Tai Chi as a Martial Art

by Volker Jung

There have been a lot of publications in recent years about Tai Chi as an effective health system and dance-like meditation in movement. But what about expert publications relating to the very real and highly effective self-defence components and original function of Tai Chi as one of the best martial arts in ancient China? Where can you read about or - more to the point – where can you watch a Tai Chi Master fighting or competing with the Masters of other Tai Chi styles in Push Hands events? Unfortunately, I have to say from my own experience that such events are extremely rare. For this reason I have decided to relate my own experience of the martial arts components of “Internal Combat Style Tai Chi Chuan" to a wider, knowledgeable public. To help you make a better judgement of my comments, I would like to give you a short biography of my training in the martial arts.

At the age of 10 I began a three year training in Judo. Today I am 46 years old and since then I have studied the following disciplines:


External Martial Arts: Judo, Karate, western boxing, Tae-Kwon-Do (full contact).


Semi-internal system: EWTO Wing Tsun


The 3 classical “internal martial arts” Hsing-I, Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang.


In-depth study of “Liu He Ba Fa” – a martial art comprising the three internal systems, but little known in Germany.


In addition, since 1987 I have made an in-depth study of Qi Gong, Taoist meditation and the internal alchemy of the Taoists.


To complement these main areas, I am also studying TCM together with several Chinese and Japanese meridian-based massage techniques such as Chi Lei Jong and INOCHI.



As you can see, my interests cover a wide spectrum and are not based on assumptions and speculations, but on my own experience and long years of constant research.

When I moved from the external systems (full contact Taikwon-Do) with a lot of sparring experience and extensive protective clothing, to the art of Wing Tsun, I was delighted with the exceedingly practical and effective practice of sticking hands, which in my view represents an excellent transfer from the hard to the soft.

After several years of training, the muscular tension I was using still seemed too hard, and so I continued my search for a softer, more internal system. I thus arrived at Yang style Tai Chi. At first I simply couldn't imagine how it could be possible to fight with such slow movements. And my first encounter was with instructors who had little or no real martial arts experience and were not in the least interested in the fighting aspect of Tai Chi – and that applies to the majority of German Tai Chi practitioners today.

It wasn’t until 1983 in Frankfurt, when I saw a demonstration by a proper Tai Chi Master from England, that my respect for Tai Chi as a martial art grew. Admittedly, there was no real free fighting during the demonstration, but it didn’t escape my attention that here I was seeing the power of an internal energy which I had never encountered before. The Master had no apparent difficulty in moving several people who tried to hold him or throw him. I had never seen anything like it – I had only read about similar things in mythical stories about invincible Tai Chi Masters. Was I finally being given the chance to learn directly from one of these “authentic masters”? For the next 71/2 years I became his pupil and learned a great deal about the internal principles of Yang Tai Chi.

But I didn’t learn to fight with Tai Chi. I searched for and found other masters - some famous, others less well-known – whose teachings brought me closer to what I imagined the martial art Tai Chi to be. Today, after more than 30 years of effort on my part, I feel I have come a long way down the path towards the old, effective Combat Tai Chi of the legendary masters. I know today how comprehensive a really complete, Tai Chi training in the style of the ancients has to be, in order to develop realistic fighting capabilities. For all those who have perhaps spent years searching for one complete system to help them develop all the capabilities necessary to use:


Tai Chi as a Health System
Tai Chi als Martial Art
Tai Chi as Taoist spiritual Transformation System

I will now attempt to describe the methods.

“You can do what you practise!”


In a combat situation you are basically encapsulating your whole way of life in a fraction of a second. If you are successful in life, then your chances in combat will probably be good as well. In order to be successful and to survive in life and in combat you need to have – at the crucial moment - the essence of the skills you have acquired throughout your life at your disposal. You must be able to activate them in an instant, tapping their essence in order to act effectively when necessary. Surviving a “life or death” combat situation must be just as much part of a good Tai Chi instruction system as the ability to take vital decisions which are both intelligent and wise, following the principles of Tai Chi. Or, to put it another way: A good „complete Tai Chi instruction system” which claims to be traditionally authentic, must be capable of accomplishing all of this.

