Tai Chi Is the Fastest Martial Art

Q: OK, I’m intrigued—what makes Tai Chi the fastest martial art.

A: Of course, we have to first admit that speed is relative, but let’s come back to that. There are some very simple reasons that Tai Chi is so fast and, really, being the “fastest martial art” isn’t all that big a deal. But to think of a style that moves slowly and ends up being one of the fastest martial arts—that’s a special technique.

Q: What is it?

A: Let’s see if we can mine it for clues. The first reason is that Tai Chi’s attempts to go slowly help it to create a perfect map. Like an engineering drawing, everything’s got to be right; or an architectural drawing—there can be no sloppiness. Now, you will find the same thing in, say, Shaolin, but you have to wait longer, and if don’t have such a great teacher, you may not get it at all—that kind of precision isn’t for everyone.

So, that’s really important, and I would call that the efficiency argument. Along with that comes the second reason: the rhythm argument. Tai Chi’s rhythm is very—how can I say it—accommodating. And when you get caught up in that rhythm, you can often use the rhythm as a means of training, not only speed, but also flow.

Q: Does the fact that it has a rhythm mean that it’s smooth?

A: Yes, by definition, it does mean that.

Q: But there are movements in Tai Chi that go faster or slower…

A:  First of all, you can imagine that anyone who’s using Tai Chi is going to go faster or slower—no one is going to actually use it slow. That’s just the speed at which you practice. It’s very easy, due to the way we perceive things, for people to get into this idea that everything has to be fast. I’ve done seminars where I taught self-defense and I’ve got people coming up afterwards, saying, “Well, that was really boring—why would you do that?” And I would have to say, “ Well, that’s because slow is the best way to start.”

Q: OK, so the first reason for slow movement at the beginning is Efficiency, and the second reason is Rhythm?

A: Students ask, “What’s The Secret? What’s The Secret?” and it’s better to say “It’s not The Secret, it is secrets.” If anything, you could say that the interrelation of secrets is The Secret. That’s not an easy thing in any domain. For Tai Chi, one could say that the evolution from slow to fast is a chain of secrets. Read the Tai Chi bible. Each entry is a secret.

Q: What is it that makes Tai Chi fast?

A: The elimination of variables—so far, as I’ve said, two of those factors are efficiency and rhythm.

I would say by doing the moves slowly, you improve their full speed component. That’s one of the Tai Chi boo-boos: people only practice slow or, less often, only practice fast. Well, just from I’ve pointed out, each method has two sides to it; this should be understood and Tai Chi practiced with that in mind.

Q: What about Chan Ssu Jin (Reeling Silk energy): is that a component of rhythm or efficiency, or is that a third thing?

A: Chan Ssu Jin’s a third thing. It’s not so much that it exists, well…I’m glad you asked me this question because this is the key—not fast or slow, but the relation between the two. So, smooth—or, you might say fluid—and staccato, which is a perfectly valid musical notation, are both faces of Tai Chi.

I’ll tell you something: in most martial training for the past 2000 years people have striven for speed and power—it’s only logical. And I would say in most cases, slow is a method of training, not necessarily a state you want to be in through your entire martial career. Each of the Tai Chi styles, for instance, contains fast movement along with slow; I mean, Yang Style even has a fast set. And, of course, many styles practice speed training throughout.

When I learned Tai Chi I was doing exactly what everyone in the western world was doing—I just imitated the moves and I never asked myself for speed. So it all came backwards. Certainly, you have the ‘qualities,’ like “heavy and light,” “open and close.” And what you find yourself doing is adding these to your practice—if you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher who knows more than just the moves of the set.

Not to overdo it, but the back door was the way the rest of Tai Chi came in, including “slow and fast.” It was almost like martial arts teachers conflicting with each other—not really, but it was the equivalent of one teacher saying, “This is how MY Tai Chi looks,” and another teacher saying, “This is how MY Tai Chi looks.” Really, if you’re using slowness as a major criterion you can make up anything you want. Anyone can move slowly. If, on the other hand, you have slowness, extension, balance—and, yes, speed, all of this—you can at least get rid of a few Jakes from the world of serious practice.

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One Response to “Tai Chi Is the Fastest Martial Art”

  1. Daniel Lammay says:

    The analogy of musical rhythm to the rhythm of taiji is powerfully evocative. When I next practice my long form my intention will be on the warp and weave of smooth and steady with sharp staccato highlights.