I am doing a lot of research on Tai Chi as a martial art and specifically trying to find out more about its application in a self defense/combat context (whether sparring or street). Watching demonstrations, the style doesn't appear to be unlike some styles of Kung Fu, so I am curious as to how practitioners of either would differ in their application? This excellent answer breaks down the various styles of Tai Chi but I would like to focus deeper than this with some specific areas.

  1. Overall: Firstly what are the general characteristics eg. in Boxing you can expect closed fist, knuckle up body and head punching, a lot of footwork and torso and head movement; Tae Kwon Do stances are generally longer and the focus is on kicking; Judo is more concerned with throwing and leverage as oppose to striking etc etc.

  2. Aim/Philosophy: From what I've read Tai Chi seems to be referred to as a soft style, compared to other martial arts such as Kyokushin Karate which do not shy away from 'taking the fight to their opponent'. Is this the case, and what else is specific to Tai Chi?

  3. Tools: What is commonly the focus when attacking/defending eg. punching, kicking, throwing, joint locks, ground grappling etc?

  • Punching: Closed or open fist (palm, knife/ridge hand, leopard paw etc), knuckle up or side, short movements or more flowing and circular, use of elbows?

  • Kicking: Waist and below only (eg. Kung Fu) or body and head kicking as well, standard or more complex (eg. Karate vs TKD's more fancy jumping and spinning kicks), parts of leg used (eg. foot only or shin and knee as well such as Muay Thai)?

  • Throwing, Locks & Grappling: Is this more similar to Judo's style (standing throws), Aikido (joint locks) or Wrestling (ground grappling)?

  1. Anything else I may have missed that is unique or characteristic of Tai Chi compared to other styles?
  1. Overall

Sinking of the joints is one of the core techniques, and a method of directing/re-directing force. It allows directing force even in unexpected directions. Sinking of the joints (wrists, elbows, knees, hips) makes it difficult for an opponent to lock you. "Emptying" is another pillar, and is used both to mitigate impact of strikes, and put force into the limbs and extremities. In Chinese internal martial arts, movement is initiated from the waist, both for upper and lower body. As the primary objective is redirecting force, movement initiated from the waist gives the advantage of greater strength in redirection as opposed to primarily using the arm or leg muscles. Waist can also be used to generate power for close strikes sometimes referred to as "one inch punches". These strikes typically won't have the same force as punches where the striker throws their whole body's momentum, but have other advantages. There's also a theory that the main power comes from the connective tissue as opposed to the muscles, because muscles of high-level practitioners seem to remain relaxed, even when striking. Footwork is as critical as in any martial art—mobility is the first requirement of combat. I was taught to break each step down into all of the component steps. Stance work & waist training are also essential, as you need a strong base and core. Silk reeling is most well known, but waist turning, which might originally derive from soft drunken styles, is also recommended. "Tai Chi Chuan" ( fist) reinforces that striking is an essential part of this ideally gentle internal system.

  1. Philosophy

My sense is that it's a fundamentally different approach. In tai chi the primary objective is preserving my health—disabling an attacker is corollary, although it may be necessary to preserve one's own health. This leads the tai chi practitioner to prefer responding to and countering an attack, as opposed to initiating. (It's similar to how I was taught western fencing—step back and parry so that you can riposte—maintain distance and defend until you can exploit openings.)

Caveat is that a tai chi practitioner can also initiate an attack, which can be optimal, but creates legal jeopardy in a real world situation if the opponent is injured, and it's always better to be able to gauge an opponent's skill prior to committing, where possible. (Here you can think about things like throat strikes in Musashi's "timing of one", where you don't telegraph prior to the strike.)

  1. Tools

Pushing can be said to be the primary technique b/c it's actually effective in this system—push to uproot, push the uprooted opponent to get them moving, and then push into that momentum with great focus. It's also a way of disincentivizing without escalating. Controlling the joints is another primary tool—it doesn't matter how strong an opponent is if they can't align their joints. Tai Chi is a form of standing grappling, so throwing or making the opponent fall down is always an option. You'll see advanced practitioners using hand locks to throw, similar to some techniques in jujitsu or aikido.

