Two Models Of Tai Chi - The Popular And The Classical

Origins of the Popular Style

In many ways T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Taijiquan) is a mysterious and elusive art. This is not surprising as it has had a fairly shrouded past, like many of the Chinese martial arts. Till fairly recently, life and death combat were common place in China and so it was important to keep the secrets of the martial arts well hidden within families and clans. The arrival of western firearms in China and the defeat of Qing dynasty's troops in the late 19th century had an enormous negative impact on traditional martial arts training, and made this need for secrecy less important. Yet a reluctance to reveal the essence of these arts still seems to linger amongst the Chinese community to this day. For example, some important aspects of the Yang family style training were not revealed by the family to the public till the 1950s, and still others have come to light only in the decades since then.

The Yang family were the first Tai Chi family in China to popularise and spread the art to the masses in the 1920s and 1930s. At this time China was known as "the sick man of Asia" because of the impact of the colonizing powers, and it seems Yang family members decided to spread the art out of patriotic motives - to help improve the health and fitness of the Chinese people. Yang Cheng Fu, the grandson of the founder of the Yang style Yang Lu chan (1799-1872), has been described as the father of modern T'ai Chi because he popularised it in China in the early 20th century


Yang Chengfu (1883-1936)

However, when you popularise an art - when you mass-produce it, so to speak - you cannot go into the depth and length involved in the traditional approach to training required for the real mastery of the art. Consequently, on the one hand, the true art was kept secret within the family in time-honoured Chinese fashion, and on the other, a necessarily more superficial version was spread to the masses. From China the popularised version spread in turn throughout the Far East and into the West where it is has gone through phases of being fashionable during the twentieth century. Currently it is very fashionable.

The Yin and the Yang of the Art

So basically you have two versions or models of Tai Chi - a popularised version and the authentic, classical art of the family. This has created a bit of a dilemma for the art and, as a result, a certain amount of controversy. For example, in China it is well known that Tai Chi is a martial art. The family demonstrated this in public, and the Chinese people know about the martial origins of the art – it is part of their history and culture. However, during this phase of popularisation people began increasingly to practice it mainly for its health benefits (again this was partly to do with the advent of firearms making the traditional martial arts training seem redundant).

Originally the art was designed to make you fit and healthy so that you could fight effectively. You can't fight very well or for very long if you're not healthy. The training was designed to produce both health and self-defence skills based on the same principles.

As a result of this divergence there are those who say they practice tai chi primarily for self defence, those who practice it for its aesthetic appeal (wushu), and those who are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health. The wushu aspect is primarily for show; the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability. 

More traditional stylists believe the two aspects of health and martial arts are equally necessary: the yin and yang of tai chi chuan. The tai chi "family" schools therefore still present their teachings in a martial art context whatever the intention of their students in studying the art. Yang Chengfu in his book Practical Applications of Tai Chi translated by Douglas Wiles said: "In Tai Chi Chuan, the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Tai Chi Chuan method is the true Tai Chi Chuan method. The ability to teach the art of self cultivation and self- defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Tai Chi Chuan".

A well known author of Tai chi books talks of the combat side of Tai Chi as the yang side and the meditation-in-movement/health side of it as the yin side. He claims that we have overemphasised the yin side of the art in the West and not engaged, therefore, with the full art. His own study of T'ai Chi has convinced him that this was purely a Western phenomenon, not shared by the T'ai Chi population in East Asia, and especially not shared by the Chinese of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He feels that the yin emphasis has become, in his view, a kind of prejudice.

One reason he suggest for the other side of the art remaining largely in the background in the West, is that T'ai Chi became popular during the 'hippie' era of the nineteen sixties and seventies. During this period the youth of the West turned very much against war and violence of any kind. This was the period of Vietnam War protests, flower power, marijuana smoking, LSD, and alternative culture. It involved very much the attitude of turning the other cheek, and yielding, and the soft, yin nature of tai chi performance fitted in very well with this attitude. This was also a time when the 'body/mind/spirit' movement began to take off and the mystical, meditative side of tai chi was seen as a legitimate part of this.

Tai Chi is not just a Health Exercise

These days Tai Chi is relentlessly advertised in the West only as a health system, best suited to older people. Because of the emphasis on it solely as a health exercise there are many misconceptions about its practical use for self defence in the West – often it is dismissed derisively - "how can such slow-motion movements ever be used for combat?" This is a mistake. In the East it is known for its potent martial abilities and even as a "premier" martial art.

Unquestionably, Tai chi has become very popular in the last few decades, as the baby boomers age and the art's reputation for ameliorating the effects of aging has become well established. Now whilst there is a valid and justifiable role for this 'popular' version being taught in hospitals, clinics, community and senior centres in communities around the world, it is a shame that this seems to be happening at the price of eclipsing knowledge of the depths of the classical art. In fact, these days one could probably justify separating the expression 'Tai Chi', which of course derives from 'Tai Chi Chuan', and using that for the 'popular', health version, and keeping the expression 'Tai Chi Chuan', for the original art.

The full name of the art is T'ai Chi Ch'uan 太极拳 (Taijiiquan), which is usually translated as "Grand Ultimate Fist". Ch'uan Fa (Quanfa) is a generic name for boxing in Chinese culture. So a point that needs to be made right at the beginning is that Tai Chi started off as a martial art, and still is one. However, the number of teachers around who can demonstrate its unique approach to the martial arts these days is very small. Unfortunately the art has been, and continues to be, "watered down" like so many things in contemporary Western society. Not only is the unique martial arts' flavour being lost, but even the fact that it is, or was a martial art, is often unknown to 'popular' Tai Chi practitioners.

There is a huge difference between the full training in the art offered by the Yang family to its disciples and their students (and the other genuine family styles to their disciples and students) and what is covered in the popular/health versions of Tai Chi. To give a simple example, just learning the long form (or short one) is not the end of your education in the traditional art - in fact it is only the beginning. The form must be revisited again and again to learn deeper principles.

Even the master most responsible for popularising the art, Yang Cheng fu, speaking back in the 1930s said: "Nowadays, errors are passed on as teachings and this must inevitably lead to self-delusion and deluding others. This is a cause of great concern for the future of the art." The trend to water things down and create superficial versions of Eastern arts became widespread in the West in the latter half of the 20th C, as they become increasingly popular, and continues today. It has happened to yoga, where one suspects that the real depth of that art is rarely taught. It is currently happening with meditation, which it is increasingly being promoted as a stress-relief 'technique' or relaxation-therapy instead of for its time-honoured, deeper purpose of facilitating psychological and spiritual development. Predictions are that this process of 'watering down' will continue in Tai Chi circles as well with, for example, more shorter forms being developed to suit the increasingly common short-term approach to everything that busy, Western society seems to have adopted. As so often happens with things in modern times, the real nature of the arts become lost.

In my humble opinion, there needs to be a raising of awareness of the public (and Tai Chi practitioners) on what Tai Chi really is - an increased understanding, an education about its real nature, its hidden depths if you like. I am not alone in having this aspiration – disciples of the Yang family are trying to do the same through their magazines and websites, and books; articles in serious martial arts magazines on Tai Chi also raise these issues. They include questions like what is the full art, what is the full curriculum, and do the shorter, popular versions deliver any real health benefits? Part of the art's depth is in qi work (qi gong) and this needs to be taught very accurately and in accordance to exact principles.



[1] Paul Crompton, 1990, T’ai Chi Combat. London: Paul H. Crompton Ltd, p.4.

[2] There is a very good outline of the difference between the classical art and the modern 'popular' version at

[3] Wile, D., 1983, T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, New York: Sweet Ch’i Press, p. 4.

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