Tai Chi refers to the great power & energy that you can possess by devoting yourself to maintaining a perfectly balanced, responsive, clear state of mind and body.
In principle, Tai Chi is meant to be the softest of all martial arts (other than the way of fighting without fighting of course), and when it’s done right, it’s deeply powerful – it’s as strong as a martial art can be.
As an organised martial art, classical Tai Chi remains is the softest popular style of traditional Chinese Kung Fu.
Traditional training methods
Classical Tai Chi is traditionally practised by the following means:
- Sensitive combat training exercises – especially Tui Shou (‘Push Hands’), which is a range of dynamic, sensitive, responsive, balanced pairwork exercises that include short, preset sequences of movements as well as some freedom to move randomly in order to highlight your training partner’s weaknesses.
- Non combat oriented exercises – especially Qigong (‘breathwork’ or ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘power skill’), which is a range of non martial, non contact, static or repetitive short-sequenced Tai Chi exercises that emphasise breathing and posture.
- Forms – generally referring to ‘solo forms’ although technically there are Tui Shou pairwork forms also. Solo forms are long preset sequences of techniques performed alone or synchronously in groups, in thin air. Forms are sometimes practised for combat training and sometimes not.
- Individual moves are also often taken from push hands exercises and solo forms to be practised in isolation for combat training purposes.
- Sparring is also on the syllabus of some Tai Chi clubs, while most consider it to be too violent, aggressive and injury-prone for a civil, intellectual classroom environment full of peace-seeking, loving people.
- Seated meditation is practised in some Tai Chi clubs, while some consider it to be too stagnant or unproductive an exercise – best practised alone at home or with nature, although the same could be said about static Qigong exercises like the Standing Stake which is quite a contrast to the thoroughly stimulating exercises of Tui Shou.
- Acupressure is also practised in some Tai Chi clubs – usually self-applied as part of a warm up at the start of a class, and occasionally practised in some clubs on training partners in a way like massage therapy.
Tai Chi as a Martial Art
A deeply powerful martial art when done well (which is rare), Tai Chi for combat emphasises structural integrity, pressure-tested balance, and transfer of power from the ground through the supporting feet, through the core, into all the joints and limbs that support the structure of a push, pull, strike or block (impactful blocks are rare though, because effortless parries are the goal).
Bruce Lee was very good at this martial art, compared to most who teach it, after having trained in traditional Tai Chi as well as traditional Wing Chun, Boxing, Fencing, and other martial arts, and being a naturally-gifted award-winning dancer with great control over his body.
Tai Chi is also written as Tai Ji or Taiji. The martial version of Tai Chi is often written as Tai Chi Chuan or Tai Ji Quan or Taijiquan (Chuan or Quan means Fist).
Tui Shou (Push Hands)
Sensitive flowing combat training exercises like Tui Shou (meaning ‘Push Hands’) offer a very efficient way to practise Tai Chi in general – especially for combat purposes.
In the following video, you can see classical Tai Chi teacher Jesse Tsao demonstrating a wide range of traditional Tui Shou (push hands) exercises.
This is the most important method of training for Combat Tai Chi and can also be very therapeutic – potentially more beneficial for one’s health than standing by oneself doing Qigong or solo forms due to the extra stimulation obtained by being in constant contact with another person, and the balance & fluidity being constantly checked with the help of the training partner’s gentle pressure that dissipates into no pressure when good lines of movement are maintained.
Pairwork exercises like Tui Shou are so efficient in teaching Tai Chi because they’re constantly pressure-testing your balance in fine ways, picking up on subtle weaknesses, highlighting where you’re leaning or where you’re tense, teaching you things that you might not clock onto for years if doing only solo exercises.
For example, if your partner can detect you’re leaning slightly in one direction, or are tense slightly in one limb, they may push or pull you in a certain way that attempts to exploit that weakness, and they will continue to do so until you acknowledge and iron-out such weaknesses. You’ll quickly learn to be more relaxed and centred, being less tense in that place or leaning less in that way so as to be able to feel a push or pull more easily (tension compromises sensitivity) and respond to it more instantly without obstruction (thanks to a clearer mind, relaxed enough body, and a more well rooted, centred physical base) in order to maintain a state of balance most effectively even when challenged by an oncoming force applied to any body part in any direction.
