Despite its roots, Taiji is not very well known as a martial art and is usually considered a health exercise (which it also is). This is not surprising in the sense that to learn Taiji on a level where it is really useful for combat takes a long time and requires clear guidance on the various levels of progress. Without instruction by a competent teacher and practical demonstrations hands on it is rather impossible to achieve such a level. Hence the top masters tend to be old when they actually reach such a level. (“You don’t see them much at UFC”.).
According to a Chinese saying a Taiji practitioner doesn’t leave from behind closed doors, meaning try to apply Taiji in practise, during the first ten years of training. Even this requires diligent (daily) training and especially correct type of training suitable for one´s level. Hence it can be said that Taiji is a long and challenging path to combat skill and few people achieve it. The late master Zheng Man Ching said that “well practised, Taiji can be the best martial art but poorly practised it is surely the worst”. The goal is not easy to achieve.
We will cover the various stages of progress as well as the principles of Taiji in more detail in other articles. Here we attempt to describe what the applicability of Taiji is based on, “what makes Taiji Taiji”. It is good to understand that words don’t really do justice here, one should experience it by hands on demonstrations by someone who can really do it.
So what is it that makes Taiji so difficult to learn? Concerning its applicability, we can say that it’s the special feature of Taiji, namely “borrowing power”. One connects and “glues” to the opponents power and then “borrows” and finally “returns” it. To the opponent this feels like “bouncing off” from the Taiji player so that the harder the opponent attacks, the harder they bounce off. Chen Taiji master Chen Fake said: “Za lai, za zou”, meaning “the way they come is the way they leave”.
Sounds great, but how does that happen?
Borrowing power is based on the internal structure and movement developed in Taiji’s form training. The goal is the hua-fa combination where hua can be translated as “neutralization” or “melting” and fa or fa jin as “letting the power out from the body”. The internal structure or zhong ding acts as a kind of conductor, which is used to lead or turn the opponents power away from one’s own center line, most ofter down to the ground. The power is hence “borrowed”, meaning it is not only guided off but also held onto without resisting it so that it can also be returned to the opponent. The same conductor also enables one’s own internal power and movement in a way that returning the opponents power can be “amplified”.
We will attempt to describe this as follows: one builds inside one’s body a “hydraulic system” where the medium is qi energy and which is controlled by the mind. To keep the “pipes” open one needs to relax the body or otherwise the qi cannot move freely inside. Let us note that actually this system is not really built as it is already built into each of us. But “waking up” and learning to control this system takes quite a lot of training. It is also said that Taiji consists of opening and closing (kai – he in Chinese). This describes exactly the loading of the system and on the other hand releasing the pressure.
So this system is loaded by the opponents power but it does not resist it. Instead, the movement is followed and suitably guided off one’s own center line without losing a grip on it. Hence the power is not just blocked off but rather one holds onto it and uses it to one’s own advantage. Then the pressure is released at exactly the right moment meaning when hua is ready, fa takes place. In practise these two phases happen instantly and are hence difficult to differentiate in actual usage. For training Taiji they need to be separated though so that they both can be learned correctly. Out of these two, hua is much more difficult to learn and on the other hand executing fa correctly, meaning without colliding with the opponents power requires that hua has first been performed correctly.
Slightly simplified, we can say that:
Hua = holding and gluing onto the opponents power and borrowing it, Fa = returning the power (with interest, using the “hydraulic pressure”).
This brings us to slowness, why is Taiji’s form training so slow?
Surely one cannot be slow in a fight? Internal training, meaning among other things the development of the body’s energy center dantian, the center line and the whole “hydraulic system” is too difficult in fast movement. Therefore slowness is only a special feature of Taiji’s form training, not an end in itself and certainly not suitable for fighting. Wang Zongyue writes in his Taiji classic: “if my opponent is slow, I follow him slowly, if he is quick, I quickly respond”. Hence one moves according to the situation. On the other hand, in the slow movement of the form one actually develops very quick internal movement, meaning the movement of pressure in the pipes.
In fact, one of the most important things practised in Taiji, especially in tuishou pair training, is timing. In order to be able to apply the technique characteristic for taiji as described above, one must have exactly the right timing or otherwise the moment when fa jin, letting the power out, will be missed or hasn’t happened yet. In this case one will either miss the chance or collide with the opponents power and the hua-fa chain cannot work.
How about softness? Isn’t Taiji usually called a soft martial art?
Softness is only one half of Taiji. Developing the internal structure requires that the body is relaxed as the “hydraulic’s pipes” need to be kept open. On the other hand, the internal structure is “hard”, meaning the pipes are strong and there’s pressure inside them. One develops “steel wrapped in cotton”. And as one doesn’t want to respond to the opponents power with power (which would block the pipes) the movement needs to be soft which is clearly seen in form training. This way the “steel” remains hidden until the moment when the pressure is released from the system. This tactic which is characteristic for taiji is described in the Taiji classics by “suddenly appear, suddenly disappear” and on the other hand by “my opponent doesn’t know me but I know him”.
Chen style Taiji has a special feature for neutralizing power and also for letting power out called “silk reeling power”. Using our earlier description, we can say that the hydraulic system functions in a spiral fashion, twisting as controlled by the dantian in the lower stomach area, starting from there and returning back there; as before: kai – he. Using this method one gets a hold of the opponents power and guides it in a suitable way which makes room for fa. The goal is to make this happen using any part of the body, meaning the pipes extend everywhere. And using any technique.
The foundations for these things are built in form training. Then they are tested in tuishou pair training. After that, one attempts to use them in a more realistic way, “sparring”. In the first stage this means using some selected techniques from the Taiji forms in tuishou pair training. In this way combat ability is built step by step with an emphasis on tuishou training which is Taiji’s tool for adopting things essential for fighting. Tuishou by itself is not enough for learning combat skill but it is necessary if one really wants to learn to use Taiji for fighting.
In order to make all this work one not only needs to relax the body but also the mind or it cannot control the internal movement. A calm mind and deep concentration are required, eventually in a situation where the opponent does not hold back but attacks full on. Hence Taiji is as much an exercise for the mind as it is for the body. This explains the meditative way of training typical for Taiji.
Challenging. But interesting. Although the way to achievement is long many intermediate steps along the way are rewarding and often include something completely new that one has not experienced or at least not noticed before. And although there are numerous frustrating moments along the way even small “successes” in tuishou training give hope and exciting experiences. And new friends.
Could you do this? Would you like to be a part in keeping this fantastic Chinese discipline alive here in the peace of the north and guided by a skilled master? Come over to our classes to watch, try it out and ask questions.
Here are some videos which show what the above explained things might mean in practise. Note though (despite the meritious translation of the title of the first video) that these are not free fighting situations but rather demonstrations which inevitably lack some realism. However, the end result should be clear.
Master Feng Zhiqiang demonstrates Taiji’s principles for fighting in a demo in Japan with his student Wang Fengming.
Feng Zhiqiang with his student Lü Baochun in Chinese TV.
Master Li Jingwu demonstrates tuishou.
Master Lin Mogen’s tuishou.