Modern Tai Chi Chuan

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Tai chi has become very popular in the last twenty years or so, as the baby boomers age and the art’s reputation for ameliorating the effects of aging becomes more well-known. Some hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers host classes in communities around the world.  As a result of this popularity, there has been some divergence between those who say they practice tai chi primarily for self-defense.

Those who practice it for its aesthetic appeal, and those who are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health.

The wushu aspect is primarily for show; the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability.

More traditional stylists believe the two aspects of health and martial arts are equally necessary: the yin and yang of tai chi chuan. The tai chi “family” schools therefore still present their teachings in a martial art context whatever the intention of their students in studying the art.

Along with Yoga, tai chi is one of the fastest growing fitness and health maintenance activities in the U.S.  Because there is no universal certification process, practically anyone can call themself a teacher.

This is especially prevalent in the New Age community. Few of these teachers are aware of the martial applications to the tai chi forms and do not teach martially. If they do teach self-defense, it is often a mixture of motions which the teachers think look like tai chi chuan with some other system.

While this phenomenon may have made some external aspects of tai chi available for a wider audience, the traditional tai chi schools see the martial focus as a fundamental part of their training, both for health and self-defense purposes.

The traditional schools claim that while the students may not need to practice martial applications to derive a benefit from tai chi training, they assert that tai chi teachers at least should know the martial applications to teach correct and safe movements. Also, the ability to protect oneself from physical attack is considered part of “health maintenance.” For these reasons traditional schools claim that a syllabus lacking the martial aspects is not teaching the art, and is less likely to reproduce the full health benefits of tai chi.

Tai chi as sport: In order to standardize tai chi chuan for wushu tournament judging, and because many of the family tai chi chuan teachers had either moved out of China or had been forced to stop teaching after the Communist regime was established in 1949, the government sponsored Chinese Sports Committee brought together four of their wushu teachers to truncate the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956.

They wanted to retain the look of tai chi chuan but create a routine that was less difficult to teach and much less difficult to learn than longer (generally 88 to 108 posture), classical, solo hand forms. In 1976, they developed a slightly longer form also for the purposes of demonstration that still didn’t involve the complete memory, balance and coordination requirements of the traditional forms.

This was the Combined 48 Forms that were created by three wushu coaches, headed by Professor Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on simplifying and combining some features of the classical forms from four of the original styles; Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun. As tai chi again became popular on the Mainland, more competitive forms were developed to be completed within a six-minute time limit.

In the late-1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized many different competition forms. They developed sets to represent the four major styles as well as combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of wushu coaches in China. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style, e.g., the Chen Style National Competition Form is the 56 Forms, and so on.

The combined forms are The 42 Form or simply the Competition Form. Even though shorter, modern forms do not have the conditioning benefits of the classical forms, the idea was to express the distinctive cosmetic features of these styles in a shorter time for competition.

Another modern form is the 67 movements Combined Tai-Chi Chuan form, created in the 1950s, it contains characteristics of the Yang, Wu, Sun, Chen and Fu styles blended into a combined form. The wushu coach, Bow Sim Mark is a notable exponent of the 67 Combined.

These modern versions of tai chi chuan (almost always listed using the pinyin romanization Taijiquan) have since become an integral part of international wushu tournament competition, and have been featured in several popular Chinese movies starring or choreographed by well known wushu competitors, such as Jet Li and Donnie Yen.

In the 11th Asian Games of 1990, wushu was included as an item for competition for the first time with the 42 Form being chosen to represent tai chi. The International Wushu Federation (IWUF) applied for wushu to be part of the Olympic games, but were denied official status for the sport.