T’ai Chi Classics

by Waysun Liao, Illustrated by the Author
Boston & London: Shambhala, 2000
Quotes by Peter Fritz Walter

—T’ai Chi is a way of life that has been practiced by the Chinese for thousands of years. We should look into three areas to fully understand the historical background of T’ai Chi: (1) its philosophical foundation, (2) how it developed as  a martial art, and (3) how T’ai Chi instruction has been passed on from generation to generation.

—The Chinese conceived the human mind to be an unlimited dimension, but the scope of human activity to be moderate. The focus of their goal was a unified philosophy of human life and a simplification of beliefs.

—According to T’ai Chi theory, the abilities of the human body are capable of being developed beyond their commonly conceived potential. Civilization can be improved to the highest levels of achievement. Creativity has no boundaries whatsoever, and the human mind should have no restrictions or barriers placed upon its capabilities. One reaches the ultimate level, or develops in that direction, by means of the ladder of balanced powers and their natural motions—Yin, the negative power (yielding), and Yang, the positive power (action). From the viewpoint of this theory, it is the interplay of constructive and destructive forces that causes the essence of life to materialize, the material world to manifest. And the spiraling movements of these forces seem endless. 

—That the two equal powers, Yin and Yang, oppose and yet complement each other has confused many throughout history. Explanations of the meaning of life ranged from the theory that humans were born with sin already a part of their nature through the hypothesis that it is not education but the fear of punishment that creates a good person, down to the view that if there were no civilization at all there would be no evil in the world.

—The very fact that there is argument reveals the truth of the concept that two balanced powers exist. Our universe is programmed in such a way that the two powers exchange their essence, and existence comes from this. This natural law, obvious as it is, is ignored by most humans. We can easily rationalize our ignorance with the excuse that we ourselves are programmed to possess only one of the two powers—either male or female, for example.

—This human tendency to ignore al other aspects and focus on only one side of an issue brought Western civilization into religious worship. Western religions did, as a matter of fact, stabilize civilization and the social order for thousands of years, but they also gave rise to a series of tragic and bloody wars between differing religious factions. Formal religions were often guilty of extreme and dogmatic attitudes. They sought to dominate by force rather than to promote harmony. They wielded influence so strong that humans could not easily shake it off, thus causing a wave of thought pollution whose effects still persist today.

—In the sixteenth century, there were many free thinkers, such as Galileo, who tried to enlighten people, but religion held the reins. Talking and thinking were not enough; lifestyle changes were needed. So the cultural darkness of the Middle Ages was only finally broken by the Industrial Revolution, which in turn brought about dogmatism. This dogmatism is now being eclipsed by the free-minded, educated generations of today. The women’s equal rights movement is an indication of the fact that women’s power—the negative, the Yin—has been ignored, abused, deprived, oppressed, and misunderstood for centuries. The contributions of the negative power are as important as those of the positive power, just as the function of electricity consists of two opposite powers.

—The Chinese have long realized that the two T’ai Chi elemental powers must interact, and the harmonious result could bring progress and unlimited development. Yet they have had no better luck at utilizing their knowledge than Westerners. While people in the West are freeing themselves from the shadows of religious idealism and creating the opportunity to experience the realities of the T’ai Chi principle, the Chinese have not yet been able to release themselves from the mental pollution of their own T’ai Chi-influenced culture.

—About two thousand years ago in China, following the Spring and Autumn Age, the T’ai Chi principle began to be misused, or ignored. There then followed several hundred years of Dark Ages, during which time the development of human relations and political power took place in a very familiar fashion.

—T’ai Chi encourages the fulfillment of the individual person, yet also emphasizes that this goal should be achieved through moderate, natural ways of living. Examinations and Chinese history shows that at a certain point this idea began to be applied only in terms of political power struggles: to be the ultimate person was to be the most powerful ruler. The idea of a simple, natural human nature was ignored.

—The Ch’ing Dynasty cast the mold of authoritarian control and slavery that was to become the tradition throughout ensuing Chinese history. To the rulers—the Yang, aggressive powers—went the benefits, the ultimate power; while those who were yielding, cooperative, obedient, and who encouraged harmony—those possessing the Yin power—were forced to become the subjects. Women were educated to be weak and helpless, the designated slaves, and men were trained to be followers of the ultimate power who was, of course, the king. To become the ultimate power oneself, one merely had to resort to the use of violence—extreme Yang power. Competitiveness and aggressiveness were encouraged but moderated, all for the benefit of the rulers. Ironically, it was this social tradition that carried on the T’ai Chi principle for hundreds of years. As a consequence, even though T’ai Chi was discovered and initiated in China so early, it followed the same sad destiny as did Western philosophy.

—Whereas religion was to become the core of Western civilization, it was either ignored or abused in China. Although the Buddhist religion was imported from India and then absorbed by the Chinese culture, its spiritual philosophy was de-emphasized, while its ceremonies and rites became fashionable. In Chinese Buddhism, the ideal of self-control was emphasized. The emperor used this ideal to suppress the common people, so that religion became known as ‘the ruler’s favorite tool.’ T’ai Chi philosophy, however, offered beliefs that fulfilled human needs, even though its ideals were also abused by generations of the powerful and greedy.

