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Taijiquan: Questions and Answers
2003-11-27 14:38:00   COC Website  


    Q: Is taijiquan only suitable to old people and those in weak constitution?

    A: Taijiquan is one of the major divisions of wushu. It consists of basic barehanded exercises, exercises with long and short weapons, tuishou (push-hand and sanshou (free-sparring) exercises. A whole set of theories has been built up for it. Facts have shown that regular practice helps to prevent and cure chronic diseases. That's why it has found great favour with elderly people and those who are not in good health. But this does not mean that it doesn't suit younger people. Actually, it does, especially when it is done with a low posture, or a lowered centre of gravity.
    Taijiquan exercises are slow in tempo. It is exactly because of this that it's not so easy to attain a perfect harmony between the upper and lower limbs, between body movements and footwork, and between form and will. As a matter of fact, one is apt to reveal one's shortcomings in slow movements. So taijiquan makes even higher demands on a performer than other schools of wushu, not only in the ability to coordinate his movements, but also to a no lesser degree in his physical attributes for good technical execution. One day a practitioner of changquan (long-range boxing) asked a taijiquan expert to teach him some basic forms of taijiquan. When he came to "Separating the Wild Horse's Mane" and had to maintain a low posture while the expert corrected his movements, he complained that it was too much for him. Then he realized that taijiquan is by no means the easiest and least energy-consuming kind of wushu exercise.

    Some people have got the wrong impression that taijiquan is just like "catching fish and shrimps in a stream." This is because many performers merely regard it as a series of soft movements, doing it carelessly without proper guidance and instructions and failing to bring out the essence of the art.

    Q: Which is the best style?

    A: There are five major styles of taijiquan, namely Chen, Yang, Wu (Chinese phonetic alphabet, pronounced in the second tone ), Sun and Wu (Chinese phonetic alphabet, pronounced in the third tone ). Then there are the routines in 24, 48 and 88 forms promulgated by the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission of China, based mainly on the Yang style. Coming from the same origin, the five styles are similar to one another in the methods of training, with identical names for the basic movements and their forms arranged in more or less the same order. There are some forms with different names but they are actually the same in content. It is hard to say which style is the best, for this is rather a question of personal taste and persons of different physical conditions may give different answers. Generally speaking, the Chen style calls for a greater exertion of strength and is performed with a lower position and with greater amplitude for the movements. It is therefore suitable for young people with a large and strong build and a sanguine temperament. The Yang style is characterized by flowing ease, natural gracefulness and a combination of "hardness" and "softness". It is also favoured by big, energetic persons. The medium-framed Wu (in the second tone ) style with its gentle, closely-knit movements is preferred by quiet people of medium stature. The small-framed Sun style with relatively quick movements and a marked unison between form and will, seems to suit small, agile persons. The Wu (in the third tone )style, which emphasizes consciousness and is performed with a higher posture and on a narrower scope, agrees with slender people of an inward character.

    It should always be remembered, however, that no matter which style he chooses, the practitioner must do it correctly and stick to it. Otherwise he would achieve little or no result.

    Q: How to improve our skills? Can we take up several styles at the same time? Is it true that only the traditional routines can help improve technical standard?

    A: It is not advisable to take up several styles at the same time. Never bite off more than you can chew. In practising any style or routine, always pay attention to the basic skills, which are not so easy to grasp. Some people think that they have already mastered the whole thing after trying a routine for a few days. Actually they don't know a thing about its essentials. They should learn how to distinguish between the solid and empty, between form and will and between mobility and immobility, how to guide the exercise with consciousness and the body with the mind, how to coordinate respiration with exertion of strength, how to make the movements circular, continuous, graceful and harmonious. What accounts is quality rather than quantity. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    It is not true that only the traditional styles can help raise one's standard. Every style has its own special features and its own primary and advanced courses for training. It is improper to say that this style is only for primary training and that style is for advanced training. Whatever style you may take up, the important thing is to work hard and use your brains.

    Q: How should we handle the speed of movements when practising taijiquan?