In practising Tai Chi through Tui Shou (Pushing Hands), we learn how to stay balanced, so that any pressure is comfortably dispersed, and any gaps are smoothly filled, such that defensive barriers are constantly enforced but paths of attack are always available.
The practice of Tai Chi is all about using softness to overcome hardness by staying balanced and responsive, with no leaning and no deficiencies in alignment. Tai Chi may be equally about using hardness to overcome softness, but this doesn’t need so much training.
Tui Shou vs Sparring
Some Tai Chi schools also incorporate sparring into their syllabus, while others deem it inappropriately aggressive and injury-prone. After all, with great power comes great responsibility, and there’s no such thing as half great power – you either do it properly or not at all, and if doing it properly people are bound to get hurt. This inappropriateness of sparring is what makes harmless exercises like Tui Shou so valuable.
- Some people are not bright or sensitive enough to learn to fight effectively through exercises like Tui Shou and are quick to criticise its impracticality and challenge people to prove themselves. Bruce Lee described these people as ‘physically bound’. We could call them brutes. They lack finesse – they are unable to take their skill to the next level due to insensitivity. This is a big problem in MMA, and an even bigger problem in Krav Maga.
- Some people believe they are good at fighting thanks to Tui Shou, or even solo forms alone, but actually are not – they’ll do very fancy movements but refuse to demonstrate in a remotely pressure-tested manner. This is a huge problem in the worldwide Tai Chi community which leads to many people becoming heavily embarrassed upon attempting to participate in a competition or street fight for the first time. Bruce Lee described these people as ‘intellectually bound’. We could call them geeks. Their training lacks practicality.
- Some people are able to gain all the fighting skill they need from exercises like Tui Shou and refuse to show off as a matter of principle. Do not assume these people can not fight to the highest level (unless you’re observant enough to see their weaknesses by simply watching them move); because as rare as they may be, they can potentially represent the very highest level of martial artists, unlike competitive brutes and deluded geeks who are each significantly limited in their own ways.
In this next video, you can see classical Tai Chi teacher Jesse Tsao demonstrating the traditional combat applications of Big Frame (Big Circle; Long Range) Tai Chi. He has fair knowledge of a wide range of potentially powerful, potentially great moves; but his Small Frame competence is significantly weaker – this is where a Wing Chun practitioner for example could take advantage.
Big Frame vs Small Frame
Most classical Tai Chi is ‘big circle’ or ‘big frame’ by nature, as opposed to practical martial arts techniques for street self defence which are mostly focused on ‘small frame’ skill. Small Frame Tai Chi is rare – it’s often described as a long-lost artform.
High-quality combat-oriented tai chi is rare but is more testable so there’s less room for hocus pocus there. So even if you’re only really interested in Tai Chi for Health, you may still benefit from combat training exercises like Tui Shou as a means for really testing your balance from a health standpoint in ways that it wouldn’t otherwise be tested so obviously (you could be stretching & straining or contorting & cramping your bodyparts doing Qigong or forms without it being obvious enough to identify until doing Tui Shou).
Historically, Tai Chi teachers would say Small Frame is to be taught behind closed doors, and Big Frame is for everyone else. This could have been:
- To avoid practical fighting skill getting into the wrong hands, as a matter of duty;
- Or, because those teachers didn’t really know small frame;
- Or, because both big frame and small frame are necessary skills to be a complete martial artist — both are relevant to combat skill because Big Frame deals with longer range and Small Frame is for closer range fighting — and if learning both then it’s most efficient to learn Big Frame (long range) first to ensure the end result has no gaps or weaknesses and can be reached in the quickest time. This idea of learning Big Frame first, and Small Frame after, in order to achieve the most ideal outcome most efficiently, is promoted by classical Tai Chi literature (the ‘Tai Chi Classics’).
