In Praise of American* Taijiquan

One of the risks of studying and teaching an art that comes from China is the temptation to naively conflate the practice with a form of cultural appropriation that takes on the external trappings of the culture it comes from. The universal appeal of taijiquan does not rely on esoteric cultural knowledge to develop a deep relationship to the practice.

I am not doubting that taijiquan is a uniquely Chinese art. For example, the ideal taijiquan body is based on the Chinese model, which emphasizes an unobstructed flow of qi and a focus on the dantian -- the body’s center, literally “field of cinnabar/elixir” --  the cauldron where internal transformation takes place in Daoist meditation. A matrix of Chinese philosophy and practices underlies the whole notion of taijiquan.

About terminology and spelling

It is a challenge to render Chinese words into English. The spellings we see in popular writings are an artifact from two sinologists in the mid-1800s, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles. They devised a transliteration scheme that attempted to indicate Chinese phonemes with the roman alphabet. The more modern, official, international standard is called pinyin -- that is the system I use, with the exception of referring to Zheng Manqing using the Wade-Giles spelling, Cheng Manching, in deference to how the family continues to spell his name.

For a long time, Taiwan resisted using pinyin, and so some Americans held to Wade-Giles on the belief that using pinyin was supporting the communists. But Wade-Giles is unnecessarily complex and confusing. For example, the name of our art is taijiquan in pinyin; the only pronunciation key you need is to know that ‘q’ = ‘ch’ and you have a pretty good approximation of the name in Chinese. Contrast that with t’ai chi ch’uan (which sometimes also contains hyphens and an umlaut!) -- can you tell that ‘t’ with an apostrophe means an aspirated ‘t’ as opposed to the ‘t’ in Taoism which doesn’t have an apostrophe and isn’t aspirated and therefore should be pronounced as a ‘d’? Then there’s the problem of ‘chi’ -- in Wade-Giles, ‘ch’ without an apostrophe sounds more like ‘j’; the apostrophe is supposed to make it sound more like we expect ‘ch’ to sound. So when we hear about the internal energy called ‘chi’ we think it’s the same word in the name t’ai chi ch’uan, but it is not! In pinyin, ji and qi are clearly two different words.

Our school uses the Wade-Giles spelling in its name because that’s what it was called when our teachers started the school in the late ‘70s, and when people want to study the art, they search for “tai chi” not “taiji.” We dropped the apostrophes and other diacritical marks because most people honestly don’t know why they’re there and can’t keep them clear in their minds anyway. But in these times, it seems outdated to persist in using Wade-Giles in most instances. So in case you’re wondering, that’s why some of the terms may look odd to you (the popularity of “The Tao of Pooh” didn’t help matters!).

A brief history

The story of taijiquan begins in the mists of time at the famed Wudong Mountain monastery, inspired by watching a fight between a bird and a snake. The history of taijiquan traces to Chen village, and the first evidential history emerges in the early 1800s, where Yang Luchan learned an art he ultimately took to Beijing. His grandson, Yang Chengfu (Yang is the family name) popularized it initially in Beijing and then Shanghai in the 1920s, part of a “self-strengthening” and “self-cultivation” movement, partly inspired by the “gymnasium” movement in the West. Our teachers’ teacher, Cheng Manching, studied and taught with Chengfu.

So yes, it has old roots to ancient China. But it flourished as the art we know today after contact with the West, mainly Germany and Britain. And then came the communists, who wanted to break with all the old ways. Taijiquan was old, and thus banned. Wudong was old, and thus they cleared it out and let it fall into disrepair. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward created tremendous societal upheaval (such as sending scholars and professionals into the countryside to farm, interrupting their studies and practices) and caused a famine that killed tens of millions of people. The mid-20th century in China was a time that set back taiji progress.

We owe our taiji to Cheng Manching, who left the mainland for Taiwan in 1949. At that time, taijiquan on the mainland couldn’t be practiced openly, so it most likely fractured and went underground. Meanwhile, Cheng was keeping the tradition alive in Taiwan, and then in New York City, where he taught our teachers from 1964-1975.

In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, China reclaimed its taijiquan tradition and touted it as a national treasure. Wudong was repaired, Daoist priests were trained, and taijiquan historical places were turned into monuments and tourist attractions. Ancient lineages were recreated -- filled in to appear unbroken, reaching back to the mists of time -- and new cemetery headstones were erected with dates going back many centuries. The art that mostly survived by leaving China had returned home.

Taijiquan in the United States

When Cheng brought taijiquan to New York City in 1964, he dropped many of the traditional approaches to the art. He taught men and women, Chinese and non-Chinese; he shunned the traditional names for one’s teacher -- Lao Shr and Sifu -- and was instead called “Professor” by his students. He dropped the structure of disciples who acted as a gatekeeper and a lineage holder, and instead created a new structure, one that was more representative than strictly hierarchical (he named 6 students to be the Pillars of his school, and tasked each of them to name 3 junior students to form the 18 Immortals). They were not required to undergo formal discipleship rituals.

Even the names of some of the taiji postures were updated to terms that Americans could understand. “Play Pipa” became “Play Guitar” because that is the instrument we recognize that is most like the Chinese pipa. Peng, Lu, Ji, and An became Ward-off, Rollback, Press, and Push.

Furthermore, traditional teaching in China was mostly in private settings, with just a handful students who were expected to practice for several hours a day (Cheng and Yang Chengfu were among a new breed of teachers who opened the practice to the public); when Cheng came to the US, he emphasized the value of practicing for just a few minutes a day -- another nod toward the cultural and work demands on people’s time here.

