T'ai Chi Ch'uan

       Of the thousands of websites found today under the heading of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, most are either testimonials of some sort (to the healing powers of ch’i gung, the greatness of this master or that, etc.), or attempts at elementary instruction. Many suffer from a conscious or unconscious attempt to duplicate the enigmatic style and absence of content found in translations of Chinese texts, with notably successful results. Videos are generally of either rehearsed forms, or of martial applications, usually (with some notable exceptions) of a crude and self consciously “practical” nature, showing no reference to the use of the t’ai chi principle. 

       It is my sincere belief that in spite of this burgeoning popularity, or perhaps because of it, there is a real danger of the complete loss of the sophisticated aspects of the art, with a corresponding distortion of its substance extending into the most elementary instruction. It has been my experience that while the initial practices of T'ai Chi Ch'uan form the foundation of later skills and development, so too do these very skills give a kind of enlightened hindsight that is vital to those practices’ real mastery. Cheng, Man-Ch’ing once said that the only problem with T'ai Chi Ch'uan is that it is “too sophisticated to be useful to society.” Perhaps that is why he made an earnest attempt to simplify it and make it accessible to more people. But despite the rather elegant simplification that he achieved, it is my final judgment that the attempt itself is a misguided one. The most profound thing about T'ai Chi Ch'uan is the way in which a totally simple principle creates a highly complex result, a process that is reminiscent of all great art. To merely simplify the result is to miss what is to me the most fascinating and challenging aspect of the art, not to mention its tendency to distort all other aspects.

       In reading the following papers, which are anything but elementary instruction (even when they discuss elementary subjects), and in which I assume that the reader is actually somewhat experienced in the fundamental rigors of T'ai Chi Ch'uan training, there may be the impression that my “theories” concerning T'ai Chi Ch'uan are theories in the more colloquial usage of the word, as a term denoting unproven ideas. They are rather theories in the more scientific sense of the word, that is, an abstract explanation that creates a logic applicable to the real world and real events. I say this because I have had the pleasure to find in Russia students with the dedication and perseverance to reach levels sufficient to test these theories, and for me and my school they are an accomplished fact. Moreover, they are an attempt on my part to completely rationalize, explain, and confirm the most conservative and classical aspects of the art. Far from deigning to actually add something material to the practices of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, I have become increasingly convinced over the forty-four years of my study that the traditional course of instruction, the classical exercises, constitutes one of the most brilliant and totally unlikely achievements of mankind, and that their conception represents the work of geniuses. I feel that this genius cannot be properly appreciated without a grasp of the entire spectrum of practices, from the solitary ch’i gung of the form to their actual manifestation in the reality of combat.

    It should be noted that these articles were written over a period exceeding twenty years. It is certain that I know more now than I did twenty years ago, and almost inevitable that some of my assertions over that period would turn out to be incomplete or just wrong. This is of course true, but far less so than i would have expected. In re-reading them, my most common feeling is one of having left out something that I would now consider vital to the complete picture. Sometimes my earlier writing sems to me overly dense and obscure, and I realize that this was frequently the result of incomplete understanding on my part. I decided nevertheless to post them without editorial alteration, because, regardless of their possible flaws, they represent something that I feel there should be more of, that is, honest attempts to understand this art, and honest opinions about what it is becoming. One result of this is a considerable redundancy, for whch I apologize, but which may ultimately be of some merit, because some of these ideas may be better understood in different contexts. The reader will quickly discover my highly negative position on the subject of t'ui-shou tournaments, and indeed concerning the whole idea of t'ui-shou "competition," because I believe this is a perversion of the true purpose of the exercise, and one that is highly destructive to it. He will also find that I belive that regardless of its historical legacy, T'ai Chi Ch'uan logically submits itself to a theoretical ideal, which allows it to be, as Jo Tsung-wha stated, the only martial art that is caoable of improvement in modern times. The pursuit of this logic and of this, one might metaphorically say, Platonic form of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, has been my passion for over forty years now, and these articles are a record of that quest.

    I invite your comments and criticism.