Standard Tai Chi or Traditional?
A word to Tai chi Coaches and Pupils
by Hamed Katoozi
Between the Tai chi groups, there is always this discussion that for practicing which one is better: Standard Tai Chi or Traditional Tai chi? Usually pupils and coaches would face these challenges, who have the pre-occupation of learning about the martial and inner structure. It has been discussed that standard and modern forms lack such structure and are only meant for presentations and competition. But is it really the case?
These issues need clarification and I will propound them in the following article.
This matter can be seen in the first generation standard forms, which were introduced 40-50 years ago. These forms had a structure much simpler than traditional forms and this alone led to deployment and disagreement from some Tai Chi masters. They said that the true soul of Tai Chi will be lost in these forms. Yes, of course the first generation standard forms were a lot easier than the Yang and Chen traditional forms (however, 24 Form was simpler and 32 and 42 forms had complicated frameworks), but the design of such forms needs peculiar attention.
Tai Chi Standard Forms Were Designed for
First, we must consider the fact that traditional forms were not designed for novice pupils. Usually the pupils, who had mastered other forms of Martial Arts would come learning Tai Chi. Moreover, in different families or houses each and every one of masters were trained by their fathers from early ages. They had enough time to see and tangle with the forms, thus a simplified structure for teaching them was never an issue, nor a necessity. That’s why in teaching older and rookie adults there usually were lots of complexities and difficulties. This was the reason why Tai Chi used to be forlorn, in comparison to its vast potentials. Tai chi, at those times, was limited to families and houses who owned the styles. Moreover, fostering coaches in these approaches had no place and one had to become a follower to that house (although considering the contemporary expansion of Tai Chi in recent decades, these houses and families, too, have begun following the modern ways.) At those times, there were no particular way of evaluation and reaching higher levels and everything was based on decision and taste of Master (of course the Master is right, for the most part. But some impositions were inevitable.)
* Second, such houses and families each had their own ideas and styles. They faced serious differences in designing competition and rehearsal forms and only verified their own styles (although they might have pretended otherwise.) Ethnic and family prejudices formed their main approach towards training, for they considered themselves heir and legatee of their ancestor. Although this may pose a valuable trend, it caused serious obstacles in teaching and expanding of Tai Chi and conveying it to ordinary members of society. These proud families imposed various filters and difficult evaluation methods for teaching their techniques (and still do), which conflicts not only with academic methods of teaching, but also with public spreading of Tai Chi in today’s modern life.
* Third, Tai Chi too, like other Styles of Wushu and even other Martial Arts in the world, needs competition structure for expansion, so that it can be taught to young athletes in different countries around the globe. We all admit that this approach is as necessary, as it may be admirable. On the contrary, different houses and families do not share such ambitions; they believe that anyone hungry for learning Tai Chi must go to them and adapt themselves with their methods of teaching. They also believe that pupils must prove their loyalty, in order to learn the higher techniques. This, in fact, depicts a form of adopting parents and disciple followers in teaching, and not an academic method of athletic teaching. On the other hand, the traditional forms, which had their special inner and martial structure and were founded on personal ideas and tastes of masters, did not have the capacity of turning into competition forms. For as we all are well aware, in contests there should be specific and pre-conceived criteria for judgment, which are known to jury members and young pupils from early ages.
* Fourth, International Wushu Federation and Chinese Wushu Association, for their approach toward health applications of Tai Chi in different age-groups both needed forms with clear, simple, and standard structures, whose health-wise aspects could be evaluated. That’s because nowadays it is believed that some traditional forms designed for martial purposes, can harm novice, elderly, or injured pupils and damage their joints seriously. Therefore, these organizations had to simplify the forms and make their athletic and joint structure teachable and clear. Gradually in advanced forms, the structure would advance as well as martial points. Therefore, the pupils could learn complicated structure and their martial applications as they climb up the ladder of skillfulness. It is worth mentioning that these international organizations never have negate the traditional styles; the pupils, after learning standard forms and with knowing the athletic structures, can then begin learning their favourite traditional styles as well.
* Fifth, in federation and coherent structure for expansion of an athletic field everything must commence from a particular, base point and advance through the way. That’s what happened for Tai Chi and Wushu. Only this way can one reach proper depth and development in various levels. However, it should contain an evolved and obvious framework for teaching and competing.
* Sixth, sharing information and data is a grave preoccupation in the modern age. Now, consider the situation, in which all the information is in hands of particular people and groups, who insist on hoarding the data and impose strict rules and conditions for sharing them; practically, sharing information, facing difficulties, would lose its meaning. That is because sharing data needs of cohesive and systematic management, which can translate the information into a common language (technical-wise), in order to be used by everyone.
Otherwise, the information-holders themselves cannot have access to others’ knowing either. (For example, it’s always mentioned by Chen Family that Yang Luchan, Yang Style Founder, was trained in Pao Chui and Lao Jia er lu, and that’s the reason why all Yang forms are slow in tempo.) If a coherent sharing data system exists, every member of Tai Chi community from around the world can share their information and have access. This needs formulation of a simple alphabet for forms, with mutual language.
