How tai chi is taught in modern times

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Japanese martial arts

Japanese martial arts are usually taught in a very methodical, thorough way. There is a clear syllabus, steps of progress, grades and some degree of ongoing continuity.
Treated as a product, a cultural treasure, a sport or an educational endeavour, Japanese martial arts measure up well under scrutiny.
In a Japanese class the student is encouraged to replicate the teachings of the art perfectly. Like a carbon copy.

Chinese martial arts

Chinese martial arts are not taught like Japanese arts. By comparison there can often seem to be no discernable syllabus, no continuity and a generally haphazard approach to teaching the syllabus.
If indeed a syllabus actually exists.

Some of you have talked about learning a short form of tai chi, which has certain transitional motifs eliminated. The reason for these repeating transitions is to help you flow within the form - to ride over it without thinking. When these repetitions are cut out, some of the major movements become awkward and jam together. The sequence loses some of its smoothness.

(Chungliang Al Huang)

Why is tai chi taught this way?

Cultural differences. Chinese martial arts usually a family or village art used for self defence. Sharing with outsiders was not encouraged.
Progress was contingent upon hard work and how well you got along with the teacher.


Traditionally, in China a martial arts instructor was very reluctant to take on new students. How come? If the student's skills were inadequate it would directly reflect on the teacher.
On a mild level, this made the teacher look incompetent and affected their reputation. More seriously, it could mean that the teacher would be put to death for failing in their responsibility.
Consequently, traditional tuition tended to be harsh and severe. The teacher hammered the student and adhered strictly to Confucian terseness.
Sifu Waller's teacher (Peter Southwood) followed this method.

Teaching standards

Historically, there was no call to teach tai chi publicly or to adhere to a recognised system or standard of teaching. Teachers did whatever they saw fit.
In recent years a number of tai chi teachers have sought to introduce a more systematic approach. This is highly commendable but has certain drawbacks.
We strongly encourage you to read
The Sword Polisher's Record by Adam Hsu for further insights.

Tai chi chuan syllabus

Ideally a tai chi class should have a syllabus akin to a Japanese martial arts school. There are many facets of the internal martial arts that need to be studied in a disciplined, clear, uniform manner...
The list includes:

  1. Qigong

  2. Neigong

  3. Form(s)

  4. Partnered drills

  5. Combat drills

  6. Applications

  7. Combat skills

  8. Martial principles & practice

  9. The Tai Chi Classics

  10. Taoism

All of these skills can be taught progressively and methodically. Failure to teach fundamental lessons in a comprehensive, consistent manner is simply bad teaching.

Traditional values

Stuart Alve Olsenís book Steal My Art is about his experiences learning tai chi from T T Liang. Liang would not simply give the art away to people.
He expected his students to be like thieves: sneaky, cunning, observant and resourceful.

Our classes

Sifu Waller combines traditional values with modern teaching. We provide detailed lessons, a reading list, a website and handouts. But these things cannot contain the complete art.
The student is still required to join the dots for themselves.


Confucius believed that a student must show a high level of initiative:

  1. Waiting to be told what to do shows no initiative at all

  2. Finding things out for yourself shows initiative

  3. Figuring things out for yourself shows a high level of initiative

The internal martial arts encourage students to find their own way, recognising that some lessons simply cannot be taught.

Beyond teaching

There are many lessons that cannot be taught. Many teachings are akin to Zen koan. Attempting to explain the material coherently is not so easy, but a direct physical application proves the point nicely.
If somebody gives you the answer to a koan, do you really understand at all? Many things in life are only fully understood when you figure them out for yourself.

Getting it...

A student may be given all the necessary training in order to defend themselves yet still falter under pressure.
A student may be offered every piece of a puzzle and never succeed in putting the parts together correctly. We are all different, and our capacities differ.
The flexibility of the Chinese martial arts allow for this. They also recognise that some students may just never 'get it'. To quote the homily: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink."

Learn from Japan?

Too much structure and an art can be become rigid; physically and mentally. Too little guidance and framework, and the tai chi can fold in on itself; becoming worthless.


Tai chi classes in the 20th Century fell prey to bad teaching, little or no syllabus, no testing of skills, and low standards.
Unfortunately, teaching methods vary from class to class, with each
instructor essentially teaching as they see fit. This can be good sometimes. It can also mean sporadic progress, if any.
Whilst a Japanese martial arts teaching approach does not entirely suit tai chi, it does offer some valuable lessons in terms of consistency and continuity.

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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023