Defining Tai Chi Chuan

6 harmonies movement, the classics and the boxing art

This article was supposed to be a description of some key similarities between BJJ and Tai Chi. Unfortunately while writing it I realised I first needed to define Tai Chi properly before I could successfully contrast the two. Then I realised that this wasn’t an easy task.

Some people consider the fact that it is taught by a family that has a style of Tai Chi named after them to be enough to legitimately say the art they do is “Tai Chi Chuan”. You might consider that attitude to be similar to the attitude of Leung Bik in this little martial arts film clip about Wing Chun where Ip Man meets Leung Bik. When questioned by a young Ip Man if what he’s doing is really “Wing Chun” he says “Whatever comes out of my fist is Wing Chun!”. In essence he’s saying that he is the style, so there is no restriction on what defines the style.

On the flip side, there’s also the argument that for movement to be truly “Tai Chi Chuan” it must follow a strict number of movement principles, or rules. Some of which you’ll find in the Tai Chi Classics, and some of which you won’t.

The Tai Chi classics actually talk a lot about fighting strategy, particularly the idea of not opposing force with force. But I’d argue that this isn’t really what defines Tai Chi. In fact, most martial arts adopt this strategy, since a martial art where your strategy is just to attack like an unthinking robot until your enemy is dead in HULK SMASH! mode is unlikely to keep its students in the long run! Therefore, it’s no surprise to me that a lot of the writing in the Tai Chi classics seem to apply equally to Brazilian JiuJitsu, Jeet Kune Do, Aikido, Karate and lots of Kung Fu styles just as well as they would to Tai Chi. The writing in the classics doesn’t talk too much in the actual mechanics of movement, and instead talks a lot about fighting strategy.

For example, lines like the following could apply to most martial arts:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole”

“Empty the left wherever a pressure appears,
and similarly the right.”

“It is said if the opponent does not move, then I do not move.
At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”

So, if you find that the Tai Chi classics cannot be relied upon to adequately define “Tai Chi Chuan”, what can? The best answer I’ve found is held in the concept of 6 Harmonies movement, or 6H for short. The idea of “Six Harmonies” is actually older than Tai Chi Chuan itself.

The six harmonies are broken down into 3 internal harmonies (the “desire” leads the “mind”, the “mind” leads the “qi”, and the “qi” leads the “strength”) and the 3 external harmonies – the shoulders connect with the hips, the elbows with the knees and the wrists with the ankles (or hands and feet, if you want). You can think of the internal harmonies as being about the desire to do something and turning it into a physical action – the actual Chinese word is “Xin”, which translates as “heart”, but in the sense of the desire arising to do something coming from your heart, not your head. In contrast, the external harmonies describe how the movement actually goes through the body (from the fingertips to the toes) via muscle-tendon channels, a process trained in Tai Chi through “silk reeling” exercises.

The distinctive feature of 6 harmonies movement is a complete connection of mind and body, producing force that appears soft, but penetrates deeply. It’s quantifiably different in feel to force produce by local muscle usage, although to somebody unfamiliar with it, it can look just like normal movement it should feel different. While the initial stages of learning 6 harmony movement may use large circular motions, they can be made imperceptibly small by an expert, which makes it even more difficult to quantify and identify.

Credit must be due to Mr Mike Sigman of the 6H Facebook group here for putting these Chinese concepts into words that English speakers (like myself) can understand without too much problem. He’s produced perhaps the most comprehensive and organised explanation of the process I’ve seen written down in English. If you want to delve deeper into it, I’d suggest joining his Facebook group and looking through some of the older posts.

I’m undecided as to wether there was originally a fully formed 6H theory that goes back hundreds of years, and is the origin, or essence of all Chinese martial arts, or if it’s something that has been refined over the years as a distillation of all the “good bits” of Chinese martial arts. The fact that the ancient meridian system used in acupuncture overlays the muscle tendon channels used in 6H is a good indication that it is an old, old theory, and lots of old Chinese martial arts have the phrase “Liu He” (6 harmonies) in their name (like Xin Yi Liu He Quan), which adds weight to the theory, but we’re drifting into speculation here. In a sense it doesn’t matter if you want to think of 6H as the modern distillation of “internal” movement methods or an ancient system, the important thing is the doing of it, and that requires practice.

Note: I’ve left “qi” in my description above, but that’s because, ultimately, I think its more problematic to replace it with an English word, when there isn’t one that’s really up to the job. Please note – there is much more to the theory and practice of 6 harmonies movement than I’m describing here (for example, dantien rotation, open/close, reverse breathing and the microcosm orbit), so I’d suggest that the reader who is seriously interested in the topic join the Facebook group if you want to get a proper handle on it. It is not a trivial subject!

So, to finally return to the question, what defines Tai Chi Chuan? I’d say it’s a combination of all three of the ideas expressed above – it needs to be from a lineage connected to the original Tai Chi families (the Chen, Yang, Wu, Woo and Sun families), it needs to conform to strict principles of movement, the most cohesive set of which I’ve seen is 6 harmonies movement, and it needs to follow the fighting strategy expressed in the Tai Chi classics.

Now that’s covered, I can get onto my intended subject of the similarities between BJJ and Tai Chi, and a look at the legacy of a certain Mr Rickson Gracie…



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