Saturday, August 4, 2012

Authenticity and Tai Chi

I read quite a few blogs and articles on web sites related to tai chi. I am constantly amazed at the amount of arguing going on about the tiny details about lineage and authenticity. You've probably seen them: "My style is older and more authentic." "Your style is merely derivative." "The true elements of tai chi have been removed from your style." "You shouldn't even call that tai chi."

Let's start with a definition. To some, authentic means traceable back to the original. To others, it means done as has always been done. My definition is different. You can see it at the end.

I've even seen people claiming an authentic lineage back to the legendary Master Chang San Feng (Zhang Sanfeng). He is legendary because absolutely no historical facts exist about his life! According to one source, he lived from the year 1247 to 1447 (200 years). Another source claims there were two people with that name. One lived from 960 to 1279. The other lived from 1279 to 1368. Another source claimed that he never existed. There is absolutely no contemporary historical evidence that supports the claim that Chang San Feng had anything to with developing Nei Jing (internal arts). The earliest records claiming Chang had anything to do with martial arts was 1669. It strains credulity to accept that accurate oral records were kept for hundreds of years before being recorded much later.

My opinion: Get a life. In the words of Stanley Henning, "... the prestige of tai chi rises with hot air." (You can read his entire article here.)

There is some evidence that what we now call Chen style tai chi originated in Chen village with Chen Wangting in the early 1600s. The Chen family claims that all other styles of tai chi are derived from Chen style. I am skeptical of claims that use the word "all", but we do know that Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao), and Sun styles are derived from Chen style. I'm not sure about others.

The claims start to become unbelievable after we accept that Chen style is probably the origin of what we now call tai chi. The claims begin by saying that tai chi was completely developed at that time. Anything added later weakened, or degraded, the art. I disagree.

Yang Lu Chan, the originator of Yang style tai chi, was known by his contemporaries as Yang the Invincible. Do you really believe him guilty of degrading the art of tai chi?

Sun Lu Tang, the originator of Sun style tai chi, was a master of the fighting arts of baguazhang and xingyiquan before he learned tai chi. Do you really believe him guilty of degrading the art of tai chi?

My opinion: get a life. Different styles of tai chi were developed by skilled masters. If the new styles were not effective, they would not have survived and would no longer be taught.

Another continuing debate is about the terminology. Is it tai chi or tai chi chuan? Or should it be t'ai chi ch'uan or t'ai4 chi2 ch'üan2? Is it tai ji or tai ji quan? Or is it 太 极 拳  or should it be 太 極 拳? Some people practice for the martial aspects of tai chi. They prefer to include the word chuan (or quan), except when they don't. Some people practice for the health aspects of tai chi. They don't usually include the word chuan, except when they do.

Language changes and evolves. There is no evidence that the Chen family originally used the term tai chi chuan at all. According to Wikipedia (not a reliable source), the scholar Ong Tong He first used the term tai chi (taiji) to describe Yang's style of fighting.

How far back do we have to go to be authentic? Should I be speaking "Olde Ænglisc" in order to be an authentic speaker of my native language? An early translation of the bible in Old English is not even intelligible by modern readers of English:
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum
Sīe þīn nama ȝehālgod

Once again, get a life. Language changes. It's not reasonable to expect me to learn this in order to be "authentic".

Tai Chi for Health
Another debate is about modern tai chi for health programs. One person told me that I shouldn't use the term "Tai Chi" for health programs because it's not real tai chi without at least 10 years of study and experience with a tai chi master. He wanted me to call it qigong. Guess what? Qigong in this context is a modern term, dating to the 20th century. Perhaps it really should be called dao yin (guide and lead qi) or tu-na (focused breathing) in order to be authentic.

Once again, get a life. Yes, Tai Chi for Health generally does not include the Martial Arts aspects of tai chi. It is not the complete art. So what? It's Tai Chi for Health.

What Is Authentic Tai Chi?
Times change. Things evolve.
o Is it only authentic if it's old? (Has no one developed anything new?)
o Is it only authentic if it is taught by a master from China? (Has no one else ever learned enough?)
o What if it is taught in English instead of Chinese? Is it still authentic? (Translations are always imperfect.)
o Is it even authentic to say "Chinese language"? Can it be taught in Mandarin and still be authentic? Modern languages are not the same as the languages used when tai chi developed. (That translation problem again.)
o What language was used in Chen village in the 16th century? Let's all learn that language so that we will really be authentic.

My point here is that there is no end to history. What is authentic? You never reach the beginning. Nothing comes into existence out of the air. There is always something that precedes it. What counts in authenticity is something that works and achieves your purpose, not what someone else prefers to call authentic.

I welcome thoughtful comments on this post.

© 2012 Eric Borreson