Common misconceptions

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Modern culture is rife with misleading information concerning tai chi.
This is a sample of misconceptions:

  1. Martial art
  2. Improvising
  3. Old people
  4. Easy to learn
  5. Copying
  6. Just about form
  7. The same thing every week
  8. Qi
  9. Tai chi and chi kung
  10. Confusing tai chi and qigong
  11. Standing
  12. Influential qigong book
  13. Qigong in tai chi
  14. Tai chi and yoga
  15. Postures
  16. Stretching
  17. Form collecting
  18. Learning from a book or DVD
  19. Fix me up
  20. Healing
  21. Losing weight
  22. Commitment
  23. Slow & boring
  24. Gym
  25. Becoming a teacher
  26. Using qi
  27. Yielding
  28. Karate
  29. Fighting style
  30. Internal
  31. Becoming internal
  32. Understanding
  33. Judging
  34. Slow martial art
  35. Name-dropping
  36. Wushu
  37. Low stances
  38. Black belt
  39. Full contact
  40. Self defence courses
  41. Tai chi, kung fu, Chinese boxing & wushu

Further reading:

  1. Finding a tai chi class
  2. FAQs
  3. A-Z

Martial art

Faced with a major health crisis in the 1950's, the People's Republic of China turned to the old/classical Yang style tai chi for a solution. They wanted a form of exercise that could be performed by students of all ages.
The simplest way to achieve this was to remove the more demanding fitness component and the combat. Most modern tai chi classes are teaching an art that an old person could cope with...
By definition this cannot conceivably be a martial art.


Some people make up their own tai chi movements. Others mishmash tai chi with external martial arts. This kind of behaviour is reckless and naive. It reflects a frightening degree of amateurism.

Old people

Is being healthy just for old people?
Tai chi is quite challenging in terms of coordination, mobility, concentration and memory. The physical work is not strenuous but it is not easy either. Tai chi for health is usually suitable for most people.
Tai chi is contingent upon a certain standard of fitness.

Easy to learn

Tai chi has earned the reputation of being easy because the exercises themselves are not physically strenuous to perform. They are physically easy in terms of strain.
Coordination, balance, rhythm, timing, alignment and concentration are another matter entirely. There is nothing easy about these qualities.
Many classes just ask the student to copy what the instructor is doing, so the exercises may well seem easy.
But are they accurate? Do they possess any internal qualities whatsoever? Are you learning anything?

Remember that 'learning' means that you personally are walking away with the knowledge and skills possessed by the instructor. Is this really the case? Be honest.


Copying is not learning. Copying is where the instructor stands at the front with rows of students behind.
The first row copy the instructor, the second row copies the first row, the third row copies the second row... and so on. The quality deteriorates with each successive row.
A good instructor does not use this approach and spends time with the individual or small groups and provides necessary one-to-one correction. They do not encourage copying.
What do you learn by copying? The neigong? An understanding of how every movement has its own unique way of generating power? Can a student who copies even do the practice by themselves?

Just about form

With the advent of performance art tai chi people have begun to think of tai chi purely in terms of 'form'. This is simplistic. Form is just one facet of the art.

The same thing every week

If you are practicing the same thing every week, you are not making any progress. This is not education. It is a plateau; stagnant, dead and pointless. Learning requires development, change and growth.
In class and at home in-between lessons.


Qi is a problematic topic... In The Tai Chi Classics it usually refers to breath. Unfortunately, people disagree upon the meaning. Some people see it as being about breath, others energy.
Maybe the confusion resides with the fact that deep breathing makes the body feel energised... A precise definition of qi is difficult (akin to 'Tao').

What does qi have to do with fighting? Absolutely nothing. If you want to talk about qi in the martial arts, I'd say that it doesn't have anything to do with the martial arts. They're talking about intention mostly, and they're calling it qi because it sounds more mysterious.

(Tim Cartmell)

Tai chi and chi kung

People believe that the 'chi' in tai chi is the same chi as chi kung (qigong). This is incorrect. Tai chi refers to the yin/yang principle whereas the chi (qi) in chi kung is about qi.

Confusing tai chi and qigong

Tai chi is a martial art. Tai chi for health is a non-martial health exercise adapted from tai chi. Qigong is a series of standing and moving exercises designed to encourage healthy body use.
There are no static postures in tai chi.


(i) Muscle tension

Some qigong teachers expect students to hold static qigong postures for lengthy periods of time; even up to an hour.
This may be a challenge but the side-effect might easily be varicose veins, massive amounts of muscular tension and a decrease in higher level mobility.

