Tai chi chuan ( pinyin: tàijíquán; Wade-Giles: t’ai chi ch’üan) is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced for health reasons. Tai chi is typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: its hard and soft martial art technique, demonstration competitions, health and longevity. Consequently, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims. Some of tai chi chuan’s training forms are well known to Westerners as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks around the world, particularly in China.
Today, tai chi has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun. The origins and creation of tai chi are a subject of much argument and speculation. However, the oldest documented tradition is that of the Chen family from the 1820s.
The term t’ai chi ch’uan literally translates as “supreme ultimate fist”, “boundless fist,” “great extremes boxing”, or simply “the ultimate” (note that ‘chi’ in this instance is the Wade-Giles of Pinyin jí, not to be confused with the use of ch’i / qì in the sense of “life-force” or “energy”). Tai chi chuan is also called “shadow boxing” . The concept of the Taiji “supreme ultimate” appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy where it represents the fusion or mother of Yin and Yang into a single ultimate, represented by the Taijitu symbol. Thus, tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of Chinese philosophy including both Taoism and Confucianism. Tai chi training first and foremost involves learning solo routines, known as forms (套路 taolu). While the image of tai chi chuan in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement, many tai chi styles (including the three most popular, Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms of a faster pace. Some traditional schools of tai chi teach partner exercises known as pushing hands, and martial applications of the postures of the form.
At the height of its development, around 1644 A.D., tai chi had become a fast martial art that also valued slow movements meant to expand the mind and focus the body’s energy. However, the Manchurians invaded the Chinese empire and created the Ch’ing Dynasty. When the new emperor saw the health and vitality of tai chi masters, he demanded he be taught the secrets of tai chi. While refusal to teach the emperor would mean death, the tai chi masters decided to only teach the slow, flowing movements rather than the fast martial art aspect of tai chi. The Manchus, now believing that they had learned tai chi, began to practice it on a large scale. The Chinese, on the whole not knowing tai chi, saw their new leaders practicing tai chi and began to practice it themselves. This is how the slow flowing movements that are internationally recognized as tai chi came into practice. But, just like shaolin kung fu, both the meditative and physical practices of tai chi were originally considered necessary for the complete practice of tai chi, referred to as temple style tai chi. However, many of the slow elements of tai chi have evolved into their own schools of practice, such as Yang style tai chi chuan.
Tai chi chuan is generally classified as a form of traditional Chinese martial arts of the Neijia (soft or internal) branch. It is considered a softstyle martial art — an art applied with internal power — to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles.
Since the first widespread promotion of tai chi’s health benefits by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch’uan and Sun Lutang in the early twentieth century, it has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial training, for its benefit to health andhealth maintenance. Medical studies of tai chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
Focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form purportedly helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity.Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced tai chi students in some traditional schools. Some martial arts, especially the Japanese martial arts, use a uniform for students during practice. Tai chi chuan schools do not generally require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.
The physical techniques of tai chi chuan are described in the tai chi classics (a set of writings by traditional masters) as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases, opens the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis, etc.)
The study of tai chi chuan primarily involves three aspects:
- Health: An unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person may find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use tai chi as a martial art. Tai chi’s health training therefore concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. For those focused on tai chi’s martial application, good physical fitness is an important step towards effective self-defense.
- Meditation: The focus and calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of tai chi is seen as necessary in maintaining optimum health (in the sense of relieving stress and maintaining homeostasis) and in application of the form as a soft style martial art.
- Martial art: The ability to use tai chi as a form of self-defense in combat is the test of a student’s understanding of the art. Tai chi chuan martially is the study of appropriate change in response to outside forces; the study of yielding and “sticking” to an incoming attack rather than attempting to meet it with opposing force.
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