Some notes adapted from the book T’ai-Chi by Cheng Man Ch’ing
Reprint permission in process
The I Ching (Book of Changes) says: “Nature is always in motion. Man also should strengthen himself without interruption.” There are many systems of exercise, but most are ultimately limited by their failure to go beyond reliance on weight, force, or speed.
Proper exercise systems leads to robust health, calm spirits, and clear, creative thinking.
T’ai-Chi is such an exercise system.
For centuries, Westerners have been puzzled at seeing Chinese from all walks of life doing this effortless, rhythmical, ballet-like exercise both at dawn and at dusk. By way of explanation, Chinese say that whoever practices t’ai-chi, correctly and regularly, twice a day over a period of time will gain the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack, and the peace of mind of a sage. The amazing results achieved suggest that this is not just idle boasting, that perhaps, in some way unknown to Western science, t’ai-chi can indeed do all this, and more. Stressing slow respiration and balanced, relaxed posture, it certainly promotes deep breathing, digestion, the functioning of the internal organs, and blood circulation. And perhaps, there is also a basis for the claim that t’ai-chi can relieve, if rot actually cure, neurasthenia, high blood pressure, anemia, tuberculosis, and many other maladies.
T'ai-chi is also a method of self-defense par excellence. judo, Aikido, and a few other Asian methods stress the yielding principle of t’ai-chi, but none achieve to the same degree its relaxation, suppleness, and subtlety.
The Taoists advocate wu wei (the action of non-action or effortlessness in accomplishment) and the Buddhists venerate “emptying”. A motto for t’ai-chi practice might be “investment in loss.” It is what Confucius meant by k'e cbi-to: “subdue the self”. How is this manifested in mundane affairs? It means to yield (not implying surrender) to others, thus quashing obstinacy, egotism, and selfishness. But it is not an easy thing. To persist in the Solo Exercise amid life's busy requirements is self-humbling. In the Pushing-Hands Practice, the student must accept failure many times over in the early stages. To yield and adhere to an opponent cannot be achieved by an egotist-his ego will not tolerate the bruisings necessary before mastery comes. But here, as in life, this proximity to reality must overcome ego if one is to walk as a whole man.
The full and formal title is T’ai-Chi Ch'uan (pronounced “tie-chee chwan”), Ch’uan meaning simply “fist” or “boxing”.
The term t'ai-cbi is derived from a concept of Chinese philosophy meaning “Supreme Ultimate.” Philosophically, t’ai-chi is said to be the primary principle of all things and is represented by a circle divided into light and dark aspects, representing the yang and yin concepts, which reflect apparently opposite attributes such as male and female, activity and inactivity, firmness and softness, light and darkness, and positive and negative. Through the complementary interaction of yin and yang sprang the five elements-life, water, earth, wood, and metal. T’ai-Chi was named for an ultimate philosophical principle because its early proponents felt it expressed an ultimate physical principle as well.
There are four main theories on the origin of t’ai-chi. The most popular states that Chang
San-feng, a Taoist priest of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), learned it in a dream. Legend sits heavily on this personage: he was reputed to have lived several hundred years and his exploits were so supernormal that one must conclude that they derive more from legend than from historical fact. His more responsible biographers and his tombstone state simply that Chang was a Taoist living on Mt. Wutang in Hupeh Province and that he created a so called internal school of boxing. The postures of his method, however, bear little resemblance to the t'ai-chi we know today.
A second theory holds that it originated in the T ‘ang and developed through four separate schools: the Hsu, Yu, Ch'eng, and Yin
A third claim states that the Ch'en family of Ch' en Chia Kou in Honan province created t’ai-chi during the Ming dynasty (1368-1654). The fourth thesis-and the most reasonable-simply avers that the founder is unknown, but that the development of t’ai-chi dates from one Wang Tsung-yueh of Shansi province, who introduced it in Honan during the reign of Ch'ien-lung (1736-95) of the Ch'ing dynasty. This last theory holds that once, while passing through Ch'en Chia Kou in Wen-hsien (Honan province), Wang Tsungyueh saw the villagers practicing a form of hand boxing called pao cb'ui. Later at his inn he made an offhand remark on the method, which the villagers-almost all surnamed Ch'en, had practiced for generations. His remark brought several challenges and he met them all successfully. The villagers were impressed and asked Wang to stay for a short while to teach them his method. Moved by their sincerity, he agreed and helped them modify their hard boxing method into the softer t’ai-cbi.
