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Technique in Tai Chi Chuan - Classical verses Variation


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Tai Chi Chuan is an unusual art when it comes to the techniques in its Forms. In most martial arts, to coin a computing term, Forms are WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get). Tai Chi Chuan is somewhat different. This is due to the way TCC Forms are meant to be used.

In most, if not all, TCC Forms we see similar techniques. These techniques are usually performed in their classical iterations, that is to say: they are performed in a way which most aptly expresses the principles from which they were derived, regardless of their effectiveness as martial techniques.

That is not to say that all classical TCC techniques are ineffective, most are very effective in their classical form, but some are less so. Why is this?

The answer is that TCC Forms are not, primarily, repositories of technique. Sure they’re composed of techniques but their purpose is to teach and instil the principles of the art, both physical and energetic.

Some applications of technique are more effective, from a martial arts perspective, in a variation of the classical versions which occur in the Form than the classical versions are but the variations don’t, generally, demonstrate or train the principles as well as the classical versions.

Practising TCC Forms is first and foremost about training the principles of the art and developing power and understanding.

One of my students, as an exercise in mathematics and philosophical study, once worked out how many variations on the classical techniques were possible. He did this using the I-Ching, as the system of lines can be applied to describe the classical TCC techniques. Configurations, moving lines and transformation, between Hexagrams, can be used to deduce possible variations on the movements. If memory serves the figure he came up with was in excess of 100,000 permutations.

Though some of these variations may be trivial, or themselves ineffective, it’s clear that the number of possible variations on the classical techniques is vast, and would be impossible to learn as individual applications, and that’s the point. Skill in TCC is much more a process of mastering the principles, strategy and internal dynamics of the art than it is about learning martial techniques. If the principles, strategy and internal dynamics are understood, and internalised, appropriate techniques just flow out of the movement. This is the state of formless boxing that many arts strive for.

Of course, to become a formless boxer, it's necessary to first use technique and the best techniques to use, in order to do this, are the classical ones. The classical techniques can therefore be said to be far more important than their effectiveness - or lack thereof, as purely martial tools - would seem to indicate.

Sifu R Rand

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