Today, T'ai Chi Ch'uan is a martial art which is, for many martial arts fans around the world, much more than just a boxing skill. It is a seemingly easy and dignified exercize similar to a slow dance. Performed in light and relaxing movements, it has always been attractive to many observers. The exercize itself was called in many different ways, such as "boxing with a shadow", "movement meditation" and even "Chinese gymnastics". However, for those who are uninformed, its names such as "supreme finite boxing" or, to be more precise, "supreme finite fist" don't reveal much.
Thousands of different books were written about the development of this exercize around the world. Many admirers value it as a physical activity and, even more so, as a part of the Chinese traditional medicine. Because of this, thousands of different books, photographs and videos exist all around the world. One might think that everything that was possible to know about T'ai Chi Ch'uan was already discovered and is known, but that is not the case.
In today's modern times, various experts and martial arts masters cannot reconcile about their viewpoints around T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Oftentimes discussions are held about some basic questions about the martial art itself. Among many questions, there are those about the meaning of the name itself, about who made up the martial art and when exactly did it appear, what is the number of the traditional schools, i.e. styles and how many of them have survived up until today.
Many historians, researchers and martial arts masters disagree about when and who came up with T'ai Chi Ch'uan. According to most experts, there are four main theories, but the question is which one is the closest to the truth. One of the oldest known theories is the one which mentions the emperor Yu The Great who in 2205 B.C. ordered his subjects to exercise the "great dances" in order to prevent disease. Although some writings exist, there are no actual proofs that the exercises called "great dances" correspond to today's T'ai Chi Ch'uan. This is why a much closer theory about the gradual development of today's T'ai Chi Ch'uan as a synthesis of many Chinese martial and medicinal exercises prevails. Namely, during the T'ang dynasty (around 750 A.D.), there existed several Chinese boxing schools which grips and grasps were described in books of that era and had the same names as some parts of today's "long exercizes" of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
However, the most popular theory speaks of the Taoist priest Chang San-Feng who was an acupuncture and martial arts master. He lived during the Yuan dynasty (1279 - 1368 A.D.) and, according to some legends, started to come up with and teach the so-called "long exercizes". The last theory says that the exercize as we know it today came about during the Ch'ing dynasty (1736 – 1795 A.D.). Its creator was a martial arts master Wang Tsung- Yueh who collected many punches, blocks and grips and combined them into an exercize which traditionally has 108 positions. According to a legend, the number 108 has a special meaning and was taken from Zen philosophy.And so, today we have 108 positions in a Mok Jan Dong exercise and it is believed that Karate has 108 katas for that same reason.
Thanks to a gradual development of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, 5 traditional styles have emerged (in Chinese, style is called "p'ai") and they have based their names on their creators who were martial arts masters and lived in a town called Chen. They were: Chen p'ai, Yang p'ai, Wu (Hao p'ai), Wu p'ai and Sun p'ai. The Chen style was created by the master Yang Luchan (1799 – 1872), the Wu Hao style was made by the master Wu Yuxiang (1812 – 1880), the Wu style was though of by the master Wu Quanyou (1834 – 1902) and was completed by his son Wu Jianquan (1870 – 1942). Finally, the Sun style was created by the master Sun Lutang (1861 – 1932).
Apart from these 5 most known traditional styles, some other styles need to be mentioned as they can also be considered traditional. Those are the Zhaobao p'ai and Hu Lei p'ai styles. Both originate from the Zhao Bao village which is geographically located near the town of Chen. The master Chen Quing- Ping needs to be thanked for its creation and the originality of the style lies in the fact that 2 exercizes i.e. forms are performed. The shorter one has 74 movements and the longer, traditional one has 108 movements.
The Hu Lei style or sometimes called the Hu Long Jia style consists of 74 movements and his creator, Li Jing- Ting, was Chen Quing- Ping's student. Apart from these most popular styles, there are some less known ones that need to be mentioned. For example, the Kwang Ping, Fu Zhen Song, Chen Pan Ling and the Cheng Man Ching styles which are very popular in today's Western countries and have developed out of the Yang style. The particularity of that style lies in the fact that its master Cheng, shortened the exercise to only 37 movements so that his Western students could learn it more easily.
Wanting to unite the styles, there was a Chinese group formed in 1964 which collected Chinese martial arts experts who, from all the other styles, came up with a new one and have presented it for the first time in a book called T'ai Chi Ch'uan Yun- Tong which was published in Beijing in 1964. Apart from the aforementioned styles, one needs to mention the performance of the T'ai Chi Ch'uan exercise with a spear, sword, fan or with two swords.
