Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Not Taiji -- an Opinion Piece

Not Taiji -- an opinion piece.  If you disagree, write a response.

(Not Xingyi, Not Bagua, Not Liu He Ba Fa, Not Wujiquan, etc.)

The main thing to note about the internal martial-arts is that they are a different way of moving.  They use the solidity of the ground and the pull of weight (i.e, gravity giving both of those) as primary forces.  They use air to train and power the body.  The body is moved using gravity, air, and the dantien to move the connection of the body plus jin.  Most people doing “internal arts” are doing the forms, applications, weapons, etc., using normal motion or mostly so.  What it comes down to is that the internal martial-arts are marked by a certain type of movement that is difficult and takes time to learn… and most people purporting to do internal martial-arts are not doing that type of movement.

Rather than reiterating the logic and basis for movement in Asian martial-arts (see the main blogs), I wanted to make a point that I’ve heard many times from various Chinese martial-artists … most of what westerners are doing for Asian martial-arts is at best in incomplete replica of Asian martial-arts that are using much more sophisticated principles, when done correctly. 

Do all Asians do the arts correctly?  No.  Since the heyday of Asian martial-arts there had been a natural degradation.  In other words, just because someone is an Asian martial-arts teacher, we’re not assured that they have or that they are showing complete mechanics.

Of the experts I’ve heard who have said things like, “That is not Taiji” or “That is not push-hands” or things along those lines, most haven’t elucidated their remarks in a public way.  The odd and noticeable thing has been the defensive reactions from the westerners who are sure that what they are doing is not only legitimate, but probably pretty good, also.  Using the criteria that I laid out in the 3 major blogs, I think it should be fairly easy to judge how well the basic criteria and elements of internal-strength are actually adhered to.

Many westerners think that the mark of how good their “art” is can be judged by how well they emulate particular forms, applications, and so on.  Things like Chi Sao, Push Hands, Rou Shou, etc., are often judged by whether they “beat” someone, “won a medal at a tournament”, “we do neigongs” (all arts do neigongs of some sort), and so on.  The Chinese tend to be using criteria that are outlined, at least in a basic way, in the three major blogs on silk-reeling, jin, and breath.

So an art, particularly an internal art, that doesn’t use the dantien to control jin directions and the “suit” (one aspect of “qi”) and which doesn’t train with breath techniques… is not an internal art.  In too many cases, we find that Asian martial-arts are an external copy of the original art. 

I mentioned in a previous blog that a well-known member of the Beijing Wushu Team, a person who had “won gold medals for her Chen-style Taijiquan performances in contemporary wushu tournaments, had demonstrated he form to an expert in traditional Chen-style Taijiquan and he had indicated that it was not correct/complete.  Contemporary wushu has good guidelines based on ancient and accepted Chinese practices of wushu, but the accepted general guidelines are seldom the traditional practices within the specific arts themselves.  The point is that even in China there is recognition that contemporary wushu is not the same as the traditional arts.  Someone who “wins a gold medal in a tournament” has not necessarily exhibited the traditional aspects of an art.

I recognize that some people might take umbrage at the previous paragraph because they feel that their forms are “traditional”.  It might be a good debate, although I’ve never heard a good traditional expert of a Chinese martial-art say anything other than what was outlined about accepted basics, above.

Basic Movement Skills must be present or it’s something else

There’s an old joke that starts with the question of “How many martial-arts teachers does it take to change a light bulb?”.  The answer is: “One Hundred.  One teacher to screw in the light bulb and 99 others to sit around and say, ‘We do it differently in our school’”.  It’s a funny joke, but the implication is a very common one, the idea that there are a number of ways to do a martial-art and that all those ways are acceptable.

First of all, it is logically impossible for all ways to be acceptably correct.  In a collection of “all ways”, some ways must unavoidably be incorrect.  “All Roads Lead to the Top of the Mountain” is a nice statement, but some roads are cul de sacs and some roads lead to Timbuktu, in reality.

There is some good advice about watching an expert: many experts look similar and are mostly correct, so you can only tell their level by watching for what they do wrong, not how good they are overall.  If two experts offer seemingly different views on the same topic, don’t assume that you’re always seeing two views on the same topic.  Sometimes you are.  Sometimes you’re seeing someone giving away the fact that their basic understanding isn’t correct. 

In my various years spent practicing and watching Taijiquan, I’ve encountered a number of “secret” forms that are “lost to most people, even in the original village”.  I’m always amazed that whole villages lost the most powerful form-practice of the ages and some outlander is one of the few who retains it.  In other words, “hogwash”.

The point in all these asides is that the basics of the body movement skills are immutable.  There are not multiple ways to do things at the very basic levels. Once the basics are correct, there is room only for limited modification and application.  Hence the bedrock discussion in the 3 major blogs on silk-reeling, jin, and breath.

While the Yang-style proponents once declared that they did “pulling silk” (chousijin) rather than “reeling silk” (chansijin), the heads of the style later declared that they, too, did reeling silk for the simple reason that all the intertwined skills were impossible, logically, if they didn’t do chansijin.  That is, they understood that the body logic breaks down if they didn’t do reeling silk, which is a variant of the six-harmonies movement.  In other words, if those arts denied the need for silk-reeling’s logic that is intertwined with jin, dantian usage, and so on, they would have admitted they weren’t valid.

