TAIJI QUAN – A Dual Personality
The popular understanding of Taiji quan is mostly based upon film footage of old people in China doing early morning practice in the parks. It is generally referred to as a health practice.
To the uneducated western eye it looks both inscrutable, whimsically mysterious, quite easy and undemanding. It therefore seems hard to understand how it could be considered as either a health exercise or, which was its original purpose, a martial art. In the West and even to some extent in China now, Taiji suffers from this dual personality.
Up until the 1920’s in China, it was a highly regarded martial art that had been taught to the imperial bodyguards of the Ching dynasty and had a formidable reputation and ancient provenance. From the early 20 century onwards many traditional martial arts, owing to a changing social, military and cultural context lost much of their value. Some of them began a slow decline and some of them survived but adjusted to a new role which was less martial and more civil. Not all traditional martial systems were suited to such a change.
Taiji quan survived and adjusted, burying the more difficult and complex methods and strategies that made it a sophisticated martial art. Many of the masters of the early twentieth century ushered in and engineered the modified Taiji forms which were more socially oriented. It was inevitable that the common face of Taiji became the more friendly and easier to practice versions. During the “Red Tide” of the Cultural revolution from 1966-1976 much of China’s martial heritage was nearly lost. Its re emergence in the late 1970’s signalled a new era. Luckily the Chinese government supported the resurgence and research was done and information gathered and teachers reinstated. The last of the Taiji lineage holders of China, were able to re establish themselves and start teaching again unearthing some of the old knowledge. Since then Taiji has regained its foothold in parts of China and re established itself as one of the great cultural treasures. In certain places where masters with the old knowledge were able to teach again it did recover much of its martial characteristics but the inevitable consequence of its upheaval and re emergence meant that even in China most of the younger generation now understand it primarily as a form of exercise and know nothing of its real meaning.
With the growing interest in Chinese martial arts in the west, which started really with the Bruce Lee generation, more and more of China’s martial heritage has surfaced and has become available both inside China and in the West. There are now, well trodden routes to masters in China and we can see the emergence of high levels of Taiji skill in the west as a result. There is no doubt though that the common perception of Taiji is still that of health practice only and the problem for teachers is always, how do you overcome this since the student who wants a martial art is often not the same as the student who want a health practice. Both require a very different emphasis in the training.
My Master Li Li qun, whose training, practice and teaching spanned much of the 20 century in many different traditional system, including Shao Lin and several other traditions before he settled on Taiji quan said that there is no conflict here. He said that there can be no Martial art without a healthy body, no balance without rooting, no skill without co ordination and no health or martial achievement without hard work, a good teacher and a sound technical and theoretical foundation. First learn how to stand, walk, move, root, co-ordinate and breath and then when you are ready, you can start studying the martial way. This means that whatever your motivation is, learning the Taiji Slow Form is the place to start. If you want to put a martial spin on it or a health spin on it it is easy once you have a movement vocabulary and a theoretical framework from which to work.
“The Journey of a thousand Li begins with the first step”
– Lao Tzu.