What makes ……. a martial art?
Basically, you may consider any fighting system as a martial art. However, in the Far Eastern sense, it is not just about the effectiveness of one’s system or techniques. There are also spiritual (not the same as religious) and aesthetic qualities that are taken into account. When one competes for fame and money, then it becomes a sport.
Wu-De (武德) is concept in Chinese martial arts society that includes both ethics and chivalry. Whilst good manners and respect is somewhat lacking in modern society. It is still expected in martial arts circles and one’s behaviour and conduct is judged.
Shaolin & Wudang
Shaolin and Wudang are mentioned a lot in martial arts and there are a lot of confusion over the two.
Shaolin (少林) is a name of a Buddhist Temple in Hubei Province, China. Shaolin is famed for its warrior monks and Shaolin Kung Fu and considered the home of the external kung fu. People consider Shaolin to be the birthplace or home of Chinese kung fu. In reality, Shaolin is a melting pot where masters of many styles met over the centuries. Shaolin is actually not the only Buddhist temple to have a martial tradition. Ironically, Shaolin is located on the Song Shan mountain range, which is a Daoist mountain.
Wudang (武當) is mountain range in Hubei Province and unlike Shaolin, Wudang isn’t a name of a particular temple. Rather it is a collective of Daoist temples that have shared martial tradition, regardless of sects and beliefs. Wudang is known as the home of Internal kung fu. Like Shaolin, it is also considered a melting pot for internal arts. The most famous being Tai Chi.
Martial arts and monastic life
It would seem strange that monks practice martial arts, which seems to be opposite to the ideals of peace and compassion. However, many temples were located in remote areas and danger exists in many forms. Monastics need to protect the weak, themselves and the monastic community. Where reason stops being effective, monastics must resort to martial arts. Religions teaches us to be compassionate and protect the others. So religion and martial arts go hand in hand. There is a perception that warrior monks is a Chinese concept, but martial traditions in monastic life also existed in Korea and Japan. During the time of the Crusades, religious Orders such as the Knights of St. John's, The Teutonic Order and the Knights Templars also had warriors. Unlike the these religious Orders, Warrior monks were few in numbers. They still are few in numbers. The shaven headed monks you see in Shaolin demonstration tours rarely feature real monks. These are either lay practitioners or people who have trained in Shaolin kung fu.
External and Internal
There is no easy way to describe this, other than its hard and soft. Shaolin kung fu and Karate has a greater emphasis on hard physical force. However soft martial arts like Tai Chi rely on internal power, which comes from within. It is hard to summarise these concepts in words and it is best seen in action. The techniques and concepts are the same, but executed differently.
The difference between Kung Fu & Tai Chi
The term, Kung fu (功夫, also spelt as gong fu) does not mean martial arts, it means acquired skill and hard work. So cooking, cleaning and plumbing are also considered kung fu. But martial arts requires skill and practice, so it is also called kung fu. When the term kung fu is used for martial arts, it’s a generic for all styles, including Shaolin and Tai Chi. There is no difference in terms of name and the it is methodology and execution that defines a school’s style. Kung fu and Tai Chi is actually bad grammar, because you wouldn’t see fruit and oranges being written. But the public perceives the two as different.
Shoes vs Barefoot
We often see people practice in bare feet. There is no right or wrong here and it is a matter of preference. Historically, Chinese people practiced outside, hence we wore shoes. The Korean and Japanese practiced indoors, hence they removed their shoes. This isn't entirely true as it is very difficult to do everything indoors. In the interest of safety and hygiene, it is better to wear shoes.
Isn’t Tai Chi & Qigong the same thing?
They share the same origins and theories, but are taught as different disciplines. Tai Chi requires movement and the routine is called a form. This is the same as kata in Japanese. Qigong can be both static or moving. Qigong can be part of a set or have a small routine of their own that is similar to Tai Chi. Although these are generally shorter.
What is Daoism?
Daoism* is China’s indigenous religion and a school of philosophy, that focuses on the way and how man lives in harmony with nature. Daoism grew from ancient shamanism and merged with many schools of thought to become what it is today. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, Daoism is not an organised religion. There are in fact many sects with varied beliefs and practices. However, they all have a common, the core of Daoist beliefs.
*Daoism is spelt Taoism in some text
Do I have to convert to Daoism to practice Tai Chi?