(ii) Stop standing

Once the student has learned the final weapons form they can cease standing qigong altogether if they want to. Prolonged standing may hinder higher levels of mobility with form.

(iii) Varicose veins

If you have varicose veins you should not undertake prolonged standing qigong.

Influential qigong book

In 1991, Lam Kam Chuen released The Way of Energy; a popular book that taught ba duan jin and a series of standing qigong postures.
The sequel book The Way of Power was published in 2003 revealing that the exercises taught in the first book were the foundation stage for the martial art of da cheng chuan.
Da cheng chuan is a xingyiquan off-shoot which utilises standing qigong postures in lieu of forms.

The exercises taught by Lam were great if you wanted to get good at da cheng chuan or just want to train qigong as qigong.
However, by tai chi standards the exercises were performed in an 'external' fashion - too extended - and so of no use to tai chi practice. Besides, tai chi is a moving art not a standing art.

Qigong in tai chi

A tai chi beginner is not adept with tai chi so they need to do a lot of qigong. It provides the necessary fitness benefits by serving as a stopgap pending higher level tai chi skill.
An advanced student starts practicing the round form version of the Long Yang form. This increases the fitness benefits of form; allowing them to spend less time training qigong.
Neigong replaces qigong as the primary source of power. An expert is more adept with higher level tai chi skill, so they only do a small amount of qigong.
There is simply no need to stand for an extended duration since greater benefits can be gained through whole-body movement.

Tai chi and yoga

Tai chi first came to the widespread attention of Western students in the 1960's. A popular Eastern discipline at that time was yoga.
People saw tai chi as being 'moving yoga' - an erroneous and woefully simplistic comparison.
This was an error.


When tai chi is shown in books or photographs, the conclusion of the movement is shown. This is regarded as being a static 'posture' akin to a yoga posture e.g. warrior.
To see tai chi in this way is erroneous and will lead to a great misunderstanding of the art. The only static posture encountered in a tai chi class is standing qigong (and this is not tai chi).
Postures are static. Tai chi is about movement. Chang San-feng said:
Tai chi is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.


Mild stretching occurs throughout the training but strong stretching is not advisable.
A stretched muscle can reduce the mobility of the joints, affect range, upset balance and inhibit correct skeletal alignment.
Form requires the student to move freely and easily. The limbs should have already been stretched when you warmed-up. There is no need to stretch further than 70% of your reach.
Over-stretching means needlessly burning energy like crazy; since stretching costs effort. This is not the tai chi way.

Form collecting

People learn the superficial outline of a tai chi form and then seek to learn a new form sequence. This is not productive. The superficial pattern is just the beginning of a form.

There are 8 stages to studying any form:

  1. The pattern

  2. Biomechanics

  3. Shen (fighting spirit/martial intent)

  4. Martial applications (7 per movement)

  5. Whole-body strength (neigong)

  6. Whole-body movement (form)

  7. Whole-body power (jing)

  8. Natural-feeling body use

Throughout all 8 stages of learning a form there is a constant process of reviewing, refining and re-thinking the sequence.

I strongly believe that students should limit themselves to learning and fully developing in just one style only. By learning many styles and collecting many forms we simply cannot have sufficient time to practice.

Few have the resources or talent to be the master of more than one style. The really good teachers focus on one style.

(Adam Hsu)

Learning from a book or DVD

Books and DVDs may serve to supplement lessons but they are no substitute for actual tuition. The number of mistakes and misconceptions that will arise are astronomical in number.

Imagine trying to learn how to drive a car by watching a DVD or reading a book... No driving instructor. Just you.
Trying to study a physical art with no guidance is an equivalent folly.

The danger with seeking to learn qigong from a DVD is that you are guaranteed to make many, many mistakes but lack the wherewithal to recognise what those mistakes are and how to remedy them.

Fix me up

Tai chi is not going to fix you up. It was never intended (or designed) to be something employed for repair. At best, it may be seen as a tonic.
A tonic is a medicine taken daily in order to maintain and invigorate the body. It may significantly improve your fitness.
However, you should take note of the small print, the conditions of use:

  1. It must be administered every day 

  2. When you stop taking it, the fitness benefits go away

This is something to really think about. Re-read the paragraph if you need to.


