Taichi Essentials for Beginners
Part I

by Rennie Chong


The Nature of Taijiquan

Taijiquan looks concrete but is actually abstract. It is a special type of soft exercise; an area of learning in the science of conserving strength and energy. 

Although in the beginning focus is on correctness of form and posture, yet soon the concentration is on something deeper and more abstract - being soft and relaxed, sensitivity in touch and feeling and co-ordination of the whole body.

There's nothing mysterious about Taijiquan. It's just some accumulation of wisdom and research in physics by earlier practitioners - to reduce tiredness in daily life, delay the appearance of stress in work and achieve good results with minimal effort. And it takes the softer way because it wants to conserve energy and doesn't want to waste physical strength unnecessarily. It's against the use of might and hard, head on fighting, but emphasizes the use of intelligence and skill. But to gain that bit of intelligence, one must forgo subjectivity and latter effort. And this is as difficult as climbing the Himalayas.

The movements in Taijiquan are gradual and slow, so naturally the breath is long and deep. It is a natural breathing exercise; it's meditative and seeks calmness in movement; it guides its inner force/power by continually linking the body joint to joint; it operates on the Ying-yang principle through its emphasis on the substantial and non-substantial, it has no fixed strategy against the opponent, and it is against control based on subjective perception. Its strategy varies according to the person and situation, very much like Sun Zi's Art of War. As a skill, it must be unique, for it is philosophical, functional for daily life and can embrace great variety.

It takes on the colors of secrecy and mystery only because of its uncommon name. Actually, Taiji is simply the differentiation of Ying-yang or differentiation of what is substantial from what is non-substantial - meaning that the chief focus in this kind of martial art is the changes in state - from the substantial to non-substantial and vice versa. Certainly this is also mentioned in other kinds of martial arts, but it is profoundly studied in Taiji, especially in the push-hand technique - listening for the force, awareness and determination of what's substantial or non-substantial.

In the past, Wuxing and Bagua were attached to Taijiquan to make it more mysterious and raise its profile. But now, in the context of Modem Science it is able to resume its original nature as simply a study in physics. Bagua and Wuxing has in fact is in the theory of Taoism. Bagua can be explained the position South East North West. Wuxing means the five elements Metal, Water, fire, Wood and Earth. Individual elements can be related to our organs e.g. Metal is lung, water is kidney, fire is heart, wood is liver and earth is stomach. It works on the creation and destruction eg. Metal is destruct wood. Water and wood is creative. Creative will raise your energy. Destructive makes you weak. It is good to understand the philosophy when practicing Taijiquan. Thus, Taijiquan is in itself not mysterious, but when the skill reaches its heights, people will look on with wonder as it's beyond our existent knowledge.

Transmission Through A Piece Of Paper?

An increasing number of middle aged and young people are now learning Taijiquan. Many of them do it only for health reasons, quite a number learn because they feel it contains profound meaning and desire to investigate and climb its peak one day. Among these, only a handful will climb its peak, and in them resides the future and hope of Taijiquan.

In learning, besides ensuring you're learning real Taijiquan from a good teacher who can impart to you the correct postures and movements, you must also take a serious attitude towards the Writings on Taijiquan and continuously research them.

Most intellectuals who first encounter Taijiquan invariably wish to find "the book/manual" on Taiji as though having it and understanding it would make one proficient in Taijiquan. I was like that. I remember when I first obtained the manual, I really thought I could understand it - after all, I was cultured and literate! I learnt the posture from the book at early age but later realized that what was in the manual was only a record of the skill by the skilled practitioner. The skill cannot be transmitted through reading even if one reads the manual everyday, and even if one is highly intellectual and cultured. Without teaching from a good teacher, without substantial and adequate practice and experience, true understanding will still not occur. That is why later my father need to teach me by his experience. In fact, with the manual, it's easy to fall into error - you may think you know all and become more subjective.

Manuals are necessary to help improve your knowledge. But it's better to find a good teacher and be taught in the specifics - for "Oral transmission is necessary for entry and guidance".

Earlier masters tend to be ambiguous when writing their manuals and a variety of interpretations are possible as a result. For example: "sink then all follows, layer then all drags" has all kinds of interpretation, the reason being that no explanations have been attached to the terms "sink" and "layer". Further, some think that "follow" has positive meaning while others think it is negative. So to whom should we listen? We are all different in terms of cultural background and level of intelligence so we should not all be forced to come to the same understanding; but the problem is, the manual is a guide for the practice of the skill, so one wrong interpretation can lead one in wrong direction and be so be led astray. For example, many think "peng" means "to head off and so use their strength to block off the opponent resulting in error and little gain.

The ancient manuals are a strict record of the art and not just words written for teaching future generations. However, the fact is that few among the present generation are familiar with the art, though many are very knowledgeable about words. Therefore, without the advantage of familiarity with the art through real transmission and right teaching, it is not surprising that many are liable to be subjective when interpreting the manual, resulting in all the different kinds of Taijiquan being practiced nowadays. My father got me a lot of old Taijiquan manuals only after twenty years I could start understand what it meant.

In reality, the principles of Taijiquan are not mysterious and are actually quite plainly recorded in the manuals. They are veiled only because our skill has not reached that standard. Let me again emphasize, Taijiquan does not conform to what is ordinarily known and expected, and its strength is not in that which has been developed. We must discard what is ordinarily thought and our developed strength, before we can learn its wisdom.

But most men use only their ordinary understanding and subjective vision to look at it, so its true appearance is not perceived, and it becomes veiled and insubstantial. Who then is the authority who can explain Taijiquan? So we seek a master.