No. There is a misunderstanding in the West over Chinese martial arts where there is a religious background involved. You just need to learn the art for what it is and respect the tradition. There is no need to convert. Just like you don’t need to be Christian to enjoy Christmas.
How often should I practice?
This a matter of personal preference. If you can set aside 5 minutes a day, that is fine. It is all about quality of the practice, not the quantity.
How long will it take for me to learn everything?
How long is a piece of string? The Wudang syllabus I teach can be completed by some in the space of a few years. But completing the syllabus, achieving competency and mastery are not the same thing. But there is no need to complete the syllabus, just practice what you enjoy. Many of us are still learning.
Tai Chi looks easy, so I'm sure I will learn it quite soon right?
You will be surprised how many people assume this is the case. However, in reality it isn't as easy as it looks. There are many moves to remember and you need a very good memory. If you were a dancer, you might be able to pick it up a little sooner, but that's just the basics. However, whilst it isn't easy, it doesn't mean it is impossible. With patience, you be able to get the hang of it.
Will doing Tai Chi help me lose weight?
Yes, but it depends on a number of factors, such as your size, weight and how long you practice for. If you were only doing just hand forms, then you would need to be doing Tai Chi several hours a day and everyday to make a difference. However, this is not practical, sustainable nor advisable. There are many aspects of our art that can help improve your health and wellbeing. So it helps to have some variety in what you do. I would suggest having Tai Chi as part of an active healthy lifestyle and practice in moderation.
The term shifu (師傅,or sifu in Cantonese) is often heard in Chinese martial arts circles. The term means father of an art, referring a person as a master. But the term is actually not exclusive to martial arts as chefs, tradesman and monastics are also called shifu. The reason being that they are experts in their field, with the regards to knowledge and abilities. Another reason why call a monastic shifu is because they are seen as an example to the rest of us and watching their behaviour and conduct is a lesson in itself. The title shifu is what others call you as a sign of respect. It is not considered proper for one to call themselves shifu or even grandmaster.
How should I learn?
There is not easy way to answer this question, because everybody is different. It would be a good idea attend class on a regular basis. It would be a good idea to analyse what you have learnt and ask questions. Because everybody is different, what works for one person, might not work for another. Your classmates will always help you and it is best not to view Tai Chi as race. Learn at your own pace and practice in a way that suits you.
No teacher has all the answers and I would recommend reading books, watching demonstrations and attending workshops or camps. The Tai Chi Union of Great Britain publishes a magazine that comes out a couple of times a year. This magazine usually has a number of articles from various people in Tai Chi or other internal arts. I do have copies to loan out to my students.
Can I learn from watching YouTube or DVD's?
There have been people who have, but I don't recommend doing this. Tai Chi is a martial art and a very sophisticated one too. The subtleties and the finer techniques cannot be picked up from watching videos. Skills are acquired by training with other people and hence it is best to learn in class settings. If there was no teacher, how would you know if what you're doing is correct? It's like learning to play guitar by reading magazines and watching YouTube. You will be able to produce a sound, but you won't be technically as good as people who have taken proper music lessons.
Tai Chi suits
It is not necessary to wear one to class. Tai Chi suits are only worn at competitions and for public demonstrations. Contrary to popular belief, Tai Chi suits are not a uniform, but a custom. However, some schools do treat them as such a uniform. I prefer my students to wear what is comfortable to class.
Can I study another style of Tai Chi at the same time?
You may, but I have never done this myself, so I can’t say what it is like. However, I have heard about people who have and it has left them feeling very confused. If in doubt, its best not to and avoid bad habits that might affect your practice.
Will practicing Tai Chi provide instant benefits for me?
This depends on your expectations. Some things are noticeable sooner than others. Investing in your health is like investing money, it takes time to yield benefits. The more you put in, the better chances are for a greater return.
Is Tai Chi just for old people?
It generally looks that way, but Tai Chi is for people of all ages. Whenever I attend competitions, there are people from all age groups. A lot still comes down to how people still view Tai Chi. Some people are attracted to the visually martial appearance of Chen Style, which is more athletic and dynamic. But the style which I teach also has a more martial emphasis. Age is never a problem or a barrier.
Is Tai Chi for me?
This depends on a number of factors. As a health exercise, Tai Chi (and Qigong) are considered low impact and suitable for all. The moves are soft and gentle, so it is unlikely to cause problems*. For those that have certain health conditions, we can always adapt the moves to suit the individual. As a martial art, Tai Chi has risks just like any other.
