Northern Wu Style Taiji Quan

East is East and West is West?

In England, the teaching of Tai Ji often depends upon what practice space is available as well the area in which each particular teacher specialises. Often, due to insurance, available halls for hire do not permit the martial/fighting side of the art to be taught. This is a particular problem with classes run by adult education.

Having said that, applications, rather than fighting, are taught in many of our existing classes. Though this suits a great many students whose primary aim for learning Tai Ji is health and relaxation, it is not a complete representation of what Tai Ji actually is: a Martial Art. It is alarming how many students nowadays are not aware that Tai Ji IS a fighting art. Even the words 'Kung Fu' are taken to refer solely to Martial Arts from China. Very few people seem to know that 'Kung Fu' just means 'Good Work', so you could have 'kung fu' in anything you are considered a master. It must also be pointed out that fighting, in the Tai Ji sense, is not aggressive. It is not about beating-up a partner/opponent but about learning self-defence and the first line of self-defence comes from a calm mind and clear intent. Even in a fighting art, meditation is vital.

The difference between learning the Form as a fighting art and learning applications of the form is vast. Many schools use the applications solely to improve the 'performance' of the form and to understand the workings of both the qi and the physical body. Yet whether learning Tai Ji fighting or applications, both need to executed correctly, use qi, intent, Tai Ji waist and both need to, well, there's no other way of putting it – the student has to be able to make it work! The difference is that it's a near impossibility for a teacher who has neither been brought up in, nor lived in, the Chinese culture to put Tai Ji and Taoist philosophy into its correct historical and cultural context. This means that, because some classes do not look at the philosophy and discipline behind the art, what they do teach is not the totality of the Tai Ji system. This is at the very heart of the differences.

Most Tai Ji classes use the Form as the main focus of the class and back it up with Push Hands and Qi Qong. Naturally, the way the body moves in order to facilitate the movements of each sequence and the flow of qi [internal energy], is of utmost importance. As there are cultural characterised ways of learning, English tend to teach by demonstration and explanation, whilst Chinese tend to give less explanation, expecting the student to learn by observation and imitation. Because learning by observation seems to be normal in the Chinese culture, Chinese teachers may assume students here also have the ability to grasp, through observation, the heart of Tai Ji movement: - 'Tai Ji waist'. For most of the time, this needs to be pointed out and verbally emphasised. Without the use of Tai Ji waist, there isn't any flow or reason to practice form and, vital to a fighting style, applications simply won't work. Once the use of the waist is learnt, the student doesn't need to consciously think about it as it'll be second nature. Correct practice of the form teaches this.

In the end, language is always a problem with articles like this because, using words makes the Tai Ji reader believe western and Chinese Tai Ji is the same thing. What is actually done physically, philosophically and qi-wise, can be totally different. Only experience can show the difference. Words never can.

Written by Kate Westwood