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Book Review - What is Tai Chi by Peter Gilligan

Whatistaichi I ordered this book because the author commented on a post earlier this week. Although he had some inaccurate opinions of Chen taiji -- not uncommon among people who teach Yang style -- I respect anyone who devotes such a large part of life to tai chi and I'm always looking for another addition to my martial arts library.

I studied Yang style for more than a decade before discovering Chen tai chi. I won a national title in advanced tai chi competition at the AAU Kung-Fu Nationals in 1990. I had a loyal group of students -- many of them elderly -- when I discovered Chen style in 1998. I had read several internal concepts online in a listserve by people like Mike Sigman but I had never been taught what the terms meant, so I sought out a Chen instructor. I was lucky to meet a great couple an hour or so out of Chicago in Rockford, Illinois, who had studied Yang style before discovering Chen. The concepts I had read about were physically demonstrated, along with the Teacher Test. Within one hour, I knew that much of what I had learned was empty, and I had to start over.

I still collect books from all styles of taiji because I can generally learn something from everyone. I might need to dismiss a lot of the abstract mumbo-jumbo that so many instructors use as they try so hard to sound holy and mystical and scientifically grounded. Despite this flaw in so many books and magazine articles, I sift the writing for nuggets that I can use.

There is also a saying that I first heard when I began studying Chen -- "It Has To Be Shown."

In other words, all the writing in the world can't prepare you for the body mechanics of good tai chi. It's so difficult to describe the body mechanics in ways that don't mislead people that it simply has to be shown. In person. Hands-on.

And this is why "What is Tai Chi?" turned into a disappointment.

For one thing, It is a tedious read. Concepts that can be explained more simply and clearly are shrouded in phrases such as this one about Daoyin: "Deliberately tracing out the guides, both mentally and physically, helps to 'dredge the channels,' thereby increasing Qi circulation by improving the signal to noise ratio and channel capacity."

This doesn't mean it doesn't have some good points, but overall, despite claims of being an "insightful book" that covers "all aspects of tai chi," it misses some very important concepts. I was reading closely and could find a faint glimmer of some of these concepts but the average tai chi reader wouldn't catch it.

There is virtually no mention in the book of the ground path, which is one of the most important skills you need for quality tai chi. Silk-reeling is virtually ignored, although spiraling is discussed (but not in a satisfying way). Fajing is virtually ignored, as is the expression of power.

About peng jin, Peter writes, "Fundamentally, 'Peng' is a type of energy flow in a human body." A couple of paragraphs later, he writes "In the Taijiquan Classics we are told that 'Peng' is the 'father' of all Taijquan movements and that the whole body has 'Peng.'"

Well, he got that right, but then he demonstrates a lack of understanding of the concept. He writes "Substituting 'Ward Off' or "Ward Off Slanting Upwards' into these two quotations produces confusion, even gibberish. To make matters even worse, a skilled Taijiquan player is supposed to be able to perform the energy exchanges of 'Peng' and other fundamental movements such as 'Lu,' 'Ji' and 'An' without visible movement of the body. If there is not appreciable external movement, we can only be talking about internal energy flows."

Whew. He finally dismisses the topic by saying "So it seems we cannot translate 'Peng' at all...."

That came as news to me, since Peng is translated very well in Chen taiji. Peng jin is part of every movement in tai chi, including lu, ji, an, cai, etc.

Peng is interpreted as peng "energy" but it is a physical skill that can be developed over time. It is, in fact, NOT an actual, scientifically verifiable "energy" in the body. It is a concept for translating movement -- a concept for translating a particular skill.

Peng is a buoyancy in the body that is very similar to the feeling you get when you push downward on a beach ball into a pool of water (I demonstrate this in my Internal Strength DVD and on my website). When you press a beach ball into a swimming pool, the water "gives" a little but there is pressure that does not collapse. In fact, if you jumped on a large beach ball in a swimming pool, the ball will sink into the water, come back up and then spin, dumping you into the water. This is a very clear explanation of peng, whole-body movement and silk-reeling. All of these things, combined with the ground path, opening and closing of the kua, and dan t'ien rotation, provide the essential framework of quality tai chi.

This is missing from the book, although he dances around it when he discusses the "Three Circle Theory." I was hoping very much that he would translate this into Peng, but it didn't happen.

So -- since It Has To Be Shown -- I went to the author's website to see if he had some videos that show more than the book did. There are videos, but it was the same empty tai chi that I see in so many people who have studied Yang for so long, especially forms such as the "Simplified" 24 form, which I studied and taught for many years.

