Tai Chi for Self Defense

By Rick Mendel
"Many people teach Tai Chi Chuan and don't know what they're doing," claims Tai Chi master
Kai Ying Tung. Tung has taught Tai Chi in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. The
third generation master of Tai Chi Chuan observes that many "teach it for health alone. But that is
because they don't know it for self defense."
Born in Hopei, China, Kai Ying Tung began his practice of Tai Chi Chuan at the age of seven. Tung
admits there are differences between studying martial arts in the Orient and studying in the United
States. Paradoxically, many American students show interest in the philosophy behind Tai Chi
Chuan, while in China, says Tung, philosophical discourse is almost non-existent. He explains,
"The more you talk, the less time you have for practice. So in China they talk less and practice
Tung feels students in China and America are basically the same. Asked if he had changed his
teaching style for the United States, he said: "The school is essentially the same and the teaching is
the same. It's up to the student whether or not he learns." According to Tung, "There are many
good students in both countries. The main difference is intensity. In America you come and pay a
fee and you expect to take something home with you. In China the student will come to apprentice
with a master. It becomes like a father-son relationship."
"This is a more relaxed situation," he says, "because it is a long-term relationship. It isn't a
one-week, one-month, one-year thing. The long-term way, is a little better for learning." In old
China the student lived at the home of the master. The daily relationship created a bond between
them; The master was responsible for the actions of the student; if he didn't approve of his
behavior he would scold or beat him. When the master became old the disciple was responsible
for taking care of him. Of course, there were also regular students who simply came for
instruction, paid and left.
But it wasn't just a matter of approaching a master and saying, "OK, I'll be your disciple." Tung
explains, "There was a lengthy process of looking into the background of the prospective student.
This investigation would include the kind of business the student had been in; questions regarding
any criminal offenses; a checking of character references. It wasn't limited to the student alone but
included his parents and grandparents, This was," says Tung, "a very ritual-controlled practice."
If accepted, the student was expected to "kow tow," an act signifying the establishment of a
serious relationship. The ritual included a series of nine bows to the master-three deep bows, three
medium bows and three short bows. This was done first to the grand master, Chang San-Feng,
and then to the present master acknowledging the existing hierarchy.
"Although it isn't done on the mainland now," says Tung, "it is done elsewhere outside of China.
And if it is not done formally it may be done informally, in the heart and mind. The master/disciple
relationship does not have to be ritualized."
Tung's Academy of Tai Chi Chuan in Los Angeles follows a traditional format. Advanced students
help to teach beginners while Master Tung instructs individuals and groups directly. The main
group of students in each session follows a basic routine that includes the slow-form Yang style
comprised of 81 movements, pushing hands practice and a fast form. At the same time, smaller
groups of beginners go through the individual forms. Everyone can progress at his own rate. Tung
teaches the beginning student to apply each move to self-defense as part of the full dimension of
Tai Chi Chuan. But the beginner isn't given a lot of information at first, explains Tung: "In the
beginning if you give too much information you will confuse the student. So it is only in the
advanced stages that the master can really give a lot. If it is done too soon the student can be
totally confused."
On Tai Chi Chuan and self defense, Tung observes: "By mere definition Tai Chi Chuan is
concerned with self defense. But many people who come here are not in good health and they
must first strengthen the body. We must rebuild them physically before they can learn how to use
the forms."
Part of this rebuilding is accelerated by using a fast-form variation of the complete set, developed
by Tung's grandfather, an eminent master of the Yang style.
The fast form is almost identical in its individual forms and sequences to the Yang slow form but
the movements are more compact and executed briskly. Watching the fast form clearly reveals
where the punches, kicks and parries emerge from the flowing patterns. But Tung doesn't think the
student must learn the fast form to learn the application of Tai Chi. "If you have a teacher who
works on it you'll learn the application through the slow form, "he says. "The fast form is helpful in
building stamina. Both of them are invigorating."
In addition, Tung teaches the pushing hands practice, the Tai Chi sword, knife and lance and
free-style application. Originally a basic part of the repertoire of the martial arts man, the weapons
forms are helpful today in developing finesse.