There’s no denying that the martial value of Tai Chi is very rich and deep when you really study it from a strong source and assess the practical value of each move and concept with genuine, unbiased, thorough analysis. But finding a high concentration of the good stuff in this world today is like finding a needle in a haystack — this is largely thanks to the popularity of Health Tai Chi and the confusion of Health Tai Chi practitioners in thinking that they hold great martial arts skill. The bulk of combat ability exists in the Small Frame (short range), and strong knowledge of this is very rare among Tai Chi teachers even in China today. For this reason, many modern patrons of Tai Chi like Master Wong for example supplement their Tai Chi training with more practical styles of martial art such as Wing Chun which really focuses on the Small Frame and has a lot in common with Tai Chi — Wing Chun’s Chi Sau (Sticky Hands) drill evolved from Tai Chi’s Tui Shou (Push Hands) drill, which is evident in the style of Chi Sau practised to this day in the hometown of Wing Chun’s late Gramdmaster Leung Jan, who was the late Grandmaster Yip Man’s grand-teacher. Indeed Tai Chi and Wing Chun is a popular combination – many Chinese Kung Fu teachers around the UK teach them both together, including some teachers in Manchester! See our guide to Tai Chi clubs & classes in Manchester for details on your local options.
Electromagnetic Fields and the Human Aura
The big frame and small frame circles in Tai Chi are based around the range of movement of your joints; however, there are also matching electromagnet fields coming from your heart and your body as a whole. This can get deep and quickly deluded when researching the human ‘aura’. Yoga has a lot to say on the matter.
Mastering Tai Chi is a neverending journey of refining your technique – making it ever softer, ever smarter, evermore flexible, evermore balanced and evermore powerful. And of course seeking out the very hard-to-find genuine experts. This applies to both sides of Tai Chi, not just Combat Tai Chi. Many people who teach Health Tai Chi lack balance, coordination and power just as much as their students. Still, it’s all good fun – just think of them as training partners and take what any teacher says with a pinch of salt using your own initiative to come to your own conclusions all in good time.
Similar arts and exercises
Many people practise Tai Chi as a system of self-defence. They wish to learn to win fights by being smarter, not harder, and Tai Chi is perfectly suited to help you with this over a long period of time, if you look deeply enough into it, past the fluffy moves, to reach the real core of the system, and the most powerful training exercises. Due to the difficulty in mastering Tai Chi, many beginners find it to be ineffective at teaching them how to fight well within a short amount of time, unlike some other styles of martial art like Wing Chun for example which is quick to learn and generally very practical. Tai Chi really takes a lifetime to master, especially if you’re struggling to find an awesome teacher, and most lifelong practitioners are still ineffective fighters — this is where cross-training can help a lot.
Chi Sau (from Wing Chun)
Tai Chi strength can be equally developed by practising the Chi Sau (Sticking Hands) training exercise found in Wing Chun Kung Fu; which some people practise in ways that very closely resemble Tai Chi Tui Shou, while others don’t.
Wing Chun is a popular modern version of Kung Fu that resembles the long-lost art of Small Frame Tai Chi in many ways but is also usually taught with a ton of idiosyncrasies including attempts to do Big Frame Tai Chi movements (the forté of modern Tai Chi) in poor fashion – lacking fundamentals. For this reason, trying Tai Chi can be just as useful to loyal Wing Chun stylists as Wing Chun can be to loyal Tai Chi stylists.
Wing Chun’s Chi Sau exercise usually involves a lot more emphasis on striking & blocking, but also has an element of pushing and pulling, and a strong degree of push & pull defence. It’s usually also a lot faster than Tui Shou. Thus in general you could say it’s a bit more aggressive, but the strikes can still be gentle and harmless if trained carefully (eg, cupping the chin with a palm, touching the neck with a knifehand – no need closed fist techniques except lightly to the body in a point-scoring manner so as to say ‘you can be hit here’). Chi Sau is also a very practical combat training exercise – bear in mind that good striking generally trumps good wrestling in a serious fight (this is not really seen in MMA because its participants lack serious attitude – they’d usually rather have a roll around on the floor than inflict serious damage through striking – and rightly so because it’s only a game).
