The Search within the Microuniverse

It is doubtless one of the martial arts suited to our time; adopted by the new age together with other pratices and gentle techniques as a vehicle of wisdom, relaxation and illumination

by Stefano Agostini

As it becomes ever more familiar and diffused, among those who do not make up the hard core of experts, its very popular image, in turn, stands for an inevitable feedback mechanism which deforms the art.When in fact, eighty per cent of possible pupils come expecting only a method of relaxation, it is difficult to propose, at least on a commercial level, a solid and weighty martial art.
And this is, indeed, a pity, because Tai Chi Chuan has been and can be a really effective martial art, and with a rather deeper dimension than the usual punch and kick methods.
But how can we find this type of martial Tai Chi Chuan, and how can we feel our way in this micro-universe of styles, books, articles, which range from Tai Chi for cleansing the tendons, to the Chinese competitive forms; how can we re-discover something original, authentic, valid, which can, not only ring the meditation bell, but also trigger off our rational capacity and our common sense?
Being an exponent and above all a student, of this authentic and concrete martial Tai Chi, I thought I would write a few words that might act as guidelines and workable instruments for those whom Vezzoso called "daring seekers", in order to orientate themselves with more attention and awareness in the world of Tai Chi.
Let us begin with some bibliographical information. The majority of books and articles in circulation about Tai Chi, are, as working and learning instruments, quite useless and even off-track. Apart from some classical works whose consultation is practically a must, as for istance The Classics of Tai Chi by Waysun Liao, almost all the others are made up of photographic manuals of little use, Chinese tales about Chan San Feng and foggy incomprehensible texts which speak of I Ching, theory of the five elements, refinement of chi, cleansing of the bone marrow and similar obscurities which certainly do not help to find a good school and to perform even the simplest of exercises; however the entire pseudo- martial new age population browses off this literature and with such fantasies justifies the time spent in playing at Tai Chi.
The only really valid, informative book that I can recommend is Complete Tai Chi Chuan by Dan Docherty, a Scottish master of the Wu Tang Style, who in this little work has tackled all the aspects of Tai Chi in great depth, with accurate research and a critical spirit.
As for the articles in circulation, they reflect in miniature, the unhappy literary panorama: the best i have read in the past few years are, in my opinion the interviews with the last founders of the schools of the Chen and Yang styles, which have appeared in Samurai.
And now to some very general observations on the principal aspects of Tai Chi Chuan, as well as the differences within the varying styles. I must point out however that with regard to Tai Chi I shall deal only with the classic styles; in fact, even if there are still some simple-minded souls who are searching for the real Tai Chi in Chinese physical education centres and in the modern forms, enough is known at this point to relegate such commercial institutions and exercises to the category of gymnastic and sportive centres without further pretence.
So we can begin by saying that every style of Tai Chi, or rather martial art in general, has two aspects; a technical martial one and an energetic one. In other words, the movements of Tai Chi Chuan, respond both to patterns of martial application and to patterns which stimulate the energetic structures of the human body.
It must also be said that, to a certain extent, these two aspects are inversely proportionate to one another: the more one movement privileges a precise and economic logic of martial application, the less is it easy to use for increasing sensitivity and growth at an energetic level.
Now these two aspects hold, within the various schools, more or less weight, but in general it can be said that all the more usual styles, such as Chen and Yang, at the moment give preference to the energetic aspect and often have totally lost the martial logic.
The ample, choreographic movements, the long and open positions, the useless and superflous embellishments, certainly do not corrispond to the same logic of movement for combat that can be seen, for example, in Win Chun Kung Fu, in Shaolin Mon Karate, in English boxing.
And while these function in combat, that structure in Tai Chi cannot function. Where, however, what is lost in practicality, is gained in energetic structure, and those same very large movements constitute, if correctly learned and put into pratice, a wonderful system of Chi Kung and they together with other internal techniques, can prepare the body for fa chin, or explosion of energy. Although, of course, fa chin is not a logical and natural consequence of a wide, slow training, but a difficult technique that must be learned through hard work.
Usually the Chen style is considered more martial than others because its forms contain fa chin, but every style seeks a martial application must train for fa chin in all the techniques. It can be said that, on the whole, Tai Chi as in every internal style,bases the developements of explosive energy on three successive stages: static position, slow movements, and fast movements with fa chin: any style that does not contain these three elements, will not lead to the goal of putting it to pratical use.
Then there is the aspect of tui shou: tui shou is an important element for the learning of martial techniques, but it must not be forgotten that:
1. It is a conventional pratice aimed above all at sensitivization.
2. It does not prepare one adequately for combat at a distance.
The Pratice of tui shu therefore has to be integrated with exercises at a distance, which teach the fundamentals of time, space and rhythm of combat.
A last note on an aspect whici appeared recently and often in print regarding Tai Chi: dim mak.
Every time I read articles on dim mak. I am very puzzled and I wonder if the authors have, I won't say practised combat, but ever really done any boxing or Karate or Kung Fu free fighting.
On this subject, I should like to quote a few words by Wang Hsiang Chai, the creator of I Chuan: "For centuries people have wanted to regard the theory of strikes on vital parts as if this were something miraculous. Some say the attacks should be directed at particular channels on which the points for acupuncture can be found, others that the vital points change according to the time of day. All this is fact disgusting nonsense. Because in real combat, the two parties are on a par. It is difficult enough to even touch the opponent, let alone strike him on a particular point....".
I would like to add a personal anecdote: a few years ago when we were younger and less aware, I and a friend of mine, both karate black belt, since we were studying the relationship between tameshivari and combat, decided to try out an unusual experiment: we tied a piece of flat pine-wood two centimeters thick to our chests and began sparring, each trying to break the piece of wood of the other. After trying for half an hour without results, we realized that Wang Hsiang Chai wes right: it is almost impossible in real combat to strike the adversary in a precise point and with precise force. I may add that at that time I was third dan and my friend was described by Master Kase as the best karate practioner in Europe. So the theory of strikes on vital points can function only with an immobile, (and unguarded) opponent. But if the opponent is immobile I am fairly sure to succeed in killing him even without a knowledge of dim mak.... so let us go on to more serious things.
We shall now try to identify the cardinal points of Tai Chi Chuan as an extremely efficient martial art, and from there go on to an operative proposal relating to a style with a martial basis.
The first point is that Tai Chi Chuan, thanks to internal methods and integrative use of the body, develops the previously mentioned capacity to express a particular explosive energy called fa chin. Such an energy can spring from strikes together with a short sprint or even from zero distance - watch out then for the wide, whipping movements of the Chen style: - the appearance can be deceptive! - and has the peculiarity of being a vibratory, non percussive energy: in this way it can penetrate the target without stopping on the surface.
The second point which is linked to the first, is that Tai Chi, through the integrated and total use of the body (and here a technical digressionis necessary that would take too long) leads to the expression of movements which at every point are full of an enormous dynamic energy (demonstrated by the famous pushes).
The third point is that relaxation, linkage and the circular structure of the movements, allow for the striking of the adversary with a series of long and very fast punches, kicks and elbow strikes, and so on. A concept similar to that of Win Chun, which however works on a preference for direct, central attack, while Tai Chi follows a circular trajectory as well.
The fourth point is that internal training for relaxation and perceptive and energetic sensitisation leads the body to a much faster and more refined capacity for reaction than normal, and this is further re-enforced by the pratice of tui shou exercises.
Lastly, the fifth point, which is connected to the previous one, is that this type of sensitisation, together with the appropriate exercises, allows for the capacity to absorb blows on the trunk and legs.
We have therefore outlined some of the characteristics of good Tai Chi Chuan combat:
relaxed but with a very fast reactive capacity, lightning follow-ups of explosive strikes even at minimal distance, full, potent movements, and a great capacity for the absorption of blows.