Opinions are divided even around the very meaning of the martial art name of T'ai Chi Ch'uan (太極拳). Some martial arts masters think that it is merely a product of a poetic expression of the Old Chinese which can also be found in a traditional exercize, for example "A crane stretching its wings", "Hands playing the guitar", "To catch a bird's tail" or "A rooster standing on one foot". Since the name doesn't have a deeper meaning, others have discarded that theory. The name T'ai Chi Ch'uan in its literal translation means "supreme finite boxing", whereas the word Ch'uan literally means "fist". However, the meaning of the term "supreme finite" oftentimes confuses and this is exactly where the disagreement starts.
It is an expression borrowed from Chinese philosophy and notes something perfect, achieved by establishing harmony between two contrasts of yin and yang. The very symbol that T'ai Chi Ch'uan uses is an old Chinese symbol for 2 contrasts, yin and yang, i.e. a circle divided in 2 halves which are mutually intercepted. It is an old Taoist symbol which shows 2 merely incompatible forces of nature which are, at the same time, complementing one another. Such a duality is characteristic for branches of Chinese science and Chinese philosophy and makes the foundation for traditional Chinese medicine as well as a central principle of many Chinese physical exercizes and martial arts.
There is a smaller group of experts which thinks that the very name, i.e. expression has a different meaning. Namely, if we know the fact that T'ai Chi Ch'uan was created as a martial art and that its basic intention was self-defence by means of punches that were directed at specific places on the human body, the very term "supreme finite" can be interpreted as a sort of perfect "final" punch. It is known that such a punch can only be performed by superior martial arts masters who are very well acquainted with human anatomy and know where certain acupuncture points on the human body are placed. These points were also known to the Old Chinese under the name dim mak (点脉) and in Japan by the name kyusho (急所). These are the terms by which they called the knowledge of attacking vital points on the human body. These spots are acupressure and acupuncture points that, under a certain angle, were to be pressed or punched in order to cause unbearable pain which can paralyze or even kill an opponent.Although various experts cannot agree about many things regarding T'ai Chi Ch'uan, they agree about one thing- the fact that the exercise itself is very beneficial to human health.
Although everyone agrees with this, it becomes a problem for those who are not adept once it needs to be scientifically explained. Namely, in order to explain the health benefits of T'ai Chi Ch'uan with scientifically- based facts, we need to have knowledge of kinesiology, kinesitherapy, physiotherapy and many other medical areas, specifically sports medicine. It is necessary to read about different research around the world and have a certain experience which will confirm that knowledge in practice. In order to do that, we must compare T'ai Chi Ch'uan to other physical activities and, by the help of scientific evidence, establish the advantages of exercizing T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
Each physical activity, as well as its scientific effects, can have its positive and negative sides to the human organism. People usually take into consideration only the advantages of taking up a physical activity because it is always a positive thing in comparison with a non-active lifestyle. The negative sides of a physical activity are usually talked about less often and lightly. Here are some of the recommendations of taking up a physical activity which many experts, i.e. kinesiologists, doctors, physiotherapists, trainers and instructors will tell you.
One of the most often recommended activities is walking or slow running at a moderate distance or walking on easier hiking trails. However, if you haven't worn quality and comfortable shoes, you will have many blisters on the way back. After longer walking or running periods, some individuals will experience pain in their feet (at the sides of the foot or oftentimes under the heel). It is possible to have pain in your shins. Because of a bad walking or running technique (a bad posture), pain in the spine can also appear. This is the reason you might experience headaches later on. Walking or running during cold weather is not recommended. Breathing in cold air during physical activity rises the body's need for oxygen which can be fatal for those with a heart condition. Exercizing during Winter can be very risky for them and a risk of a heart attack is higher even for healthy people. This explains why the number of heart attacks is larger during Winter. Long-lasting walking or running during warmer weather can also be deadly unless you've taken a refreshing beverage. By exercizing T'ai Chi Ch'uan you will avoid all the abovementioned risks.
The next physical activity which doctors will recommend to you is swimming. However, as refreshing it can be to jump into a pool and cool down your body or enjoy the water, pool water can leave unwanted effects on the skin, hair and the overall health. Pool water is safe, i.e. clean thanks to chemicals which are added to it in order to disinfect it. Most often it is chlorine. It is used to kill off bacteria and germs, to oxidate organic waste from sweat and body oils as well as to kill any algae. However, even small and admissible amounts of chlorine in pools can cause side effects and can negatively effect the body, dry out the skin, cause itchiness and a sense of tightness in the skin as well as cause potentially strong or mild eye irritations, redness or tingling in the nose and mouth. Numerous research has shown that swimming in chlorinated water can be linked to many serious health issues. It raises the risk of allergies and asthma in children and, among adults, it is connected to the development of bladder and rectal cancer as well as a higher risk of coronary heart disease. Chlorine water can destroy the good bacteria in our digestive system and cause an array of digestive problems. Also, thanks to a bad swimming technique, spinal pain can emerge and the water that is left in the ears can cause an ear inflammation, i.e. an inflammation of the ear canal. You will avoid all of these issues if you train T'ai Chi Ch'uan instead.
