Interview: Is Tai Chi a Martial Art?

interview by Debbie Shayne

Like riddles? “When is a martial art not a martial art?” Well, the apparent answer, at least according to posters tacked to telephone poles, videos in drugstore spinning racks, and ads where instructors hug redwood trees is “When it’s T’ai Chi”. Yet this has never rung true to me. Perhaps it’s because, for the last few decades, I’ve hung around with, photographed, and studied with so many martial artists who commonly discuss this topic. I’ve visited Chen Village, the birthplace of T’ai Chi, where they definitely consider it a martial art. I guess I’m prejudiced. But, to me, the martial aspect is self-evident; yet I still wondered about the specifics: How did the idea get started? What’s the relation of martial to health practice? How does the whole picture fit together?

For information on our sources see the end of this interview…

I don’t think I’m all alone in this. In fact, I would venture that the majority of T’ai Chi players feel some confusion on these issues. So I decided to investigate, by questioning three thoughtful and dedicated teachers of T’ai Chi, all of whom are deeply involved in preserving traditional martial arts, and all of them with schools directly affected by this issue.

adambw2Through discussions and written correspondence, Sifu Adam Hsu addressed this issue. “Of course T’ai Chi Chuan is a martial art style. But at the beginning of the Republic, around 1911, T’ai Chi “switched gears” and developed more into a health exercise. Had it strictly kept the martial art format, it would not be accepted by so many people; in other words, not as many people would be able to do T’ai Chi Chuan. But as a martial art, its spirit is strong and outreaching, containing attacking or defensive movement, which means when we do T’ai Chi Chuan our mental state never – well, almost never – shifts away from the martial art, the usage.” He explained that the stances for instance all represent possible kicks or close range knee attacks. And T’ai Chi does punch and strike, with lots of takedowns, holding and grabbing techniques.

“Just judging by the movements themselves, you have a martial art.” said Ted Mancuso, ” T’ai Chi is a healthful exercise and a form of play. But T’ai Chi moves also have a purpose. It contains the attitudes and disciplines of a martial art. The body must be correctly aligned, the centerline must be covered, so the martial attitude is expressed in the functioning of the moves. All those ideas are encompassed in the Chinese idea of a martial art. “


Next, the question of the specific flavor of T’ai Chi arose. “T’ai Chi principles are in all of Kung Fu,” explained Sifu Linda Darrigo. She detailed some of these aspects as ‘connected’, ‘progressing’, and ‘circular’, performed with various tempos, then defined T’ai Chi’s specialty: the ability to adhere to an opponent’s movement and neutralize the initial force to redirect it.

However, Sifu Hsu pointed out, nowadays many people do T’ai Chi Chuan”…more like a slow motion exercise, and you cannot find the martial flavor in that kind of performance.” Even so, Sifu Hsu says, “As long as you do it as a martial art, you will show the martial flavor; then its almost everywhere. It’s pretty hard to say what the flavor is, because the style is so complete. Others specialize – like Ba Gua, which utilizes a palm strike – but in T’ai Chi it’s really everything.”

ph_tedtangelbwASifu Mancuso answered: “T’ai Chi is concerned with the practitioner staying in an envelope of movement; this creates a shape closer to the form a wrestler might have. Within that shape, T’ai Chi’s flavor is one of military engagement; T’ai Chi is about strategy, tactics, positioning, withdrawal and lightning attacks.”

In discussing the martial benefits of T’ai Chi, Sifu Darrigo offered, “The martial takes the student to a healthier level, because it involves the whole body in the mechanics of doing the moves.” Sifu Mancuso added that, “T’ai Chi starts you from the position where you’re functioning less than normal, and keeps going until you are functioning above normal, unlike Western medical practice which simply repairs things.”