And now let us look at a Tai Chi style that can lead to these results.

The Tai Chi Chuan of Wang Shu Chin.
The form of Wang Shu Chin, sometimes called Cheng Tsung, of the real synthesis, or Wu Tang, consists of 99 movements done slowly using a basic stance similar to that of Hsing-i, with the weight on the back leg. Every single movement is directly and clearly applicable in combat as Master Kenji Tukitsu well knows, having chosen this style for the form of Tai Chi in his own school.
This style, then, apart from being extremely interesting from a martial point of view, being a compendium of the principal styles of Tai Chi together with essential elements from other internal schools, is probably the best one for whoever practices Hsing-i, Pa kua or I Chuan.
Personally, after having studied the Yang and Chen styles, I can say that in my opinion the style of Wang Shu Chin is simpler, more technical (in the sense of precise martial functionality) and much more directly applicable for combat, and furthermore constitutes a perfect complement for whoever is studying the other internal styles. From the point of view of its shortcomings, the composed, economical and precise movements take longer for sensitisation and energetic developement to come about, and are less agreeable to the body.
Nonetheless, the fundamental point that i learned through studying this style, is to shun mystification and vagueness in order to concentrate on obtaining concrete sensations and efficacious techniques: with the magic of internal styles, but verification on the martial testing ground.
So if we study Tai Chi Chuan with the illusion or the desire to practice an efficacious art of combat, we would do well, after some years of serious training, not to take refuge in annecdotes on Yang Cheng fu or Chen Fa Ko, but to ask ourselves with sincerity if we are capable, with a push, of sending someone of our own weight flying, for a distance of at least two metres, if we can receive a blow to the body without too much discomfort, if we can accomplish a strike from zero distance, and above all, if we are capable of sustaining realistic combat with a serious opponent, while using the techniques of our Tai Chi.
If to the contrary it would be a good idea to analyse our practice, and recognize it for what it is: gentle physical training, a way of meditation, or a game.