No one is going to mistake my form for Chen Xiaowang's, but I know what I'm trying to achieve, and I know how, as a student, I would get corrected if I moved primarily my arms instead of using whole-body movement, and when I kept my chi in my chest. I've told the story often of how Jim was standing 50 feet from me in a park when I performed the beginning movement of "Six Sealings Four Closings" and he shouted, "Ken, you lost it." I asked what I lost. "You lost your Peng," he said, and he demonstrated. He was right, and I wondered how he could possibly see that from so far away. Now I can see when Peng is lost -- from 50 feet away.

When telling some Yang folks this sort of thing (and reminding them of silk-reeling and maintaining peng and opening/closing the kua and the other skills), a common reply is a sticking of the nose into the air and a condescending, "You simply don't understand tai chi. We do all this, but you can't see it." They don't often add "you silly child" to that statement, but it's obvious that's what they mean. So, I came close to not writing this book review because believe it or not, I don't like to be critical of the skills of other teachers (only those who claim supernatural abilities). But since the book was promoted on my blog, I was genuinely interested.

Early in the book, Peter basically dismisses Chen Wangting as the creator of tai chi. He speaks of legend and also says that historically, tai chi appears first with Chen Changxing. Ironically, this was the teacher of Yang luchan, who was a servant of the Chens and later went to Beijing and developed Yang style taiji. He says that the theory of Chen Wangting emerged in the 1930s and promoted by the Communist government. Although this is a highly political statement with no citation of evidence, it is not surprising coming from a Yang teacher. The honesty to embrace a common heritage is not common, even in the world of tai chi, because after all, tai chi teachers are only human, and they are as petty and jealous as anyone else in any field of endeavor.

Perhaps when Yang luchan taught the royal family, they weren't willing to work hard, so tai chi was watered down for them. Perhaps this style, as practiced by so many around the world, is empty because the tai chi that was taught to the royal family is what spread so quickly. And as it developed as a "health" art practiced slowly by the elderly, the body mechanics and power of tai chi was lost. 

"What is Tai Chi?" is not a complete waste of money, but it won't be one of the books in my library that I refer back to.

If you're into Yang style, and focus on forms such as the Simplified 24, the book might make perfect sense to you. But I'd love for you to drop into one of my practices sometime, where I can do for you what my Chen teachers did for me.

One-Step Techniques -- A Love-Hate Relationship

One-Step The first martial arts school I joined in 1973 -- Sin The's Shaolin-Do Karate in Lexington, Kentucky -- started us out with basic punches, kicks, blocks, and plenty of one-step exercises. In the first few tests for promotion, one-steps were a key part of training.

Later, I studied them as part of Taekwondo, Tien Shan Pai and Yiliquan. One-step techniques are a part of many traditional martial arts. And they are criticized by "real fighters" such as MMA guys as unrealistic. 

They have a point. But I do think -- if done correctly -- one-steps can be a very important training tool in the early stages of practicing a fighting application.

In 1979, I bought a book called "One-Step Sparring," by a TKD master named Shin Duk Kang. It contained 30 one-step patterns, from white belt to black belt. The book is still in my martial arts library.

I'm including an excerpt here for informational purposes. Click this link to download the entire sequence in a pdf document:  Download One-Step-Complete.

This is where One-Step techniques go wrong. It's absolutely unrealistic. In a real self-defense situation, or even a point-sparring match, no opponent punches and then remains frozen like a statue while you reel off three techniques including jumping spinning kicks.

I'd rather practice the sequence on a heavybag. Practicing three kicking techniques like this on a partner who appears frozen in time borders on fantasy.

In my classes, I teach one-steps for one technique. From chin-na to hsing-i fist postures to bagua and chen taiji, one-steps against an opponent who is punching, kicking, pushing, or grabbing can help you determine angles, footwork, and how effectively you can get into position for a particular technique.

But then you need to put it to work in a freestyle atmosphere. You work with a partner who isn't necessarily going to give you anything -- who isn't going to hold a punch or kick out for you to get set. And your partner must continue to throw different techniques. You have to adapt to a changing situation, where your partner is not responding in predictable ways.

This is one of the reasons I love push hands. Two nights ago, Chris Miller and I did push hands and moved around, trying to take advantage of each other and responding/countering when one or the other tried a technique, joint lock, etc. It was unpredictable and teaches you how to respond against something you're not necessarily expecting but "listening" for.

That's when you really learn.

One-steps are good for basic practice, and sometimes you have to practice a one-step many times to get the body mechanics, coordination and timing down.