Cheng continued to wear traditional Chinese robes after he moved to NYC , but as far as I can tell, he had dressed like that for his whole life, starting long before he took up taijiquan. It wasn’t an affectation he put on to appear more authentic, it’s simply what he always wore. We are told that he designed the robes himself, but I note that he never ran a Chinese clothing emporium as a sideline. He was more concerned about the health effects of his hippie students going barefoot and wearing halter tops that exposed the yin spot between the shoulder blades.

Cheng didn’t require the study of Yin/Yang, Yi Jing, Daoism, or Confucianism to learn the art. He taught a Confucian class at one point in NYC, but rather than using that teaching to improve their taijiquan, my understanding is that he wanted to share it to help them be better human beings.

I sometimes hear people say taijiquan is a “Daoist art,” but other than applying the most general ideas of Daoist philosophy (“the softest thing overcomes the hardest”; “get with the opponent’s energy” -- aka go with the flow), Daoism hasn’t had much of a role in taijiquan’s transmission from my teachers. When Lee translated the names of the Sword postures, we were surprised to discover how much they reference Daoist internal alchemy -- that was not conveyed to us as part of the teachings.

Our teachers, whether Chinese or American, didn’t take on the trappings of the Chinese-ness of the art. They asked us to call them by their first names; they didn’t dress in Chinese robes or frog-button outfits; they didn’t ask us to perform any rituals other than the practice itself. They generally limited the use of Chinese terminology, preferring to speak as Americans to Americans.

Taijiquan, American Style

One attribute that makes our taijiquan feel “American” is having teachers who try to explain what is happening and how it should feel, with exercises to try to experience those feelings. The traditional approach to teaching involves a lot of posture holding, hands-on manipulating of the shape, and correct principles being called out while holding postures; maybe a demonstration of the posture or transition, or occasionally how it might be used in an application. Most of the descriptions tend to be negative: Don’t lean, Don’t twist, Don’t use force.

In contrast to the often terse language of traditional teaching, our American teachers have put a lot more effort into words, images, and partner exercises to help us get a particular feeling. Students share their experiences and are given the space to ask questions. Alongside quotes from the Taijiquan Classics, American teachers reference popular culture and speak the cultural language of their students. One of my favorite examples is what we call “the Goldilocks Principle” -- it doesn’t even need explanation, as all our students readily understand the notion of “not too much, not too little; just right.”

We American teachers also invent our own imagery for describing things that are likely to be evocative to our students. Traditional descriptors, such as the saying, “Using 4 ounces to lead 1000 pounds is like leading an ox by its nose,” doesn’t have immediate resonance to most students in early-21st century America.

Another difference in learning from American teachers is having a shared language of Western anatomy. We can describe the movements with a vocabulary that doesn’t rely on defining unfamiliar notions of the body. For example, it may be cool and mystical to tell students to drop weight through their “Bubbling Well” points, but it might be more useful to describe the tripod of weight-bearing bones at the bottom of the foot and keeping those in equal contact. This brings one’s weight to the Bubbling Well point in a tangible way that may be a lot more helpful for the student.

Fetishism of the East

Yet there persists a notion that a Chinese teacher is inherently better, more authentic, than an American one. Impossibly ancient lineages are claimed as proof of superior teaching. Even in our school, people often thought Bataan was more authentic than Jane because he was half Chinese, even though they both learned from the same school in NYC, and Jane actually studied with Cheng a year before Bataan did.

Taijiquan has become a selling point for tourism in China; occasionally, students come to us after taking a trip to China where they got taijiquan instruction. Some are disappointed to learn that we don’t teach the Beijing forms, which are actually newer than the form we teach. Others travel to China and spend large sums to be inducted into the “real” taijiquan, despite language and cultural barriers that make communication difficult. Even if they have no way to evaluate the “real” taijiquan being taught, they assume it must be more real than what they could learn in the US simply because it is from China. Perhaps they don’t know or don’t consider that China nearly destroyed its tradition of taijiquan in the mid-20th century, and that practitioners in the rest of the world invigorated and spread the art during those years. China revived the art by creating new, official taiji forms years after they sent them to into hiding. Chinese masters are also notorious for keeping secrets or even giving misleading information. Because Westerners expect the Chinese masters to be “inscrutable,” they are less likely to be questioned.  

One Chinese taiji practitioner we know from the mainland said our taiji is more like the older generation Yang style (Chengfu’s father and uncle) that he studies than most of what he sees as Yang taiji in China today. This friend’s teacher kept his taiji expertise as a secret; he didn’t run classes and advertise his skills. He was a master who had 3 students. If that is typical of the taiji that went underground, I don’t know how one could travel as an American and find that sort of teacher. I’m not saying you can’t find good taiji instructors in China -- I could never make a claim like that! -- but I am saying that simply coming from China does not automatically make it better or more authentic than what you could learn in the US. Regardless of where they study, it’s up to each student to find a teacher they can work with.

Do the work

When you get down to it, taijiquan teaching is only as good as a student’s practice. No matter what a teacher puts out, if the student doesn’t take it home to their daily practice, it won’t make much of a difference. I often see students who think that because they learned from a highly skilled teacher that they have learned better or more than others. But the best teacher can’t help you if you won’t do the work yourself. Ultimately, the best teacher is one who will convey the art in a way that you can relate to and practice. Claiming a lineage that spans millennia, wearing Chinese clothes, and using mystical-sounding words and titles are likely to have very little to do with what you learn or practice.  

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* I recognize that “American” refers to this whole continent from Canada to Chile, and I can’t really speak to any teachings outside of the US. I use the term loosely to refer to my compatriots because it is less clumsy than saying “people from the United States.”