Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan

I was bitten by the t’ai chi bug on the day I watched a demonstration by two men moving very strangely in an old church in Manhattan in the late 1970s.

I had never seen this before: two grown men moving powerfully, lightly, and slowly, separately yet together. The unison of their movements was complete, and each contraction and expansion of arms and torso and legs flowed into the next. They turned and shifted as one, their concentration palpable in the room.

I told myself, I have got to learn how to do that. So I did.

I was so keen on it, I can even remember bargaining with God. “Please don’t let me die before I learn this, God.” Apparently he heard me.

CMCI learned the short Yang form popularized by Cheng Man-ch’ing, who taught for a number of years in New York City. The fellow I learned from was a student of “The Professor” as many of his students called him, and of one of his senior students. The guys who put on the demonstration were also senior students of the Professor, who died in 1975, just before I became interested in t’ai chi.

Cheng Man-ch’ing was an accomplished man, an old-style Chinese poet, painter and Chinese medicine doctor, besides being extraordinarily skilled at t’ai chi ch’uan. You can get a sense of the man, the form, push hands and sword form from this archival video. When I watch him, I always get a sense of a penetrating softness, ordinary as rain, and as hard to avoid.

So what’s this t’ai chi stuff anyway? Is that dance, or Chinese yoga… How can moving slow be any kind of martial art? And the name t’ai chi ch’uan means Supreme Ultimate Fist or Boxing? Come on!

I will explore more of the martial depth of t’ai chi, and especially the Cheng Man-ching form, in another post. Practice of The Form (I’ve always thought of it capitalized) and, after a while, push hands, the gentle two person exploration of balance and posture, are incredible methods of training, if approached as a long-term study.

Tai chi without the martial aspect is pointless waving of arms, or some kind of lovely dance, but it is not tai chi ch’uan. Knowledge of the martial meaning of the movements keeps them true, even if The Form is practiced primarily for health, which is so important, or as a kind of moving meditation.

tc rulerOver the years, I learned long Yang form, various sword forms, a stick or flute form, 48-movement Combined (mostly Yang), Wu tai chi, both original Chen forms, pa kua (or ba gua), hsing-i, a variety of push hands, and at the same time kept learning and practicing aikido and western fencing. I kept myself busy. I became a kind of tai chi bum, playing tai chi and making friends in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver parks and studios.

In the martial arts world, and especially t’ai chi, there are as many sects and factions and promoters of their way to the truth as you might find in Christianity, say, with the Mormons and the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Catholics and the Baptists. It can be confusing. Everybody is always so sure their way is the only right way, although certain common principles do apply.

I always remember the well-known tai chi master I met in a park in San Francisco. He came over to a couple of us independents who had sat down on a bench near where his class was practicing.

He was very friendly and we were very respectful. We asked him a couple of questions about his style. He asked us similar questions about our background. We were proud about all the different forms and styles we thought we knew. He shook his head. “The best form is the first one you learn. You stay with it. It will teach you everything if you practice hard. Don’t practice a lot of different ones.” At the time, I thought he was being too severe, but I think now, there’s much wisdom in what he said.

At a certain point I realized that I didn’t have enough time in the day to practice everything I learned as it all deserved to be practiced, and still go to work and have relationships.

So in the tai chi and other Chinese internal arts realm, I cut back severely a number of years ago. I’ve returned to that first form I learned so long ago with new appreciation for its simplicity, softness and depth. That radical softness always reminds me of the aphorism: which lasts longer, the tongue or the teeth?

tc scenicIn conclusion, I thought I’d offer some of the more useful tai chi resources I’ve found on the Web. There’s a lot out there from the Pentacostals and the Episcopalians and the Amish, so to speak…

There’s Lee Scheele’s extensive compendium of tai chi resources.

Inner Balance Tai Chi provides a more selective list of tai chi sites.

Another index of resources is Michael Garofalo’s website, Cloud Hands.

On this site, you can watch videos of different styles, although you have to download the free Realplayer to watch them.

There’s some decent video and description of push hands at this Patience T’ai Chi Association site.

For more videos on Cheng Man-ch’ing form specifically, including more clips of the Professor, take a look here.

There’s a good article on t’ai chi posture and body alignment on another Every Day Tai Chi page.

For an informative discussion of the relationship of the Alexander Technique, a relatively modern system of postural correction, and t’ai chi, see Stacy Gehman’s article.

There’s an interesting and useful article on combat t’ai chi by Peter Lim Tian Tek here. That same author provides many other useful references on his Taijiquan Resource Page.

One tai chi and ba gua teacher whom I’ve come to appreciate from his web material is Australia’s Erle Montaigue, although he is highly critical of any shortened t’ai chi forms such as the Cheng Man-ch’ing.

