What Is Tai Chi?


The myth of the snake and the crane exhibits the ideas of tai chi.
The myth of the snake and the crane exhibits the ideas of tai chi.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Tai chi has many myths about its origins. One of those myths says that one day the Taoist monk Chang San-feng was disturbed by the sounds of a snake and a crane fighting in his courtyard.

Each time the crane's rapierlike beak stabbed, the flexible snake twisted out of reach. And the crane's wings, like shields, protected its long neck from the snake's striking head. According to the myth, from observing this battle, Chang San-feng developed the art of tai chi chuan, which is based on the concept of yielding in the face of aggression.

The Myth

As we have seen, the images conveyed in the telling of a myth lend themselves well to the spirit and the ideas of tai chi chuan. For this reason, many myths have sprung up around the art of tai chi and its principal actors, and Chang San-feng figures prominently in many of them.

Another famous myth depicts Chang San-feng seeking the fabled elixir of life, a liquid formula that reputedly makes one immortal. One night, while in a deep sleep after an exhausting search for the elixir, the movements of tai chi chaun were revealed to him in a dream.

After careful reflection, it occurred to him that perhaps the secret of the elixir was related to these movements. It dawned on him that the idea of drinking the elixir of immortality was actually an allegory in which the set of tai chi exercises revealed in the dream represented the formula for the elixir itself.

He noted that chi in the body exhibited a number of properties similar to liquids. It flows, for example, through the many acupuncture channels. He also noted that when the chi flows in abundance, good health prevails, and when it is blocked, illness soon follows.

Like water, chi in the body can also be affected by certain natural forces, such as the gravitational pull of the moon. He finally realized that the liquid elixir could actually represent chi. By performing the movements revealed to him, Chang San-feng concluded, he would be developing chi and incorporating it into his body as an essential life- and health-giving force.

Continue reading to learn some reasons behind the creation of tai chi and to discover useful applications of the practice.

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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.

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Wu Tang and Tai Chi

The actual history and development of tai chi chuan is at least as mysterious as that of Taoism, the philosophy that gave it birth. Whether the original set of movements, called forms, were divinely inspired or whether they were developed through the painstaking research of generations of martial artists has never really been answered. It is very likely that no one will ever know the whole story.

Some say Chang San-feng was a hermit and an alchemist. Others believe he was a monk. Most likely, he was a monk knowledgeable in the secret practices of Taoism such as chi kung.

Whatever he was, there is little doubt that sometime around a.d. 1200, together with a small group of disciples, he founded two Taoist temples. One, called the White Clouded Temple, was built on Beijing West Mountain to teach meditation and Taoism. The other, called Wu T'ang Temple, was built on Wu T'ang Mountain in Hupei Province specifically to teach tai chi and related disciplines.

Whether or not Chang San-feng actually created the art of tai chi, however, has been the subject of great debate. The Ningpo Chronicle, a record of the time, lists the names of some martial arts postures still in use in tai chi practice today. This suggests that the art was in existence then.

Other records indicate that the art was passed on to Yeh Chi-mei, a native of Ningpo. Taken together, the two old records appear to confirm that Chang San-feng at least knew the art at the time.

Prior to Chang San-feng's discovery, the main system of martial arts was that of the Shaolin school, introduced by Bodhidharma more than 600 years earlier. Since Shaolin techniques relied heavily on physical strength and bravery, it was known as a "hard" school of self-defense and was considered to be an external system, one that relied on skill coupled with physical prowess.

The art of tai chi, however, suggested a completely different fighting strategy, one that required the development of a special form of awareness that links body and mind and uses a passive energy developed through the application of special techniques.

For these reasons, tai chi came to be thought of as an internal or mental system that relied on "soft" self-defense techniques. Many tai chi historians believe that these soft techniques were completely unknown at the time.

True to Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, the monk's methods relied on the yin forces of passivity and the ability to yield when confronted by the aggres­sive forces of the yang. By bending, says the Tao Te Ching, we can avoid breaking. If we are bent, we can straighten. Once broken, though, we remain broken.