    A: General speaking, taijiquan should be done slowly so that while your body is moving, you keep your mind tranquil, your "qi" (flow of internal energy) well controlled, and your "shen" (spirit) at ease. But this does not mean the slower the better. Too slow motions will cause in coordination between movements and respiration and disharmony between form and spirit. When we say "while putting forth strength, the exertion is so mild that it looks like reeling off raw silk from a cocoon," and "while making a stride, it is as quietly as a cat walks," we only mean to emphasize that taijiquan movements should be done gently, slowly, steadily and evenly.

    The speed of movements should be such that when you go about them calmly and relaxed, you feel the qi flowing smoothly throughout the body while the ligaments and joints are mildly stimulated.

    Speed should vary according to the technical proficiency and physical condition of each individual. Beginners who have weak constitutions should do their movements slowly, with their trunks positioned a bit higher. In this way they can better follow the essential points of the exercise and direct the movements with their minds. As they become stronger and more proficient, they may gradually work up to the normal speed. Normally it takes 4-7 minutes to complete a set of 24-form taijiquan (or 8-9 minutes if you do it slowly), 10-25 minutes for a set of 88-form of the Wu-style or the Yang-style, and 5-8 minutes for the Chen-style.

    All taijiquan movements should be executed at a uniform pace except those of the Chen-style, which are punctuated with fast, forceful moves. Such uniformity of speed, however, is by no means absolute. At the end of each form, there is usually a very slight pause allowing the qi to flow down to the extremities and the body to get ready for a good start of the next form. Thus the exercise goes on from form to form in a wave-like pattern, producing a sense of rhythm and leaving a refreshing aftereffect when the performance is over.

    Q: How should you position the mid-section of the body when practising taijiquan?

    A: "The mid-section is to the body what the axle is to the car." This saying, popular among the wushu people, illustrates the important role played by the mid-section of the body in the performance of taijiquan and other forms of wushu exercises.

    One must keep one's back erect and waist relaxed when practising taijiquan. Simple as this may sound, it takes much time and effort for the beginner to get it right.

    To hold your mid-section in the right position, you must keep your spine naturally erect. This means that you should neither lean your body forward or backward, nor purposely thrust out your chest or cause your buttocks to protrude in an effort to straighten your back.

    To relax your waist, you should flex your knees slightly so as to relieve the biceps of the thighs from tension and allow freer movements of the pelvis, which are essential to taijiquan performance.

    The following exercise will help you achieve the correct posture as far as the mid-section of the body is concerned. Stand with your back to the wall, feet shoulder-width apart and heels about 30cm away from the wall. Squat down and stand up again with your back and buttocks remaining in contact with the wall and with your feet flat on the floor. Such an exercise, if practised over and over again, will not only help straighten your back with buttocks pulled in, but also adds to your leg strength, which will make your steps more steady in taijiquan movements. The squats should be as deep as possible, depending on your physical strength.

    Q: What's the difference between taijiquan and ordinary fitness exercises?

    A: As a form of traditional Chinese wushu, taijiquan is different from ordinary fitness exercises in many ways. Here we shall discuss only two main points.

    First, most fitness exercises are designed to develop better body shape. By means of different movements of the limbs and the trunk, they help build muscular strength and increase the mobility of the joints while removing unwanted fat to keep the body strong and shapely. Taijiquan, on the other hand, involves both "internal" and "external" efforts. That is to say, it not only exercises the muscles, ligaments and joints through physical movements, but also requires tranquility of the whole body, with movements of the body guided by will power so as to train both the body and the mind. Before doing a taijiquan exercise, you must first calm down and dispel all distracting thoughts from your mind. Standing with you feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly flexed and hands held in front of your chest as if holding a ball, you should try to sink your "qi," or internal energy, down to the dantian point (a few centimetres below the navel) for a few minutes before commencing the exercise. The movements, which are to be mentally directed, should be gentle, smooth and continuous, with a clear distinction between "solidity" and "emptiness" in the application of strength. By practising this way very seriously, you will reap the benefit of the exercise, both physically and mentally.

