Subtleties and Intricacies of T'ai-Chi Ch'uan

Harvey Kurland Karate/Kung fu Illustrated June 1998, pp 22-27
Kurland 1998 edited by KKI 1998, revised, copyright Kurland 2000

"The way to get technically better is to get good instruction, train mindfully and strive to follow the t'ai chi ch'uan classics" H. Kurland

Using push hands, the young student tried to throw his grandmaster, Tchoung Ta-tchen. Every time the young man thought he had him, the elder seemed to dissolve out of his reach. And then effortlessly, the grandmaster would softly toss the young student against a wall. Frustrated, the student remarked to his superior that he couldn't find him when he tried to push him, and he couldn't feel him when he was thrown by him.

What is this unique art they are doing?

The two are practicing the ultimate internal style of Chinese martial arts, t'ai-chi ch'uan (taijiquan).

The instructor mentioned, Tchoung Ta-tchen, is obviously very talented and has spent years learning this style, which is the ultimate internal style with very specific concepts that are foreign to most other martial arts. Let's take a closer look at this art, including a brief history and some of the differences between it and other arts.

Brief History

First, let's take a look at the history of t'ai-chi ch'uan.

Bodhidharma, known in China as Tamo, traveled from India to China around 520 A.D. and ultimately arrived at the Shaolin Monastery. He was the 28th Buddhist patriarch in India and became the first patriarch in China. Mythology stated that he taught the Shaolin monks a series of exercises to improve their health and strength. Eventually, these exercises developed into a martial art called Shaolin ch'uan.

The mythology says a monastery student, Chang San-feng, was not satisfied with the teachings at the monastery and left to become a Taoist mystic. Chang San-feng had a vision that formed the basis for what is now called t'ai-chi ch'uan. This brings up am important point, that t'ai chi ch'uan was a change in conceptual view from Shaolin, away from those "hard style" concepts to a new and different art form. Doing Shaolin Ch'uan is not doing t'ai chi ch'uan, as the arts are very different conceptually.

In 1894, a group of martial artists - masters of t'ai-chi ch'uan, pa-kua chang and hsing i-ch'uan - formed an organization called "Internal Family Boxing" (Nei-chia ch'uan, Neijiquan). Those three arts are the basis for what are called "Internal Arts", while Shaolin ch'uan and its offshoots are referred to as "External Arts". One reason was a difference in philosophy of training but the reason for the name was that Shaolin came from outside of China, from the West; while the Internal arts developed within China. The terminology has nothing to do with development of internal power called chin (jin).

The internal arts focus on the development of what is called "Internal Power", chin (jin). However, Shaolin also studies internal power. The arts can be further divided into hard and soft styles depending on their emphasis on brute strength and force (li) versus internal power.

Nimble and Lively

What is the difference between hard style and soft styles?

Basically, hard stylists are impressed by physical strength, deep stances and speed. They delight in using force and tension, They often fight force with force. Emphasis is on conditioning and muscular strength.

In contrast, soft styles, such as t'ai-chi ch'uan, feature subtle moves and strive for effortless techniques. Their emphasis is on developing internal strength and not using brute force. When soft stylists do their techniques, they strive to be relaxed. It has been referred to as "the technique of no technique." They do not try to fight force with force.

For example, good t'ai-chi ch'uan master is "boneless." the practitioner relaxes and moves as if he doesn't have any bones; he strings his movements together. There are no isolated arm movements. Furthermore, his posture is straight, his head is always up and his shoulders are relaxed. Essentially, his entire body is relaxed, nimble and lively.

A Different Flavor

Most karate styles are consummate hard styles; conversely, t'ai-chi ch'uan is the ultimate soft style. A pa kua master once said that it is difficult for many hard stylists to let go of their tension and practice internal art principles. He found that karate students have the hardest time learning pa-kua chang correctly, because they are so used to being tense and using muscular force. Though often very high level karate masters are very relaxed as well.

In general, it is difficult to learn karate or hard-style kung fu and t'ai-chi ch'uan at the same time. While there are similar motions, the concepts are different. It's like trying to learn tennis and racquetball or aikido and hapkido at the same time. While these sports are similar, they both require you to use your body in subtly different ways. And those subtle differences conflict with each other.