In recent years, Ip Ching (younger son of Yip Man) has developed his own style of Chi Sau, shown in the video above. It is more circular and fluid than other styles in the Yip Man lineage. Ip Ching’s style of Chi Sau focuses on constant 圈手 Hyun Sau (circling) with less emphasis on the more common system of rolling where you oscillate back & forth between 攤手 Taan Sau (palm up / uppercut) and 膀手 Bong Sau (elbow up / hook). In this circling-oriented form of rolling, the aim is to keep at least one hand on top at all times with the basic goal of getting both hands on top where trapping and head strikes become easy. Bong Sau is used a lot also – sometimes after every third Huen when rolling smoothly. All the conventional Chi Sau techniques still come into play when the rhythm is broken, but so long as both sides are well balanced this Poon Sau (rolling) drill continues to flow smoothly. This style is less stretched forward – more laterally balanced – harder to trap and has more of a Tai Chi feel to it. It has about as much circling as is seen in the version of Chi Sau that’s native to the village of Yong Chun – the hometown of Leung Jan (Yip Man’s teacher’s teacher), except here it is performed more fluidly, where as there it’s more of a chopping style with lots of 枕手 Jam Sau (high inside forward-cutting block) and 耕手 Gang Sau (low outside backward-cutting arm) like is often performed on the Wing Chun Dummy.
Dual circling hand exercises, pretty much identical to the basis of this form of rolling, are found in Tai Chi too, although the sophisticated system of followups is rarely taught in Tai Chi. You could make a case to say this is a revival of the long-lost art of Small Frame Tai Chi.
Aikido also involves a strong degree of Tai Chi principle. You could call it the Japanese equivalent to Chinese Tai Chi, although it involves a lot more rolling around the floor (inline with Japanese tatami ‘indoor mat’ culture), and a bit more focus on grapple defence rather than push & pull defence (inline with its roots in Jujutsu), although both Tai Chi and Aikido do deal with all these aspects of martial arts training, it’s just that each art has its own unique training methods which emphasise different aspects of training to different degrees, while both arts still cover all aspects to some extent and from a basis of similar principles.
Capoeira is probably the last martial art you would associate with Tai Chi at first glance; not just because Capoeira is an African-Brazilian creation that looks about as outgoingly energetic and dynamic as possible, while Tai Chi exercises (especially Qigong and Yang-style forms) look about as lazy and simplistic as possible. And although there’s often a much larger gap between the opponents in Capoeira, plus there’s a lot of crawling around the floor, and there’s a lot less sticking contact; the way that Capoeira flows and the way that one opponent aims to mirror/complement the other without uncontrollable abrupt impact is in principle a perfect match of what we aim for in Tai Chi.
Capoeira also has strong cultural roots – it was born in the midst of booming slavery (tribesmen were kidnapped from West African countries like Angola and taken for slave labour on ships bound for Brazil, the Americas and Europe). Capoeira evolved from a traditional Angolan ‘elephant dance’ mixed with martial arts techniques as a way for slaves to learn to fight under the guise of merely dancing. To this day its cultural heritage remains strong as Capoeira schools around the world maintain great comradery and positive vibes inline with how they used to lift the spirits of some of the most oppressed people in human history. This blends well with Tai Chi’s commitment to non-violence and to holistically nurturing our spiritual health & wellbeing.
So if you love the principles of Tai Chi but need something far more energetic and upbeat, try Capoeira! It’s basically a cross between Tai Chi, breakdancing and a church choir.
Qigong is a semi-static form of Tai Chi posture-practice and breathing activity, and as such, is often a key component of Tai Chi classes.
In Qigong you move on a spot or simply stand still while focusing on breathing, posture and balance without the added stimulus of a partner’s touch (and required responses) or needing to recall a long series of different moves.
Here is an example of Qigong exercises – if this video is a bit slow for viewing, feel free to click the settings button and change the speed to 2x:
Qigong ranges from dynamic exercises that stretch the body in all directions, through to completely static exercises such as the Standing Stake, or seated meditation postures where instead of simply meditating for a clear mind you may be focusing on breathing and/or attempting to feel your internal organs and energy. There is sometimes leg movement but the foot is always replaced on the spot, you’re not actually stepping to displace your centre of gravity without immediately replacing it in the following move.
