Is Your Taijiquan An Effective Martial Art?
By Steve Contes
Taiji is a most generous art in which it is willing to share all of its wealth with any willing practitioner. The more diligent the practice the greater value of the gifts presented. Wealth and gifts in this case implying overall health, physical and spiritual strength and sometimes, but not often martial skills. I place no emphasis on which of the many offerings are most important. That is personal and related to each individual and their priorities at any given stages of their life. I do acknowledge that there are distinctions between Taiji and Taijiquan. There is a line drawn separating Taiji players from the Taijiquan martial artists. Maybe even a better explanation would be to state that Taijiquan martial artists or a subset in the category of Taiji Players.
How can the player become the martial artist is the question I will explore.
The issue of what it takes to obtain or perfect any of a variety of skills or crafts will be the first task to address.
When one undertakes any form of comprehensive study there are usually two sides to the training. We have both the theoretical and the practical side. Doctors will undergo years of intensive training in Med school. But no matter how intelligent they are or diligent they were as med-students, without the practical side of their internship in their chosen field he or she would be incapable of utilizing their newly found knowledge. Even at the early stages of a medical career, doctors are far from being masters of their craft. It takes years of arduous practice to slowly transcend them into (hopefully) competent practitioners of medicine.
Whether you are fresh out of law school or trade school, you are still unseasoned in your field. I would not want to fly with a pilot on his or her maiden voyage, be represented by an attorney without trial experience, go under the knife of a surgeon the day after graduation nor what I have a novice carpenter build me a home.
Why would one think martial arts could be any different? Successful Martial Artists from an array of disciplines hone their skills by combining theory, technique, conditioning, drills and finally practical applications of the above with both willing and unwilling partners. Boxers spend countless hours sparring, wrestlers pay their dues facing off on the mat, judokas playing randori etc… In the past Taijiquan Masters engaged in rigorous training not often seen here in today’s Taiji world. They had to be confident in their skills, because they were used to protect both the lives of others and themselves.
The Chen Family is commonly recognized for being the originators of the martial art, Taijiquan which acted as the parent style for its many offshoots.
It is also clearly documented by many sources that numerous Chen Taiji Family members throughout their family history served as body guards, escorts (not that kind), soldiers and protectors of their villages during the violent and fierce times of China’s turbulent history.
These early accounts go back as far as the1300s with stories of Chen Bu (skilled martial artist of the Chen Family Clan) It was Chen Bu after settling in a village then known as Chang Yang Village (modern name, Chen Jiagou) lead a successful attack on bandits that had been terrorizing the area prior to his arrival.
Above Pictured: 9th Generation Chen Wanting (1600-1680)
Chen Wanting served as a military officer and Commander of the Garrison Force of Wenxian, Henan China prior to the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1644). As the leader of many successful battles he too earned legendary status related to his martial arts prowess.
It was after this period during the early Qing Dynasty era (which lasted from 1644-1911) where Chen Wanting developed a unique martial art drawing on the principles of Yin and Yang theory, Daoyin (leading energy) , and Tu-Na (expelling and drawing energy), and Jingluo Theory ( based on the bodies meridians and energy flow).
It is his art that has evolved into to what we now know as Chen Style Taijiquan. It is considered by most historians to have originated with the emphasis on Martial Art skills.
When it became necessary for the Chen family members to employ their martial abilities, there were no judges, mats or rules, just the pure instinct to survive.
Fortunately today for most of us, we live in a much different world, but that does not mean that such skills are no longer of value. Obtaining those skills certainly require additional effort beyond the scope of what most Taiji practitioners usually study.
Today’s Taiji Players engage in their art for many purposes from general heath to self defense or anything in between. Training methods include, but are not limited to the following: standing pole, meditation, moving exercises such as different methods of qigong and forms, two man drills, the use of weapons and training tools along with push-hands. These are considered by many as the core aspects of the practice. If self defense is a concern for you this curriculum may need to be adjusted. In this article we will not take time to define the benefits of these so called Taiji fundamentals. I understand that most of the readers of this publication are likely to be well versed on the subject of these rudimentary exercises. I also agree that they are some of the integral key ingredients for the practitioner to cultivate his or her skills. However those skills must be tested and refined in a practical and realistic environment before they can become reliable for defense. There appears to be a systematic form of denial among some Taiji Players and teachers, novice to experienced (along with other fellow martial artists) that the latter refinement process is not critical. That could not be further from the truth. For Taijiquan martial artists there is a definitive need to perfect their skills beyond the extremely valuable forms and push hands that they practice. Based on my subjective opinion drawn from my over forty years plus experience in a variety of martial arts, sixteen years as a relatively small NY bouncer (about 160 lbs at the time) and seventeen years as a private investigator/process server, reality based training for the martial artist is nothing short of a necessity.