Tai chi was developed as a martial art. Healing was first promoted by Yang Cheng Fu in the early part of the 20th Century.
The health benefits of tai chi are an off-shoot of good body use, relaxation and healthy attitudes.

Losing weight

Weight loss usually involves balancing your food intake and activity. Undertaking a daily qigong and tai chi regime will most certainly help your body exercise.
This must be paired with a diet that best suits the individual.


Some people think that 'a bit of tai chi' will lead to some drastic improvement in fitness. Sorry, it won't. You may feel good after one lesson but nothing significant or fundamental has changed.
If you want meaningful results you will need to make an investment in tuition, time and effort.

Slow & boring

Modern people are highly stimulated. They want to be entertained, occupied and pandered to. Like spoiled children.
The highly agitated mind of the modern person - caffeinated, restless and emotive - is not at ease. There is no tranquillity, no calm, no peace.
Of course tai chi will seem slow and boring. A settled, quiet, strong mind is still. It is at rest. It finds the world to be filled with wonder and curiosity.

Using qi

Qi alone is not going to defeat anyone. If it could, why bother to learn the system? Why not just hit people with your qi?
To apply tai chi effectively in combat you have to learn pretty much all the same skills you would learn in any martial art, but with a twist.
Unlike the external arts, your focus will be upon whole-body movement, softness, gravity, sensitivity and going with the flow. There is no holding, blocking, bracing or forcing of any kind.


(i) Resistance

Most beginners studying tai chi resist the idea of yielding and choose not to do it. Consequently, they do not understand yielding and strictly speaking are not training tai chi anymore.
The resistance is psychological and comes from a poor understanding of the physics involved. Without yielding, there is no tai chi. A common deceit is to yield a little and tense a little.
This is a well-know ploy and will only work against other beginners.

(ii) External attitudes

Yielding does not appeal to the hard-style external martial artist. It sounds ineffectual and soft. Weak.
When somebody is used to seeing martial arts as a contest of speed and strength, yielding sounds perplexing and unclear.

(iii) Practical yielding

There are a number of facets to yielding: 4 ounces of pressure, following the line of force, creating space, stepping, responding to space, offering no purchase and gravity.
If your instructor cannot demonstrate, apply and teach these to you, find someone who can.

Fighting style

Some tai chi people claim to be fighting in a 'tai chi way' but it looks suspiciously like kickboxing or MMA... If you watch wing chun applied in combat, it looks distinctly like wing chun.
The same could be said of judo, aikido, ju jitsu, pencat silat etc. By the same reasoning, the martial art of tai chi must look like tai chi.
What does tai chi look like in combat? Tai chi looks like tai chi. The form, pushing hands, you know... tai chi.
If the martial expression of tai chi does not look like tai chi, it is probably not tai chi.


The substance and focus of the internal martial arts is quite different from external systems. This can be readily illustrated by every bona fide tai chi teacher.
If a tai chi teacher is incapable of demonstrating whole-body strength, whole-body movement and whole-body power, then they are not really a qualified instructor.

Becoming internal

A common misconception is that any martial art offers the opportunity to reach an 'internal' level of practice i.e. a karate man can become internal. This is not true.
Internal forms are quite different to external ones. They were designed to be a vehicle for the exploration of a very unique way of moving and using the body.
Movement is initiated by the centre (not by the hips) and entails moving every part of the body as one fluid unit. The joints do very little work.
The combat skills and sensibilities of the internal martial arts require a perceptual shift: blending, yielding, listening, stickiness. There is no blocking, struggling or forcing involved.


Take away combat, jing and neigong and your tai chi loses the word 'quan'. Your practice loses its context and its focus. It becomes dance. And dance isn't tai chi.
Even tai chi for health students need some understanding of self defence, jing and neigong, otherwise their training will be riddled with flaws, mistakes and misconceptions.
Tai chi is a martial art. If you take the engine out of a car, the exterior may look pretty but it is no longer a car.


(i) Hidden

Chinese martial arts were usually a family or village system used for self defence. Sharing with outsiders was not encouraged.
Tai chi was designed specifically to hide the applications and skills within an innocuous-seeming range of forms, drills and exercises.

(ii) Feeling

Tai chi skill can only be determined by how it feels. Martial arts are hands-on.
If your tai chi is generating the effect using the correct means, then this will be physically evident when you partner up with somebody else.
The very definition of 'jing' is somebody else's experience of your tai chi.

(iii) The Tai Chi Classics

Tai chi must adhere to the tai chi principles. Given the internal nature of tai chi, many of these cannot be gauged through observation.

