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Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) Home Page


The questions and answers in this webpage are culled from Selection of Questions and Answers: August 1999 (Part 1).

Black Tiger Steals Heart Taming Tiger with Beads

Sifu Wong attacks with "Black Tiger Steals Heart". Instead of blocking, Goh leans back and simultaneously responds with a side kick, known in Shaolin Kungfu as "Yellow Bird Hops up Branch". Sifu Wong uses "Taming Tiger with Beads" to avoid the kick. These forms are used because they give certain technical advantages over haphazard movements made at the spur of the moment.

Question 1
Dear Wong Sifu, I would like to know how would Tai Chi Chuan fair against other martial arts in combat. I am aware about some of the wonderful benefits practising Tai Chi Chuan can bring to your life, like hightened awareness, grace, improved health, activeness even in old age, self-defence without the comprimise of detioration of the body, character development, and even spiritual discoveries in advanced stages. However, with all the other multitudinous plus points aside, how useful is Tai Chi Chuan in combat against other martial arts?
Hui, Singapore

Answer 1
Tai Chi Chuan is basically a martial art. All the benefits you have mentioned about Tai Chi Chuan are true, yet they are only secondary benefits which Tai Chi Chuan exponents get as a bonus; the primary benefit of Tai Chi Chuan is combat efficiency which is a logical result of the primary aim of Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art.

In other words, in the past people practised Tai Chi Chuan not because they wanted to have hightened awareness, grace, improved health, etc, but because they wanted to fight well. Heightened awareness, grace, improved health, etc came about as a result of practising Tai Chi Chuan for combat. This will give you an idea of how effective is Tai Chi Chuan -- real Tai Chi Chuan and not just Tai Chi dance -- as a martial art.

Theoreticaly speaking, consideing combative factors like force, techniques and strategies, Tai Chi Chuan is far superior in combat than many martial arts or martial sports like Judo, Aikido, Karate, Taekwondo, Western Boxing and even Siamese Boxing.

One crucial point that many people fail to realize is that these other arts are sports, governed by safety rules, whereas Tai Chi Chuan is not limited by any rules. In a real fight in the past if these martial artists were to use their typical techniques to attack a Tai Chi Chuan master, they would be killed or seriously injured.

For example, if a Judo exponent were to hold a Tai Chi Chuan master to prepare for a throw, the master could kill the Judo exponent with a devastating palm strike on the head. If a Taekwondo exponent were to use high kicks to attack the Tai Chi Chuan master, the master could smash the opponent's sexual organs.

Such a situation does not happen today because of two reasons. One, ours is a law-abiding society; real fights in the past where killing or maiming was common, are happily obsolete. Two, very, very few people today practise Tai Chi Chuan; most people perform Tai Chi dance, and of course Tai Chi dance is no match for these martial arts or sports.

Question 2
My aquaintance told me that all kungfu (as well as Tai Chi Chuan) is useless against modern combative arts like Brazillian Jujutsu, Vale Tudo, especially Muai Thai. I also received a URL from him on his page that supposedly showed that all kung fu inferior to these "formless" martial arts (this term was popularised after Bruce Lee said that kungfu emphasized too much on "classical forms" and "dead techniques", and that his fighting was formless).

Answer 2
Your aquantance did not have a chance to know real kungfu, including Tai Chi Chuan. This is in fact the norm. Very, very few people have the chance to experience real kungfu; most people practise or witness kungfu gymnastics or dance. How many kungfu students you know, for example, spend time on force training and methodical sparring, which are crucial aspects of real kungfu? Most of them spend most of, if not all, their time on form practice, which is in many ways the least important aspect of kungfu. Those who have spent all their lives demonstrating forms to please spectators, and have never learnt to spar at all, will be no match against any fighter.

The forms in kungfu are the crystalization of centuries of real fighting techniques. In the beginning people fought without forms. Then they discovered that by adopting certain positions and using certain movements in given combat situations, they would have certain advantages.

For example, instead of punching in a haphazard manner with their feet apart, they found that they would have more power as well as stability if they placed one leg in front of the other and punched from their waist, spiraling the fist in the punching momentum. This gradually developed into the technique of thrusting a punch at the bow-arrow stance. This technique, executed in this way, constitues a kungfu pattern, and is named in Shaolin Kungfu as "Black Tiger Steals Heart".

