Tai Chi Writings

Tai Chi Writings Cultural & Martial

CalligraphyToday Taijiquan is practiced both as a self-cultivation and health technique, as well as a martial art. Quite often this results in the discussion about which of these two fields should be emphasised. Interestingly this issue is already commented in the classical written traditions of the art of Taijiquan. Thus, e.g. in the Explanation of the Three Achievements of the Cultural (wen) and the Martial (wu) of Taijiquan: The cultural (wen) is cultivated internally and the martial (wu) externally. Those who practice the method of cultivation equally internally and externally, will gain great achievement. This is the higher path.

Those who gain the martial of fighting through the culture of physical education, or those who gain the culture of physical education through martial fighting are on the middle path. Those who know only physical education without fighting, or those who want only fight without physical education are on the lower path. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 3, p. 9) This statement is precise and clear. There are different paths to practice Taijiquan and one has to choose which one to follow. As this example shows, the classic texts of Taijiquan are an important guide for one’s own training. Ma Yueliang writes on the importance of the classical texts: “Classic documents written by the ancient masters of Taijiquan are based on their experiences and those of their predecessors. The treaties are terse, concise and contain important meaning in every word, and beginners should study them thoroughly and always keep them in mind. Continual practicing will help them to apprehend the true meaning.”

The Classics stress the importance of the idea that ‘If you don’t seek to go in this direction, it will be a sheer waste of effort, and that would be such a pity!'” (Ma, Zee, p. 26)

Among the classical texts of Taijiquan, also briefly called the Classics, are the Five Core Classics which were published 1912 by Guan Baiyi:– The Taijiquan Classic – The Taijiquan Treatise – The Mental Elucidation of the 13 Basic Movements – The Song of the 13 Basic Movements – The Song of Striking Hands

martin-groupThe authorship of the Five Core Classics is still controversial. Following the spreading of Taijiquan, more and more Classics and commentaries to them of various Taijiquan schools were published. For a deeper understanding of the Classics it should be considered that although Taijiquan is called an Daoist exercise the Classics itself are based on different Chinese schools of thought. This is exemplified in the following. The cultural (wen) If the cultural (wen) is a substantial claim in Taijiquan, it must be assumed that the associated intellectual background is supported by Chinese philosophy.

Book of Changes

Even the name Taijiquan itself refers to a philosophical concept, the concept of taiji. It is mentioned for the first time in the Great Appendix of the Book of Changes (Yijing), where it is stated: “In the change is taiji, which generates the two forms [yin and yang].” (Boedicker, p. 6) Furthermore, the Book of Changes appears in many aspects as a significant influence on Taijiquan.

In addition to such independent philosophical texts the great philosophical schools clearly marked the written tradition of Taijiquan. The most important philosophical schools in China are the sanjiao, the three teachings: Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. The Daoist influence should be the strongest in the Classics, but unfortunately it is not that easy to show it. Examining e.g. the book Laozi, one will have difficulty to find direct citations between the Laozi and the Classics. Technical key terms, such as dao, de and wuwei are virtually impossible to find. A reference to yin and yang is not enough, since this pair is of great importance in many Chinese schools of thought. Yet surely no one would deny Daoist influence in Taijiquan. It is therefore rather a conceptual orientation – e.g. the preference of the soft. As it says in the Laozi Chapter 78: The weak overcomes the strong. The soft overcomes the hard. This is known by everyone, but none practice it. (Boedicker, p. 23) A different formulation, but the same concept can be found in the Taijiquan Classic: The other is hard, I am soft, this is called going along with (zou). (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2, p. 8) Further on one can find important clues how to train body and mind. In the Daoist text Inner Training it is stated: When the body is not aligned,the inner power (de) cannot develop. When one is not still inside, the heart-mind (xin) cannot be well ordered. Align the body and pay attention to the inner power (de). Thus one will gradually attain it. (Boedicker, p. 52) This text reminds us of important points in the Classics, such as in the Mental Elucidation of the 13 Basic Movements: If the life force can be lifted, one is free from worries about heaviness or clumsiness. This is also called: Suspending the head-top. […] The spirit is still and the body is quiet, always keep this in the heart/mind (xin). (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 4, p. 4)