Much later, t’ai-chi at Ch'en Chia Kou was divided into the “new” and “old” styles, with Ch'en Ch'ang-hsing representing the “old” and Ch'en Yu-pen the “new” Ch'en Chiang-hsiang, another famed teacher of the “old” style, was engaged by a druggist in Yung Lien Hsien (in what is now Hopei province) to teach his sons. A servant of the family, Yang Lu-ch'an, secretly watched the practices and soon became so expert he was accepted as a student. Yang later went to Peking, capital of the Ch'ing dynasty, where he taught the emperor's guards. He met challenges from all sides of the boxing spectrum and was never defeated.
Yang Lu-ch'an passed his art on to his two sons, Chienhou (d. 1917) and Pan-hou (d. 1881). Chien-hou in turn transmitted the family skill to his two sons, Shao-hou (d. 1929) and Cheng-fu (d. 1935). The latter, Yang Cheng-fu, brought t’ai-chi of the Yang variety to South China. The author of. this present text, Cheng Man-ch'ing, learned personally from Yang for nearly a decade and today is spreading the Yang style of t’ai-chi throughout the world.
Principles of Ta’i-chi
Relaxation and Chi - In considering the fundamental principles of t’ai-chi we immediately come upon a word-ch'i (pronounced “chee”)-which is as important as it is difficult to define. It can mean simply “air”,. as in the context of respiration, but in true t’ai-chi it should mean much more. W. T. Chan has well observed that “ch'i denotes the psychophysiological power associated with blood and breath," or another English equivalent might be “intrinsic energy.” Oddly enough, most writers in English on t’ai-chi have maintained an embarrassed silence concerning chi. Cheng Man-ch'ing, however, gives it a central place in his system, saying that mind (i) and intrinsic energy (ch'i) are complementary bases of t’ai-chi, without which it would become merely a physiological exercise undeserving of the name “supreme ultimate.” In the present book, then, chi is considered to be at the very heart of t’ai-chi, and we shall continue to use the Chinese term rather than any of the necessarily inexact English equivalents.
How should a novice begin his training in t’ai-chi? Relax completely. The aim is to throw every bone and muscle of the body wide open so that the ch'i may travel unobstructed. Once this is done, the chest must be further relaxed and the ch'i made to sink to the navel. After a time the ch'i will be felt accumulating for mass integration in the navel, from where it will begin to circulate throughout the body. A tornado is but the massed movement of air and a tidal wave that of water. As a whiff, nothing is more pliable than air; as a drop, nothing more yielding than water. But as tornadoes and tidal waves, air and water carry everything before them. Mass integration makes the difference. Later, the student will be able to direct the ch'i instantaneously to any part of their body by means of their mind.
Exercise your spine so that the chi can travel this avenue to the top of your head. Your head is held as if suspended by the scalp from the ceiling of the room. This posture immobilizes the head and spine so that neither can move independently of the rest of the body. It strengthens the spine, the vital inner organs, and the brain itself. Make a habit of concentrating on the chi. This can be done at work or play, walking or riding. Formation of the habit requires perseverance but is infinitely better and far less expensive than the modern practice of regular ingestion of medicines.
The movement deriving from this internal generation and circulation of the chi we cal “propelled” movement. During the exercise, limbs and other body components are moved not so much by localized exertions as by the force of the chi. In the next, more advanced stage, the chi is absorbed by and stored in the marrow, causing the bones to become steel hard and essentially indestructible. When this stage is accomplished the student may be said to have reached the highest level.
Like a child Note how a child breathes -not high in the chest, but low in the abdomen. See to, too, how he meets an accident – relaxed and with no apprehension in his mind. You may charge this off to ignorance, but, this notwithstanding, the child more often than not emerges from accidents unscathed. So perhaps the experience/intelligence clogging the adult's mind and causing his body to stiffen is really not such an asset after all. Let the child grasp your finger and try to retract it. Difficult, isn't it? The grasp is firm but not frenzied; there is true energy involved. Finally, watch how a child stands – straight but not stiff. We can truly learn from children. t’ai-chi believes that progress can be made only if one becomes like a child.
Ta’i-Chi for a Healthier Life
The chief aim of this book is to impart information on T'ai Chi as a system of health-giving exercises. This chapter gives the information which is required by the reader before he begins the exercises.