Qigong is practised by a lot of middle-aged and older people who have no interest in martial arts – they practise for a bit of sociable fun, light exercise and health maintenance. The instructors and senior students often think they are good at martial art even if they’re not – that’s not to say that none of them are though.
Doctors often refer people to these classes as a means for treating back problems. These classes are like a cross between dance and yoga, having similar benefits to practitioners albeit less intense.
Caution on over-stretching
Because it’s not pressure-tested from the sides courtesy of a training partner, the schools of Tai Chi which focus on Qigong – especially the Standing Stake – tend to teach you to stretch your back upright in an arguably stiff, tall posture, a bit like a ballet dancer’s back posture, often leaning back a bit, and often stretching the arms forward a bit rigidly. Those who focus on solo forms have some of the same issues too. The practise of Tui Shou (Push Hands) helps to iron out this over-stretching and stiffness – you’ll quickly learn to be more relaxed and supple in all directions else you’ll be easily pulled off balance and thrown with minimal effort by an experienced practitioner.
Caution on over-breathing
In a similar way to how Qigong usually comes with posture issues, it also often comes with breathing issues as this is the other thing it focuses on.
While some people benefit tremendously from participating in synchronised breathing exercises like Qigong, it’s important to note that there are potential negative effects too.
Regulating your breathing according to an externally set pace can awkwardly cut-short or over-extend the amount of time your body naturally inhales and exhales for, and this can have negative effects on your energy and stress levels.
If you rarely take deep breaths though, it may be worth getting that extra push to breathe deeply and properly exercise your lungs once in a while. You should use your own initiative and decide how valuable or uncomfortable it turns out to be. Take some responsibility for your own health & wellbeing – don’t put it entirely in the hands of your Tai Chi class instructor who may be exaggerating the level of their expertise (this is a common problem in Tai Chi worldwide).
Etymology & semantics
Qigong – also written as Chi Kung – in Chinese refers to working/cultivating (Gong) the same great energy (Qi) that Tai Chi refers to.
The Qi or Chi from Qigong / Chi Kung is a different Chinese character to the Chi or Ji in Tai Chi / Taiji; and they are generally used in different contexts too. Still, as far as Tai Chi is concerned we can say that the basic meaning of Qi is the same as Chi, which is basically the same as Tai Chi, although we could say the use of ‘Tai’ here is the same as the use of ‘Gong’ thus Tai Chi = Qigong. In popular modern usage though, Qigong refers to the more static version of Tai Chi – having less stepping, minimal martial arts relevance, and more emphasis on posture & breathing although these are still core issues of Tai Chi in general.
As the popular middleground between Tui Shou and Qigong, some would say solo forms are for the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ but they are the most commonly practised aspect of Tai Chi in the world today.
Practised by a wide range of people, for a wide range of reasons; Tai Chi’s solo forms are practised by:
- People who are interested in learning to fight (for the abstract built-in combat lessons that forms offer, as hard to extract as they may be).
- People who are not interested in combat lessons (for whom forms are merely a means for light exercise, sometimes as a method of ‘meditation in motion’ often accompanied by deep breathing, and often on a mission to improve posture too – all the same reasons people do Qigong).
Classical Tai Chi forms are all rich in powerful moves that utilise the full stretch of the whole body. Such moves may not be very suitable for close-quarters intensive defensive work, but are a good method of generating power for striking at range while maintaining centredness. If we were to keep a tight guard or a tall posture while reaching at long range with both hands, we would be leaning forward too much, so it is necessary to use movements somewhat like these for long-range combat.
Different family styles of Tai Chi
There are many different family styles of Tai Chi, each with their own solo forms.
