Tai chi charlatans
Written by Rachel

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What is a tai chi charlatan?

It is an unskilled amateur who is actively teaching lessons. They possess only a limited grasp of the art and should not be teaching anyone.

Something is better than nothing?

Apologists argue that learning tai chi from an amateur is better than not doing tai chi at all. How so? Would you entrust an amateur dentist with your teeth? A partially trained optician with your eyes?
An unqualified physiotherapist?

Mean spirited?

You may think that it is mean spirited to warn you about charlatans. How is this so? If somebody warns you that it is raining outside, and suggests that you wear a raincoat, is this mean?
If it is cold and you are told to wrap-up, is this cruel or unfair? If you are told to watch your step because a stone lies in your path, is this not considerate?

The danger of amateurism

Imagine that you have a serious illness and seek the reputed health benefits of tai chi... Who would you rather study with: a) a skilled, experienced instructor, b) a well-meaning amateur?
Training any exercise system or martial art under the guidance of a charlatan is dangerous. It can lead to injury, and will inevitably cause mistakes and misconceptions.

How does a person come to be a charlatan?

Probably not on purpose. Well-meaning individuals seek to teach tai chi. It is a matter of naivety... and looking for a shortcut/quick fix.
The individual probably has no real idea what tai chi is or what the training constitutes.
There are disreputable organisations that will take advantage of naive people wanting a tai chi teacher qualification. Maybe they are simply giving people what they ask for... but this is not tai chi.

Fast-track teacher training courses

No matter what anybody tells you, you cannot become a bona fide tai chi
teacher courtesy of a long-distance learning course or a weekend training session. Consider long-distance learning...
If the certifying body is based in America and you live in the UK, how much of your teaching can they experience first-hand?
Probably none.

While the teachings of a martial tradition may be recorded in scrolls or expressed verbally, those outside the tradition who gain access to this information have little chance of learning much of practical value. Such instructions invariably consist of vague references or riddle-like aphorisms. These cryptic axioms suffice for the conveying of deep secrets because the martial artist who receives them properly has spent an enormous amount of time apprenticing under his master. They have in common, teacher and student, the specialized vocabulary of their tradition, as well as similar experience in the physical actions demanded in learning it. The teachings, however, opaque they may appear to the outsider, have meaning to the initiate and his master because the two have endured the long process of training together.

(Dave Lowry)


Tai chi instruction necessitates physical sensitivity, softness, awareness, compassion, an alert, focussed mind. How can such qualities be discerned and evaluated long-distance?


Only the most desperate and naive individual would seek to undertake such a fast-track teacher training course. The qualification is not worth the paper it is written on.
Any insurance company that provides personal liability cover based on such a course is negligent.

Why does somebody undertake a fast-track teacher training course?

This is a hard one to answer because none of the answers really make any sense. The most obvious answers are not very flattering:

  1. Likes the idea of being a tai chi teacher

  2. No discipline

  3. Lazy

  4. Stupid

  5. Ignorant

  6. Lacks the necessary competence

  7. Arrogant

  8. No credibility

  9. No self-respect

  10. Incapable of completing a genuine 'real world' instructor course in an established class

The sad part is that there are many organisations profiteering from well-meaning amateurs.

How to gauge your tai chi teacher...

Quite a lot of people claim to 'know' tai chi. Typically they mean 'tai chi for health'... Yet, if you ask them a few simple questions, they almost always flounder.

Good questions

When faced with a potential charlatan, most people ask all the wrong questions: teacher, style etc. Who cares? This is not the root of tai chi. Focus on the essentials.

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.

10 questions to ask a tai chi teacher

Try asking these 10
metacognition questions:

1. Which treatise(s) would you consider to be The Tai Chi Classics? Which author is most accessible to you? And which parts do you struggle to put into your practice?

2. What role does 'shen' play in tai chi?

3. Explain the significance of 'folding'.

4. The name of the art refers to the 'yin/yang' diagram... So, how does tai chi use yin/yang?

5. Illustrate the difference between 'jing' and 'li'. What bearing does this have on 'peng'?

6. What does the expression 'invest in loss' refer to?

7. Explain the difference between the first 4 powers and the second 4 powers.

8. Which of the Taoist Classics do you find most relevant/pertinent to tai chi? And why?

9. What is 'mutual arising'?

10. How does '4 ounces of pressure' operate in practice? What are the active/passive manifestations? And how do they differ?

If a tai chi teacher cannot answer every question comprehensively - verbally & physically - they are not skilled enough to be an instructor. Look for somebody who can provide good answers.

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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023