On the next page, learn how tai chi traditions have been passed on through the centuries.

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The Theft of Tai Chi

Tai chi's history is a tale of subterfuge and deceit, but also of wisdom and forgiveness. Until modern times, it was virtually impossible to learn the discipline unless one had a close association with the family of a master who taught it.

Those who knew the secrets of tai chi guarded them carefully, as this knowledge was a great source of power and authority. As a result, there was considerable rivalry between many of these tai chi masters.

Independent tai chi masters passed on the knowledge of tai chi only to their sons and other highly privileged family members or associates. And tai chi masters affiliated with Taoist temples only taught tai chi to other temple members.

Temple secrets, like family secrets, were carefully guarded. It is said, for example, that there were only two ways out of a Shaolin temple: Either the monks carried you out feet first or they let you out, something that did not often happen.

Sometime early in the nineteenth century a well-known boxer, Yang Lu-ch'an, decided he needed to learn tai chi to improve his art. His previous martial training had been conducted in the "hard," external techniques of the Buddhists' Shaolin temple.

Being a fighter, Yang Lu-ch'an must have battled taichiists, as practitioners of tai chi are sometimes called, since he recognized the value of their "soft," internal Taoist method. In it he saw a complement to his own style.

The most famous independent tai chi instructor at the time was Chen Chang Shen, and Yang Lu-ch'an hoped to study with him. Realizing that he could not approach the tai chi master as a boxer seeking special instruction, he took a position in the household as a servant.

Each evening, the story goes, he crept up to the keyhole and secretly watched the master instructing his family members. Later at night, when the house was quiet, Yang Lu-ch'an would practice.

Unfortunately, because he was not under the direct instruction of Chen Chang Shen, he learned only the movements themselves, not their martial applications. Learning these required verbal tutelage directly from the master.

The old master, however, was well aware of the spy. Had he revealed what he knew to the rest of his family, there is little doubt that the intruder would have been put to death or at least have lost a hand.

One night, Chen Chang Shen turned the tables and spied on Yang Lu-ch'an when he was practicing. Recognizing the great potential in this servant-impostor, the master proceeded, over the next few years, to teach him everything he knew. Under the master's patronage and protection, Yang Lu-ch'an then challenged each of the fighters in the family, defeating them each in their turn.

After leaving the Chen household for Beijing, he successfully defeated the 18 most prominent martial artists in the country. As a result, he was given the title, "Yang the Unbeatable." "Old Master Yang," as he was later called, became something of a legend in his own time, and there are many wonderful stories about his exploits.

Yang taught tai chi to his own three sons and other trusted associates. He was also invited to teach the art to the Royal Court and to certain branches of the military. This new Yang style of tai chi was also taught to the Wu family, where it gradually became yet another distinct style.

Interestingly, one of Yang Lu-ch'an's descendants, his grandson Yang Ch'eng Fu (1883-1935), popularized tai chi and, in a radical departure from tradition, made the art available to the general public. Today there are many tai chi styles, but the styles of the three families -- Chen, Yang, and Wu -- are among the most common.

Learn about the books that provide written record of tai chi teachings on the next page.

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The Written Record of Tai Chi

Books about tai chi and tai chi practice did not become available to the general public until the beginning of the twentieth century. Until that time, students always received personal instruction in a master's home or temple.

There was no need for written materials because the instructions were delivered orally. The laborious process of wood block printing also discouraged creating written documents about tai chi, and so very few were written.

There are, however, eight classic tai chi texts dating from the early tai chi masters that are known as "The Classics." Of these, three are collectively referred to as The Tai Chi Bible. In their entirety, all eight volumes comprise only a few thousand words. Nevertheless, it is on the basis of these master works, and the subsequent commentaries, that tai chi is practiced today.

The first classic tai chi text, The Book of Tai Chi Chuan, is attributed by convention to Chang San-feng himself. It emphasizes the form and discusses in some detail how a practitioner should move when practicing.