Striking is considered less optimal because it is ungentle, but you practice it as much as everything else in case you need it. Typically you want to strike into soft tissue, pressure points, or vulnerable areas such as joints. At a high level, you aim is to put all of the force into the opponent's body, so a true tai chi strike doesn't focus until after contact has been made with the body, but that's really hard to do, and requires strong "root", "waist", and "emptying".

Palms, fingers, fists, elbows, knees, hips, shoulders, can all be used to push, counter, or strike, depending on need and personal preference.

  1. Striking

Every form is utilized. The closed fist "chuan" and open palm, both of which can also be used to push. Knife palm, hammer fist are also used, and some practitioners also train to strike with fingers, similar to dim mak. You don't typically see leopard fist, but many Chinese martial arts practitioners practice leopard fist for throat strikes. The most characteristic tai chi punch spirals in to make contact with the abdomen or sternum, but all forms of strikes are utilized.

(My teacher loved to emphasize elbow strikes, including linear elbow strikes from pakua and hsingyi, which one applies from inside an opponent's guard—they're actually much easier to focus into using root and emptying than fist strikes:)

Hsing-yi is almost entirely stiking—even the "blocks" and counters are strikes! Many tai chi teachers will teach their younger adult students hsing-yi specifically to give them something serviceable in that first decade before they have any real internal technique. External styles are typically taught to the teens and kids because most teachers hold there's little value in teaching kids internal, but the external Chinese arts trains them in the stances, alignment, and basic techniques should they continue their studies into adulthood.

Bagua also has many strikes, nearly all of them palm strikes.

  1. Kicking

In forms you see high kicks for flexibility and strengthening, but I've never had a serious tai chi practitioner recommend kicking above the waist b/c there's too great a possibility of having your leg trapped. In my experience, must useful are quick groin kicks, since so many leave that area open, and kicks to the knee. Forms also contain most forms of kicks, including side kick. For instance, a practitioner might exhibit a knife edge side kick at throat level, but I'd only ever use that kick to push or focus into an opponents knee joint from an oblique angle. You do tend to see a lot of fast snapping heel kicks to the front and side, and occasionally back kicks. Hsing-yi animal forms such as dragon include cross stepping heel kicks to the opposite knee, which also can be used to stomp the instep.

Many of the kicks translate to sweeps from a high or medium stance, and that can be emphasized instead of showing proper kicks. Ideally, the practitioner should be able to do powerful sweeps in a high or medium stance with every step, but this relies on initiating movement with the waist.

  1. Throwing

Tai chi is a form of standing grappling, but you don't see many proper throws. As I mentioned earlier, hand and wrist locks can be effectively utilized for tai chi throws because pushing hands make the opponent's wrists an accessible target. Bagua, a closely related internal art, is full of throws of all kind from every position, although they can be difficult to discern initially.

  1. Other

Circular is critical b/c that's how you counter and redirect expending the minimum of force, to preserve your own energy levels. "4 ounces deflect a thousand pounds" is the maxim that arise out of circular countering.

Relaxed & calm b/c you might need to "go the distance" against a stronger attacker or a group, and wear them down. Adrenaline spikes during combat, so mitigating the effect over the duration of the fight has a profound advantage.

Controlling ones breathing is a major aspect, to avoid getting "gassed out" and having muscles fail. Being able to hide your breathing from an opponent also confers a strategic advantage, such that they can't initiate an attack a the beginning of an inhale, or gauge when the tai chi practitioner is tiring.

When training, you're typically looking to practice continually for hours without taking a break, and it's not uncommon to see a middle aged teacher barely sweating as the younger students get quickly exhausted because they expend too much energy with every movement. The goal is to expend only the minimum energy necessary, but that takes decades of assiduous training.

If you need to be able to fight proficiently within a few years, MMA is my current recommendation. But if you don't perceive direct immediate threats and can invest in the long term over decades, tai chi with a teacher who knows and can demonstrate the martial applications is my recommendation.

