Forget the snake and the crane, Tai Chi is stuck between a rock and a hard place in the modern martial arts world, and it’s hard to see how it’s going to get out
Tai Chi, it is said, was created by the immortal Taoist Chang Sanfeng after watching a fight between a snake and a crane. Seeing the way the snake coiled and retreated to avoid the strikes of the bird’s beak he invented a martial art that relied on the ancient Taoist idea of softness overcoming hardness, and thus Tai Chi Chuan (‘Supreme Ultimate Boxing’) was born. Or so the story goes…
Obviously, you need to take all these origin stories with a hefty pinch of salt. I’ve talked about Chang Sanfeng before, and I’d like to do again at some point, because I think there’s more to say on the subject, but for now let me just point you to a couple of ideas that show the Yin and the Yang extremes of people’s views about him.
On the one hand there the pragmatic, logical, view, that Chang Sanfeng was a sort of Robin Hood-style character and his whole mythology was just a nice little story that people made up as a “made-to-order counterpoint to Bodhidharma” as the founder of Chinese martial arts, and later to hide and ostracise the true creators of Tai Chi, the Chen family of Chenjiagou village. This view is best expressed by Stanley Henning in his classic essay Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan.
In these more enlightened times, the people who actually believe in the whole Chang Sangfeng story seem to be few and far between, but on the flip side of the coin you’ve got this intriguing point of view from Scott Park Phillips, expressed in his blog post on, Channelling Zhang Sanfeng. Phillips offers a fresh (or should that be old?) perspective on what the Chang Sang Feng connection with Tai Chi was really all about:
“Zhang Sanfeng was a ubiquitous figure in the late 1800s, not just because he was a popular trickster of the theater but because he was the subject of widespread spirit writing cults. Groups of literati would gather together and do a kind of ritual séance, in which they would write in the voice of Zhang Sanfeng.”
Sanfeng therefore becomes a part of the richer cultural world view you need to adopt to understand Tai Chi’s place in history.
Whatever the motives for bringing Chang Sanfeng’s name into the story of Tai Chi Chuan – whether to hide its humble origins amongst simple peasant folk, or as an esoteric way of connecting to a spirit cult, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t exist as a real person, all of which doesn’t bode well for selling Tai Chi as a serious marital art. To make matters worse, the Tai Chi world is full of lunatics and fakes. I’ve written about Tai Chi fakery before, and on the cult of the Tai Chi Magician who can fling his followers around with magic Qi blasts. Sadly, this is all par for the course for the Tai Chi world, and sadly for martial arts in general. It seems that the environment of the martial arts class is the perfect breeding ground for cult masters to recruit their willing followers. They’re everywhere in marital arts, and frequently exposed on YouTube.
I’m not going to talk about these sort of fringe behaviours this time. Instead I’m addressing the meat and potatoes of the Tai Chi world – those teachers who do their best to present an old martial tradition as a living, breathing martial art, and the problems that inevitably throws up in a world where MMA is starting to supplant boxing as the most exciting contact sport in the mainstream’s consciousness.
Where martial Tai Chi now stands
The dominant format for expressing martial arts in modern times, MMA, is generally composed of striking, grappling (with throws and takedowns) and ground work. If you want to look at where Karate fits into this then it’s easy – it occupies the striking segment of the venn diagram of MMA. Similarly, JiuJitsu can be found in both the grappling and ground work section. Tai Chi? It’s not so easy. It doesn’t fit neatly into the formulae. Tai Chi is a mix of standing grappling, locking, throwing and striking. The techniques flow interchangeably between the different stand-up mediums, but never in a way that makes sense to MMA.
As a training device Tai Chi uses Push Hands – a kind of limited rules stand-up grappling that is either done fixed step, or free step within an area. The rules for competition push hands are very, very restrictive. For fixed step, if you move your foot you’re ‘out’, and in free step, you just need to push your opponent out of the area. No strikes or locks are allowed, and there are various other rules restricting grabbing.
This is a typical example of a push hands competition. I’ve got to be honest, if an outsider saw that they’d wonder what on earth it was all about. To somebody with experienced of typical grappling competitions it also looks bizarre. The phrase “Well if you’re going to that then why not just learn proper BJJ/Judo/Wresting (delete as appropriate) instead?” springs to mind…
The problem is that compared to a grappling tournament under Judo, BJJ or Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) rules the whole thing is slightly on the ludicrous side, but the real problem is that this competition push hands doesn’t really have anything to do with what real Tai Chi push hands, and Tai Chi itself, is supposed to be about.
It’s contentious to say what is ‘real’ and what is not when it comes to Tai Chi, so I’m just going to go with my gut. There are basically two types of training in Tai Chi – training for self defence and training for developing the sorts of skills you need for Tai Chi. Let’s call these “Jin skills”. It turns out that ‘real’ push hands is supposed to be an exercise in learning Jin skills and not a sort of contest to find out who is the best at pushing somebody over (which is on the self defence side). Jin skills involve learning how to deal with an opponent’s incoming force using your Qi and Jin (I’ve blogged about what these terms means in martial arts before). To do this in a Tai Chi way requires you to repattern your body’s habitual way of moving, and not fall back on the way you usually move. The problem is that once you try to push somebody over and they resist, or you add a bit of competitiveness into the mix, that’s invariably what’s going to happen.
One notable teacher of internal arts once remarked to me in conversation that “So far I have never seen a video in which the westerner had even a remote clue how to do push-hands”… which brings me onto this video of Chen Ziqiang, which I think exemplifies the problem that Tai Chi is going to have if it’s going to make any impact on the modern martial arts scene.
Chen Ziqiang is the oldest son of Chen style master Chen Xiaoxing, and he is the nephew of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang – therefore I think it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure if the video is meant to be push hands, wrestling, or just freestyle playing around, but either way, he’s at a considerable size and weight disadvantage to his opponent, and suffers for it. So, does this mean that Tai Chi doesn’t work? Hardly.
The Chen-style of Tai Chi is famous for its ability to do damage by releasing power suddenly and for its joint-locks … but in a ‘push hands’ format where he can’t use either of his main weapons, Chen is going to be at a big disadvantage. I’m sort of surprised that he keeps allowing people to video his “push hands” matches, which always turns out to be some westerner trying his grappling skills against him. And I’m not sure how this format is going to persuade others that there is some martial skill that is worth perusing Tai Chi for? Why not just do western wrestling?
In short, I’m glad that Chen Ziquang isn’t adopting the usual unassailable mantle of a Tai Chi master who won’t actually get hands-on with students, but the downside of that is he’s going to be made to look very human against bigger people who have wrestling skills. If it is to convince people of the value of its Jin skills,and their use in martial arts, then I don’t know what the answer is, but this isn’t it. Tai Chi remains stuck between a rock and a hard place.