Tai Chi Foundations:

Asian Culture and Philosophy

By Gerard Menzel. Wild Lotus. Email: gmenzel@hotmail.com

Tai Chi practice is closely connected to the culture of the Chinese people and the philosophy of the Early Taoists which made their mark during the period of the "Warring States" approximately 200 BC. The most famous of the early Taoists were Chung Tzu and Lao Tzu his contemporary. Lao Tzu or ‘Old Baby’ was believed to have been conceived not as a normal baby but as an old man after spending a long time in the womb of his mother. This is consistent with the various beliefs about well known religious personalities who have abnormal births. Other examples are Jesus and the immaculate conception and Buddha who was recognized as a sage in his early years. It is interesting that at the time of both Buddha and Lao, around 200 BC the worlds philosophy was undergoing major changes due to the birth of these influential thinkers.

Foundations of Tai Chi

The difference between some forms of physical exercise and Tai Chi and other martial arts is that TC (Tai Chi) has behind it a philosophy and spiritual pool of knowledge which goes back to the early Chinese writings on spirituality. Some of the symbols used in the forms predate the Chinese notion of Tien or the heavenly realm. Before this certain groups believed and worshipped animal Gods. The great God was called Di. The fish diety is often found in the Yang Shao culture and archeological area, together with the tiger and the dragon.

The dragon being associated with water and rain being fundamental to life in a agricultural community. The tiger was believed to be the strongest and most fierce animal in the world so its characteristics were revered. The tortoise was seen to be an animal with a long life and so it was associated with sagacity or wisdom. The fish was a source and symbol of food abundance. It is also found in the early Christian symbols and is connected to the idea of spreading the word of the gospel and or feeding the multitudes as in parable of the loaves and fishes.

Other forms and symbols are characterised in ancient Chinese pottery and sculpture.

Snakes are often depicted in a circle, the horns of a bull on metal vessels. The deer is a symbol of peace and the phoenix is the bird connecting the human realm with the realm of Tien or heaven. The phoenix is associated with learning and culture consequently.

Multi facet learning path

Why is Taoist Tai Chi philosophy useful for living ?

If we take up a physical regime of any kind over time it can become tiresome and repetitive and one can lose interest but if there is a holistic philosophy attached to the art then one is always able to learn and find new paths of interest.

For any martial art one must work on 3 basic areas.

1 Applied physical exercise and muscle stretching, balance, technique, stamina fitness

2 Intellectual study and technical knowledge associated with the art which would take the form or calssic texts, manuals, ancient scrpts and treaties

3 Spiritual teaching in the form of texts, ancient formulae, mantras, invocations, prayer, ceremonies, rituals

Lao Tzu

Lao was a librarian at time of the Warring States 490 BC which was a time of tremendous upheaval. When he was about to leave the country via the western gate we are advised he was asked by the gate keeper to write down his theories and teaching, so he produced the Tao Te Ching. It is a mystical allegory of short verses concerning the Tao.

The vision of Lao riding to the western gate on a cow is symbolic of his teachings because the cow in Asia is symbolic of power and stamina and a steady state.

Where he went after leaving China is conjectured upon. Maybe he went to India or maybe he went into the mountains of the Himalayan chain. The thing we do know is that he left a philosophical, religious legacy which is still applicable today. Tao Te Ching transcends time.

If we look at the stanza often quoted we begin to see his imagary.

"The Tao that is spoken is not the true Tao"

Here he is leading us beyond the senses into the realm of intuition and non-mind and Wu Wei or action in non action. Lao suggests and Tai Chi masters have suggested that life can not be learned like a parrot learning words. If there is one principle that is fixed or a hub for reality and that is;

‘life is constant change ’

If we understand this principle then we realize that action, thought and feeling must merge with change on every living level in order for us to find harmony and balance. If our ability to be flexible and sturdy like bamboo is resolute then we are living Tao.

Connections with Tai Chi practice

Let us look at the implications of symbols and the philosophy of Lao Tzu with the art of Tai Chi. One base principle about Tai Chi culture is that ideas alone are not sufficient as a ‘way’ or methodoldgy for life. Ideas must be joined to actions and actions are by nature connected to the living environment which includes place, people and flora/fauna. This principle is manifested in the forms where Yi or mind intent leads, followed by Chi or life force and lastly followed by body movement.