This leads us to the crucial point:


What does a “complete Tai Chi instruction system” comprise?


1. How does one attain the necessary skills?  

What must it include?


How must it be structured?


1. How does one attain the necessary skills?

By practising all the individual skills needed to attain any given goal, step by step.

Specific skills are acquired at each level in each Yin-Yang principle. Specific skills must be acquired in each sub-discipline, too (see outline plan). These must lead to a fully functioning sequence of actions within the context of the overall system, which is more than the sum of its parts. A theoretical basis comprising all sub-steps is an essential part of this system.

Right from the start, the highest achievable goal for each section must be defined. All techniques necessary in order to have a realistic chance of achieving one’s aim must be specified, without exception. So: What exactly is it that makes me healthy, improves my combat skills, expands my mental horizon?

2. What must it comprise?

Tai Chi als Kampfkunst

n the following list you will find a list of all the individual skills and of those exercises which develop these skills.


Technical Term

Exercise with which to achieve this

1. firm stance


Standing meditation and silent Qi Gong Standing with different arm postures. Power Push Hands.

2. firm movement

moving roots with intact internal structure (physical and energy structural system)

Practising the Slow Form, which over 80% of all Tai Chi students consider sufficient. “Movin’ Roots” by Don Miller, 5 times USA champion

3. rapid firm movement

Dynamic equilibrium “sports car effect“

Fast Form, San Shou, Eight Powers Training

4. high flexibility

being like water

special floor exercises by Master Huang and power stretching in the style of George Xu

5. good balance

always centred

Form training, Push Hands, Fast Form, special warm-up exercises

6. Sensitivity

the ability to hear and feel the opponent's energy, as well as one's own

Push Hands + San Shou, free-style Push Hands, Ta Lu, Qi Gong and meditation

7. extreme velocity

being as quick as lightning

Fast Form and San Shou

8. Standing like a rock

being substantial

Power Push Hands, standing meditation, seated meditation and Qi Gong standing

9. being as soft as water

being insubstantial

free-style Push Hands and San Shou, undersigned meditative tracing of a movement

10. making contact with one’s opponent

searching arms

1. Contact or Hand Fighting Form

11. Timing and spacing

essential skills in combat

San Shou or Two Men Set, Push Hands – Openings in the style of Master Wei Lun Huang

12. Judgement and situation recognition

appropriate course of action

Freestyle Push Hands and realistic self defence

13. Strong willpower

Yi Training


spatial ability

3 Circles Push Hands and weapons training, particularly spear + staff


3. How must it be structured?

How should the system and the training or the instruction be structured in order to acquire the specified skills and achieve the desired goals?

Of course, you cannot expect to acquire the above mentioned skills in a few weeks, no matter how hard and intensively you practise, and no matter how generously a teacher or Master is prepared to pass on his knowledge to his students. It will take you several years – say between 6 and 10 – to attain most of the skills mentioned above. But this won't happen automatically if you simply practise for 20 years, but leave out essential elements of the training programme, just because your teacher doesn't teach you them - perhaps so as not to upset the ‘balance of power’, or even - in the case of some so-called “Tai Chi Masters” -perhaps because he hasn’t even learned them himself. Here I am talking chiefly about the “Fast Form“ and the “San Shou“, but also about the “3 Circles Push Hands", the "8 Powers Training" and the "Power Push Hands".

It seems incredible, but most of what I practise and teach seems to be practised by hardly anyone, and most people I talk to have never heard of many of these exercises. How comes? There is much confusion and, at times, simply wishful thinking about how to attain the skills of the ancient, legendary Tai Chi Masters. Many people believe that practising the Slow Form regularly, together perhaps with a few minutes’ Qi Gong every day, is all they need to do to become a good Tai Chi fighter. If you believe this, then you will spend your life merely dreaming of the mystical powers of the old Tai Chi masters.