When a fighter using the "Black Tiger Steal Heart" pattern was counter-attacked by an opponent using a side kick, he could respond in numerous ways. Masters discovered that one good way was merely shifting the body backward, without moving the feet, as this would give the exponent speed as well as conversation of energy. This developed into the pattern called "Taming a Tiger with a String of Beads".

Later the masters discovered that instead of merely avoiding the kick, the exponent could strike the kicking leg, thus gaining the advantage of striking an opponent at a time when his initial attack is just spent. This developed into the pattern "Lohan Strikes Drum".

Lohan Strikes Drum

Instead of avoiding the kick by using "Taming Tiger with Beads" as in the picture above, a better response which is a technical development from the "Beads" form is "Lohan Strikes Drum" as shown here. If you practise this "Lohan" form well, and be able to apply it spontaneously whenever an opponent attacks you with a side-kick, instead of thinking what responses to use or making haphazard movemnts, you will also have a tactical advantage over your opponent. These are some of the advantages of using form in combat over formless fighting.

These two patterns underwent further development in Tai Chi Chuan. In line with "softness" in Tai Chi Chuan, the Shaolin "Black Tiger" pattern evolved into the softer Tai Chi pattern called "Punch Below Sleeves", where energy flow instead of speed and momentum is emphasized. Instead of striking the rpponent's leg using the comparatively forceful "Lohan Strikes Drum", a Tai Chi Chuan exponent would use the softer "lu" technique of "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" to grip and dislocate the opponent's angle.

Lu technique of Taijiquan Li technique of Taijiquan

Sifu Wong applies the "lu" technique in the Taijiquan pattern "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" to trap Goh's side kick. As Goh tries to pull back his leg, Sifu Wong follows through with the "li" technique to dislocate Goh's angle.

These kungfu techniques, manifested in kungfu patterns, were not invented by someone sitting in an ivory tower, but were evolved through actual fighting over many centuries. To untrained persons, these techniques would be cumbersome; it would be easier and more "natural" for them to throw a punch in an ordinarily standing position or to jump away when kicked at, than to use the Black Tiger or the Lohan patterns.

It needs much time to practise these patterns until they become second nature, and it needs even more time to practise using them effectively in combat. Most kungfu students lack the method or the patience for such practice. As a result, even though they may perform these patterns beautifully in solo demonstrations, they are unable to use them at all in combat.

Despite what Bruce Lee said, he used forms in his fighting. He did not kick haphazardly, he adopted certain positions and kicked in certain ways so as to have definite combative advantages, particularly power and speed. His forms, nevertheless, resemble more of Taekwondo than of traditional kungfu.

What Bruse Lee meant was one should not be slavishly tied to his forms. More significantly he emphasized that kungfu forms were for fighting, not for beautiful demonstrations. He was remembered for echoing the kungfu tenet, "kungfu progresses from formless to form, then completing the full circle from form to formless". In other words, before one learns kungfu, he fights haphazardly. Then he learns kungfu forms, which give him the most advantageous techniques for fighting. Having mastered the forms, he may modify them to suit the particular combat situations.

There is no doubt that Bruce Lee was a great fighter, and he contributed much to the popularity of kungfu. But, paradoxically, I think his understanding of traditional kungfu was not deep. I must clarify that I am merely stating my opinion, and I mean no disrespect to this great fighter.

Had his understanding of kungfu deep, he would have used traditional kungfu techniques in combat instead of those of Taekwondo; he would have used traditional kungfu force training involving mind and energy instead of using western mechanical means; and most crucially he would have realized the importance of gradual progress and not have overtrained and abused himself. Yet, having said all these, we salute this man who gave his life to martial arts.

Question 3
The site had examples of kungfu, Tai Chi Chuan, and san shou exponents losing to Muai Thai exponents. In fact, according to him, history has proved so far (in the fights) that kungfu cannot handle the moves in other "formless" martial arts. According to my aquaintance, nobody ever attacked Tai Chi experts of the past like Yang Lu Chan with low roundhouse kicks to the thighs "that will make one unable to even stand" or "grab his neck/head and throw continuous knees into his ribs." Hence, he concludes that Tai Chi experts are no match to "formless" fighting, and is an obselete art for combat.

