All Tai Chi is Qigong, but not all Qigong is Tai Chi

(Marnix Wells: Taìjí Roots, part 2) 2021.02.27

A Central Axis

Tai Chi, pronounced Taìjí, (ty jee) means ‘Grand Pole’, the central axis around which the Earth rotates. It is the union of yin and yáng, dark and light, female and male, minus and plus. It reconciles opposites, wherever they are found. In the body it is located at its gravitational and energetic centre, the dantián spot just below the navel. Deep breathing, by ‘sinking the qì’ to this point, promotes balance and calm. It is the focus of Tai Chi Chuan, (Taìjíquán), ‘Grand Pole Boxing’, once known to westerners as ‘Chinese shadow boxing’, a system of exercise for body maintenance, built around principles of self-defence and health.

The concept of taìjí was first described in appendices to the Book of Change over two thousand years ago. Much later, Sòng dynasty neo-Confucian reformer Zhu Xi (1130-1200) adopted it as the core of his rationalist philosophy. To illustrate the idea that opposites form an integral unity, he borrowed a ‘taìjí diagram’ which evolved into the circular yin-yáng icon familiar to us today.

The system of exercise we recognise as taìjí only acquired this name after it spread to Beîjing from the Chén Family Village (Chénjiagou) in Hénán durig the nineteenth century. Yet the art had already been linked to a highly sophisticated Book of Change philosophy. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, liberalisation allowed Chén Xin (1849-1929) to publish in a book the secrets of his family tradition (Chén-shì Taìjíquán Túshuo, prefaced 1919). These included a taìjí diagram encircled with the Book of Change’s sixty-four hexagrams, arranged to mirror the progression of ‘sunny’ yang to ‘shady’ yin and back again. (Figure 1)

Figure 1

Hexagrams are figures of six lines, whose halves of three lines are called trigrams. The internal martial art of Baguàzhâng, ‘Eight Trigram Palms’, names its routines from these eight trigrams, each describing a compass point on a circle. Originally used to foretell the future by divination, they combine all possible combinations of yin ‘shady’ and yáng ‘sunny’ by broken or unbroken lines. They are mirrored by Leibniz’s binary mathematics, which uses just ones and zeroes to form all numbers, and in computer engineering encodes electrical combinations of ‘on’ and ‘off’ states to store data.

Yet Chén Xin was not the first to apply the dialectical principles of the Book of Change to the bodily mechanics of martial arts and physical exercise. These had earlier been described by the ‘scholar boxer’, Cháng Naîzhou (1724-1783?), who resided in the neighbourhood between Shàolín monastery and Chén Village. Cháng’s book was now, at last in 1933, posthumously published. (Scholar Boxer, tr. Wells, North Atlantic Books, 2005).

A Martial Art for Health

Both Chén and Cháng utilised another taìjí concept from the Book of Change. This was expressed in the Luò River Diagram, from Chinese prehistory, in which the numbers one to nine are balanced in a ‘magic square’so that their lines in any direction — vertical, horizontal or diagonal — always total fifteen (Figure 2).

This diagram provides a template for interlocking zig-zag movement in exercise and martial applications. Lines between numbers in order of magnitude result in alternating spirals in threes, first anti-clock wise (1>2>3) and then clockwise (3>4>5). In other words, a double helix, like that found to be the underlying structure of DNA:

In Chén-style taìjíquán it illustrates ‘winding-silk power’ (chánsijìng, 纒絲勁). ‘Springing power’(jìng 勁), a key taíjí concept, is often written as ‘essence’ (jing 精) here. Hands and feet thereby turned in mutual opposition generate spring. In the top right-hand diagram of Figure 3, the Chinese numbers linked by lines equal those of Figure 2. The underlying text, translated, explains:

In boxing, winding-silk power runs a path with matching right-hand facing up and left-hand facing down as if embracing (holding a ball). The right hand from below goes from one to two to three towards six, leading the two feet from nine to eight to seven towards four, four and six both facing five (in the centre). They twist and turn with ferocious force in one vibrating energy converging at the central palace…

The opposition of clockwise and anti-clockwise power concentrated at the centre is thus released with explosive vibrating force. The same process is to be performed in different sequences as shown in each of the remaining diagrams.

