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Fighting back

A lot of people see 'fighting' as standing up for yourself. Saying No. Not being a victim. Resisting. Having courage. This is a good connotation.

Martial arts

The highly respected martial arts author Dave Lowry maintains that not all so-called 'martial arts' are actually martial arts...

Martial art definition

'Martial art' literally refers to a combat system that has been tried in battle/used by professional warriors/soldiers.
Such an art was intended to incapacitate, maim or kill - and the fighting methods should reflect this. Usually a martial art is weapons-oriented, with unarmed combat being a secondary concern.

Fighting arts are the most common

Most contemporary classes teach 'fighting arts'. They may have been designed as a sport, fighting bouts/competitions, gang warfare/street fighting or for their aesthetic value.
A fighting art is usually very functional and effective, but (by Lowry's definition) it is not a martial art. 

The law

Legally, fighting is usually seen as being a quarrel, a violent struggle or conflict. It can be armed or unarmed. It may involve an aggressor and a victim. It may be between two combatants or multiple opponents.

Beyond brawling

During the Warring States period, the art of combat was refined considerably. Chinese martial arts served to elevate fighting from the primitive level of scrapping and brawling, and make it scientific.
Centuries of empirical research and exploration produced an enormous array of evolving combat systems. Fighting had become an art form.
In the competitive world of feudal China, taijiquan represented the pinnacle of martial refinement and understated skill.

Fighting without fighting

Taijiquan introduces a fascinating style of fighting. It teaches students how to defeat an attacker without using force, without struggle and without aggression.
Instead of opposing force, blend, re-direct, neutralise and strike back. This requires sensitivity, clarity, presence. Brute force is replaced by wit.
The taijiquan exponent possesses a subtle intelligence and the ability to finish the fight before it reaches the point of no return.

Struggle or flow?

The taijiquan student must avoid blocks, holds and struggling... and just flow. This peculiar alternative is a challenging skill.
It requires patience, a clear mind, good observation skills and a willingness to wait for just the right moment.

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

(Sun Tzu)


Taijiquan encompasses a variety of training concerns, but at its heart there is always combat. Ultimately, everything in the syllabus is designed to enhance your fighting skills.
This does not mean that taijiquan is macho or aggressive. It simply means that taijiquan has a purpose. It has a focus. And that focus is combat.

Internal martial art

In taijiquan the onus is upon relaxed musculature, calmness, composure, whole-body movement and fitness.
Everything is performed in a comfortable, mild fashion - causing you no physical strain. Small, circular movements are utilised rather than linearity.

Taijiquan fighting method

The aim is to use the least amount of effort to produce the maximum effect. Subtlety, timing, rhythm and spontaneity are highly valued. Smoothness is paramount.
In order to accomplish this, a different kind of strength is needed.


Within taijiquan classes there are many interpretations as to how the art should be applied when fighting.
There are differences of style, perceptions of relaxation, sensitivity and softness.
One class may teach karate-esque practice that bears little resemblance to the art outlined in The Tai Chi Classics. Another class may be ultra-soft and subtle.
There is no consensus between taijiquan teachers as to what needs to be taught in order for the art to function martially.


Taijiquan teachers address martial concerns in whatever way suits their own individual proclivities and preferences. There is a wide variety of approaches. Some are more effective than others.
Some are more thorough and comprehensive. As a student, make sure that you train the art with integrity. If you want bona fide, realistic fighting skills this will mean a major commitment to training.


Trained properly, taijiquan should offer all the same skills as any martial art or fighting art. And a lot more besides.
To accomplish this you need a comprehensive understanding of what 'internal' actually means.

The function of form

Form teaches the student how to move their body in combat. The more closely your form follows the natural inclination of your body, the more likely you are to use the lessons it teaches in actual combat.
The accuracy of the form must pertain to the spatial parameters of groundpath, the strength of good alignment and skilful body use. It must be a vehicle for chin na, shuai jiao and form applications.
A means for training positioning, flow, change, adaptation, nimbleness, spontaneity and strength.


Your form should look and feel like taijiquan combat. Your combat should look and feel like taijiquan form. If this is not the case, what exactly are you training and why?

Pretty forms often have no combat value

It is quite easy to move the body in a precise and aesthetically pretty way. Unfortunately, appearance is merely superficial. The Tao Te Ching says that you must eat the fruit and not the flower.
Taijiquan is internal, not external.

Numbered forms

Certain styles of tai chi such as the 24 step are not a fighting system or complete art in their own right. They are merely an exercise sequence: the stances even look similar to yoga...
24 step was designed to address the health needs of 1950's China and to eradicate residual Taoist influences within taijiquan. The movements are not martial and were not designed as such.
Their purpose was purely for health.

Martial forms

A traditional form is trained with martial intent in mind from the onset. It does not need to be altered or adjusted for fighting.
The form contains most of the fighting skills contained within the system; although to a novice they will not be obvious. All they see is complexity and movement.
The individual skills must be explored independently of form practice in order for the student to apprehend the individual components.


Performance art tai chi, hippy approaches and Age Concern classes still predominate the public perception of tai chi. It may never be possible to change this public image.
But you can still train the art with integrity.

Paper tiger?

Not everyone wants to train the fighting skills of taijiquan but without these vital abilities and insights something significant is lost. Tai chi for health is a good beginning, but it not the whole art.
Armed and unarmed combat, solo and multiple opponents... the reasons behind the movements... these inform the practice. They keep it on track.
When you remove the martial component, you remove the tiger's teeth. What is left is a shadow of the real art.

5 missing pieces

Many taijiquan classes lack 5 important elements necessary in order for taijiquan to function as a martial art:

  1. Neigong (whole-body strength)

  2. Martial concepts (what combat constitutes and how to do it effectively)

  3. Chin na (the art of seizing)

  4. Shuai jiao (take downs)

  5. Jing (whole-body power)

Without these 5 components, taijiquan is lacking something and may not work in combat.

Fighting competitions?

Most martial artists don't participate in fighting competitions. Quite simply: it is not why they're training a martial art.
Regardless of how gritty, brutal or dangerous a fighting competition is, it is still essentially a sporting event, and martial arts were never designed with that purpose in mind.
If asked to enter a fighting tournament, not many martial artists would say yes. But if somebody assaulted them on the street, they would be willing and capable of defending themselves.
People who favour fighting competitions train with that goal in mind and so are usually very good at what they do. Unless you train that way, it is unwise to enter such events.

Page created 4 July 1995
Last updated 09 June 2020