The Old Ways

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China: new and old

It is quite common for tai chi people to travel to China in search of the origins of tai chi. Why bother? The reign of the Taoist Yellow Emperor was 4500 years ago and much has changed since then.
Modern China has nothing to do with Taoism or the formulation of tai chi. The roots of the art lie in ancient China, not the contemporary era.

Warring States

2500 years ago China experienced a prolonged civil war known as the Warring States period. It was an era of incredible martial development, innovation and ingenuity.
There were significant technical advances and many martial treatise emerged included The Art of War. Combat skill was essential and highly refined.

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)

Lost art

Tai chi is not generally regarded as being a credible martial art. Most people think of it as being some sort-of slow motion health exercise best suited to the elderly and the infirm.
This impression of tai chi is justified and in most cases correct. Martially, tai chi is in danger of becoming a lost art.

Ancient teachings

The ancient Taoist teachings that were incorporated into tai chi are no longer well known. Modern people seldom investigate spiritual matters.
Taoism is often only encountered by the fringe 'seeker'.

Tai chi fighting method

The martial arts heritage of tai chi has largely been lost in the race to bleed the health benefits from the art. Over time, teachings have not been maintained or passed on.
People have learned to see the art in the modern way.

Superstition, folklore & legend

Throughout the ages, the Chinese have produced many stories concerning Taoist warriors, sages, wizards and immortals.
They were represented in literature, folk stories, theatre, paintings, movies and comics. Typically, the accounts were somewhat exaggerated and hyperbolic.

Why have the Taoist legends been so intriguing?

The ancient Taoist ways remained a mystery to the Chinese public. Secret and esoteric. Hence a source of much speculation...

What does qi have to do with fighting? Absolutely nothing. If you want to talk about qi in the martial arts, I'd say that it doesn't have anything to do with the martial arts. They're talking about intention mostly, and they're calling it qi because it sounds more mysterious.

(Tim Cartmell)

The dark arts?

In the distant past little was known about Taoism. Many of its adherents belonged to sects and esoteric schools. Others were hermits who lived in remote places.
Teachings from books with curious names such as The Way and Its Power, Book of Changes, The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings were treated with suspicion.
Secrecy, rumours of great power and deliberate obfuscation led to tai chi being regarded with considerable fear and superstition.

Taoist texts

The Taoist Classics were never widely studied in China. Principally the domain of scholars, their content has remained aloof and unknown.
Even the titles are beguiling:

  1. The Way and Its Power

  2. The Way of Chuang Tzu

  3. The Book of Changes

  4. The Way of the World

  5. Awakening to the Tao

  6. The Book of the Heart

  7. Back to Beginnings

  8. Inner Teachings of the Southern Mountain Tao

  9. Wen-tzu

  10. The Secret of the Golden Flower

  11. Immortal Sisters

  12. Understanding Reality

  13. The Book of Balance and Harmony

  14. Vitality Energy Spirit.

Lacking any understanding of the contemplative Taoist tradition, the general public filled in the blanks.
Tangible, credible, concrete insights, knowledge and skills have been transformed into magic and superstition.

Applied Taoism

There have a number of attempts to employ the Taoist wisdom in actual practice. Zen is one example. Tai chi and the other internal martial arts also...

Arcane skills

The skills being trained in tai chi are not the same as those being practiced by mainstream martial arts. The movements are odd. Listening, sensitivity and stickiness are cultivated.
Aggression, force and
competition are removed.


Very few modern people have ever seen tai chi applied in combat. Many of the skills have not been seen by the general public for centuries, and only then in China.
This is a good thing. Unpredictability is highly prized in the internal martial arts. Unfathomable, imperceptible, inscrutable, spontaneous, unknowable... these are all to your advantage.

In order to function beyond the use of ordinary strength, you must study what seems inconvenient and then work to make it efficient.

(Kuo Lien-Ying) 

So old that it seems new

When people have never not seen something before they assume it to be new. Tai chi martial skills are so old that most modern people have never seen them.
They may seem new to unfamiliar eyes. Yet, the skills and insights are not new at all. Taoism comes from the very dawn of Chinese culture; it is ancient beyond measure.

What has changed?

Although it may be seen as a folly to address today's problems with yesterday's tools, little has changed across the aeons. Humans are still greedy.
They still fight. There is still conflict in the world and disparity.


Taoism embraces all sides of our character; recognising that people are both good/bad, strong/weak and so on.
We cannot be one without the other. The key is to find balance. A harmony of apparent opposites.

Legendary skill

The Old Ways are not easily understood or quickly learned. But they are very powerful and effective. Tai chi employs Taoist insights and principles.
The teachings are counter-intuitive, puzzling and cryptic. They cannot be explained using words. In order to understand, you must do.

Beyond words

Even if an instructor sought to share their every secret with a student, that knowledge would fall on deaf ears. The apparent mystique is not a poise or an image. It stems from the reality of learning.
We move from the unknown to the known. The wiser student recognises that the small portions of information known to them are only a glimmer of what might potentially be known.
Humility is inevitable.

In many martial arts schools the practice was carried out in secrecy and the school's very existence was frequently concealed from the authorities. For example, tai chi is based on body of principles known to be around 2000 years old yet it was not revealed until 1750.

(Howard Reid)

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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023