*If you are unsure, please seek the opinion of your GP.
Do I get a belt?
The idea of belts is a Japanese concept. Originally, belts were awarded as a sign of seniority. Although later, belts were awarded as a sign of rank. However, belts are not necessarily a reflection of skill. In the style I teach, we are awarded certificates and grading is done by my Master Dan Docherty. In Chinese martial arts, certificates are the norm and it has been for a long time. Masters are graded and awarded Duan-Wei (Dan) levels by the Chinese Government. There are some schools that give out coloured sashes, but this is a modern practice. What is important is that you enjoy what you do. There are many people who practice Tai Chi and don’t feel the need to be graded.
What is the difference between Mandarin & Cantonese?
Mandarin and Cantonese are in fact dialects of the Chinese language. Mandarin is nowadays considered to be the most common and popular dialect. Mandarin is the dialect that the Chinese government supports and promotes as the standard form of Chinese. Mandarin is common dialect in both The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, though there are local differences. Cantonese is a dialect that is spoken in Guangdong Province (Canton) and parts of the neighbouring province of Guangxi. Contrary to what you have heard or read, Cantonese is not a foreign language or a language in it’s own right. What they don’t tell you is that Cantonese is a surviving form of Middle Chinese (the other being Fujianese) and was a style of communication from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). Mandarin started off being a dialect which enabled government officials from various parts of China to communicate. Hence that is why it was called Mandarin. The Mandarin dialect dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) and continued up to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 AD). By which time was the dialect that was most widely spoken in the capital, Beijing.
One of the reasons why Westerners get confused over the two dialect is because at one time, most Chinese people who emigrated abroad were Cantonese speaking and the popular culture Westerners recognised as Chinese were in Cantonese. Fast forward to the 90’s and with the growth of China, the Chinese people who emigrated to the West spoke Mandarin. As time passes by, the Cantonese culture we used to know has become overshadowed by Mandarin dominated media.
With a country the size of China, there is in fact not just two dialects. There are actually many dialects, even amongst Han Chinese. The other widely spoken dialects are Hakka (South China), Fujian (including Min), and Wu (Shanghai and surrounding areas). These dialects are also spoken by various overseas Chinese communities.
What’s with Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters?
Simplified Chinese characters are a set of Chinese Characters that are a simplified version of the traditional set. They are not part of a different language and simplified Chinese characters are not a modern invention. At the same time, it is incorrect to consider Simplified Chinese to be modern Chinese. Simplified Chinese was used my Chairman Mao as a way to educate the masses, but there was evidence of simplified Chinese as far back as Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). There are actually numerous styles and scripts in the Chinese language. Simplified Chinese is promoted by China as the standard of writing that goes with modern Mandarin. Traditional characters are still widely used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities. Modern computers recognise both sets and you can input both on smartphones, tablets and computers.
Simplified characters generally have fewer strokes than their traditional counterparts. In most cases, they look quite similar. People who grew up and were educated in the traditional way would recognise simplified characters quite easily, but not vice-versa.
Here is an example of Tai Chi written in both traditional and simplified characters. So you can see how similar they are.
Traditional - 太極拳
Simplified - 太极拳
At White Horse Tai Chi, we use Mandarin in the pinyin format, since this is the accepted standard. However, Chinese characters will be the traditional set. This is the way I was brought up and I don’t believe in short cuts that leads to detriments in the long term. There is a trend developing for the return to traditional characters and some find simplified characters vulgar. If you are learning Chinese, I would encourage you to be open minded and be familiar with both sets to characters.
So is it Tai Chi or Taiji?
The two words actually mean the same thing and in theory should be pronounced the same way. That is Tai-Jee and not Tai-Chee as how everyone pronounces. How did this confusion come about? Well many years ago, there were many systems on how to pronounce Chinese words in English (and different systems for different regional dialects, but I won't go there). At the time, the Mandarin pronunciation was spelt Tai Chi Ch'uan, but in modern pinyin it is Taijiquan. The benefit of using pinyin is that it is a universal standard of pronouncing Mandarin Chinese. It is common to just shorten it to Tai Chi, which is what most people know it is as. At the same time, for the sake of consistency, we should be using the pinyin version Taiji. So the title will read Tai Chi, but the contents will be written as Taiji.