Tai Chi (taiji) is probably the best known of the internal martial arts. Slow, fluid movements practiced by groups in parks is a quintessential icon of Chinese culture.
While there are several stories of how it was developed, Chen Wang-ting is most commonly recognized as the creator of Taiji. He was a Ming dynasty general who lived from 1580–1660. Combining his knowledge of Shaolin martial arts with aspects of Chinese Medicine and Chinese Philosophy, he invented Taiji. For five generations it was only taught to Chen family members. It was then taught to Yang Lu-chan, who created Yang style Taiji (surnames are conventionally placed before personal names in Chinese). Of the various family styles of Taiji, Chen and Yang styles are the most well known.
Chen style Taiji is distinct in that it retains much of the art’s martial flavor. Stomps, jumps and fast punches appear in the routines. But these explosive movements (“fa jin”) alternate with fluid and relaxed movements.
What makes a martial art internal?
The internal martial arts make a distinction between health and fitness. Most typical forms of exercises train fitness. Fitness requires health, but increasing fitness levels doesn’t necessarily build up health. In fact too much exercise can even hurt your health, as anyone who has over-trained will understand. The internal arts are different in that the emphasis is first to build up health. This is why typically, exercises are done slowly and relaxed. Meditation and/or standing exercises to cultivate health are also an important part of the learning for this reason.
Taiji learning often focuses on practicing a long solo sequence - the First Routine (“Yilu”). Depending on how the movements are counted, this set will have around 100 linked movements. Within these movements are martial techniques as well as health building principles. The Second Routine (“Erlu”) or Cannon Fist (“Paochui”) is often taught to more advanced students. Complicating things slightly, there are two versions of these routines - the Old Frame (Laojia) and the New Frame (Xinjia). The Old Frame is more fluid in its movements while the New Frame has more quick and explosive elements. A teacher may teach either one or both versions depending on their background. It is also common to find an abbreviated sequence taught which distills the first routine into around 20 moves, making it easier to learn and practice.
A third component of Taiji instruction is the two-person practice of Push Hands (“Tuishou”). Finally, various weapon forms, commonly sword, saber and spear can be taught.
Tips for successful practice
Be patience with yourself as you start to learn the sequence. Remember key postures and the general shape of the sequence. Don’t get caught up on details or esoteric points too early. There is a saying in Taiji, “a beginner for 10 years”. Which means the insights that truly increase one’s skill take time and patience.
Practice regularly to build muscle memory. The more you practice the movements, the less you will have to think about the sequence. At the beginning you can practice key pieces or even just single postures.