Now that I am a teacher of taijiquan the issue has become even more pertinent to me, especially in relation to the question of what it is that qualifies a person to teach the art.

Taijiquan, as many experts have been at great pains to point out, is a martial art, and therefore it might be expected that instructors of the art should be martial artists. But even this seemingly straightforward point needs clarifying, for what exactly is  a martial artist?

The possible answers to this question, I suspect, cover as wide a spectrum as that of the arts themselves.

A kickboxer might answer that a martial artist is a person who keeps him or herself in a fit condition and who is able to kick and punch effectively, as well as being able to defend against such attacks.

A judoka might aver that a martial artist is a person who is strong, fit and technically capable of facing other exponents in competition.

An aikidoka could well argue that a martial artist is a person who practises a "way" which, although involving techniques of offence and defence is primarily aimed at resolving conflict in as harmonious a manner as possible.

Of course, all of the above definitions are extremely general, and it is very unlikely that all kickboxers, judoka and aikidoka will agree with them. Indeed the very nature of martial arts, as activities whereby an individual strives to master an art, in a process which involves overcoming not only external adversaries but also internal ones, makes generalisations very difficult to apply.

To explore this issue further let us take a look at what the founders of some prominent martial arts felt to be the purpose of their arts.

In his book Three Budo Master (Kodansha1995) John Stevens describes Jigaro Kano's vision of his art Kodokan Judo as:

".. a discipline of the mind and body that fostered wisdom and virtuous living." (ibid. p.21).

In the same book Stevens quotes the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba:

".. the way of a warrior is to manifest divine love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things." (ibid p.112).

To a modern practitioner the experience of training in a judo dojo or an aikido dojo might seem very different from the described aims of the arts above. Furthermore the atmosphere and training in the judo dojo might well be very different from that of the aikido dojo. The water is further muddied if we consider the traditional karate dojo. Here the exponent may well find rigid discipline, constant practice of basic techniques conducted in a militaristic manner and an overall atmosphere of austere seriousness.

All of the above serves to emphasise the need to qualify what we mean by dojo. The original Chinese characters refer to a place where the Dao or Way is practised (for an interesting discussion of this see Kodo: Ancient Ways by Kensho Furuya, Ohara Publications 1996). It is obvious from this general description that we must first define the Way that is being practised. Is the Way of judo the same as the way of aikido or karate-do? Even if the underlying Way is the same are its manifestations in practice the same? In short what lessons are the teachers trying to teach and how are they being taught?

Now let us look specifically at the case of taijiquan and consider the nature of the art, what it teaches, how it is taught and where, if at all, comparisons with other martial arts may be made.

Taijiquan, as a martial art, encompasses the practice of solo patterns of movement (forms), partner work, and weapons training. The solo forms include both slow and fast movements all of which may be explained in terms of martial application. As well as practising empty hand forms, the exponent also trains with a variety of weapons, the most popular of which are the straightsword, the broadsword, the staff and the spear. Partner work in taijiquan is mostly concentrated around  the practice of what is known as push hands. Initially the exponent learns patterns of movement , which when practised with a partner, enhance balance, tactile sensitivity and leg strength. At the same time the student gains an appreciation of the difficulties of remaining relaxed and aware while under pressure, both qualities essential to martial skill.

One of the reasons given for why taijiquan might be described as an internal art, is the emphasis on correct body alignment and posture, in combination with the development of a calm state of mind. Furthermore the taijiquan exponent seeks to use the body as efficiently as possible so that when force has to be exerted the strength of the whole body may be applied against the opponent. This application of force, however, does not occur at random. Rather it is applied at a place and time when the opponent is at a disadvantage. In order to detect when this moment might be, the exponent has to be sensitive to the opponent's every move; in practical terms this most often means being in close contact with him. In order to apply the maximum force necessary at the appropriate speed the exponent must learn to relax the muscles  to the point where there is no unnecessary tension which might serve to impede or slow down the necessary responses.

From the above we can isolate three important areas in which the taijiquan practitioner seeks to develop skill. These are correct structural alignment; sensitivity; and the development of a relaxed mind and body.

