Vancouver Traditional Martial Arts Academy

Tai Chi And The Way Of The Fist

“It is a self defense exercise that can make your body strong. In the use of this exercise, there are a hundred benefits without one harm. 

-Ts’ai Chueh-ming

It is common these days to see pictures of people doing Tai Chi or Tai Chi inspired postures alongside advertisements and newsletters in various health publications. Tai Chi has been slowly entrenching itself into the alternative medicine world as a profound practice with many similarities to Yoga. It has also been receiving some attention by mainstream medicine as many of it’s physical health benefits are easily documented within the requirements of scientific study. These things are great for both the world and the art itself and I hope the awareness of Tai Chi’s many benefits become even more understood and accepted by society in general. However as a traditional practitioner I am also concerned that the art does not become watered down as an excuse to make it more palatable for the general public.

Tai Chi is a term that stems form China’s very old and very profound system of knowledge known as Daoism (often spelled Taoism). One of the basic premises of the Daoist world view is an understanding of how all phenomenon that exist, exist within a balance of polarities. There is light so there must be dark, up-down, left-right, masculine-feminine, and so on. It is understood that when you have one you by necessity must have the other.

In the case of Doaist philosophy the two core polarities are called Yin and Yang. All things are considered to be a balance between these two fundamental energies and the goal of human life is to attain a perfect balance of Yin and Yang within yourself. This idea of perfected inner balance is similar to what most people would refer to as enlightenment. So when this idea is made manifest it is considered tai chi as tai indicates a perfected or supreme point of balance and chi simply means energy. In this sense any masterful artist can achieve tai chi in the context of their art.

It is here that the misunderstandings often stem from. The graceful and meditative movement art practiced as Tai Chi requires the character or term Chuan added to make it an accurate description of what the practice was designed as. Chuan simply means fist. Anyone familiar with martial art history or even it’s movie history will be familiar with hearing about the fist, way of the fist, fists of fury, seven star fist etc. This is an obvious acknowledged of the critical importance of the clenched fist in any Martial Art.

The fist not only allows the strongest martial way of holding the hand but it also can be seen as the aligning of the elemental energies of fire and metal in the body. More than that the fist is completely unique human ability. Our great ape relatives cannot make fists as we do and so the fist does hold a special place in our evolution.

It was during the time of Yang Lu Ch’an (1799-1872) that the term Tai Chi Chuan became distinctly applied to the art now practiced the world over. Before that time Tai Chi Chuan was sometimes known as  “Cotton Fist” but was largely unknown due to the secrecy of the Chen family who maintained their version of the art for many previous generations. I have read at least one account that it was after a demonstration by Yang Lu Ch’an that a well known Chinese poet first used the term Tai Chi to describe master Yang’s art. Master Yang was proving that his “soft’ art was a viable and effective martial art by a willingness to face any and all fighters in hand to hand combat, something he spend around ten years doing. He was never beaten, nor as accounts go even reasonably challenged.

This is why the word Chuan is used in the title.  Tai Chi can be many things but Tai Chi Chuan is specifically a martial art. This also reflects the idea that the deepest and most profound benefits of the art are embedded in the learning of it’s martial applications. I often use the analogy that Tai Chi is like a great mansion with endless rooms and passageways. When you begin training its like being offered keys to the front door but if you don’t learn the martial applications it is like living in a tent in the yard.

This idea may seem hard to understand initially but if one spends some time reflecting on what the knowledge of self defense offers it usually begins to make sense. Compassion, humility, and honor are the fruits of spiritual labor and to truly develop them one must have confidence. Any lack of self valuation is like poison to the spiritual progress and must be addressed if one is to gain any inner clarity and begin to know peace. In learning a effective self defense a person can see in a literal and personally embodied fashion that they can take care of themselves regardless of what may come their way. This is crucial to health both physically and mentally and without this inner strengthening achieving tai chi or supreme balance is not possible.

We live in a world with limitless possibilities which means some of those possibilities are very negative. Fear is the root of all that burdens humanity. In seeking and becoming all that we can, we must accept and face these dark and often unpleasant truths. However with the aid of Tai Chi Chuan (and other equally complete martial art systems) we can be empowered to face anything with confidence, solid rooting and grace. This is why Tai Chi and the way of the fist are one.

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