It's the same with karate and hard-style kung fu. While they are similar to t'ai-chi ch'uan, the flavor is different. Therefore, you can be very good at karate and not so good at t'ai-chi ch'uan and vice versa.

Though karate stylists often can learn the art more quickly than students who never studied a martial art, as they have the advantage of understanding how to train, how to do stances and a concept three-dimensional movement. But they do need to put the time in to learn the forms correctly and let go of the use of tension. Very high level karate is often very relaxed. It is often said the process of mastery of hard arts starts out hard and go to soft; while the process of mastery of the soft arts starts out soft, go to hard then back to soft again.

The Many Benefits

People study t'ai-chi ch'uan for several reasons, including for its health benefits and mystical/spiritual benefits. Each goal has its own training emphasis.

For example, let' say you're interested in the health benefit. To reap the benefits of this art, you would need to train 30 to 60 minutes, three to six days per week. The health benefits start at about 10 minutes, but you'll get maximum benefits if you practice 20 to 60 minutes per session.

Up to a point, there is a direct relationship between how long a student takes lessons and his skill level. Previous training and innate talent is also a major factor. Some experts claim that the time spent in the art does not necessarily correlate to skill. This is because there are many people who practice t'ai-chi ch'uan all their lives and do not show any kung-fu skill. But they still will get the health and exercise benefits from doing the exercise.

Learning t'ai-chi ch'uan is a systematic process and there is a correlation between skill and the amount of time spent studying correctly in a structured class. To progress on the martial side of the art, the student must do certain art specific partner training methods. Those not interested in that can perform the art and gain the health and meditation benefits. There are many ways to practice.

T'ai-Chi Ch'uan and Aikido

Aikido was founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the 1930s. It is conceptually, but not technically, the Japanese art most similar to t'ai-chi ch'uan, and pa kua chang. After Ueshiba's death, several of his top students promoted several versions of aikido that differed subtly from each other. At one time, it was estimated that there were more than 30 to 100 different versions being practiced. The concepts were the same, but the methods ranges from practical to mystical, brutally hard to soft.

In aikido, as in t'ai-chi ch'uan, high level practitioners are relaxed and use as little brute force as possible. Ideally, the uke (attacker) flies through the air without knowing why. In "harder" aikido, the uke feels manipulated and controlled by the nage (thrower) as muscular force is used to make a technique work. Some aikido teachers say that if you strictly try to use muscle then you're not in harmony. They feel that you have poor technique. Others believe that using force helps make it a more practical martial art. There is often a difference in philosophy that can be due to personal taste. There is no dispute over taste.

Some students feel more secure using force. It is easy to learn to use force, especially for those who are physically powerful. For those practitioners, it's not unusual for this to become a habit. In t'ai-chi ch'uan and aikido, a strong person can make an awkward or even an inefficient technique work. If this habit continues, it will follow the student even to advanced levels. Even some high ranking aikido black belts, as well as well known t'ai-chi ch'uan masters, use brute force to their advantage.

Highly skilled aikido or t'ai-chi ch'uan experts can make basic applications look like magic. In reality, it is just incredibly subtle and exquisite technique. This is different than the "trained seal acts" where an instructor waves his hands and the student flies through the air for no good reason.

Diploma System

A t'ai-chi ch'uan instructor should be similar in skill to an aikido black belt, but there are no belts in traditional t'ai-chi ch'uan nor in traditional kung-fu. Rank in Chinese arts is based on a familial type of rank such as older brother, younger brother etc, and competence is often shown by being given a diploma, similar to menkyo, in some traditional schools. Once a student reaches a certain level of competence, he/she is given a certificate or formal permission to teach. Before the black belt system was implemented, this was done in Japan, too. In the older Japanese arts, this is called a menkyo, a certificate of completion. Some jujitsu systems have several levels and categories of menkyo.

In aikido the number of class hours are factored in to be allowed to test for certain ranks, such as brown or black belt. It may take anywhere from 200 to 1000 class hours, minimum, for someone to be allowed to test for a black belt, depending on the organization. For t'ai-chi ch'uan students who study only one day a week in a formal class, it may take them anywhere from eight to 22 years to get the hours equivalent for an aikido first degree black belt, shodan test.