The second tai chi book, Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan, is attributed to another legendary character, Wang Chen-yeuh. This work focuses on the underlying philosophical principles of tai chi. It also discusses the martial applications of the art.

The third classic tai chi text is the Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures. Some believe this text also was written by Wang Chen-yeuh, but others think it was written by an academically inclined tai chi master named Wu Yu-hsiang. This tai chi book centers on the inner processes of tai chi and focuses on the idea of chi and its functions as they apply to the art.

The other tai chi books include Song of the Thirteen Postures, by Wu Yu-hsiang, Song of Push Hands, by an unknown author, Five Character Secret, by Li I-yu, Essentials of the Practice of the Form and Push Hands, by Li I-yu, and Yang's Ten Important Points, by Yang Cheng-fu.

The classic tai chi text The Five Character Secret, written by Li I-yu, describes the nature of tai chi and, in a sense, lays bare its heart and soul. The Chinese language differs from English in this important respect: Each word is represented by a distinct character. Rather than using separate letters to form a particular word, it has its own unique symbol.

So the five characters in the title of the classic refer to five words: calm, agility, breath, internal force, and spirit. These five terms are intended to represent the essence of tai chi practice.

Continue reading for an interpretation of the salient ideas of The Five Character Secret on the next page.

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Tai Chi Iconography

The tai chi text, The Five Character Secret, describes five terms -- calm, agility, breath, internal force, and spirit -- that represent the essence of tai chi practice. These five secrets of tai chi are described below.

Calm

The Chinese have a special word, hsin, meaning heart-mind. It refers to a mental intention that has not yet been expressed. The disposition of hsin must be calm; otherwise it will not be possible to concentrate. Without concentration, our movements and actions will lack direction and be uncertain. If we are calm, we can use the mind to match our opponent's moves perfectly.

What is important is that we realize our situation and are ready to deal with opposition as it unfolds. We can only realize this by evaluating our own circumstances, then considering them objectively and dispassionately. If we become emotionally involved or begin to react based on our expectations rather than to the events themselves, we will not be masters of the situation.

Agility

Agility refers to coordinating all body parts at once. When we advance or retreat, the body must respond immediately to the requirements of the moment. This is only possible if there is a continuous link between every part of the body, particularly the legs and waist. If the linkage is not present, the chi cannot flow smoothly, and as a result, we will be clumsy.

The secret to agility is this: At first do not follow the ideas issued by your own mind. Instead, follow the exact movements of your opponent. Later, after your body knows how to follow, you will be able to follow both your mind and the movements of the opponent. But skill such as this takes time to develop.

Gathering Chi

If we learn how to concentrate the chi by using our mind, we will have an advantage over our opponent. When the chi is concentrated, for example, even our breathing patterns become powerful tools. Breathing in, in concert with the intention of the mind, has the power to upset the balance of the opponent. Breathing out, in concert with the mind, has the power to weaken the opponent. Remember, these forces work through the action of the chi and not through muscular strength.

Internal Force

With practice, it is possible to produce an internal energy known as chin. To use this force, however, it is first necessary to create it and then to move it up from the feet, to amplify it in the legs, to direct it at the waist, and then move it to the arms and discharge it through the fingers. To accomplish this feat, the timing must be impeccable, so that there is not a single uncoordinated move. Over time, the chin, when applied, becomes as smooth flowing and irresistible as the flow of a tide.

Spirit: The Spirit of Vitality

The spirit of vitality, an aspect of spirit, is the last of the five secrets of tai chi. It can only be possessed if the other four are already mastered. Possessing this ability enables the practitioner to demonstrate applications of the two polarities, the yin and the yang, and to practice at the very high level of collecting and emitting chi.

When we collect chi, it moves downward from the shoulders and collects in the abdominal region. When we emit chi, it moves up from the abdomen, through the spine, to the shoulders, into the arms, and out the fingers. If we are able to collect chi, then we are said to understand yin energy. If we can emit chi, then we are said to understand yang energy.

