that the constancy of the heavens remain.

The gaining and attainment of health and related aspects through the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, is in fact the first step on a long and ongoing learning process. My intention in presenting this article is to create interest and discussion within the T.C.A.A in relation to the health and martial aspect of Tai Chi Chuan, of which both are inter-related, connected and dependent. Aware that at the end of the day we practice a somewhat subjective art and need to come to our own conclusions. I put this out for suggestion and am very much aware this writing is essentially an intellectual rambling such theorizing in former times would have been addressed quite expediently, I ask those of skill to put aside my shortcomings, and to assist me in addressing them.

In beginning with the observations of past Masters, we find in Chapter six of Professor Cheng Man Ching (1900-1975) and R W Smithís book (Tai Chi the supreme ultimate exercise for health, sport and self-defense), the following lines,

{ The student should not forget that Tai chi Chuan is closely related to the fighting tradition of Shao-lin Temple Boxing, and that every movement has itís logic in a practical, combative use. Hence the surest test of efficacy of any of the many systems of Tai Chi Chuan practiced today is simply to examine the postures from the standpoint of use. If they cannot be related to practical application, the system is clearly incorrect.} and further adds,

{How does Tai Chi Chuan cope with striking, kicking and grappling assaults done, not in sport but in earnest? Tai Chi Chuanís answer is that the principles underlying the solo exercise and the pushing hands practice, especially that of interpreting strength, have an equal, if indeed a greater validity in terms of self defense.}

Professor Cheng Man-ching in his song of Form and Function writes: 

Form and Function are mutually connected and nothing more

The illustrious Master Yang Cheng-fu, (1883-1936) in his book the practical application of Tai Chi Chuan translated by Douglas Wile it is written:

{In Tai Chi Chuan, the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Tai Chi Chuan method is the true Tai Chi Chuan method. The ability to teach the art of self cultivation and self- defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Tai Chi Chuan.}

From experience the martial application of Tai Chi Chuan for some of us, takes time to acquire. Functional concepts such as yielding and non contention being at opposite ends of the get in first, brute strength and aggressiveness often displayed in physical confrontations and if not in actual physical confrontation the assumed underlying threat of it in managing our day to day affairs. Applying Taoist theories which spring from nature, of yielding and the re-direction of energy, non-opposition and non contention into every day life, can at times, be testing. The classics and both past and present Masters in their guidance relay to us, it is an essential part of the art. One half of the whole if you like, to gain potentially at least, the full benefit of the art one should not overlook this martial aspect, least we be lead astray.

Having stated this we learn the art to avoid rather than hurt, oneís ability comes to fruition when we arrive at avoiding or diverting danger altogether without recourse to violence, to learn Tai Chi Chuan effectively for self-defense purposes as written previously can take time to acquire.

We hear or read all the time of balance, central equilibrium of yielding, relaxation, etc. In learning Tai Chi Chuan, I suggest they are not simply static theories isolated to thought alone and the solo forms. But through the practice of push hands, and martial application, we begin to see and more importantly to feel where we are in fact off balance and what we need to do to restore that balance. How to receive and re-direct energy at a very fundamental level, which the principles play a central role, "the hub of a wheel", so to speak. With ongoing self correction and alignment in accordance with the principles, we in fact become sensitized to the finer elements of Tai Chi Chuan theory and philosophy, "theory and action become one."

We hear also, in Tai Chi Chuan, of the importance of a calm mind and relaxed body. In push hands we practice these fundamentals under what can be stressful but controlled situations. Addressing ones fear and sensitivity, the uniting of both principle and practice can only assist in bettering ones overall health and understanding of Tai Chi Chuan. What good is theory if it remains contained only in thought and cannot be expressed physically? Or when we find ourselves in a potentially stressful life situation and we cannot avoid, divert or re-direct that energy? What good is practicing Tai Chi Chuan for health without regard to itís underlying principles only to find our knees have been worn away or there are constant acheís in the lower back, hips and chest? Can it be said to be an exercise of the supreme ultimate? Again "thought alone is without profit"


Taoist Masters were/are pragmatic peoples, so Tai Chi Chuan indeed has a functional side. That is the theory needs to have its physical representation, be it for health or martial art. A calm mind and its external expression, a relaxed body, I feel are pre-requisites in addressing self defense situations and health ailments. Hopefully I am making the connection reasonably clear in that the principles are in fact multi-functional and we need to take care when addressing the parts or components of Tai Chi Chuan in isolation from the other. We also need to make sure that we do not address those elements of Tai Chi Chuan in a way, which serves only to dilute the fundamental principles of Tai Chi Chuan.

The priority of Tai Chi Chuan and its place in todayís society may very well be itís health benefits,(which is consistent with the desire of Chang San-feng) given the fast pace of our society and the many lifestyle dis-eases we may encounter. Self defense is also conducive to overall well being and should not be seen as separate from, I feel without argument, Tai Chi Chuan is indeed an art for all seasons, philosophically it is born of Wu-Chi and is without limit

From a personal perspective the promotion of the principles of Tai Chi Chuan can assist one in becoming more tolerant, this must be of benefit to ones community. Without ones health we have nothing. What good is the martial art without health? But to say Tai Chi Chuan is "only" for health or "only" for martial art, I feel can be misleading. If we practice our art, heeding its principles, "with appropriate guidance"; we are generally practicing correctly. The role of a teacher is to explain and lead us via example as to the best way of incorporating and applying the principles in ones daily practice, and prepare one for the physical transmission of the art.

To say Tai Chi Chuan is an art "only" for health or martial art is to say the principles have changed. Philosophically principles are the constant within change. There have been evolutionary changes in the manifestation of form but not the fundamental principles of which Tai Chi Chuan is born. If they had changed then what we practice today would be completely without basis, and lost to us long ago. Be that for health or martial art, the difference comes in the application of those principles, or the physical expression of such, and oneís knowledge and understanding in relation to them. To move away from the fundamental principles and framework of Tai Chi Chuan I would suggest, in fact, weakens and not strengthens its expression.

If we practice Tai Chi Chuan without recourse to the principles it can in fact lead to ill health, not just externally such as sore knees, aching hips etc but also internally in the organs, and in the corruption of oneís Chíi.

Whilst there are a number of variables as to why as individuals we may choose to learn Tai Chi Chuan such as; health status, age, level of interest be it philosophy, spirituality, martial art, relaxation, sheer enjoyment mental or physical stimulation, meditation etc. As students we need practice consistently in accordance with the classics as best one can, or I would suggest, we do, not only ourselves, but future practitioners a dis-service and assist perhaps inadvertently in the arts long term disintegration.

Principle governs Structure, Structure governs Form, Form governs Function, be that for health or martial art neither being mutually exclusive, the fundamentals remain the same. The functional aspect of Tai Chi Chuan lies in internal principles expressed externally. Proper body alignment, relaxation and movement are equally important to health as it is to martial art. The practice of the solo form expresses an inner consciousness or awareness in relation to our understanding of the principles underpinning Tai Chi Chuan. The solo form is not just for looks, or to aimlessly wave ones arms about, be sure that Tai Chi Chuan is about life long learning, there is purpose and intent in its movement.

My intention is not to express that people cannot do the art simply to improve ones health or to enjoy itís movement or artistic expression, but simply to encourage others to explore the many aspects of Tai Chi Chuan, which without doubt encompasses itís martial expression. To close off this door I feel, is to close one off to a very interesting, vital learning and growing process that is the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

J.B.Hartley 2000


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