Correct structural alignment allows the exponent to use the whole body in such a way that incoming force may be absorbed into the ground; while, in offence, the exponent uses the body in a spring-like manner to bounce force from the ground into the opponent. To do this the body must be so aligned that none of the joints impede the clear transfer of force, either in or out.

Sensitivity is specifically referred to in taijiquan in the two terms ting jing (listening jing) and dong jing (understanding jing). Initially ting jing is developed through form practice. This development is manifested as an increased body awareness; the exponent "feels" the whole of the body, identifying when and where there is excess tension and releasing it. The process is further developed through the practice of pushing hands, as the exponent learns to feel another person's body, locating areas of tension and weakness, which may then be exploited.

The development of sensitivity and correct alignment are inextricably linked with the third area of skill, that of relaxation of body and mind. Only when the body is correctly aligned can as many muscle groups as possible be relaxed, and it is sensitivity to, and awareness of, the degree of relaxation and tension in each body part that allows the exponent to attain a greater degree of relaxation. As the practitioner becomes more physically relaxed he is likely to become more aware of the vital role of the mind in this process. The mind must remain comfortably focused, uninterrupted by everyday vexations, in order for the body to relax. At first the exponent struggles with the physical requirements of the solo form, but then, as these become more a matter of habit, he has to keep his mind alert, feeling his body, being aware of the constant interplay of tension and relaxation. Then, when practising, pushing hands, the mind needs to be kept in a state of calm even when the exponent is under pressure. Fast forms and weapons routines also provide their own forms of stress and tension under which the body and mind must be kept as  calm and relaxed as possible.

In examining these three areas of skill, structural alignment sensitivity and relaxation, a major difference from an art such as karate or kickboxing is immediately apparent. Where the emphasis in such arts is initially on technique, in taijiquan technique is something that comes with time. It is true to say that in theory and in practice taijiquan is the opposite of many other martial arts. That is not to say that principle and theory are of no importance in an art such as karate; only that they come later after basic techniques have been trained and drilled. The basics of an art such as taijiquan are enshrined in every exercise carried out in the training hall. The warm-up exercises teach as much about structural alignment, relaxation and sensitivity as do the most advanced forms or partner exercises.

  While a beginning student in karate will learn a number of punches, kicks and blocks, a beginning student of taijiquan learns how to stand so the body is as relaxed as possible. He learns how to shift the weight from one leg to another in as smooth and balanced a fashion as possible. Co-ordination of the whole body is learnt with the initiation of every movement coming from the large muscles of the abdomen. The exponent learns how to relax the whole of the upper body so that, when breathing,   as much stale air as possible can be expelled and then fresh air taken in using the full capacity of the lungs. When practising movements that could be interpreted as kicks or punches, the taijiquan practitioner learns how to make the arm or the leg transmit the power of the whole body. Furthermore he learns how to develop and maintain a state of relaxed awareness which gradually may be used in all areas of his life.

A further consideration, when examining points of comparison between taijiquan and other martial arts, is the cultural background of the arts concerned. In the case of Chinese arts such as taijiquan the central relationship is between the teacher and his disciple. Although the modern trend is for teachers to hold public classes still the refined knowledge and teaching is saved for those "special" students who have indicated that they wish to really master the art. These students, commonly referred to as disciples, and who often have to undergo a formal rite of initiation to mark their new status, will train in small groups, or individually, at the teacher's house. The teaching will be informal with the student performing his techniques with occasional corrections from the teacher, or a senior disciple. In the relationship between teacher and disciple it is accepted that the onus is on the disciple to try his best to "steal" his teacher's art. In practical terms this means that he is always observing the teacher and his seniors, examining and analysing their technique, form and actions, and then attempting to reproduce them himself. He may get very little in the way of feedback from the teacher and often will have little or no opportunity to question him directly.

In many cases, where the teacher is well-known enough for students to seek him out for tuition, geographical location might mean that disciple and teacher are seldom together. All of my taijiquan teachers saw their own teacher at intermittent intervals and often for short periods of time. This further added to their sense of the precious  nature of the time they spent with their teachers. Master Lau Kim Hong remembers how his master, Lu Tong Bao, only visited the south of Malaysia every few months or so and then only for a week at a time. Master Koh Ah Tee's last teacher Wu Guo Zhong, lived in Taiwan, visiting Malaysia, at most, three times a year. Yet, under these conditions, these teachers aspired to, and managed to reach, the highest levels of their art.