I would confidently state those who believe push-hands (as seen here in American competitions) can be used in place of free sparring practice would become well educated in three or four minutes on the Sanda Leitai, boxing ring, grappling mat or informally sparring with any competent reality based martial artist. I will also confidentially state that any Taiji player who has developed the skills that precede free sparring practice should be able to smoothly transition to the next phase of reality training and become a complete and effective martial artist.
Hypothetically speaking if there are nine levels of training leading an individual to becoming a Taijiquan Martial Artist, achieving seven or eight just does not suffice, just as a staircase missing the top two or three steps would make it difficult for an individual to reach the next floor.
As for me, I personally have succeeded in pushing partners that could easily dominate me in the ring or street and I have also been pushed by some that may not be as successful or effective in the ring or the street. (I am also very aware of the differences between those two environments, but they also share many commonalities) To be a truly brilliant Taijiquan player, one ought to be effective in any environment at any given time. I’ve had the privilege of having high level Taiji Masters personally illustrate their mastery on me. Although some of the lessons I received may have been brief in duration, they were none the less crucial in leading me to a greater understanding of Taiji principles (and how far I am from utilizing them to their true potential). The experiences were both physically painful, (a small price to pay for the lessons learned) as well as totally fulfilling and enlightening.
The example that epitomizes one particular experience took place early one summer morning in Di Tan Park, Beijing 2004. I was fortunately provided with the unique opportunity to meet and be evaluated by Grand Master 18th Generation Feng Zhiqiang. (Thanks to a close friend of mine Coco Zhang) The results of this encounter led to an invitation to push with this Taiji legend. From the moment the hair on my arm barely made contact with his very being, Master Feng was controlling every aspect of my even slightest intention as well as my breath. To this day I cannot find the words to describe the experience and the level of his skills. The only parallel that I can draw to anyone not present was the outcome would have been identical had I just handed him my empty shirt. This experience was perhaps my most profound relating to the past forty-two years in the Martial arts. The memory is consistently reincarnated every time I push hands, grapple or spar. My sincerest thanks to him, a most generous, humble and extraordinarily skilled master for taking the time to give me an unknown and novice student a valuable lesson.
Back to my main, but simple point,: Due to the lack of participation and study in a free style atmosphere I contend that the majority of the Taiji players have fallen off the wagon regarding successfully becoming martial artist. (There are also many extremely skilled Taijiquan practitioners that have crossed over to the other side.) That is where training with a variety of partners including those from different disciplines is as necessary as the continuation of the aforementioned methods of training. Nothing can replace the valuable lessons earned with free sparring or free style push hands. Once the Taiji player enters into this type of reality practice they may also discover that their level of fitness regarding strength and stamina may have a few flaws. If this last step of the training is approached with the same diligence as the previous more commonly practiced skills, (deemed essential by most) Taijiquan as a defensive art can truly be realized.
I advocate that the Taji player seek out places and martial artists to train with from both in and out of the Taiji community.
Whether informal or formal this type of training should be explored. Where you gain this experience can be anywhere from a backyards to organized competitions.
I have spoken to many push hand competitors here in the states. There appears to be a common consensus that a more pragmatic setting to test their skills beyond what is ordinarily offered by the American Push Hands standard is needed. Most players will honestly admit even after successfully outscoring their opponents they too were often violating basic Taiji principles in the process. Had the rules of the competition been less restrictive they would have been vulnerable regarding defending themselves. “Should we be saved by rules or Taiji principles when practicing our art”?
Example Above : Common push hands mistake shown above. The black shirt overextending himself to push an opponent.
Even if the black shirt were to be awarded a point, he is over extended and has gone beyond his center of balance. (He would be quite vulnerable to defend from that position)
How do I know? The black shirt is me. In Open Style Push Hands no point would be awarded.
Open Style Push-hands and free sparring are a natural progression beyond normal push hands as seen here in the states.
Spending extensive time traveling and living in China I had the opportunity to observe a variety of push hand competitions and training sessions (both formal and informal) and trained with many Taiji players. For those interested I am hoping to bring open style push hands void of the many restrictions being observed here at our domestic tournaments.
I am personally developing a new venue with a set of rules and conditions where any martial artist can examine and compare their skills in a fair and friendly atmosphere.
I am by no way trying to admonish the validity of American style push hands however I am trying to offer what I consider to be the next natural step in training for Taijiquan Martial Artist. This is certainly is not for everyone. Those who do choose to engage will develop a deeper understanding of the martial side of Taiji (known as Taijiquan).
It is a personal choice for every practitioner to decide what they want from this most generous art. Although I have personally benefited from the health and spiritual components of this art, I am intrigued by its martial qualities and will continue to study them in great depth. In the end for Taiji Players, it’s all good.
Whether you are a Taiji player focusing primarily on the many health benefits or a member of the subset crossing over that line towards martial arts, you have invested your time and efforts wisely.
If this type of study is appealing to you or you would like to share your opinions, contact me at Taijicenter@aol.com
About the author: A practicing martial artist for over 40 years and researcher of philosophy and health from around the world, old and new.