The Tai Chi Rosetta Stone

ted_tc3aThere aren’t many code books for deciphering Kung Fu. Amazing as it seems the centuries have created fewer than a dozen significant texts. Considering that now each month issues more books and articles than the last two thousand years, we can see how rare indeed were those early writings. There were many reasons for this scarcity. First and foremost was illiteracy which, for the last thousand years, has bound 95% of the Chinese population tighter than foot wrapping every did. So few martial artists could read that there was no point in writings things down.

Another good reason was that information such as this could cost a life, a town, even a nation. Like secret weapons plans, the techniques of Kung Fu might turn a battle and reverse defeat. A third reason was that the art itself could hardly be taught without oral instruction in which case, even as now, little that was written down could really be of much use without companion commentary. Unlike the martial factories of today, the bulk of transmission was individual and unique, customized to the talents and restrictions of each person. In other words Chinese martial arts and Chinese medicine were exactly alike specializing in adapting to not only each person but every natural variation in that person.

Of course much great information was preserved but that was often in the forms themselves so hidden and altered that “indecipherable” would be a step up. At times the forms are like secret code garbled by a drunk and while they can yield precious information they also often yield completely misleading nonsense.

But we do have some records. The Tai Chi Classics are of particular interest. To say that they are foundational to Tai Chi Chuan as a style is obvious. In Tai Chi we say that, “If it contradicts the Tai Chi Classics , then it’s not Tai Chi.” But these valued pages might have even wider use…

Tai Chi training methods would literally help any martial artist. Is this because Tai Chi is, after all, the
“Grand Ultimate”, a sort of super martial practice, an elite art? Not really. Let’s consider a completely different scenario, an alternative interpretation that will sound a little like debunking a myth but might end up giving us a discovery of, well, vital importance.

Let us create a hypothetical, non-Disney version where Tai Chi is not the “ultimate martial art”, rather it is an obscure family style in an obscure village mid-China. Invented possibly by a man named Chen or one named Jiang Fa or at least taught to one Chen Wan Ting, Tai Chi takes shape as a series of ten forms which in out version—through the attrition of neglect, maybe some laziness and general attrition, are reduced ultimately to two. Tai Chi is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that, unlike more urban and better known arts, it did not grow—it contracted. And, most significantly, it retained practice methods which many would have been seen as out of date.

This is only half the story but all of the point. It turns out that in reality Tai Chi is a great art because it is just as much a throwback to an unadulterted original creation as a jar of precious “mother of vinegar” or a re-discovered play by Euripides.

The methods of training Tai Chi uses are actually pretty much what all martial artists employed before the “famine and flood” double disaster of China behind conquered by the Manchus and then invaded by gun-toting Western armies. By the point Tai Chi showed up on the popular scene in the Beijing area over 200 years of oppression had depopulated the rosters of martial greats. Tai Chi, a laggard, attracted attention by showing up to the party late.

What ideas demonstrated by Tai Chi and other arts can we use for our practice? Here are a few. Think of them are practice methods, not laws…

GO SLOW. The less speed the more consciousness. The more consciousness the greater precision, it’s that simple. The alternative to this method of refinement through millions of reps. That also works, but going slow can add layers of depth, and save you hours of repetitious movement.

FOLLOW THE OPPONENT, NOT YOURSELF. Stop resisting. Halt all that stubborn force. Eliminate that hard-headed tendency to push back. Yes, you will lose in practice — a lot. But you will get better and better until your even your non-resistance is hard for your opponent to manage. THEN the time will come for learning counter-attacking with force.

USE MIND, NOT FORCE: If you say to yourself, “lift one hand” and your hand lifts immediately, you probably aren’t using Tai Chi principles. If you decide to lift your hand and remain conscious during the lifting period then you are closer indeed.You have taken a step closer to the “expert problem” which involves distinguishing between good results and great results. Real experts tend to take things slowly and methodically. Don’t blink mentally. Be present at all times.

I could go on. Read the classics and forget they are talking about Tai Chi. These twelve or so pages could trim months of wrong-headed detours from your martial journey.


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