If these five secrets of tai chi are understood properly and put into daily practice, they will help ensure success in learning the art of tai chi chuan. If they are ignored, the masters tell us there is very little hope in ever achieving a high level of proficiency. Further, the mastery of each principle can be regarded as a goal that, when achieved, becomes a landmark.

Learn how postures, movement, and meditation intertwine to form the art of tai chi on the next page.

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The Postures of Tai Chi

The art of tai chi is made up of a series of interconnected postures.
The art of tai chi is made up of a series of interconnected postures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Each of the movements in tai chi is known as a posture or a move. When these tai chi postures are connected, they are called a form or a set. Over time, under the guidance of master practitioners, many different forms have developed. All of them, however, rely on the same underlying principles.

It is likely that tai chi is the series of rhythmic dancelike movements we know today because of its relationship to the martial arts. Some believe that the exercises originally were simply a series of unconnected postures used exclusively to maintain health.

This may well be the case, since many systems of exercises, such as some types of chi kung and yoga, rely almost entirely on standing, seated, or prone postures. While these systems can be very rhythmic in themselves, there is no question that tai chi can clearly be distinguished from the others by its involvement with the movement of the feet and legs.

At the same time, tai chi does not sacrifice the meditative spirit common to some forms of yoga. In fact, the art of tai chi chuan is considered a moving meditation. The central difference between a seated meditation and tai chi is that in tai chi, the entire body, including all the internal organs, muscles, tendons, and limbs, work together.

The tai chi postures themselves and the way they are linked together are very strictly organized, and dedicated practice under expert tutelage is required to master the finer points governing them.

Since the tradition is so old, it has been refined by generations of instructors. Through trial and error during hand-to-hand combat and through careful analysis, tai chi has been developed to the point where, regardless of the particular training school, there is a set of universal principles held to be true by the majority of schools.

Typically, these principles are learned as the tai chi postures themselves are taught. Instruction is simultaneously mental and physical, a convenient structure for students because learning becomes a step-by-step process in which intellectual knowledge always corresponds to a physical exercise. This means that intellectual development will not exceed physical development.

Long forms of tai chi naturally take a longer period to learn since they are composed of many more tai chi postures. A long form may contain 60, 108, or even 150 movements, while a shorter form might have only 27 movements. Aside from the health benefits and martial applications, one of the great joys of learning this art is that there seems to be no end to its depth. This means that taichiists are continuously challenged to improve their art.

On the next page, learn how an energy called "chin" is used in tai chi.

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Chin and Tai Chi

Chin energy starts at the feet, or root, of the body and moves upward.
Chin energy starts at the feet, or root, of the body and moves upward.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Chin energy, together with the chi and shen, forms a trinity known as the internal energies. From these basic energies, a number of other forces are generated by the tai chi practitioner. In fact, by some accounts, more than 35 distinct energies can be cultivated and used in tai chi applications. These energies are unique to tai chi, and they are applied in association with the eight elements and the five phases.

Chi is the life force found throughout creation. The ability to collect chi from the universe and to move chi throughout the body to every tissue is something chi kung practitioners and taichiists learn to do. It happens naturally, simply by practicing. In tai chi there is also the idea of cultivating shen, meaning spirit, which requires a mastery of both the emotions and the intellect.

Chin (also called jin or jing) is another force like chi and shen that can only be used ­effectively through practice. When practitioners use chin energy, they are using a substance created by the action of shen in relation to the chi. Once taichiists can move chin through their bodies, they can begin to apply it in different martial situations such as in the movements related to the five phases.

To understand how chin energy might be applied, we must first identify its characteristics. Chin is an internal force unlike the external force called li generated by the muscles. Tai chi theory maintains that li energy is related to and generated from the bones and muscles. In particular, it is related to the area of the upper body around the shoulder blades. Li is the raw yang energy taichiists try to avoid using since it is antithetical to chin energy.

