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What Is Tai Chi?


Tai Chi History

The roots of tai chi chuan are found in the spiritual practices of Taoism. While we will never know whether Chang San-feng's initial inspiration actually came from the fight between the snake and the crane or from a dream, we do know that this twelfth century Taoist based his invention of tai chi chuan movements on the fundamental principles of Lao Tzu and Taoism.

Tai chi chuan means "perfect boxing," and it refers to a martial art based upon the philosophical principles of Taoism. As suggested in Chang San-feng's dream, this art also bestows upon its practitioners the remarkable benefits of health and well-being.

When mastered, the art, through its graceful yet practical movements, is a living expression of harmony as applied to life and to each encounter with the ten thousand things of the Tao. Every action is used to bring about perfect balance with the forces encountered in the world, and so, the art can be said actually to teach its practitioners how to apply the principle of yin and yang.

Just as tai chi chuan is a practice devoted to dealing with the forces of the physical world, it also seeks to develop the mind. It does so not by treating mind and body as separate parts, but as a single cohesive unit.

The exercises, then, were designed not only for the body, but also for the mind. Strengthening one means strengthening the other. At its highest levels, tai chi chuan is also part of a Taoist spiritual discipline that seeks to elevate the mind and purify the body.

The Living Iconography of Tai Chi

Tai chi movements represent specific philosophical principles. Some even believe that at the roots of tai chi, the art was intended as a means of passing down highly specialized knowledge -- that is, the basic principles of Taoism.

Realizing the passion of many young men for testing their strength through fighting and their typical aversion to scholasticism, past masters conceived of a brilliant plan. To save their wisdom from completely disappearing with the passage of centuries, they embedded it in the movements of tai chi.

Further, the belief is that they made the art irresistibly appealing by endowing it with all of the qualities necessary to be a great fighter. Learning to fight, then, necessitated learning all of the Taoist principles -- a clever scheme indeed, and one that has worked very well.

Whether or not there is any truth to this belief, each move is, in fact, an icon that represents specific ideas. Together the postures form something of an esoteric dance that weaves knowledge and movements together so cleverly that only someone deeply versed in Taoist philosophy can interpret them accurately.

Knowledgeable viewers who understand the moves, however, can provide extensive commentaries on both internal healing effects and combat applications. Such commentators can also discuss the philosophical underpinnings of the movements.

The names of different moves in tai chi, like the names of the cards in a Tarot deck, are a way of organizing information and describe categories with their own unique purpose. For this reason, the tai chi moves can be considered icons. When linked together in a complete set of tai chi movements, the icons act as a living library for students to imitate, study, and contemplate.

Learn of the beginnings of tai chi teachings and how the practice differs from other marital arts on the next page.

To learn more about tai chi and Taoism, see:


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