First and foremost, the martial art of tai chi ch’uan (the full name means Supreme Ultimate Fist) functions as a gateway to Taoism, a Chinese philosophy based on principles at work in the natural world. There may be no system of movement anywhere that more closely follows philosophical rules than authentic tai chi follows original, philosophical Taoism. Practicing tai chi develops practical sensitivity to energy, extends our lifespan, and treats us to a new view of health, conflict, emotions, habits, and beliefs. As a spiritual system, tai chi is sometimes challenging but always healing, empowering, and fulfilling.
In addition to being a jewel in the crown of Chinese culture, tai chi offers sophisticated body mechanics and powerful self-defense techniques that develop the muscular core and improve flexibility and balance. Its dynamics are powerful enough to defeat both physical adversaries and the degenerative diseases of aging.
Tai chi’s true and ancient origins are shrouded in mystery. One popular legend has the art originating with a Taoist sage named Chang San-Feng perhaps 1000 years ago. The system we now recognize as tai chi was cohered by Chen Wang-ting (1597-1664), a 9th generation member of the Chen family and resident of a small village (Chenjiagou) in Henan Province, in the north of China. Chen constructed his art upon a tripod of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Taoist ideas, and proven martial techniques.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an admittedly artificial, political amalgam of the diverse folk healing systems of China. All these systems, however, see energy, qi, flowing through meridians, or channels in the body. Practicing tai chi increases the quantity and quality of this energy and distributes it to best effect to organ systems and support structures. Recent medical research confirms that tai chi practice can lower stress levels, save us from morbid falls, boost our immune system, improve cardiovascular health and fitness, and aid in managing a wide range of ills. There is even evidence that tai chi boosts grows the brain and alters our DNA.
Taoists believe there is a (possibly benign) guiding force, Tao, permeating the universe. Practicing tai chi helps us recognize this force. Taoists see the world as constant interplay between yin and yang, opposing elements that arose from an initial state of emptiness, wuji, in a process loosely analogous to the creation of heaven described in the Book of Genesis, though without the need to believe in a supernatural Creator. While neither fixed nor substantial, examples of yin and yang include male and female, light and dark, and weak and strong. In practice, tai chi’s yin and yang dimensions help us to return our mind to its original clarity and stillness, wuji.
China has a long and illustrious martial tradition, birthed when the nation was little more than a conglomerate of competing states. Conceived by monks, doctors, scholars and warriors, numerous martial styles were derived from the movements of animals and the forces of nature. Early fighting techniques were tested in combat, and were lost if ineffective. The techniques drawn upon in the creation of tai chi were among the very best techniques to survive the ages. While authentic tai chi was very nearly lost during Communist China’s so-called “Cultural Revolution” the art survived and is now enjoyed worldwide.