On any given morning, the small parks that dot the landscape of Taipei are filled with mostly elderly members of the public practicing a martial art that dates back centuries, the healthful properties of which are only beginning to be recognized in the West. Larger parks serve as perfect settings for the contemplative early-morning exercise, the open spaces providing a good view of the rows of men and women engaged in tai chi.
But on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, the openness of the parks will be exchanged for the inner shell of the Taipei Arena, when the National Tai Chi Chuan Association (中華民國太極拳總會) plays host to the First World Cup Tai Chi Chuan Championship 2006. Teams and individuals from over 20 countries will descend on Taipei to compete in the fixed push hands, moving push hands and routine competitions. Solo routines, known as forms, will not be a part of the competition, though practitioners can apply to demonstrate their maneuvers.
“Last year we had a similar venue that attracted over 8,000 people. This year we hope to surpass 10,000,” said Chan De-sheng (詹德勝), chairman of the National Tai Chi Chuan Association, Taiwan.
Himself a practitioner and teacher of tai chi — he taught Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) 13 forms — Chan first started to study the popular martial art of Shaolin kung fu, a style popularized in countless novels and movies, when he was 17. But his master soon encouraged him to study tai chi, and so at the age of 20 he duly began to practice forms. Today, in addition to teaching students he also instructs people how to become teachers of the martial art.
History of a martial art
Literally meaning “supreme ultimate fist,” tai chi is considered a soft-style martial art because it can be practiced with deep relaxation as opposed to hard martial arts that require a degree of tension in the muscles, such as Shaolin kung fu.
As some tai chi theory and practices evolved along with principles of traditional Chinese medicine, the martial art is sometimes called moving meditation. For beginner and intermediate practitioners, tai chi helps maintain health and is a good form of stress management.
“When people are young, they can practice martial arts like Shaolin kung fu, which require muscle strength.” But because tai chi isn’t as energetic, “when you reach the age of 60 or 70 you can still practice it without damaging your body,” Chan said.
According to Chan, the physical training of tai chi is characterized by the leverage of joints, rather than muscular tension, to neutralize or initiate physical attacks. The slow and repetitive nature of the moves — sometimes the same posture will be repeated over many weeks or months — gently and measurably increases blood circulation.
Taiwan has over 1,000 instructors of tai chi teaching various levels of the art to over 100,000 students. Chan estimates that at least half a million people regularly practice in parks, on rooftops, in their offices, and on their lunch breaks throughout Taiwan. Outside of the country, it’s difficult to determine how many people practice the art as there are no reliable figures. However, it is apparent that more and more people are taking an interest in tai chi because of its health benefits.
Although five major styles of tai chi existed historically, today there are dozens of hybrid forms. Chan has a style named after him.
The five older styles, the students of which usually learn from 88 to 108 postures and have to practice for years before honing advanced skills, are considered orthodox.
The death of culture
Though China is indisputably the birthplace of tai chi, it arguably remains the center for the teaching of the art as many of the most prominent tai chi masters left China for Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949 and set up their own schools.
Many practitioners remained in China, but their ability to open schools, train pupils and publish teachings was severely curtailed by the political atmosphere of the time. The final nail in the coffin came at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when the communist government led by Mao Tse-tung (毛澤東) systematically purged anyone who was seen practicing tai chi.
One way which the authorities caught teachers of tai chi would be to send spies to pretend they were potential students looking for a master to teach them. When the teacher confirmed what the “student” already knew, the former would be rounded up.
Chan said children would report to the authorities that their parents were practicing tai chi and when caught they were sent to labor camps for political re-education.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was a resurgence of interest in tai chi. But the atmosphere of paranoia still remained and many of the masters who were formerly happy to take on students were unwilling to admit they were masters in the art.
Though there are more than 144 tai chi moves, the competition organizers have set limits on the number of moves allowed in competition to make scoring easier. For the fixed push-hand moves, contestants are limited to using any of eight postures to knock their opponents off balance and thereby win a point. For the moving push-hands section, 13 postures can be employed.
Despite the limited number of postures, watching competitions may be somewhat confusing for a non-practitioner. Scoring a point against one’s opponent involves the successful completion of a move or the ability to neutralize a move made by your opponent. For both, the spectator must understand the kind of move each of the competitors was originally trying to make.
To make the sport more international and consistent, the National Tai Chi Chuan Association of the Republic of China (NTCA) drew up a series of rules in 1993. At the time of their adoption, it was hoped that by making the sport more rule-oriented, tai chi would be included in the Olympics. This has yet to come to fruition.
The field for the push-hand competition is 8m2, at the center of which is a circle 6m in diameter. Competitors must keep their feet within the circle. For fixed push-hand competitions, a separated board is set up. For both competitions, an executive referee and two deputy referees keep score, while two medical personal, a scorekeeper, timekeeper, announcer and referee-in-chief stand outside the field.
For push-hand competitions, there are nine different weight categories for both men and women and once on the field the moves must be completed within two minutes, while fixed push-hand rounds must be completed within one minute. Competitors must be between 16 and 60 years of age.
The field for the routine competition is 14m by 8m. There are five judges, one positioned on each corner of the rectangle that makes up the field, the fifth in the center. The routine competitions also have a timekeeper, announcer, routine checker and referee-in-chief who are all stationed just outside of the competitor’s field. There is no age limit for the routine competition.
There will also be a stage for well-known tai chi masters to demonstrate their skills. In addition to individual masters, there will also be group demonstrations of tai chi moves using weapons.