Lineage (2)

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Trade secrets

A dedicated student aims to steal their instructor's art. This is akin to acquiring a trade secret. The real tai chi is beyond the verbal.
Only by taking responsibility for their own learning can a student hope to learn the true depth of the art. They must transcend the ordinary expectations of learning and far exceed their own ambitions.


Some students seek to learn from visiting experts who are offering one-off workshops. Such events may represent an interesting opportunity for seeing unfamiliar material.
However, the real question is: what purpose does it serve? Will it aid learning? Is the student expecting a long-term relationship with the expert? How sustainable is such an arrangement?
Is the student planning to set aside their current training in favour of the workshop material? Are they planning to splice the new material onto their existing fighting skills (as some sort of mish-mash)?

How frequently is the new material going to be assessed and corrected?

Teaching strangers

Consider a one-off workshop from the visiting expert's point of view. No visiting instructor can share in-depth knowledge with unfamiliar people of unestablished grade/ability.
There is no way to differentiate appropriately. Often, what is taught is quite basic. The lesson is targeted at the widest possible audience.

Looking for a shortcut?

Lineage offers the student the assurance that they do not have to look outside the school for answers. The proof of skill can be offered time and time again.
Only the lazy, restless student looking for a shortcut would even think to look elsewhere.


Most students ask too many questions too soon. An inquisitive mind is not wrong, but too much questioning often signifies that the student failed to practice enough or didn't take time to analyse and investigate the problem on his own.

(Adam Hsu)


It can be interesting to see what other tai chi people are doing. Such investigations should ultimately serve only to reinforce the value and significance of what is being offered by their own instructor.
You may also see familiar lessons/teachings from different perspectives.

Missing pieces

If your instructor seems to be lacking key competences, pursue this line of inquiry with the utmost politeness and discretion.
It may be that your teacher lacks the skills. It may be that you are simply not ready to see them, or capable of understanding/making use of the information... Be wary of jumping to conclusions.

Good oil, bad oil

The traditional Chinese teaching attitude can best be summarised by the old story about selling oil: The oil seller sold the good oil to the regular, loyal customers who treated the oil seller well.
The bad oil was given to everybody else. In martial arts terms this translated to a two-tier approach to learning: there was an outer school and an inner school. The outer school is for everyone.
The inner school is for students who have made a more serious commitment to their instructor and the art.

Family first

It is very common for students to imagine that private lessons and long-term practice with an instructor guarantees receipt of the inner teachings.
This is naive. Traditionally, the secret workings of an art were passed on to family members first. After family members, lineage students were the next consideration.
Everyone else was taught relative to their degree of commitment, and this seldom entailed learning the secret/hidden material.


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.

Attending classes

When a student attends evening classes or private lessons in tai chi, they work through the syllabus at their own pace.
They are the beneficiaries of their instructor's hard work. This makes them a student of the outer school. It does not make them a lineage student.

Direct transmission

Nothing compares to one-to-one work with the instructor. You feel how they move, how soft they are and what they are doing.
It is not about the methods and responses they manifest. It is the Way of their moving, the essence. Everyone who spends time partnered with the teacher undergoes a transformation in their tai chi.


Learning is contingent upon capacity. If a nursery-level child asked to discuss Chaucer with a University professor, would there be any meeting of minds? Unlikely.
To learn any subject, the student must work hard to bridge the knowledge gap between themselves and their teacher. This means practice, study and comprehension.

Withholding information?

It is not necessary to withhold information. A teacher can teach a student anything they like. It is the student's own attitude that decides whether or not they can employ the information.
The more skilled the student becomes, the greater their capacity to understand and make use of advanced material.
The progress of a student is determined by their own attitude and commitment to practice.

Standing on your own feet

There are certain aspects of the syllabus where the student must make progress by themselves. A good example is form application.
For every single movement of the various form(s) the student is required to produce at least 7 effective combat applications. This is far harder than it sounds.
The role of the teacher and the significance of lineage is highlighted here. Every student goes astray. Most of the applications will be lousy at first.
The student will fail to allow for the reality of actual combat and neglect to incorporate the tai chi principles.
A skilled instructor can immediately steer the student back on course without unduly interfering with the student's own predilections and preferences.

Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023