* Seventh, the issue of speed of teaching and learning is an important fact in today’s world. This too requires a classified method of teaching, from amateur to advanced, for pupil to know where they are standing and how should regulate their time and attempt.
Martial Arts in Modern Times
However, the point most traditional style coaches emphasize on, is that the martial structure of such forms is greatly stronger than standard ones. Yes, of course it is. That’s because those forms were meant for real combats and their first priority was victory in fighting. Standard forms, however, were and are never meant for application in battlefields and thus, their martial outlay must not be evaluated like this.
But really, how important is this issue in today’s life?
Do you have such thoughts on your mind, when practicing Tai Chi? Do you consider applying these techniques in street fights or real combats?
After the invention of arm weapons and Industrial Revolution, martial arts lost their previous standing in modern societies and have gained the form of Art. Considering the fact that in other arts, such as music and painting, there have been simplifications and standardization in teaching, such efforts do not imply any conflict at all in Tai Chi, either.
It is worth mentioning that gaining the ability of using Tai Chi in a real fight is a long-term achievement. I must point out the fact that if dear Tai Chi pupils want to reach masterfulness in martial applications in less than 10 to 15 years (with 4-5 hours of weekly practice), even if they work in a pure traditional and martial style, they beat the air (it’s a pointless loss of time and energy). Reaching to the point of using Tai Chi in real combats is a detailed, intricate, and time-consuming matter and practicing standard forms does not include it. Additionally, there are specialized, operational, and efficient styles for street combat and self defence.
Tai Chi, As a Dynamic Meditation (Tai Chi- Qi Gong)
Many of other masters in the field of traditional styles believe such styles are more powerful in terms of affecting Qi Energy, as a kind of dynamic meditation. This could be true, but only in times when the science and art of Qi Gong was not so wide-spread, as it is today. In the past, transcriptions and teachings of this field were not yet found and Tai Chi forms’ effects on energy were hidden and mysterious. In fact, each family tried to have more inner influences in their own forms, without letting anyone outside their cycle gain access to it.
However, with expansion of Qi Gong throughout China and the rest of the world on one side, and findings of ancient texts and opening of temples’ doors on people on the other, the science of dominating and controlling energy can be gained in depth and academic styles that intricate traditional forms have lost their advantage. In fact, such purpose (Tai Chi as a dynamic meditation and affecting Qi energy) is defined in Qi Gong science, and not martial art of Tai Chi. Pupils with such concerns, are better to educate in Qi Gong from the start, to step forward in the assorted and guaranteed inner path of Tai Chi. Such specialty is called Tai Chi Qi Gong, in which everyone can start from the beginning and reach higher levels. In practicing Tai Chi Qi Gong, form is not that important and it can be borrowed from any style of Tai Chi (even standard.)
For example, Grand Master Mantak Chia, who is one the greatest Qi Gong masters in the world, has introduced 4 forms for practicing Tai Chi Qi Gong, from Wu, Wudang, and Yang styles. Moreover, a master can design their own form for this practice, based on their skills and aims. In teaching of Tai Chi Qi Gong specific points are taught for controlling Qi energy. It also has a clear path to masterfulness. Therefore, it can be concluded that such aim would be fulfilled in education of Qi Gong more efficiently.
All the mentioned does not signify that traditional styles are not suitable or effectual. I do not intend to reduce their authenticity. Tai Chi owes its present status to all styles and historic changes. However, that one family emphasizes on its own forms and tastes and discriminates against others, is an obsolete approach in modern times.
The evolutional path of Ti Chi can be compared with music. Europeans in their classic music, especially from the medieval ages, decided to write down their knowledge and share it. This caused a great development and progress of this musical style. Moreover, there were created standard forms in playing and composing’s learning methods and competitions and contests formed. But in other countries, like Iranian traditional music, because of a master-follower method, many of the musical modal systems (called Dastgah) and ornamentations and masters’ achievements were lost in time and polluted by personal ideas and tastes. Now we know that there never was any other way than standardization of writing notes and teaching methods. Today, Iranian music has started following the same road as western classic music.
It can be argued that standard Tai Chi is the assorted shape of traditional forms, designed for teaching and competing. In addition, such manner and pattern is expanding; first generation forms were much simpler with more apparent framework than second generation forms. These forms were modern ones, with much more complexity and intricacy and artistic compositions introduced to them. The modern forms were to harmonize with music as well as self creativity and form-designing. Such issues later caused many disagreements. However, let us not forget how much this method influenced the popularity of Tai Chi in recent years. In third generation Tai Chi forms, somehow considered as Neo-Classic forms, more aspects of traditional styles are included and each style’s forms (Yang and Chen) are closer in personality to that of their traditional forms. In designing such forms, the traditional styles’ masters had their input. The result was the birth of forms, sometimes with more depth and inner affluence, than many of the traditional forms. Considering the evolution and progress of them, it can be expected that in upcoming years more advanced forms, with more compatibility with traditional structures and assorted frameworks, will be introduced. Only through this approach will Tai Chi form a universal family; and each member will attempt to progress it, and not just one family and a personal name.