The main distinct styles of Tai Chi are:
- Wudang – according to many of its followers, this is the oldest, softest, most sophisticated, most fluid and most balanced formal system of Tai Chi. Many of its practitioners attribute it directly to Zhang Sanfeng – the guy who most other lineages say founded Tai Chi originally. Zhang Sanfeng himself is somewhat a mythical character though, and he is said to have been taught by an even more mythical character by the name of Xuan Wu, hence ‘Wu’-Dang Mountains – not to be confused with either of the Wu family styles of Tai Chi which were created much later (the more popular Wu family style of Tai Chi was derived from the Yang family which in turn came from Chen, and the less popular Wu family style (often referred to as Wu-Hao) was inherited directly from Chen).
- Chen – a mix of hard and soft movements, including some explosive movements that flow better than others. Some lineages after Chen trace their roots back as far as Chen but no further, while some go as far as to say that Tai Chi came to Chen village courtesy of Wang Zongyue, a wandering Daoist monk (possibly of Wudang background), who taught Chen Wangting who is then accredited as the founder or 1st generation master of Chen family tai chi.
- Yang – this is a simplified version of Chen, and is the most popular style with older people.
- Shaolin Tai Chi – this looks like a harder version of Chen style, with extra 發勁 Fa Jin (compact explosions of energy from the core).
Here is an example of Wudang style Tai Chi – if it’s a bit slow for viewing, feel free to click the settings button and change the speed to 2x:
Health benefits of Tai Chi
Practising Tai Chi, in theory, has positive health benefits as a side-effect, due to its focus on synchronising the whole body to move always as one cohesive unit, always perfectly balanced and able to generate, transfer and dissipate significant power while moving in any direction with any range of reaching. This was the original concept of tai chi, but is mostly lost in time.
Intuition vs Instruction
It is also worth distinguishing between personal practice and following the instructions of a teacher – personal practice is very likely to lead to self-improvement, where as following instructions of a teacher is more of a hit & miss affair which can lead to some positive benefits but can also build bad habits and cause discomfort. Bruce Lee recommended attending classes in order to take what is useful, and disregard the rest, without fear of adding what is uniquely your own. You should be careful in doing this though, as most teachers would be offended by this, due to the authoritarian, dictatorial, unquestionable nature of the traditional teacher-student relationship in eastern martial arts.
Fit for all
Because it’s basically aiming for physical, mental and spiritual perfection, all kinds of people practise this art, some more devotedly than others. As such, a lot of less able-bodied people participate in the lighter version of tai chi classes, including a lot of older people, a lot of partially disabled people, a lot of non warrior type men such as intellectual long-haired men and camp gays, and many women too. It’s really accessible to the less strongly built, less aggressively minded demographics because it aims to empower them to overcome physically stronger, more aggressive people with the use of delicate skill, physical balance and general healthy holistic spiritual harmony.
As a result of its popularity among less able bodied people, there are inevitably a lot of less able-bodied tai chi teachers too. As a result of this, there is a very popular trend of lax-bodied, watered-down tai chi; often with unfounded frills appended in order to compensate or simply show off; practised mainly as a form of accessible light exercise fit for people who have no significant interest in practical martial arts – this type of tai chi practice is especially popular among sociable seniors, camp intellectuals, and lost martial artists.
This watered-down, lighthearted version of Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘Tai Chi for Health’, but that’s not to say that the more deeply rooted Tai Chi isn’t healthy or shouldn’t be lighthearted on the surface for certain demographics to enjoy!
Have you ever put your fingers into the inside corners of your eyes and pressed in slightly, to relieve pressure until your eyes water and your nose becomes runny? This is basically acupressure in a nutshell – this particular stimulus helps to clear blocked sinuses very effectively. You wouldn’t do it all the time, for example when you’re suffering from a cold and a headache it might cause more harm than good due to over-pressuring your fragile condition that wishes to be insulated from sensory stimulation rather than physically stirred.
If you’re cold and have a cold – perhaps it’s winter and your neck, ears and eyes are frozen and you have a headache, this could be a time to use your palms to cover your eyes or ears or back of neck in order to warm up, balance your energy and release pressure on the brain and central nervous system in a gentle enough manner that doesn’t disturb your fluids for example.
