There’s something rotten in Tai Chi land. Actually, the rot started a long, long time ago and its not just a Tai Chi problem. You see the same rot in many other styles. Its just that the recent Xu versus Wei incident has shone the spotlight on Tai Chi.

Today I saw an article from Malaysia’s The Star Online here.

Reading through it I can see a number of inaccuracies. What is more astounding is the logic behind some of what was written. Take for example this passage :-

The fact its legendary grandmaster Yang Luchan became the undefeated champion in Beijing and won the favour of the Manchurian court attests to that.

Appointed as a teacher by the imperial family in 1850, Yang simplified tai chi. Yang feared the princes would hurt each other and he would be held responsible, so he stripped away the combat elements from tai chi, turning it into an exercise.

Let’s see what are the problems I have with these two paragraphs :-

Firstly, I must say that though I have read a fair bit on Yang style Tai Chi and even learned it for a long time (like since 1976) I have not heard of Yang Luchan fighting in a tournament and becoming a champion; not from reading nor heard of it from any of my several Yang style teachers. Where in the world did the writer get this?

Sure, Yang Luchan had skills and he won against the people he touched hands with. How he did it and what technique he used exactly I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there to see what he did. But as someone once pointed out whatever skills Yang Luchan had must have been superlative to make people still talk about it some one hundred fifty plus years later. But one thing I have never heard of is that of Yang Luchan fighting in a tournament and becoming champion.

Secondly, the way the writer wrote gave the impression that Yang Luchan was favored by the entire Manchurian court. When you think about it this cannot be true because in order to do this Yang Luchan would have to impress the Manchu Emperor himself and be appointed the head instructor for the Manchurian court.

I suspect the truth is probably that Yang Luchan managed to get an audience with one of the Manchurian prince and impressed him enough to be given a position as one of the martial arts instructors.

Thirdly, I think the second paragraph is a huge joke. Its premise is so preposterous that only the shallow minded would believe it. I don’t know who started this rumor but basically its as stupid as they come. Read the passage again and you will see what I mean.

Did you see what I mean? Let’s take a closer look shall we……….

Appointed as a teacher by the imperial family in 1850, Yang simplified tai chi. Yang feared the princes would hurt each other and he would be held responsible, so he stripped away the combat elements from tai chi, turning it into an exercise.

Now imagine you are Yang Luchan and you are now in the presence of a prince. The prince is surrounded by his bodyguards and perhaps even a number of his other martial arts teacher.

So you have this stranger applying for a position as a martial arts instructor. What does the prince do to evaluate him?

Today, we might ask to see the stranger’s certificate from a martial arts governing body or a certificate issued by his master. Since Tai Chi was at that time not known in Beijing it would not be unusual for the prince to ask Yang Luchan to demonstrate something. Typically, this calls for a form demo, followed by a demo of strength or test of fighting skills.

So there you have Yang Luchan being asked to do a demo. If you believe that he had been learning the Chen style forms we see today then Yang Luchan would no doubt demonstrate either the first routine or second routine.

If Yang wanted to impress the prince then the second routine would be more impressive with many more fajing movements. However, it would have been more likely for Yang to demonstrate the first routine especially since other martial arts masters were watching and some of them may be smart enough to steal some movements.

The first routine has some sudden, fast fajing movements that is impressive to those who see it the first time. Unless you suffer from dementia you are not likely to forget the silk reeling flavor and fajing movements. After demonstrating the form then Yang Luchan was called to demonstrate his combat skills and his demonstration was good enough to get him appointed.

Later Yang Luchan reported to work and he taught a watered-down version of his art which some have said is because Yang did not want the Manchurians to learn the real art or in this article Yang feared the princes hurting each other.

So we are supposed to believe that the prince who appointed Yang Luchan had forgotten what the first routine looked like and now accepted the learning of a form devoid of silk reeling and fajing movements.

OK, maybe our assumption is wrong and Yang Luchan actually went to the audience prepared to demonstrate a watered down form. So the audience ended up scratching their heads and wondered how such an unimpressive form could be effective. After seeing Yang’s combat demo their doubts were put to rest. However, some wondered why the techniques that Yang demonstrated did not look the same as what he showed in the form demo. Perhaps even the prince himself noticed and asked about it.

Put yourself in Yang Luchan’s position. How would you explain away the discrepancy between what is shown in the form and the actual combat techniques. Would you say that the form is just for beginners? Or would you say that practice and actual usage is not the same thing. Unless you take the prince and the people with him for morons do you think such excuses would fly?

You know what, I always wondered why readers would assume that the Manchu princes are a gullible lot when it came to martial arts. With the amount of intrigue and backstabbing in the court you would think that the princes were a smart, if not cunning lot in order to navigate and survive the politics. Is there a turn off switch when it came down to the martial arts? See how silly this is?

Now that Yang Luchan was an instructor in the prince’s household. The prince began learning. Mind you the prince already has a few teachers, perhaps he is already at an advanced level or had been learning for a few years. Again why do readers assumed that the Manchu princes were a weak lot? Drinking, smoking and womanizing does not necessary make you weak – in fact a number of top masters have these three vices.

So Yang Luchan taught his watered down stuff to the prince. If the prince had learned martial arts before don’t you think he would see through it if Yang was teaching him BS techniques?

Can you imagine Yang telling the prince that the stuff was so deadly he had to water it down for fear the prince would injure his fellow siblings. Don’t you think that the prince would not be pleased to have an instructor who is not prepared to teach him proper skills, if not the best skills, that the prince had paid for. Do you think the prince would want to learn techniques that can possibly cause him to lose instead of winning with a wide margin?

Don’t you think that Yang was toeing a fine line and if the prince had discovered that the superlative skills that he was supposed to be learning was in fact just exercises the prince would be pissed like hell and Yang would have a steep price to pay for deceiving the prince.

Do you understand now why I have a problem with these two paragraphs? The writer is assuming we are stupid enough to believe the logic. Anyone who has tried to teach combat or learn combat techniques would understand my point. This is more so when teaching to those who have learned martial arts before.

At this point I should point out that legitimate lineages and styles do not guarantee that you will learn good and proper stuff. I once had a teacher who taught me a form called Three Gates. There was one sequence in the form that felt a bit funny when practiced.

But I never asked why. This teacher was “genuine” and from a legitimate lineage. It was only later that I found out that he had changed this part of the sequence which originally had a movement in which you would suddenly drop to the ground and do a kick to the opponent’s groin. When I heard this I could now understand why the technique before it was the way it was, because it was to set up for the kick.

However, the teacher changed it because he couldn’t do the kick; possibly because he was already older by then. I understand his constraint. But by changing the form he had imported a less than effective technique. Don’t get me wrong. Changing a technique, modifying it is not wrong. Masters do it all the time. The important consideration is to change for the better and not for the worse and this is the tricky part. Postscript – because I do not know what else this teacher changed I have consigned the Three Gates form to the good to know but do not practice bin.

I am under no illusion we can stop the Tai Chi rot. Any style that becomes popular will have this problem. Wing Chun is a good example. Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies made the art popular but it also accelerated and increase the rot. We cannot change others especially if they do not want to change. We can only change ourselves and hope that it has some positive impact and contributes to arresting the decline. From here hopefully the art proper will rise again.


1 thought on “Rot

  1. Thanks for the read! Having just read The Book of Five Rings, I was able to better understand your stance and the fallacy in “watering down” something as teacher because of anything other than you are teaching 4 year olds, lol.


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