The theories of Tai Chi as recorded in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics are not just that.
If anything, they are beautifully written theories containing workable principles. That they are widely quoted, even borrowed by other styles to explain their art testifies to their wide applicability.
I once had a surrealistic experience listening to veteran Wing Chun masters, first generation masters who learned from Grandmaster Ip Man, attempting to explain sticking hands using the principles of Tai Chi! This was in the 90s during a Wing Chun tea party in Hong Kong hosted by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin.
Whence the Tai Chi theories / principles come I have no idea. However, my teacher said that they are written experiences of Tai Chi masters of the past. That many practitioners do not understand them or can apply them in their Tai Chi do not make the theories / principles any less true.
If we walk the path of past masters through the valid transmission of a recognized lineage and style we should have no problem understanding the theories / principles and using them. My own learning experience shows that the secrets of Tai Chi are within the principles as understood in the mind and realized in the body. This verifies what my teacher told me to be true.
What makes the theories / principles of Tai Chi beautiful?
Let us explore a simple example from the Play Pipa posture of the 22-form which calls for :-
静 中 求 动
周 身 一 家
The above can be translated to read :-
Within stillness, seek movement
Entire body, one family
If you try to do what this principle calls for you will find that it is not easy to do so. Why is this so?
The reason is because the first sentence is a paradox in that within stillness, which many Tai Chi players will interpret to mean not moving, one must seek movement. You can try to achieve this within the practice of zhanzhuang in that by standing still you try to seek movement.
This begs the following questions :-
a) What movement is the principle referring to? If you stand still then the only movement is that of your mind. This leads to the second question below.
b) What is the practicality of only your mind moving? Obviously, there is no practical use unless you can apply it in a practical context through a technique. This then leads to the third question.
c) Can you when moving to apply a technique still achieve movement within stillness?
The principle above is commonly found in many Tai Chi texts. Despite it being prevalent and well known it is the rare master who can actually demonstrate what it means in the context of fajing and application of a technique.
The reason is because the principle as commonly found lacks something. This something is the intent component and this is where the beauty of Tai Chi manifests itself. As transmitted by Grandmaster Wei Shuren this principle in full, at least in our Yang style variant, should be written as :-
Within stillness, seek movement
Entire body, one family
Vertical upright, three passes
Relax abdomen, chi rounded
Considered together the four sentences provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of intent to govern the physical body to actualize the requirements of the principle in the following manner :-
a) Sentence 1 (intent) ——> Sentence 2 (physical actualization)
b) Sentence 3 (intent) ——> Sentence 4 (physical actualization)
The easiest way to learn and master this principle is by playing your form many, many times while paying close attention to the requirements for performing the form. There is no room for practicing blindly, what we call waving the hands in the air, with no clear cut idea as to what we are trying to practice and achieve.
This is why if you attempt to understand them by blindly practicing you will not get anywhere. In the book on the 22-form Grandmaster Wei Shuren wrote “开始就讲明拳架理法” which calls for the beginning student to learn the logic of the principles alongside the learning of movements.
From here we understand why Grandmaster stressed “Yi Zai Xian” which can be translated to mean “Intention Comes First”. The phrase “Intention Comes First” can mean one or both of the following :-
a) In whatever you do in Tai Chi you must first know what you are doing
b) Every movement must be preceded by a deliberate intent
By exercising our intent when we play the 22-form over the years we slowly but surely learn to control our body in a different manner; in ways that allow us to grasp and finally master the principles elucidated in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics.
As outlined by Grandmaster Wei your progress will be from external to internal as follows :-
From none to have
From have to many
From many to emptiness
The three sentences lay out what you will experience as you make progress. It points the way to master Tai Chi. When your physical skills reach the level of the third sentence you will understand what 空 (emptiness) in this context means, particularly its critical role in allowing you to express the range of force models explained in Grandmaster Wei’s book on the 22-form.
To learn Tai Chi is not difficult. To bridge the gap between not grasping the intricate nature of the art as outlined in its theories / principles and mastering Tai Chi is the key challenge.
When one day you get there you will look back on your journey and be amazed at how the ancient masters managed to configure this wonderful art that utilizes the intention to enable you to master physical skills of combat.
For now, commit yourself to practice and be ready to discover this wonderful and beautiful art of human expression.