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Keeping the origin of Tai Chi Chuan Alive

Yang style Tai Chi Chuan had a solid reputation as an effective martial art up until around 80 years ago. Those who doubted it would challenge the Yang family and find out the hard way that, yes, the odd slow training style did produce strong martial artists. Although it still has devoted martial artists who train the full function of the art, it has also grown since then to emphasise the health and self development ('spiritual') aspects more than its martial roots. We don't know the exact statistics but now after several generations of non-martial practitioners you could probably say that at least 9 out of 10 Tai Chi teachers don't really teach Tai Chi as a martial art.

From most people's perspective this doesn't matter much, as most people are not doing Tai Chi anyway. For example there are roughly 317 million people in America and it is estimated that around 2.3 million do some Tai Chi each year. So within the general population of a leading western country less than 1 in 100 people have an active interest in tai chi and perhaps 99 out of 100 of those Tai Chi practitioners probably aren't that bothered about the martial aspects anyway. In fact someone actively doing it as a martial art is in all likelihood considerably less then 1 in 1000 active practitioners. Hardly significant numbers.

However for the martial artist wishing to study internal power this lack of interest in the martial aspects by their fellow students and teachers can feel like a big problem. I myself started Tai Chi as a martial artist and can attest to the confusion of studying an art for the ultimate internal power alongside others not training that way. The crux of the problem lies in the incredibly serious, hard working, self confronting and often bordering on self abusing behaviour patterns required to become an accomplished martial artist. Who else other than a martial artist wants to train exactly like that, yet how can a martial artist get the skills unless given an environment where such behaviour is supported?

During my years of studying external martial arts prior to feeling the call to study internal power, training was entirely focussed on combat application: what was required in terms of fitness, training the distancing, the techniques, finding out what worked through sparring or encounters with fellow travellers on the martial arts path, etc etc.

So when I began Tai Chi under Master Ding I carried the martial arts culture in from my previous experiences and for the first time felt the confusion I described above. No matter who is learning Tai Chi what people want is the internal power; the practical knowledge of energy flow and the methods to keep calm, happy and harmonised in mind, body and spirit. However what people need to walk the exotic path of internal development does differ according to whether they are there primarily for mind and body health, spiritual realisation or extreme martial arts prowess.

The origin of the art is clearly in the martial arts, yet the ideas of internal energy are not. Originally generations of martial artists took the concepts and principles of chi kung, traditional Chinese medicine and taoism and allowed that knowledge to change their approach to martial arts training. What resulted was an art so powerful that when Yang Lu Chan, the founder of Yang style learnt it he was recognised in the Royal court as the most accomplished pugilist of his time. And so it remained, an uncompromising combining of the highest ideals of internal energy with the highest ideas of martial arts, for three generations of the Yang family.

It was during the time of handing over the reigns from the second to the third generation of Yang family martial artists that China changed dramatically. The Last Emperor was overthrown and a nationalist government headed by Sun Yat Sen assumed power. Modernisation was encouraged and there was a big movement by the leading martial artists at the time to open up a little more and publish books about their arts and the health benefits the public could reap through studying them.

The general public were encouraged by the new nationalist government to take up any exercise to become strong and cultivated and Yang Cheng Fu, grandson of the founder of Yang Style, chose to adapt the beginning stages of his family's art so that people could use the elements that create the foundation for martial artists as a way of studying and gaining internal power without needing to become a hardcore pugilist. People flocked to learn this new format and whilst some of the second generation thought this was a bad idea, it is the sole reason Tai Chi is now known and practiced all over the world today.

As a result of this huge increase in non-martial practitioners over the past 80 years, although I knew there were plenty of Tai Chi classes around, all I heard in the martial arts circles I mixed in prior to discovering my Tai Chi Chuan teacher was that the amazing stories of internal power as the ultimate accomplishment of a martial artist were history. The skills were lost and no one could perform the feats you could read about in historic internal martial arts books and movies.

I was extremely lucky. I happened to go to a teacher who was able to provide me with what I wanted and he was willing to show many of the feats you hear about in history. But I could easily have become one of the many, many disenchanted martial artists who cannot find a Tai Chi class that can give them demonstrable knowledge of internal power.

