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Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art


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Have you ever wondered if Tai Chi Chuan can be used as an effective form of self defence?

In the West and in recent years there has been a longstanding debate as to whether or not Tai Chi Chuan can be taught and used as a martial art using the form as a template. It is true to say that it is not possible to use the form as a hard style Kata or pattern is used to apply techniques. However, I have recently been in a situation, which I shall describe to you below, which demonstrates just how effective Tai Chi Chuan can be!

Hard styles have developed Katas or patterns as a repository of techniques, however such a Kata or pattern cannot be applied in an ABC method, as opponents will attack with subtle differences including varying angles and degrees of speed and force, which make last micro second adjustments necessary in order for the techniques to be effective.

The different styles of Tai Chi Chuan also have their forms or patterns but the form in Tai Chi Chuan has a subtly different use. True there are techniques embedded in the form, in fact every movement in the form which I learned has both a classical interpretation and a multitude of subtle variations of technique. However, technique, at least as far as self defence is concerned, is not the main thing which we learn from the form. Principles of posture, co-ordination, softness, centring and control are what is primarily learned from practising the form in Tai Chi Chuan. So where does the martial skill fit in?

In combat it is the adherence to the internal principals and the five word secret which are the fundamental skills and not technique. The training ground for these skills is Push Hands (and I use the term loosely to incorporate all the related exercises) and direct practice of the application of the principles in the practice of self defence strategy and sparing (including full contact sparing).

Although techniques are important, once understood, they take a back seat to the higher principals. The incorporation of these higher principals allows the practitioner to continually adjust and fine tune his response to an attack in a far more controlled manner than would be the case with an external style. There are many references to this in the Tai Chi Chuan classics one such reference being 'to answer speed with speed and slowness with slowness in like manner'. It is important not to discard technique too soon, however, as they should be practiced in full including all variations until the practitioner is fully competent. And even then this important area of training should be regularly revised.

The higher principals include the use of sensitivity, centring, the appropriate use of force, internal and external balance, the adherence to the 13 postures and 10 co-ordinations, the correct use of Gin and an understanding of how these principals are applied through the five word secret. After years of correct and proper practice all of these principals will be instinctively in place so that, in combat, a practitioner acts, reacts and responds in accordance with the situation presented.

The acquisition of such principals can only be obtained from a suitable teacher by a resolute (and sometimes long suffering) student, who is able to accept that the goal of such training is not always visible or obvious and may require the achievement of intermediary skills as a platform from which to attain higher skills.

I will finish with an account of an incident that occurred recently when I was on a trip to the Far East with my teenage son. While visiting a market my son was unduly pressured to buy from a street seller, whose behaviour was becoming more and more aggressive. I could see that my son was uncomfortable so I stepped between them and said to the seller that that was enough. His attention immediately switched to me and he made as if to grab my clothing. I placed the fingers of both my hands on his shoulders and, by applying pressure with sensitivity to counteract his every change of direction, I was able to disturb his balance to the point where he became unsteady, making him unable to move his arms effectively or readjust his stance. Recognising his disadvantage he calmed down and then asked if I was 'Bruce Lee'. We both began to smile and I told him I was a teacher of Tai Chi Chuan back home in England. He was intrigued as he was a student in a local Kung Fu club and was under the impression that Tai Chi Chuan was not a fighting art. In an exuberant manner he insisted that I should meet his Sifu so that I could demonstrate my skills to him.

As his manner was now very friendly, and flushed with my success in our encounter, I agreed. We met his Sifu at the appointed time but it quickly became apparent that this was not to be a totally friendly encounter! Whether something had gone awry in the translation or the Sifu felt he had something to prove I don't know but it was clear that he had come prepared to fight as if challenged! He was younger than me, a strong, flexible looking, man and appeared to be very determined (Gulp). I had the distinct feeling that I was getting into deeper water than I liked but with his students around him I could find no way to back out gracefully. As we faced each other I decided that there was more riding on this than East v West or Hard v Soft, indeed it was the very credibility of Tai Chi Chuan itself, not to mention the fact that I could end up on the receiving end of a thoroughly good hiding!

I decided that no quarter should be given and raised my guard, right hand extended in the traditional manner, in preparation. My opponent slipped into a low strong stance and brought his right hand up hard against mine and I knew immediately that I had him! As I felt the force of his arm on mine I yielded to it, keeping contact but slipping round so that I could seize the inside of his wrist. Not meeting the resistance he had expected had the effect of uprooting him slightly and I twisted my body and sank my weight, applying Jin to his arm. He was lifted off his feet and fell heavily on the base of his spine and before he had a chance to recover I locked his arm and pinned him to the floor, whereupon in instantly cried stop (Phew!).

When the encounter was over the Sifu became very friendly, much to my relief, and, through our interpreter, asked many questions about where I had learned such effective Tai Chi Chuan. He seemed particularly impressed by the speed of his downfall, the fight having lasted just a few seconds.

This victory was given to me by the application of the higher principals of Tai Chi Chuan, applied instinctively and automatically under great pressure, (indeed, the 'technique' used would be hard to find in any classical interpretation of the movements of the form). It was the result of many years of practice coupled with trusting those principles in my moment of need.

Good luck in your training.

Sifu Douglas Robertson.

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