Tai Chi – The Ultimate Skirmish Art
“I would consider tai chi to be the ultimate skirmish art” said a night club doorman of 28 years and lifelong martial artist. “This is exactly what happens on the doors and it gives us the skills to deal with being pushed, pulled grabbed and hit from all directions at the same time, we’re often in a melee and the ability to cope with simultaneous multi directional attacks is essential.
The mental image that most have of Tai Chi is that of the ‘hippy’ or ‘health’ version and of old age pensioners creaking along to the only range of movement and speed that they can cope with. Or it may be of the ‘youtube’ version of bodies flying unconvincingly away from an aged masters ‘magic’ light touch or of bad karate or aikido applications to the strange movements.
Tai Chi is a martial art. It can be taught very methodically. Those that consider it a martial art often say that you have to practice it for years to be any good, in fact the same can said for any art. Tai Chi starts with the qigong exercises, in the Yang Family these are essential foundation training that releases the body core to allow internal softening, connection and rooting. They then work methodically through the body, opening the joints, softening the muscle and fascia connections, flexing the spine, correcting the posture and working all the powerful directional movements that a human body can do. The ‘exercises’ also work the ‘jins’, the energy lines through the body exciting the system to engender a vigorous health and positive, powerful movements and technique.
When skills are taught, they are taught in the exercises first, then put into the hand forms, weapons forms, push hands and finally boxing and grappling applications.
Being taught properly and methodically means that the student is taught what he ‘needs’ rather than what he ‘wants’, this is known as ‘eating bitter’ and can be construed by a part of modern society who want to be ‘entertained’ as boring and painful. Those people would be attracted to what is known as ‘tourist’ Tai Chi where they are entertained with simple unskillful movements that make them happy and keep the instructors rice bowl full. This is the popular form of Tai Chi.
To be taught properly, the student needs to learn how to stand, how to breathe, how to think and focus his attention and then how to move. He must ‘empty his cup’ of whatever he thought martial arts and fighting were to be able to learn the skills from exercise to form in a pure liberated movement free from emotion and wrong intention. He would then learn how to generate power from the feet, through the legs, manipulated by the core and torso to be fed out through the arms and hands. Different forms of connected power are used for striking, manipulation, locking, escaping, strangling, choking and throwing.
It takes time and effort (the meaning of the words ‘kung fu’) to work these skills into the body until they become natural and any form of trying to force them will result in unnatural tension and anxiety.
Development is a lifelong process, it’s said that the student will first learn in feet, then inches, then hundredths of an inch, then thousandths… then hundredths of a thousandth of an inch. BUT….. he is better on day 2 than he would be on day 1, any skill learning is the same process. ‘Tourist’ technique in any art may work until the student meets a powerful, internally connected fighter, who will simply walk through or disrupt anything he has to offer.
The difference with Tai Chi is that it is a skirmish art; it is a continuous double helix spiral of movement and momentum, during this continuous movement the practitioner remains actively powerful and responsive in all directions for every hundredth of a thousandth of an inch.
The founder of the Yang style, Yang Lu Chan, was the son of a farmer who loved the Martial Arts and had studied Shaolin Hung Quan with a local instructor before studying in the Chen family village under Chen style Master Chen Chang Xin. Yang Lu Chan was his most talented student and eventually returned to his home village at Yung Nien where he taught for a living. He was undefeated locally and in his travels where he won many matches utilising his soft and yielding art that as a result became known as ‘mien quan’ (cotton boxing) or hua quan (neutralising boxing). ‘Cotton boxing’ because for the opponent, it was like putting their hands into soft cotton and finding a needle in the middle!
By the time he was middle aged Yang taught at the Imperial Court and was tested by experts many times and never defeated, this earned him the title ‘Yang the Invincible’. He became the martial arts instructor to the Shen Ji Battalion and taught in the Royal Households earning the title .Ba Yeh’ (Eight Lords) because eight princes studied under him.
Teaching at the Imperial Court was a grave responsibility in that he was obliged to teach well or it would be considered treason with a probable death sentence! It also gave Yang the opportunity to meet with and compare his skills with the best in the land.
Yang was a hard taskmaster to his three sons with one dying early, one attempting suicide and one frequently running away and attempting to become a monk. Eventually both remaining sons became masters in their own right and both taught at the Imperial Court.
‘Cotton boxing’ is an interesting term because it indicates where the vital secret of Yang Tai Chi Chuan lies. In combat the mind tends to be coarse and responds only to harsh and sudden movement ignoring the soft and sensitive. The Tai Chi practitioner develops the skill of ‘four ounces to move a thousand pounds’ and when the opponents mind is going coarse, his becomes more sensitive and works on a subliminal level neutralizing the opponents force with light touches, sticking, following, redirecting and controlling with power connected from the feet and legs up through the core, manipulated by the waist and out through he hands. The ‘soft’ strikes carry that same connected power that although deceptively soft, carries the ‘kick’ of a donkey!
It becomes a ‘skirmish art’ because the body moves in that framed, posturally aligned and internally connected manner and is able to repel attackers from any direction at any time. I remember when I talked about ‘fa jin’ being ‘like a whip’ to Ma Lee Yang she thought about it for a moment and then said that it was more like a ‘pin ball machine’. This troubled me for ages, as I couldn’t see her point until I grasped the double helix and the ability to bounce or send power to any point of the body and in any direction in an instant. A whip has vulnerable points in its’ movement and is committed – the pinball isn’t.
It makes the martial aspect of Tai Chi very different to that of most other martial arts. I don’t think there is a ‘best’ art, only the best art for the character of each student. It’s never the art, but the person that practices it that makes it efficient.
Good Yang style Tai Chi as a ‘skirmish’ art certainly suits doormen, security personnel and law enforcement officers. I have taught all 3 categories successfully for over 3 decades. Sometimes you have to search for the right instructor and art and not be put off or be influenced by others or by the first instructors you meet. It can take as much time and effort to find the right instructor as the actual training itself! People have often said to me “I always knew it was there in Tai Chi, it was just not easy to find”…..