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What is Tai Chi Chuan?

Tai Chi is a Taoist concept that everything in the universe comes from the interplay of two fundamentally opposing forces, Yin and Yang. The term Tai Chi can be translated as the Supreme Ultimate; from the stillness of Wu Chi (no ultimate) comes Tai Chi, which gives birth to Yin and Yang, which in turn give birth to the 10,000 things (everything that is). It is therefore also another name for the Tao (way or path) of Taoism.

Tai Chi Chuan (Chuan meaning fist), is a martial art that bases its technique, theory and practice on all that flows from this Tao. It is a path of naturalness, relaxedness and non-resistance and understanding the interaction of Yin and Yang. In effect, to practise the art is to learn to flow with whatever comes your way.

This does not mean being a pushover. It means being soft (Yin) when softness is required and hard (Yang) when hardness is required. In martial art, defence is often soft (Yin), while offence can be hard (Yang). The health aspects of the art are Yin while the martial aspects are Yang.

However, Yin and Yang are inseparable. Everything has a Yin and a Yang aspect and at the extremes, they become one another. The Yin aspect of health cannot be separated from the Yang aspect of martial art and vice versa, or it is not Tai Chi. It could be called dance, or movement therapy, but not Tai Chi. My teacher has said that the techniques of Tai Chi can be used effectively as a hardstyle Martial Art. However, that is also not Tai Chi Chuan.

Ok, but what is Tai Chi Chuan?

Tai Chi Chuan practice involves a number of aspects including solo sequences of movements referred to as ‘forms’ and partnered training exercises. Form and partner work train posture, breathing and relaxed, balanced, coordinated movement. This allows you to become sensitive to and aware of what is happening around you. This side of Tai Chi Chuan is highly therapeutic. A considerable amount of research has been done showing the benefits not just for the healthy but as a tool for rehabilitation and injury prevention.

Wudang Tai Chi Chuan

There are many different styles of Tai Chi Chuan. The style we practise is called Wudang Tai Chi Chuan, passed down from Cheng Tin-Hung to Dan Docherty in Hong Kong, who returned to the UK and set up the school Practical Tai Chi Chuan International.

Cheng Tin-hung was born in the village of San Xiang in Guangdong Province in 1930. He learned Tai Chi Chuan from his uncle Cheng Wing-Kwong initially and then from Qi Min-Xuan. In 1950 Cheng Tin-hung became a full-time Tai Chi Chuan instructor in Hong Kong at a time when many famous teachers were active there. He trained Full-contact fighters who more often than not smashed their hardstyle Kung-Fu opponents to defeat. He trained teachers to train teachers. He was known in his younger days as the Tai Chi Bodyguard because he would stand up for Tai Chi practitioners everywhere with fist or weapon. He has written four books on Tai Chi Chuan.

Dan Docherty was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1954. He graduated LL.B in 1974. He served as an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force from 1975-84. He has been training in Tai Chi Chuan under Cheng Tin-hung since 1975. He has represented Hong Kong in full-contact fighting, in 1980 winning the Open Weight Division at the 5th South East Asian Chinese Pugilistic Championships in Malaysia. In 1985 he was awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Chinese from Ealing College, London. He is based in London and travels extensively teaching and writing about Tai Chi Chuan.

Below you will find articles from Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty that will provide a far more detailed and eloquent description of Tai Chi Chuan. 


Introduction – what is Tai Chi Chuan
by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

Tai Chi Chuan is a Chinese form of exercise derived from Taoism, one of China’s oldest belief systems. The practice of Tai Chi Chuan is beneficial to health and it is also a subtle, sophisticated and scientific method of self-defence.

Since this system of exercise is suitable for people of all ages and requires little or no special equipment, it has gained an enthusiastic reception all over the world. Tai Chi Chuan evolved to help people improve their physical health, equip them to defend themselves against wild beasts and bandits, and also improve their powers of meditation. In other words, Tai Chi Chuan enables people to survive through fitness and self-defence.

