The History of Taichi Going West
A WILD WEST BACKDROP
First we need to forget Tai Chi for a moment. Instead we need to look at the backdrop to what was happening in the West by the time it began to arrive in a significant way. Yes, there had been the odd teacher demonstrating Tai Chi moves and even teaching classes before the 60's, but they were few and far between. Bruce Lee arrived onto the shores San Francisco in 1959, to a world that had never seen Gung Fu. The west was not quite ready for the East. It would have to await the arrival of two more factors: The global phenomena of the Little Dragon and the parallel interest in the exoticism of the East.
By the early 60’s, liberation movements had been gathering pace across Western Europe and the USA and by the end of the decade and the beginning of the 70’s such movements had become so widespread and so popular that their original message of liberation and empowerment, disarmed became dissipated - replaced and displaced by a surfeit of meditation retreats, vegan weekend escapes and personal development courses. Turn on, tune in, drop out said good old Tim Leary in 1967 to a gathering of 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
In the 1970’s this shift away manifested itself into the cult of measurability - physically sculpting one's bodies in a desperate need to experience change against an indifferent consumerist society. Body building, aerobics, hot-yoga, hot-pants - we all became obsessed with how we look and feel, rather than who we were or where we were collectively heading. (And you thought Instagram was to blame?)
By the time we had transitioned into the 21st century, the idea of seeking collective answers to social problems changed direction once more, moving ever further from the exterior to the interior manifesting itself now in personal salvation, spirituality, mindfulness and the search for the perfect downloadable app to give us a sense of balance in a world careering onwards and out of control.
From the 1980's to 2016
All of this is understandable in light of the unstoppable expansion of the neo-liberal economic order, globalisation, the hegemony of the market place, the dominance of the economic and the parallel collapse of any alternative vision from the progressive movements. The cult of individualism had won, culminating in Britain's referendum, and Trump promised to make America great again - by building a wall.
The Arrival and Neutrality of Tai Chi
Tai Chi in the West has hardly been immune to such changes. It has, on the contrary, played its part in propping up, reinforcing and mirroring such tendencies. Though initially embraced as part of the alternative culture, it shared a philosophy for doing collective good. Its deep philosophical roots were entangled and entwined with the world. It sought not to withdraw but to engage with it, not retreating from it but actively changing it.
However, these concepts and practices were left on the sidewalk by the 70's. Politics had proven an unworthy companion for an art that could be sold in so many different ways, and like Yoga, Tai Chi could sell a slogan to embrace any new movement:
The Top 5 Pinterest/Instagram Messages
AND WHY NOT?
It all sounded so good, so refreshing, so individualistic. Who wants to wait for the world to change, when we can change ourselves right now? Learn to leave things the way they are, concentrate on your personal mantra and retreat inwards. Settle for a life of personal goals. Tick off your todo list, speak to your personal assistant. Just do it.
But movements are never constructed by talking to yourself (even if that self is Alexa or Siri or Google Home). The suffragettes didn't retire after convincing themselves of the need for universal suffrage. Nor the Black Lives Matter movement. Extinction Rebellion came about partly because recycling your cardboard alone, just didn't hack it. At some point we all have to talk to someone else.
I know, this is difficult these days, as we leap consciously and enthusiastically into our own echo chambers. It is so much easier to abandon the politics of the street for an online petition.
SO HOW DOES TAI CHI FIT IN TO THIS?
At present, Tai Chi does very little to counter this tendency. Cyclical debates on the practicality of pugilism versus the practicality of living well, drive us back into the realms of individualism again: Styles and masters, grandmasters and schools, prowess, skills-sets, internal strength, internal energy emissions, challenges, slogans, Trump’s red-buttons, the length of a Steven Seagal pony-tail, colour of a silk suits….
CAN TAI CHI STILL DO GOOD?
So what could we do? Where could we go with this art if not up our own back-sides, bobbing inanely on the flotsam and jetsam of a Facebook timeline?
Tai Chi is not necessarily an impotent force. It' not genetically predisposed to non-action. It contains within itself the seeds for change. Sol, here's a few ideas. But, don't get too excited, they’re not for everyone…
What's yours? Where do you find the purpose in what you do, the challenges in what you learn, the currents that run agains this age of complacency? How do you engage with something more than your own self, how do you escape the reverb of your thoughts? How do you touch and change the world around you through your art?
Interested in Applying Tai Chi outside the confines of the classroom? Try reading more on the the subject....
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