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It is quite common to read a tai chi website and come across some sketchy, vague reference to how the art can be used in self defence.
There are usually no specifics. Somehow the martial heritage/reputation of tai chi is thought to be enough to imbue every student with power.
Oh, really?

The real world

In the real world MMA fighters and boxers train hard. They train to win. Their fear and uncertainty is channelled into aggression, intimidation and combat.
Pitched against most people in the world, they will comfortably emerge victorious.


Having read about Yang Lu-chan and the awesome power of tai chi, the naive beginner believes that their art is unbeatable.
They ask questions such as "How will tai chi fare against MMA?" and expect a comforting answer that features qi. This is the wrong sort of question. Arts do not fight Arts. People fight people

There is no teacher but the enemy.
Only he will tell you where you are weak, where he is strong.

(Ender's Game)


YouTube is filled with many examples of perfectly decent martial artists getting beaten up by an MMA guy. The beating is normally decisive, fast and pretty bad.
What happened? The answer is simple. When faced with a genuine threat, most people totally lose their nerve and get beaten up from the onset.

Martial expectations

A boxer or an MMA practitioner is a very serious opponent. They train in earnest. They are ruthless, seasoned fighters. They can take a beating. They are not messing about.
This hardly sounds like the average tai chi student does it?


A student of judo may train 2-3 times a week in class. To pass a belt they must fight other judo people working to pass that same belt. Progress is contingent upon victory.
How many tai chi people are prepared to do the same?


In conflict (of any kind) it is critical that you keep your wits together.
This means:

  1. Your mind is here & now

  2. No conscious thoughts

  3. No emotions

  4. You have confidence in your art

  5. You practice your skills daily

Does this mean that you will win? Of course not. It means that you now have a chance.


Ego, vanity, pride, worrying and fear will destroy your capacity to use tai chi. Instead of channelling your fear into aggression... relax. Feel humour. Feel peace. Be present. Pay attention. Be alert.
Lose your self in the event itself.

4 oz is the result of internal strength. A cat touches lightly because it is already buoyant. An average person, trying to give 4 oz, collapses their frame. Without internal strength, 4oz is conceptual.

(James French)

No faith

Most tai chi students don't really have internal strength. Under pressure they resort to tension/brute force. Ultimately they lack faith in the art and fail to recognise that their body is already strong.
They falter, brace and crack up.


Internal power is continuous; it does not wax and wane, nor is it summoned to facilitate a task.
It is there all the time, unless you collapse the joints, disconnect, tense-up, oppose force or use local muscle strength. This means that every single action you perform in a whole-body manner is strong.
Now all you need to do is keep your nerve and employ the tai chi effectively.

Use the principles

People read The Tai Chi Classics, Tao Te Ching, The Art of War, Book of Five Rings and The Way of Chuang Tzu... and then what?
They treat it as an intellectual exercise, with no bearing on reality. This is not the Way. The principles are there to be used.
Tai chi will only work in combat if you are practiced enough to be thinking in those terms and employing the principles in your everyday life.

Tai chi is a
recognisable fighting style

If you watch wing chun applied in combat, it looks distinctly like wing chun. The same could be said of judo, aikido, ju jitsu, pencat silat etc.
By the same reasoning, the martial art of tai chi must look like tai chi.

What does tai chi look like in combat?

Tai chi looks like tai chi. The form, pushing hands, you know... tai chi. If the martial expression of tai chi does not look like tai chi, it is probably not tai chi.


No student can reasonably expect their art to work against a genuine opponent unless they put in the practice time and address the issue of nerve.
Panic is inevitable but avoidable. Coping must be trained. It is not an outcome of doing the form.

Worth reading

Are you a martial artist?
Neutral state
Tai chi fighting method

To lift an Autumn hare is no sign of great strength;
to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight;
to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.
What the Ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins,
but excels in winning with ease.
Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.
He wins his battles by making no mistakes.
Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory,
for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

(Sun Tzu)

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Page created 6 July 2004
Last updated 16 June 2023