Answer 3
Your acquaintance based his conclusion from the shameful performance of kungfu gynmasts and Tai Chi dancers, most of whom have never sparred in their lives, and his knowledge of kungfu history is grossly limited. Obviously he did not know that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many martial art masters from many foreign countries went to China to test the Chinese masters, and virtually all of them were defeated.

For those used to thinking Tai Chi dance is Tai Chi Chuan, it is difficult to imagine how extremely powerful and combat efficient Tai Chi Chuan masters like Yang Lu Chan were. Yang Lu Chan went round China to test his own skills, meeting masters of various styles, and he was never defeated, earning the nickname "Yang the Ever Victorious". Some masters would have used the low roundhouse kicks, known in kungfu as "whirlwind kicks", on him, and he could easily counter with an appropriate modification of his favourite Tai Chi pattern "Grasping Sparrow's Tail", throwing the attackers to the ground.

No one would be so foolish as to try grabbing his neck or head, or throwing continuous knees into his ribs, for that would be asking for trouble. With the opponent in such unguarded close quarters, all Yang Lu Chan had to do was to strike his powerful Tai Chi palm into the opponent's chest, killing or seriously injuring him. Please refer to What could a Taijiquan master like Yang Lu Chan do if a Muai Thai fighter grabs his neck or head and throws continuous knees into his ribs? for some details on Taijiquan techniques against Muai Thai knee jabs.

My hometown, Sungai Petani, is near Thailand, the home of Muai Thai. Some of my students were Muai Thai fighters and instructors before they learned Shaolin Kungfu from me. My Shaolin students could handle ferocious Muai Thai techniques from these fighters quite comfortably. I owed this to my master, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, who was a professional, not just an amateur, Muai Thai fighter and champion before he gave it up for Shaolin Kungfu. My students and I are no where when compared with Yang Lu Chan; this is not modesty, I am being honest.

Remember also that happily in our modern days, sparring -- even amongst professionals -- is taken as a sport. But in the past in China, combat was often a serious life-death matter. Combatants fully knew that a slight mistake or a poor defence might cost them their lives. They simple had to be good fighters to survive. This will give an idea of the difference in standard between real combat in the past and sparring today, even with ferocious Muai Thai fighters.

You may explain to your acquaintance to help him widen his perspective, but if he insists that formless martial art or Muai Thai is superior, there is no necessity to argue with him. His narrow-mindedness constitutes his loss, not yours. If we are convinced that Shaolin Kungfu or Tai Chi Chuan is a great martial art, we practise diligently to derive the benefits, and perhaps share it with those who sincerely seek our help. But we have no need to prove to others, or to waste time arguing with those who stubbornly close their mind.

Question 4
What troubles me is that what I trust to be a great, advanced art that is perfected over the ages can actually be beaten by someone who spends (significantly) less time on a newly created martial art. Aren't Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan widely known to be the best fighting arts in the world? Can you enlighten me on this?

Answer 4
Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan are the greatest martial arts in the world, and their greatness lies beyond fighting. When I was still a boy I read a master saying that comparing other martial arts with Chinese martial arts is like comparing a drop of water with an ocean. At that time I thought he was chauvinistic and exeggerating beyond reasons. But now, having experienced the scope and depth of Shaolin Kungfu and Tai Chi Chuan, I am beginning to see the truth in his comparation.

You are disappointed because you, like most people, have mistaken external demonstrative forms, known as "flowery fists and embrodery kicks" in idiomatic Chinese, for real kungfu. The fact is that real kungfu, whether Shaolin or Tai Chi Chuan, is very, very rare; what we normally see is external demonstrative forms. Because of its scope and depth, it is understandable that we need much more time to be proficient in real kungfu, but once we are properly and sufficiently trained, defencing ourselves against opponents of other martial arts would not be a problem.

Question 5
At the same time, it also puzzles me. The ultimate combat goal of all "internal" martial arts especially is to become formless. How is it that such famous kungfu experts are still fighting in forms? Or is real Kung Fu and Tai Chi Chuan really inferior to these new arts?

Answer 5
The expression that at an advanced stage Chinese martial artists (not just the internal ones) become formless in combat, means that the decisive factor in combat has shifted from techniques (which have form) to force (which is formless). If you have so much internal force, it does not matter what forms or techniques you use, just one strike on your opponent is enough to finish him off.

