One of the problems with the learning of Tai Chi is that of assessing the standing of a student in terms of mastery. In certain schools they use ranking which calls for grading tests to be administered in order to determine if a student is fit to be promoted to a higher grade of learning.
In Singapore we used to have a national level exam which was administered by a panel of judges for those who want to acquire a teaching license for martial arts including Tai Chi.
Having been through both systems of testing I have to say that I cannot shake off the feeling that such tests are highly unsatisfactorily. For sure if in a test involving say 10 students the student who could perform and complete the minimum fitness exercises, do the reflex drills with the least mistakes and perform the form well would get the highest marks.
However, the question that begs to be answered is where does the student really stand in terms of mastering the true skills of the art as a whole. For example, would a student who got the highest grade in his rank test who then joins another school teaching the same style but different lineage be ranked on a similar level?
I think most of us know that the answer is when you go to a new school particularly in Chinese martial arts chances are you will be told that everything you previously learned are wrong. This is the problem of interpretive consistency.
If a Yang style Tai Chi student signs up with another Yang style school of the same lineage then his attainment in his previous school should be recognized as of comparable level. However, the lack of the proper application of standards means that the student’s previous efforts would not be recognized.
This is why when I teach Tai Chi the adherence to a common standard, in this case The Tai Chi Classics, is important. If I created my own standards then no one should have to recognize it but chances of the average Tai Chi teacher saying that the Tai Chi Classics are wrong is a lot slimmer.
In cases where a Tai Chi teacher disagrees with what the Tai Chi Classics say it is mostly a case of interpretation or qualification. For example, I have heard some teachers say that 4 catties overcoming 1000 pounds is wrong because another master has been attributed as saying that you cannot overcome 1000 pounds without training yourself to have at least 1000 pounds of force.
However, I would point out that 4 catties overcoming 1000 pounds is consistent with what the Classics say about not using strength, being so light that a feather cannot land on you, etc. In this manner I am interpreting the Classics consistently.
From a scientific point of view this is also consistent with the principle of using leverage particularly the force termed as Zhe* in the training of Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s Single Whip as shown below (picture from page 295, TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form available here) :-
Notice how the workings of Zhe resemble that of the motion of a seesaw? If you know your physics you would know that a seesaw operates on the principle of a lever. This simple method of borrowing the opponent’s force and returning it to him is one of the four fundamental methods of issuing force in Grandmaster Wei’s Tai Chi Chuan. It is not difficult to do once you gain a certain control over how your body moves.
By adopting the Tai Chi Classics as a reference standard we can avoid arguments at least in our school as to who has learned what to which degree of expertise and his attendant understanding of how the principle works.
I have read of arguments between disciples of late masters over who has more skills, learned which forms, bestowed what rank, received letter of acknowledgement and so on. I feel that these do not really settle the argument because they do not offer any means of convenient comparability.
However, once we have a standard assessments become easier because we are then comparing skills on a more equal footing. So in this example if we have two practitioners using Zhe to propel a live test dummy of a proportionately equal weight and dimension then the results are more conclusive as to which practitioner is more skillful. For a more definitive result you could also engage a biomechanics lab to do the testing. To Master Tai Chi Today do consider implementing the notion of a standard today. It might save your descendants a lot of unnecessary arguments down the years.
*Note – there are two types of Zhe force; the drawing shows the second type of Zhe whilst the picture is demonstrating the first type of Zhe force
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