What is Taijiquan?


by Barry Marshall

Taijiquan is an ancient Chinese system of health, martial arts, and mental conditioning. Taiji was created in China during the Sung Wei era (c.1101 AD) by a Daoist immortal known as Chang San-Feng. History does not tell us if Chang was a real person or one of China’s legends of the past. Whether or not he was a real person is of no importance to us now, but what is of importance are the principles and theory on which Taiji was created. The principles of Taijiquan are what make this art unique. Most of the principles are shared by other arts, but no other art combines them the same way Taiji does, nor combines the principles with philosophy the way Taiji does. It is for these reasons that Taiji is the most widely practiced martial art in the world today. The principles of Taiji cover every aspect of human life - physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. What follows is my own understanding of the principles of Taiji and is not meant to be authoritarian, but is shared in the hopes of promoting this wonderful art.

Taiji as a system of health maintenance.

The basics of Taiji’s healing abilities are the principles of Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) which were incorporated into the very movements of the Taijiquan “form”. For instance, CCM tells us that the body is animated by a force known as Qi (Chi). This force is constantly moving throughout the organism to both animate and to heal and repair the body’s tissues. According to CCM, this force (Qi) can be hindered in its movement thought the body, which means that it is not going to be effective in its job of healing. For example, habitually holding certain postures, such as tense shoulders, walking with slumped shoulders or walking on either the inside or the outside of the feet will cause misalignments and structural defects, thus hindering Qi from moving freely. The biomechanical principles of Taijiquan can correct these structural misalignments, allowing the body to perform better with less stress and strain on the joints and with reduced muscular tension, which before was needed to compensate for the misalignments. One of the biggest claims to fame that taiji has is its ability to help us to relax. Relaxation in the context of Taiji does not mean to be limp and lifeless; rather it is a state of openness, looseness, and vitality. The Taiji player creates this state known as “Sung” in Chinese, through the focusing of concentration on the movements and by stressing a conscious awareness of tension and its release. Relaxation allows the body to work in a more harmonious manner, as well as allowing Qi to flow more freely. Relaxation also allows for a reducing of the effects of stress on the body and mind, which can lead to a number of improvements in a person’s health, such as improved circulation of blood and lymph fluid, clearer thinking, and improved stamina. The list could go on and on, but what is important to understand is that all of these benefits come from a committed practice in which the principles are foremost.

Taiji as a Martial art.

Taiji is an internal, soft martial art that specializes in close range combat and hand techniques. A practitioner of Taiji strives to put into practice the Daoist concept of Wuwei, meaning "non-action". Wuwei does not mean to do nothing, but to do as little as possible to produce a desired result. Practically, this means a Taiji martial artist tries to stick to and follow their opponent’s energy without resistance, while feeling for openings through which to counterattack. This concept may be difficult to understand for people who are accustomed to a “hard” style of self-defense in which the practitioner tries to force their opponent to go where, and to do what they want them to. A practitioner of Taiji believes that their greatest strength lies in softness and flexibility and in non-interference with the Dao (way or path of the universe).

The internal aspect refers to the way power is created, both in the form and for martial arts. Jin is the Chinese word for power, as opposed to strength. There are a number of Jin (powers) trained in Taiji, but they are quantitative descriptors for what is basically the same energy only applied differently, as Dr. Sean Marshall has stated:

“The power that results in the fingers is actually a combination of forces that are 'mixed' together during the process of their generation. Although they are still very mysterious, most are no more occult than high school physics. Gravity, elastic recoil, momentum, inertia, rotational kinetics, weak and strong nuclear forces are all involved.” (Classics 2)

What we are discussing here is mostly kinetic energy, created as we shift weight between the legs and as we rotate the hips. This “kinetic wave” must be transmitted through the body internally so that it does not show on the outside, so that it is harder for an opponent to know what we are doing. For this to happen the body must be aligned properly, both with itself and with the ground, which is the anchor for all movement in Taijiquan. Combine the power that is thus created with a very clear intention as to its quality, speed, and direction, so it is not just blind flailing of the limbs.

The Jin, or powers, of Taiji include but are not limited to:

Ward-off – Any action used to deflect or to resist an incoming force, thereby preventing an opponent from upsetting one's balance. This is Ward-off’s primary defensive purpose and is employed more often than not to meet an attack that is directed right at one's center, and when we do not have time to neutralize their attack. Ward-off is used offensively by attacking, striking, pushing, or throwing. Although Wardoff is very yang and aggressive, there should never be a reliance on tension. Instead, the incoming force is redirected into the ground.

Roll-back – Any action used to absorb an incoming force, thereby leading it into emptiness, while at the same time not allowing that force to touch one’s body.

Pluck – Any action used to pull an opponent off his root. The direction of the pull can be up or down, or even to the side, as long we are pulling toward our own bodies.

Roll-back and Pluck are the Jin that gave rise to the adage of “using a pull of four ounces to repel a thousand pounds”. As Cheng Man-Ch’ing has said, “only four ounces of energy need be used to pull a thousand pounds, and then push is applied”. Also, “If someone attempts to attack with a thousand pounds of force … then with four ounces of energy I pull his hand and, following his line of force, deflect it away.” (Thirteen Chapters 78-80) Therefore, as we connect with an opponent, we stick to, join, and follow his movement, then at the right time we add four ounces of our own energy and neutralize his force.