This will also give you an idea of the different standard between Chinese martial arts and the other arts. A Karate punch or a Taekwondo kick may be destructive when connected on an untrained person, but to a Chinese master with Golden Bell, Iron Shirt or other forms of internal force, the punch or kick actually does not worry him much. But just one strike of his Iron Palm, Cosmos Palm or an attack packed by tremendous internal force may kill or maim. This is one reason why freely kicking and punching each other in sparring which is normal in many other martial arts, is untinkable in kungfu.

In another dimension, formlessness refers to mind, in contrast to physical body. Have you heard of this expression, which is not commonly mentioned: "In advanced kungfu you fight with your heart"? Here "heart" means mind, and is formless.

At the highest level, formlessness refers to the greatest spiritual achievement. In Shaolin Kungfu it is attaining Zen or enlightenment; in Tai Chi Chuan it is attaining Tao or returning to the Great Void.

Question 5
How would Tai Chi Chuan fair against Chinese martial arts with confusing and strange footwork like Baguazhang and Drunken Fist, or Monkey Kungfu? Tai Chi Chuan, like Chang Chuan, seems very direct and straight forward. Would this not be a disadvantage against such styles with confusing and unpredictable footwork?

Answer 6
In terms of combat efficiency, Tai Chi Chuan, Baguazhang, Drunken Fist and Monkey Kungfu belong to the same very high level of kungfu. In terms of mind expansion and spiritual cultivation, Tai Chi Chuan is the highest, Baguazhang next, whereas Drunken Fist and Monkey Kungfu are basically meant for fighting.

Because of historical development, different needs and other reasons, they have different emphasis in their approach to combat. Tai Chi Chuan makes much use of circular movements and energy flow, whereas the other three emphasize on agile footwork. While Tai Chi Chuan and Baguazhang are comparatively more straight-forward, Drunken Fist and Monkey Kungfu make use of deceptinve moves. All these four styles use internal force.

If all other things are equal, then these styles with confusing and unpredictable footwork would be an advantage over Tai Chi Chuan. But other things are not equal. Although in comparation a Tai Chi Chuan exponent generally remains at his stance, his circular movements make him very versatile. So instead of moving his feet in agile footwork to avoid an attack, he merely swerves his body to deflect the attacking force, then turning it back to the opponent, thus securing an advantage instead of a disadvantage. Thus whether a Tai Chi Chuan exponent is a better fighter than one practisng Baguazhang, Drunken Fist or Monkey Kungfu will depned on numerous formless variables like force, skill and temperament, besides the form variables of techniques.

Question 7
I read in a Baguazhang book that Xing Yi is good for close range, Tai Chi Chuan is good for middle and close ranges, while Baguazhang is good for all ranges. Does this mean that Baguazhang is superior to Tai Chi Chuan, since it can handle attacks of all ranges, or is this an insignificant piece of information when it comes to actual self-defence?

Answer 7
I disagree with the opinion mentioned in that book. To me, all these three arts are good for all ranges. If Baguazhang or Xing Yi Kungfu were superior to Tai Chi Chuan, then more people would practise these two arts. But in fact the number of Tai Chi Chuan exponents far outnumber that of Baguazhang or Xing Yi Kungfu. While the number of exponents itself is not a definite indication of the superiority of an art as other factors are also involved, it does has some relationship.

Question 8
No matter what your answer is, I will still practise my Tai Chi Chuan with deligence and hardwork to bring myself to a good level of combat effeciency and where I will fully benefit from the art, because Tai Chi Chuan is a great part of my culture.

Answer 8
While you attitude reveals that you are proud of your cultural roots, it may not necessarily be a wise one. If, for example, my answer were very unfavourable to Tai Chi Chuan -- which of course it isn't -- you should seek a second, and then a third opionion. If all expert opinions expressed that Tai Chi Chuan were an inferior art, you should have the courage to accept the inferiority of your roots and change to a better art, or if you have the capabilities, improve it. But as it is, Tai Chi Chuan is a wonderful art. What is important is that you should differentiate between Tai Chi dance and Tai Chi Chuan.

If you continue practising Tai Chi dance you will further the degradation of a wonderful art, bring shame and ridicule to it like what your acquaintance had done. But practising real Tai Chi Chuan is not easy -- it is very difficult to find a genuine Tai Chi Chuan master, and even if you have found one, it is very demanding to practise it. The rewards, however, are worth the time and effort.

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