According to Bruce Kumar Frantzis, one of my many Masters, the following daily regime is necessary in order to succeed in the three main areas I have outlined above:


Tai Chi as a Health System: 15 – 60 minutes a day


Tai Chi as a Combat System: 1 – 6 hours a day


Tai Chi as a Spiritual Practice: more than 6 hours a day



I have even heard people seriously claim that they intend to achieve immortality simply by exercising the Slow Form every morning and evening. There are others who believe that they can attain realistic combat skills simply by regularly repeating the stylised sequences of Single, Double Push Hands and Flat Circle Push Hands. This, too, belongs more to the realm of dreams than to reality, because realistic Tai Chi combat can virtually never be practised - for until one is capable of it, the Form movements alone will not be of much use without the application of the internal energy known as “Qi”. When one has learned to employ „Qi“ deliberately and purposefully in the individual self-defence applications, practising free fighting becomes very dangerous and is definitely no game. Several students and teachers have experienced this at first hand. There are soon broken bones or energetic injuries. This can be prevented by taking a step-by-step approach to learning the safety measures required at each stage and acquiring certain technical skills before progressing to the next, more complex exercise.

In my opinion, the ”San Shou” or Two Men Set, a two-man combat form or choreography comprising roughly 80 movements per form, represents a realistic approximation of free combat without danger of injury. This approximation of a real combat situation is about 95% realistic. In addition to the 3 part Form it is imperative to practise all kinds of partner exercises over a long period of time. In these partner exercises, you get to know the following internal energy sub-types and gradually learn how to use them in a targeted way:


Review of the first seven internal energies of Tai Chi


Sticking energy “Chan Nien“ You have to be able to follow each and every of your opponent’s movements, in other words to stick to him. There are special exercises for this, including some with closed eyes.



Listening Energy “Ting Chin”: You first need to be able to register (‘hear’) your opponent’s intent via his physical “tools” (arms and legs), before you can react to it in an adequate manner. This skill can be learned from an experienced teacher using certain sensitisation exercises for the hands, arms and legs during the early phase and progressing to the whole body later on.



Comprehending Energy “Tung” Not until one hears something can one begin to understand the intentions and attacks of one’s opponent. This requires a direct and lengthy instruction phase by an expert teacher. When are you under threat and when would a movement not endanger your stability? Feints can never irritate a Tai Chi fighter, for he hears and understands energies with his outstandingly well-developed sense of touch, without using his eyes. And by the way, the same applies to WT. (Wing Tsun)



Yielding Energy “Tsou” One must learn to receive an opponent’s attack gently and softly, without losing one’s own internal structure or balance. One must first be able to be Yin or receptive before one can employ any active defence tactics. Without Yin, no Yang.



Neutralising Energy “Hua” The perception of this energy is vital for a good, experienced fighter. If one is not able to neutralise an opponent’s attack, a counterattack will always be risky. Only when one has completely neutralised the opponent’s attack and there is absolutely no risk of personal injury can one set about taking appropriate countermeasures. This applies particularly in the combat situation of an unarmed fighter against an armed opponent.



Borrowing Energy “Chieh” The art of using the force, speed and momentum of an opponent’s kick or punch for one’s own purposes. Aikido and Wing Tsun also make regular use of these energies.



Issuing Energy “Fa”: This is the first Yang energy after 6 more or less purely Yin- biased energies. This is the moment of first real defence action, after you have given your opponent 6 chances to reconsider his aggression. Unfortunately, these 6 preceding energy applications, which occur within fractions of seconds in an experienced person, are usually outside the normal range of perception of an external martial artist. External martial artists simply practise different things – and I would like to stress at this point that it doesn’t mean they are any less valuable as human beings or as fighters. I feel able to judge this as I have practised 4 external and 4 internal styles over lengthy periods during my 30 years of training. The external and internal martial arts are two completely different worlds. Each person must decide for himself which world is more suited to his own nature. Satisfaction and fulfilment can be found within both worlds. I have personally always preferred the style I am practising the most intensively at any one time. Today I like “LIU HE BA FA" and TAI CHI most of all.



It is best to learn these 7 energies in Tai Chi partner exercises after a certain amount of personal practice. Without the differentiated Qi-perception in the Form, in Qi Gong, in Taoist meditation and above all in the Push Hands partner exercises, one will never be able to attain the higher, almost legendary levels of internal martial arts skills, no matter how badly one wishes to. The procedures, which are described in exact detail, must be demonstrated and explained to you before you can begin your own, very intensive practice. Knowing them is only half of it. Many of the Tai Chi masters I know simplify this 7-fold process, reducing it to just 2 energies which they call “Na” (sticking) and “Fa” from “Fa-Jing” (Issuing or Pushing).

