Elementary school

A field of silk pyjamas

Here’s an interesting quote I read recently:

“Chinese Martial Arts people are looking for 100% perfection, but staying in elementary school all along.” – John Wang

You might expect me to defend Tai Chi Chuan against such a stinging attack, but I actually think the author has a point, and something needs to be done about it.

In Tai Chi Chuan we have the form, which is typically learnt first, then you move onto push hands, possibly a year after starting your training. At this point your form is by no means “finished” – you’ve just started refining it really. Some styles have neikung exercises to learn and then there’s weapons forms, and possibly more hand forms. It’s a big old chunk of learning just getting to the end of the forms in most styles, and remember, if you want to do things traditionally and learn the proper long form, it can take up to half an hour to perform it once!

To reach any kind of standard in Tai Chi Chuan you really need to practice the form every day. It’s a bit like swimming upstream. If you stop paddling the current just takes you back downstream. It requires an awful lot of time to progress, especially when compared to other martial arts. Worse, you risk never actually moving on to learning how to apply your martial arts because you’ve got so much to do just maintaining a standard in all your forms! It’s very easy to slip into the habit of staying in ‘elmentary school’ all your life.

Compare this to somebody learning MMA, Judo or Jiu Jitsu. There are very few (if any) forms, you start with techniques on a partner straight away from day one.

I think the point is to be honest about what you’re training, the level of intensity you’re working at and have a realistic view of what you’re hoping to achieve from it all. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you can unbalance people in push hands you can ‘fight’. if you want to be able to hold your own in those sorts of environments then you need to be training in a way that most Tai Chi purists would dismiss as ‘low level’ or ‘external’.

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3 thoughts on “Elementary school

  1. Interesting comments, thanks guys. Having had several Internet ‘conversations’ with Wang Sifu I’m pretty sure of his meaning. He doesn’t believe in much of an internal/ external split. He sees lots of ‘internal’ people drilling basics all day long (I.e. Forms, push hands drills) but never getting beyond that into free sparring and actual fight training or full on fighting. It’s like staying in elementary school all your life and never graduating or going to university.I think he’s got a point.

  2. @Old Taoist: While my approach differs somewhat from that of the author, the fact remains that in MODERN WUSHU, which is taking over everywhere these days, the focus is all on irrelevant form details (“does my pinky finger go here or two inches to the left”), acrobatics and other nonsense. While acrobatics is an interesting and fun pursuit in and of itself, it has little to do with real internal gong fu (skill), internal strength, and daoist cultivation. I believe this is what Wang must have meant: Wushu is becoming all form, and no content.

  3. Maybe it’s good to be in Elementary School? Perhaps the author is suggesting that one should not assume or brag that they have left Elementary School and “moved up” to University Lecturer status? Do the teachings of Tao teach us not to be presumptuous or to seek praise, claim fame, etcetera?

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