Contrary to popular belief, the slow movements of taìjí practice are more than pure relaxation. Relaxation is indeed their starting point and basic premise. Yet it is just the start in a daily exploration of discovery for the body’s potential energies. It is a means of listening to the body, feeling and harnessing the constant interplay of action and reaction within its every movement.

Its regular practice counters hyper-tension and raised blood pressure. In traditional medical theory, the brain is the home of the fire and the belly that of water. The Book of Change’s penultimate hexagram ‘Completion’ (Jìjì, no. 63, not 64, since change is unending) depicts fire under water, like a saucepan on the stove. By reversing positions, fire tending upwards, placed under water tending downwards, dynamic interaction is achieved, namely cooking. In the body, the result is health.

Meditation and Movement

By this method, with correct posture, meditation directs energy downwards to calm the mind and integrate it with the whole body. Breath energy circulates through the body creating a feeling of well-being and relaxation. As muscles relax, blood circulates more freely, capillaries (minute hair-like blood vessels) open up, carrying oxygen with a flow of warmth to body peripheries. The other circulatory systems of digestion, lymph in the muscles, and synovial fluids in the joints are likewise benefited.

All this is achieved by abdominal or ‘diaphragmatic’ breathing in sitting or standing posture. Qì is the Chinese word for ‘air’, and by extension ‘energy’, generated by burning oxygen; Taìjíquan is thus aerobic. In vigorous exercise, whole body breathing occurs spontaneously but exhaustingly. Meditation consciously by diaphragmatic breathing opens the lungs from the back, engaging abdominal muscles in whole-body action, from the tips of toes via the tip of the spine (perineum) to the crown of the head.

In meditation breath-energy is cultivated through mind control, usually in static postures, as famously in Indian yoga, and chiefly in sitting meditation by Buddhists but also in lying, standing and walking. The basic Buddhist method of mindfulness (vipassana in Theravâda) consists in concentrating on every in- and out-breath, a life and death in miniature, to the exclusion of all distraction. Zen (dhyâna, chán) may focus on a single word or problem ‘case’ kô’an (gong’àn).

Yet static postures require the supplement of moving exercises. Shamans practised trance dance and impersonation of animals to acquire their powers. The Documents Classic records a ‘Hundred Beast Dance’ led by a monitor dragon (Kuí) in the time of primordial Emperor Shùn. Their movements evolved into stretching and breathing exercises associated with Daoism and the quest for longevity and the ‘golden elixir’ (jin’dan) of physical immortality. This gave the name ‘elixir field’ (dantián) for the point just below the navel on which, as we saw, breathing meditation focuses.

Examples on silk manuscripts have been recovered, at Mâwángdui (Húnán) and Zhangjiashan (Húbeî), from water-logged second century BC tombs. They illustrate breathing and stretching exercises to restore sexual virility in ageing patients such as the mythical Yellow Emperor. The tradition was further developed in the ‘Five Animal Sport’ (Wû-Qín Xì) of tiger, deer, bear, ape and bird of physician Huá Tuó (ca. 200) as mentioned in the Three Kingdoms Record. Versions of it continue to be practised as qigong today.

Buddhist monks at Shàolín, by China’s Central Mountain-range (Zhongyuè) in Hénán province, became famous for physical as well as meditational prowess. Legend tells how Indian monk Bodhidharma sat facing a cave wall there for nine years until his legs atrophied. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he became credited with introducing the monks martial arts for which by the sixteenth century its monks were renowned. Gongfu was a term first used in Zen (Chán) meditation training. ‘Gong’, meaning ‘work’, ‘effort’ and ‘training’, became fused with ‘internal’ as neìgong, and with ‘breath-energy’ as qigong. Their qìgong ‘Eighteen Arhat hands’ (Shíba Luóhàn Shôu) eventually spread to the general population.

Creation of a ‘boxing form’ (quántào) of exercise, with weapons forms, in a series of continuous movements, like a cartoon strip or roll of film, was first printed in a military training manual (Jìxiào Xinshu) by Qi Jìguang (1528-1588). Piracy fronted by Japanese swordsmen was ravishing the eastern sea coast. This necessitated the learning a new type of amphibious warfare and recruitment of irregular troops, which included Shàolín monks’ expert in staff fighting.

