What is Real Tai Chi?

By Dr Paul Lam, MD,  Founder of the Tai Chi for Health Programs, Narwee, NSW, Australia

I often heard this question asked. Some even ask whether Tai Chi for Health is real tai chi. My colleagues respond in various ways. Most explain what tai chi is and of course Tai Chi for Health is real tai chi. When discrepancies arise, others like Caroline Demoise, use tai chi principles to harmonize different opinions. Some colleagues, in order to avoid a long discussion/disagreement, call Tai Chi for Health an exercise. Tai Chi is, of course, an exercise, just about anything good for health is an exercise, such as walking, swimming, running, tennis, golf, martial art… but is Tai Chi for Health real tai chi?Almost as old as civilization, the claim that certain things are real and to exclude the ‘unreal ones’ exist in different cultures and tai chi is no exception. From the origin of tai chi in Chen’s village, there was already a dispute of what was real tai chi. Actually there is still an ongoing dispute whether Chen is the original style. For the sake of my topic, let assume it is. When the great Chen Fake took his Forms outside his village, he extended the Forms to a larger shape. A dispute began as whether ‘large frame’ or ‘small frame’ was real Chen style. Most Chen style tai chi practitioners nowadays practice the ‘large frame’, yet the voice that ‘large frame’ is not real tai chi can still be heard!

When Yang Lu-chan the creator of Yang style modified Chen style to make it gentler and more accessible for people, he was accused of watering it down. Rumour has it that he did it to hide the real tai chi from the foreigners. He was employed as the imperial tai chi teacher, and in the Ching dynasty, the Manchurians were considered to be foreigners by the Han Chinese those days. So the talk around town was still alive that Yang style was not real tai chi, although the majority of tai chi practitioners were Yang stylists.  Now and then, many tai chi practitioners would have heard one branch of Yang stylist talk about how real their tai chi is and how ‘unreal’ other branches were.


Real Tai Chi delivered by Dr Paul Lam and Heather Chalon, MPH

One of the greatest tai chi masters, the creator of Sun Style, Sun Lu-tan, who had an impeccable reputation as a martial artist.  They called him the invincible monkey because he was slim and had never been beaten in a duel. Mr Sun was an expert of the other internal Chinese martial art; Xingyi and Bagua before he learned tai chi. In his book he emphasized Sun Style tai chi was pure tai chi, not Xingyi or Bagua. He went on to say that one did not have to know Xingyi or Bagua in order to reach the highest level in Sun Style. I often wonder what made Mr Sun say that in the beginning of his book. Is it possible he was criticised that his tai chi was not “real tai chi”?

So what is real tai chi? Tai Chi performed by martial artists? Or tai chi performed by champions of competitions? The answer I believe comes down to what is tai chi? Once you truly understand tai chi then there is no need to dispute what is real and what is not real. Tai chi is unique but also complex, that no one can know it all. It can be many things to many people; it is an art that embraces the mind, the body, and the spirit.

At the core of all tai chi are the principles. No matter what style and what aspects of tai chi, as long as tai chi principles are adhered – the unique tai chi effect and health benefit will come. True tai chi movements are ones that incorporate tai chi principles. These principles include controlling movements to make them smooth and continuous, move as though there is a gentle resistance, correct posture and weight transference, being Song (loosening) and Jing (mental quietness or serenity). The controlled slow and smooth movements help to connect the mind and body and to have better focus. Song will enhance internal energy, improve flexibility and serenity. The right posture and awareness of weight transference improve balance and coordination. These principles work well whether you are using tai chi for health and wellness or for martial art.

A key principle in all tai chi movements is to listen to the incoming force, yield, absorb and redirect the incomin force, to gain control or to reach harmony.  This is the essential principle for using tai chi as a martial art. By understanding the incoming force; you can work out a more effective method to gain control of your opponent. Likewise, this principle is a most useful philosophy for interacting and working with others. By understanding others, you can better achieve your own goal.

I am so happy to see many famous masters of different styles meet and work together in recent years. Many of them participated in medical studies. The future of tai chi will be better served with Caroline’s idea of harmony and mutual understanding instead of tai chi people denigrating each other claiming who is ‘not real’. It will be more effective for us to look at each different ways and style as an advantage to bring together tai chi knowledge from different aspects and bring tai chi practitioners together for higher and positive purpose. Working together to practice and carry out research will give us a better understanding so we can gain more knowledge and benefits.