Another aspect of Tai Chi Chuan generally overlooked in the United States today, says Tung, are
the related arts of acupuncture and herbal medicine. In old China, says Tung, "All the martial arts
masters had to learn acupuncture and herbal medicine because there were not that many doctors
available. So they became skillful in both the protective and preventive medicines." The defensive
martial art was to dispatch the "evil," and the acupuncture/herbal medicine knowledge helped the
The master would apply acupuncture and herbal solutions in connection with massage. Since the
newest disciple went through all the hard work, he would do the rubbing, says Tung. "In this way,
the disciple learned through practice and by the time his training was complete he would have
acquired the knowledge of meridians, pressure points and herbal remedies. The regular students,
who did not live with the master, would not be exposed to this knowledge."
Because of its approach and the complexity of the forms, Tai Chi Chuan generally takes longer to
master than many martial arts. But even this is relative, says Tung: "It depends on the individual.
There are some people who are, pretty good in one to three years. Some practice for ten years
and they're still no good."
Assuming the student practices well and the teacher is working with him, three to five years should
result in proficiency. "But if the student only comes to class once a week," says Tung, "the body
will gain health but there won't be dramatic progress."
Unfortunately, some students only continue their study for a short time and then begin to teach.
The result is usually accidental change in form.'' In many cases there is change that is not
deliberate," says Tung. "In our school there has been no change. But we have students who
learned the forms improperly and then they went out and taught. Their students learned it the same
way and the change was intensified.''
As well as encouraging a long-term commitment to practicing Tai Chi Chuan, Master Tung
recommends serious practice each day. Asked about studying Tai Chi and other forms of kung fu
at the same time, he replies, "If you have all the time in the world and you can spend six hours on
one style of kung fu and six hours on Tai Chi, that's fine. But if you're limited to four hours and you
devote two to one form and two to the other, you won't improve much in either one. Spend four
hours on one and you'll make improvement."
Tung applies the same approach to the question of soft versus hard style. "You may consider Tai
Chi to be superior to a hard form, but if you don't practice, it isn't. The person who practices the
hard form will be good. It all boils down to the diligence of the individual, to full-hearted practice."
Although in contrast to some schools, Tung may seem to stress self defense, it is not at the
expense of the goals of physical and psychological health. In his handout leaflet, Tung describes
Tai Chi as "a self defense and a self discipline. There are different schools which teach this art but
the principles and the objectives are the same; to teach one to know oneself and to improve one's
well-being, both psychological and physical ...the first principle of Tai Chi Chuan is to learn to
calm oneself mentally and physically; this leads to perfect control. This is truly an exercise of the
mind, training it to function consistently and harmoniously with the will."
If all schools work toward these goals, why the concern with form changes? Because in the
traditional Chinese view, the authenticity of the teaching and its lineage is a matter of importance.
Says Tung, "There are many students who do not know what form of Tai Chi Chuan they are
learning or who their teacher is. The correct way is to know the teacher, the teacher's teacher and
the whole hierarchy."
Behind the concern with the Lineage of a style is the fact that the art was not taught publicly in
China until a century ago. The forms were preserved through the generations by certain families.
While scholars and researchers hold a variety of views on the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, it is
attributed Chang San Feng, a Taoist sage, in the late Sung Dynasty. The story of the discovery of
Tai Chi Chuan is well known but the further development of the art is obscured by time.
It's generally held that Chang San Feng taught at White Cloud Temple on Wu Tang Mountain and
that after his death the art was brought to Shensi Province where Wang Tsung Yueh became
known as a great master. The practice was then preserved within the Chen Clan of Honan for
In the early 19th century a native of Hopei named Lang Lu-Chan heard reports of Tai Chi Chuan.
To learn the techniques, he worked his way into the Chen household. When he was finally
discovered, his ability was so great that they taught him the practice fully. Yang Lu-Chan came to
be called Yang the Unsurpassed and he taught in Peking. Despite long centuries of evolution and
the number and diversity of teachers, Tai Chi Chuan still maintains the full scope of its founder's
purpose; an art that embodies the principles of Yin and Yang in movement. The reason for which
one should study it diligently, in the words of Tung. "is not to display strength or power but to
attain inner serenity and to discover one's self."

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