The Three Factors In t’ai-chi three factors, are very important: correct teaching, perseverance, and natural talent. Of the three, correct teaching (or right method) is the most important. Without it, no success comes even if a student of high natural ability works himself beyond human endurance. On the other hand, given the right kind of instruction, success can be achieved through perseverance even if one's natural talent is below average. In essence, two of the three factors-correct teaching and perseverance-are prerequisites for success. Natural ability is only helpful when the other factors are also present. There is a wonderful passage in Confucius which says: “Some are born with knowledge, some derive it from study, and some acquire it only after a painful realization of their ignorance. But the knowledge being possessed, it comes to the same thing. Some study with a natural ease, some from a desire for advantages, and some by strenuous effort. But the achievement being made, it comes to the same thing”.
The usual type of t'ai-chi consists of 128 postures, including many repetitions. Cheng Man Ch'ing reduced the number of postures to thirty-seven by eliminating most of the repeated postures. Compared with the earliest t’ai-chi, which numbered only thirteen postures, Cheng's method contains nearly triple the number of the original actions. Moreover, it does not leave out any of the essential elements of the 128-posture method nor does it change the sequence. To go through a round requires from three to five minutes, depending on one's speed. If done daily, one round in the morning before breakfast and one before retiring at night will contribute greatly to a healthy life. This ten-minute investment a day is paltry enough, but the returns are great. The student, however, must take care not to miss a round. Perseverance is a must!
Movement All movements are done with a relaxed body and a calm but concentrated mind. Walk like a cat – light and firm. In moving backward, touch the toe down first; in going forward, let the heel touch first. Then, as you shift your weight onto the foot, let the rest of the sole gradually proceed into place. Make the hands and head move as a part of the body and not independently. Almost all the movements are made circularly. This permits the reserving of energy, negates tension, and enhances relaxation, quite apart from its functional benefits. The level of the body remains generally the same, little squatting or bending at the waist.
Slowness The movements must be done at the same slow pace throughout. There are no fast postures-all are done at the same speed. The student may vary the speed used for the entire round, but he should not vary the speed of separate postures. Slowness permits distinctness of movement and is attuned to calmness of mind. Also, it enables the mind to function to its fullest in imagining an opponent and in recognizing and appreciating the role played by the components of the body as one moves through the exercise.
Swimming in air Man lives on land. His long familiarity with air often makes him forget its existence. Since it lacks solidity and shape, it eludes attention or easy mental grasp by the beginner. To liken air to water aids the imagination. It is like water in the sense that if one pretends to swim while out of water, his movements automatically conform to the principles of t’ai-chi. By this practice, the novice' ultimately will “feel” the air to be heavy in the sense that he feels water to be heavy. At this stage his body has become lighter and more pliable than that of the average man. This feeling of buoyancy and suppleness derives from firmly rooting the feet and using the body in “dry swimming.” Functionally, this slow movement against an imagined resistance will ultimately create great speed in responding to a fighting situation.
Linkage Although the movements are done slowly, there is no interruption. The postures flow evenly without pause from start to end. The chi is blocked when the flow is impeded. Once one has paused, it takes several postures before one is again “on the track”. This wastes these postures since, if they are not true, they are useless. Do the exercises as though “pulling silk from a cocoon” Although Westerners initially may not understand this, a few words will make it clear. In pulling silk one must pull slowly, easily, and – above all – steadily. If one pauses, the strand will break when the pulling is started again.
Tranquility Slowing down the natural processes will not help if the mind is not calmed. Ignore routine thoughts; initially concentrate on the postures. At first it will be difficult to let extraneous thoughts and images go their own way, but disciplined practice will prevail in the end. As you proceed through the postures, you must think totally on them, so totally, in fact, that the mind literally embraces the postures and vice versa.
Breathing Correct breathing must be coordinated with your movements. Inhale through your nose as you extend your arms outward or upward and exhale through your nose as you contract your arms or bring them downward. Initially, it is best not to be too concerned about breathing: first learn the techniques of the postures and then incorporate the breathing. Ultimately, the breathing becomes such an intrinsic part of the exercise that you will not even have to think of it.
I have entered these words in my website as a tribute to one of my Teachers, Cheng Man Ch’ing,
whom I had the honor of meeting twice. A truly wonderful being.