Similarly, Xingyi, Bagua, and other internal arts fail to meet the propounded tenets of those arts if they don’t use six-harmonies movement.  There is no way to argue around it.

A lot of teachers know to use terms like dantien, etc., but there is no real way to fake dantien controls, suit control by dantien, jin, etc., and those are the mainstays of internal martial arts.  Anyone with real experience is going to know that.  And that brings up an interesting question in relation to some of the current health claims:  if someone is just doing, for instance, a Taiji “form”, but they don’t have any of the body skills and development of real Taiji, how valid is the claim that “Taiji improves my health” or “Taiji is helping my arthritis”, etc.?  It’s worth a thought, when you see some of the advertised claims about health, arthritis, balance, and so on.

A moderately-experienced martial-arts practitioner should be able to walk up to any purported practitioner of an internal art and ask to see just a brief demonstration of six-harmonies movement, using the dantien to control the body.  A beginner won’t be able to tell the difference, but someone with a little experience should be able to tell almost at a glance. The dantien itself will be developed in a certain way because of the exertions it makes to control the “suit” and jin.  The art itself doesn’t matter for this example “test”, by the way, since all the six-harmonies arts of the neijia are essentially variants of the same body skills applied to martial-arts. 

If a “teacher” of an “internal martial-art” cannot demonstrate simple six-harmonies movement, dantien development, etc., then by logic they cannot possibly do the internal art they claim to teach.  On the other hand, if they can indeed demonstrate a variant of bona fide six-harmonies movement, then things are at least moving in the right direction, no matter what the level of skill.  And by the way, someone who has learned, for instance, Chen Xiaowang’s basic silk-reeling exercises and can mimic them… that’s not what I’m talking about.

Push Hands

The general entre’ into doing push-hands, in traditional Taijiquan, is to first learn how to move correctly using the dantian, body connection, jin, and so on.  However, push-hands is predicated on the idea of always being in complete balance and responding to an opponent’s forces by always remaining in exact equilibrium…. So assuming someone has some jin, dantien, etc., skills, their focus should be on learning to move within central equilibrium. 

Most of what we see as “push hands” is in fact just close-up, fairly safe wrestling and tussling, no matter how well thought-out and trained.  The idea is often that someone’s “Taiji” is validated by moving or shoving someone in a “Push Hands Competition”.  In my experience in the U.S., the push-hands competitions have had nothing to do with the type of strength developed by jin, dantien, suit-connection, breath-power, central equilibrium, and so on.  That’s why I’ve heard too many Chinese say “not Taiji” and I’ve heard too many westerners angrily reject that evaluation.  I think a common understanding of the basic movement principles of Taiji might be able to get us around these misunderstandings.


  1. Very true. It's a shame really. The honest truth though is, they simply don't know any better. When I used to teach at my martial arts school, it was advertised 'Kung Fu & Tai Chi'. I was always honest with my students or anyone that asked that, although I DO teach the Taijiquan forms and 'martial applications' of those forms, I AM missing something. I don't know what it is, but I am missing something. I don't understand completely what Internal means, but I do know that what I am doing ain't it.
    I just run a small club out of my barn now and only teach Balintawak ( FMA ), but will teach CMA and MMA again in the future. I have taken up Internal training lately and now understand what it is I've been missing. So, once I feel confident that my internal skills are solid, I'd like to begin teaching Taijiquan ( the way it's supposed to be ) again.
    But like mentioned, it's a shame, but it's hard to blame them. Most people don't understand what Internal Training is, so they assume it's this or that.

    Jonathan Leonard
    Swift Waters Self Defense Club

  2. Jonathan, the real problem with 'internal' training is finding someone who really knows how to do it, first off. Secondly, it takes a period of time to stop moving normally and shift into the radically different type of movement; you don't have any real strength for a couple of years while you're repatterning your movements. You can't just add-to what you're already doing. It's relinquishing normal strength that most people can't do and that's why internal strength is/has-been so easily lost over the millennia.

    Not trying to discourage you .... just pointing out what I can that might be helpful.

    Best of luck.


  3. I have legit instruction in it but I'm only 'months' into my Internal Training. When I attempted to train my Taijiquan form the other day, Just to keep things manageable, I merely just tried to have the Up-Down line going on while doing it, and it was tough ( Did this just for fun and to get a taste of how it is supposed to be done. However crude ). I can see how 'add to' is problematic on a few different levels, since it requires an entirely foreign method of movement and it is something that possible will just....be ( and not added to ) my Taijiquan. As the years go by though, I'm hoping that I will be teaching / training with the body connections
    ( "suit" ). Relinquishing normal strength will obviously take time.

    Thanks for responding. I frequent forums related to aiki, etc. Always enjoy your posts since you have a CMA background as do I, plus studied Chinese for years. So, your posts are always helpful surrounded by all the JMA terminology. haha