Is Tai Chi really difficult to practice? What is the hardest part to learn?

Is Tai Chi really difficult to practice? What is the hardest part to learn? The principles and techniques of Tai Chi are clearly and plainly explained in ancient boxing manuals, indicating that there are no secrets yet to be revealed or uncovered. Previous so-called “decryptions” of Tai Chi were nothing more than empty boasts, attention-seeking gimmicks, or even frauds.

Ancient Tai Chi manuals clearly state that all movements in Tai Chi are formed in response to the opponent’s actions, thus lacking the fancy, bizarre, and complex proactive skills found in some external martial arts. In this sense, Tai Chi is actually simple and easy to learn. However, even the simplest actions can be challenging. For example, who can’t walk? Everyone thinks walking is simple, but tightrope walking is essentially walking. How many people in the world can walk on a tightrope hundreds of meters high above a canyon? Hence, walking also involves difficulty and tricks.

Indeed, no matter how clear and straightforward the principles and techniques of any skill in the world, learning it involves difficulty and tricks; mastering any skill to a high level is even more challenging. Learning Tai Chi is naturally difficult and requires tricks, and for the average person, the difficulty can be quite substantial, even insurmountable for some, hence the saying, “Many practice, but few succeed.” Can this situation be changed? Of course.

As Mr. Yang Chengfu said in “The Application of Tai Chi Boxing,” with proper guidance, one can “become proficient in one year and practice well in five years.” Famous modern Tai Chi masters Pu Bingru and Zheng Manqing were disciples of Mr. Yang Chengfu from the time he arrived in Shanghai until his death, a period of no more than five years.

Thus, those who say “Tai Chi takes ten years to master” are surely outsiders to Tai Chi or those who have a superficial understanding and speak without true knowledge.

Of course, to “become proficient in one year and practice well in five years,” correct guidance is crucial. Without proper guidance, as Mr. Yang Chengfu said, even if one studies for three lifetimes, success would be difficult to achieve. In addition, the learner’s mindset or comprehension is key. If one is arrogant, adheres to conventional martial arts wisdom, and attempts to understand and analyze Tai Chi through the lens of external martial arts, believing that Tai Chi can be integrated with other martial arts, then such a person is described in ancient manuals as “not capable of enlightenment without innate wisdom,” making it extremely difficult for them to understand and learn Tai Chi. Even if one has good initial comprehension, it needs to be nurtured and improved. It often takes more than a year to fully grasp the principles of Tai Chi, so even with correct guidance and comprehension, the “proficiency in one year” often pertains only to the external form, which could also resemble the form of external martial arts.

Therefore, “proficiency in one year” does not necessarily equate to true mastery of Tai Chi. It can be said that “proficiency in one year” does not mean one has truly learned Tai Chi; continued guidance from a teacher is necessary. However, with five years of proper guidance and comprehension, one can reach the level of masters like Pu Bingru and Zheng Manqing, capable of self-improvement. Of course, those who “practice well in five years” have not reached the pinnacle of Tai Chi. They still have differences in skill levels and need further learning and improvement, but they have indeed mastered Tai Chi. Thus, Tai Chi should be considered simple and easy to learn, provided the right guidance and comprehension are present.

But if the two conditions of correct guidance and insight are not fully met, such a person will not only be unable to reach the level of masters like Pu Bingru and Zheng Manqing, but also, if they leave their teacher, they will find further qualification and improvement in Tai Chi extremely difficult, even to the point of stagnating or hesitating indefinitely, and may never fully enter the door of Tai Chi in their lifetime. Thus, learning Tai Chi appears to be very difficult.

Why is Tai Chi so difficult? This is because the principles and techniques of Tai Chi are generally difficult for people to understand. Some people think they understand it but actually misunderstand it, and often misunderstand it completely, which is what the ancient manuals meant by “a miss is as good as a mile, learners must distinguish carefully.”

One of the significant difficulties, expressed in modern language, is that the basic actions of Tai Chi go against the innate instincts of humans and require a reverse way of thinking beyond what is natural for most people. Just from these points, one can gauge the difficulty of Tai Chi. However, if one can change these innate human instincts and transcend the usual way of thinking, then, as some people say, the difficulty of Tai Chi is like a piece of paper covering a window. Before it is pierced, not to mention ten years, three generations would not be able to see what’s on the other side of the paper. Once pierced, everything becomes clear, and overcoming the difficulty is just a matter of time, depending on how much time and effort are invested. In this way, Tai Chi becomes simple and easy to learn. Otherwise, Tai Chi is complex, difficult to learn, or even impossible to master.

So, what is the ultimate difficulty of Tai Chi, or the root of its difficulty? The best expression of this answer is probably what Laozi said in chapter forty-one: “Reversal is the movement of the Dao.” This means “the opposite is a dynamic expression of the universal law.” Tai Chi embodies the very typical manifestation of dialectical unity filled with contradictions. Although not all aspects are contradictory, its essence is contradiction, present everywhere. If one believes that contradictions cannot be dialectically unified, thinking that a circle is just a circle, straight is just straight, assuming opposites can only repel and not complement each other, then Tai Chi becomes inexplicable. To learn it under this belief would be as difficult as ascending to heaven.

In fact, the simplicity and difficulty of learning Tai Chi represent a contradiction, meaning that the complexity and difficulty of learning Tai Chi essentially indicate it is simple and easy, whereas for some people, the simplicity and ease of Tai Chi may manifest as complexity and difficulty.

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