Chin, on the other hand, is a special energy that is formed when the tendons and sinews around the bones are actually relaxed. This is one reason why tai chi theory stresses the importance of relaxing the many different muscle groups in the body and eliminating any unnec­essary tension.

Chin energy has often been likened to the energy that issues from the tip of a bull whip. Following a spiral movement of delivery, the energy is concentrated along an ever-­narrowing ribbon of leather until it is expressed with great force and flawless precision at the delicate tip.

Another principle difference is that li energy is the strength derived from the upper body, whereas chin is the force native to the lower body. Exactly how we are to summon chin energy and how we can direct its flow is described in this paraphrased fourth verse of Chang San-feng's Tai Chi Chuan Ching.

The root of the chin should be in the feet.

It flows upward following the legs.

Directed by the waist,

Chin is presented through the fingers.

Understanding this short verse, however, is not as straightforward as it might seem, and it has prompted endless commentaries. Interpreting it properly presupposes a certain knowledge of tai chi basics.

Root, for example, is an idea related to a special sense of balance. When a practitioner is said to be rooted, the image conveyed is one of the deep roots of a huge tree extending far below the surface of the earth. These effectively ground the taichiist, making a stable platform for the forthcoming action.

The root is related to the yongquan acupoint, which is located on one of the 12 main acupuncture channels, the Kidney Channel. The point name means gushing spring, and the imagery associated with it describes the flow of chi.

The chi is abundant at this acupoint, as indicated by the gushing water analogy. Massaging this point will encourage the flow of chi either into or out of the body, and people who visit chi kung masters often experience the chi as a breeze moving out of their bodies at the yongquan point.

As we have seen, though, chi is not chin. Chin energy does not exist unless it is created by the taichiist, and it is dependent upon the forces of both chi and shen as well. So the taichiist must first create chin by using the spirit -- shen -- and the life force -- chi.

The verse does not specifically mention that it is only at the command of the mind, known as the "I" in Chinese, that chin energy can begin to circulate. But, in fact, it is at the taichiist's mental direction that the chin is first created and then moved from its root in the feet, up through the body.

As it moves upward, the chin gains momentum, like the energy moving along the ever narrowing bull whip. When it reaches the hips, the waist begins to move at the exact moment when it can gain the most leverage. Like a pivot, it swings into the position decided upon beforehand by the taichiist.

Continuing upward, chin energy gathers yet more momentum as it moves up the spine, through the back and shoulders, along the arms, past the elbows and finally out the fingers. The entire movement is coordinated, so that each part of the body acts together with the others.

Learn about eight fighting techniques and the martial applications of tai chi on the next page.

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Martial Applications of Tai Chi

One important component of the martial applications of tai chi are the eight techniques. These techniques are related to two Taoist theories that form the basis of martial tai chi.

In the first theory, Wu Chi gives birth to the yin and the yang and the interaction of these primal energies creates the eight forces of nature: heaven, earth, lake, mountain, wind, thunder, water, and fire.

There is a second theory, known as the Five Element Theory. This theory is also called the Five Phase Theory because the relationship between the elements is expressed as the movement or transformation demonstrated in the diagram of the cycles of destruction and creation.

When the symbols for the eight forces of nature are coupled with those of the five phases, thirteen configurations result. These formations are related to thirteen fundamental tai chi ideas. These include eight distinct martial techniques that are applied within five sets of movements.

The Eight Techniques and Their Trigrams

The original eight trigrams are used to form the hexagrams of the I Ching and correspond to the three levels of existence: The uppermost line represents heaven; the middle line, humanity; and the lowest line, earth. These trigrams are very ancient and even predate the creation of the I Ching.

The idea behind the trigrams is attributed to the mythical ruler Fu Hsi who lived more than 5,000 years ago during the early era when hunting and fishing were the primary occupations.

