Is Tai Chi A Real Martial Art?


In a recent post on a Yang Style Tai-Chi Group forum where martial ability from T’ai-chi was being tabled in a search for authenticity of application amid the multiplicity of T’ai-chi forms. It had been said that teachers varied in their abilities so much that some who believed they knew what they were doing, could be considered as selling “snake oil” due to what they did not know. There is a non-zero probability that this is true. I will not point fingers at any who are trying to open T’ai-chi’s mysterious doorway, but it is elusive because many of its tenets run contrary to the common thinking of culture. I had posted my take on a comment about teachers who did not learn from appropriate masters or only books and live in fantasy about their true knowledge and abilities regarding T’ai-chi. Then I responded again to a comment from an herbalist that said, in gest, I imagine, “What is wrong with snake oil? Gene Golden and I exchanged a couple of interesting letters, then Gene wrote an impeccably worded answer to an all too commonly heard question, “If T’ai-chi can be used for self-defense, then why aren’t the T’ai-chi masters throwing MMA fighters out of the rings?” This short, excerpted exchange is one of the clearest delineations I’ve ever heard regarding that question. I included some of our earlier comments as well, because they set the stage for Gene’s answer and are integral to the holistic understanding imparted in his last message. I post Gene’s comments on here with his permission, and I encourage you to look him up at Golden Dragon Tai Chi in Rancho Santa Margarita or South Orange County, CA or his web site at . I hope you enjoy the following discussion and are able to comprehend the subtle point we are so rigorously dancing around and pointing at in this forum.


David Arnold wrote:
Interesting discussion though a bit course. Here are some comments I wrote down while reading this forum. Thanks to Laurent for translating the French side so, we can enjoy their input, as many good points were made.

Books alone will not suffice, one must also summon the great Tao to emerge from one’s own being, by whichever means might possibly carry them down that path, and THEN one CAN get it by themselves. Is this not how it emerged into being in the first place?

You can emulate a form master [If their form is correct], while listening to the Tao of yourself, and get everywhere!

Even if you are taught incorrectly, if you are listening to the natural tao, you have the ability to step beyond the teacher’s knowledge. If this were not so, culture and forms would not advance.

Focus is more important than time. The more focus in the moment, on correct posture and effortless movement, the shorter the time required for the body to rewire and reprogram itself into synergistic motion.

The task of learning T’ai-chi is endless, but it takes only three to four years of correct, truly focused daily practice to bring on marvelous results. I do stress the correct part of this. In a fifteen minute set, if you were only vertical and relaxed for one minute, then you only gained one minute toward true knowledge and 14 minutes on non-beneficial movement pathways.
If the form being viewed and copied is correct, then the copier of that form can achieve mastery on their own. The correct way of the great Tao is ever so seductive, and if you get close to its edge, it will surely pull you on in. I know, if I pass on from this world and all that is left of the form I do is a video, then whomever closely mimics those movements will fall inexorably into the Tao of T’ai-chi Ch’uan, whether or not they ever ask a question of anyone who says they might have an answer. Did not our great form come from a man who looked over a wall? If you follow the finger pointing at the Moon, you will eventually see the real Moon.

Ah,Thomas, you want pugilistic proof. The old, tired quest. Why was ‘The Supreme Ultimate Fist’ taught exclusively to the the royal guard for three generations? Was it because it was ineffective? Do the gentle masters of today need to enter into unnecessary pugilistic contests, so you can believe what the imperial palace realized back then? T’ai-chi is foremost a means to enlighten the being. The martial aspects are as much of an adjunct of integral motion and internal harmony in the being, as are the health aspects. Simply put, T’ai-chi teaches one to move in profoundly beneficial ways that are applied in every action endeavored every day, even defending oneself, if necessary.

The great instructor is inside yourself.