    Another thing that separates taijiquan from ordinary fitness exercises is its value as a means of self-defence. In taijiquan, as in other forms of traditional Chinese martial arts, all movements are meant for attack or defence. When used for fighting, taiji movements are executed in accordance with certain principles, such as "countering hard blows with gentle moves," "watching silently before striking out all of a sudden," "toppling a 1,000-pound weight with a force of four ounces," and "retreat in order to advance." Although these principles are very difficult to carry out and can be mastered only through long years of painstaking effort, they should be made clear to all taijiquan learners if they are to do the exercises purposefully. In other words, in order to make the most of taijiquan exercises one must know not only how to do each movement but also why it should be done that way. It would get you nowhere if you perform mechanically as you do in ordinary fitness exercises -- even if you work so hard that you get out of breath and soaked all over with sweat!

    Q: What is the difference between kung fu and wushu?

    A: Wushu is not a very familiar term to most people in foreign countries. It has been translated in different ways, such as "martial arts", "combat arts", "fighting skills", "offence and defence arts", "free fighting", and so on. What is more familiar to foreigners is the term "kung fu," so that people practising the Chinese style of boxing are usually described as practising kung fu, and Chinese wushu films are called kung fu films. To say that a person is good at kung fu means that he is well versed in wushu (martial arts). From this we see that kung fu has become a synonym or a term used as a substitute for wushu in some countries, though the connotations may slightly differ in some cases.

    The term kung fu, of course, originated in China. In the old days, itinerant entertainers who wandered from place to place to make a living often performed feats of strength by the roadside or in a square to attract passers-by and win their applause before asking for meagre donations. They would, for instance, smash a stone slab to pieces with their palms, or let someone among the watching crowd hit hard at their bodies so as to show their invulnerability. Such feats of prowess were described as kung fu, and these performers were said to excel in kung fu. It was probably because of this that in later years, with more and more Chinese going abroad and taking up residence there, the term kung fu gradually came to be used in foreign countries.

    Actually, the term kung fu has a much wider meaning and does not refer only to proficiency in wushu. One of its basic meanings is capability or accomplishment in a certain field of endeavour. For instance, a person is said to be possess of kung fu in calligraphy, meaning that he has attained a high standard in calligraphy. When we praise an actor for his superb performance, we often say he has real kung fu. In commenting on an article, we may say that its writer has put kung fu into it, meaning that the article is well written and that the writer has extensive knowledge of the subject he is dealing with.

    The term kung fu also refers to the amount of time and energy involved in doing a piece of work. For instance, when we say that a person has spent three hours' kung fu in repairing a car, we mean both the time and the amount of energy expended in doing the job.

    Still another meaning of the term kung fu is unoccupied time or time one can afford to spare. One example is: "If you have kung fu, please call on me," Here we mean when you are free, please come and see me.

    What is wushu, then?

    Wushu is a branch of knowledge dealing with offence and defence techniques. Of course it doesn't include the use of firearms. The basic movements of wushu include kicks and blows, grapples and thrusts, parries and chops, and so forth. These movements, which vary in speed and power, are arranged in set patterns according to the objective laws of offence and defence to meet the requirements of combat; or they may be employed flexibly according to actual circumstances in order to gain the upper hand in a combat requiring resourcefulness, strength and techniques.

    Regular practice of wushu is conducive to health and helps improve one's moral qualities and temper one's willpower. In this regard, it takes various forms, including routines for individual or dual practice, free combats, tuishou (push-hand) exercises and fighting with short weapons (sword and dagger) and long weapons (spear, cudgel and scimitar).

    Since wushu is a branch of knowledge and science, it is not limited to these specific techniques. In a broad sense, wushu is closely connected with Chinese history, philosophy, culture, medicine and the art of keeping in good health. In the wushu circles there is the saying that "one may keep practising wushu until he is old, but he cannot attain perfection without knowing medicine." There is another saying to the effect that "practising wushu without knowing medicine is like walking with only one leg."

    In addition, wushu is related to such modern sciences as anatomy, biochemistry, psychology, education and certain frontier disciplines. It is precisely because of its distinct national features and multi-functional characteristics that wushu is regarded as a gem of Chinese culture.