The correct procedure of academic fostering and specialization is so, as well.
Is it correct to combine and compound different styles?
This notion that no change must be made into old forms is based on lack of knowledge on artistic patters; for this is a basic characteristics of authentic art. Various generations nourish arts, combine different forms, and promote its artistic capacities, in general. The value of Tai Chi’s genuineness is that during hundreds of years many experiences were added to it, many changes were included, and many refinements were done, and now it has been passed down to us. Otherwise, nothing can be considered valuable just because of its oldness in age, for in that way, it would have its own primitive structure all along the way. Therefore, there will be left no reason for resisting against changes in forms or combining their strengths with each other; or it will be based on prejudice and meanness. That is why in modern forms different styles are compounded with each other and this will add to their value. Going back to the comparison with music, it can be understood that if players and orchestras were only to play old music, the evolutional path of music would have never commenced. But now we see that the righteous approach is that besides playing the old music, contemporary composers get inspiration from the past and create their own products. This, too, is an inevitable approach in today Tai Chi.
One Tai Chi practitioner, away from prejudice and bigotry, can experience different styles or combine strong methods in various styles and find his or her status in Tai Chi. Like the academic structure of our times and birth of many inter-disciplinary specialties, it’s been more than 10 years that such permission was issued by International Wushu Federation and many grand masters. For doing so, standard and modern forms provide the best platforms. This can be said as one of valuable potentials of such forms.
(We witness that in modern forms many styles, such as Yang, Chen, and Wu are combined, and invented techniques are added to those structures.)
Proposed Method of Learning and Acquisition:
However, in my opinion, the best method for learning Tai Chi would be practicing in standard forms first and concurring with international guardians and trustees and masters of this sport and trusting their teaching methods. After gaining a proper level of skilfulness, then a traditional style can be chosen. This way, the pupils have more time getting to know all Tai Chi styles and find their place in Tai Chi with more understanding. If they are interested in inner structure of Tai Chi and energy, they can easily approach Tai Chi Qi Gong.
Only in this way, can the pupils learn Tai Chi through simple and academic methods, develop forms which are appreciable and credential; only in this way, can they apply for coaching certificates, for International and National Federations would only accept standard forms. Only in this way, can they participate in contests and show their capabilities and skills. Moreover, pupils’ experience in Tai Chi and performing the forms would increase tremendously.
I also suggest, while practicing for Tai Chi, pupils would better work on Tui Shou and Duilian. Moreover, for their certainty in performance, they can ask the martial philosophy behind each move from their coach.
In fact, practicing a traditional Tai Chi style from the beginning is like an art student, practicing a form of art, without knowing the assorted and classified alphabets and basics of that art; without being familiar with tone and history of that art; and without being certain of the choice. This will cause erosion in the process of learning.
(Of course, many families and houses, under the influence of International Wushu Federation,
have been forced to design simplified forms, very close to the function of this federation.
But you can still trace the personal tastes and ideas in them.)
Eventually, I believe Tai Chi’s progress in the world is in desperate need of concordance and unanimity of all coaches, masters, and experts. This will not happen through weakening of the visions and missions of International Wushu Federation. Ever-increasing growth of this art depends on following the rules of federation and its consistent management. We should all steer clear from family bigotry and conflicts. I, again, emphasize that standard Tai Chi has nothing contradictory to traditional styles, and one can always begin practicing in one of those traditional styles.
Let us all not forget that masters, who design the standard forms or put their suggestion on them, are all world’s great masters. These masters are valuable experts, with dominance over martial structure of Tai Chi, as well as inner structure of this art. Some of them come from prominent houses and families of traditional Tai Chi styles.
Those who defame the standard and modern forms, definitely suffer from lack of knowledge and experience in these styles and because of their distance, all they can see is the superficial aspects or worse, are entangled in family disputes.
Of course, changes and innovations have always faced disagreements at first, but I believe in the course of time, these innovations will be appreciated and dissolve prejudicial antagonisms in themselves.
Act of spreading of Tai Chi in our time is definitely owed to International Wushu Federation and collaboration of Tai Chi’s grand masters. This would have never happened, if it wasn’t for the structure of standard forms and universal management.
Today, the most popular style of Tai Chi in the world is Yang style standard forms.
Standard Tai Chi does not have special claimants or heirs and it belongs to all.
In federation-standard Tai Chi, coming from the same family or being the adopted child of one family has no value, nothing is inherited, and everything depends on status and quality of work.
A good coach is the one fostering great pupils (and it has nothing to do with remaining the head of one dynasty, trying hard to be out of reach, and hard to learn from; simply because it’s not important how long, but how well one practices and teaches.)
That is why everyone is heirs of standard Tai Chi. Masters and experts are the ones with greater abilities and potentials, not greater family ties.
These are the respected and respectful values of Tai Chi Standard Style.
Therefore, if you are practicing Standard Tai Chi, enjoy your experience and reach to the top.
If you have not yet started, well, I strongly suggest not depriving yourself from it.
Secretary General of Tai Chi Chuan Committee, Iran Wushu Federation
5th Internation Wushu -Tai Chi Duan wei