Dead forms

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Health forms

Most tai chi forms practiced in the world today are not taijiquan. They are not martial at all. Their function and purpose is health.
This is great... Many people would struggle to perform an authentic taijiquan form with skill.
Their fitness level, coordination, balance, ambidexterity and presence are simply too poor. And they are way too tense.
A tai chi health form is a good tool for mild exercise, rehabilitation and physical education.

Performance art

With the invention of 24 step tai chi, people began to see tai chi in terms of merely being a sequence of moves. Many aspects of the training were set aside.
More numbered forms emerged over the years; with the emphasis placed upon accurate, dance-like rendition of the patterns.
Aesthetically pleasing and conventional, this new approach to tai chi was to become the dominant standard in China.
People learn how to do the correct movements in the correct order. Like a wind-up doll...

Martial art

Imagine for a moment that you are working for the Manchu Emperor... You've been taught taijiquan by the martial arts legend Yang Lu-chan.
Do you expect to be fighting with your bare hands, performing pushing hands or form exhibitions? Really?
Slow-motion movement is not taijiquan. To qualify as taijiquan, your training must adhere to the principles and precepts of the art.
Taijiquan is the art described in The Tai Chi Classics. It is the art of Yang Lu-chan
. Can your art be applied martially? To whose standard? Yours? Or that of the Manchu emperor?
Read these excerpts from The Tai Chi Classics:

In motion the whole body should be light and agile, with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together.

The patterns of movement should be without defect, without hollows or projections from the proper alignment; in motion the form should not become disconnected.

The whole body should be threaded together through every joint without the slightest break.

Taijiquan is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.

(Chang San-feng)

Inwardly make the shen firm, and outwardly exhibit calmness and peace.

Throughout the body, the intention relies on the shen, not on the qi.

Store up the jing like drawing a bow. Mobilize the jing like drawing silk from a cocoon. Release the jing like releasing the arrow.

Be still as a mountain, move like a great river.

The upright body must be stable and comfortable to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.

Walk like a cat.

Remember, when moving, there is no place that does not move. When still, there is no place that is not still.

Going forward and back there must be changes.

The form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.

(Wu Yu-hsiang)

If the opponent's movement is quick, then quickly respond; if his movement is slow, then follow slowly.

Don't lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear. Empty the left wherever a pressure appears, and similarly the right.

If the opponent raises up, I seem taller; if he sinks down, then I seem lower; advancing, he finds the distance seems incredibly long; retreating, the distance seems exasperatingly short.

A feather cannot be placed, and a fly cannot alight on any part of the body. The opponent does not know me; I alone know him. To become a peerless boxer results from this.

Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel. Sinking to one side allows movement to flow; being double-weighted is sluggish.

(Wang Tsung-yueh)

Why are so many tai chi forms dead?

Often the student has been practicing a dead form for a lengthy period of time. Or they only know the one form/a partial form.
They have no exposure to other forms in the syllabus; especially the martial versions of weapons forms.

What is missing?

There are a number of potential reasons why a form looks robotic/'dead':

  1. The student is often only practicing the pattern; which is stage 1 of 8

  2. No understanding of how the movements are used in application

  3. Crude biomechanics

  4. The principles underpinning the art are missing

  5. No jing

  6. No neigong

  7. No agility or nimbleness

  8. No shen

  9. No reeling silk

  10. No peng

  11. No 13 postures

  12. Disconnected

  13. No folding

  14. No opening & closing

  15. No uniting upper & lower

  16. No whole-body movement

  17. No sung

  18. No yin/yang

  19. Poor use of alignment and structure

  20. No sense of yielding

  21. Not relaxed enough


Many of the taijiquan fighting skills hark back to armed combat. The qualities of nimbleness, agility, whole body movement and whole body power are essential for armed combat
Soldiers carry weapons and the Manchu Emperor's Elite Palace Guards were equipped with swords and knives.
It would be rare indeed for a soldier to set aside their weapon and engage in unarmed combat. Against a weapon the taijiquan exponent would need to be exceptionally agile indeed.

Fitness level

One of the main reasons why people practice dead forms is lack of fitness. Mental, emotional and physical fitness.
Most new starters are not prepared for the amount of physical work involved in learning a martial art.
The public image of tai chi creates a false sense of effortlessness. Few people expect to train hard. This is naive. Fitness makes your body strong, flexible and capable.


Our approach to taijiquan treats the form as a functional sequence.
Taijiquan form is stylised combat; the strikes, throws and applications of taijiquan have been smoothed together into a flowing routine.
The sequence trains habit patterns in the body; unconscious movements deeply ingrained by repetition.
The fighting movements are being trained with every step you take. To use taijiquan in combat you must take the form and give it function.
If the movements of the form cannot be used in realistic combat, there would seem little point in practicing it.

The essence of taijiquan

The student needs to really examine, contemplate and research the design elements that led to the creation of taijiquan.
Understanding these factors enables the student to recognise the differences in taijiquan styles, systems and approaches; why certain schools emphasise particular qualities which others discard.
This will aid you in making your taijiquan combat look like taijiquan rather than karate.

Dodging, weaving, threading, striking

Your form needs to look like you are involved in combat.
You should be dodging, evading, weaving around attacks, slipping through defences, exploiting opportunities and withdrawing smoothly and readily. There should be a sense of purpose.
The form is not reduced to some aggressive, forceful kata. It is still fairly slow, relaxed and unhurried. Yet, now it is focussed, predatory and alive.

Wet sock?

Shen is the 'killer energy' quality present in good quality taijiquan; it makes the attacker feel uncomfortable and wrong-footed. There is a fullness to the taijiquan that would otherwise be absent.
Peter Southwood maintained that taijiquan without shen is weak and ineffectual in combat. The exponent looks like a "wet sock".
Their poise, demeanour and bearing lack that vital quality of alertness and sharpness needed in martial arts practice.

Yang style has something of the feeling of 'killer energy' about it; it is more martial in appearance.
A spectator can see the applications of the movements when they watch the form.

(Master Xu Shu Song)

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Page created 1 August 1999
Last updated 26 January 2020