Come on folks! We ARE that great sentient creature capable of scaling the heights of mathematics, music and philosophy. Have we not crossed the oceans of water and space? Have we not fought and won the perilous battle for continuous existence? Teachers help! Writings can be wonderful guidelines. Seeing someone do a form like T’ai-chi even once, is like having a dream or internal vision of something that can be. We, highly creative and intelligent creatures can find out anything on our own! In fact, that is the only way anything new, has ever happened. Why take up such self-limiting stances as, you cannot learn from books or without a teacher, when that is clearly not the case? I have had great teachers, for which I am indebtibly thankful, but ultimately it was up to me to see and apply their teachings, and to find my own path through the mystery. Yes, it is undoubtedly more difficult to uncover those truths without a teacher or writings, but it is certainly not impossible, for we have T’ai-chi today and there was a time when we didn’t.

It is the students who know whether their teachers are masters or not, as it will be the students who believe in the summoning of their own inner master, as well.


Gene Golden wrote:
Okay Thomas, for what its worth here is a video of my form and some basically fairly non-exertive push hands practice. Maybe you can see what I’m doing or not.
I am not of the generation that grew up with computers so I apologize for my lack of video footage, it is sadly not my milieu.
As far as fights, you make me laugh. I don’t have any videos as they happened on the streets of New York and elsewhere. I fight when I have to with my life being the risk, not for personal glory or aggrandizement and the luxury of a referee who can stop the fight, as in tournaments. Actually most of the time I have avoided fights. Three times I was surrounded by groups of individuals attempting to rob me and in each case they thought better of it and left. I was once confronted by a group of 4 individuals who intended to try and rape my girlfriend, they left without confrontation when I didn’t bother to turn around and even acknowledge their presence, I was simply waiting for their attack, they didn’t. I had 2 individuals attempt to break into my apartment in New York who were armed with a .38 pistol, they lost that fight before they could comprehend what had just happened. There were others as well but I will not waste your time enumerating them. Look, different people do T’ai Chi for different reasons and in different ways. I don’t criticize others nor do I appreciate them criticizing me. My point is I have nothing to defend as I do not defend my position, I do however defend my body. If you really want to know my fighting skill I invite you to come to Southern California and just try and attack me, then we will find out. I’m sorry if I seem confrontative, but you and I are obviously on different paths in T’ai Chi which is fine for each individual should seek their own path, but the only way for you to know my path is for you to feel it.
Hopefully you can accept my points, if you do not understand them once again, I will simply opt out of this conversation.


David Arnold
Sparring and MMA ‘fighting’ are simply methods of testing a hypothesis, but they are by no means a standard. Correctly practiced T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a health art, a martial art as well as a means of awakening the human being. Why in the world would an accomplished, high-level T’ai Chi Ch’uan master, submit themselves to the rigorous aggression of a ring fight? What could such a great, balanced and peaceful being like Fong Ha possible wish to prove, and to who? These contests of the kind of proof you wish to find, only happen spontaneously, under dire circumstances, when the true skills of these masterful martial artists are called on for the sake of stewardship or self-preservation. It is not that T’ai Chi Ch’uan did not properly prepare them to defend themselves (“fight” is you wish), it is just that it also makes them/us really good, calm, peaceful and perceptive people who try to avoid violence. Gerry Marr said to me four days ago, that “The object of T’ai Chi as self-defense is to make them [the attacker] feel silly”, so they stop trying. T’ai Chi is the art of following and yielding. So the question is, will one artist be better at yielding, than the other is at aggressing? AND can that be proven outside of a ‘real’ conflictual interaction?

[The concept of Wuji Standing was introduced into the forum at this point, as an essential practice that was taught by Sam Tam and his student Kee Jee in order to achieve truly successful martial ability.]