dao-doorThus the written tradition of Taijiquan follows Daoist concepts, but direct quotations of whole sentences can be found in the Classics more in relation to Confucianism. This is not surprising when you consider that we only know about a few Taijiquan masters that were Daoist hermits. More masters are found in the ruling elite of the country. This also means that they often completed a career as a Confucian official. In China it is said that such people had the ideal to be Confucians in their career and to be Daoist in their leisure time. The writer Lin Yutang called this ideal the “half-and-half-belief.” He commented that this “half and half” is “… lying somewhere between action and inaction, between being led by the nose into a world of futile busy-ness and complete flight from a life of responsibilities, and that so far as we can discover with the help of all the philosophies of the world, this is the sanest and happiest ideal for man’s life on earth. What is still more important, the mixture of these two different outlooks makes a harmonious personality possible, that harmonious personality which is the acknowledged aim of all culture and education. And significantly, out of this harmonious personality, we see a joy and love of life.” (Lin, p. 114)


One of the key concepts of Confucianism is the love for learning. It is defined as a desire fulfilled only by an enduring process. As it is stated in the book Confucius: To learn and to repeat from time to time what has been learned, is this not a pleasure” (Confucius 1, 1, Boedicker, p. 10) Taijiquan has without doubt absorbed this bequest. Is it not said in the Song of the 13 Basic Movements: The passing on of basic knowledge and the guidance to the way need to happen orally. Ceaseless practice (gongfu) is the method of self-cultivation. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2, p. 7 ) But not only abstract concepts of Confucianism are found in the Classics. Even Confucian technical terms such as the inner nature xing, including an embedded quote from the book Confucius can be found. Confucius: By nature we are close to each other, by habits, we are moving away from each other. (Confucius 17, 2)

In the classic Our Natural Power of Discrimination: After we are born, the eyes can see, the ears can hear, the nose can smell and the mouth can eat. Colours, sounds, smells and tastes, these five belong to the innate sensory endowment. The movements of hands and feet and the skills of the four limbs belong to the innate endowment of the natural movement. Even if you consider this, is it not that by nature we are close to each other, but by habits we are moving away from each other (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 5, p . 6)


Of particular importance in the Classics is the Neoconfucian philosophy of the Song period (960 – 1279 AD). It gave Taijiquan its cosmology. The first Neoconfucian Zhou Dunyi said: Wuji and then taiji. In movement taiji creates yang. When the movement has reached its limit there is stillness. When still, taiji creates yin. When stillness has reached its limits, there is a return to movement. Movement and stillness alternate. Each is the root of the other. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 1, p. 12)

In the Taijiquan Classic it is stated: Taiji is born out of wuji. It is the origin of movement and stillness and the mother of yin and yang. In movement, it separates; in stillness, it unites. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2, p. 8) Thus, in the Classics Confucian influence is significantly visible.


buddhaBut what about Buddhism? Buddhism was not entirely without influence on the development of Taijiquan and this can been seen e.g. in a name of the Chen-Style Taijiquan form: “Buddha’s Warrior Pounds Mortar”. Otherwise, in martial arts Buddhism, represented by Shaolin Kungfu, is rather considered as a counterpart to Taijiquan. After all Taijiquan tried to get a unique position in the world of martial arts. As it said in the Taijiquan Classic: There are many different kinds of martial arts schools. The movements might differ, but in general the following is shared: The strong oppressing the weak, slowness resigning in the light of fastness. The one with power defeats the one without.  The slow hand surrenders to the fast hand. All of these are indeed inherent natural abilities, which are not associated with study and practice. The sentence ‘With the use of four ounces one can easily deflect a thousand pounds’, shows that one should win without the use of force. Behold, an old man beats away several enemies. How can this be by fastness’ (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2, p. 8) Also, there was extensive exchange between the masters of Taijiquan and other martial arts schools.