(iv) Aesthetics

The danger with aesthetic concerns is that the context is askew.
People look for particular alignment considerations based on how nice they look instead of determining how they add to your ability to generate jing.
Tai chi is a living, breathing martial art in the hands of the right person. Arbitrary aesthetics will rob the practice of any viable self defence application.

Slow martial art

External martial art schools frequently add tai chi to their syllabus because it attracts students seeking something more relaxing.
Unfortunately, these classes often have no understanding of tai chi whatsoever. Instead of tai chi, they offer slow-motion movement. And that's it.
The tai chi principles are completely absent and the instructor is unaware of their existence. It may as well be a karate class practiced in slow-motion.
This is not tai chi, regardless of what is advertised.


Some tai chi people love to 'name-drop'. They travel to see all manner of visiting masters and add them to their tai chi curriculum vitae.
Collecting forms and snippets of information is a popular pastime in tai chi.
What can you really learn from one workshop or a weekend seminar? Is a visiting expert really going to bare his secrets to a room of total strangers?
Be honest about this. Training with a renowned expert in no way translates to mean that you have been given that person's skill. Do not be naive.
The only proof of skill lies with the individual. What can you personally do? Your master may be brilliant at tai chi but you might be lousy.
Similarly, your instructor may be mediocre yet your skills are excellent.


The modern off-shoot of Chinese martial arts is called 'wushu'. It combines martial art-style movements, gymnastics, acrobatics and dance choreographed to look exciting.
Wushu is all about aesthetics, theatrical displays and entertainment. Traditional martial arts are not a performance art, nor are they sport.

Low stances

Low stances are a throwback to a time when martial artists wore heavy body armour and fought battles in muddy fields. The urban sphere is quite another scenario altogether.
Horse stance training is about developing leg strength, not combat. Your body usage needs to feel as comfortable and as natural as possible.
This will improve mobility, attract less attention and protect your knee joints.
If you cannot get power from an everyday standing position, you are overly dependent upon the hips and the solidity of your base. Whole-body movement generates power in a wave-like fashion.
A low stance is simply redundant.

Black belt

The public perception of 'black belt' suggests that the wearer is an expert. This is simply not the case. Achieving a black belt means that you are neither beginner nor expert.
You are adept at the basics of the art, nothing more. A black belt in one martial art is potentially meaningless when you attend an entirely different class or system.
Modern culture/media/movies present people with the illusion that great skill can be gained overnight. New starters are guaranteed a black belt within a year or two of starting their training.
Kids are given a black belt before they can drive a car or leave school.

If an instructor really feels that a youngster not yet into puberty is worthy of a black belt ranking in an art, what does that say about the sophistication and profundity of the art? What would you think of a college that awarded degrees to kids learning their multiplication tables?

The only people who were ever impressed by a black belt were the absurdly uninformed general public.

(Dave Lowry)

Full contact

When people say 'full contact' they are typically referring to no-holds-barred combat, unrestrained, without rules... But what do they really mean by full contact? That they hit one another?
That they use full-power?

If you apply a break full-power then the bone will snap
If you strike full-power then there will be internal damage or death
If you throw full-power there will be concussion or serious injury

Our students are required to make contact, but are not permitted to use full-power under any circumstances.
Most people do not train martial arts in order to be injured or crippled. They want the ability to defend themselves in a varied, realistic manner. They do not want to get hurt in class.

Self defence courses 

Self defence courses show a limited range of techniques designed to provide the illusion of genuine martial competence against a real life assailant...
The untrained person panics in the face of genuine threat. Their emotions take over and they freeze. A self defence course will not rid you of panic in just 3 lessons.
Such a course will give you an inflated sense of your own competence. This might prove fatal against a serious attacker.

Tai chi, kung fu, Chinese boxing & wushu

When you read about tai chi you may find that it is sometimes referred to as 'kung fu' or Chinese boxing'.

(i) Kung fu

In Chinese culture, 'kung fu' is anything that involves hard work.

(ii) Chinese boxing

Chinese boxing is a purely Western term; suggesting that Chinese martial arts are the equivalent of boxing.

(iii) Wushu

Wushu is a performance art based upon gymnastics, acrobatics, dance and Chinese martial arts movements. The term gained popular usage in the 20th Century.

(iv) What is tai chi?

Tai chi can be classified as 'neijiaquan' - internal martial art.

Page created 1 April 1994
Last updated 18 June 2023