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Tai chi: Soul of Chinese philosophy in physical form

WANG GANG | 2017-07-20 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Learners practice tai chi in Chenjiagou Village of Wenxian County, Henan Province, on April 26, 2017. Some forty Tai chi training centers have been set up in Chenjiagou, attracting nearly 10,000 tai chi fans from different countries and regions every year.

The human body is the ultimate source of culture. Therefore, while we search for Chinese culture and spirit in the classics in the literary sense, it is crucial not to overlook the underlying philosophical foundation imbedded in the art of bodily motion.

As a unique Chinese cultural symbol, tai chi embodies the properties and wisdom of traditional Chinese culture. In practice, tai chi is a form of martial arts based on the philosophy of yin and yang, which is to say the “soft” interacting with the “hard.”

From my perspective, the absence of reflection on bodily culture in China leads to a pervasive cultural nihilism. Only when we identify the physical carrier of cultural essence, spirit and the soul, can the mind and spirit be made to follow the healthy pace of the body with ease. In this light, it is of historical and practical importance to explore tai chi, an outstanding gem of Chinese culture.


Strong but not hegemonic
When it comes to martial arts, the common assumption is that its fundamental purpose is combat or self-defense. In other words, a martial artist’s ability to win a fight seems to be the only criterion by which to assess his or her competence. This stereotype of Chinese martial arts is shallow and disrespectful.

It is true that the Chinese martial arts never cut ties with their combative roots, nor have they become purely dancing arts. However, its implicit cultural significance is rather civilized, and it is by all means the quintessence of sophisticated Chinese bodily culture.

In the modern Chinese dictionary, the simplest expression of the word “civilized” is defined in opposition to “barbarian,” which is interpreted as illiterate, cruel, rude and often associated with massacres and other acts of brutality.

Quan means “fist” or “boxing” and sometimes taijiquan, the formal Mandarin name for tai chi, is known as shadow-boxing. However, it is a form of internal martial arts that promotes the balance of mind and body. Its aim is, on the whole, to steer practitioners away from physical violence.

Wang Zongyue, a reputed 18th century tai chi master and author of Taijiquan Lun or Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan, and Wu Yuxiang, founder of the Wu style of tai chi, both stated in detail that tai chi attempts to achieve an ultimate stage at which the body is so sensitive and light that “one cannot add one feather, [and neither a] fly [nor a] mosquito can land on the body.”

In tai chi, the entire body should be nimble and alert when executing even the slightest movement. There also needs to be connection from movement to movement. According to the Taichiquan Lun, the goal of tai chi is to exploit the weakness of an opponent of superior strength under the principle of “four ounces moves a thousand pounds.” The practitioner should learn to guide “the opponent in to land on nothing by sticking to him and going along with his movement instead of pulling away or crashing in.”

The ideas that tai chi advocates are representative of the concept of “strength without hegemony” in Chinese philosophy. In this form of boxing, it is clear that the strong should not oppress the weak, and the young should not take advantage of the old. After all, strength and weakness are relative in the tai chi concept. The supreme power only builds on self-improvement.


A practitioner first learns the right postures, then practices them until proficient. Then they must slowly learn to identify energies. All of these are aspects of improving oneself.

The “four ounces moves a thousand pounds” approach is a compliment for the small and light and also a warning to the strong one who seeks to conquer. Or consider the “sight of an old man repelling a group, which could not come from his aggressive speed.” It is a sound lesson for the energetic youth that they may not have a shot at winning despite their edge.

At the same time, tai chi principles, such as “by nurturing energy with integrity, it will not be corrupted and by storing power in crooked parts like drawing a bow, it will be in abundant supply,” also show the idea of “be strong but do not reveal,” which is why it is known as the civilized boxing art.


Chinese wisdom
As renowned Chinese scholar and writer Yu Qiuyu once said, the grand secrets of Chinese culture are hidden in the rhythmic movements of tai chi. This form of boxing art not only demonstrates Chinese creativity but also contains the ancient Chinese philosophy of pursuing a harmonious relationship with nature.

To this day, tai chi is widely practiced by people of different nationalities and ethnicities in the world as a cultural form with connotations of ancient wisdom.

The founders of tai chi had a profound understanding of the Taoist view of the Universe as well as the principles of yin and yang. They believed that tai chi is born of wuji, the mother of yin and yang. When there is movement, the passive and active aspects become distinct from each other. When there is stillness, they return to a state of non-duality.

Thus, they encouraged practitioners to explore an unlimited range of combat and defense skills using limited postures, sets and techniques in tai chi. In this sense, the bodily art becomes the abstract Taoist philosophy made flesh.

Also, tai chi theories are grounded in the wisdom of moderation. One must strike a balance between going too far or not going far enough. To stray too far to either extreme causes one to lose one’s center and the tactical advantage.

Tai chi contains the ideas of military strategist Sun Tzu. It urges practitioners to learn the art of defeating strength without strength, overcoming speed with slowness and using skill to manipulate the opponent. In combat, there is no winning if one does not truly understand oneself. At the highest level, by practicing tai chi, one can draw the opponent in to land on nothing, and then even a thousand pounds of force will be useless.


Complete state of being
Tai chi is a kind of bodily culture that pursues a complete state of being. In my opinion, this state can be interpreted as a kind of enjoyable, nimble and subtle being.

Human culture results from injecting the spirit of art into the mundane and utilitarian. All aspects of daily life could be transformed into artistic pursuits. For example, Chinese characters became calligraphy, utensils became porcelain, food became cuisine, and houses became gardens. It is no wonder that Chinese shadow-boxing evolved from a form of self-defense into one of the most artistic martial arts in the Ming-Qing era.

In fact, nimbleness and subtlety represent the highest spiritual pursuits of all forms of Chinese art. Such a desire is particularly well displayed in the axions of Taijiquan Lun, such as “neither lean nor slant; suddenly hide and suddenly appear,” “if the opponent wants to attack high, one could go higher up to where he cannot get. If he wants to strike low, one could go lower down and induce him to fall from his center,” and “after bending over, one is then bound to extend. The energy is stored in crooked parts and it will be released when the body is straightened.”

Also, as Wang Zongyue put it, “power comes from the spine and steps follow the body’s changes. To gather is to release and to release is to gather. Disconnect but stay connected. In the back and forth of the arms, there must be folding. In the advance and retreat of the feet, there must be variation.”

In the journey of gaining lightness and sensitivities, tai chi properly combines the refined subtlety of fluid body motion and Chinese philosophical essence. 


Wang Gang is from the School of Martial Arts at Wuhan Sports University.