A beginner forever...

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Starting block

In tai chi is quite common for a student to reach a rudimentary level of skill and simply remain there. They may learn many new forms and exercises. But everything is performed in a simplistic manner.


The problem with training long-term at a simplistic level is that
the training is intrinsically incorrect. Provably so.
Tai chi is a refined, subtle, complex, sophisticated art. If your progress halted at white belt and there are 13 belts; this is hardly impressive.


When a beginner learns a tai chi form they cannot conceivably start with an advanced rendition of the form. They learn a crude, introductory version: the slow form, the square form.
This is the version usually shown to the public.


Nothing can substitute for serious practice. Practice seriously, correctly and patiently. Use your brain, not just your body. Don't hide weaknesses in your training. Don't lie to yourself. If you cheat, you only cheat yourself.

(Adam Hsu)



Learning more and more material is pointless when it is all practiced in a very basic manner. It would be wiser to learn less and focus on depth.
If you are acquisitive - yet unskilled - then the more you know, the less you actually understand


Imagine doing 15 minutes of qigong every day... You want to get better so you do 20 minutes a day. There may well be an improvement in qigong skill at first and then you will plateau once again.
In terms of your overall tai chi skill there will not be much change at all. More of the same does not lead to progress.

Pie chart

A tai chi syllabus is akin to a pie chart. All 13 areas of study fit together to form the whole. Deficiency in any area would leave the overall understanding incomplete
As your practice develops you focus on different things, so the emphasis alters. This cannot happen if you remain at a lower grade.


Imagine that you're a tai chi beginner... What do train?  Your training may entail:

  1. Long Yang form (section 1) (regular)

  2. 4 directions with a partner

  3. Ba duan jin (8 exercises)

  4. Central equilibrium maintain the centre

  5. Eyes-closed walking

  6. Form posture qigong

  7. Full circle qigong

  8. Monkey paws

  9. Moving qigong (8 exercises)

  10. Palm at 3 distances

  11. Peripheral vision - mugger scenario

  12. Posture testing

  13. Psoas exercises

  14. Pushing legs

  15. Reeling silk exercises (5 exercises)

  16. Single pushing hands

  17. Standing post

  18. Standing qigong/3 circle qigong

  19. Stepping drills (6)

  20. Yielding basic skills

  21. Yielding exercise

These topics provide the adequate, necessary foundation for later practice.

Form collecting

Now let's imagine that a beginner acquired many new forms... which is quite common in tai chi schools. Can you see the problem?
The student is not training anything deep. Their knowledge and experience is primarily fitness and health oriented. Not martial. Tai chi is a martial art.
Everything they see, do and understand is from the standpoint of a beginner, not an internal martial artist.

New starters

New starters are taught how to move their body in a very 'li' way - large, obvious, crude movements of the joints. This is necessary.
Fine motor skills are lacking so the hips are emphasised and leg strength is cultivated.


Li refers to the use of bones + muscles; usually muscle tension. It applies to the reliance upon force rather than a springy, pliable frame.
e.g. scapula pulled too far forward, elbows locked, knees straightened or bent deeply, pelvis forced under, stretching beyond 70%...

From hard to soft

Short-term, training that emphasises large hip and waist action is valuable since it teaches the student to think more about the lower body and the larger muscle groups.
Long-term, it isn't good because the skeleton is being over-used. The soft tissue needs to do more and the joints less.

Going nowhere fast

The real problem with being a long-term beginner is that everything is performed in a crude way and is not strictly speaking tai chi or even 'internal'.
This issue cannot be resolved by the instructor because it is the student themselves who determines what is appropriate.
If a student hasn't passed the beginners syllabus then they are exactly where they belong and sadly this means they remain external.

Lower grades onwards

In contrast with a beginner, a lower grade student is concerned with attaining a comprehensive introduction to martial practice. The emphasis is very different to that of a beginner.
There is a lot less in the tai chi syllabus suited to a tai chi for health student or a dilettante. The training is more martial.
What makes the student martial is not a different coloured T-shirt, a belt or any other outward symbol. It is the nature of their commitment. Daily practice. Weekly lessons. Frequent workshops.
Coupled with the increased physical demands, the martial student must also expand their capacity to understand the art. This involves reading, study and assignments designed to deepen insight.
The aim is to break free of the familiar and make significant progress through the syllabus.

The technically learnable part of it must be practiced to the point of repletion.

(Eugen Herrigel)

Having and using

It is not enough to learn skills... you must also know what to do with them. And then apply those skills in combat. A beginner doesn't have a clue.
By definition, a beginner knows nothing. If they did, they wouldn't be a beginner.


Remaining a beginner forever is pointless. No matter how much you learn it is still at the first level of skill. Years of practice don't mean anything if you're still a beginner.
There's been no progress. Your beginner's misconceptions remain. At best, your practice is merely crude and inept. At worst, it is potentially injurous.

In theory?

Beginners often have all manner of notions concerning tai chi but not much in the way of actual practical skill.
This may be fine in casual conversation (with friends) but falls short in a martial arts class. Martial arts are physical. They require tangible concrete proof of skill. Talking is just not enough.

The essence of tai chi

If your martial expression of tai chi does not look like tai chi, it is probably not tai chi.
The student needs to really examine, contemplate and research the design elements that led to the creation of tai chi.
Understanding these factors enables the student to recognise the differences in tai chi styles, systems and approaches; why certain schools emphasise particular qualities which others discard.
This will aid you in making your tai chi combat look like tai chi rather than karate. No beginner can do this.


Kung Yi-tsu was famous for his strength.
King Hsuan of Chou went to call on him with full ceremony,
but when he got there, he found that Kung was a weakling.
The king asked, "How strong are you?"
Kung replied, "I can break the waist of a spring insect,
I can bear the wing of an autumn cicada."
The king flushed and said,
"I'm strong enough to tear apart rhinoceros hide and drag nine oxen by the tail
- yet I still lament my weakness.
How can it be that you are so famous for strength?"
Kung replied, "My fame is not for having such strength,
it is for being able to use such strength."

(Zen story/David Schiller)

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Page created 21 May 2001
Last updated
18 January 2003