Tai Chi – Martial Art or Health Promoting Exercise?

Glenn H
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As I see it in these modern times the system known as Tai Chi has been basically broken down into three camps.


First there is the martial Tai Chi clan, those who seeks out knowledge of Tai Chi’s fighting applications. Next there is the Health and Longevity clan who views Tai Chi solely as a method of health promotion and spiritual enlightenment.

Then there is the third camp, a sort of hybrid. This camp believes that Tai Chi is for health but if you practice the form and push hands training long enough martial abilities will naturally materialize over time. Tai Chi, as well as the other internal systems has so much to offer, that it would be a shame to not fully benefit from them based solely on these philosophical differences. My purpose for writing this article is to hopefully tear down those philosophical walls that divide the various Tai Chi camps and hopefully bring more clarity and honest discussion to this subject. Only then do I feel that everyone will be able to reap the full benefits of Tai Chi Chuan and prevent our system from further fragmentation.


I’ll begin by stating that Tai Chi is without a doubt a Martial Art.


It has been so from the beginning and continues to be through this day. This is an important fact as it affects how we may or may not progress in our training. I have on many occasions met individuals who would argue this point but one only has to check history to be clear on this matter. All of the great Tai chi Masters have been noted for their fighting prowess utilizing Tai Chi Chuan as their method of self Defense; General/Master Chen wanting 1580-1660, Master Yang Luchan 1799-1872, Master Yang Ban-Hou 1837-1890, Master Yang Chen Fu 1883-1936, Master Chen Man-Cheng 1902-1975 just to name a few. It is important to mention these Masters because it is they who have founded, perfected and set the bar for our beloved art. Even a quote from modern Tai chi Master Yang Zhendou the great grandson of Yang Luchan makes this point:

Originally, Tai Chi Chuan was created for combat purposes. But with the development of weapons, this function slowly diminished and the stress was laid mainly on health promotion. However it could still be used in combat fighting. But nowadays, people are apt to do the Tai Chi Chuan exercises with too much ease because of lack of real understanding of the demand for relaxation of the joints. After all, Tai Chi Chuan is a kind of Martial Art, and its functions of attack and defense must not be forgotten. So in practice the movements are outwardly ‘soft’ but inwardly vigorous. Otherwise, it is not Tai Chi Chuan but calisthenics

Master Yang Zhendou, Yang Style Taijiquan, Morning Glory Press 1988.

How the lack of understanding Tai chi application imposes limits on training and development.

For many practitioners the Tai Chi form is the main staple of their training regimen. To them more form equals more health. I also thought this way until my teacher one day made this statement to me.

“It is not the practice of Tai Chi that improves our health but rather it is the correct practice of Tai Chi which improves our health”.

With this thought in mind one now has to ask themselves, what then constitutes correct method of practice? How do you know if you are performing the postures correctly? What would be the measure of correct practice? These are all very good questions and if we are serious about finding the answers then we must be willing to honestly examine our art. We must be willing to look at what Tai chi is instead of what we want it to be.

Almost all of the stories pertaining to the great accomplishments of the various Tai Chi Masters have had to do with their Martial accomplishments. Their quickness, sure footedness, the ability to deflect one thousand pounds with four ounces, their employment as royal bodyguards and the training of palace guards. All of these things were a result of their outstanding Martial abilities. Today it appears that we disregard the martial training and focus on what we perceive to be the health aspects of Tai Chi Chuan and assume that the Martial will naturally follow over time (a by-product) if we desire it at all. But could this be the opposite of what is true?

Going back to my Teachers statement “it is the correct practice of Tai Chi that brings us health”. If Tai Chi is in fact a Martial Art then its correctness must be measured against the back drop of its applications. In other words the only way to know if you are performing a movement correctly is to understand the purpose for which that movement was created. Please do not mistake what I am saying. I am not stating that In order to correctly practice Tai Chi you must fight. I’m only stating that in order to check the correctness of a movement and to be able to improve upon it one must first understand the intended use of that movement then its structural and dynamic aspects can be fully understood, its uses will become apparent and its health benefits will be inherent. Without the concept of application during forms practice the body and mind will not have focus and thus cannot respond with full conviction. Thus full development cannot be obtained.


As an example try this personal test:

Stand up and strike the pose of the Tai Chi posture (push) and hold it for fifteen seconds then relax. Next strike the same posture again except this time imagine that there is a wall in front of you and it is slowly sliding towards you and you must use this posture to stop it.

By doing this practice you will notice that just by changing the concept in your mind to one of application caused your physical posture to take on some new and challenging changes. In order to stop the imaginary wall you would have had to lower your stance, incline your torso slightly forward, increased the rootedness in your footing and strategically placed your arms in front of you with an increased outward pressure. These changes not only made your posture more structurally sound but also increased the amount of work your body and mind is doing. This in turn strengthens and tones the muscles and increases the blood and oxygen circulation and hones the concentration.

By understanding and applying Tai Chi applications during your practice your body is strengthened and health is improved. This is an example of correct practice.


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