Acupressure is a delicate art that you can practise and begin to ‘feel’ if you’re particularly sensitive, but it should not be approached in a harshly simplified, rigidly legalistic, scientific manner as there’s a high chance that in doing so you’ll miss the delicate point of balance required to improve your health rather than worsen it. Naturally, considering this barrier to methodical application, it’s even less likely that you’ll be able to reliably apply this art to significantly improve the health of other people repeatedly with consistent success. Having said that, some people do benefit tremendously from acupressure, for example, those who are unusually tense and gain great benefit from things like massage therapy. For example, you may have a partner who consistently goes from being stressed to being relaxed upon receiving a head massage – this is basically the application of acupressure for healing people – a skill that depends on subtle application of energy in a way that relates to what is practised in many Tai Chi classes during warm-ups and novelty sessions.
Etymology – the origin & evolution of the meaning of ‘Tai Chi’
There are various ways people attempt to translate Tai Chi (also written as Tài Jí or 太極). The best approach is sometimes to look at the original meanings of each character, then observe how those meanings evolved over time, due to changes in popular usage, right up to the present day, while also analysing what the original meaning of the compound word (character pair) could have meant, and looking out for any shift in the meaning of this compound word over time too. Let’s see now…
The Chinese character 太 Tài originally came from the symbol of a ‘person’ 人 Rén, with outstretched arms 大 Dà meaning ‘big’, then underlined 太 Tài meaning ‘too big’, ‘too much’, ‘greatly’, etc.
As a side note, popular uses of 太 Tài include:
- 太好了 Tài Hǎo Le meaning literally ‘Too Good, it is!’ which is a Chinese way of saying “That’s great!” or “That’s so good!”.
- 太太 Tài Tài which is the main way of saying ‘wife’ or ‘Mrs’ – implying a wife is ‘too much, too much!’ or ‘extra great’!
Due to the clear evolution of the character 太 Tài and how popular it has been in everyday language since ancient times, even though it has a deep meaning there’s really no confusion or debate over what this character may mean – it’s just a matter of preference to decide which specific English word we wish to use in translation because there is no single English word that covers the full range of its meaning (including ‘too much’ and ‘great’) – so words like ‘supreme’ may be used instead of ‘great’ but they basically mean the same thing so neither translation is wrong. However, in English, ‘great’ has a slightly broader meaning than ‘supreme’; it’s slightly truer to the evolution of the character, from 大 Dà meaning ‘big’, with an additional underline (how would you describe the next step greater than ‘big’ – perhaps ‘great’ is more appropriate than ‘supreme’ here), and it’s probably also more of an appropriate description of a wife (太太 Tài Tài), for example would you say a wife is a ‘supreme’ being (like a comicbook superhero) or would you say she is a ‘great’ woman (much more commonly heard)?
極 Jí is a symbol of a ridgepole (the beam that runs along the very top of a building’s roof) which can be translated as meaning ‘top’, ‘maximum’, ‘peak’ – we could even say this character possesses a deep symbolic meaning that also represents the concept of ‘backbone’ (very relevant to Tai Chi!). 極 Jí itself is even a complex character formed by combining two distinct radical characters 木 (originally meaning tree; extended to also mean wood) and 亟 (meaning various things which we won’t go into here). The compound character 極 Jí has existed for thousands of years and is well documented in the Tai Chi Classics as well as the Dao De Jing, so we won’t analyse the etymology of that character any deeper here, but we can look at some other uses of this character for example in the term Wú Jí which means ‘no Jí’ and is the great origin of Tài Jí (according to the Tai Chi Classics; and inline with the lessons of the Dao De Jing when matching the principle of Wuji & Taiji with Dao & De).
That’s the meaning of these characters 太 Tài and 極 Jí covered in isolation. Now, let’s look at what they mean when brought together.
太極 – Tài Jí
The characters 太 Tài and 極 Jí come together in a way that can be literally translated as ‘great peak’, ‘great maximum’, etc, based on the colloquial meaning of the standalone characters and the literal result of bringing these two concepts together.