Push – Any action, used to move an opponent off their root thereby causing them to lose their balance and fall or be bounced away, the direction is away from our own body.

Press – Any action used to press or squeeze an opponent’s joints in an unnatural manner thereby causing pain, such as in Chin Na.(Joint Locking) Press is also used as a short-range strike, which uses both hands to strike an opponent.

Splitting – Any action used to push or pull an opponent's joints or body in opposing directions at the same time, such as in throws and Chin Na.

Elbow stroke – Any action that uses the elbow to strike, push, or lock any part of an opponent’s body.

Shoulder stroke - Any action that uses the Shoulder to strike, push or lock any part of an opponent’s body.

These eight Jin are not the only ones used in Taiji, but they are the foundation for all the rest, and they are one aspect of what gives Taiji its unique qualities. Some of the other Jin of Taiji includes Filling, Coiling, and Drilling, as well as skills such as Listening, Adhering, Sticking, Joining, and Following. Although not movement based skills, these abilities are also referred to as Jin. They depend completely on the amount of awareness one can bring to an interaction be it pushing hands or combat, they also require a highly developed sense of touch.

In Taijiquan, soft refers to not using force against force, not meeting force or strength head on, but striving to neutralize an opponent's force and strength. The correct use of distance, timing, and position is critical to the Taiji player if one is to realize the ability to overcome hardness with softness, and to use Jin instead of brute strength. The Taijiquan player strives to be like water, in that it does not attack an obstacle directly but flows around it or wears it down.

Great emphasis is place on the Taijiquan form in most systems, but it must be remembered that the form by itself is not Taiji; it is a training tool designed to teach the principles of movement and the fighting applications of Taijiquan. The form teaches us, for example, how to move our arms from our feet, how to create power by shifting weight and turning the hips, etc. We then take these things and apply them to every movement we make regardless of whether or not the movement looks like a posture in the form. For example, Wardoff need not stay confined to the shape of the posture named Wardoff in the form as long as the body mechanics and the quality of the movement conform to the principles of Taijiquan. The same goes for all the other postures as well

Taiji as a system of mental conditioning.

Taiji incorporates the teachings of Daoism that have as their purpose the creation of a state of mind known as emptiness. Emptiness refers to a state of mind in which the constant play of thoughts about the past and the future has ceased. As Dr. Sean Marshall has said:

“Conscious participation in the present moment in an uninterrupted and high- degree-of-clarity manner is more what T’ai-Chi Ch’uan is about than any mere technique, feat of strength, or speed, and is the one and only way to insure that our actions are appropriate to the condition at hand.” (Classics. 2)

Cheng Man-Ching advised his students to “give up themselves and follow others” as the means to reach the highest levels of Taijiquan. (Thirteen Chapters 75) This statement refers to giving up our continuous stream of thinking, and putting our awareness on and into our own, as well as our opponent’s, body and mind. Practically, this state is cultivated by the attention to detail needed to perform the movements of the form. By focusing attention onto our bodies there is not enough consciousness left in the mind for us to be carried away by our thoughts. With repeated practice, this skill can be carried into our everyday lives, and then everything we do becomes a meditation. It is my opinion that our spiritual task is to become the most conscious humans we can be. We pursue this goal by freeing ourselves from identification with our ego and to be free of our past conditioning, trauma and addictions, and to find our true essence, which is pure consciousness. Taiji can be a huge step in this direction if practiced with commitment and with attention to the principles.

Obviously, there is a great deal more information that could be included in each of the three aspects of Taiji discussed above. However, this is only an introduction to an art form that takes years of dedicated practice and contemplation to reach a significant level of skill. It is my hope that all students of Taijiquan will practice harder and look deeper in an effort to both improve their own lives as well as to promote this wonderful art form.

Works Consulted.

Man-Ch’ing, Cheng and Robert W. Smith. T’ai Chi The Supreme Ultimate Exercise for
Health, Sport, and Self-Defense. Tuttle Boston 1966

Frantzis, B.K. The Power of Internal Martial Arts. North Atlantic. Berkeley. 1998

Garbacz, Edward S, and Sean C. Marshall “Chinese Medical Theory, Classical Chinese
Medicine the Science of Biological Forces”.

Loupos, John. Inside Tai Chi Chuan. YMAA. Boston. 2002

---. Tai Chi Connections. YMAA. Boston. 2005

Man-Cheng, Cheng. Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Trans. Pang
Jeng Lo, Benjamin and Martin Inn. North Atlantic Berkeley. 1985

Man-Ch’ing, Cheng. Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on Ta’i Chi Chuan Trans.
Douglas Wile. Sweet Ch’i. 1982.

Ming, Dr. Yang Jwing. Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Vol.1.YMAA. Massachusetts. 1987
---. Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Vol. 2. YMAA Massachusetts. 1988

Marshall, Sean Christiaan Valentine “The Classics of T’ai-Chi Chuan” 1984

Sieh, Ron. T’ai Chi Ch’uan The Internal Tradition. North Atlantic. Berkeley. 1992