Sifu Hsu wrote, “I want to emphasize that it’s because it’s a martial art that you have to use every part of your body, get into the details.” When moving the whole body, exercise is more complete. “In other arts you might move your arms or legs, but you must move your torso too. The most needed area in exercise is the torso. Arms and legs – you’re using them everyday. But the torso area – you know it’s really very scary – days – come on – even weeks go by and you never really move it. But all of our internal organs are situated there. If the torso isn’t exercising enough, this means the internal organs aren’t exercising enough. When people do T’ai Chi Chuan the real way, the original way, they could use it as a martial art but at the same time they earn their health. “

I knew, from my own association with martial artists, that there is a trend among many new students to actually avoid the martial aspects of T’ai Chi training. I asked each Sifu about this situation, how they dealt with people who did not want to learn the martial aspects at all.

Sifu Hsu explained his view that some people, of course, didn’t qualify physically or mentally to do T’ai Chi Chuan as a martial art; they want to do it as an exercise and he encourages them, even those whose purpose is a kind of cultural exchange. He frankly admitted that he admires that, he never refuses to teach these students . “I just teach them as a health exercise. They’re getting their health. They’re satisfied with me and with my class. It makes everybody happy. Not everyone wants to learn a martial art.” But he explains that he doesn’t call this health exercise “T’ai Chi Chuan”, but T’ai Chi Chiao – Chiao, meaning physical exercise.

ph_tedbw“The answer to this question will vary exactly to the degree that the student wants to disassociate from the martial,” said Sifu Mancuso. “I had a lady who, when she came to Tangle exclaimed with astonishment, ‘That’s a punch !’ I never saw her again. But I make everyone do the martial art anyway because it’s more efficient for them. And working with a partner will give you an experience that you wouldn’t have practicing on your own for ten times the amount of effort.”

Unlike many teachers who try to finish the assignment of the Solo Set, Sifu Mancuso breaks down each move, with particular emphasis on posture and pathways, then has students work segments of the move singly and together. Finally, he takes the entire movement, given the self defense situation, varying the application so students never get fixated on one method.

I wondered about the differences between the various T’ai Chi styles; did the martial application vary greatly from, say, Yang to Chen?

ph_lindasaberbwASifu Darrigo gave the example that Chen is seated lower, there are fa jing related movements, and the usage is more evident; Yang seems gentler and Wu has smaller movements, smaller circles. “But the principles are the same across the board.” Sifu Hsu also pointed to the similarities. “You can grab any T’ai Chi book, all the texts are the same or similar, based on the same principles, they share the T’ai Chi Classics.”

“There is a saying that ‘all T’ai Chi is one’,” explained Sifu Mancuso. “I think the problems one deals with in T’ai Chi are just about the same in every style.” He said the problem is the way styles are taught: completely backwards, unlike the traditional way . The primary goal of teachers nowadays is to teach the set, but it should be reversed: the set should be a long term goal and the exercises, the curriculum, the methodology should be the short term goal. In the applications, the styles look much more alike. “It’s like a clock. Every teacher’s going around it but they start at different numbers. When people see differences among the styles, they are judging from the first year or two of training. This makes the styles appear very different, but they ultimately resolve themselves to be pretty much the same.”

The next question – Is it valid to distinguish internal styles for health and external styles for martial purposes? – garnered a resounding “No!” from all three teachers.

Sifu Darrigo stated bluntly that there is no such separation; it just has to do with a level of approach. Sifu Mancuso agreed that the distinction is absolutely invalid, while Sifu Hsu simply called it a lie.

adambw3Sifu Hsu elaborated, “Some masters have told people: when you do ‘internal style’, you don’t have to lower your leg, change your shoes, you don’t have to bend your knee, do you believe this? Martial artists still need to eat their rice, but I think this is too much. Several masters got their names known by doing this, not just in T’ai Chi, but in Hsing I, Bagua; and that’s when people lumped them together and called them internal. But that’s a big misconception and still widely spread. First of all, there’s no such thing as internal/external styles. There are different LEVELS. The lowest levels are external, and when you can reach the higher levels, you can start to learn the internal. Trying to place the internal with health and the external with the martial is pretty smart and stupid at the same time.”