Doctors shall also recommend cycling. The risks of riding a bicycle include falls and injuries and, in some urban locations, dangers of a polluted environment. If your seat is not of a good quality and not set properly, men will have problems with their genital area. Also, when riding a bike, the buttocks absorb the body's whole weight which leads to an increasing irritation of hemorrhoids. Apart from back pain, if a bicycle is not set properly, you will experience pain in the Achilles' tendon. Sometimes you might feel a tingling sensation in the fingers of the foot as well as pain in your knees. Riding during colder weather or during heat can have the same negative effects for the body as mentioned before during the walking and running activities' section. All of this can be avoided if you train T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
Furthermore, doctors will recommend picking up yoga as well. By training yoga, you will have to perform many positions where your spine will have to bend and, with some individuals, this might enhance back pain. Some positions (asanas) can be dangerous and can hurt your spine, for example, a headstand. Also, yoga can be used as a good prevention among healthy people who encounter some psychological problems, i.e. depression, anxiety etc. However, if a person is psychologically ill, doing meditation with constant control and guidance is a much better solution. This is why T'ai Chi Ch'uan is more beneficial because it is a so-called meditation in movement.
Training with weights, if done irregularly, can damage your tendons, muscles and even the bones of your body. Also, training with heavy weights can oftentimes cause a hernia. Many weightlifters and professional athletes who train sports like wrestling, judo or ju jitsu suffer from hemorrhoids. This is because, when lifting weights, pressure is set to the lower part of the back which can lead to many problems causing hemorrhoids. Professional athletes often overload their heart. During this type of exercize, it can pump even up to 25 litres of blood per minute, sometimes for hours. This causes some of the cells in the heart to die off. The effects of heavy exercize on such extreme levels (professional sports) can have a very bad effect for the whole body. A body which is exhausted by physical activity can cause irritation, rage and often mood swings. When exercize is in question, it is best to follow the motto: neither too little nor too much is good for the body (health). It has been proven that a moderate physical activity between 15 minutes and an hour done several days a week can be beneficial. This is one more reason to train T'ai Chi.
The T'ai Chi Ch'uan exercise doesn't include almost any resistance and uses minimal weight. This has proven its positive effect for the health of bones, i.e. it slows down the loss of osseous tissue and a lower number of bone fractures among women in post-menopause. People who train T'ai Chi Ch'uan are happier, more productive, have a sharper concentration and other mental functions. Their coordination and the harmony of their movements are in line, they have more successful interpersonal relations and are more adaptive to stressful changes. Apart from physical advantages of T'ai Chi, it shows a number of positive effects to the mental health because it eases mental states such as anxiety, depression, too much stress and low self-esteem.
You do not need to be strong or fast in order to perform the exercizes. This is why this activity is available to everyone, the old and the young, if you are a woman, a man, healthy or ill. By performing easy and relaxing movements, you move the muscles, joints and tendons in a natural way, as well as your internal organs and the cardiovascular system. The T'ai Chi Ch'uan skill has a positive effect on bones and joints, on the functions and the flexibility of tendons and muscles, it helps the blood and the nutrients to travel to all parts of the relaxed body, it regulates the functions of the nervous system, relieves stress, brings the inner organs back into balance, strengthening the metabolism and the immune system. T'ai Chi Ch'uan can be trained at any time of the day and can be performed anywhere, individually or in a group. The result of correct and everyday training is a general relaxation of the mind and the body.
T'ai Chi Ch'uan helps regulate blood sugar levels, strengthens the heart muscle, balances the muscle tone, improves alertness and concentration, lowers stress and stabilizes emotions, helps coordinate movement, increases balance control, corrects the posture and helps regulate breathing. It is proven that T'ai Chi Ch'uan helps people who suffer or are recovering from a stroke, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis (MS), heart attack or heart failure, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and fibromyalgia.
T'ai Chi can be of good use to older people as well as younger population, amateur or professional sportsmen because it leads to an improvement of the general physical and psychological state. Although you won't be sweating too much, that doesn't mean that you won't be burning any calories. Sweating is not a necessary indicator of the body's straining during workout because sweating is the body's way of cooling itself. It is possible to burn a lot of calories without sweating too much.
Because of the human need to make a balance between the mind and the body, we might say that, everything starts and finishes with by training a T'ai Chi - "supreme finite".
Let's conclude by saying that if the T'ai Chi Ch'uan exercize is not performed correctly, i.e. some movements are not done well, the exercize will be less effective for the body, but there won't be any negative side effects.
This is the basic difference - or advantage in relation to all other physical activities.