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Qigong and Tai Chi

Twenty years ago, when I first came across tai chi, very few people had heard of it. Now nearly everybody has heard of tai chi, and they associate it with a health exercise for relaxation. But rather fewer have heard of qigong. So when you tell people that qigong is a Chinese health exercise that involves movement, the first thing that people ask you is 'How is this different from tai chi'?

Well the most fundamental difference between tai chi and qigong is that tai chi is a martial art and qigong is not. That's very important to understand. Tai chi evolved as a means of self-defence and most historians place the origins of tai chi in the seventeenth century with Chen tai chi named after the Chen family who originated it. Of course the Chen family did not originate everything, because martial arts evolve from earlier practices, so in a sense one could say that the start of tai chi is partly a matter of convention. From Chen tai chi came Yang style tai chi and from Yang style Wu style, each named after the family members who developed these branches. Tai chi was one of the martial practice of the Imperial Guard; so straight away we see that tai chi was martial in intent. The purpose was primarily self-defence, and the literal translation of 'tai chi quan' is 'supreme ultimate boxing'.

The evolution of tai chi into a health exercise began in the twentieth century. The failure of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, led by Chinese martial artists, really destroyed much of the prestige that attached to Chinese martial arts because it became clear that the martial artists could not stand up to Western weaponry. So the emphasis on self-defence declined and tai chi became more and more centred on tai chi as a form of health exercise. You can see here in this video (4:30 and after) of a contest between two 'masters' in the 1950s, that the quality of tai chi as a martial art had declined to the point that the tai chi master (the chap with the shorter hair) would have lost the bout to an amateur boxer. Recently a tai chi 'master' challenged an MMA fighter and was roundly beaten in short time (see video 1:30 and after).

Though some people like Dan Docherty have endeavoured to preserve tai chi as a fighting art, most people who have learnt tai chi and many of those who teach it, cannot use tai chi in self-defence. To be fair, that is not their intent, which is to use tai chi as a health practice. But we should at least wonder why a discipline optimised for fighting must be optimal for building health. In my opinion tai chi is not optimal for that purpose; in fact tai chi requires certain muscular and internal development before you can really make use of it.

Let me give an example; in Wu tai chi there is a movement called Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg that demands a lot of lower body strength to pull it off; it requires swooping low and standing on one leg. Several times in the 108 movement long form, you are required to do movements like that and they all require good lower body development. You need strong legs. But you can't really get that from practising the form because during the 20 minutes that it takes to perform the whole set you only do those movements a few times. So if you want to do tai chi properly, you need to develop strength and flexibility before you begin. In other words, to be good at tai chi you need to train for it.1

That is no surprise really; every martial art is the same; we train for boxing, wrestling and tai chi is no different. But there is a market for tai chi for health and so people teach it as a health practice. And people relax and enjoy it, and given they may do no exercise other than tai chi, it has to be a good thing that they do practice. But it should not blind us to the limitations of the approach.

If serious tai chi people practise for tai chi, what do they practise? And the answer is qigong. Qigong is of far more ancient ancestry than tai chi; a famous qigong set, the Five Animal Frolics, dates back to 200 AD and we find from qigong movements from even earlier times. Qigong means 'energy work' or 'energy cultivation' and it concerns itself with the health of human beings. It's purpose is to cultivate the qi or life force of the person. We will deal with qigong in other articles

1 This picture has been somewhat confused by the appearance of new age tai chi, which is not a specific form of tai chi, but a generic name for a group of movements designed for health and borrowed from tai chi. The characteristic of new age tai chi is that it is performed without any martial direction and without the supposition that it could ever be used to fight. My first introduction to tai chi was through a new age tai chi; Infinite Tai Chi. The tai chi title is misleading; what you have here is really a continous qigong that looks like tai chi because the movements are linked into a flowing whole.