The Different Types of Taiji

People frequently ask me about the different types of Taijiquan (T’ai Chi Ch’uan). One way to answer this question is to talk about the different systems or lineages of practice (e.g., Chen style, Yang style). However, to me it is more interesting and important to differentiate types of Taiji in terms of how the art is taught and for what reason it is practiced. Here I’ll briefly discuss three variants of Taijiquan – Taiji as a Martial Art, Taiji as Internal Cultivation, and Taiji as Low Impact Exercise. This is one way of looking at Taiji and is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion on the topic (and I welcome comments).

Taijiquan as a Martial Art

Taijiquan literally means “Taiji Fist” – 太極拳.  As that name suggests, the origin of Taijiquan was in military and civilian self-defense practices. There are popular legends about Taiji being developed by Daoists high atop Wu Dang Mountain, or being developed by Zhang Sanfeng, one of the Immortals who lived in that same mountain range. However, these origin stories are developments of, at the earliest, the end of the 19th century and are nothing more than cultural fantasy sometimes fueled by western Orientalism. And while we’re here, the story of Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist patriarch, having created Shaolin martial arts is just as big a fantasy that has no basis in history or reality.

The historically verifiable story of Taiji’s creation is more mundane. Taiji as the martial art that we know today was developed by a retired Ming Dynasty military general by the name of Chen Wangting (1580-1660). Chen also worked providing security to merchant caravans as they traveled through bandit-infested parts of China. While in the military Chen had training in various weapons, in empty hand techniques such as wrestling, and in military strategy, and as a soldier he had the opportunity to use his acquired skills in real life or death situations. In retirement, Chen took these techniques home with him to the rest of his extended family.

It seems clear that the empty-hand martial arts Chen practiced and taught were influenced by the popular military writings and teachings of Qi Jiguang, another Ming Dynasty general. In the original Chen style Taiji the practice of slow empty hand forms that most people associated with Taiji practice was just one, and perhaps the most basic of training methods (albeit a fundamental one). In addition there were, and still are, fast forms that require much more strength and agility (the Cannon Fist forms 炮捶), short weapons forms (straight sword 劍 and broad sword 刀), long weapons forms (the spear 槍), and even heavy military weapons forms (the halberd 大刀, the 9 foot long infantry spear 大杆/大槍, and the heavy mace 鐧). After solo practice, there were partnered practice routines as well as grappling and joint mobilization techniques.

Aside from the physical and practical self-defense skills in the system, Chen also blended his martial arts routines with breathing and visualization practices such as Dao-yin 導引 and Neidan 內丹 / Neigong 內功, the forerunners of modern Qigong. These types of exercises as aids in staving off disease and encouraging longevity were quite popular among the literate elite of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The combination of martial arts practice with self-cultivation created a practice that was useful on many levels, and for many years as a person’s training goals changed over time. This is not something that would have been unusual in Chen's day, and he was not alone in doing so. Even the famous Shaolin monks were doing the same, and starting to practice martial arts for both health and spiritual development.

Taijiquan as a valid martial art still exists today, although it is becoming harder and harder to find. In order for Taiji to be useful as a martial art there have to be certain aspects of training present. Here is a list that I would consider important.

  • A variety of forms training: To be effective as self-defense there needs to be a variety of forms practice, including both the slower forms we normally associate with Taiji practice as well as the faster forms. If we do not practice executing movements at real speed, then we will not be able to do it when the need arises. It is simply wishful thinking to assume that doing a move slowly over and over will translate to a fast and accurate movement when the need arises under stress (i.e., in a fight). Think of a baseball player. They practice swinging a bat slowly to develop form, but then they practice swinging at real speed. You can’t only practice slow swings and then go into a game and assume everything will be fine at real speed.
  • Weapons forms and training: In ancient times this was essential. In modern times I’ll file this under very, very important but perhaps not critical. That said, I think weapons forms help us learn to handle items that can be used as fighting tools. Even though in a real modern fight I may not have a sword, my familiarity with holding something like a sword, or like a mace, can help with improvised weapons. For example, if I see a stick, or am carrying an umbrella, these items can be used as improvised weapons based on weapons patterns learned in practice. In my own regular practice I prefer to work with real/live weapons. In other words the straight sword I use is traditional weight and is sharpened. The maces I used are steel and heavy, and the long staff/spear is as well. For me this means I need to pay more attention to what I am doing when holding these weapons, and the heavier weight in and of itself increases the exercise value of training. The other thing that weapons forms teach us is better body mechanics. For example, the use of the 9-foot pole trains how to use the waist effectively for power generation.
  • Partnered practice: Partnered practice in Taijiquan takes several forms. The two most common are push-hands and form applications. Push-hands itself is not fighting, but it does train the sensitivity to timing, distance, targeting, and balance necessary in fighting. It is also how we test if we are actually applying principles correctly, and because of this, without push-hands, at best we only train half of Taijiquan. Forms application teaches actual practical techniques, which include striking as well as joint mobilization and grappling. My current Shifu was a Qin-na 擒拿 (joint locking) instructor for members of the Beijing Police Department in the late 80s and early 90s. Police were learning these techniques to subdue perpetrators, and the techniques they were learning were from Taijiquan. If we never practice with other partners and only do solo practice, we will not be able to use techniques in actual self-defense situations.
  • You have to hit things: I’ll say that again. You have to hit things. When people get into their first fight and punch someone else for the very first time, often they are surprised at how much it hurts their own fist or wrist. If you’ve never hit something before, then you won’t be nearly as effective in a self-defense situation. When I lived and trained in Okinawa, we hit makiwara regularly. These are stiff but slightly flexible striking posts. This was done at every training session, several times per week, and it conditioned our fists, our arms, and our wrists, and it prepared us to strike an opponent. Today I value my hand more and use a heavy bag while wearing bag gloves instead of hitting hard pieces of wood. But, if you never hit something and condition your body to hit something, it will not be available for you under the stress of a real self-defense situation.

