Adam Hsu on “Is Tai Chi a martial art?”

These excerpts are taken from a round-robin of instructors responses… Here is Adam Hsu’s portion”

Interview: Is Tai Chi a Martial Art?
interview by Debbie Shayne

Like riddles? “When is a martial art not a martial art?” Well, the apparent answer, at least according to posters tacked to telephone poles, videos in drugstore spinning racks, and ads where instructors hug redwood trees is “When it’s T’ai Chi”. Yet this has never rung true to me. Perhaps it’s because, for the last twenty years, I’ve hung around with, photographed, and studied with so many martial artists who commonly discuss this topic. I’ve visited Chen Village, the birthplace of T’ai Chi, where they definitely consider it a martial art. I guess I’m prejudiced. But, to me, the martial aspect is self-evident; yet I still wondered about the specifics: How did the idea get started? What’s the relation of martial to health practice? How does the whole picture fit together?

I don’t think I’m all alone in this. In fact, I would venture that the majority of T’ai Chi players feel some confusion on these issues. So I decided to investigate, by questioning three thoughtful and dedicated teachers of T’ai Chi, all of whom are deeply involved in preserving traditional martial arts, and all of them with schools directly affected by this issue.

adambw2Through discussions and written correspondence, Sifu Adam Hsu addressed this issue. “Of course T’ai Chi Chuan is a martial art style. But at the beginning of the Republic, around 1911, T’ai Chi “switched gears” and developed more into a health exercise. Had it strictly kept the martial art format, it would not be accepted by so many people; in other words, not as many people would be able to do T’ai Chi Chuan. But as a martial art, its spirit is strong and outreaching, containing attacking or defensive movement, which means when we do T’ai Chi Chuan our mental state never – well, almost never – shifts away from the martial art, the usage.” He explained that the stances for instance all represent possible kicks or close range knee attacks. And T’ai Chi does punch and strike, with lots of takedowns, holding and grabbing techniques.


Sifu Hsu pointed out, nowadays many people do T’ai Chi Chuan”…more like a slow motion exercise, and you cannot find the martial flavor in that kind of performance.” Even so, Sifu Hsu says, “As long as you do it as a martial art, you will show the martial flavor; then its almost everywhere. It’s pretty hard to say what the flavor is, because the style is so complete. Others specialize – like Ba Gua, which utilizes a palm strike – but in T’ai Chi it’s really everything.”

Sifu Hsu also wrote, “I want to emphasize that it’s because it’s a martial art that you have to use every part of your body, get into the details.” When moving the whole body, exercise is more complete. “In other arts you might move your arms or legs, but you must move your torso too. The most needed area in exercise is the torso. Arms and legs – you’re using them everyday. But the torso area – you know it’s really very scary – days – come on – even weeks go by and you never really move it. But all of our internal organs are situated there. If the torso isn’t exercising enough, this means the internal organs aren’t exercising enough. When people do T’ai Chi Chuan the real way, the original way, they could use it as a martial art but at the same time they earn their health. ”

I knew, from my own association with martial artists, that there is a trend among many new students to actually avoid the martial aspects of T’ai Chi training. I asked each Sifu about this situation, how they dealt with people who did not want to learn the martial aspects at all.

Sifu Hsu explained his view that some people, of course, didn’t qualify physically or mentally to do T’ai Chi Chuan as a martial art; they want to do it as an exercise and he encourages them, even those whose purpose is a kind of cultural exchange. He frankly admitted that he admires that, he never refuses to teach these students . “I just teach them as a health exercise. They’re getting their health. They’re satisfied with me and with my class. It makes everybody happy. Not everyone wants to learn a martial art.” But he explains that he doesn’t call this health exercise “T’ai Chi Chuan”, but T’ai Chi Chiao – Chiao, meaning physical exercise.

I wondered about the differences between the various T’ai Chi styles; did the martial application vary greatly from, say, Yang to Chen?

Sifu Hsu  pointed to the similarities. “You can grab any T’ai Chi book, all the texts are the same or similar, based on the same principles, they share the T’ai Chi Classics.”

The next question – Is it valid to distinguish internal styles for health and external styles for martial purposes? – Sifu Hsu simply called it a lie.

adambw3After calling such an idea “a lie.” Sifu Hsu elaborated, “Some masters have told people: when you do ‘internal style’, you don’t have to lower your leg, change your shoes, you don’t have to bend your knee, do you believe this? Martial artists still need to eat their rice, but I think this is too much. Several masters got their names known by doing this, not just in T’ai Chi, but in Hsing I, Bagua; and that’s when people lumped them together and called them internal. But that’s a big misconception and still widely spread. First of all, there’s no such thing as internal/external styles. There are different LEVELS. The lowest levels are external, and when you can reach the higher levels, you can start to learn the internal. Trying to place the internal with health and the external with the martial is pretty smart and stupid at the same time.”

Then what about the complicated issue of the distinction between usage and self-defense?

Sifu Hsu also defined them as entirely different, saying that when people learn a martial art they must do usage, because it is a martial art. “When people learn usage, they can defend themselves. They don’t have to take another class called self-defense; a self-defense class is NOT a martial art class. A self defense class is supposed to teach, number one, common sense; that’s more important than any technique you can teach in a self defense class. I see many martial artists teaching self defense, and most of them I don’t agree with. The movement they are teaching must have some martial art background; this is my most conservative opinion: most self defense classes are helping the bad guys. If I haven’t learned so-called self defense, I can run away; I can press my knee to the ground and beg for my life or yell for help. I have a chance at least. But if you really believe in your self-defense training, you’re just helping yourself get killed. This is not a happy matter, I feel pretty bad. People cheat themselves when they learn just one or two techniques: can you believe this? If two guys attack me I can take care of them one at a time; then there’s a knife attack or a pistol pointing at me, and how can I take the pistol from his hand? Oh my god, that’s a kung fu movie.”

What about partner practice – is it essential to learning T’ai Chi?

adambw1Sifu Hsu wrote, “Practice alone is hard to continue after a while; we get lazy, we’re all human. A partner in class always helps.” Sifu Mancuso thought, “All this is not to mention the sense of community that’s developed, the cooperation which itself is a pretty good martial strategy. When people are doing the set next to one another that’s also partner practice. You see through other’s examples many different ways to deal with the problems of T’ai Chi. Partner practice allows you to deal with a controllable reality. At first you think everything that goes wrong is because of your partner. Then you realize that possibly you aren’t so perfect either!”

We find that not only is T’ai Chi a martial art, the martial actually enhances the style’s well-known health attributes. In other words, martial usage determines the depth and efficacy of the benefits. As Sifu Hsu put it, “This article will remind people that T’ai Chi Chuan not was, but still is, a martial art.”




Adam Hsu on “Is Tai Chi a martial art?” — 1 Comment

  1. We as martial art practitioners are lucky to have Masters like Adam Hsu to open our eyes to are current martial
    training habits. And were fortunate to have have him guide us in the right direction. I cherish his traditional

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