21ST CENTURY TAI CHI
Ideas to bridge the space between thought and action
If, like me, you have ever raised a quizzical eyebrow when Sifu Simon preached on the one true interpretation, the one true, authentic, verifiable, unalterable, untouchable Tai Chi Form...then listen on.
Because if, like me, as Sifu continued his monologue, you pondered on the 120 Form variations that now exist - and asked yourself: How can there be a single one true Form? If so, then like me, you may have concluded that the Form is not as sacrosanct as we are made to believe.
This month the teapotmonk explores the contradictions and vagaries of the Tai Chi Form and asks if we should not boldly go where no one has gone before.
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 parallels amongst these patterns.
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, variations and derivations. They generally like to pigeonhole things. They like to know - that others know - where they sit on the great hierarchical table of life. So they enthusiastically don belts of certain colours, satin suits with sashes or headbands with the logo of the school. As a result of this top-down organisation, they have decided to place all the arts into two camps - external and internal. What is meant by these is often a little vague, but whats novel about that in the martial arts?
The truth about categories is 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 let's not go there, for that's returning us to the land of vagueness once more).
However, Tai Chi is still seen as “different” by other martial artists, partially because it is taught as a system of health care, as an ideology, and as a system of selfdefense. Additionally, it also emphasises a single Form . This may be either a long or short Form, old or new, large or small frame, caffeinated or decaffeinated. Whichever it is, most Tai Chi styles concentrate on a single empty-handed Form for several years - whereas in karate for instance, you may learn a dozen Forms in the the same time a Tai Chi practitioner learns the one.
Are there many different Forms?
There is no universal Form. You may be surprised to know that 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, 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?
If we look at one of the most closely traced lineage systems - that of the Chen Tai Chi style - we can see that even this traditional Form has changed with the times. Introducing different lengths, variations and frames…whilst other styles, such as 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 from one school, students start squabbling immediately as to how best to continue the lineage. They generally fall into two camps: those that wish to remain faithful to the teacher - maintaining all the historical errors and refusing to change a single thing, whilst in the other camp, those that see the head teacher as a human being with personal bias, failings and (most likely towards the end) somewhat blind to the changes needed to bring the art into the present century.
After many attempts to reconcile the two camps, they fail to agree so 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. Cue the Judean People's Liberation Front debate.
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 perhaps, an inevitable consequence when any control-freak dies as head of a powerful family. Children will argue and eventually 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 is exactly what it is. It appears at best nonsensical or irrelevant, at worst incestuous and self-destructive.
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, as is the nature of Tai Chi, extremely vague and suffer from large doses of 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, it's equally as vague as the Classics. And I’d have to agree - to some extent. But, it has a longer history of interpretation, especially into English and consequently it has had more time to adapt and apply itself to a western audience. Just take a look at the versions by Ursula le Guin or Ron Hogan or take a look at this list of best interpretations.
Personally, I would go to the Tao Te Ching for my source material. Some of you, no doubt, would disagree. And that's 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 . You may also be interested in these article on the Tai Chi Form.
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