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


  1. Great article on keeping our perspective. The authenticity debate distracts us and sets us up for comparison and striving, two obstacles in our mindfulness practice.

  2. It is what it is. No one should get bent out of shape by name, style, martial, health, etc. It's good stuff and good for you. Quite arguing and start doing! Terrific article!

  3. Love this post! I've been following many conversations on the LinkedIn groups, but I've refrained from chiming in because as a long-time student and advocate of T'ai Chi it really saddens me to see the dialog devolve into the kind of criticism that you describe so well. Last thing I want is to have someone try to get me into a T'ai Chi version of "the dozens." But in this case, I do have a thought - another take on authenticity. We might also talk about an authentic "t'ai chi experience." The Taoist point of view is that perfection/imperfection is an illusion. I like that. Your t'ai chi expereince -or mine - is just perfect, whatever it is (as long as you're not deliberately lying about what you're doing). Any other perspective implies comparison. Comparison promotes judgmentalism, and judgmentalism leads to Duality. And Duality sucks. (BTW - I thought I might repeat this post on our LInkedIn group as well.)

  4. Most excellent! Get a life is the perfect response to people like that. too much ego, not enough practice and contemplation. Keep up the good work, Eric.

  5. What a great post with good research!

    Some really valid points here - always questioning and always moving forwards to improve what is there - "the name that can be named is not the everlasting name".

    I think we should always go back to the root. The classical texts written by dedicated and studious seekers of knowledge long ago when we didn't have iPhones, laptops and X Factor help us strive to manifest in physics what is described metaphysically in the texts. Can we demonstrate effectively what is written in the original text? Can we show in our movements the concepts that are expressed or are we simply making shapes using external muscle with no internal direction based on what someone said to "just do"?

    Translation is also an issue - many things that were written in the original texts have been mistranslated over time and interpreted in a superficial western language. Indeed many translations from ancient Chinese to modern Chinese are also inaccurate and the modern version is very far from the original meaning as characters have changed over time. According to my teacher (whose own teachers include many of China's famous "top 10"), the original names are VERY descriptive. EG "Two Hands Hold up the Heavens" for the first gong was originally named "If you want to be healthy, put your hands up"

    According to PhD studies by monk Shi DeLon (aka Dr Leung Y.K. PhD), Shaolin RouQuan is a valid candidate for being one of the first arts to document blending internal and external, yin and yang, TaiChi and WuChi, something and nothing...(etc). 18 Lohan Gong is also a candidate for being one of the first formats of what we have come to know as NeiJia TaiChi Quan. These formats exist on manuscripts in private Chinese collections. I have personally seen copies of 6000 year old, 3000 year old and 1500year old texts describing exceptionally similar movements to those we use in TaiChi Quan, but with vast annotations, exact descriptions and minutely detailed sensory and biomechanical, instructions to stimulate the body's bioelectrical and biochemical systems. The depth in these documents seems to be much greater than I've seen elsewhere on the same subject.

    DaoYin does indeed look like the precursor TaiChi!

    Ultimately all arguments regarding style are invalid. If its a good system, it will stand the test of time, a logical conclusion could therefore follow that the oldest systems, practiced correctly are the best.

    However, as i understand it, TaiChi is not a system of itself, rather its a methodology of movement for health and protection that can be applied to ANY system. The legendary Chan Zhang Feng (yet another spelling lol) is, according to Dr Leung's research more likely to have been a succession of superior fighters, strategists and philosophers or a 'school' rather than an individual.

    At the end of the day, all styles are good if they have survived, but do they demonstrably contain the 13 essences of TaiChi from the classic?

    If we keep practicing our art and striving to improve ourselves and our interaction with our neighbours, surely we will access something greater, lying dormant within (or without?) us? As Deng XiaoPeng famously said "I don't care if its a black cat or a white cat so long as it catches the mouse!"

    NeiJia: Internal, specifically of the spine and internal organs
    TaiChi: Ultimate Extreme
    Quan: Martial value

  6. Jason, thanks for the comment. As I say in my header at the top, "We are all traveling the same path, just at different points on the journey." Smile and enjoy the journey.