What is Tai Chi?

Adam Cole Shapiro
Published in
5 min readJun 19, 2010


Just so you know, it’s not actually Tai Chi as there isn’t really a “Chi” in Taijiquan. Taijiquan (Tie-Jee-Chuan) is roughly translated from Mandarin Chinese as “Supreme Ultimate Fighting”. To be clear, “Tai Chi” as we will call by it’s known name here in the US originated as a martial art from China that dates back to antiquity. I believe it’s essential to know this distinction, between martial and healing, for the most beneficial parts of a Tai Chi practice to be realized. I think is true for Qi Gong (Chi Kung) practices too, which are more focused on energy cultivation than self-defense, that they be free from the harsh reality of violence when building capacity to heal. And here is where these two arts, martial and healing, come together in a symbiosis that amplifies any one individuals potential. What I mean is that the fighter needs to be in excellent health and may very well need exceptional healing services in the processes of emergency care and recovery from injuries. The healing artist must be skilled and precise, while level-headed when facing difficult decisions of life and death. What better training ground for the doctor than the ring?

There are many teachers and practitioners that know this distinction, however Tai Chi came to popularity in the US as a healing art moreso than martial. The first published scientific review of the benefits of Tai Chi for heart disease came in 1958 and with it came a revolutionary new approach for Western allopathic doctors to treat heart disease which was and is a big problem in the US and because Tai Chi is practiced very slowly in a choreographed sequence it doesn’t look anything like a martial art and often the reasons for practicing this way, to develop balance, postures, and a focused meditative mind, are a bit mysterious to the Westerner. No wonder than that the ‘Ji’ became a ‘Chi’ and with it the true intent and beauty of Taijiquan a bit lost in the esoteric world of unseen energies. Not that it matters so long as people get what they wanted, however it does matter for the preservation of the art and, as a lifelong practitioner, I would say it matters for the full and proper activation of the unseen energy that Tai Chi has to offer. Did I just repeat myself? Sorry!

It is said that Tai Chi was first conceived by watching a crane and snake fight in the wild. The balance and upright fullness of the crane were well-matched by the speed and agility of the snake, the shielding wings against the dagger fangs. Many of the names given to the various movements speak of the crane and snake and it does not stop there as other animals, forces of nature, and even everyday activities are reflected in specific movements and the practice of these movements takes on a mystical aspect as we inhabit the snake or the crane, the jade lady, or a swallow skimming the water and, in a way, through these imaginations with reality, Tai Chi helps connect us with the very essence of nature as represented by Yin-Yang theory.

This well-known symbol representing the interplay and connectedness of Yin and Yang is actually the “Taiji” symbol.

What then gives Tai Chi the right to make claim to Supreme Ultimate Fighting?

It is the hope that the study of Tai Chi will help the student to overcome obstacles with grace rather than brute force as they cultivate an Internal Power (Qi / Chi) that turns adversity into opportunity transforming a negative / harmful energy into positive / supportive one. More bang for your buck that way, and hopefully everyone wins.

What is the only way to defeat an enemy?

To make a friend. The Tai Chi master controls without injuring their opponent. They meet their opponent with softness, learning to “yield” to opposing energy rather than meet it with force. In doing so, they are able to disarm without disabling or destroying and create an opportunity for a better outcome for everyone involved.

The Tai Chi master is able to be yielding without giving up her roots. Deep roots are reflected in one’s stance as well as one’s character wanting to cultivate love and uproot fear. Today we may not have many enemies aimed at doing us physical harm, but there remains the potential for injury from hurtful intent or not and our bodies are well aware jumping into sympathetic nervous responses making us super-sensitive and hyper-reactive even in the face of minimal threat. When this goes on long enough we develop attributes of imbalance that lead to heart disease, addiction and depression. Learning to discern between friend and foe is really only possible when our attention is focused and awareness clear, nearly impossible if already in fight or flight mode. This is why practice is so important and when we practice like it’s the real thing, the real thing may feel like practice!

Practice is perfect.

Success in the martial arts requires excellent fitness and focus that can only come from practice. Practice puts us on the path of mastery. Of things that one might aim to master, Tai Chi enables the student to protect their body and defend their rights. It does so in a harmonious way as the Tai Chi master is “full without tension”, needing nothing and able to give a lot! Conflicts may be avoided and are otherwise more peacefully resolved.

*It’s not what you do that matters, but how you do it.

Taijiquan has a very long and diverse history, leading to the many various forms and techniques, as well as unique ways of teaching and practicing found across the world today. All of them have their advantages and potential disadvantages. Finding one that you like and will practice is all that matters.

Taiji is known as an ‘Internal’ martial art, in that the focus is on the internal environment more than the external — that which lies outside of ourselves. It is believed that if you are so full and without tension (like an airbag) that no attacker or other harmful energy will be able to penetrate your defenses, nor would they even want to! Importantly, Taiji also teaches us to utilize our bodies better. Improved balance and coordination results in more efficiency of movement and less unnecessary strain. This is a very good thing as it leads us toward accomplishing more with less effort and down the path of giving more than we take.

*To become a master, one must first be the fool!

Practice at least a little bit, everyday. If you are weak or injured practice in your mind and only moderately with your body. If you are strong and healthy, take advantage of the opportunity to learn rapidly. That said, maturation takes time. Be patient, be present, and have a sense of humor. The path of mastery is rarely a smooth one.

Please enjoy this video of one of the Grandmasters of the Chen style, Chen Zhenglei demonstrating the 18 movement short form that I practice and will teach you if you promise to practice…