Military Influences

Tai Chi Writings_2It is known well known that many Taijiquan masters also learned other martial arts. Thus Taijiquan developed always in competition and in exchange with other martial arts. The martial (wu) The roots of the Classics lie not only in Chinese philosophy. A large number of Taijiquan masters were instructors in the Chinese military. This also coined their language. Thus, e.g. in the Mental Elucidation of the 13 Basic Movements it is stated: The heart/mind (xin) is the commander, the qi is the flag and the waist is the banner. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 4, p. 4) Being part of the Chinese military Taijiquan masters certainly came in contact with the writings of strategists. The most famous one among them is Sunzi with his book the Art of War (Sunzi Bingfa), but there are still numerous other authors. The influence of the strategic literature expresses itself in the form of analogue thoughts. Thus, e.g. at Tai Gong: In planning nothing is more important than not being knowable.(Sawyer, p. 69) And in the Taijiquan Classic: The other does not know me, I alone know the other. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2, p. 8) The technical terms for the description of strategic matters come directly from the literature of strategists. Thus one speaks e.g. both among the strategists and in Taijiquan of the strategic advantage (shi). Sunzi: That the velocity of cascading water can send boulders bobbing about is due to its strategic advantage (shi). That a bird of prey when it strikes can smash its victim to pieces is due to its timing. So it is with the expert at battle that his strategic advantage (shi) is channelled and his timing is precise. (Ames, p. 120) The Taijiquan Treatise states: In advancing and retreating, one can gain the opportunity and the strategic advantage (shi). (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 3, p. 4)

Even the concept of full (shi) and empty (xu) are found in both texts. Sunzi: On the way to victory avoid the full and attack the emptiness. (Ames, p. 124 ) The Taijiquan Treatise: Empty and Full have to be clearly distinguished. Each point has its empty and full aspect. Everywhere there is always empty and full. (Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 3, p. 4)


In addition to contact with the military, other martial arts had influence on Taijiquan. Thus, e.g. the founding myth of Taijiquan is also found in other internal martial arts. In a text on the internal martial arts master Wang Chennan, who had no contact to Taijiquan, it is stated: “Shaolin is famous for its boxers. However, its techniques are chiefly offensive, which creates opportunities for an opponent to exploit. Now there is school that is called ‘internal’ which overcomes movement with stillness. Attackers are effortlessly repulsed. Thus we distinguish Shaolin as ‘external’.

Zhang Sanfeng

The Internal School was founded by Zhang Sanfeng of the Song dynasty. Zhang Sanfeng was a Daoist alchemist of the Wudang Mountains. He was summoned by Emperor Hui Zong of the Song, but the road was impassable. That night he dreamt that the God of War transmitted the art of boxing to him and the following morning single-handedly killed over a hundred bandits.” (Wile, p. 53) In the Taijiquan Classic it is stated: “This is taken from the work of the teacher Zhang Sanfeng of the Wudang Mountain, who wants the heroes of this world to use it to prolong their lives and not only for martial arts.” (Taijiquan-Lilun Issue 2, p. 9)

Overall, one has to say that the masters of Taijiquan in developing their art used ideas from various origins and they have certainly tried to collect the best material for this purpose. Through the study of the Classics everyone can see a successful outcome.

Authors: Freya and Martin Boedicker

Images: Boedicker and Taiji-Europa


Ames Roger, Sun-tzu: The Art of War, Ballantine Books, New York 1993

Boedicker, Freya and Martin, The Philsophy of Tai Chi Chuan, Blue Snake Books, Berkley, California, 2009

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, Quill, New York

Ma Yueliang, Xu Wen, Wushi Taijiquan Tuishou, Xianggang Shanghai Shuju Chuban, Hongkong 1986

Sawyer D. Ralph, The Seven military classics of ancient China, Westview Press, Colorado 1993

Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 1 (in English), Forum for trad. Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Düsseldorf 2003

Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 2 (in English), Forum for trad. Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Düsseldorf 2003

Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 3 (in German), Forum for trad. Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Düsseldorf 2003

Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 4 (in German), Forum for trad. Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Düsseldorf 2003

Taijiquan-Lilun Journal 5 (in German), Forum for trad. Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Düsseldorf 2004

Wile Douglas, T´ai Chi´s Ancesters, Sweet Ch´i Press, New York 1999