The consolidated term Tài Jí then colloquially referred to the peak state of physical energy & power that comes from achieving 無極 Wú Jí – the perfect balance of mind and body without any undesired leaning, tension or other weakness/imperfections – this is something ancient Daoists often aspired to achieve on the journey to ‘immortality’ (purifying their mind, body and spirit to be essentially a perfectly selfless vessel for embodying Wú Jí in peaceful times, which promises to be replaced by Tài Jí in the case that peace may be lost).
More recently, the term Tài Jí has evolved to popularly refer to a specific set of traditional training exercises that include solo forms, Qigong (breathwork exercises), and Tui Shou (‘push hands’ pairwork).
Philosophy – the basic principle
Philosophically, Tai Chi originally had the same meaning as ‘De’ in Laozi’s Dao De Jing. Taiji (Tai Chi) comes from Wuji, just as De comes from Dao. It’s exactly the same concept when you look beyond the superficial traditional and modern contexts.
Wuji/Taiji theory is defined immaculately by the Dao De Jing (for those who are able to read ancient Chinese – be sure to look beyond the convoluted poetics injected into most translations) and supported in part by the Tai Chi Classics (not that any additional literature is really necessary though).
For the religiously inclined, it’s the same principle as light (taiji) coming from god (wuji) – ‘in the beginning there was nothing, then god said let there by light’ – this is why the first day of the week is ‘Sun’ day – the Sun representing the first item of creation (light/life/energy/taiji).
For the scientifically inclined – it’s the same concept as ‘relativistic jets’ of energy (taiji) coming from a black hole (wuji); and from where it came so shall it return (light reflects off everything except a black hole where it disappears back to whence it came).
Monday (Moon-day) then represents solid matter (like the Moon and the Earth), which is formed from energy, so can be said to be the second form of creation, thus is a fit symbol for the second day of the week. In Tai Chi terms, this is like Tai Chi being split to create Yin and Yang – the division of energy (oneness) into two opposable, impactable forces (like how solid matter is prone to breaking and colliding with itself, because it has a solid surface prone to impact, unlike energy or fluid matter which only blends with itself).
According to the Dao De Jing, the third form of creation is creatures, which themselves revolve around the Earth (the second form of creation) in a three dimensional manner, which itself orbits around the Sun (the first form of creation) in a two dimensional manner, which itself oscillates in & out of a Black Hole (the formless) in a one dimensional manner, which itself implodes in and explodes out of itself in a zero dimensional manner.
If anyone asks you for scientific proof of wuji, dao, god, a black hole, etc – you could ask them to pick up a calculator and divide any number by zero – the calculator will return only an error message because the concept of infinitely nothing can not be fully contained or accounted for by finite methods – the demander of proof of wuji must simply clear their mind of all obstruction – all localised intentions – in order to ‘read between the lines’ without obstruction, to observe infinity first-hand. Looking into infinity – looking into absolutely nothing – is unlocking every mystery – this is most concisely explained by the first page of the Dao De Jing (beware of dodgy translations though).
Tai Chi’s Tui Shou exercise can help you to achieve this clearmindedness (Wuji) by way of what psychologists call ‘negative reinforcement’ – punishing you (pushing or pulling you over) the moment you lose the clear mindset necessary for instant reactions. You really have to be ‘in the moment’ in order to perform Tui Shou perfectly, maintaining a state of balance no matter when or how you’re pushed or pulled, and from this state it’s also easy to observe defects in your training partner’s focus and exploit them instantly (‘positive reinforcement’ occurs when you get this far), with as much energy as is necessary, acting as one cohesive mind & body, without needing to localise your thoughts or isolate your body parts which would create delays & weaknesses in your own game. This cohesive, spontaneous state of mental & physical balance can be called Wuji (or meditation) when inactive, and Taiji (Tai Chi) when asserted. That’s the basic idea anyway.
Push hands is the embodiment of the tai chi symbol. – Yang Chengfu
A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds. – Wang Zongyue
Tai Chi Classes in Manchester
Aside from at our own centre, there are many other places where you can try to learn Tai Chi in Manchester. There are various schools and teachers of classical and modern Tai Chi running classes at various different locations around the Greater Manchester area.