The lost art?

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The surface

Tai chi is often imitated by people who are enamoured with the idea of
tai chi.
Dancers, external martial artists and performers copy the appearance of the art, and sometimes even claim to be teaching it.
A simplistic perception of tai chi leads people astray. Rather than spend years exploring the intricacies and subtleties of this fascinating art, most classes/students opt for a more superficial alternative.
Many classes focus on form, as though form were somehow the whole of tai chi rather than just a fraction of the training.

The principles

Very few classes are offering the principles of tai chi these days. It is in danger of becoming a lost art.
Given the untold thousands of practitioners worldwide, this may sound absurd. But tai chi can only be considered 'tai chi' if it conforms to the parameters that constitute the art.

The art

Training the superficialities of tai chi will never give you any real grasp of the art.
If you want to find out what tai chi is really about, you will need to commit yourself to a lengthy, arduous journey of discovery. This is a life-long journey and it has no conclusion.

To approach what is with an idea, a conclusion, a dream, is not to understand what is.



The problem with modern culture is that everything is so slapdash and fickle. People are not prepared to be patient and put in the work. They want a quick fix. They want immediate results.
You cannot apply this same attitude to tai chi. Could you play Mozart after a couple of piano lessons?


It is naive to imagine that tai chi can be understood by simply copying the mechanical movements of somebody else.
Within the body there are countless details taking place. These cannot be determined through observation alone. The mind also has a unique part to play in tai chi.


Tai chi body mechanics are explored using form and neigong. Form can be seen as the what, whilst neigong is the how.
Despite outward appearances, tai chi involves a very unusual way of moving the body. The body is incredibly soft, with no excess muscle tension. It is fully-connected at all times.
All parts of the body move as one.

Good body use

The tai chi principles may sound simple enough but they are not easy to understand. Most practitioners are very disconnected, tense and forceful.
Good body use requires unusual sensitivity, spatial awareness and a cultivated nervous system.

Since the Taoist concepts are rooted in the most distant past with the most ancient beliefs of the Chinese, it is difficult for the Western mind to understand them. Therefore, before you can investigate the internal martial arts, you must first back to the very origins of thought in ancient China.

(Howard Reid)


Unless your mind is calm and composed, you cannot possibly train tai chi to a high level. Combat assumes a well-trained mind and relaxed emotions.
Beyond these concerns there is Taoism.  Tai chi draws upon the observations and insights of Taoism and you cannot expect to make any headway in tai chi unless you are well-versed in Taoism.
This is not going to be easy.

Ancient wisdom

Taoism is often contrary to the modern way of thinking. To understand Taoism, you will need to re-perceive reality and that is no small feat.
A very serious long-term commitment to regular study is required. You will have to drop all of your existing opinions and established modes of thinking.


At the root of tai chi is energy. The entire art is based upon the skilful exploitation of the attacker's energy.
You learn how to go with the flow, roll with the punch, borrow kinetic energy and utilise it well. Your body is also trained to generate and release energy.


Beyond the obvious use of kinetic energy there is a more subtle level of energy skill: wu wei, yielding, 4 ounces of pressure, 13 methods and jing.
These topics cannot be summarised in a few words or understood quickly. They are the study of a lifetime.


Tai chi combat is nothing like the external arts. It approaches the entire experience of combat from another perspective.
You cannot transplant external attitudes in tai chi and expect them to work. The art is way too subtle to be forced into being.


Gaining skill in tai chi combat is a thorough, patient process. Students pay attention to every detail and learn how to feel rather than think. 
Instinctive responses are cultivated, along with composure, timing, rhythm and jing.

Dying art

Tai chi may well fade from our society, replaced by a hollow art that merely resembles the outer shell of tai chi. Will anyone miss it or realise that it has been lost?
It seems unlikely. People wallow in their ignorance. They are smug in their superficiality.


Tai chi will only survive if enough individuals ignore the modern obsession with performance art and karate-style applications. The real art is still there.
You can find the principles in numerous sources and learn them from many teachers. Just be wary of going astray.

The seeker wants another level of mind
and strives for it without distraction
like a grandmother shopping at market.

(Loy Ching-Yuen)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023