He’s got a down-to-earth no-nonsense approach and a wealth of knowledge and is generous with what he knows, although one may not necessarily agree with everything he says. He’s got all kinds of articles on t’ai chi and related matters available for download, although sometimes they are a promotional device for the DVDs he wants to sell.

But he does provide all of his basic push hands video material and all of the authentic Yang long form on video for free download, as well as other free publications.

[Note — February, 2011:  Sad to learn that Mister Montaigue died recently.  See this blog…]

I tried to find an informative blog or two on tai chi, but most are diaries of practice rather than knowledgable or thorough description of methods or techniques.

But I did find this one, where this Chinese fellow obviously is quite experienced, and I picked up a pointer or two: The Secrets of Tai Chi Chuan.

[Home]

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Note on image sources:

The photo of the Professor is from Greenhouse Holistic.

The Tai Chi and Chi Gong Ruler image is from Michael Garofalo’s site.

The mountain and t’ai chi scene is from a San Diego Tai Chi site that’s no longer up.

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17 Comments on “Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan”


  1. I always learn from you. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. Perhaps, now, I’ll seek out a teacher. Thanks as always.

    Best,
    Mary

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Always good to hear from you…

    Give t’ai chi a whirl. It is a great thing.

    Regards

  3. Rick Matz Says:

    This is a terrific blog. I’m very glad to have found it. I’ll be sure to read it regularly. In my past, I studied Yoshinkan Aikido, and briefly CMC Taiji. Now I am studying the Wu style of taijiquan.

    Pleased to make your acquaintance.

    Best Regards,

    Rick

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for coming by…

    Please tell me about your experience with Yoshinkan Aikido! I have one of Shioda Sensei’s books… It doesn’t seem so much different than traditional Aikikai style that I practice.

    Which Wu is that… of Master Ma, I think his name was?

    Regards

  5. Rick Matz Says:

    The Wu style school I belong to, http://www.wustyle-annarbor.com/ is closely associated with Sifu Eddie Wu in Toronto, who is the “gatekeeper” of the Wu family style. The Ma’s are his cousins with whom he’s worked closely on both promoting and standardizing the Wu style worldwide.

    Yoshinkan looks more like Daito Ryu aikijujutsu than say, Aikikai aikido. Razor sharp techniques and a huge emphasis on ukemi, at least in the branch I studied with, were the signature.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for letting me know… I will look at the website.

    I heard something about Yoshinkan having tough ukemi! And in general being pretty rigorous…

    Regards

  7. Zen Says:

    Good post!

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Zen,

    Thanks for coming by…

    Regards

  9. Rick Matz Says:

    This is the website of the teacher I studied under. There are some video clips there that you might find interesting:

    http://www.aikidoyoshokai.org/

  10. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Rick… quite interesting and a different approach to some of the pins and stances than what I’ve practiced. An impressive teacher…

    Regards

  11. Shang Lee Says:

    Hi fencer, got to know about your blog through Rick. I too have gone through most of the different styles of tai chi. i now drop all of them and just do one. i even have to forget what i previously learnt and learn the form as though i’ve never seen it before. it’s tough, but it’s easier to start from scratch than to correct the “bad” habits. keep on posting!

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi Shang Lee,

    Thanks for coming by…

    That beginner’s mind is important, and I think you mentioned it in one of the posts on your site.

    Which form do you concentrate on now?

    Regards

  13. Shang Lee Says:

    doing chen style, again. ;)

  14. Rick Matz Says:

    My first attempt at Taijiquan was nearly 30 years ago now. I learned the CMC from from Carol Yamasaki, would was a student of Prof. Cheng in NY. I only learned the form, but not push hands or anything else.

  15. fencer Says:

    Hi Shang Lee,

    I studied Chen style for a while with a master here in Vancouver who had an encyclopedic knowledge of many forms, but it didn’t “take” with me, although I admire those who do practice it well.

    Regards

    ———————————–

    Hi Rick,

    I think I’m going on 30 years ago too, scary though that thought may be…

    Regards

  16. SpiralWise Says:

    Thanks for that article, I found it very useful and some great links and resources at the end there. I wasn’t aware of Lee Scheele’s compendium, can you believe but now I found it I’m very grateful!

    You say that “I tried to find an informative blog or two on tai chi, but most are diaries of practice rather than knowledgable or thorough description of methods or techniques.”

    Perhaps you would be interested in my blog: Spiralwise? I try to cover Tai Chi from a scientific perspective. so my objective is research and discovery, rather than a diary of practice.

    Howard

  17. fencer Says:

    Hi Howard,

    Thanks for your comments and the mention of your site. I took a quick look and will go back and check it out more in depth…. looks very interesting!

    Regards


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