What Is Tai Chi?

By: Editors of Consumer Guide

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.


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 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.

To learn more about tai chi and Taoism, see: