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Tai Chi Chuan

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Yang Chengfu in a posture from the Tai Chi solo form known as Single Whip, circa 1918
Yang Chengfu in a posture from the Tai Chi solo form known as Single Whip, circa 1918
Chinese Name
Hanyu Pinyin TŗijŪquŠn
Wade-Giles T'ai4 Chi2 Ch'Łan2
Simplified Chinese ???
Traditional Chinese ???
Cantonese taai3 gik6 kyun4
Japanese Hiragana ???????
Korean ???
Vietnamese ThŠi C?c Quy?n

Tai Chi Chuan, T'ai Chi Ch'Łan or Taijiquan (Traditional Chinese: ???; Simplified Chinese: ???; pinyin: TŗijŪquŠn; literally "supreme ultimate fist"), commonly known as Tai Chi, T'ai Chi, or Taiji, is an internal Chinese martial art. There are different styles of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan, although most agree they are all based on the system originally taught by the Chen family to the Yang family starting in 1820. It is often promoted and practiced as a martial arts therapy for the purposes of health and longevity, (some recent medical studies support its effectiveness). T'ai Chi Ch'Łan is considered a soft style martial art, an art applied with as complete a relaxation or "softness" in the musculature as possible, to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles which use a degree of tension in the muscles.

Variations of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan's basic training forms are well known as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice every morning in parks across China and other parts of the world. Traditional T'ai Chi training is intended to teach awareness of one's own balance and what affects it, awareness of the same in others, an appreciation of the practical value in one's ability to moderate extremes of behavior and attitude at both mental and physical levels, and how this applies to effective self-defense principles.



Historically, T'ai Chi Ch'Łan has been regarded as a martial art, and its traditional practitioners still teach it as one. Even so, it has developed a worldwide following among many thousands of people with little or no interest in martial training for its aforementioned benefits to health and health maintenance. Some call it a form of moving meditation, and T'ai Chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to beginning and intermediate level T'ai Chi training, many therapeutic interventions along the lines of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced T'ai Chi students.

T'ai Chi Ch'Łan as physical training is characterized by its requirement for the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation rather than muscular tension in order to neutralize or initiate physical attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in that process is said to gently increase and open the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis, etc.). Over time, proponents say, this enhancement becomes a lasting effect, a direct reversal of the constricting physical effects of stress on the human body. This reversal allows much more of the students' native energy to be available to them, which they may then apply more effectively to the rest of their lives; families, careers, spiritual or creative pursuits, hobbies, etc.

The study of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan involves three primary subjects:

  • Health - an unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person will find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use T'ai Chi as a martial art. T'ai Chi's health training therefore concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind.
  • Meditation - the focus meditation and subsequent calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of T'ai Chi is seen as necessary to maintain optimum health (in the sense of effectively maintaining stress relief or homeostasis) and in order to use it as a soft style martial art.
  • Martial art - the ability to competently use T'ai Chi as a martial art is said to be proof that the health and meditation aspects are working according to the dictates of the theory of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan.

In its traditional form (many modern variations exist which ignore at least one of the above requirements) every aspect of its training has to conform with all three of the aforementioned categories.

The Mandarin term "T'ai Chi Ch'Łan" translates as "Supreme Ultimate Boxing" or "Boundless Fist". T'ai Chi training involves learning solo routines, known as forms, and two person routines, known as pushing hands, as well as acupressure-related manipulations taught by traditional schools. T'ai Chi Ch'Łan is seen by many of its schools as a variety of Taoism, and it does seemingly incorporate many Taoist principles into its practice (see below). It is an art form said to date back many centuries (although not reliably documented under that name before 1850), with precursor disciplines dating back thousands of years. The explanation given by the traditional T'ai Chi family schools for why so many of their previous generations have dedicated their lives to the study and preservation of the art is that the discipline it seems to give its students to dramatically improve the effects of stress in their lives, with a few years of hard work, should hold a useful purpose for people living in a stressful world. They say that once the T'ai Chi principles have been understood and internalized into the bodily framework the practitioner will have an immediately accessible "toolkit" thereby to improve and then maintain their health, to provide a meditative focus, and that can work as an effective and subtle martial art for self-defense.

Teachers say the study of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan is, more than anything else, about challenging one's ability to change oneself appropriately in response to outside forces. These principles are taught using the examples of physics as experienced by two (or more) bodies in combat. In order to be able to protect oneself or someone else by using change, it is necessary to understand what the consequences are of changing appropriately, changing inappropriately and not changing at all in response to an attack. Students, by this theory, will appreciate the full benefits of the entire art in the fastest way through physical training of the martial art aspect.

Wu Chien-ch'Łan, co-founder of the Wu family style, described the name T'ai Chi Ch'Łan this way at the beginning of the 20th century:

"Various people have offered different explanations for the name T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Some have said: 'In terms of self-cultivation, one must train from a state of movement towards a state of stillness. T'ai Chi comes about through the balance of yin and yang. In terms of the art of attack and defense then, in the context of the changes of full and empty, one is constantly internally latent, not outwardly expressive, as if the yin and yang of T'ai Chi have not yet divided apart.'
Others say: 'Every movement of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is based on circles, just like the shape of a T'ai Chi symbol. Therefore, it is called T'ai Chi Ch'uan.' Both explanations are quite reasonable, especially the second, which is more complete."

Training and techniques

The T'ai Chi Symbol or T'ai Chi T'u (Taijitu)
The T'ai Chi Symbol or T'ai Chi T'u (Taijitu)

As the name T'ai Chi Ch'Łan is held to be derived from the T'ai Chi symbol, the taijitu or t'ai chi t'u (???, pinyin tŗijŪtķ), commonly known in the West as the "yin-yang" diagram, T'ai Chi Ch'Łan techniques are said therefore to physically and energetically balance yin (receptive) and yang (active) principles: "From ultimate softness comes ultimate hardness."

The core training involves two primary features: the first being the solo form or ch'Łan, a slow sequence of movements which emphasize a straight spine, relaxed breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of pushing hands or t'ui shou (??) for training "stickiness" and sensitivity in the reflexes through various motions from the forms in concert with a training partner in order to learn leverage, timing, coordination and positioning when interacting with another. Pushing hands is seen as necessary not only for training the self-defense skills of a soft style such as T'ai Chi by demonstrating the forms' movement principles experientially, but also it is said to improve upon the level of conditioning provided by practice of the solo forms by increasing the workload on students while they practice those movement principles.

The solo form should take the students through a complete, natural, range of motion over their centre of gravity. Accurate, repeated practice of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students' bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the forms. The major traditional styles of T'ai Chi have forms which differ somewhat cosmetically, but there are also many obvious similarities which point to their common origin. The solo forms, empty-hand and weapon, are catalogues of movements that are practised individually in pushing hands and martial application scenarios to prepare students for self-defence training. In most traditional schools different variations of the solo forms can be practiced; fast/slow, small circle/large circle, square/round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low sitting/high sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.

In a fight, if one uses hardness to resist violent force then both sides are certain to be injured, at least to some degree. Such injury, according to T'ai Chi theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. The collision of two like forces, yang with yang, is known as "double-weighted" in T'ai Chi terminology. Instead, students are taught not to fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and "stick" to it, following its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, the result of meeting yang with yin. Done correctly, achieving this yin/yang or yang/yin balance in combat (and, by extension, other areas of one's life) is known as being "single-weighted" and is a primary goal of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan training. Lao Tzu provided the archetype for this in the Tao Te Ching when he wrote, "The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong." This soft "neutralization" of an attack can be accomplished very quickly in an actual fight by an adept practitioner. A T'ai Chi student has to be well conditioned by many years of disciplined training; stable, sensitive and elastic mentally and physically in order to realize this ability, however.

Other training exercises include:

  • Weapons training and fencing applications employing the straight sword known as the jian or chien or gim (jiŗn ?), a heavier curved sabre, sometimes called a broadsword or tao (dao ?, which is actually considered a big knife), folding fan, staff (?), 7 foot (2 m) spear and 13 foot (4 m) lance (both called qiang ?). More exotic weapons still used by some traditional styles are the large Da Dao or Ta Tao (??) sabre, halberd (ji ?), cane, rope-dart, three sectional staff, lasso, whip, chain whip and steel whip.
  • Two-person tournament sparring (as part of push hands competitions and/or san shou ??);
  • Breathing exercises; nei kung (?? nŤigong) or, more commonly, ch'i kung (?? qžgong) to develop ch'i (? qž) or "breath energy" in coordination with physical movement and post standing or combinations of the two. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 50 years they have become more well known to the general public.

T'ai Chi's martial aspect relies on sensitivity to the opponent's movements and centre of gravity dictating appropriate responses. Effectively affecting or "capturing" the opponent's centre of gravity immediately upon contact is trained as the primary goal of the martial T'ai Chi student, and from there all other technique can follow with seeming effortlessness. The alert calmness required to achieve the necessary sensitivity is acquired over thousands of hours of first yin (slow, repetitive, meditative, low impact) and then later adding yang ("realistic," active, fast, high impact) martial training; forms, pushing hands and sparring. T'ai Chi Ch'Łan trains in three basic ranges, close, medium and long, and then everything in between. Pushes and open hand strikes are more common than punches, and kicks are usually to the legs and lower torso, never higher than the hip in most styles. The fingers, fists, palms, sides of the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, back, hips, knees and feet are commonly used to strike, with strikes to the eyes, throat, heart, groin and other acupressure points trained by advanced students. There is an extensive repertoire of joint traps, locks and breaks (chin na), particularly applied to lock up or break an opponent's elbows, wrists, fingers, ankles, back or neck. Most T'ai Chi teachers expect their students to thoroughly learn defensive or neutralizing skills first, and a student will have to demonstrate proficiency with them before offensive skills will be extensively trained. There is also an emphasis in the traditional schools on kind-heartedness. One is expected to show mercy to one's opponents, as instanced by a poem preserved in some of the T'ai Chi families said to be derived from the Shaolin temple:

"I would rather maim than kill
Hurt than maim
Intimidate than hurt
Avoid than intimidate."
An outdoor Chen style class in Beijing
An outdoor Chen style class in Beijing

Styles and history

There are five major styles of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan, each named after the Chinese family that teaches (or taught) it:

The order of seniority is as listed above. The order of popularity is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun, and Wu/Hao. The first five major family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training.

In the modern world there are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognised by the international community as being orthodox. For example, there are several groups teaching what they call Wu Tang style T'ai Chi Ch'Łan (??????). The best known modern style going by the name Wu Tang has gained some publicity internationally, especially in the UK and Europe, but was originally taught by a senior student of the Wu (?) style.

The designation Wu Tang Ch'Łan is also used to broadly distinguish internal or nei chia martial arts (said to be a specialty of the monasteries at Wu Tang Shan) from what are known as the external or wei chia styles based on Shaolinquan kung fu, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by individual schools. In this broad sense, among many T'ai Chi schools all styles of T'ai Chi (as well as related arts such as Pa Kua Chang and Hsing-i Ch'Łan) are therefore considered to be "Wu Tang style" martial arts. The schools that designate themselves "Wu Tang style" relative to the family styles mentioned above mostly claim to teach an "original style" they say was formulated by a Taoist monk called Zhang Sanfeng and taught by him in the Taoist monasteries at Wu Tang Shan. Some consider that what is practised under that name today may be a modern back-formation based on stories and popular veneration of Zhang Sanfeng (see below) as well as the martial fame of the Wu Tang monastery (there are many other martial art styles historically associated with Wu Tang besides T'ai Chi).

When tracing T'ai Chi Ch'Łan's formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, one has little more to go on than legendary tales from a modern historical perspective, but T'ai Chi Ch'Łan's practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Sung dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions, esp. the teachings of Mencius) is readily apparent to its practitioners. The philosophical and political landscape of that time in Chinese history is fairly well documented, even if the origin of the art later to become known as T'ai Chi Ch'Łan in it is not. T'ai Chi Ch'Łan's theories and practice are therefore believed by some schools to have been formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, a time frame fitting well with when the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. Therefore the didactic story is told that Zhang Sanfeng as a young man studied Tao Yin (??, Pinyin daoyin) breathing exercises from his Taoist teachers and martial arts at the Buddhist Shaolin monastery, eventually combining the martial forms and breathing exercises to formulate the soft or internal principles we associate with T'ai Chi Ch'Łan and related martial arts. Its subsequent fame attributed to his teaching, Wu Tang monastery was known thereafter as an important martial center for many centuries, its many styles of internal kung fu preserved and refined at various Taoist temples.

Family tree

This family tree is not comprehensive.