Qi Jìguang’s ‘long boxing’ form of thirty-two named moves, selected from different schools as he tells us, is the ancestor of our taìjíquán form. It was transmitted in Hénán, across the Yellow River from Shàolín, by members of the farming Chén clan as a moving meditation exercise for health and defence. There, in the nineteenth century from 1820, it was learned by Yáng Lùchán (1799-1872) from a medicine firm in the fortress town of Yôngnián in southern Hébeî. In 1854 Yáng travelled to Beîjing with champion Wû Banhóu, to teach this art under the new name of ‘taìjíquán’ whose source he declined to reveal.

The art was presumed derived from an otherwise extinct ‘internal school’. Yáng’s fellow townsman had chanced to discover some sheets of ‘taìjí classics’ in a salt shop while on an official posting to Wûyáng, just over two hundred kilometres from Mt Wûdang (Húbeî). This houses the shrine to the god of war and Daoist Zhang Sanfeng, accredited founder of ‘internal school boxing’ (neìjia quán). By this skill, boxer Zhang Songqi of Níngbo (Zhèjiang), in the sixteenth century, was recorded to have defeated ‘external school’ Shàolín monks. Details of Zhang Sanfeng’s links to boxing are described in Xiyángjì, an ‘epic novel’ of 1597, fantasizing Admiral Zhéng Hé (1371-1433?) and his voyages to the Indian Ocean (Scott Phillips 2019: Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir, 41-48).

Yet, beyond such historical romances, the tangible sources of taìjíquán remained obscure until the 1930s discovery by Táng Háo of the Chén Family and Qi Jìguang connection, together with the writings of Chén neighbour Cháng Naîzhou. These background materials enable a fuller appreciation of the current wealth of taìjíquán literature from every school and their wider relationships.

The Whole Art

Over the last two millennia, following the introduction of Buddhism from India, China has, with Confucianism and Daoism, followed three major religions or schools of thought which have tended to merge. They have produced ‘three-in-one’ religions, such as Quánzhen ‘Complete Truth’ Daoism of Qiu Chûji which rose to prominence under ‘foreign’ Jurchen and Mongol emperors eight hundred years ago. Other examples have been condemned as ‘cults’.

Traditionally, Chinese governments have strictly controlled or banned popular practice of martial arts and qìgong. Their association with messianic cults and rebellions was endemic. In the twentieth century, Yiguàndào, the ‘One Consistant Way’ of the primaeval mother goddess, achieved popularity in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation in China and East Asia. Though banned in 1949, it was practised by disciples of Cheng Man-ching (Zhèng Mànqing) Yáng-style taìjíquán, thinly disguised as a ‘Confucius-Mencius Study Society, ‘but received official exoneration by Taiwan in 1987.

On the mainland, during recovery from the Maoist ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,’a quasi-Buddhist movement named Fâlúngong, ‘Dharma Wheel Cultivation’ teaching qìgong arose. It spread globally but was banned in China from 1999 following public demonstrations.
In the U.K., it appears that the Chinese government supported the creation of a Health Qìgong institute who trade-marked the generic term ‘health qigong’, which was already in use by local independent schools.

The TCUGB, by contrast, aims to promote the practice of “Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong” within a loose frame-work of internal martial arts. ‘Internal martial arts’, was defined by Sun Lùtáng over a century ago to include the kindred disciplines of Baguàzhâng and Xingyìquán to train in self-defense exercise for spiritual, mental and physical health. The use of weapon or fan props can further enhance its exercise and aesthetic value in training and public performance. Within this synthesis, Taìjíquán and Qìgong are one.

Taìjíquán as a martial art is not less concerned with health than ‘health qìgong’ (qigong for health). If anything its inherent dynamism and highly developed structure make it more, not less, relevant to health. It is likely to prove especially beneficial to metabolic health in the prevailing crisis of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, atherosclerosis, fibromyalgia and cancer. Taìjí has the additional advantages of social interaction, counteracting loneliness and isolation, through two-person exercises and friendly competition. Its martial focus adds an intellectual dimension which increases adrenalin production, spatial awareness and balance. All this has been my personal motivation and experience of over fifty years of daily practice (from 1968 at Tsim Sha Tsui park in Kowloon, Hong Kong).

I leave the decisions of how you choose to proceed, in your studies, to your interests and motivations.