A copy or a way?

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No consensus

There are many, many different schools of tai chi. Each claims to be teaching the authentic art. Who is correct?
Providing the school is following the dictates of The Tai Chi Classics, they may all be right...

The art

Tai chi is built on principles, biomechanics, martial applications and fitness concerns. It adheres to the teachings of Taoism.
By practicing the art you are in fact utilising and applying
Taoism in a concrete, tangible, functional way.

Chinese culture

To understand why tai chi schools teach differently, you need to know a little about Chinese culture. One way to understand Chinese culture is to compare Japanese and Chinese theatre.

Japanese theatre

In Japan, both Noh and Kabuki are subtle, nuanced and require attention from the audience. The audience quietly watches and appreciates the artistry.

Chinese theatre

Chinese theatre is a loud, crashing, garish affair. The costumes are brightly coloured, the antics entertaining and the music is highly discordant.
In contrast with the Japanese, the Chinese audience are not really watching the show. There are food hawkers, groups of friends talking, people jeering or shouting - the whole affair is noisy and distracted.
Everyone is doing their own thing.

The gatekeeper in the capital city of Sung became such an expert mourner after his father's death, and so emaciated himself with fasts and austerities, that he was promoted to high rank in order that he might serve as a model of ritual observance.

As a result of this, his imitators so deprived themselves that half of them died. The others were not promoted.

(Chuang Tzu)


It is quite common in tai chi classes for students to 'learn' the pattern of forms by copying.
This traditional approach is perhaps adequate at an introductory-level, but will prove worthless in the long-term if the student hopes to gain any real skill.
Consider: if you heard somebody speaking Hakka and memorised the noises and could repeat those sounds perfectly, does that mean that you now speak Chinese?

New starters

It may be argued that the new starter can only copy. After all, they cannot hope to understand. This is true.
However, faults should be repeatedly corrected and the grosser biomechanics underlying each movement can be illustrated from the onset.


The problem with copying is that the imitator has no real idea what they are copying. They are not sure what to emphasise, what to prioritise. There is no sense of meaning.
This is why teaching is more useful than copying.


Showing a single form movement and breaking the movement down into components can be very useful. Example applications and some explanation concerning body mechanics is vital.
Trace the underlying movements back to the foundation moving qigong exercises and the student has a real hope of improving their practice.


One aspect of learning is our capacity to observe. This is linked to perception. A trained observer can gain a lot through watching whereas the untrained eye flounders to find meaning.

Internal arts

The problem with learning the internal arts is that they were deliberately designed to hide their functionality.
Tai chi forms look innocuous; and may even possess a dance-like quality. They look nothing like karate kata. Most of the work with the internal arts takes place beneath the surface.
And the more skilled the instructor demonstrating the art, the less information there will be for you to see.


Even if you succeed in copying the pattern accurately, what about the substance?
As illustrated above, when speaking Hakka there is far more to the language than a rote imitation of sounds.
Tai chi forms are just the same. Gaining a crude grasp of the pattern may represent a viable starting place but you cannot stop there. The pattern represents the beginning of your learning, not the end.

Barry was telling us a story about the woman who always cut the end of the ham and somebody asked her why she did it. She said, "Well I don't know, my mother always did it that way." And they asked her mother and she said, "I don't know, my mother always did it." And they asked grandma, and she said, "Well, I did it because otherwise it wouldn't fit into my biggest pot."

(Chungliang Al Huang)

 There is a lot of confusion about what tai chi is...

Mostly everybody is concerned with what form is being done. "Oh, I study from so and so, and he studies from Master Tsung - or Master Choy - and this is Ma style and this is the Wu style and this is the Yang style. What do you practice?"

I say "I practice the Huang style." My style comes out of all these other styles,
and I have to develop to the point where it becomes me.

(Chungliang Al Huang)

A copy or a 'way'

Chinese culture was never into 'copying' per se. It was considered wiser to perform something in a certain manner/way but not to copy. Copying produces uniformity (see socialism).

A way

Way refers to a method, an approach, a process, a path, a road. The way is not a concept. It is scientific, tangible. If, then. If you do this, then that will happen.
As with all things scientific, the outcome must be reproducible, consistent and congruent. The outcome/aim may be the same, but the means/way of achieving the result can vary considerably.

An edge

The tai chi masters of old sought diversity and excellence; they wanted to be unique, unexpected and different. Their art needed to be surprising, hard to anticipate.
This gave them an edge. The last thing they wanted were the same skills as everyone else.

Yang style?

People may look at different versions of the Yang style of tai chi and wonder whether or not they even qualify as Yang style. There are so many interpretations being taught.
This is a reasonable question.

Yang way

A precise reproduction of somebody else's practice is necessary for learning tai chi. However, at an expert level, it is counter-productive.
An expert must incorporate their own influences, insights and proclivities into the art. Their aim is to perform tai chi in a Yang way. It is not to copy another Yang practitioner.

Modern Chinese

Take into account ancient Chinese and socialist Chinese approaches: each has their merits.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old;
seek what they sought.


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Page created 11 July 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023