    From the above we can see clearly that there are marked differences between wushu and kung fu in meaning, connotation and syntactical functions, so we cannot equate one with the other. When the term kung fu is used in the context relating to wushu, it denotes only a person's proficiency or lack of proficiency in his mastery of wushu techniques, but it can in no way be a substitute for wushu. Also, to translate wushu into "martial arts", "combat arts", "fighting skills", and "offence and defence arts" does not really convey the meaning. Therefore, it is preferable and also more reasonable to transliterate the Chinese term and use wushu instead of kung fu in order to give the real meaning of the word.

    Q: Should we keep a low body position in all forms when doing taijiquan? Is lower always better?

    A: The body may be divided into upper, middle and lower parts. The upper part refers to the arms, the middle part to the trunk and the lower part to the legs. The lower part is to the body what the foundation is to a building.

    Body position has much to do with the lower part. The whole body can be compared to a tree, with the lower part as the roots, the middle part as the trunk and the upper part as the branches and leaves. As a proverb goes, "No deep roots, no rich foliage." Only when your legs are firmly planted on the ground will your trunk be steady and your arms and hands be able to move freely, just like branches and leaves swaying and dancing merrily in the wind. Duckweed without deep roots can only float aimlessly on shallow water.

    When we say that we should keep a low body position, we don't mean the lower, the better. A lower body position does mean a lower centre of gravity makes your body steadier; it also helps you build strength in the legs. That's why athletes are often required to do deep squats in strength training.

    In qigong exercises, a low body position also helps you conduct qi (vital energy) into the lower elixir region in the belly. But if your body position is too low, you'll meet at least two problems.

    Firstly, you'll upset the balance between yin and yang, which literally mean "feminine" and "masculine," or "negative" and "positive." The two terms are often used in ancient Chinese philosophy for the two opposite aspects of all matter in the universe. In doing taijiquan, which is also a form of qigong exercise, you're required, whether in static or dynamic movements, to conduct qi downward into the lower elixir region by keeping a low body position and, at the same time, to conduct shen (configurative force) upward into the upper elixir region in the head by keeping the neck and head upright, so that you'll gain a balance between yin and yang. If your body position is too low, you'll waste too much of your vital energy, just as water will flow rapidly to low places.

    Secondly, a too low body position will make your movements clumsy, especially in footwork. Taijiquan requires both stability and agility. A good performer must be "as agile as a running cat," with his movements as fluent as "flying clouds and flowing water." Clumsy footwork spoils the beauty and effect of the whole exercise.

    The proper height of body position may be explained by the posture in a bow stance, which is frequently used in taijiquan routines -- with one leg bent at knee and the other leg stretched behind. In the "Single Whip," for instance, the distance between the feet is about three and a half lengths of your foot, with the knee of the front leg not going beyond the toes and a bit lower than the hips. The body position is more or less at the same level in the empty and "T" steps.

    Since footwork is so important, there should be specific drills for it, including various kinds of steps and stances -- in progression, in position, and in switchovers. Such drills are indispensable for beginners.

    Q: We're required to keep the trunk erect. But we've seen some Chinese masters bending a bit forward from time to time. Why?

    A: By "keeping the trunk erect," we mean that a performer should do this as a whole, without bending forward, backward or sideward. This is necessary for a free circulation of qi, which tends to flow rapidly in straight channels and slowly at bends. We should not only keep the trunk erect, but also keep the head and neck upright, and also keep the buttocks in proper position, so that qi will flow unobstructed in the Ren and Du Channels, which run through the middle part of the trunk and converge in the head.

    However, the term of "keeping erect" should not be interpreted mechanically and superficially, but in the sense of a general principle. Taijiquan consists of many forward movements in which the trunk will lean forward naturally as a follow-through. This is permissible and even.

