|An ancient art|
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From another age
Tai chi is not a contemporary martial art. Its fighting skills and practices are entirely different to anything you may encounter at the local gym or mainstream martial arts class.
The art is from another time. Another culture.
According to Howard Reid, the existence of tai chi was not revealed to the Chinese public until approximately 1750. Before that time tai chi was taught in secret, so it's true age remains unknown.
Since the Taoist concepts
are rooted in the most distant past with the most ancient beliefs of the
Chinese, it is difficult for the Western mind to understand them. Therefore,
before you can investigate the internal martial arts, you must first back to
the very origins of thought in ancient China.
Tai chi draws it's principles and insights from Taoism. Taoism is not a religion in the common sense of the word. It is about seeing what is right in front of you, not about believing.
The insights offered by Taoism are essentially physics; gleaned from the careful study of the natural world, and how it operates. Tai chi is a means by which these principles can be applied martially.
Taoism must be fully apprehended in order to employ tai chi to its fullest potential. This cannot be accomplished through form practice alone.
You must also read in earnest, apply the skills martially with a partner and find ways to use Taoism in everyday life.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu speaks of "the Ancients". There is also a mention of "the true men of old" in The Way of Chuang Tzu.
The poet Basho advised: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought." In Back to Beginnings, Huanchu Daoren said: "Only when your mind is clean are you in a suitable state to read books and study the ancients."
There are other references to be found in The Way of the World, Awakening to the Tao, The Book of the Heart, Back to Beginnings, The Analects, Inner Teachings of the Southern Mountain Tao, Wen-tzu, The Secret of the Golden Flower, Immortal Sisters, Understanding Reality, The Book of Balance and Harmony, Vitality Energy Spirit et al.
In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote a description of the Ancients in verse 15. Given how long ago The Way and Its Power was written, it is incredible that Lao Tzu speaks of a forgotten age long before his own.
Who were these ancients?
The pursuit of power
The ancient Taoists sought a high-level of physical strength; believing that a flexible, supple, resilient body would last longer than a brittle one.
They took this insight from the observation of plants/trees and the process of aging. Unusual exercises and considerations enabled the Taoists to gain whole-body strength.
This in turn fuelled day-to-day activities and martial requirements. Instead of tiring out the body they sought to use themselves in an optimal way.
To lift an Autumn hare
is no sign of great strength;
to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight;
to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.
What the Ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins,
but excels in winning with ease.
Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.
He wins his battles by making no mistakes.
Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory,
for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.
Not all those who wander are lost
In The Book of Changes Taoists have suggested various means of addressing the problems we face in everyday life. Invariably the solution is to stop what you are currently doing, and try something else.
Tai chi switches from one movement to another seamlessly; echoing this insight physically both in the form and in combat.
Rather than adopt a dogmatic, single-minded approach... people are encouraged to flow. To move with what is happening.
The Taoist practices were both rustic and refined; encompassing sophisticated insights, great wisdom and unselfconscious simplicity. Taoists prefer less rather than more.
They cultivated subtlety, concealment, anonymity, misdirection, secrecy and mystery. Attention and spectacle were avoided at all costs.
A major theme of the ancient teachings was immortality. Breathing, massage, meditation, diet, exercise, lifestyle, sexual and mental health were all explored in-depth.
The Taoists aimed to live for as long as they possibly could in a condition of optimal fitness.
Proven fitness benefits
The advantage of training ancient skills is that they have stood the test of time. Tai chi (and the principles behind the art) is not modern.
People have trained the Taoist martial arts for centuries. There is no evidence of any harm associated with the long-term study of tai chi. In fact, quite the opposite.
Tai chi is famous for its marvellous fitness benefits.
Tai chi fighting method
One interesting feature of tai chi is its secrecy. Very few people today (or in Chinese history) have ever been able to apply the art successfully.
This means that the methodology of the art remains a mystery to most martial artists. The fighting skills associated with tai chi are seldom seen, and therefore unfamiliar.
Consequently no one trains to counter-act them.
Taoism embraces all sides of our character; recognising that people are both good/bad, strong/weak and so on.
We cannot be one without the other. The key is to find balance. A harmony of apparent opposites.
If you read Thomas Cleary's description of what is required of a tai chi student, it may give you pause for thought. The art does not sound like judo or karate:
The range of awareness and efficiency of the Taoist adept is unnoticeable, imperceptible to others,
because their critical moments take place before ordinary intelligence has mapped out a description of the situation.
By seeing opportunities before they are visible to others and being quick to act,
the uncanny warrior can take situations by the throat before matters get out of hand.
Conserving one's own energy while inducing others to dissipate theirs is another function of the inscrutability so highly prized by the Taoist warrior.
He stresses change and surprise, employing endless variations of tactics,
using opponent's psychological conditions to manoeuvre them into vulnerable positions.
One of the purposes of Taoist literature is to help to develop this special sensitivity and responsiveness to handle living situations.
The art of not-doing which includes the unobtrusiveness, unknowability, and ungraspability at the core of esoteric Asian martial arts
- belongs to the branch of Taoism known as The Science of the Essence.
Page created 3 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023