  • 1
    In 3. you mention "pushing", is this the common open hand pushing or other types of "strikes" that can also push such as a shoulder strike? – FrontEnd Apr 21 at 13:33
  • 1
    Thanks for your comment! I've rewritten several of the sections to clarify. You make a great point—tai chi practitioner should be able to push with any part of their body, including shoulder, or strike with them. (Musashi wrote about killing an opponent by using the shoulder as a "sword":) I've also found I can push an opponent with that characteristic "deflect, intercept, punch" movement where the fist spirals into the torso, instead of striking. Because tai chi is a system of movement as opposed to a set of forms, once you get some technique, you can express it in numerous ways. – DukeZhou Apr 23 at 3:47

The question asks for a detailed analysis of Taiji as it compares and contrasts with other martial arts. Looking beyond the specifics, there's an underlying question here about how Taiji is different from other martial arts. If we understand that, maybe it will help answer the specific questions.

The first thing to realize about Taiji is that it's an "internal" martial art. What does that mean? It refers to something called, "internal mechanics". No, it's not some mystical "chi" kind of thing, although a lot of people make it out to be that. Instead, internal mechanics refers to a way of moving the body that's different from normal, external means. Internal mechanics is mechanical and physical. It has nothing to do with chi and some mysterious energy.

In Taiji, there are the "jing". The jing can be defined as "qualities of motion". There are many jing in Taiji, as many as 20 of them from what I gather. Some say the count is 36. I don't think most people learn more than a dozen of them, if they're lucky.

The most famous 4 jing are: P'eng, Lu, Ji, and An. Those are the 4 primary jing practiced during silk reeling exercises from Chen style Taiji. They're also referred to as the 4 "main directional" jing.

Then there 4 other jing that are called the "corner directional" jing which combine with those to form 8 primary jing: cai, lie, zhou, kao.

Don't get too caught up in why they're called the "main directional" vs. the "corner direction", etc. Mostly they just mean "qualities of motion". Don't worry too much about how they're grouped and why, at least for now.

Beyond the basic 8 jing, there are more advanced jing. For example, fa-jing, which is the explosive force. You'll also learn coiling jing and bounce jing. And many others. They each have a different quality to their motion.

Why is it called internal, then?

It's "internal" because motion in Taiji is defined by what's going on inside of the body. It's not easy to see from the outside. Specifically, how the bones are aligned, how the tendons and muscles are pulled tight to support the bones, how movement occurs, storing and emitting power, and so on.

A Taiji punch can look the same as a karate punch from the outside, but inside of the body, different things are going on in each case. In external arts such as karate, the parameters of a punch are defined by how it looks from the outside. But in internal martial arts, the parameters of the punch not only depend on how it looks externally but also what is going on internally.

Take for example, p'eng jing. It's the most basic of all the jing. You need to understand that before moving on to any of the other jing. P'eng jing is the foundation for everything else. You can think of it as the "ground force", but in practice it's about aligning your bones from your feet to your knees, to your hips, to your shoulders, to your elbows, and to your palms. If the bones all along that path are pulled tightly and supported by your muscles and tendons, then pushing on the palms of your hands will, to the person doing the pushing, feel like he's pushing against solid rock. That's because the force of the push is channeled down your bones into the ground.

Some call p'eng jing an upward force from the ground. And in Newtonian physics, that's basically what it is. But the upward force is only enough to neutralize the force of the push and no more. Furthermore, it's not you using your muscles to push against the push. It's more like you aligning your bones and making sure they don't move when the push happens. You still use your muscles, not in actively resisting the push itself, but in making sure your bones don't come out of alignment.

P'eng jing doesn't end there. You have to be able to use it while dealing with someone pushing at you from all directions. So how you move dynamically with p'eng jing is part of Taiji training. One clue is how you never want to be extended too much in one direction in Taiji. If you look at a joint like the knee, you don't want it in a locked position, fully extended. And you don't want it in the opposite extreme, either, where it is fully tucked so that your heels are now touching your butt. Instead, you want it somewhere in the middle. Why? Because then when you are pushed, you have the ability to move to adapt to the incoming forces. If you're extended too much in any direction, you can't adapt, and your structure and balance will be compromised. You must do this with each joint dynamically while maintaining p'eng: knee, hip, shoulder, and elbow.

