Types of tai chi

classes     taijiquan     kung fu     self defence     qigong     health     about us     reviews     a-z


What is tai chi?

When most people think of 'tai chi' they are usually picturing tai chi for health. Tai chi for health & fitness was adapted from the once famous martial art of taijiquan.

Finding a class

When a new starter scours the web looking for the art they are faced with an array of approaches that are all called 'tai chi' but are often quite dissimilar. In truth, there is often little consensus
It is important to find out for yourself what tai chi really means.


Virtually every tai chi school in the UK is teaching 'tai chi for health'. Usually there is no real syllabus and the material is simplistic.
Some classes may advertise themselves as 'taijiquan' but are in fact teaching tai chi for health.

What is commonly being taught in a tai chi class

According to The Journal of Asian Martial Arts, most tai chi classes in the world offer solo form (a sequence of moves), and a bit of qigong. Not many classes actually do pushing hands.
Some do sword form. Occasionally, teachers speak of self defence applications. Things like 'san sau' are very, very rare, and rarer still are classes that teach anything approaching an actual martial art.


I strongly believe that students should limit themselves to learning and fully developing in just one style only. By learning many styles and collecting many forms we simply cannot have sufficient time to practice.

Few have the resources or talent to be the master of more than one style. The really good teachers focus on one style.

(Adam Hsu)

Tai chi for health & fitness

Faced with a major health crisis in the 1950's, the People's Republic of China turned to Yang style taijiquan for a solution. They wanted a form of exercise that could be performed by students of all ages.
The simplest way to achieve this was to remove the more demanding fitness component and the combat. Most modern tai chi classes are teaching an art that an old person could cope with...
By definition this cannot conceivably be a martial art.

Taijiquan fighting method

Classes offering taijiquan (supreme ultimate fist) are very rare indeed. To train taijiquan correctly you need a highly-skilled martial arts instructor who can offer a very comprehensive syllabus.
It is necessary to train all 13 areas of study.

You must get fit

All martial arts require the student to be fit for combat and taijiquan is no exception. There are many lazy tai chi classes in the world. This is naive in the extreme.

Cross-training tai chi
Our students train: massage, leg stretches, qigong, neigong, form, partnered work, martial sets & drills, combat and weapons.
The training is done carefully, gently - in a controlled manner - without exertion or strain.

Common approaches

In the UK you may encounter:

  1. Tai chi for health & fitness

  2. Tai chi tailored for the elderly

  3. Tai chi tailored for specific medical problems i.e. arthritis

  4. Tai chi-style exercise

  5. Tai chi in a wheelchair

  6. Tai chi for people who need to use a walking stick

  7. Tai chi for children

  8. Tai chi for students with mental health issues

  9. Tai chi as performance art

  10. Numbered forms (i.e. 24 step)

  11. Tai chi as dance

  12. Tai chi as a form of therapy

  13. Tai chi as a New Age experience

  14. Qigong referred to as tai chi (shibashi)

  15. Taijiquan offered alongside other martial arts by an instructor who practices a variety of external martial arts

  16. Tai chi classes offered by a so-called instructor who 'learned it from a book' or has a 'fast track' or 'long distance' qualification

  17. Tai chi as an add-on to something else, e.g. Alexander Technique "Let's do a bit of tai chi"

The differences between these approaches are worth some consideration.

How can I tell?

You can easily gauge the credibility of a kung fu instructor without challenging them to a fight. Participate in a number of lessons.
Watch the class carefully, see how well they know their stuff, determine how easily and comfortably they can apply their art. Look for a thorough and convincing show of skill.

4 styles

There are 4 traditional styles of taijiquan: Chen, Yang, Wu and Hao.

Other styles

In addition to these 4 styles there are derivations such as Cheng Man Ching style and Sun style (taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan combination).
Some teachers create their own system, based upon a traditional style. This is fine providing they adhere to The Taijiquan Classics.

Not taijiquan

The People's Republic developed tai chi for health forms e.g. 24 step. These are not taijiquan. They are just choreographed forms. They have no martial value.


Style is not the main concern in taijiquan. What matters most is the correct application of the taijiquan principles at all times.
Ultimately, the 4 styles simply reflect differences of interpretation, preferences and individual emphasis. It is good that people practice different styles; it adds diversity and variety to the art.


It is important not to get too hung up on taijiquan styles. The Taijiquan Classics were written by Chang San-feng, Wang Tsung-yueh and Wu Yu-hsiang.
Wu created Hao style, but there are no known styles attributed to Chang or Wang. How come?

Self defence applications

Self defence moves do not qualify as taijiquan. They are simply not enough. You can learn a few self defence techniques quite easily but this does not make you a martial artist.
A credible taijiquan martial artist should have the same standard of skill expected of any martial art: karate, taekwondo, judo, wing chun, ju jutsu, aikido etc. 

5 missing pieces

Many taijiquan classes lack 5 important elements necessary in order for taijiquan to function as a martial art:

  1. Neigong (whole-body strength)

  2. Martial concepts (what combat constitutes and how to do it effectively)

  3. Chin na (the art of seizing)

  4. Shuai jiao (take downs)

  5. Jing (whole-body power)

Without these 5 components, taijiquan is lacking something and may not work in combat.

Worth reading

The essence of the art
Taijiquan principles
13 areas of study
Finding a tai chi class
Common misconceptions

school database

Page created 9 January 1996
Last updated 23 July 2022