When the elements are organized into opposing pairs and associated with the points of the compass, the arrangement is known as the "Sequence of Earlier Heaven" or sometimes as "The Primal Arrangement." Heaven and earth are associated with south and north, mountain and lake with northwest and southeast, fire and water with the east and west, and, thunder and wind with the northeast and southwest.

From this basic structure, tai chi chuan uses the trigrams as a means of representing information. Eight fighting techniques, movements known as the "Eight Gates," are assigned to particular trigrams.

Like the elements themselves, the eight techniques are organized into complementary and opposing pairs of yang and yin grouped as follows; ward off and roll back, press and push, pull down and split, elbow stroke and shoulder stroke.

Since these movements are associated with an element, they are also associated with a direction and are arranged in pairs of complementary opposites around the Tai Chi symbol. The eight trigrams are divided into two halves, known as the four cardinal directions (S, N, E, W) and the four corners (SE, NE, SW, NW).

The south is the location of heaven. It is represented by three yang lines, indicating the greatest concentration of yang chi in the entire system. In terms of tai chi, this translates into the most powerful and aggressive force. When coupled with the creativity associated with heaven, it becomes the epitome of intelligently applied force. The tai chi movement associated with this hexagram is known as ward off.

The north is the direction of earth. This is the trigram of roll back, the complement to ward off. True to theory, rollback is denoted by three broken lines. Rather than seeking to confront, this move indicates a retreat. By yielding strategically, the target disappears and the efforts of the opponent are diffused harmlessly.

In ward off and roll back we again see the pattern of advance and yield, of the hard and the soft; two forces that are fully equal, each unmatchable in its own right.

Press, indicated by the trigram for water, is assigned to the west. It is signified by two broken lines with a solid line between. Its complement, push, symbolized by fire, is found in the east. This trigram is two solid lines separated by a broken line.

The four corners are represented in the northeast by thunder and its movement, split, and in the southwest by wind and its movement, pull. Mountain is located in the northwest. Its movement is the shoulder stroke. Lake, its complement, is in the southeast. Its move is an elbow stroke.

As you might imagine, applying the eight techniques is not a simple matter. First of all, each of the moves indicated by the eight trigrams must be learned. A push, for example, does not mean simply pushing someone away or down with brute force. The action refers to a detailed sequence of movements executed in a precise way. Further, each of the eight techniques can be found in several different places in the complete set of tai chi postures.

Continue reading to learn about the Five Phase Theory which is also part of the martial applications of tai chi.

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The Five Phases Theory of Tai Chi

The Five Phase Theory, also known as the Five Element Theory, is yet another important Taoist theory. It has also been incorporated into tai chi chuan.

Because of their inherent qualities, five elements -- earth, fire, water, metal, and wood -- were selected by the ancient sages to describe patterns and relationships between many variables. They relate to one another in an abstract sense and can be used to describe the relationship between the seasons.

In tai chi chuan, the five elements are used to describe five special movements, five different weapons, and five different energies. They are also a tool for tactical planning.

The Five Phase Theory applied to tai chi maintains that knowledge of the five phases will lead to an advantage since its principles can be used in either tactical advance or tactical retreat. The phases also give us insight into the intention of the opponent.

This intellectual advantage is the reason tai chi is considered an internal art: Superior reasoning, it is believed, has the advantage over superior strength. Using the five phases, we can actually "see" the other's plan before it is executed. In its essence, the information reveals an opponent's moves beforehand so they can be countered.

Such skill is often bewildering to the casual observer. Since knowledge of the phases enables us to "predict" the tactics of others, in the past the art was often considered to be some kind of Taoist "magic."

Really, however, these techniques rely on a knowledge of anatomy, on the mechanics of movements, and sophisticated insights into methods of tactical planning. There is an interesting parallel here between the martial foresight of a taichiist and the psychological intuitions achieved by study of the I Ching.