I wouldn’t like to speculate on whether they simply don’t know better, or whether they don’t want to teach it in such detail. Everyone must find his own answer to this. I for my part, find the above mentioned sequence of the first 7 of at least 38 different “Qis” used in Tai Chi very appealing. It can even perhaps help the so-called "external" martial artist to comprehend the immense variety and complexity of the "internal schools and styles." Whereas in external martial arts more emphasis is placed upon training speed, toughness and muscular stretching, the internal arts are more interested in training other senses and skills which are usually outside the sphere of normal bodily, energetic and mental perception. There are exercises to teach us to sense and to classify the slightest differences in pressure or minute changes of direction.

And apart from a massively enhanced sense of self-perception, there are also exercises which help us to become just as acutely aware of others as we are of ourselves. To say nothing of the very detailed, mental aspect of the training. One simply needs to experience the "internal arts" at first hand. Even the most detailed descriptions, either oral or, as in my case, written, simply cannot reflect the whole thing as one really experiences it. You learn most in the internal arts by imitating emotional impressions which must be conveyed to you by a master of the art.

Before I finish, I would like to describe „5 phase combat“. All kinds of combat systems have to include exercises to help one to be well prepared for the 5 possible phases of combat. These must be techniques to cover the first contact, right through to floor combat with holds and strangleholds. If one or more phases are missing, then it can't seriously be considered to be a complete system. A complete system has to include the following techniques:





1st Phase: From non-contact to the first contact, usually via the longer legs.



2nd Phase: From the first contact to arm distance (fist application)



3rd Phase: From arm/fist combat to close combat (elbow and shoulder)



4th Phase: From close combat to throw (throwing, hurling and foot sweeping techniques.)



5th Phase: Ground fighting (strangleholds + arm levers + holds).



Finally, I would like to say a few words about a very comprehensive and, in my opinion, sadly neglected but essential sector of the “internal martial art of Tai Chi”: the Three-Circle Principle, and the highly effective combat technique which can be developed by practising “3-Circle Push Hands”. This is one of my specialities. 3-Circle Push Hands develops our ability to move each of the arm’s three joints separately and independently of the others on three different circular planes or dimensions.

This builds up incredibly fine overall co-ordination of each individual arm movement and, when applied, results in hitherto unknown strength in the arms. The averagely well-trained opponent has no way of detecting these subtle vectorial forces and is not in a position to neutralise them, let alone oppose them with anything comparable. Even a slightly stiff or tense joint offers you no opportunity to react to these three, superimposed movements through space. This is the reason why “external” systems using body tension have problems with the 3-Circle principle. The attacker is diverted from his target on three spiral planes simultaneously. Someone who has not mastered the 3-Circle principle can hope, at best, to react on two vectorial planes at once, the third, however, will sweep him off his feet in the truest sense of the word. I have studied the 3-Circle Principle and its corresponding Push Hands since 1987.

I incorporate this principle in my teaching at all levels. In my view there is no description for 3-dimensional movement which better represents the essence of all Tai Chi movements. In Tai Chi, one takes up so much space that there is none left over for a potential opponent to develop aggressive action in. Whoever gains control over the space between two people cannot be defeated. This is my personal view and experience from over 35 years of studying the combat systems of the Far East. I would greatly appreciate your feedback, suggestions and criticisms on this article. Please avoid challenges. I am seeking dialogue, not disputes of any kind.

I do not claim that Tai Chi is the king of the martial arts at this time – there are far too few seriously active martial artists for that. I do not fight on a regular basis, either, with anyone. But I have the key which one would need, if one really wished to reactivate Tai Chi as a highly effective "internal combat system".

This knowledge still exists today, but in the words of one of my revered Masters, George Xu: Who, today, is interested in undergoing the torture of long years of training in the era of modern small arms? Why do it, when it is easier to buy a gun and learn to shoot well?


© V. Jung 2002
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