Dedicated students practice five to six days a week and many hours on their own, For example, the Seattle, Washington Chinese T'ai-Chi Ch'uan Association (CTCCA) group averaged more than 300 hours per year of class time, plus more than 750 hours per year of additional organized practice sessions. Most instructors amassed 1500 to 2o00 class hours, plus additional teaching hours and thousands of training hours, before they were certified as teachers. Training hours are very important to gaining t'ai chi ch'uan skill. But is has to be correct training. Mindless, robot like, following the leader does not lead to skill.

In contrast some tai chi teachers studied a form for a few months then decided to start teaching. This is often done with the short forms such as the 24 form. Even if that teacher studied for 6 months they are hardly at the equivalent of a green belt level in aikido or karate. If they start teaching without being corrected on their training, they are likely to practice errors and then teach those to their students. Those errors will be ingrained and hard to correct over time. So even if they teach for 20 years, they still only have a few month of actually study.


Judo probably has one of the best methods for ranking teachers. In judo, rank is based partly on competition. Points are awarded for defeating opponents and for kata. They also factor in how long one was at a certain belt level and how many points the students won in tournaments.

The black/white belt system started with judo. The lowest rank adult white belt in sixth Kyu, and the highest is 10th dan or red belt. Women use a different ranking system. Honorary higher ranks are also given for years of service.

To be sure, the more talented and athletic would achieve higher rank faster. According to the late Don Dreager, the average high-ranking judo athlete trains 90 minutes to three hours per day six days per week. He also teaches 90 minutes to two hours per day.

Judo has an excellent way to rank students and a central organization that will keep the skill of teachers high. Can this be used with t'ai-chi ch'uan?

Unlike Judo, t'ai-chi ch'uan has no one overall organization. In fact, most top masters prefer to do their own thing. An organization with the term "national" or "international" might as well be called "intergalactic". As most are one school run by one teacher at the top, who may or may not be a real master of t'ai-chi ch'uan for example they may have only formally studied for 6 months.

Most people studying t'ai-chi are after good health, and they are not interested in competition. Therefore, the judo model of fighting for rank would not work for most. The old challenges of the old days are no longer considered appropriate. Tournaments, where the students are graded as to form or pushing hands skill, is a good alternative to the old competition matches. But there are problems with tournaments as well, as often "fancy" moves are added to win points but which are not really t'ai-chi moves. So scoring has to be done by real tai chi teachers who know what they are looking at, not external teachers who don't understand the concepts. Pushing hands often has problems as well with it turning into a sumo wresting shoving match and not high level t'ai chi. This is a big subject, which will be looked at in another article.

No Quality Control

Unfortunately, there is no quality control in t'ai-chi ch'uan. Many teachers have the equivalent of a green belt or less, which is basically an advanced beginner. Even though a person may have a black belt in karate or aikido it does not mean he is competent to teach t'ai-chi ch'uan, unless he/she puts in the time to really learn it correctly. T'ai-chi is not just another kata, or form, t'ai chi ch'uan is a total conceptual system. Unfortunately, the novice student walking into class wouldn't know the difference.

On the other hand, Karate students can learn t'ai chi ch'uan and do it well, for example several of my students who do very high level t'ai chi are black-belts of karate, but it took them several years of training. And most gave up karate entirely in order to make the transition.

Today there is a trend for some karate and tae kwon do teachers to take a few workshops and then start to teach tai chi. But, attending a few weekend workshops, as is often done by such teachers, is not enough to learn the art correctly. That is because there are subtle differences in the arts that takes a long time to relearn movement patterns. Remember the founder of tai chi made that distinction in breaking from Shaolin. One must work on those concepts to be truly doing tai chi ch'uan and that is not the same as doing slow motion karate. Slow motion karate or aikido is NOT t'ai chi ch'uan. Only doing the art with the correct principles is really t'ai chi ch'uan.

Fortunately, some organizations such as the CTCCAA and NWTCCA have standards for teaching levels based on technical competence. Therefore, the way to get technically better is to get good instruction, train mindfully and strive to follow the t'ai chi ch'uan classics.