If you were asked whether Tai Chi for Health is real tai chi, ask yourself if you have incorporated tai chi principles in your movements. Do remember progress in tai chi is through better understanding and incorporating the principles. You do not have to be perfect before you can claim you are practicing real tai chi. If your movements look like you have incorporated the principles – chances are that you have and you are doing ‘real’ tai chi. At the end of the day, what really matters is how much you have enjoyed your tai chi and how much benefits you have gained.


The 108 Movements of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan

Heather Chalon,  Teacher, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan

Heather Chalon, Teacher
Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan

1. Beginning of Tai Chi Chuan

2. Raise Hands

3. Play Guitar

4. Grasp Bird’s Tail

5. Single Whip

6. Slant Flying

7. Raise Hands

8. White Crane Spreads Wings

9. Brush Knee, Push (Left & Right, 4 Times)

10. Playing Guitar

11. Step Forward and Push

12. Push Forward

13. Carry Tiger to the Mountain

14. Cross Hands

15. Slant Brush Knee and Push

16. Turn Body, Brush Knee & Push

17. Grasp Bird’s Tail

18. Single Whip

19. Fist Under Elbow

20. Step Back, Repulse Monkey (Left & Right, 3 Times)

21. Slant Flying

22. Raise Hands

23. White Crane Spreads Wings

24. Brush Knee and Push

25. Needle at Sea Bottom

26. Play Arms Like a Fan

27. Turn Body and Strike Fist to Back

28. Step Back and Punch

29. Step Forward and Grasp Bird’s Tail

30. Single Whip

31. Wave Hands Like a Cloud

32. Single Whip

33. Left High Pat on Horse

34. Right Foot Kick (Separate)

35. Right High Pat on Horse

36. Left Foot Kick (Separate)

37. Turn Body, Kick with Heel

38. Brush Knee and Push (Right & Left)

39. Step Forward and Punch Down

40. Turn Body and Strike Fist to Back

41. High Pat on Horse

42. (Right) Separate Hands

43. 1st Raise Foot

44. Step Back Seven Stars

45. Step Back and Hit the Tiger

46. 2nd Raise Foot

47. Hit Opponent’s Ear with Fist

48. Lean Back and Kick

49. Turn Body and Kick with Heel

50. High Pat on Horse

51. Step Forward and Punch

52. Push Forward

53. Carry Tiger to the Mountain

54. Cross Hands

55. Slant Brush Knee and Push

56. Turn Body, Brush Knee and Push

57. Grasp Bird’s Tail

58. Single Whip

59. Play Guitar

60. Wild Horse Separate Mane (Right)

61. Play Guitar

62. Wild Horse Separate Mane (Left)

63. Play Guitar

64. Wild Horse Separate Mane (Right)

65. Fair Lady Works at Shuttle (Twice)

66. Play Guitar

67. Wild Horse Separate Mane

68. Fair Lady Works at Shuttle (Twice)

69. Grasp Bird’s Tail

70. Single Whip

71. Wave Hands Like a Cloud

72. Single Whip

73. Snake Creeps Down

74. Golden Cock on Left Leg

75. Golden Cock on Right Leg

76. Step Back and Repulse Monkey (Left and Right Three Times)

77. Cross Slant Flying

78. Raise Hands

79. White Crane Spreads Wings

80. Brush Knee and Push

81. Needle at Sea Bottom

82. Play Arms Like a Fan

83. Turn Body and Strike Fist to Back

84. Step Forward and Punch

85. Step Forward and Grasp Bird’s Tail

86. Single Whip

87. Wave Hands Like a Cloud

88. Single Whip

89. High Pat on Horse

90. Slap Face with Palm

91. Turn Body and Single Lotus Kick

92. Brush Knee and Push

93. Step Forward and Punch to Opponent’s Lower Abdomen

94. Step Forward, Grasp Bird’s Tail

95. Single Whip

96. Snake Creeps Down

97. Step Forward Seven Stars

98. Step Back Ride the Tiger

99. Turn Body and Slap Face with Palm

100. Turn Body and Double Lotus Kick

101. Shoot Tiger

102. High Pat on Horse

103. Slap Face with Palm

104. Turn Body and Strike Fist to Back

105. Step Forward and High Pat on Horse

106. Step Forward Grasp Bird’s Tail

107. Single Whip

108. Conclusion of Tai Chi Chuan