Zhang Sanfeng*
circa 12th century

Wang Zongyue*
Chen Wangting
1600-1680 9th generation Chen
   |                                                                   |
Chen Changxing                                                     Chen Youben
1771-1853 14th generation Chen                                     circa 1800s 14th generation Chen
Chen Old Frame                                                     Chen New Frame
   |                                                                   |

Yang Lu-ch'an                                                      Chen Qingping
1799-1872                                                          1795-1868
YANG STYLE                                                         Chen Small Frame, Zhao Bao Frame
   |                                                                   |
   +---------------------------------+-----------------------------+   |
   |                                 |                             |   |
Yang Pan-hou                      Yang Chien-hou                   Wu Yu-hsiang
1837-1892                         1839-1917                        1812-1880
Yang Small Frame                     |                             WU/HAO STYLE

   |                                 +-----------------+                      |
   |                                 |                 |                      |
Wu Ch'uan-yŁ                      Yang Shao-hou     Yang Ch'eng-fu          Li I-yŁ
1834-1902                         1862-1930         1883-1936               1832-1892
   |                              Yang Small Frame  Yang Big Frame            |
Wu Chien-ch'Łan                                        |                    Hao Wei-chen

1870-1942                                           Yang Shou-chung         1849-1920
WU STYLE                                            1910-1985                 |
108 Form                                                                      |
   |                                                                        Sun Lu-t'ang
Wu Kung-i                                                                   1861-1932
1900-1970                                                                   SUN STYLE

   |                                                                          |
Wu Ta-kuei                                                                  Sun Hsing-i
1923-1970                                                                   1891-1929


from Yang Ch`eng-fu
        |              |
  Cheng Man-ch'ing     |
  1901-1975            |
  Short (37) Form      |
              Chinese Sports Commission
              Beijing 24 Form
              42 Competition Form

              (Wushu competition form combined from Sun, Wu, Chen, and Yang styles)

Notes to Family tree table

Names denoted by an asterisk are legendary or semilegendary figures in the lineage, which means their involvement in the lineage, while accepted by most of the major schools, isn't independently verifiable from known historical records.

The Cheng Man-ch'ing and Chinese Sports Commission short forms are said to be derived from Yang family forms, but neither are recognized as Yang family T'ai Chi Ch'Łan by current Yang family teachers. The Chen, Yang and Wu families are now promoting their own shortened demonstration forms for competitive purposes.

Modern T'ai Chi

Yang style in Shanghai
Yang style in Shanghai

T'ai Chi has become very popular in the last twenty years or so, as the baby boomers age and T'ai Chi's reputation for ameliorating the effects of aging becomes more well-known. Hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers are all hosting T'ai Chi classes in communities around the world. As a result of this popularity, there has been some divergence between those who say they practice T'ai Chi primarily for fighting, those who practice it for its aesthetic appeal (as in the shortened, modern, theatrical "Taijiquan" forms of wushu, see below), and those who are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health. The wushu aspect is primarily for show; the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability. More traditional stylists still see the two aspects of health and martial arts as equally necessary pieces of the puzzle, the yin and yang of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan. The T'ai Chi "family" schools therefore still present their teachings in a martial art context even though the majority of their students nowadays profess that they are primarily interested in training for the claimed health benefits.

Along with Yoga, it is one of the fastest growing fitness and health maintenance activities, in terms of numbers of students enrolling in classes. Since there is no universal certification process and most Westerners haven't seen very much T'ai Chi and don't know what to look for, practically anyone can learn or even make up a few moves and call themselves a teacher. This is especially prevalent in the New Age community. Relatively few of these teachers even know that there are martial applications to the T'ai Chi forms. Those who do know that it is a martial art usually don't teach martially themselves. If they do teach self-defense, it is often a mixture of motions which the teachers think look like T'ai Chi Ch'Łan with some other system. This is especially evident in schools located outside of China. While this phenomenon may have made some external aspects of T'ai Chi available for a wider audience, the traditional T'ai Chi family schools see the martial focus as a fundamental part of their training, both for health and self-defense purposes. They claim that while the students may not need to practice martial applications themselves to derive a benefit from T'ai Chi training, they assert that T'ai Chi teachers at least should know the martial applications to ensure that the movements they teach are done correctly and safely by their students. Also, working on the ability to protect oneself from physical attack (one of the most stressful things that can happen to a person) certainly falls under the category of complete "health maintenance." For these reasons they claim that a school not teaching those aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, and will be much less likely to be able to reproduce the full health benefits that made T'ai Chi's reputation in the first place.

Modern forms

Women practicing non-martial T'ai Chi in Chinatown (New York City, New York, USA).
Women practicing non-martial T'ai Chi in Chinatown (New York City, New York, USA).

