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What is Tai Chi?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art which has in recent years seen an increased popularity throughout the world not only for its martial aspects, but for its soothing and beneficial aspects as well. Its full name is Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese phrase which can be translated as approximately meaning supreme ultimate fist.

This discipline is a relatively new martial art, with its concrete origins sometime around 1820, although it likely existed for some time before that. It is what is known as a soft style of martial combat, putting an emphasis on relaxed muscle positions and the use of an opponent’s momentum, as contrasted with the hard styles, which emphasize muscles in a high-state of readiness, and meeting an opponent’s force with one’s own force.

In addition to the martial aspects of this discipline, there is a great deal of stress placed on the concepts of meditative calm, and overall physical health. Indeed, for many people living in the modern world, Tai Chi is not thought of as a martial art, but rather as a system of movement and breathing meant to be therapeutic. In much the same way that yoga in the West has become divorced from its original intent, so too has this particular discipline become something quite different.

In many ways, Tai Chi is a very Taoist tradition. It teaches such things as learning to move with the world – both in a literal, physical sense in terms of martial self-defense, and in a more abstract, meditative sense. Indeed, the core of the practice could be described as simply learning to react appropriately to whatever is offered. This is one reason why many in the modern world find it so valuable as a discipline. Practitioners of this discipline usually find that within a relatively short period of time, they are better equipped to handle stressful situations, and find themselves less prone to being caught off balance either physically or mentally.

In order to cultivate this state of mind, practitioners focus on two main types of formal training. In the first, the student learns a number of movement poses that they undertake on their own. These poses work on steady, healthy breathing, supple posture, and a smooth movement of the body’s joints. In the second, the student works with another practitioner to understand how these forms interact with another person’s movement. These pushing hands poses help teach a sensitivity, as well as helping to improve the solo poses through a more rigorous exercise.

In addition to these poses, which one often sees Western practitioners doing in isolation in public parks, or in group classes, the art also makes use of more traditional martial art techniques. Sparring takes place between two practitioners, and is similar to sparring in many other widely-known martial arts forms. Practitioners may also make use of various weapons, including the spear or staff (chang or chiang), the broadsword or sabre (tao or dao), the straight sword (chien or jien). Other weapons like the chain or fan can be used as well.

Tai Chi has always been a popular martial art form in China, and in the past few decades has seen its popularity surge throughout the world. Both as a combat discipline and as a meditative practice, this practice is certain to survive and flourish in the future.

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Discussion Comments
By wisepoet — On Oct 27, 2011

I'm starting to see how Wisegeek is not all that accurate. In some cases I'm sure it is. But a lot of people have contradicted it. Hmm

This gets me thinking about trying Yoga though. Any suggestions on where to start?

By anon80685 — On Apr 28, 2010

This article is a little inconsistent with what I've heard about Tai Chi. From what I've heard it's actually an old art, with the roots of the first style stretching back to the 16th century.

I'm also not really sure how I feel about calling it "soft"; it is soft in the sense that the beginning exercises are less violent and appear more basic than those of most other martial arts, but they're actually incredibly difficult to do (if you're doing them properly), and once a sufficient level of practice has been reached, Tai Chi is actually one of the most potent combat martial arts in existence and easily beats styles like karate as they are taught here in the West.

Much of the point of Tai Chi as a combat art is to emphasize the fact that that which looks "soft" holds great power; often greater power than those arts which begin right away with the kicking and punching. Since that's so integral to the practice and philosophy of Tai Chi, I thought I should say something about it.

By anon15313 — On Jul 07, 2008

The five major styles of Tai Chi traditionally only includes straight sword, sabre, and spear/staff as weapons. The chain and fan come from other martial traditions.

By somerset — On Jan 22, 2008

On my recent trip to China, specifically Beijing, large groups of people would gather in the park to exercise. Masses of people would practice Tai Chi, but other forms of movement were noticed too, including dancing. It was very impressive, and what a great way to start the day.

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