This maxim was made famous by Cheng Man-ch’ing, and may even have earlier origins.

  • What did Master Cheng mean by "Invest in Loss" in relation to Tai Chi?

I was taught that it is an extremely important principle.

2 Answers 2


This was explained to me in a simple way by my teacher and many advanced practitioners.

  • Better to lose than to use brute force if the goal is internal technique

This carries the strong qualification that it refers to what was called a "friendly match", push hands and free sparring, where the goal is to validate techniques, to see what works and what doesn't.

(In a real fight Gozo Shioda is a good guide—there the defender must prevail by any means, according to the situation.

  • In training, there will initially be applications (all/most) that have been validated by masters per inclusion in the forms, but that student can't pull off, as they are still lacking the requisite internal technique.

Using brute force to make the applications work trains practitioner to rely on brute force, and can prevent development of internal technique.

"Focusing" (fa jing) is used to refer to generating force, which should come entirely from the waist, typically using the ground for resistance (root), to make the distinction with leg, arm and & hand strength.

This is hard to do and takes many years b/c tai chi is a method of movement, not sets of forms and applications.

In advanced free sparring, a pakua practitioner will need to put themselves into to bad positions, such as in a corner, or, for certain styles of tai chi, bent back on one foot, to test the techniques optimized for these situations. Initially, the student may not be able to make these applications work.


I've also found this maxim useful in terms of partner encouragement in free sparring.

Ideally, you don't want to win every round in a friendly free sparring match where the goal is research, as opposed to "winning".

Partners can get frustrated if they lose every time, and might come with too much force, which can result in a counter strike with more force than you were intending. (Many internal applications use the power of the opponent's strike, via the counter, to put energy into the counter-strike.)

Only really serious Chess players are happy to lose every time, b/c they understand you learn the most from a stronger player. Sometimes casual practitioner can be useful sparring partners. A casual practitioner may not want future sessions with a stronger competitor.

It's not so much about letting the opponent win, but giving them opportunities, which, if they take, will afford them victory in that round. This is important for training people to exploit opportunities and advantage.

Here it's a student vs. student scenario, where there is a skill imbalance.

(True masters must be able to "guarantee 100%", and can't be seen to lose in sparring for obvious reasons. If pressed, they might have to report to techniques they'd rather not have used to prevail. Friendly matches between masters in the old days were usually conducted privately for "research".)

If you can only guarantee victory 99/100, you're not a true master yet. Thus it can be useful to seek a win ratio of 2/3, 3/5, 4/7, 5/9, etc.

  • Even for a true master, attaining victory is not essential—merely achieving stalemate is satisfactory, and even optimal.

Optimal because it allows the partner to "save face" if one master exceeds the other, keeping relations friendly via mutual respect (the Ip Man films are a very good explication of this principle,) or merely optimal b/c it's a friendly exercise, and victory was never the goal:

  • Victory is not essential b/c the goal was only ever to be able to practice technique at the highest level

The greater the skill of your opponent, the more fully you can express your own technique. (This acts as a "force multiplier" for improvement.)

The few times I've seen legitimately high-level tai chi masters push with each other, they've had huge grins on their faces: "Finally, someone I can truly push with!"

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    "True masters must be able to "guarantee 100%", and can't be seen to lose in sparring for obvious reasons" --> this is a toxic and eventually self-defeating cultural value. BJJ and other grappling styles have a similar "invest in loss" culture, and it's clear as day that instructors who think they are above that rule rapidly lose what made them good in the first place. +1 for everything except the last two grafs. Commented Dec 10, 2020 at 9:33
  • @DaveLiepmann Perhaps, but I think we have to distinguish from students, teachers, and low level masters, compared to true masters, who are rare such that you'll only have a handful in any given generation who are truly peerless, or effectively so. Think about it in this context—if you're holding a push-hands seminar, you can't allow yourself to be bested by any of the attendees. (That's why I don't teach push hands seminars, preferring to teach that aspect in class only.) In tai chi I think it's less toxic—more about "if you practice hard, you can attain this."
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Dec 14, 2020 at 23:11
  • @DaveLiepmann But you do make a very important point about toxic thinking, so I've amended the answer to more fully explicate the points you justifiably critiqued regarding true masters.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Dec 14, 2020 at 23:29

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