Art & culture

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Asian culture

Tai chi is not a modern art. Its roots lie in the Ancient Chinese wisdom of Taoism. Taoism and its off-shoot Zen have produced many fascinating cultural arts.
Exploring Asian culture can enrich your tai chi practice and offer inspiration beyond the training.

3 stages

Art moves through 3 stages:

  1. New

  2. Classical

  3. Baroque

Many modern expressions of art are baroque whereas Zen and Taoism is classical.

Consider a chair...

Somebody came up with the idea of making a chair - this is stage 1. Stage 2 involved exploring every possible permutation of what a 'chair' constituted; fabric, shape, size and so on.
Stage 3 is when someone creates a chair that looks like a chair but it can no longer serve its function - it is purely aesthetic/decorative. Like wushu in contrast with kung fu or taijiquan?

The Emperor's New Clothes

People splatter some paint on a canvas, or draw a few lines and a dot. An art critic likes it and explains to people what it means and why they should appreciate it.
The meaning and significance is attributed by the critic. There isn't anything new happening here. In fact, Hans Christian Anderson even wrote a story about it.


Taoist art is about illustrating humanity's place in the context of a vast world.
Paintings usually feature a lot of white space, natural flow of trees and hills, and somewhere (perhaps) they may be a tiny human figure reclining and watching a waterfall.
Harmony, flow, nature, context, humility... these are the themes.

Not symbolic

Rather than seek to represent or symbolise anything, Taoist and Zen art simply imparts a feeling, a mood. Like climbing up a hill and suddenly seeing the view. There is no deeper meaning to be found.


Zen aesthetics encourage a taste for natural things. Instead of glossy, flamboyant, outward show, it turns the attention inward.
You begin to notice the small, the seemingly insignificant, and you see the wonder of the ordinary.

Beauty in imperfection

Beauty can be found in everyday things: in simplicity, in imperfection, in the subtle. Wrinkles, creases, wood grain and irregular patterns in the sand are all examples of an alternate aesthetic.
They are called 'li' and are seen as being similar to incense smoke rising or the swirling, unpredictable flow of water. Wrinkles show character and creases add texture.

Cultural arts

Japan in particular has maintained many rich traditions that incorporate a Taoist influence:

Tea ceremony
Food presentation 
Wrapping things using fabrics
Flower arrangement

All of these areas of study provide opportunities to deepen your understanding and appreciation of Asian culture.

Art form

Many modern tai chi forms are baroque; separated from functionality and true purpose. Not in our class. There are no wasted movements. No crowd-pleasing displays.
The art is 'classical': simple, direct, focussed and effective in combat.

Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 12 May 1998