Advantages of practising Tai Chi Chuan is a good exercise which enables us to develop a healthy body as well as an alert mind. It is a system of exercise suitable for people of all ages. This exercise requires little or no special equipment. It can be practised in a relatively small area either indoors or outdoors. When performed in a slow and relaxed manner, the Tai Chi Chuan Hand Form offers a balanced drill for the body’s muscles and joints through the execution of complex manoeuvres in conjunction with deep regulated breathing and the contraction and expansion of the diaphragm. The deep breathing promoted by the slow practice of the Hand Form causes the diaphragm to expand outwards and downwards and contract inwards and upwards. This movement of the diaphragm gently ‘massages’ the liver and intestines. Deep breathing also promotes a greater intake of air into the lungs than usual. Thus a greater amount of oxygen is available for consumption which increases blood circulation. In so doing it also expands the blood vessels which serve the heart and intestines. Therefore Tai Chi Chuan helps prevent thrombosis and many other ailments of the heart and intestines. The performance of the Hand Form creates a tranquil state of mind through concentration on the movements. In the long term, Hand Form stimulates the central nervous system, which increases the well-being of all the organs of the body. As our muscles move when practising Tai Chi Chuan, they exert pressure on our veins, forcing our blood to flow towards the heart, improving our circulation. The exercise that the stomach muscles receive will improve the digestion, leading to an increased appetite and the prevention of constipation. The graceful movements of Tai Chi Chuan can lead to changes in our disposition, making us more even-tempered and slow to anger.

Tranquillity of Motion
by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

One of the main reasons for practising the Tai Chi Hand form slowly, avoiding the application of brute force, is that we can harmonise our thoughts and actions by moving in a smooth and relaxed manner.

The Taoists said `seek tranquillity in motion. This means that the slowness of our physical movements when practising Tai Chi Chuan results in peace of mind which enables us to concentrate on performing the exercise to the exclusion of outside distractions. Soft slow practice reduces tension and increases concentration. Thus, over a period of time, our physical and mental health will improve.

If we are suddenly attacked, we must be able to react swiftly to prevent our opponent from completing his assault. This ability to react swiftly depends upon our body remaining relaxed in such a situation. By constant, soft, slow practice we can make our muscles and tendons relaxed. This will allow our joints to rotate smoothly, making us swift and agile in defence and counter-attack.

Lao Tzu said `The unbending breaks, the yielding survives’. Our softness allows us to yield before even the strongest attack. But just as the bamboo which has bent before the wind swings back when the wind has ceased, so too our defence must change to attack at the right moment.

There is no set length of time for practising the Hand Form from beginning to end. The young tend to exercise a little faster than the old, but fifteen minutes is about right.

The Method of Practice
by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

In order to derive maximum benefit from the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, we must first learn the correct method of practising. The execution of each movement requires patient concentration.

Before beginning, we must first relax and think of nothing else. Our movements should be slow and we should breathe naturally. We must avoid tension. If we can do this our every action will become smooth and easy, our waist will turn freely and we will feel relaxed and comfortable.

Tai Chi Chuan is an exercise that aims at producing harmony of body and mind. To achieve this and to avoid the application of brute force, we must let our thoughts guide our actions. Constant practice can make this a habit with us. It is not enough to concentrate on the correct slow execution of individual movements such as raising and lowering the hands.

Both our concentration and our movements must continue in harmony throughout the form. This will make our breathing deeper and help strengthen our bodies.

General Principles

At first, it is difficult for a beginner to judge whether the styles and individual movements he performs are correct or not. In some cases, beginners will find styles that are particularly difficult for them to master. However, there are some general principles to be understood and adopted that will help produce correct styles and movements:-

1.     Throughout the movements our head should remain in line with our spinal column and not move up and down If we can do this our neck muscles will become relaxed;

2.     We should not hunch our shoulders or fully straighten our arms when we extend them. When we retract our arms, the elbows should be kept close to the body and not allowed to jut out at all angles. We must keep our arms and shoulders relaxed in order to move smoothly. If we fail to do so our movements will be stiff and awkward;

3.     We must relax our whole body and avoid stiffening the chest. If we can do this our breathing will become deep and natural and our movements alert;

4.     If our waist is stiff and tense we will find it difficult to move in any direction and our coordination will be affected as we will be unable to transmit power from the waist to the actions of our arms and hands. If the waist is stiff, our bottom will jut out, making our balance unstable and preventing our movements from being graceful. Relaxation of the waist is essential;

5.     With certain exceptions, most postures in the Hand Form require us to rest most of our weight on one leg, making it easy to move the other leg to change posture, and to shift the weight from one leg to the other as we practice. The photographs of the form should be studied carefully so that we get this balance right and are able to move freely

Advice for the Future:

1.     Try to practice daily to derive maximum benefit from the art;

2.     Watch the instructor when he is teaching others and watch others perform so that by comparing techniques, good points can be adopted and bad ones corrected;

3.     Think about and analyse the styles after learning them properly;

4.     Ask the instructor questions about the styles to clear up any doubts or ambiguities.