For the last few days I have been in Hong Kong. This is only the second time I have been here, the first time was several years ago and then it was only for a short time. Though Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese government in 1997 it is still seen as something of a separate entity to the rest of China and the locals here still refer to it as being apart from China which is usually simply referred to as ‘the mainland’. Hong Kong is interesting to me as although it still has some of China’s old culture here it feels like it is buried beneath large corporations largely owned by European and American investors. Money is king here and life is very fast-paced. When I walk through town it feels like I am moving half the speed of all the suit-wearing people around me.
I have had an enjoyable time here joining a local Yang style teacher for the mornings. Though lacking in any form of internal training, the body mechanics training is good and the group are great to practice alongside. As well as this I also had the chance to study some Qigong with a Mao Shan Pai practitioner who showed me a series of Mudra-based practices. Our meeting was brief though, consisting of only one evening, so I only had a small taste of their system.
I have spent a great deal of time chatting to the local people here in Hong Kong about Chinese culture and Taiji and it is funny how many times I have heard the same thing: ‘Taiji is just slow exercise for old people’. This seems to be the overall view of those here who do not practice Taiji and those who do practice it are quick to point out that they teach it as ‘more than just slow exercise for old people’. This is something I have heard time and time again from people not just here but in the West as well. It seems to me that it is a great shame for people to be training in something which is seen as ‘old peoples exercise’. It brings great embarrassment to many people, especially a great deal of Taiji teachers who wish to be seen as the efficient fighters that they are. I find this all very funny.
When somebody asks me what I do and I answer that I teach Taiji I always expect the same reaction. When they inevitably ask: ‘Oh, is that that slow exercise which is a bit like a dance which is for old people?’ I smile and say yes. I feel no embarrassment and do not feel the need to defend what I do. The reason is that I also believe that Taiji is a slow form of exercise for old people; I do not see anything wrong with this. I think that this is one of Taiji’s greatest strengths. It is an art-form so wide-reaching that anybody can train in it, no matter how old they may be.
What does it say about our society that we believe it is an insult to do something that older people can practice? Why is it shameful that elderly people also practice Taiji? Our culture is so backward that only the young are seen as worthy or useful. The ‘cult of youth’ permeates everything we do and Taijiquan has been sucked into this ridiculous belief system. I take the opposite position; I work on the logic that I do not practice anything which I will not be able to do when I am old. Okay, so some of the stances may not be so deep but the movements will still be within my capability. What is the point of a jumping, spinning butterfly kick when I will not be able to perform it after turning 40? That means that all of the hours I have put into this technique have been wasted as I now have to stop. Why not train in something which you can keep practicing until the day you die?
Are those who are quick to deny that ‘Taiji is for the old’ preparing to become useless and without any form of worth when they reach a certain age? What is this magical age of uselessness? Is Taijiquan for old people? Yes, it is, that is how I see it. I am just getting a head-start and building my foundation now so that hopefully I am pretty good at it when I am older.
So why is it insulting when people call Taiji slow? It is indeed a slow form of exercise. It has some faster moves, as in Chen style mainly, but you have to admit that a lot of it is performed quite slowly. Even when your level of connection has reached the point whereby you can move quickly I would guess that still people practice a lot of the time at a very slow speed. In fact the slower you can perform the movements the more your internal energy can seep into the muscles and the more your connective tissues begin to knit themselves into a single physical unit. Many practitioners seek to make themselves faster with regards to their Fa Jin whereas I have been working on slowing my movements down for years. It has taken me all of these years training to get the form down to a speed whereby the sequence takes me a full hour to go through. I am aiming for slower but my breathing disconnects from the movements when I slow it down even more. For me Taijiquan is ‘a slow form of exercise’ that is its beauty.