David Arnold
I’m pretty sure it was Fong Ha who originally brought Sam Tam to teach in his Integral Ch’uan classes in Berkeley, along with Han Xingyuan and Cai Song-fang. Jan Diepersloot is a student of Fong’s as well. Fong Ha took the Yang Style form and practiced it like it was Wuji Standing. This was what brought the 108 form back to life for Fong. Before this he had left Yang Sau-Chung’s school, because it essentially was not delivering what he was reading about, and he had discovered that Master Han could effect him before he touched him, and was adept at reading his intentions before he moved.
This restoration of function is Fong Ha’s contribution to T’ai Chi Ch’uan. This is the form I learned 33 yrs ago in Santa Barbara from Fong’s student Gerry Marr.


David Arnold
I agree with you about there being fantasy teachers as well as fantastic teachers.

I believe you and I, as well as Lee Chang agree on what true teaching is, but the art form itself in its purest expression by its most skillfull practitioners, is not one conducive to picking fights or egotistical proving of ability by unnecessarily producing a situation that might possibly bring harm to another person. If Fong Ha encountered another great martial artist, he would likely go have coffee with them. The old Yang texts are replete with information stating that this art form is about following and yielding, and the historic record from China long ago determined T’ai-chi Ch’uan’s effectiveness and placed it in the imperial palace. To me, those who believe T’ai-chi is about yielding, followed by the big punch, do not understand the profound benefits of I Ch’uan or Wuji Standing that Fong Ha, Sam Tam and Han Xingyueh were teaching. Fong made the statement that these type of practices are the reason for success in all martial arts. Proof of this must come from anecdotes of unplanned, real life interactions, not from contrived sparring matches, and they do come to us in that way. There are many stories of these past events which were recorded because of their unusual nature, but there is a current group who wish to see proof of this in a cage fight. Their attempts to dispel their own disbelief, does not in any way effect the true nature and prowess of T’ai-chi as a phenomenal art of self-defense.


Gene Golden
David, I agree with you, what do we have to prove? Of course, to some, that means we must be entirely without self-defense skills as we seem so loathe to prove it. If that is how some feel it is entirely their right to go and fight whomever they please and gain whatever insights that might provide them with. My teacher is one of the top fighters in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, William C.C. Chen, who took the silver medal in the full contact All Asian Martial Arts Tournament of 1958. The true test of his T’ai Chi was a famed incident when he was attacked by a kung fu master in Chinatown. He literally destroyed the master, as each time he was attacked, Master Chen deflected and struck, breaking his bones until Aaron Banks the founder of the Oriental World of Self-Defense who happened to be a witness the encounter, intervened and wrestled the kung fu master to the ground before he could have further damage done to him due to his continuous attacks. I, in time became one of the top fighters in the school having to take on a variety of harder style fighters who came to the school wanting to find out how good his style of fighting really was. Master Chen always wanted me to enter tournaments and I always refused because I learned T’ai Chi to develop an impenetrable sense of peace, not to assert my fighting prowess. I have had real occasion to use my skills to defend my life since and let me assure you it is nothing like tournament fighting, what with the exclusion of deadly techniques such as to the throat, groin and eyes not to mention the security provided by a referee who will stop the fight before too great a damage can be done. I grew up in New York City and had been mugged multiple times at knife point before undertaking T’ai Chi, but never successfully mugged or attacked since. To me fighting is fighting and tournaments are controlled fighting designed to entertain a paying audience, I am not an entertainer nor do I try to eke a living out of beating others. Don Miller, a National Push Hands champion, once said to me that the likelihood of him ever punching someone in the face in a fight, is next to zero. I agree fully, however that is primarily what occurs in tournament fighting. I don’t train to take multiple hits to the face, I train to deflect the first one and drop the person immediately so he has no further opportunity to repeat the attempt. I also rely on my interpretive ability to know what that will take so, as to not do any more damage than is absolutely required. So far it has taken very little of my energy to accomplish the end of a fight with a single technique, that was far short of doing damage to the person other than a large bruise to his ego. A real top level fighter is a different story and it is possible that one of us may not survive the encounter or be the same person again after it, that is not a joke or a fun thing to contemplate and is why I have no reason to go around testing myself. My interest is peace and searching for development of my spirituality and my connection to and communication with the universe. T’ai Chi is not the same thing to any two people, but is for each to explore and understand for themselves. This defines and broadens the art as a whole, it is a gestalt where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. When people begin to try and assert their standards on others I can only wonder when they will come to understand that the true meaning of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the ever growing diversity achieved by individuals exploring their meaning of T’ai Chi, for the art is an aggregate of all the individuals learning it. People, please stop trying to tell others what they should be doing and using words to demean their efforts and busy yourselves on the path you are on and show the world through your own development what T’ai Chi Ch’uan is.