Sifu Mancuso commented, “This whole idea of internal and external is again a matter of where you start on the clock. The masters, realizing that only a few students would stay very long, emphasized styles where you could start on the internal part of the training before you started on the external. This particular style of teaching put posture, breathing, relaxation first even though it’s all low level. Ultimately it’s the same curriculum in a different order. Since very few people get very far, T’ai Chi’s now considered an “internal” style. There’s no such thing as internal styles. There’s only internal training.”

Then what about the complicated issue of the distinction between usage and self-defense? Sifu Mancuso absolutely distinguished between usage and self defense. “Self defense is a particular answer to a particular problem. Usage is taking one of those answers and practicing it with a mind toward perfecting a type of energy or body relationship – in other words, a theme. Think of usage as learning to throw a baseball and self defense as specific pitches. We teach both the specific self defense and the general usage.”

ph_lindabwBSifu Darrigo told me she doesn’t teach just self defense. “That approach is not accurate at all. There is usage in regards to all that you do. It is an overall comprehension, an overall usage. One movement has many usages.”

Sifu Hsu also defined them as entirely different, saying that when people learn a martial art they must do usage, because it is a martial art. “When people learn usage, they can defend themselves. They don’t have to take another class called self-defense; a self-defense class is NOT a martial art class. A self defense class is supposed to teach, number one, common sense; that’s more important than any technique you can teach in a self defense class. I see many martial artists teaching self defense, and most of them I don’t agree with. The movement they are teaching must have some martial art background; this is my most conservative opinion: most self defense classes are helping the bad guys. If I haven’t learned so-called self defense, I can run away; I can press my knee to the ground and beg for my life or yell for help. I have a chance at least. But if you really believe in your self-defense training, you’re just helping yourself get killed. This is not a happy matter, I feel pretty bad. People cheat themselves when they learn just one or two techniques: can you believe this? If two guys attack me I can take care of them one at a time; then there’s a knife attack or a pistol pointing at me, and how can I take the pistol from his hand? Oh my god, that’s a kung fu movie.”

What about partner practice – is it essential to learning T’ai Chi?

All touted its benefits in advancing the student’s understanding of the application and meaning of the solo form, not to adambw1mention offering an alternative to long hours of individual practice. Sifu Hsu wrote, “Practice alone is hard to continue after a while; we get lazy, we’re all human. A partner in class always helps.” Sifu Mancuso thought, “All this is not to mention the sense of community that’s developed, the cooperation which itself is a pretty good martial strategy. When people are doing the set next to one another that’s also partner practice. You see through other’s examples many different ways to deal with the problems of T’ai Chi. Partner practice allows you to deal with a controllable reality. At first you think everything that goes wrong is because of your partner. Then you realize that possibly you aren’t so perfect either!”

Sifu Darrigo’s opinion was that, “…although it’s not essential for health, it is highly recommended, because it deepens a student’s understanding.” She and Sifu Hsu both emphasized that it is essential to the martial art. “Most people do it as a health exercise,” explained Sifu Hsu. “You don’t need a partner that much. But, if you’re doing a martial art, eventually you have to do free sparring and you need a partner before you can face the enemy. Push hands is good practice, where lots of ideas start; you need a partner to do that. The purpose of push hands practice is to prepare for real usage.”

Sifu Mancuso outlined the three levels of training in T’ai Chi: single practice like Ch’i Kung, parallel practice where the group is performing together, and partner practice where you test your skills, listening and posture with a specific individual “T’ai Chi has to do with a strategic relationship to other people. The system is brilliant. All you have to do is use it.”

So, according to these Sifus, the solution to the riddle is false. Not only is T’ai Chi a martial art, the martial actually enhances the style’s well-known health attributes. In other words, martial usage determines the depth and efficacy of the benefits. As Sifu Hsu put it, “This article will remind people that T’ai Chi Chuan not was, but still is, a martial art.”

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