The final thing which seems to upset a lot of Taijiquan practitioners is when people say that Taiji is not a practical fighting style. Taijiquan practitioners quite often get very defensive over this. This is something else I do not understand. Why does it matter whether Taiji works in this way or not? Why does it matter if others do not see what you are doing as good enough to turn you into a trained killer? I see it that there are three main types of combat inherent within martial arts:
- Self defence whereby an assailant is trying to cause you harm, often this kind of attack is unprovoked and sprung on you by surprise as in the case of a mugging. Many martial applications are aimed at this kind of combat and many styles focus upon this kind of combat. Taijiquan is one such style that aims to teach how to defend in this kind of situation.
- The second type of combat is toe-to-toe stand up combat which is almost ‘duel-like’ in nature. This is the kind of combat which you would see in a boxing match or cage-fighting tournament. I do not believe Taijiquan is designed for this kind of combat, it certainly does not teach any real techniques for this kind of fighting and it does not match this kind of fighting ethos-wise or philosophically.
- The self combat which takes place within a persons inner-self. This is the combat one has with ones own nature whereby we seek to quell the ego/acquired nature in order to better ourselves on a psychological and spiritual level. This is really the main aim of all types of traditional Gong Fu.
‘Taiji does not work in a cage’ is a new phenomena in the world of martial insults. You will often hear this phrase thrown about and many Taiji practitioners once again get annoyed with this and some are even trying to train up for this kind of combat using Taijiquan. The fact is that Taiji definitely WILL work in a cage. I can perform my sequences and breathing exercise just as well in a cage as if I was out in a beautiful forest…providing the cage was big enough. It will be just as good for my body and health. Of course, with regards to fighting, most cage-fighters would beat most Taiji practitioners, especially as the Taiji guys are training in a style mostly based around the other two forms of combat – self defence and self perfection. It is simply not designed for the cage-fighting type combat which many are trying to train for. An example of this was the recent ‘showboat’ type matches put on by the Chen village team whereby they fought against Thai boxers who had travelled in from Thailand. What took place was a stand-up fight between the two styles which (rather predictably) ended pretty evenly. No ‘face’ was lost and Taiji was proved to be tough and suitable for macho (read insecure) men. The truth about the match was that it was very set-up, the Muay Thai was lacklustre at best and the Taiji guys did not actually use principles from their style. They instead used basic kickboxing type techniques they had been training in preparation for the match. Nevertheless the Taiji community was happy that somebody had stepped up and defended the style…..I just thought it was kind of silly. Taiji is simply not meant for this kind of fighting and I think that the Chen matches (which I have seen twice on TV here in Hong Kong in the last week alone) helped to underline this fact.
So, is Taijiquan useless for fighting? No, not at all. It is suitable for self defence, against attackers trying to surprise you, it is not meant for one on one combat with highly killed martial artists. It is for stopping thugs from hurting you. If you want one-on-one combat type skills there are many other styles out there much more likely to give you the kind of training you are after. Even Baguazhang and Xingyiquan are better for this.
The ultimate battle has to lay with yourself. I believe that those getting all upset about others seeing their beloved art as ‘slow, suitable just for the elderly, and no good for fighting’ are the ones losing the real fight which martial arts are all about. The fact that they feel the need to show just how tough they are is just a demonstration of how they are still very insecure about their own level of self-worth. They are still working on the level of ego. They have not begin to delve into what Gong Fu training is all about. Though, of course, these are just my own opinions. Please choose to ignore them if you like, maybe Taijiquan is, at its deepest levels, really is about ‘street defence’ and ‘surviving a life or death situation’ against the many people who are trying to kill you on a daily basis in our fairly safe western towns! Maybe the high-minded monks of ancient times really did devote their entire lives learning Taijiquan so they could be truly hard. There is, after all, many dangerous killers wandering around on the mountain-tops of China…
Is Taijiquan a health art? Undoubtably. Why not? What is most likely to kill you? Are you more likely to have a gang come out of nowhere and beat you to death or are you more likely to die of ill health when you approach your later years? Heart disease and cancer kill more people than armed attackers where I personally live so perhaps I should be focusing on defending myself against the most likely attack on my well-being. My Taijiquan is a slow form of exercise, it is very gentle in nature, its is primarily designed to keep me healthy and hopefully I will do it best when I am in my old age. I personally am happy with that.