All of these things were part of traditional martial arts practice. Yet, few Taiji teachers incorporate anything more than a portion in their classes. When I first trained in Taiji I studied with a fairly famous and highly regarded teacher, one that purported to teach Taiji as a martial art. We did forms practice and some very basic push-hands, but in over 5 years of training we were never shown or asked to practice a single form application. If I had not trained in Karate for 15 years prior to my Taiji training, I would have not had any even basic self-defense ability.

For example, Yang Luchan was the founder of Yang Style Taiji who, while in Beijing, taught Taiji as a martial art to Imperial guards. I have heard some Taiji teachers say that it takes at least 10 years to learn to use Taiji to fight. If that were really the case, it would be a very, very poor martial art. Imagine taking a young imperial guard and telling them (and their boss the Emperor), that they wouldn’t be ready for 10 years! Guards would have had to be proficient in practical fighting in a short period of time. The only reason Taiji takes 10 years to learn to use is because the teacher doesn’t know how to use it, or they just don’t really want to teach it.

Taijiquan as Internal Cultivation

As mentioned above, Taijiquan was created by blending martial arts regimens with the various practices of self-cultivation popular in China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. These included all sorts of meditative practices, and practices related to internal visualization of organs, and the movement of vital substance, known as Qi 氣 in Chinese. Indeed, each movement of the Taiji forms has breathing and visualization patterns that can be practiced in addition to the physical movement.

Modern research has identified many benefits of meditation and breathing exercises such as Qigong (the modern form of the same exercises that were incorporated into Taiji practice). Traditional Taiji, in other words Taiji that also includes the Qigong-like aspects of practice, is very much a type of moving meditation. This has long-term health benefits beyond the value of Taiji solely as a low impact exercise.

Again, like the martial arts version of Taiji, this version of Taiji is becoming harder and harder to find. One of the reasons for this is that it requires a longer time commitment to training for a teacher to be able to transmit the information well and to do it safely. Some students, especially those with a history of certain mental illnesses, should not practice this type of Taiji or other similar practices such as Qigong. Qigong Psychosis is a real potential side effect that was known both in ancient times and is still seen today. In the western DSM-IV (the manual used by psychiatrists and psychologists to make diagnoses), this is formally recognized as a disease called, “Qigong Psychotic Reaction.”

It is simply not possible for someone certified as a Taiji or Qigong teacher in a short course of sometimes just 30 or so hours, or to be qualified to competently teach this type of material to students in the same short period of time. At best they will be ineffective and at worst dangerous. In my own experience, I was a private student of my Shifu for several years before he accepted me as a formal disciple and certified me as a teacher (and this was after I had practiced other martial arts for about 30 years and was a professional doctor of Chinese medicine with over 15 years experience).

Taijiquan as Low Impact Exercise

The third type of Taijiquan is Taijiquan taught as a type of low impact exercise. This is the most common type of Taiji taught today. In this form of Taiji all movements are slow and all movements are soft, which is in contrast to traditional Taiji where there is a very real mix of slow and fast, and movements are relaxed but not soft (hence the traditional description of Taiji is “steel wrapped in cotton”). Most of the Taiji being taught at YMCAs or Yoga studios, or Taiji marketed to older adults, is this type of exercise Taiji.

I should pause here and say that I am not against this type of Taiji. It has real and significant health benefits that have been verified by modern research. Included in this list are improved gait and balance, lower blood pressure, improved control of blood glucose levels, and increased density of bones to name just a few. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide practicing Taiji as low impact exercise get immense benefits from doing so. It is also significantly easier to learn and practice, and to train people to teach.

This Taiji seems to really have started becoming popular when the Yang family started teaching Yang Style Taiji openly to the public in the 20th century. They stripped out most fast movements from the Taiji forms, and even stopped teaching some of the core weapons of the system publically. This is why today Yang Taiji is the most widely practiced system, and the one that is most commonly seen being practiced as a simple health regimen.

Different people naturally have different reasons to train. I was an avid martial artist when younger, but today it is not my only focus and reason to train. While I value the self-defense aspect of training and appreciate learning it, I equally value the benefits of self-cultivation (so perhaps I’d categorize my own personal practice as a mix between the first two types of training listed above). That said I have quite a few older patients in my clinic, people suffering from common conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes. A patient who starts Taiji training in their 70s and beyond rarely does so for the self-defense value. This is all fine, and I think it is a beautiful thing that a practice born of warfare and conflict can bring health and healing on so many levels to so many people. There is room for all these Taiji approaches to coexist, and for Taiji to mean different things to different practitioners. Yet, I believe the best Taiji teachers are those who have had experience with and can teach all three types of Taiji described here.


Push Hands

Master Wang Fengming and Dr. Henry McCann demonstrating Push Hands in Anhui, China (August 2017). Push Hands is an essential exercise in classical Taijiquan.