David Arnold
Snake oil may be beneficial for an herbalist, but incorrect T’ai Chi is not beneficial in the ways it can be Beneficial.

The dust of the historical narrative of the ownership of the origins has not yet settled and likely may never settle, due to the scarcity of legitimate historical documents in China [Although Douglas Wile’s book, T’ai Chi’s Ancestors ‘The Making of an Internal Martial Art’, likely aims the understanding of that quest in the correct direction]. Thirteen postures boxing though; the 5 foundational postures, plus the 4 cardinal moves and the 4 diagonal moves, are known to be martial distillations of the battles of the Western and Eastern Zhou Dynasties that forged China into China ending around 221 BC. Exactly how long 13 postures boxing has been married to the art forms of stillness will also be up for debate from now until the end of history, but its value was proven long ago. And yes, the expression of T’ai-chi forms is multifaceted, but the principle is singular? There is a way to do T’ai-chi Ch’uan and there is a way to waste your time trying to do T’ai-chi Ch’uan. Many forms, one method. What is that method? The other questions are: Why is T’ai-chi effective as a martial art? Is it effective for the same reason as other martial arts are effective or is there an inherent difference in its application that sets it apart? What is that difference?


Gene Golden
David, as far as your question, “What is the inherent difference that sets T’ai Chi apart from other martial arts” and what is the method we use to accomplish this?
Other martial arts tend to be about doing something, those who can do more than others are better at it, whether that be more aggression, more power, better techniques, whatever. T’ai Chi is to me, about emptiness and doing less. When one is empty and doing nothing one can then be listening and with listening it becomes apparent the moment that something needs to be done. That is my power, non-action and emptiness enables acting at a precise timing that every situation has, where an almost effortless movement seems to create an almost insurmountable power. It is the cause for much humor in my life when I have used this ability and it is all that I am trying to grow in my practice.
But I’d like to address a broader issue than T’ai Chi fighting, for it is not the goal as some of this conversation seems to suggest but simply the tool that can be used to develop different capabilities.
The thing I see is that T’ai chi is evolving in a special way right now, it is truly no longer just about T’ai Chi, it has now become about the planet. T’ai Chi has the capacity to awaken those who are listening, enabling us with the sensitivity to begin to hear the planet and the universe and find what our path can be. Planetary healing is my own direction in T’ai Chi and yes, I still love to fight, because fighting makes one strong and gives one the power to face the challenges that face us in overcoming the forces of negativity that seem to be amassed with the singular goal of attacking our environment, as if it were something that needs to be wiped out. Good old people, you gotta’ love them.
Isn’t universal chi such a critical aspect of T’ai Chi, that even eclipses the powers of personal chi? Only by knowing it are we able to access its limitless creative power.
It is here we are invited to be one with the universe talking to itself. The gift that T’ai Chi can awaken within us, is to be part of that sacred conversation. We are the universe and the universe is us, that is the hidden secret.
Many besides us are doing this, Eckhart Tolle has said, “The T’ai Chi people are getting it and are part of the solution” Coming from a person who does not even do T’ai Chi, that statement exhibits a high level of awareness. It is time we add our voices to the great outcry to defend our land, water, air and species and to accept our birthright, which has been made available to us through our consciousness and awareness. We can learn to embrace all things and take our rightful position as warriors to protect our wonderful gift of life.


The truth is like a Lion.

You don’t have to defend it.

Let it loose.

It will defend itself.

St. Augustine


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