Fighting talk

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Verbal expression

Talk is the process where we communicate our thoughts, our ideas verbally. As a child we learn words, then how to put words together...
Eventually we manage to express ourselves in a more comprehensible fashion.

Talking with skill

We can communicate more effectively if we:

  1. Increase our vocabulary (learn new words, their meaning and application)

  2. Pronounce words better

  3. Speak more accurately

  4. Choose our words more carefully

  5. Play with verbal wit

  6. Examine the root of words

  7. Learn different ways to express things appropriately

  8. Read challenging books that present new ideas and change how we think

  9. Explore different mediums of verbal expression (poetry, Shakespeare etc)

  10. We can learn other languages/new words

This is not a definitive list, but it serves to illustrate the fact that talking can be taken for granted or elevated to an art form. The choice is yours.

Physical expression

Tai chi is not about talking. Instead of words, we express ourselves physically. This is precisely why hours of talking is never a substitute for hours of physical practice.
Your tai chi is the physical embodiment of Taoist insights. It is a physical, living legacy.

I know tai chi...

Martial skill can be considered in the same way as talking. Are you limited to a vocabulary of 800 words? Or can you understand a Shakespearean sonnet or perhaps compose one of your own?
In tai chi terms this is about your abilities, your physical skills. A new starter knows nothing and can do nothing.
An expert plays with the art and can express themselves martially in a very diverse range of ways.

Martial art

Are you martially articulate or limited to a few grunts? Most people are primitive in their martial skills. It is a sad truth but the truth nonetheless.
A tai chi exponent not only seeks martial skill, but also the ability to employ their art in a highly-refined, sophisticated way. There are three gross levels of martial expression:

  1. Technique

  2. Application

  3. Freeform

Our syllabus enables the student to progress through these levels at their own pace.

When you meet a master swordsman,
show him your sword.

When you meet a man who is not a poet,
do not show him your poem.



The first level of training furnishes the student with a wide range of simplistic concerns.
Qigong encourages basic connection, relaxation, heaviness, strength, whole-body movement, coordination and presence. Form expands this by shaping movement into martially constructive methods.
Footwork is added, balance is explored. Partner work expands the foundation training by introducing the physical concepts and functional principles necessary to eventually employ tai chi martially.
In short, the student knows a few words.


Experienced includes the acquisition of over 100 applications. These are movements derived from the long Yang form and applied in certain scenarios using chin na, shuai jiao and striking.
At this level of training the applications are merely techniques: a step-by-step formula designed to counter-act a fixed, known, predictable attack.
The student is learning how to fit words together and form sentences.

Paying attention

The predictability of a technique is crucial for the student. It provides an opportunity to stop worrying and focus on eliminating faults from their method and polishing their skills.
All of the foundation training must be incorporated into each technique.
There must be good footwork, peng, groundpath, stickiness and the ability to sustain/maintain control throughout the technique. The student is becoming aware of how they speak.


At each step of a given technique there is scope for a counter-attack. The student must improve their technique in order to increase the effectiveness of their skills and offset the risk of defeat.
Every movement must be applied with a non-cooperative opponent in mind. There must be no forcing, holding or struggling. This is akin to leaning how to pronounce your words clearly.

Martial sets

Short partnered sets teach the student the meaning of application. Faced with a predictable, known attack the student must employ the given movements effectively. These are not techniques.
They are more reflexive and less obvious. As the set becomes familiar and the pattern improves, it accelerates in speed until the student begins to stop thinking. Muscle memory takes over.
Solo home training must supplement partnered class practice in order to facilitate habit. The student is now talking in a less self-conscious manner.


In order to transcend the formulaic nature of technique and respond more freely to attack, the student must discover the underlying principles inherent within each technique.
Once a principle is evident, the student can see how it may be adapted, changed and improvised. From a single principle, many techniques may be developed.
The student has begun to understand what the words really mean.


In terms of talk, the skilled practitioner has a working grasp of language. They can communicate in a more effective manner. Far from fluent, they are at least intelligible.
Their tai chi is hardly refined but it has a good foundation and this can now be built upon.
The student is beginning to make a lot more sense.


The student turns their attention to form. Within the endless movements are innumerable martial applications, tactics and insights.
Drawing upon the preceding skills, a repertoire of techniques (and their unique principles), the student is now capable of developing their own applications.
This is important. The student must apply the art as they see fit. After all, they are the ones doing the fighting.
The role of the instructor is to highlight weaknesses, suggest alternatives and generally encourage the student to improve their methods.
Utilising chin na, shuai jiao, striking and the tai chi principles, the student is required to discover at least 7 applications for every form movement. The student can now converse.


Once the student is truly adept with application, they turn their attention to unrehearsed combat.
Throughout the syllabus the student has been challenged with the unknown but now the art must be expressed spontaneously against a non-cooperative attacker.

The extensive range of applications and the deeply-ingrained martial habits are vital. Faced with great uncertainty, the student must remain calm and respond well.
There will be no room for fixity or formula. This is the time for presence and the confident application of the art.
The student can now engage skilfully in debate/argument/disagreement and respond appropriately.

Fighting without fighting

The ultimate stage of combat is the ability to avoid fighting altogether... This can be achieved through a wide range of approaches.
Behind such skill is also the knowledge that the exponent can and will use the art if they are required to. The ability to incapacitate the opponent from the onset is highly prized in tai chi.
To quote Wu Yu-hsiang:
If the opponent does not move, then I do not move. At the opponent's slightest move, I move first.
The student is now articulate enough to express exactly what they mean at any given time and can end disagreement without a loss of amity.

Tai chi talkers

Sadly, most tai chi people are martially mute. They cannot express the art in combat. At best, perhaps a word or two.
Finding a skilled tai chi exponent who can physically express the art to its full potential is rare.

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Page created 21 May 1996
Last updated 16 June 2023