If, like me, you have ever raised a quizzical eyebrow when Sifu Simon preached about his teaching of the one true interpretation, the one true, authentic, verifiable, unalterable, untouchable Tai Chi Form...then listen on.
Because if, like me, as you listened to Sifu's World Wide-claim their heritage, you pondered on the 120 Form variations that now exist - and asked yourself - how can there be a single one true Form? Is the Form as sacrosanct as we are made to believe?
This month - the teapotmonk Investigation Crew explore the contradictions and vagaries of the Tai Chi Form and ask if we should not boldly go where no one has gone before. (This article is also available as a podast)
What is the Tai Chi Form & is it always the same?
When anyone thinks of learning Tai Chi, they generally think of the flowing, harmonious sequence of postures called The Form. These are not exclusive to Tai Chi - though the emphasis, pace and attention to body synchronisation is perhaps more focused, but similar Forms do exist in all martial arts, In the Japanese arts of Karate, kendo, Judo and Aikido for instance, the sequences of moves are called kata. In the Chinese arts they are called Forms, and irrespective of the martial art you practice, you will see many postures that resemble those we practice in Tai Chi.
What are the differences between the different Forms?
However, martial artists do like to define and categorise things, they like to put things into styles and sub styles, and variations and derivations. They generally like to pigeonhole things and so have decided to place all the arts into two camps - external and internal. What is meant by these is often a little vague, the truth being that all arts draw on as many sources of energy and strength as possible - muscular and tensile, straight and circular, fast and slow, soft and hard. It is in the nature of things, at least the 10.000 things that comprise the universe - according to Taoist theory. (But that's not saying a lot).
However, Tai Chi is still seen as “different” by other martial artists, partially because it is taught as both a system of health and ideology as well as a system of selfdefense, but also because of its emphasis on a single Form . This may be either a long or short Form, old or new, large or small frame. Whichever it is, most styles concentrate on a single empty-handed Form for several years - whereas in karate, you may learn a dozen Forms in the the same time a Tia Chi practitioner learns one.
Are there many different Forms?
And in Tai Chi it is not a universal Form either. Amongst the main half-dozen styles of Tai Chi Chuan practised throughout the world, there exists over 120 different Tai Chi Forms each with their own number of moves ranging from 4 to over 200.
Over 200?I'm wondering if I have time in this life?
It’s a complicated scenario for the new student to make sense of and one that results in a lot of beginners never finishing their course. This is why I, and other teachers teach a variety of Forms that help new students - for example by teaching beginners a simple 10 step Form as separate postures - and then linking them together in a flowing and harmonious way
Are Tai Chi Forms changeable?
But how far can we play with the existing structures? How far is it permissible for teachers to adapt or change a Form?
If we look at one of the most closely traced lineage systems - that of the Chen style - we can see that even this Form has changed with the times. Introducing different lengths, variations, frames…whilst the globally popular Yang Style appears to have undertaken a path of consistent adaptation and evolution since its onset.
How does this happen?
Usually, upon the death of a head teacher, the students are under an obligation to begin squabbling immediately as to how best to continue the lineage - falling into two usual camps: those that wish to remain faithful to the teacher (errors and all) and refusing to change a single thing, and those that see the head teacher as a human being with personal bias, failings and somewhat blind to the changes needed to bring the art into the present century. After many attempts to reconcile the two, they always agree to then go their own ways and the style proceeds to split into smaller and smaller camps, each with styles that - to an outsider - vary only in pronunciation or colour of satin suit.
This is a process that has gone on (and on) and continues up until the present day. And although on the surface this appears to be the result of ego and petty in-fighting, it is, upon further consideration, perhaps an inevitable consequence when any control-freak dies as head of a powerful family. Children will argue and will go their own ways.
To beginners - and this is something those immersed in these arguments forget - it all sounds like children arguing - which in a sense it is exactly that. To outsiders - or to beginners - it appears at best nonsensical or irrelevant, at worst incestuous and ultimately off-putting.
Yet, we are left with a dilemma: the number of postures in a Tai Chi Form, the order of postures or even the intention behind the postures varies so much between schools, between practitioners of the same school, between students of the same teacher - that any claims of exclusive application or interpretation are - as Chuang Tzu would say - increasingly laughable.
Does this mean I can make up anything I like?
Clearly not, though looking back at some of the divisions and manifestations that have appeared over the last century some people think so.
We do have for reference, what is known as the Tai Chi classics - that compilation of writings by teachers and students over the years that describes the principles we should aspire to. However the classics are extremely vague and suffer from ambiguity leaving us all free to interpret what we want and how we want.
For me there is another reference that I would suggest and that is the Tao te Ching - now some of you may say - hold up Mr teapot - thats not Tai Chi, and even were it so, its equally as vague as the Classics. And I’d agree to so extent, but it has a longer history of interpretation, especially into English and consequently it has had more time to adapt and apply it self to a western audience. Just take a look at the versions by Ursula le Guin or Ron Hogan.
Personally, I would go there for my source material. Some of you, know doubt, would disagree. And thats as it should be.
I'll leave you with one last thought: go forth and create, but bear in mind a couple of additional factors (of my own:)
The Teapot List
For more on The History of the Tai Chi Form - look out for the new book due out next month by Paul Read on Amazon or nip over and explore the new Online Short Course : The Tai Chi Form - at teapotmonk.com . Grab a code and of course, take a look at the video below.
Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, speaker, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
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