Ch'i (Qi) a Controversial Topic May 13

I’m writing an ebook on Tai Chi at the moment and as part of that have been wrestling with the thorny topic of what is qi (ch’i)? There is no question that the concept of qi  can be controversial, especially in martial arts circles. For example, it can (and does) crop up in relation to talking about the so-called differences between the ‘internal’ arts and the ‘external’ ones. Often qi is assumed to be just a general term for some ‘mysterious force’, which unfortunately no one can define or isolate. Oftentimes too it is taken to be some sort of magical power.

Now it is valid, in some ways, to describe qi as mysterious. If one defines ‘mysterious’ as anything the intellect cannot fully understand, or finds difficulty in grasping, then the concept of qi is complex and ‘mysterious’. Ultimately the nature of ‘reality’ is mysterious. It is possible to provide concepts and ideas that help elucidate or ‘point the way’ toward understanding the mystery. However, to describe the use of qi in normal, martial applications as a ‘magical power’ is a complete misunderstanding of what is going on.    

I recently looked at a video clip of a Tai Chi teacher whose website[1] virtually ridicules the notion of qi and goes to great lengths to say it will not be used to explain how the internal arts work. I was struck by how articulate she was in the video describing qi as an archaic, Chinese concept covering so many disparate ideas in Chinese culture that it was, in effect, useless as an explanatory model for these arts, and indeed, unnecessary. Now whilst I sympathize with this point of view, I was struck very much by the fact that her discussion on the video was, by default, quite a good description of the concept, almost as if she had a grudging respect for the idea. This issue of controversy is the same when it comes to discussions of qi in relation to health issues.

My view is that I think understanding the concept can help the student to appreciate and enjoy the training in these arts and systems more deeply. I also think it shows respect for the cultural origins of these arts that we are studying - learning about ideas like qi is part and parcel of the education they offer. So at this stage I think I am going to attempt to explain how the concept of qi can help validly explain what is going on in the ‘internal’ martial arts that sometimes seems mysterious.


[1] http://www.martialtaichi.co.uk/ - it is actually a good website for those interested in tai chi as a martial art.

Only Suitable for Old People? May 6

One thing that concerns me in the world of Tai Chi these days is the fact that it is relentlessly advertised as a form of exercise that is mainly suitable only for the elderly. However, in the right hands, it is one of the most potent martial arts to have ever come out of the long and bloody history of China. To build in the detailed infrastructure necessary to harness the natural, ‘intrinsic’ energy of the body for martial arts purposes the form was performed slowly and mindfully.

This graceful, slow motion movement seems to have been what has attracted so many people to it and given it the reputation of being only suitable for old people. One reason the Taiji form is done slowly and smoothly – one posture merging seamlessly into the next without any pause or interruption - is to maintain the spiraling flow of qi in the body. It has been likened traditionally to pulling silk out of a cocoon to make threads – you must pull it out continuously and smoothly so it does not break. Hence it is called ‘silk reeling energy’ (or ‘twining’) in Chen style.

One of the things that undoubtedly appeals to people doing the form, and people watching the form, is this smooth, continuous tempo – aesthetically it is very appealing. So it would seem that many people want to do the taiji form just as flowery movement, as a sort of dance, to tap into this aesthetic. Now whilst this is enjoyable and arguably has some benefit, it is not really using the form for what it was designed for. Furthermore, it can be argued that, unless the movements have the twining in the limbs taught classically in taiji form training you do not get the full health benefits that form training can bestow.

In a sense the form is as a sequence of choreographed movements; however, right from the word ‘go’ in traditional training, it is not ‘empty’ choreography, it is actually very ‘full’. After we had learnt the basic form as a sequence of movements, which takes six to twelve months, we did three revisions of the form taking another year or so, to build in the ‘spiral qi’ infrastructure. Master Chu used to lament the fact that many people after just learning the basic sequence went away and started teaching Tai Chi!

Learning Tai Chi has been described as a vehicle to master movement - it uses mindfulness to develop awareness of things like the centre of gravity, balance, weight transitions and lightness in footwork. It trains you to move the body through space with authority, grace, poise and balance, and precision; to move like a cat, or a well-oiled machine. It is choreography for self-defense and combat. The depth of the art is very interesting and yet simply not present in ‘popular’ tai chi 

January 29th 2014

It was a very pleasant start to the New Year for me because we started 2014 classes with a new student - a young lady who has been studying Yang style Tai Chi for about five years in North Queensland and who came to visit our school last March on a visit to Toowoomba. She told me that whilst happy with her teacher in North Queensland and the form training she had done to date she suspected that there was more depth to the art. Her reading into the subject had also suggested this to her.

So she decided to look our school up because of its reputation for teaching the authentic art. We gave her a bit of a demonstration and she was very impressed and felt that what she had seen reinforced her suspicions that there was more to the art than she had learnt so far. Then she went back to North Queensland. I was quite disappointed, because her genuine interest in the depths of the art made her for me a perfect student.

To my delight when I got back from holidays in January this year there was a message on my answering machine from her saying that she and her husband had moved to Toowoomba and she wanted to start classes. Apparently they had moved because of the husband’s job but she had made the move conditional on there being things here worthwhile for her to do and authentic Yang style Tai Chi was one of them.

She is now learning a short from with us prepatory to starting the long form, and is ‘lapping it up’. Another bunch of ideal students who want to study tai chi for its beneficial health, martial and spiritual benefits to their lifestyle, have just completed the short form and have started the long form. They too are really enjoying the in-depth training.

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