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'ai Chi philosophy is rich and well documented. At its core, practitioners use the various text of Taoism such as the Tao Te Ching [1] to explain the principles and practice of T'ai Chi. Near the turn of the century, there were also many Chinese texts dealing specifically with T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Those texts are commonly known as the Chinese Classics [2]. The English translations of those works are available on the Internet. However, many discourse on the philosophy of T'ai Chi tends towards the esoteric and the real meanings of those philosophy are obscured.
Just as Buddhism is the bases for Shaolin Martial Arts, Taoism is the root of T'ai Chi practice. Understand this mutual relationship can be beneficial to the student of T'ai Chi chuan. Similar to the case of Shaolin philosophy, the students must take an active role in order to applied and practice those theories. Our discussion is divided into


Taoism and the Tao Te Ching

Taoism for the T'ai Chi Chuan practitioner represents a philosophy rather than a religion. There is no deity or tradition of worship but rather an approach to understanding and living in the world. The principles of this philosophy is attributed to the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu (604 - 479 BC) and to the Chuang Tzu by Chuang Chou (369-286 BC). Some of the central themes of Taoism include:

  1. The importance of the Tao. There are no definitions for the term " Tao". In application it means some form of natural law or order. As Lao Tzu said: "Tao can be talked about but not the eternal Tao?".
  2. The Tao is constantly moving and uses the principle of returning. "The movement of the Tao consists in Returning." The general rule is that in order to achieve anything, you must first start with its opposites. For example, if one wants to be strong, he must start with a feeling that one is weak and then moved towards his goal.
  3. The law of softness. "The use of the Tao consists in softness". Especially for the living. "... The hard and rigid belongs to the company of the dead: The soft and supple, belongs to the company of the living." The significance of softness extends to action, since "The soft and weak over come the hard and strong."
  4. Focus on yielding. "The softest of all things, overrides the hardest of all things."
  5. The personal quest for health and longevity. "The Sage is not sick, being sick of sickness; This is the secret of health." This can be achieved with research and training because of the strong conviction that "The destiny of myself depends on me and not upon Heaven".
  6. Principle for the control of the Breath or Chi. "Man's life is due to the conglomeration of the Chi and when it is dispersed, death occurs."
  7. The Importance of Serenity and emptiness. "Attain the utmost Emptiness Cling single-heartedly to inner peace."
  8. The Principle of Non-Striving and Nonaggression. "The way of Heaven is to benefit, not to harm. The way of the Sage is to do his duty, not to strive with anyone."

I Ching (the Book of Changes)

I Ching, Book of Changes, is an attempt by Chinese philosophers to explain the mysteries and secrets of the universe and understand the role of man and the forces of nature. It is sometimes known and used as a book of divination. The function and use of the I Ching is based on the concept of a universal cosmic law that can be described by the Kua (trigrams) and the Hsio (lines). Fu Hsi (2852-2738 BC), the legendary ruler of China and King Wen (1184-1135 BC), the founder of the Chou Dynasty, was credited as the creator of this work. In the final representation, the Eight Trigrams are represented as groups of six lines to give sixty-four hexagrams and interpretations (see figure 1). The bases for fascination of the I Ching can be attributed to the roots of Chinese culture. This point of view has been described succinctly by the noted sinologist, Joseph Needham,

"The key word in Chinese Thought is Order and above all Pattern...Things behave in particular ways not necessary because of prior action or impulsion of other things, but because their positions in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures which made their behavior inevitable for them .." [3]

This desire for order and patterns is repeated in the use of the I Chin. The Kua and the Hsio reflects the order of the universe. In application, the patterns of nature is mirrored by the position of a line in the hexagram. The position determines its pathway or direction; its intrinsic nature (property), broken or unbroken, is thus automatically defined. Once the position is known, then the line's relationship to other sections of the Kua can also be obtained. For example, three parallel lines represents Heaven, Father ( three Yang lines), three broken lines represents the Earth, Mother (three Yin lines). When the two sets of lines are brought together, it forms one hexagram that means Standstill or Stagnation.

The I Ching are generally used as follows:.

  1. First, a question is formulated and directed to an the Oracle for an answer. The Oracle is generally some form of random number (1-64) generator that assumes that all events are related - synchronicity
  2. On the basis of the resulting series of numbers, the I Ching is consulted. Each number relating to the position of a kua (six lines, divided or undivided, changing or unchanging)
  3. The meaning of the generated series is interpreted for insight into the hidden assumptions, decisions, and beliefs that gave rise to the question.

From the interpretations of the I Ching, comes such concepts as Wu Chi, Tai Chi, Yin and Yang as well as various relationships between different aspect of nature.

Applications to the Practice of T'ai Chi Chuan

Many t'ai chi experts suggest that the proper practice of this martial arts requires an understanding of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching [4]. Some of the principles practiced by the T'ai Chi enthusiasts are:

  1. The focus on natural breathing and returning the Chi to the Dan Tien.
  2. "Employing the mind and consciousness and not the exertion of strength."
  3. The Interaction of Firmness and Softness
  4. Emphasizes on the techniques of "neutralization" instead of attacking.
  5. The principle of preemption. "If I think the opponent is about to strike, I strike first."
  6. The principle of returning - if the opponent is attack the left, you should make the left insubstantial and the right substantial.

Based on the I Ching, T'ai Chi applied the principles of

  1. Circular movements
  2. Dialectics (Yin and Yang)
  3. Balance and Equilibrium
  4. Mean and Central Equilibrium


[1] Lee N. Scheele's T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classics page
[2] The Tao Teh Ching
[3] Needham, Joseph; Science and Civilization in China, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 1956.
[4] Cheng Man-Cheng, Benjamin P. Jeng (Translator), Cheng Ch'ing, Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, North Atlantic Books; (November 1985), ISBN: 0938190458


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Last update: 12/13/2003