Similarities & differences

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The introduction of orthodoxy

In his book Chinese Boxing, Robert Smith asserts that tai chi practitioners never used to think of their art in terms of a given recognised style. A student would simply say that they did 'tai chi'.
No further elaboration was expected. Nowadays, people practice orthodox styles of tai chi, often training numbered forms. What has changed, and why?

1950's China

Faced with a health crisis, the People's Republic commissioned the creation of a
simplified tai chi exercise sequence that would be relatively easy to learn and good for health.
This was
24 step tai chi (it looks like a tai chi/yoga hybrid). Please note that this was not a system or style of tai chi. It was merely a sequence of movements.
It was deliberately devoid of martial and unpolitical Taoist influences.

Performance art

With the invention of 24 step tai chi, people began to see tai chi in terms of merely being a sequence of moves. Many aspects of the training were set aside.
More numbered forms emerged over the years; with the emphasis placed upon accurate, dance-like rendition of the patterns.
Aesthetically pleasing and conventional, this new approach to tai chi was to become the dominant standard in China.

Traditional teaching

Before the creation of 24 step tai chi, the art had been passed down through families and tai chi schools.
Every teacher passed on what they knew and added their own insights and preferences to the art. A diverse range of tai chi approaches existed


Unlike Japanese martial arts (which often seek to follow a standardised syllabus and method of teaching) tai chi was taught in a more haphazard, piecemeal manner.
Martially, this was good; no two schools trained quite the same art, and different teachers emphasised their own unique values and predilections.
However, the drawback with the traditional method was that not all teachers were forthcoming. Many high-level fighting skills died with the master of the school.


Following a numbered form pattern may appear to be a good method because it assures the accurate continuity of the sequence.
People learn how to do the correct movements in the correct order. Like a wind-up doll... But tai chi is more than form.
You must also know the biomechanical principles behind the movements and the way of using the body must conform to the internal way.
The martial purpose, strategy, skills and precepts within every nuance, step and movement must also be fully understood. Can such knowledge be rendered through copying? Through blind uniformity?

Historically accurate?

One question facing modern students is whether or not their named style is accurate or not. The form may follow an accepted pattern. The method of execution may be correct.
The applications may be in keeping with the style and the tai chi way of doing things. But is this exactly how the founder performed their art?

An example...

If a student claimed to be training the Yang Cheng Fu style of tai chi, is this true? Did the student personally study with Yang Cheng Fu himself?
Do they know what his personality, fighting skills, preferences and applications were? Does their tai chi represent an accurate reflection of Yang Cheng Fu's whole art or just his form?


There is no surviving film footage showing the entirety of Yang Cheng Fu's tai chi system. Nobody really knows quite what he trained, how and why. 
Who knows quite how much of his art he chose to share.
Yes, you can read many books about Yang Cheng Fu and learn from various Yang-style teachers... but is this the same as hands-on training with the man?

Your art

As Robert Smith points out in Chinese Boxing, you are in fact training your art, your style.
John's tai chi. Sheila's tai chi. It is highly unlikely that you are in any way representing Yang Cheng Fu's tai chi. No matter how scholarly or earnest or well meaning you are.

Be honest

We train tai chi to the best of our own understanding and ability. The final product reflects our own strengths, our weaknesses, our personality and our own range of fighting skills.
There is no shame in this. It is simply the fact.


Should we all do tai chi in the exact same way? Like the 24 step? Not unless you really want to. Remember: the 24 step is a form. Tai chi is much more than just form

Socialist tai chi

24 step tai chi was developed in a time when China was under socialist rule.
According to Robert Smith the aim was to be create an exercise pattern that broke from ancient Taoist tradition and contained no martial value.
In Communist China, uniformity, conformity, orthodoxy and sameness were encouraged. This was no place for individual expression.

Bickering about styles?

There is really no such thing as good or bad tai chi. One style is no better or worse than another.
What matters is the individual and how skilfully they can manifest the essence of the art. And whether or not their training is actually tai chi at all...

The essence of the art

Slow-motion movement is not tai chi. To qualify as tai chi, your training must adhere to the principles and precepts of the art.
Tai chi is the art described in The Tai Chi Classics. It is the art of Yang Lu-chan
. Can your art be applied martially? To whose standard? Yours? Or that of the Manchu emperor?

Bona fide

Style is unimportant. Form numbers are unimportant. What matters is how well you adhere to the essence of the art:

  1. Move your body in accord with The Tai Chi Classics 

  2. Train all 13 areas of study

  3. Follow Yang's 10 Essentials

  4. Maintain medically-sound body use

  5. Functionally apply the art in a skilful 'tai chi' way

  6. Employ the tai chi principles at all times

  7. Embody the teachings of Taoism

  8. 13 methods should be expressed at all times

  9. Every movement is a whole-body movement

  10. A high standard of fitness is necessary

Providing these criteria are met, you have an immense degree of freedom for personal expression and individual interpretation.

An honest picture

Why are there so many different schools of tai chi in the world? And is everyone doing the art the same way? People are doing their own thing. Conformity never really caught on.

Diversity is healthy

Sameness is stagnant. Would you really want to live in a world where everyone was the same as you? Looked like you? Thought like you? Agreed with you? Shared your own tastes and values?
Diversity is good.  It is healthy and interesting. It encourages innovation, growth and change
. In terms of tai chi... just remember to make sure that what you call 'tai chi' is really tai chi.

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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023