Seeking a Master

Beginners are often not able to grasp this concept: that Taiji learning emphasizes the use of mind and intention rather than physical effort; that it has its own system and is unlike other martial arts or exercise. Therefore, the beginners think that as long as the movements are slow, it's Taiji, and are not really able to distinguish what's real and good Taiji.

Further, being able to meet up with a good master is not easy, so it's often the case that one finds one has not learnt real Taiji, (e.g. postures do not reflect the principles of the art), only after many years of practice. Just like previously, I was not able to bring out the force though I had worked hard at Taiji for many years. Fortunately, my father and my master teaching and later through pushing hand with my elder shixiong also. Tho Kok Ching made me realize the Taiji force. With great patience, they corrected my postures and explained the principles, and from practice in Push-hands, made me experience how to listen to, neutralize others' force and bring out my own force. He pointed out my former mistakes and inadequacies, and clarified what I should work towards in future. I went again to seek Master. Thus from my own experience, I know that it's not easy to attain even a little of the real knowledge that exists in this abstract art. In the past, I had worked hard, but I had not understood its principles and my own explanations were not right.

Few are those whose Taiji skills are really good, and rare are those who really understand its principles. The standard of most teachers are limited and they are far from being Masters. Therefore, those who leam Taiji are already naturally disadvantaged. Taiji is unlike other martial arts. It does not use obvious strength and hard effort, but uses internal strength and gentle force. It relies on the whole body's sensitivity, feel and touch. The way to power/force cannot be cultivated nor understood in a short time. It's already something if one is able to neutralize and efficiently emit force through friendly push-hand practices within 8-10 years; and only then can one be a teacher. On the whole we lack good teachers.

Traditional teaching method includes teaching one or two stances each time, and after about 3-5 days or even 10-14 days, the next one or two stances are taught when the teacher feels you've basically learnt what has been taught. In this way, the whole routine takes at least half a year to complete, including teaching and correction. Progress seems slow; but it is just because of this that accuracy in stance and stroke is attained. This serious and down-to-earth approach is what guarantees quality so that a good foundation for future progress is possible.

But nowadays, things are not the same. In the gardens, we often see several or even more than a hundred people being led by one, and few are those who have the time or patience to teach step by step; more often, the teacher will simply go through the whole routine and the students just follow. In time, the students will manage to learn the postures, but because they have not been seriously/substantially taught, their stances may only seem so but are not accurate, and their standard and form of their postures is poor. What's worse, they may go out and become teachers themselves so the standard goes down even further. This is the main reason why the standard of Taijiquan is generally bad these days.

One set of broadcast exercise is often thought to have been mastered once it has been learnt no deeper principle being mentioned, but Taiji is not like that. Even if a whole set has been learnt, it only means that one can practice by himself; this is far from mastering Taiji. Taiji is not focused on form but on meaning and content, and within is much content that's both complex and unique. So one needs to daily study as one practices, and there is a need for instruction from a master to substantiate the study. When the feel of the Quan is attained through grasping the meaning and content, then one may be said to have mastered the foundation of Taiji. Further on, there must be continuous study so that the feel can increase and one can improve. If the feel is still not right, then your postures are still empty, and it is still not Taiji; at the most you may have only increased your hard strength. Thus, how can one not be serious about finding a teacher?

The above is from the point of view of improving the skill when training, but if one only wants some physical exercise, to strengthen the body or heal some chronic illness, then it's okay even if the form is not so good. As long as one perseveres in daily practice rain or shine, the body will certainly gain health although there will still be differences in level of efficacy.

Even if one is fortunate enough to meet up with a good teacher, it's still not good enough if the period of learning is too short. With a good master, in a year or so, the form of the postures may be quite alright. Yet the student should know that the outer form is actually the manifestation of the inner principles. The teacher has produced those forms because he has deep understanding of the meaning and principles. The beginner's understanding of the principles, on the other hand, is limited, and he has only imitated the forms. Once he leaves the teacher, the forms will gradually change and become strange although he may still feel he's correct! As there is shallow understanding of the quan principles, it's not possible to know where he is wrong. One can witness the truth of my words if you go to the gardens and see the buried heads, bent waists, and jutting buttocks of those who are teaching.

Those in the past who learn the skill are more serious, sincere and down to earth. In the old text we see how "such and such a person toured with the master for more than ten years", meaning they had trained with the master for a pretty long time. But people nowadays are not so - they cannot understand that attitude and they may even laugh at the men of the past. Who is willing to spend such great effort to learn? But, men of the past are not more stupid, nor are they unwilling to hasten the process; they are just more willing to accept that their teachers are far better, that the skill is very difficult and cannot be hastened. Thus the saying "a great vessel is accomplished late".

Yang Luchan trained with Chen Changxing more than ten years before he became Yang the Invincible. The training period for the 3 generations of Yang is even longer. Master Cheng Man Ching also trained with Yang Dengpu for many many years. Doesn't this tell us something? Each of these generation attained outstanding results, and that's surely not an accident. They not only mastered the form, they also understood the meaning and content, and so gained its essence. They had attained both the likeness and the spirit of Taiji. Only through inheriting fully the achievements of past masters is creativity and progress possible. This is what we, the "instant generation" must think about today. We look for good master for good skill and good master is difficult to find but now is the same problem that I am looking for a good disciple equally difficult. Many of them is learn to exercise for health reason but not serious, sincere and down to earth way to master the skill.

Taichi Essentials for Beginners. Part I © 2003-2005 Rennie Chong

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