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The Physical Art of Taiji Quan

Taiji QuanWhat is Taiji Quan? The Chinese characters for the name are shown on the right. We have already explored the meaning of the term Taiji in the page on Philosophical Background, interpreting it as Great Polarity. The word Quan literally means "fist" which, in this context, is used to mean a style of martial arts. So, literally, we could translate Taiji Quan as "Great Polarity Fist" or, more figuratively, take it to mean a style of fighting based on the principles of Yin and Yang. This choice of name for the art is important as it makes clear, at the outset, that the physical practice is rooted in same metaphysics as the Yijing.

Historical Background

Although the philosophical principle of Taiji has a long history within Chinese thought, Taiji Quan as a physical art only emerges into the public eye in China in the late 1800s. Yang Luchan 楊露禪 (1799-1872), having studied martial arts with the Chen family in Honan, arrived in Beijing and started teaching the Manchurian nobility at the Imperial court. One story has it that he successfully fought a senior Imperial bodyguard to obtain the position. Whatever the details, the fact that he was able to secure such prestigious students is an indication of the esteem in which the art was held as soon as it became publicly known. In that era, such esteem could only come from true martial ability.

Wu ChienchuanOne of the earliest students of the art in Beijing was Wu Quanyou 吳全佑 (1834-1902). He studied with both Yang Luchan, and his son Yang Banhou 楊班侯. Wu was a member of the Imperial Guard, and his son Wu Jianquan 吳鑑泉 (1870-1942) followed him into the Emperor's service. Jianquan learnt Taiji Quan from his father, and became very skilled in the art - the photo on the left shows him doing the posture Twist the Body and Kick. After the end of the Imperial court in China, Wu Jianquan was retained in employment by the Presidential Guard as a military instructor and martial arts advisor. Later, with members of the Yang family, he founded a martial arts school and became one of the first masters to teach this great art to the general public.

The style that I teach ulimately traces its origins back to the Wu family style of Taiji Quan.

Internal Arts

Taiji Quan is often described as being an internal martial art (neijia 内家); the contrast being with external arts (waijia 外家). The precise meaning of this distinction is somewhat controversial, but the most common interpretation is to do with the methods used to develop and train power. JingChinese martial arts describe the physical energies and skills developed through training as jing (see the character on the right). This term covers a wide range of skills and techniques. At one end of spectrum are Yin training methods intended to develop the sensitivity necessary to enable you to read your opponents intention, to listen to his energy (for example, ting jing). At the other end of the spectrum are Yang techniques to release energy into your opponent to knock him down, or injure him (for example, fa jing). What generally identifies an art as being internal is the emphasis placed on soft training, on the development of a relaxed but firm physical structure capable of supporting both listening and releasing with equal facility. Taiji Quan, when trained correctly, excels at such development.

It might seem strange that an art so well known in the west for its health aspects begins so firmly rooted in the martial traditions of the east. But think again of the principle of yin and yang . To be an effective fighter, a martial artist must be in the peak of health. Therefore, any martial art must also be an effective health art, and its foundation practices must promote a strong constitution and a healthy body. We could describe the martial aspect of Taiji Quan as its yang component, and the health development as its yin component. A complete martial art must develop both aspects.

Metaphysics and Physical Practice

Douglas Wile characterises Taiji Quan as "the spirit of Chinese metaphysics, meditation, and medicine in the body of a martial art."[1] Although such a description might initially smack of hyperbole, most practitioners would agree that there are profound depths to the art that open up over years of practice. We have already explored the traditional Chinese metaphysics and its symbolic representation in the Yijing. But just how does Taiji Quan explore those ideas in a physical setting? In very simple terms, yin and yang can be seen directly in how the body moves. For example, when all the weight is in one leg, it is described as full and the other leg is empty - this has an obvious connection to the ideas of yin and yang. Similarly, some movements are open and expansive, whilst others contract and close - again, the connection to yin and yang should be clear.

Beyond these simple connections, there are more complex parallels to be drawn. All of the basic ways of expressing and using physical energy in the body can be represented by considering them as some blended form of yin and yang, and this is exactly what the symbols of the Yijing describe. Therefore, it should be possible to explore connections between the symbolic forms of the Yijing and the physical energies of the body.

However, one significant difference between the Yijing and Taiji Quan needs to be observed. Because the Yijing is a symbolic, philosophical system, it is possible to get a long way in its study solely by reading and thinking. In contrast, Taiji Quan is a physical art that requires physical practice from the outset. Further, to learn the art properly it is really necessary to study with an experienced teacher - there are subtleties in the postures and movements that cannot be adequately conveyed through the written word.


[1] Douglas Wile, T'ai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Published by Sweet Chi Press, 1983.


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