With the rise of martial sports such as Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC, many people are questioning the combat effectiveness of the traditional martial art styles. Some are going so far as to say that traditional martial arts such as taijiquan (tai chi) are no longer effective for combat, or never were in the first place.
Historical documentation aside, the question is a challenge to those who practise taijiquan as a martial art to prove that their art can be used in a fight – not only in self defence, but in a contest with other skilled fighters. Can a taijiquan stylist hold his or her own against an MMA fighter or a martial artist from another style.
To me, this begs two very fundamental questions. How can we define taijiquan as a style? How can we define combat effectiveness.
The latter question, one of combat effectiveness, is considerably less challenging than the former, although both can invite several different approaches.
Combat effectiveness can mean whatever keeps you uninjured, or it can mean whatever enables you to defeat the opponent. I am an advocate of the supposition that one can do one without the other. You can destroy your opponent without saving yourself, and you can save yourself without destroying your opponent. But for the sake of including sport fighters in this discussion, I will assume that measure of “combat effectiveness” is the the ability to physically dominate an opponent in a prearranged contest.
This leads me to a famous quote used by teachers of Xingyiquan (another internal martial art that is similar to taijiquan in structure, but different in pedagogy and strategy)
半步弸拳打天下 “Banbu bengquan datianxia”. (A half step and a crushing punch defeats everything under heaven.) This line expresses the simple basic principle of all combat. To put it more simply, the way to win a fight can be described in the following poem.
Clear a path.
“Bam!” could be any technique such as a punch, kick, throw, joint control, push, thrust, shooting, clubbing, stabbing, or what-have-you. This requires no allegiance to any particular “style.” In fact, mastery of this skill usually accompanies a liberation from “style.”
To discuss a style and its combat effectiveness requires defining the style, just as debating the existence of God requires a definition of God. But just as defining God is seen by some as blasphemy, one cannot arrive at a single simple definition of a particular style. Different teachers define their styles differently, according to variations in things like pedagogy, purpose, and understanding. But this is all relative. Often a style is defined less by similarities with other schools than it is by differences from other styles. Zhuangzi might say, “That is not a definitive definition.”
Whenever a skilled martial artist has declared a new style (as have my friend, Adam Chan and my teacher, Liang Shouyu) they have often done so not because of what their “style” had become, but because of what their style had ceased to be. True styles are created not by merely assembling an eclectic mix of elements from different styles. True styles are created when a master transcends “style” itself. They reach a new understanding of the true meaning of martial arts.
It is interesting to observe the difference and similarities between styles that come from different sources.
Adam Chan’s system is a very simple pared down training regimen, Master Liang’s system is a vast and comprehensive art form. Both are undeniably effective combat systems. But they are very different approaches to teaching martial arts.
Master Chan’s KaiYin system grew from more than two decades of training six to twelve hours per day, with the main goal of becoming an effective fighter. Chan’s research included years of hard-core training in internal and external styles, real life fights, and a period teaching at a Hong Kong prison.
Liang’s system is based on six decades of life experience, family tradition, multidisciplinary training in a wide range of martial arts, meditative practices from Daoism, Shaolin, Emei, four different schools of Tibetan Qigong, medical qigong, a biology degree, weight lifting, competitive shuaijiao, sanshou, tuishou, real life-and-death battles, and more.
Both systems recognise the vast implications of studying a martial art. They take into account how the arts can contribute to a person’s life, and how they can improve society as a whole. But they have, as a foundation, the understanding of combat. Combat is seen not only as a means of defeating an opponent. It is also a means of perfecting and understanding the true nature of the self.
I once asked my teacher, Master Liang Shouyu, if there was one thing that all Chinese martial arts had in common. He lit up and said very seriously, “Yes.” then he paused while everyone leaned in to hear the answer and explained, “Must beat other person.”
When the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, created his own style, he didn’t throw out the techniques of Daitoryu Jiujitsu and create new ones. He didn’t take different things from other styles and mix them together. His new style was built on a moment of enlightenment where he saw the true meaning of Budo (“Warrior Way”). Technically, Aikido is not much different from Daitoryu Jiujitsu. But it is recognised as a very distinct style, nevertheless.
It is quite easy, nowadays, to see videos on the internet which demonstrate the effectiveness of taijiquan, either in combat, or in tournament competition. The comments under such videos will invariably include some from people who insist, “This is not Tai Chi!” They often make this statement without offering any example of what tai chi is. Usually these comments come from westerners who don’t realise that the people they are watching are among the highest ranking experts in the taijiquan community. It makes sense, actually, that when two very high level masters compete against each other, the novices are unable to recognise or understand what they are doing. They will therefore say, “That is not tai chi. I do tai chi, and what I do doesn’t look anything like that.”
All styles wax and wane, ebb and flow.
Every traditional style has celestial champions and embarrassing mediocrity.
Styles that find a place in society, either due to combat effectiveness or due to other benefits, will evolve and change with society.
Eventually, they will cease to exist in a recognisable form.
The better a style is, the longer lasts.
The longer it lasts, the more popular it becomes.
The more popular it becomes, the more variations in skill and understanding.
The more variations in skill and understanding, the more styles.
The more styles, the harder it becomes to define each style.
The better a style is, the more difficult it will be to define the pure style.
The effectiveness of taijiquan may be a casualty of its own effectiveness.
The art itself may become a victim of its own popularity.