What Are the T'ai Chi Classics?
One of the distinguishing features of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the richness of its theoretical foundation. These theories are at once the guide to improving one’s practice and the measure of one’s progress.
Although many of the theories seem obvious, they are not. Many seem incredibly difficult to understand, and they are.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice often starts from the outside in—from the body to the energy and mind. Later it requires going from the inside out—from the mind and energy to the body. The process involved in this development depends largely on the individual’s effort, which in turn produces insight.
Sometimes the physical effort produces insight. Sometimes there is an insight that occurs through a shift in understanding that can be applied to physical practice.
The classics are generally referred to as: The Theory of T’ai Chi Ch’uan by Chang San Feng (Zhangsanfeng), The Classics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan by Wong Tsung Yueh (Wangzongyue), An Internal Explanation of the Practice of the 13 Postures by Wu Yusiang (Wu Yu Xiang), The Five Words Secrets by Li Yi Yu (Li yiyu), and Summary of the Practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Push Hands by Li Yi Yu.
Additionally, there are songs, or poems, about T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which give important suggestions about practice. Over time, highly accomplished masters have contributed their own insights. For instance, Yang Cheng-fu’s 10 important points are regularly quoted. And each of the founders of major styles have left writings which have special significance.
The significance of these classic writings is evidenced in Wang Tsung Yueh’s manual. It refers to keeping the neck erect and to pushing upward with the top of the head, while sinking the qi to the dantian.
Keeping the neck straight and pushing upward with the top of the head sounds like easy and insignificant things to do. But at another level, it refers to the internal energy moving upward while at the same time the energy is sinking to the dantian, or lower abdomen.
When one is practicing correctly without blockages, this is how the energy flows in the body. And this is how energy is created. But until sufficient internal energy accumulates, it is necessary to follow these prescriptions.
Another saying: “Do not lean nor incline. Manifest suddenly and conceal suddenly.” Not to lean nor incline has to do with maintaining proper balance and central equilibrium, but it also refers to keeping one’s intentions hidden. Leaning or inclining can reveal one intentions.
Martial arts are based in large part on surprise, so one must conceal one’s intention and reveal them unexpectedly when it is too late for the opponent to respond effectively.
This is repeated in the saying: “Others do not know me. I alone know others. A hero is undefeated because he is a master of these principles.”
Some T’ai Chi masters are famous for being able to throw an attacker to the floor or many feet away with the attacker or spectators unable to clearly see what he did. His movements use internal energy and movements too subtle for most people to observe.
This is reflected in, “Four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.” At this high level of skill, a defender can use a small amount of energy to neutralize the far greater external force of an attacker.
Basic writings about structural alignment are easier to understand at a beginning level.
Yang Cheng-fu’s “10 Essential Points,” lists the following: Keep the head upright, as if suspended from above, depress the chest and raise the upper back, loosen the waist, distinguish between substantial and insubstantial, sink the shoulders and elbows, use your mind and not your force, co-ordinate the upper and lower body movements, unify internal and external movements, maintain continuity of movements, and seek stillness in movement.
Some of these are easy superficially. For instance, sink the shoulders, lower the elbows, relax the waist, depress the chest, and round the back. However, even these guidelines have an inner meaning.
For the beginner, these are rules for proper execution of movements. When practiced conscientiously, over a long period of time, they help to induce internal energy, which then requires and reinforces sinking the shoulders, lowering the elbows, relaxing the waist, etc.
Some classic writings are difficult to understand and apply. Loosening the waist is more than being able to turn the waist freely. It involves relaxing the small of the back when exerting energy, and to do this there must be a pulling upward and a sinking down.
This is related to the principle of distinguishing between Yin and Yang, or between substantial and insubstantial, which is at the core of T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice.
According to one author, once one really understands Yin and Yang in one’s practice, “one’s skill would progress with the days and soon, one’s skill would be as good as one could wish.”
One of the keys to this kind of understanding is to get past the idea of the concepts as static ideas. For instance, to have one foot empty and one foot substantial is easy to express and understand, but it is a static view of the process.
All the classic writings have to be understood as dynamic interactions between all the different parts of the body, as well as with the qi and the mind.
Therefore, it is important not to dismiss even simple suggestions such as to suspend the head from a string and to always try to refresh one’s understanding of the T’ai Chi classics based on the progress one makes in practice.
Not all interpretations of the classics are alike. And some of the highest level masters may not put their thoughts into writing. Many of these concepts are very difficult to express in words in any language.
Also, translations from the Chinese are often inaccurate and incomplete, sometimes depending on the translator’s own level of practice.
In one case where the Chinese version and its English translation were included in the same book, the English translation did not have certain key words that were in the Chinese, seriously affecting the meaning.
There are relatively few translations of the T’ai Chi classics in English but that will change, as there is more interest and skill.
The key is always in the way that one practices. It is not enough to just reinforce one’s understanding while practicing. For instance, one does not want to just try to get stronger or softer.
One needs to have a continuing inquiry to seek what changes will produce a better result, combining strength and softness, Yin and Yang, internal and external, mind and qi, and qi and body. -- Marvin Smalheiser