This really is the key. What made the art famous was skill that was demonstrable against strangers who were trying to test the power of the practitioners in the worst way. People who were in their own right powerful and highly trained, often highly judgemental, martial artists who would be quite happy to end your career.....painfully. For success the Yang style practitioners must have had more than equivalent speed, timing, power and combat spirit based on internal energy principle or they would never have impressed other martial artists.

Although these incidents are thankfully quite rare these days, in the end the soul of a martial artist wants to know how they are doing and that what they are doing is effective, otherwise what's the point of all the effort. For a large part of their martial arts journey these questions can only be adequately answered by comparison with others - tests of skill.

So really this leads me to remark that you can't expect too much from people 'just because they want the skill'. A modern practitioner of Tai Chi may be targeting physical health and calmness, a spiritual practitioner may be targeting the knowledge and understanding of chi (energy) flow and a martial artist perhaps all of these and combat skill. Clearly if 99 out of 100 Tai Chi practitioners don't require combat skill there's no use subjecting them to the harsh training a martial artist needs to forge their spirit and character. If you do then you can expect 99 out of 100 of your students to become disillusioned and quit. Similarly there's no point going 100% esoteric about energy and it's possible spiritual applications or the martial artists and non-spritual practitioners may run a mile. And finally Tai Chi just for the physical health would alienate many of the potential martial artists and self cultivation students.

Whilst this may appear to be an article about ownership, in actual fact it is about being inclusive and being respectful of others. To recap, originally the art was taught using traditional martial arts values and teaching methods. In the time of Yang Cheng Fu (1920-30s) the art was taught solely by martial artists to people who were not martial artists on a grand scale. Now there have been several generations of teachers who have taught solely for self cultivation and/or health. Regardless, none of the practitioners can be said to own the information that made the art great, which is not the combat strategies per se, but actually the knowledge of internal energy and how to cultivate it. Yet at the same time so few practices develop such a palpable understanding of energy as Tai Chi and have the specific methods that produce predictable development if followed correctly and with the right spirit.

Perhaps on balance it is the responsibility of all practitioners to drink as they want from the well, but at the same time to take care of that well for fear of destroying it as a usable source. Maybe teachers with the capability of teaching martial artists to the highest levels should ensure that the opportunity to do so isn't too obstructed or martial artists won't support the art 'just because of what it promises'. Similarly it would help the art more if those with a strong interest in delivering Tai Chi packages for health don't deny the energetic and martial capability, but instead send interested practitioners onwards to other sources focussing more on those aspects. Finally those who claim the art as a purely spiritual vehicle should recognise that it wasn't drawn together by monks, priests or would be Buddhas, but instead by martial artists who for generations obsessively chased 'the ultimate'. Although it contains the capability to fulfill the wants and needs of each practitioner, there has to be recognition of where it's centre lies or it will disintegrate and lose its unique capabilites.

To be more philosophical, the universe is built on what arises from paradox, so if you want a powerful practice, make it a paradox. Tai Chi Chuan is one of those paradoxes - supreme knowledge of health, energy awareness and fighting skill as one. That which can kill can cure. Keep the paradox and the art is at its most potent.

Increasingly as I practice the art for longer and see more changes in how the art is perceived by the public and also changes in what the younger generation want from the things they decide to become part of, I think that as a culture we should be clearer and more defined in what we offer and spell out what it takes to achieve it. It seems the younger generation have less patience with trying things out, seeing what happens and then trying again if the first attempt didn't meet their expectations. They seem to mistrust uncertainties and mysteries. They try something and if it doesn't fulfill, that's it. You've one chance to catch them and then they move on to something else. I think we should all consider this carefully when we're representing the art we love. Regardless of what they are primarily interested in, dedicated Tai Chi practitioners are a rare breed. We should respect the positive things that each of us does, encourage small flames instead of snuffing them out and certainly avoid behaviours that make it difficult for someone to find what they want from the art, or in the future who will continue to take the art forwards?

As a martial artist the journey from external force to internal energy training under Master Ding has been incredible. I would urge any martial artist who feels ready to invest the time and effort it takes to convert to an internal path. Within our organisation there are a good number of highly qualified martial artists. We all come from different disciplines with decades of experience and we're all busy training this formidable art because what we are doing keeps improving our skills. Not because we are too old or too injured for other pursuits, but because this is what we all believed martial arts should be.


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