And that's just one jing. There are 7 more primary jing. And then another dozen or so after that. Each one has very precise qualities of motion that require a high degree of attention and repetition. You can't just do it quickly. You have to do them each slowly, because while you're doing them, you're constantly going down a list of parameters in your mind, correcting yourself as you go. It is hard! And it's why the movement in Taiji must be done slowly at first. Later on, it is sped up as you become more advanced.

So that's why people doing Taiji forms are doing them so slowly. At least ostensibly.

Most people who do Taiji never learn anything about internal mechanics, or they'll learn the wrong things about them. They don't have teachers who know it, basically. Only about 1% or less of people doing Taiji actually understand internal mechanics. And it's because it's mostly practiced as a health exercise. The martial aspects have been lost in a lot of lineages. So you have to find a teacher who knows it and can teach it. I learned more in 30 minutes from one of my Taiji instructors than in the 3 years I trained with other instructors.

The forms are there for you to practice internal mechanics while doing something martial. That's it. To some, the forms are a library of fighting and self-defense techniques. They are, but if that's all you're exposed to, you're pretty limited in terms of your techniques.

So at some point in Taiji training, you start to learn push-hands. Push-hands is an exercise, not the same as sparring. It's just to let you work on some of the jing with a live opponent. At first you're standing still. Later on, you'll move around. And there are even push-hands competitions where it almost looks like sparring.

Sparring is the final thing Taiji trains. In sparring, you're exposed to punches, kicks, blocks, and throws.

While you're practicing Taiji, you're supposed to move in a Taiji way. In other words, a way that still conforms to the parameters of the different jing. It's very difficult. It requires a good instructor and a student willing to work hard for years, maybe even decades.

Now to answer some specific questions. Taiji is neither hard nor soft. It can be one or the other. It just depends on how you're using it. The principle of yielding to strength, redirecting it, following it, and overcoming it is inherent in push-hands practice. But then, when you can feel your opponent's center, you can emit explosive force (fa-jing) suddenly to cause your opponent to go flying. That's not soft! Although, some might say that the sensing aspect of it is what makes it soft, and then the emitting is what makes it hard.

Closed fist, opened fist... It doesn't matter. Taiji does both. What matters is how you're using them.

There are high kicks in Taiji. But pay attention to the body's structure when they do that. They're not doing contemporary wushu style kicks. They're having to rock their hips forward and bend at the knees somewhat. They don't want their body vulnerable to pushing during a kick. They have to be able to adapt and recover when things go wrong.

The focus of Taiji is not necessarily on grappling, but that is a big part of it. They still do free sparring, so they know how to punch, kick, and block. But Taiji is most comfortable in close, making connection with their opponent. Once they're connected, they can sense (through touch alone) what their opponent is doing.

One of the primary goals of grappling in general is to unbalance your opponent and make him fall to the ground. They can die from impacting their heads on the ground. If they don't fall, it takes time for them to recover their balance, and meanwhile you can hit them while they're distracted.

There are plenty of similarities between Taiji and grappling styles like wrestling, Judo, and Aikido. Taiji practices throws, standing joint locks, ankle and wrist locks, chokes, etc. But they'll do them in a way that conforms to the parameters of the jing.

Many Taiji instructors simply don't know much grappling, because to learn it, they really have to get with other people that know it. And typically in Taiji, you need to spend at least 10 years doing the basics before you branch out and start learning all about wrestling, throws, and so on. It's very common for Taiji instructors to also study other martial arts and then take that back into their Taiji training.

I'm not sure if I answered all your questions. I think these questions are pretty common ones that people ask whenever approaching a new martial art. They want to compare what one style does with another style. In the case of Taiji, you really can't compare too much without first trying to understand internal mechanics.

I'll just end this by saying that Taiji is very principled. It requires rigid adherence to the parameters of the jing at all times. It takes decades to reach a point where you have actual fighting skill. If you have an excellent instructor, you can make rapid progress and actually reach a point where you have some fighting ability in just 10 years. Some never reach that point. So if you're interested in Taiji, keep that in mind. There are quicker ways of getting good at fighting. Each style has its positives and negatives.

Hope that helps.

  • Thank you for the amazing details in this, it has very much helped me understand – FrontEnd Apr 21 at 13:37

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