Compare this with the learning experience of a student of karate, who visits the dojo two or three times a week, where he is a member of a group class. As opposed to the taijiquan learning experience where the discipline and motivation is very much from within, our karateka is part of a group where strict, and sometimes even harsh, external discipline is imposed. As a result of this the exponent's speed, power and strength swiftly and visibly improve.

By way of contrast the taijiquan exponent has to spend long periods of time training alone, always seeking to ensure that every movement conforms to the principles of the art. Training alone, however, is not the whole story. In order to ensure that he or she is on the right track, the exponent must practise push hands with as wide a range of people as possible. Furthermore the kinds of pushing hands experience must be varied to cover a full spectrum from gentle, sensitivity training to encounters where one or other of the partners uses a great deal of force. The latter approach often draws criticism from taijiquan "purists" but it is essential if the exponent is to discover whether he or she really has the ability to "borrow the strength of the opponent" or the ability to "deflect a thousand pounds with four ounces". I must reiterate that soft pushing hands for the development of "ting jing" and "dong jing" is essential but so is putting your art to the test by finding opportunities to face attacks that are both fast and powerful. In this "arena" the three factors of correct alignment, sensitivity and relaxation may be put to the test.

To return, however, to the focus of this article, namely comparisons between different martial arts; how would our taijiquan exponent fare in a karate dojo? Firstly he or she would probably find himself uncomfortable practising the staccato techniques of that art. The locked-out punches and snapping kicks would certainly feel uncomfortable. Sparring would be an unfamiliar experience, initially as the exponent attempted to come to terms with the different distances used. Another strange and painful area to the taijiquan exponent who had not "sparred" before would be the fear and actual pain of contact.

What if we transplanted the karateka to the taijiquan training hall? He or she would probably find the slow pace frustrating. The sequences of movements would seem overly complex and their relationship to or application in actual fighting, obtuse, to say the least. The seemingly simple postures, however, might cause some difficulty particularly when held for extended periods of time. Pushing hands would seem totally alien for the close range might be different from that which the karateka is used to. The frustration of trying to use as little strength as possible while attempting to unbalance a partner might also affect the karateka.

I could go on endlessly. Comparisons might also be made with judoka, aikidoka, wrestlers, boxers and so on. While interesting such comparisons are not particularly helpful. Instead of worrying how you would fare when fighting a karateka or a wrestler look at those elements of their training which you feel is lacking in your own. If you feel that your stamina is poor then look at those areas of the taijiquan curriculum which can be used to improve this area. If you are afraid of the effect an opponent's strikes or kicks may have on you then practise with padding and a training partner, avoiding and taking blows, while still trying to retain the core elements of alignment, sensitivity and relaxation. If you feel that your training has not equipped you to cope with a wrestler then try to find a partner who will help you to practise countering "the shoot" or working on what happens when you go to the ground. In short the art belongs to each generation that practises it and it is up to us to try to make the best use of it that we can.

I was recently training with Master Lau Kim Hong and a visiting American student who is experienced in both wrestling and stick fighting. Master Lau was very interested to see his techniques and to explore how his own art could counter them. Similarly Master Koh Ah Tee, while pushing hands with the same visitor invited him to use locks or throws if he so wished. During the encounter Master Koh made use of some extremely effective counters which I had never seen before. When I questioned him about them he pointed out that they were not "thought out" but rather were instinctive responses to the interflow and interchange of forces in their pushing hands encounter.

As for my American friend and I; well we are both covered in carpet burns from experimenting on industrial carpet. I'm sure the headache will go away (I didn't know you could use your legs like that!); my thigh will probably recover from the effects of testing a "slow" Thai roundhouse kick; and his neck will probably get better. But at the end of the day I am more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my art as is my friend. This, I believe is the way to progress.

I have been lucky enough to have been generously and openly taught the art by a generation of Masters who have made actual use of it. I have tried to pass on the art in this same spirit. Now it is up to all of us that we preserve, improve and pass on this art so that future generations can also make it their own. In the process we can learn from all other martial arts but let's not get lost in pointless and time-consuming comparisons.

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