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The Biggest Problem Facing the Martial Art of Tai Chi

Tai_chi_magazine I stopped into a Border's bookstore the other day and looked for the latest issues of my favorite martial arts magazines.

There in the Sports section, I found Black Belt and Kung Fu Tai Chi among the MMA and wrestling and karate and TKD magazines. I thumbed through the magazines to find the latest issue of T'ai Chi magazine but it was nowhere to be found. 

And then I had an idea. I went to a different part of the magazine section where all the psychic, spiritual, religious and strange publications are. Sure enough, mixed in with all of this stuff was T'ai Chi magazine.

And there you have it -- the biggest problem facing the art of Tai Chi Chuan. Even a bookstore chain doesn't recognize it as a martial art, and places it with in its mystical and supernatural section.

I'm going to begin a little campaign to get Border's to put the magazine where it belongs -- in the martial art section. You can help by talking with the manager at each store you visit and request that it be moved.

Tai Chi is an amazing and powerful martial art. When practiced properly, it trains you to deliver relaxed powerful in an explosive way over a short distance. But because it was watered down when Yang Lu Chan started teaching the Imperial family in Beijing, and because it has spread around the world by far too many "teachers" as a way to "cultivate chi," with a focus on the mystical and the silly myth of supernatural abilities, it has been relegated to the supernatural bin on the Border's magazine stands.

Last week at the workshop I gave on the fighting applications of the Chen 38 form, a high-ranking TKD black belt was working with one of my students. He was obviously amazed at the body mechanics, and after taking down my student, made a comment that "Our one-steps don't always seem to work, but I could do this."

If you're one of those teachers who make your students believe that Tai Chi is mainly for health and meditation, and that if they just try long enough, their chi will reach great power, you're part of the problem with Tai Chi. This art produces no health benefits that other exercise can't also produce. When elderly people move their bodies, it's a healthy thing. Just because they do Tai Chi in slow motion and see benefits does not make this a mystical or health-based art. They could also dance very slowly and get the same benefits.

If your teacher does not teach--with a heavy emphasis--the fighting applications of Tai Chi, your teacher is part of the problem. Fire the teacher and find someone who will teach you the real art.

And if you read or see Tai Chi "masters" claiming to be able to do supernatural feats and you don't call them on it, you're part of the problem.

It's a little embarrassing to see Tai Chi lumped in with reincarnation and psychic publications. We should work harder to get people to see this art for what it is -- a martial art as powerful as any other.

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Ordinary Joe

Where the magazine sells best is the best place for you find it.

jim criscimagna

Interesting observation, Ken.

I agree, most folks have no idea that Taiji is a martial art and view it as moving meditation or something sort of like Yoga.

As far as book stores that sell magazines, they don't have a clue and like Joe said, where the magazines go depends on where they sell best.

It is people like you, Ken, that are out there trying to change people's perceptions about Taiji that are going to make the biggest difference concerning what Taiji really is.

Unfortunately, many Taiji teachers don't have much in the way of martial training, since Taiji just isn't taught that way by the Chinese or non-Chinese teachers I know or have heard about over the years.

It is a shame, but let's face it, Taiji's real value these days is health and self improvement. (Not that that is a bad thing.) Martial training is available in other arts, which tend to be much easier to learn and use in self defense.

There are really few people that are interested in Taiji as a martial art. Those that are intersted in martial art go into MMA, Karate, etc.

Many more folks are willing to give Taiji a try, to maintain or improve their health and well being.

I have seen people quit if I taught too much martial content in classes. If I talked more about qi flow and relaxation, folks seemed to enjoy the classes more and hang around longer. Sad but that is my experience. Of course, I had a small group that wanted more martial material, but in genreal, most didn't. That is one reason I quit teaching.

But that seems to be the way it is to me, FWIW.

Ordinary Joe

It's funny in a way: When I have the opportunity, I study t'ai chi and qigong at the local gym. It's offered during the day when the retirees are available, and I'll play the odds that they're just practicing it for the exercise and camaraderie---no problem. I, as a ~15 year Aikido student, see the potential applications and use it to refine my practice---also no problem.

If the teacher was not present to serve the older folks in their way, I wouldn't necessarily have the opportunity to train in my way.


I've taught Tai Chi to seniors as well, and most of them saw great benefits from it. I'm not opposed at all to that type of class.

