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Wu Wenhao: Three Aspects of the Definition of Tai Chi Chuan

Regarding the definition of Tai Chi Chuan, it has always been a controversial issue. Most people believe that Tai Chi Chuan is related to the philosophy of the Book of Changes (Zhouyi), emphasizing Tai Chi, Yin and Yang, Eight Trigrams, and Five Elements, hence the name Tai Chi Chuan. However, this statement is not entirely accurate. The theories of Tai Chi, Yin and Yang, Eight Trigrams, and Five Elements are macroscopic guiding principles of Chinese culture, serving as a philosophical foundation that influences various aspects of traditional Chinese culture, including military strategy, traditional medicine, and many martial arts styles. Therefore, the explanation that Tai Chi Chuan is named after the Tai Chi theory is not appropriate.

So, what is Tai Chi Chuan? I believe its definition encompasses three aspects.

The first aspect is its basic principles. The name “Tai Chi” for martial arts emerged only in the late Qing Dynasty, as evident from Li Yiyu’s “Old Three Manuscripts” around 1881. Before that, during the time of Yang Luchan and Wu Yuxiang, Tai Chi Chuan was referred to as “Thirteen Postures” (Shisan Shi). The modern forms of Tai Chi Chuan (Yang Style, Wu Style, Sun Style) are based on Wu Yuxiang’s “Thirteen Postures,” which consist of over fifty movements. Although different Tai Chi Chuan styles have their own variations, they all share a similarity in the names and sequencing of movements based on these “Thirteen Postures.” The Thirteen Postures include techniques such as warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, and so on. The movements are based on the principles of the Eight Methods and Five Steps, incorporating forward and backward movements, as well as lateral movements like “Cloud Hands.” The concept of “ding” (central stability) is crucial, regardless of moving forward, backward, or looking left or right, one must maintain central stability. While different Tai Chi Chuan styles may have distinct stylistic variations, they all adhere to these “Thirteen Postures” as the fundamental principles. Therefore, the basic principles of Tai Chi Chuan are not derived from the Book of Changes, Eight Trigrams, Yin and Yang, or Five Elements, but rather from the “Thirteen Postures” and Wang Zongyue’s “Tai Chi Chuan Treatise.” The treatises by Wu Yuxiang and Wang Zongyue constitute the theoretical elements of Tai Chi Chuan, and each Tai Chi Chuan style has its own development based on these fundamental elements. In the Republican era, some individuals attributed these elements to Zhang Sanfeng, as Xu Yusheng did, for example. However, regardless of such claims, Tai Chi Chuan cannot be separated from these elements in Wang Zongyue’s, Wu Yuxiang’s, and Li Yiyu’s treatises. In any discipline, its theoretical foundation is of utmost importance, and Tai Chi Chuan is no exception. The reason it is called Tai Chi Chuan is because it shares a common theoretical foundation.

The second aspect is its form, which includes training content and teaching methods. Tai Chi Chuan has its own distinct characteristics in terms of form and training content, distinguishing it from other martial arts styles. The performance and presentation of Tai Chi Chuan are generally characterized by a relaxed, gentle, and elegant demeanor, unlike the more aggressive martial arts prevalent in northern China at the time. This distinction was achieved by incorporating the participation of literati and intellectuals. In the past, martial arts rarely attracted the involvement of intellectuals. When Tai Chi Chuan spread to Yongnian, Wu Yuxiang, who was a scholar, infused Confucian culture into Tai Chi Chuan, integrating culture into martial arts and transforming it into a refined art. For instance, in push hands, while the original Chen family style employed a sideways stance to facilitate strikes, in Yongnian, the stance became a square-on posture, reflecting the influence of Confucian culture. As Confucianism emphasizes the importance of an upright stance, Wu Yuxiang emphasized the need for an upright and centered posture in Tai Chi Chuan, with support from all directions. This upright and centered stance is not only a requirement for martial arts but also a reflection of cultural values. It is precisely because of the infusion of culture into martial arts that Tai Chi Chuan is characterized by a gentle and relaxed form, incorporating both strength and softness—an embodiment of Confucian culture. In terms of training methods, Tai Chi Chuan begins with slow practice, gradually incorporating faster movements for combat purposes, but the primary focus is on slow practice to cultivate energy and spirit. The training content includes fundamental exercises, forms practice, weapon training, and pushing hands and free sparring exercises. Particularly, push hands training is an important characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan.

The third aspect is its social impact. The social reputation and popularity of Tai Chi Chuan have increased. While many other martial arts styles have a longer history than Tai Chi Chuan, they are not as widely practiced. The reason for this is that Tai Chi Chuan possesses unique characteristics that other martial arts styles do not have. Firstly, it has a complete theoretical system. Secondly, it has a complete training method. And thirdly, its practice is suitable for people of all ages, genders, and social statuses. Everyone can benefit from practicing Tai Chi Chuan. These three characteristics, especially the third one, have contributed to the widespread popularity of Tai Chi Chuan both domestically and internationally.

The popularization of Tai Chi Chuan in society began after 1928 when the Nationalist Government actively promoted it. After the liberation, Tai Chi Chuan became a form of national sports and became even more popular. This led to the emergence of the term “Tai Chi exercise.” Since it is considered exercise, there is no need to consider the combat meaning of the movements or the martial arts’ spirit and internal energy cultivation. It does not require focusing on thoughts or intentions but only involves physical movements. Later on, to enhance the performance effect, dance movements were added, giving rise to Tai Chi dance. These developments have occurred in the past twenty to thirty years to meet different needs, but they have reduced the martial effectiveness of Tai Chi Chuan. So, what are Tai Chi exercise and Tai Chi dance? They are not created based on the fundamental principles of Tai Chi Chuan, nor do they strictly follow its training methods and content. They only include some movements that resemble Tai Chi Chuan but lack its essence. Nowadays, there are many people practicing Tai Chi Chuan and many instructors teaching it, but there are very few people who truly study Tai Chi Chuan. This is a worrisome situation.

In summary, Tai Chi Chuan cannot be separated from the three elements mentioned above. In modern society, due to social development, Tai Chi Chuan is primarily performed and practiced for exercise and fitness, referred to as “Tai Chi exercises” and “Tai Chi dance” by people. To develop Tai Chi Chuan, in my personal opinion, it should still be practiced and promoted based on its traditional theory, Martial arts training methods, and content. Tai Chi Chuan should maintain its original style and characteristics.

  • Wu Wenhao

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