—For the Chinese, who have received all of the influence of T’ai Chi culture but also, sadly, all of the pollution of a social system abused by power, there is much to be learned from Western culture. Westerners have already been released from the bondage of religious influence yet are still trying to put their ideals into actuality. Really, all people search for the ultimate today; we seek a peaceful way, a natural way, a way to motivate our civilization toward the ultimate. Coincidentally, our ideals perfectly match those of the T’ai Chi way.

—All of the traditional Chinese arts, such as brush painting, calligraphy, literature, poetry, and cooking, emphasized the Yin/Yang principle as the means of reaching the ultimate. The complete philosophy of T’ai Chi therefore became an integral aspect of these arts.

—For thousands of years, the system of political rule in China was based on brutality and corruption. Those who were dedicated to the truth called themselves Taoists or ‘mountain men,’ and they lived a life similar to that of the monk. They carried on the spirit of T’ai Chi philosophy and in no way interfered with the ruling authorities. Since T’ai Chi formed its own independent system and had nothing to do with political structures, it was able to enjoy growth and freedom of development, even if only in small, isolated communities of dedicated men.

—While these groups had no ties with the governing authorities, their studies were nonetheless respected by the rulers, first as a body of accumulated knowledge and later as a form of religion. Gradually T’ai Chi came to be considered a highly advanced form of folk art, to be studied exclusively by intellectuals and to be passed on from generation to generation.

—Approximately 1700 years ago, a famous Chinese medical doctor, Hua-Tuo, emphasized physical and mental exercise as a means of improving health. He believed that human beings should exercise and imitate the movements of animals, such as birds, tigers, snakes, and bears, to recover original life abilities that had been lost. He therefore organized the folk fighting art called the Five Animal Games. This was the first systematized martial art in China. Since then, the Five Animal Games have been popular with the Chinese, who practice them for health and exercise.

—Around 475 C.E. Ta-Mo (Bodhidharma) came to China from India to spread his religious teachings, and he resided in the Shaolin Temple in the Tang Fung area of North China. Besides religious worship and meditation, he included physical training in the daily routine. He used the Five Animal Games to develop in his followers a balanced mental and physical discipline. Dedication toward Buddhism, combined with an abundance of time for practice, allowed the Five Animal Games to develop in this context to a very high level of achievement as a martial art.

—Our life increases and changes, and for reasons that are still mysterious to us, it follows a natural cycle and eventually dies. Ancient Chinese explain this cycle as the growth and fading of ch’i. It is ch’i that determines human mental and physical conditions. The way in which ch’i is expressed is commonly known as the nature of things.

—It is the development of ch’i in the human body, along with the theory of the contrasting powers of Yin and Yang, that makes the art of T’ai Chi such a unique mental and physical system of discipline. Without correct training, or at least a full and clear understanding of the concept of ch’i, the true meaning of T’ai Chi will be lost. A simple analogy should help to explain this: ch’i is to T’ai Chi was gasoline is to a gas-powered engine. Just as without gasoline the engine could not have been invented, if there had been no concept of ch’i development, the art of T’ai Chi would never have come to be.

—In order to be able to practice T’ai Chi in the correct manner and thus receive the true benefit of the art, there are several terms that should first be fully understood.

Ch’i. The Chinese word ch’i literally means ‘air,’ ‘power,’ ‘motion,’ ‘energy,’ or ‘life.’ According to T’ai Chi theory, the correct meaning of ch’i is ‘intrinsic energy,’ ‘internal energy,’ or ‘original, eternal, and ultimate energy.’ The way in which ch’i expresses itself, going always to the nearest position of balance and harmony, is called T’ai Chi—‘the grand ultimate.’

Yin Ch’i or Yang Ch’i. Ch’i that is in a process of changing from one formation to another, or from one self-balancing situation to another, is termed either Yin ch’i or Yang ch’i.

Shen. T’ai Chi is based on the principle of three levels of energy. The base level, the essence or life energy, is inherent in the living organism. The next stage or level, ch’i, is a higher-than-normal manifestation of life energy. It supports the essence and is related to the function of mind. When ch’i is purified it elevates to the third stage: shen, or spirit. Shen is a much higher form of energy than ch’i and feels very different from ch’i.

Jing or Nei Jing. The power that is generated by ch’i is called jing, commonly known as nei jing, international power. In our analogy of the gasoline engine, jing would be equivalent to the horsepower generated by the gasoline’s energy. If a person studies T’ai Chi for a number of years, he may generate a considerable amount of ch’i but may not necessarily be able to convert this ch’i into internal power, jing. Experientially, you can only feel another person’s jing and not his ch’i; but you can only feel your own ch’i, and not your jing. When practicing T’ai Chi as a martial art, you utilize your ch’i by projecting jing directly into your opponent.

—Jing operates outside the parameters of space and time. Initially one uses imaging power, or imagination, to identify and direct the energy flow in the body, and then one accelerates it. These theories, or principles, are on the horizon of today’s physical and medical sciences. In the medical field, treatments are already being used that have the patient imagine or visualize his immune system moving to search out cancer cells and destroy them. Success varies according to each individual’s power and control of his imagination.

Li. The physical strength resulting from body movement is called li, the physical force. A simple way to describe the difference between li and jing is to say that li requires direct physical motion whereas jing comes only from indirect motion. If you bring your hand back and throw a punch forward, the result of the accumulated physical energy is called li. If no drawing-back motion is required, and yet power can be transferred with the same effect, then jing, the vibration power of converted ch’i, has been applied. Whereas ch’i is controlled by the mind, li is operated by the physical mechanism.

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