Where I believe Tai Chi is being damaged is when far too many teachers claim that Tai Chi is "moving meditation" and for health, when in fact, an elderly person could do karate in super-slow motion and calm their mind and get the same benefits. That wouldn't mean karate was a health exercise.

Far too many Tai Chi teachers are not trained in the martial aspects of Tai Chi, so it's in their best interest to claim more mystical purposes to the art. Many of them are also drawn to Tai Chi for that very reason -- they have a psychological need for people to look upon them as having supernatural abilities, or the ability to heal people with their energy.

As long as someone teaches seniors but also stresses that this is a martial art that just happens to be beneficial when done in slow motion -- to me, that is the honest approach that will do more good in the long run for this powerful art.

A few years ago, karate and TKD people here in my region laughed at Tai Chi, thinking of it as a "sissy" art. Over time, I've shown them something different, and the respect has grown for the martial art of Tai Chi. Do Cannon Fist in competition with karate, TKD, and Shaolin folks and the judges can see something really different and strong. And some of those judges came to my workshop a couple of weeks ago on Tai Chi fighting applications. Now, the next time I or my students do a form in competition, the judges will actually know what the movements mean.

Previously, they may have thought we stood around trying to be One with the Universe. :) Not that there's anything wrong with that (I do my share of chi kung). But I think my point is obvious. And the placement of Tai Chi magazine in the supernatural section speaks volumes about what Americans have done to this art -- and not for the good.

Ordinary Joe

If you have as few as one good students for transmission of your understanding, then is your art not preserved unscathed?


Ahh, good question, Grasshopper. :)

I'm not sure it addresses my central point, however. I'm more concerned about THE art than my art in this particular conversation. It would be nice to attract people to the art who are interested in it for what it truly is, not what the supernatural crowd has tried to claim it is. Until we can change the image, that one good student is going to be very hard to find. Meanwhile, there are thousands of others who would get a lot out of Tai Chi and help perpetuate the true nature of the art if they only knew what an amazing martial art it truly is.

Ordinary Joe

If ultimately you want the label, "tai chi," to mean to others what it means to you, then that is the transmission process, and that certainly can include having magazines moved to accomplish your goal...

But here's a question: If you teach the elderly tai chi for health---presumably without the martial emphasis---do you do the art as you understand it a disservice? Does it capitalize on others' misconception of tai chi---the same or similar misconception to what places the magazine on the wrong shelf---that allows you to offer such a class in the first place?


I don't think you read my previous comments. There is nothing wrong with those classes, and I have taught them myself. I stopped teaching them because I wasn't satisfied with that level of teaching. Yes, that's just my preference. I'd rather practice on my own or with one younger, more martial-oriented partner, than teach a class just for health and exercise. Again, that's just me. ) I loved the people, made many friends, and helped them along the way (I'm still friends with many of them and love them dearly), and that's an excellent reason for doing those classes, but the truth is, most of these classes around the nation are not teaching Tai Chi. The movements may mimic Tai Chi, but it is not Tai Chi.

And if you're taking Tai Chi from a teacher who doesn't teach (and probably has no clue about) the martial aspects, or the key elements that include maintaining ground and peng, whole-body connection and silk-reeling, even a 15-year Aikido student will be missing valuable information and insights that I have a strong feeling you could use, based on the martial artists I've met with much more than 15 years of experience who still don't know how to move their bodies in an internal way. If the class is the typical American Yang style class, the chances are even greater that you're wasting your time, if learning Tai Chi is your goal. And the reason Tai Chi magazine is relegated to the supernatural rack is because people who are not teaching Tai Chi have dominated the art in America.

You are obviously satisfied with the way things are, and that's fine. I can see how philosophical you are attempting to be in your posts, and I can detect no interest on your part in lifting the image of this art to its rightful place alongside the best martial arts. In that event, the Tai Chi class you're participating in is perfect for you and we'll agree to disagree and still be friends.

I believe if some folks like Jim--who knows what he is doing--teaches a class for the elderly, he'll give them a higher level of information than other instructors, whether or not the students want to travel down the more difficult path. He might try to take it easy, but having been in his classes and having seen his and his wife Angela's passion for the true art, he no doubt will impart a higher level of information simply because he can't help it. Simply because he knows a higher level. He loves Tai Chi, isn't satisfied with the superficial, and works to push forward with the real art. I was lucky to find him as a teacher because I had wasted more than a dozen years before that, led down the wrong path by someone teaching a far less authentic art. And when I meet people who have been in Tai Chi for decades and still have no idea how to take an opponent to the ground in a connected way (see the latest issue of the e-zine hitting the blog today) it's shameful to think of the illusion they're working under, thinking they're studying Tai Chi.