The longer we practice more open and broad our Yi is as more refined our Chi becomes and then our body becomes lighter, more nimble and free. Emotionally we become more open and relaxed as the heart energy is balanced, and the breathing deeper and flowing down to the Tantien below the navel. When the breath is settled in the navel the chi flow is earthed which is reflected in a contented and joyful mental disposition. Joy is found in our daily life as Tai Chi becomes a ‘Way to live’

Symbols of the animal world

The ancients learned from nature as they interacted with the animal kingdom in their daily existences. People 2000 years ago were wary of bears, tigers and snakes and they learned from them, feared their power and learned to live with them in harmony. They needed to know the life patterns and movements of fish in order to catch them for food. They needed to know the movements of the tiger in order to avoid its wrath when it was hungry so as not to become its next victim. As a result of this interaction of forces between the human and animal world we learned to respect and learn from each other. Some of the ancient ceremonies of the DI or great God revolved around animals.


The concept of Tien or a ultimate entity called heaven that exists followed the worship of animal gods. Tien is believed to be the place where ideas and virtue eminates. That virtue is the natural disposition of the man/woman and Tao.

On heaven Lao Tzu says;

‘Heaven is great, earth is great and man is great.’ (chap. 25)

‘Attaining the One heaven became pure.’ Chap.39


These greatnesses draw their substance from Tao. In our natural form heaven, earth and man draw their sustenance from Tao and are of the same elements of Tao. If we attain to Tao then oneness emerges just as a baby takes on the characteristics of its surroundings as a result of the natural interaction with its mother, father, scenery, food and so on. In our Tai Chi if we base our movements on the motion of heaven then it well reflect, harmony and Oneness. This Oneness is successful on the person emptying the self of ego. Ego is desire and attachments to emotion. The form can be a vehicle to finding that ‘vacant space where’ Tao is alive.


The TC forms are designed to mirror the principles of the universe just as the teaching of the Taoists Chung Tzu and Lau Tzu guide us to understanding the world.

In the process of life everything in the universe is living and dying. If we look at a tree for example it undergoes regeneration or life and death every season. The leafs appear each spring and disappear in the winter. Life regenerates itself as the leaves nourish the soil and in the continuity of the trees lifespan it will partially live and die each year.

Peoples lives are similar in that every event has a beginning and an end, some events are more succesful than others. If one experience is not absolutely succussful then we could look at it as a dying process or regeneration process. In the form we also have periods of learning and investing in failure and loss. For example if we practice pushing hands we must be beaten many times before we eventually learn the way of victory by rea assessing our technique and attitude and stance and style over and over again.

In this fashion change can be seen as two sided or multi-dimensional. There is learning and values in the times of failure and learning in the periods of success. In actual fact we must fail before we are victorious and feel incomplete in our display of the forms until we feel more complete and confident. However there is always more to learn so we can never totally master the form. The only perfection is Tao itself. It is complete in itself and relies on no one, unlike ourselves. We rely on food, sunlight shelter, education and so on.

In the process of change we must realize that Tao changes not according to our needs but according to the laws of Tao. It is not a personalised process, nor is it conditional. For example some people seem to have easier lives than others and gain wealth while others struggle. This is the handing out processes of Tao which is beyond our rational mode of thinking. However we can be assured that whatever challenge in life we are offered it will be to our benefit if we take the challenge on sincerely and so not shirk it.

For example in our practice if our teacher says to practice for 2 hours each day to achieve a certain goal then be assured if we listen to the advice we will succedd sue to our diligence but if we expect rewards and no effort then we are ignorant. there is no success without some sacrifice.

When it comes to interaction and the use of Tai Chi in 2 person work change is a major factor in the flow of our actions. We must be able to be free flowing in our movements and ability to act in the attacking or defensive manner according to the need. We can not have a set approach for any 2 situations of tension as each event is a singularly unique happening in the universe.

In terms of practice one must show the ability to move forward and back, be flexible, soft and hard in any given situation. Our mind become moving , not fixed and is in a state of moving meditatiion. This is consistent with the teachings of Chung and Lao Tzu and the way of Tao. Life is a moving entity which does not stop for anyone. We can find happiness in change, sometimes chaotic and at other times quiet.

Modern times

If we learn from the classics and join our practice together then we have a life of virtue. Often we see in the media and magazines of the martial arts the carnival atmosphere of ‘the greatest Master around’. This is such a divergence from the true teachings that it is even ludicrous to comment on. If we look and see it metaphorically we can say the sweet water of a mountain is in the source of the river high up in the mountains and difficult to locate while the dregs and run off lay in the lower valley, far below which is open to all the masses. Masses of people well seek comfort with people who promise everything, a panacea for life’s ills, a miracle but this type of charlatan has been around since humans walked the earth.

Those who are serious and steady in their practice will read the classics of Chung and Lao and find a genuine teacher or vice versa.

As Lao says;

"……..the loudest voice says nothing. …….many colours blind the eyes."

"…….when a man of superior talent listens to Tao he earnestly applies it….When the worst man listen to Tao he ridicules it……….If he did not ridicule it would not be Tao."

See; Tao Te Ching Chung Chang –Yuen / Perennial / London


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