    When you push a handbarrow, you have to bend a bit forward. This is also true with such forms as "Brush Knee and Twist Step" and "Needle at Sea Bottom", in which you have to bend forward when you push your hands or strike out, while in the "Lean Obliquely" you have to bend a bit sideways, as has been clearly stipulated in the revised regulations. Without bending forward, the forward movements would be forceless, frigid and unharmonious. Under no circumstances, however, are you allowed to protrude your buttocks when bending forward.

    Q: How can I avoid stiffness in movements?

    A: Many performers are prone to two errors, namely looseness at one extremity and stiffness at the other. Here I'll deal only with the latter.

    There are two causes for stiffness. The first is that they don't know how to use force in a continuous flow. Take the movement of pushing hands forward. When exerting the force, the performer should use the whole body, not the upper part alone. That is to say, the force should come from the feet, pass through the legs, waist, shoulders and arms before it reaches the hands with the pushing movement. In other words, it is a "total" force exerted by the whole body, a force that is more powerful than one exerted by the arms alone.

    In doing taijiquan, we must understand the importance of relaxation, which aims at softness rather than at looseness. And only through softness can we achieve hardness. As you know, a whip is a soft thing, yet it can yield a hard force in the shepherd's hands. A hammer with a bamboo handle can break a rock more easily than one with an iron handle, though bamboo is softer than iron. So relax your muscles in the exertion of force -- a soft force that comes from the whole body. It is a general truth that hardness comes from softness and softness overcomes hardness.

    The second cause for stiffness is that the performer fails to understand the important role played by the waist as a link between the upper and lower parts of the body and as hinges for all movements. Always remember that you must move the waist before you move the limbs, with both fully mobilized and acting in unison. In other words, you must pay constant attention to the middle part of your body, always keeping the waist dropped, the hips relaxed, the buttocks pulled in. Only then will your movements become soft, circular, fluent and harmonious as required in all forms of taijiquan.

    You may practise the push-hand exercises, which will help you understand better how to use force properly, how to overcome hardness with softness, and how to rid your movements of stiffness.

    Q: How do we achieve coordination of the mind, the movements and breathing in practising taijiquan?

    A: This is a problem faced by all learners of taijiquan, especially beginners. Without such coordination, one cannot reap the full benefits of taijiquan exercise.

    By coordinating the mind, the movements and breathing, we actually mean coordinating the movements and breathing by exercising the will of the mind. Of the three elements, the mind always plays the guiding role. Hence the saying: "Guide your body movements with your mind and let your body move in coordination with your breathing."

    For a beginner to guide the body movements with the mind, he must first learn to visualize each move he is to perform. With practice, he will gradually be able to integrate mental activity with physical movements in an exercise. In other words, he will be able to concentrate his mind on each movement he performs.

    Breathing should be natural when you start learning to do taijiquan. Only when you are proficient in the movements should you attempt to coordinate them with breathing. Inhalations and exhalations should then be regulated in harmony with the varying postures and movements: "opening" and "closing" of the arms, rise and fall of the body, advance and retreat of the feet, and alternation of "solid" and "empty" stances. With such conscious efforts, better results can be achieved in training. Take the movements of Grasp the Bird's Tail for instance. When you press your hands forward with your chest contracted, you should exhale slowly and thoroughly so as to make your movement more steady. When you separate your arms and "sit back" with your chest expanded, you should draw in a deep breath to make your movement more energetic. In this way, well-regulated breathing injects internal strength to the movements of the body and the limbs.

    The need for regulated breathing is based on the physiological function of the chest during exercise. Generally speaking, you should consciously inhale when you open your arms or rise up from a low position, during which your chest expands; on the other hand, you should consciously exhale when you bring your arms close together or lower your body, during which your chest contracts.

    The coordination of breathing and movements should be guided by conscious mental efforts. In the Commencing Form, instance, when you raise your arms slowly upward and to the front, you should imagine your hands slowly pulling up a rubber band while drawing in a deep breath to aid the movement; and when you lower your arms you should imagine your hands slowly pressing down a wooden board into the water.

    It should be pointed out that the coordination of the mind, the movements and breathing in taijiquan exercise can only be achieved progressively through repeated practice. Do not strain yourself in pursuit of quick results. Given time and patience, you will eventually get it right. 

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