Ordinary Joe

I ask, by the way, only to clarify my understanding of the issue. I place no judgment upon whether it's differences of understanding, placements of magazines, or capitalizing upon misunderstanding is "right" or "wrong." I'm just curious whether the label, rather than the art, is the issue.

Ultimately, you *could* rename your art so that is not attached to what you see as the increasingly diluted or misunderstood name "tai chi," no? The art and the name are, after all, independent. You could surrender the name to the misguided without damage to your art...

... unless the label itself is serving you---like a trademark.

I know it's not how everyone thinks---particularly beginners---but at this point in my life, if I had the honor of studying with you for a time, I would know I was studying "Sifu Gullette's Tai Chi" (or, even better, "I practice with Ken,") as opposed to "Tai Chi (TM)." The art is in the individuals, not the marketing and so forth.

I don't mean to come off as an ass; I've simply spent a lot of time pondering these same types of questions in the aikido world, where we naturally have very similar problems. I don't necessarily have the answers, but I enjoy exploring the question with you :-)

Thank you for the open discussion!

Evan Yeung

I’m going to jump into the Octagon on this one…

You know, I’m very sympathetic to Ken’s viewpoint. I can imagine Ken looking at how so many people do tai chi in the US (me included, probably!) and thinking to him self “you could be learning so much more than you are right now”.

However, I also recognize that people do movement arts like tai chi for many different reasons. Some people like the elegance of the form. Others want the meditative aspects. Some just want the exercise. Most people however, don’t necessarily have a true ‘passion’ for tai chi. They view the activity as one of many things they do in their life, and they don’t have the time, or the inclination to really understand the deeper meaning underlying the art.

Perhaps an analogy that I would use would be the activity of horse riding. Earlier in our history, horses were crucial in getting to places that were just too far to travel comfortably on foot. Nowadays, one can hardly call horseback riding ‘a crucial activity’. Yet there are some people who spend hours each week taking care of their horses, riding on them, and practicing for events. I don’t have the time to do it, and I will never be able to ride a horse like an expert will. I look completely discombobulated on the back of a horse if it’s moving…but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to do it every once in a while just for fun. Does that mean I’m not doing horseback riding if I’m actually riding on the horse? Of course not. I suck at it, but I’m still on the horse.

Likewise, I think that learning tai chi as a true martial art would have been far more important in a specific time (pre-firearm era) in a specific place (China). However, nowadays with firearms more easily accessible, and a relatively stable society, the self-defense aspects of the martial arts become less important. One might argue that you could get far more self-defense and exercise bang for your buck by learning how to use a handgun and running a few marathons.

So what does tai chi become then? I’d say it becomes what the practitioner needs it to be. Tai chi has multiple aspects to its practice, with its emphasis on relaxation without limpness, good body mechanics, good balance, and calmness of mind. All of these things were crucial to the use of tai chi as a true martial art, but now that the martial component is less important for one’s well being in society, those components are now being used for different purposes. Their art would be far more complete if they were getting the entire package, but they’re still using the art for what they need.

I remember going to a “Taoist Tai Chi” class with my father just to see what it was all about. What they do is a modified Yang style 108 form, but the martial aspects are stripped out and the emphasis is completely on stretching, and health. I watched them do their ‘carry tiger to the mountain’ move where they bent all the way down to touch their toes at the waist, then straightened up slowly, one vertebra at a time. Horrific body mechanics from a martial standpoint, but as an exercise to stretch out and slowly strengthen the back, I can see it. Is it ‘true’ tai chi? Well I suppose that’s debatable if you think you need the entire package, including how to beat someone up with it, to be called tai chi.

I DO object strongly to teachers who aren’t honest about what they are teaching their students. It’s mentioned in books and by instructors that tai chi can be used for self-defense, but if you don’t teach it as such, it will be almost useless in a fight. It’s like thinking that playing a NASCAR game on the Playstation 3 will get you ready to drive on the circuit. It would also be like me on horseback, thinking that I could enter the Kentucky Derby after a few lessons. It’s just as bad if one teaches some of the more ‘flowery’ applications of the form to students with the expectation that an opponent in a real situation will act in a similar fashion. If someone expects to use it in a real situation, but has had no training, or completely unrealistic training, that person could find themselves in a very dangerous situation very quickly.