The relationships among the five phases are represented by a circle that has five points. One line is drawn around the circumference of these points. This represents one set of relationships known as the constructive cycle used in defense. In this sequence, we find water supporting wood, wood supporting fire, fire supporting earth, and earth supporting water. This suggests the sequence of moves that might be used in a tactical retreat.

Another line is drawn within the circle in the shape of a pentagram, which represents a second set of relationships known as the destructive cycle used in offensive tactics. In this sequence, we find water destroying fire, which vanquishes metal, which, in its turn, subdues wood, and so on. These two patterns of relationships are important because they suggest particular movements and form the basis of tai chi strategy in combat.

There is a third set of relationships, however, and so another unique diagram must be created. In this second diagram, four points are located on the perimeter, and one is placed in the middle. This diagram is related to the five tactical movements used in tai chi. Known as advance, retreat, step and gaze left, step and look right, and central balance, these movements are related to the Five Phase Theory.

Not all tai chi masters, though, agree about which of the five elements are related to which movements. One very common set of correspondences has fire relating to advance, water to retreat, metal to step and look left, wood to step and look right, and earth to central balance.

In this scheme, earth is accorded a very prominent position. It is recognized as the mother of all others, and so it is given the center position. In the same way that earth is considered the locus of the other elements, central balance to which earth corresponds is thought to be the fulcrum on which all other movements depend. For a practitioner, this suggests that cultivating central balance is a prerequisite to mastering the other movements.

Continuing reading for more on the martial applications of tai chi in a discussion of the five weapons.

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Tai Chi Weaponry

Spears, representing fire in Taoist martial philosophy, can subdue a hacking attack.
Spears, representing fire in Taoist martial philosophy, can subdue a hacking attack.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Five weapons of tai chi also relate to the ideas behind the Five Phase theory. Just as the elements represent the inner quality of each movement, they play the same role for weapons. It can be said that there is a partnership between each movement and its allied weapon. Each pair has distinct applications, and these are related to particular tactics in hand-to-hand combat.

In terms of the weapons themselves, earth is represented by an empty hand, metal by a saber, wood by a staff, water by a two-edged sword, and fire by a spear.

In the same way that earth is thought of as mother to the other elements, all weapons are considered to be descendants of the empty hand. In action, the natural ability of the open hand is grasping. It can control the two-edged sword if it can grasp it. This depicts earth mastering water.

The two-edged sword defeats the penetrating force of the spear. Here water extinguishes fire. The spear, in turn, subdues the hacking effect of the saber: Fire overcomes metal. The hacking action of saber, in its turn, can split the wooden staff; and so we see metal overcoming wood. Finally, the staff will break the bones of the open hand, and we see wood overcoming earth.

Each of the weapons of tai chi is also paired with a tai chi movement. The open hand, for example, is paired with central balance, a term used to express the inner poise and assurance from which all other movements should proceed.

Step and look left is related to metal and so is hard by nature. In action, a step and look to the left is followed by a right fist. If we study the cycle of construction, we find that metal is produced from earth and so, as a result of this association, the right fist should be delivered with inner poise and assurance.

Water depicts a special type of retreat. This is not the full flight of a defeated army but the tactical surrender of a useless position. In terms of the tai chi postures, it means to step back and it possesses the quality of suppleness. When the hardness of metal supports the pliability of water, we have a defensive position that is flexible. But it could become an offensive position in an instant.

Look right is the movement related to wood, and it is said to embody might. When associated with water, the move implies a supple strength. Advance is associated with fire and refers to the offensive movement of stepping ahead. Coupled with wood, the natural ferocity of fire is fueled and increased. As you can see, the creative sequence is applied in an offensive manner.

The destructive sequence is applied in exactly the opposite manner, defensively. In this sequence, we see the phases, in the form of the elements, used to counteract each other. Earth overcomes water, and water subdues fire. Fire counters metal, which, in turn, subdues wood. The two cycles can also be understood in terms of expansion, represented by the aggressive pattern, and contraction, represented by the defensive pattern.

Tai chi is not just for self-defense. Learn the beneficial effects tai chi can have on a practitioner's health on the next page.