From there, you make it more realistic and you learn from loss -- you learn best when it DOESN'T work and when you have a partner who helps you learn not by making it too difficult, but by helping to avoid making it too easy.


More Evidence Pointing to the True Origin of Taijiquan

GroundPath250 The origin of Taijiquan has generated quite an interest during the past week or so on this blog and on Facebook. It appears that there is a growing fantasy in Yang style camps, perpetuated by folks like Dan Docherty and some students of William C.C. Chen. They are perpetuating a falsehood -- that the Chen family made up their lineage and that Chen tai chi is actually Shaolin kung-fu with a little tai chi thrown in.

I studied Yang taiji for over a decade before I met anyone involved in Chen style. In one hour after meeting Jim and Angela Criscimagna, I realized that I had to start over. Most taiji in America is empty -- focused on "cultivating chi" rather than on actual internal skill. I was shocked at the difference.

And the difference between me and some tai chi players is the ability to gather new information and compare it objectively with past information.

There is no difference between what we go through in martial arts and what we go through in religion. If you belong to a church, your pastor is a powerful figure -- someone who is in direct contact with an invisible being. In tai chi (or any martial art), the pastor is replaced with the teacher -- someone who just might have supernatural powers.

It's all the same schtick. And since we are human beings, we invest a lot with our ministers and our taiji teachers -- we invest financially and emotionally. Many people spend thousands of dollars by giving tithes to their church. There is no way they will ever admit they wasted their money. We do the same in martial arts.

What a shock when we learn information that indicates perhaps our master was NOT really a master. What a shock when we learn that you can't really knock people down with your chi, and you can't heal someone with your frikkin' aura.

One of the most valuable tools you can possess is intellectual integrity -- the ability to understand when you've been had. When faced with alternative information, those without this ability will refuse to believe it, and even react in anger against the person with the new information. We see it every day in politics. We see it every day in tai chi classes.

And so, many people who began studying a weak form of taiji in the United States couldn't accept it when Chen taiji started becoming known here during the past 15 years, as the Chen masters began coming to the U.S., developing disciples here, putting on workshops, and showing what real taiji is about -- the original style that all other styles came from.

For many years, Yang style teachers refused to believe that there were skills that their arts didn't discuss -- ground path, peng jin, using the kua, dan t'ien rotation -- but some of these teachers have changed their tune during the past ten years or so. Some of them have begun saying, "Oh yes, we teach that, and we teach fighting applications."

Then you see their taiji, their high, narrow stances, the "chi in their chest," lack of spiraling, and it's apparent that they don't have the skills -- they don't have the "iron" beneath the "cotton." It's all cotton.

And far too often, instead of embracing our common heritage, they attack it.

I know karate instructors who readily admit that karate was influenced by kung-fu. That's why karate has been referred to as "China Hand." It's a pity that taiji instructors can't recognize the origins of their own art. It might help them check their art for quality -- or at least understand why so much of what is being taught is completely different than what is taught by the Chen family. Why do so few Yang people know how to fight with their art? There are theories -- the dillution of the art when it was taught to the royal family, the further dillution when martial arts were banned in China, and when people began focusing on the mystical rather than the martial (credit the rise of firearms for part of that). You can also blame people who don't want to understand that real tai chi skills requires pain, strength-building, fatigue, and plenty of sweat. And you can blame the people who want others to believe they possess supernatural abilities, and the wisdom of a sage.

Tai Chi itself is a combination of many arts, including Shaolin, but some time around 1650 A.D. Chen Wangting refined everything he had learned as a warrior and martial artist -- he incorporated yin-yang theory and he infused his new family art with something unique -- silk-reeling movements, which is a spiraling throughout the body -- a physical, not metaphysical, skill. His art became known as a great fighting art but with soft, relaxed movements that suddenly exploded with power -- fajing. The family art was further refined as generations passed, by great masters such as Chen Changxing and Chen Fake.

The day I was introduced to Chen taiji, I began dropping Yang style. In the time since, I haven't met one Yang teacher or student who understands the basic concepts of internal body mechanics. But they've convinced people that they understand how to tap into the ultimate life force. There's never a shortage of people ready to believe.

Here is a great bit of research into the origin of Tai Chi. It describes Li family texts, the historian Tang Hao, and Chen Wangting. Li family scrolls provide more evidence that Chen Wangting actually did create Tai Chi.

I'm preaching to the choir if you already study Chen taiji. But if you're involved with a teacher who claims that tai chi was not intended as a martial art, you should be looking for another teacher, because you're studying something empty, too.