Ahh, welcome to the Octagon. :)

All good points, Evan.

It's a shame they couldn't have picked bowling as their health art. Imagine. You would get rid of the bowling balls and just move in slow motion down the lane, crouching and swinging the arms very slowly in a movement called "Kwai Chang Flings Poo Poo Platter."

The health aspects would be awesome, I'm sure. An elderly person's balance would improve. The crouching would lead to greater leg strength, and moving the arms would give them better hand-eye coordination. Their blood pressure would drop, too.

And there would be bowling teachers, as you said, who would claim if their students did this movement for 10 years without a ball, they would have developed the "strike jin" to win a bowling tournament. :)

Evan Yeung

Dude, Ken... are you saying that "Wii Bowling"... isn't really "Bowling"?

You're really starting to rock my world here, Ken... :)

I remember watching a youtube video clip of a xingyi demo from a particular school that was affiliated with a martial art that Ken and I are familiar with. They did a linking form mixed in with a lot of other external style stuff. It was horrifyingly, numbingly bad... karatefied and set to an XMA soundtrack. It hurt my brain. Even with my rudimentary understanding of xingyi, I could still tell than none of the internal principles that Ken stresses was there. My first thought was "THAT'S NOT XINGYI!" So I've been there too!

I think that the moniker of "Tai Chi" is a lot like the moniker of "Christianity". The Catholic Church is far different from many fundamentalist protestant groups, and both are different from the Christian sects that handle rattlesnakes. Each group thinks that they have the best explanation for the interpretation of scripture, and some are willing to say that they are the ONLY way to true salvation. Despite their somethimes vast differences, however, they all have some underlying principles in common (however tenuous) than give them the classification of a Christian religion.

Likewise, with tai chi, Chen style is actually quite different in certain aspects than Yang style. Cheng Man Ching performed his version of Yang style in a different fashion, enough that some people call it a different style. Even though there really isn't a great deal of silk reeling at all in the Cheng version, he had enough sensitivity and body mechanics that he was able to manhandle most, if not all people who came his way. If there's not much silk reeling, is he still doing tai chi?

How many principles would be lacking for it NOT to be called tai chi? Your internal strength DVD lists ground strength, peng, full body motion, and silk-reeling as important components. If a person's training is lacking two principles, is it tai chi? How about three?

There are actually a number of people who have tried to make the distinction, as Ken has, between tai chi for exercise, and tai chi as a martial art. Yang Jwing Ming, for one, has stated that without the martial aspect, "Tai Chi" really isn't "Tai Chi Chuan" (chuan meaning 'fist, or fighting method'). I'd tend to agree with him. Perhaps it should be called 'tai chi yoga'
or 'tai chi chih', or Moy Lim Shin's Taoist Tai Chi. I'd post links to the last two, which really do exist today, but I actually can't watch those versions without getting a headache. I'm afraid that Ken's head would explode in large, messy chunks if he actually watched some of those vids... :)


Evan, I'm pretty sure it was a Taoist Tai Chi class that Nancy and I visited in Florida. They didn't know me, so it was nice to walk in as if we didn't know anything.

The teacher was very nice, well intentioned, and naturally the people in the class, most of them at least 50 years old, were nice people.

I was amazed, as we went through the movements, at how the teacher was almost completely lacking in body mechanics. We followed along and after I quickly caught onto the routine, he said, "Have you studied before?"

"A little bit," I replied.

The class was for health because there was no mention of the martial aspects or the body mechanics required for power. It was a good social hour and a good exercise for older folks.

Was it Tai Chi? Taoist Tai Chi? If I take karate and remove all the martial art from it and do it in slow motion can I call it karate? Should I?

My point of view is this -- I don't want to stop people from calling it Tai Chi, but those of us who know what Tai Chi is about have a reponsibility, I believe, to spread the true image of the art, and to correct people who claim something is Tai Chi when in fact, it isn't.

This is a great discussion. I'm enjoying the points of view. This is the type of topic that always stirs up a little trouble. That isn't my intent. I did enough of that years ago about the "no-touch knockout" guys (not that I'm opposed to taking them on).

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