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The Benefits of Tai Chi

The health benefits of tai chi become apparent when looking beyond tai chi as just an art of self-defense. Tai chi chuan is recognized as the most difficult of all the martial arts to use successfully in self-defense. This is primarily because of the problems in developing and applying the many internal energies such as chin. Even learning to understand these energies is a lengthy process.

Fortunately, tai chi is an extremely interesting and enjoyable art to practice. And requirements for equipment and space are absolutely minimal: Tai chi can be practiced almost anywhere that a few square yards of space are available. Most importantly, the health benefits of tai chi are readily apparent to practitioners from the very beginning of training.

Tai chi is a gentle art, so gentle that people of almost any age or physical condition can undertake it. In fact, many prominent teachers began their careers teaching tai chi late in life.

Today, many different types of tai chi organizations have sprung up, each specializing in unique forms. Some of these groups have even designed instructional techniques specifically for older people, for whom tai chi has been shown to be particularly beneficial, promoting balance control, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

In the modern age, tai chi chuan will likely be most valued for its contributions to good health rather than its martial arts applications. Researchers are conducting special studies not only on the health benefits of tai chi, but also on a number of traditional Chinese medical treatments including chi kung, acupuncture, and herbal remedies.

The reason for this interest is clear: Many of these exercises and treatments are inexpensive, easily accessible by the general public, and, quite often, remarkably effective. Another reason is that researchers are trying to establish, in a definitive way, exactly which of the many claims of traditional medicine work and, if so, why they do.

Practitioners believe that tai chi's fluid spiraling and bending movements, as well as its breathing and meditation components, massage the internal organs, releasing them from damaging constrictions brought about by stress, poor posture, and difficult working conditions; aid the exchange of gases in the lungs; help the digestive system to work better; increase a sense of calmness and awareness; and improve balance.

Some of the other purported health benefits of tai chi practice include improved circulation, breathing, and flexibility; stress management; relief from high blood pressure, back pain, and insomnia; and better overall health.

There is still a shortage of scientific data on tai chi and its physical effects. Modern clinical research is really just beginning in this field. In the Western world, the art has gained popularity only in the last few decades. And in China, not everything has to be proven in a clinical study before it is accepted by the public.

Since the health benefits of tai chi are obvious to those who practice it, this informal type of evidence has, generally speaking, proved satisfactory. The Chinese, then, have not had any particular reason to conduct clinical studies on the effects of tai chi.

While once only private research centers studied the healing effects of tai chi, now there is U.S. government-sponsored research, too. The National Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAAM), an agency within the National Institutes of Health, was created in October 1998 to explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science. NCAAM is sponsoring a number of studies to find out more about tai chi's effects, how it works, and diseases and conditions for which it may be helpful.

Current research includes studies on tai chi's impact on the immune system and stress levels of women recently diagnosed with breast cancer, the effect of tai chi on physical and quality-of-life factors for people with chronic but stable heart failure, tai chi's impact on physical and psychological factors related to osteoarthritis of the knee, and tai chi's effect on physical function and immunity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Tai chi has recently been shown to boost older adults' immunity to the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles as much as the varicella vaccine can, according to the results of a study supported by NCCAM and the NIA and reported in April 2007.

The study also found that tai chi enhanced the protective effects of the vaccine. The randomized, controlled clinical trial enlisted 112 healthy adults aged 59 to 86 to participate in a 16-week program of either tai chi or a health education program that provided 120 minutes of weekly instruction.

Periodic blood tests performed after the end of the programs revealed that tai chi alone increased participants' immunity as much as the vaccine typically produces in 30- to 40-year old adults, and that tai chi combined with the vaccine produced about a 40 percent increase in immunity over that achieved by the vaccine alone.

The study showed that the tai chi group's rate of increase in immunity during the 25-week study was double that of the control group. In addition to the improved immunity, those in the tai chi group also reported significant improvements in physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality, and mental health.

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