In order to standardize T'ai Chi Ch'Łan for wushu tournament judging, and because many of the family T'ai Chi Ch'Łan teachers had either moved out of China or had been forced to stop teaching after the Communist regime was established in 1949, the government sponsored Chinese Sports Committee brought together four of their wushu teachers to truncate the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956. They wanted to somehow retain the look of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan but make an easy to remember routine that was less difficult to teach and much less difficult to learn than longer (generally 88 to 108 posture) classical solo hand forms. In 1976, they developed a slightly longer form also for the purposes of demonstration that still didn't involve the complete memory, balance and coordination requirements of the traditional forms. This was a combination form, the Combined 48 Forms that were created by three wushu coaches headed by Professor Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on simplifying and combining some features of the classical forms from four of the original styles; Ch'en, Yang, Wu, and Sun. Even though shorter modern forms don't have the conditioning benefits of the classical forms, the idea was to take what they felt were distinctive cosmetic features of these styles and to express them in a shorter time for purposes of competition.

As T'ai Chi again became popular on the Mainland, competitive forms were developed to be completed within a 6 minute time limit. In the late 1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized many different competition forms. It had developed sets said to represent the four major styles as well as combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of wushu coaches in China. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style, e.g., the Ch'en Style National Competition Form is the 56 Forms, and so on. The combined forms are The 42 Form or simply the Competition Form, as it is known in China. In the 11th Asian Games of 1990, wushu was included as an item for competition for the first time with the 42 Form being chosen to represent T'ai Chi. The International Wushu Federation (IWUF) has applied for wushu to be part of the Olympic games. If accepted, it is likely that T'ai Chi and wushu will be represented as demonstration events in 2008.

Representatives of the original T'ai Chi families do not teach the forms developed by the Chinese Sports Committee. T'ai Chi Ch'Łan has historically been seen by them as a martial art, not a sport, with competitions mostly entered as a hobby or to promote one's school publicly, but with little bearing on measuring actual accomplishment in the art. Their criticisms of modern forms include that the modern, "government" routines have no standardized, internally consistent training requirements. Also, that people studying competition forms rarely train pushing hands or other power generation trainings vital to learning the martial applications of T'ai Chi Ch'Łan and thereby lack the quality control traditional teachers maintain is essential for achieving the full benefits from both the health and the martial aspect of traditional T'ai Chi training.

Health benefits

Researchers have found that long-term T'ai Chi practice had favorable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in elders. The studies also reported reduced pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects. Other studies have indicated improved cardiovascular and respiratory function in healthy subjects as well as those who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Patients also benefited from T'ai Chi who suffered from heart failure, high blood pressure, heart attacks, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

T'ai Chi has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of young Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) sufferers. T'ai Chi's gentle, low impact, movements surprisingly burn more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing. T'ai Chi also boosts aspects of the immune system's function very significantly, and has been shown to reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression, and overall mood disturbance. (See research citations listed below.)

A pilot study has found evidence that T'ai Chi and related qigong helps reduce the severity of diabetes.[1]

Citations to medical research

  • Wolf SL, Sattin RW, Kutner M. Intense T'ai Chi exercise training and fall occurrences in older, transitionally frail adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003 Dec; 51(12): 1693-701. PMID 14687346
  • Wang C, Collet JP, Lau J. The effect of Tai Chi on health outcomes in patients with chronic conditions: a systematic review. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Mar 8;164(5):493-501. PMID 15006825
  • Search a listing of articles relating to the FICSIT trials and T'ai Chi [2]
  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T.M., & Thimas, E. (2001). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: benefits from Tai Chi. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, 5(2):120-3, 2001 Apr, 5(23 ref), 120-123
  • Calorie Burning Chart [3]
  • Tai Chi boosts T-Cell counts in immune system [4]
  • Tai Chi, depression, anxiety, and mood disturbance (American Psychological Association) Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1989 Vol 33 (2) 197-206
  • A comprehensive listing of Tai Chi medical research links [5]
  • References to medical publications [6]
  • Tai Chi a promising remedy for diabetes, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 20 December, 2005 - Pilot study of Qigong and tai chi in diabetes sufferers.
  • Health Research Articles on "Tai Chi as Health Therapy" for many issues, i.e. ADHD, Cardiac Health & Rehabilitation, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, Menopause, Bone Loss, Weight Loss, etc.[7]

See also

External links