In the movie “The Matrix”, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) wakes up from a training session and then says the 4 words that I often dreamed of saying as a kid:
“I know Kung Fu.”
Now imagine Neo waking up and saying this instead:
“I know Tai Chi.”
Not quite the same impact, right?
In the movie, Morpheus helped Neo to free his mind. I’m going to help do the same thing for you. Ready?
Consider this: If Neo had learned Tai Chi during his training session, and then woken up and said, “I know Kung Fu,” it still would have been true.
Because Tai Chi is Kung Fu.
Saturday Morning Tai Chi Theater?
Let me give you another example. As a child, I watched a lot of Kung Fu movies. This probably doesn’t come as a much of surprise. (For the record, as an adult, I still watch a lot of Kung Fu movies, which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise either.)
Even if you didn’t grow up watching Saturday morning Kung Fu Theater, you probably have some idea what I’m referring to. In your mind, you’re probably picturing action movies heavy on fight scenes, and light on plot. And you’d be right.
But what if I had written the following instead:
“As a child, I watched a lot of Tai Chi movies.”
Would you have pictured the same thing in your mind? Or would you have imagined something completely different? Or maybe you’d have been scratching your head in confusion.
Most people don’t think of Tai Chi as a form of Kung Fu. The average person, if they know anything about Tai Chi at all, imagines some sort of slow, dance-like exercise that old people do in the park. They certainly don’t associate it with something exciting and explosive, like Kung Fu.
And that’s because, somewhere in the 20th century, Tai Chi lost its mojo.
Right Then. What’s Your Style?
Ancient China is the birthplace of Kung Fu. But there are literally hundreds of different styles that developed over China’s long history, and many of them still exist today. Here are some examples:
- Wing Chun Kung Fu (詠春拳)
- Bagua Kung Fu (八卦掌)
- Choy Li Fatt Kung Fu (蔡李佛)
- Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu (螳螂拳)
- Form and Mind Kung Fu (形意拳)
- Eagle Claw Kung Fu (鷹爪派)
- Hung Gar Kung Fu (洪家拳)
- White Crane Kung Fu (白鶴拳)
- Tai Chi Kung Fu (太極拳)
The list goes on and on, with styles and sub-styles. And yet, in the modern era, we try to group all of these styles — hundreds of them — into two words.
Don’t Get Kung-Fused
The history of the words “Kung Fu” can be confusing. Historically, you won’t find many references to Kung Fu ( 功夫). If you read Chinese, then you can see that in my list above, those two characters don’t appear at all.
The term “Kung Fu” can be translated as “skill acquired through time and effort.” It first became popular in the 20th century among Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong and southern China. From there, the term gradually migrated to the US.
In the 1960s, a young man published a book called “Chinese Gung Fu”. His name was Bruce Lee. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
The spelling “kung fu” would eventually become more popular, especially after the launch of the TV series “Kung Fu” with David Carradine. From that point on, America became fascinated with Kung Fu.
Try My Dragon Fist!
I remember watching a Kung Fu movie as a kid where one of the characters said, very passionately:
“Right then. Try my Dragon Fist!”
I remember thinking to my 7-year-old self, “What’s a Dragon Fist, and how do I get one?” It just sounded so cool!
What I didn’t know at the time was that this was probably a literal translation of 龍拳, or Dragon Kung Fu. In other words, it wasn’t a type of fist; it was a type of Kung Fu.
(Remember that Saturday morning Kung Fu theater in the 1970s was dubbed. There were no subtitles. If you’ve never seen one of these old-school Kung Fu movies, let’s just say that high-quality dubbing was obviously not a priority for the producers.)
Fists of Fury
In China, the term most widely used before the 20th century was “chuan” (拳). Actually, this is an abbreviation of “chuan fa”, which translates to “fist art”. It’s still a very popular term today, especially among traditionalists.
For example, Bai He Chuan translates literally to “White Crane Fist”. Is this a type of punch that looks like a crane? Nope. It’s an entire style of Kung Fu.
What about the White Crane? What’s that about? Well, many Kung Fu styles took their inspiration from animals. So Bai He Chuan is a martial art that uses the grace and power of the White Crane as inspiration for its training techniques and its philosophy.
What about that movie I saw when I was 7? Well, the character was basically saying, “Try my Dragon Style Kung Fu!”
Long Chuan, or Dragon Kung Fu, draws inspiration from the mythical Chinese dragon — a benevolent, flowing, snake-like creature that bears no resemblance to the fire-breathing dragon of Western mythology.
The same is true of Tai Chi Chuan. In other words, Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art based on the principles and philosophy of Tai Chi.
If you like, you can start calling it Tai Chi Kung Fu. And if anyone complains, you can say, “Right then. Try my Tai Chi Fist!”
The Philosophy of Tai Chi
The Chinese philosophy of Tai Chi (太極) is ancient. This philosophy predates the art of Tai Chi Chuan by thousands of years. You already know the symbol for this philosophy:
This ancient philosophy of yin and yang was incorporated into the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan. Or we might say that Tai Chi Chuan was built around the philosophy of Tai Chi.
If you want to read more about this, then please take a look at my article entitled The Difference Between Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Chai Tea.
When Tai Chi Lost Its Mojo
Before the 20th century, Tai Chi Chuan was a secret art. For centuries, only those in the Chen family were permitted to learn it. Finally, in the 19th century a man from outside the Chen family was permitted to learn. His name was Yang Lu Chan (杨露禅).
Yang Lu Chan was a legendary martial artist, and he was eventually hired by the imperial family to teach the bodyguards. This was the start of Tai Chi’s rise from a secretive martial art to an international phenomenon. As a result, most schools of Tai Chi trace their lineage back to Yang Lu Chan.
But it was Yang Cheng Fu (杨澄甫), Yang Lu Chan’s grandson, who really brought Tai Chi out into the open. In many ways, Yang Cheng Fu is the reason that any of us know about Tai Chi at all. If not for him, most people would never have heard of it. Certainly, there would not be millions of people all around the world practicing Tai Chi for health.
Interestingly, the reason Yang Cheng Fu was so successful in spreading Tai Chi is because he didn’t just promote it as a martial art. Instead, he promoted it as a healing art.
What’s not widely known is that Yang Cheng Fu didn’t even want to learn Tai Chi Chuan. But eventually, he realized that Tai Chi Chuan was what China needed to become healthy and strong again.
And it worked.
Chairman Mao Stole Tai Chi’s Mojo!
Yang Cheng Fu would not live to see it, but years later, there would be millions of people practicing Tai Chi in China. Facing a health crisis of unprecedented proportions, Mao Zedong, the father of the People’s Republic of China, embraced Tai Chi as a national health program. If you know your Chinese history, then you know that this was very strange behavior for Mao.
You’ve probably heard of Mao’s famous quote, “Religion is poison.” And Mao didn’t just mean religion — he meant anything traditional. All of it was poison in Mao’s mind.
For him to suddenly embrace a traditional Chinese art like Tai Chi, and then promote it as a national health exercise — well this would be like Gandhi suddenly embracing violence and promoting it as the key to India’s future.
It was just plain odd.
But Mao was desperate. He had a billion people who needed health care, and there was no way for him to provide the infrastructure for Western-style medicine.
So he turned to Tai Chi. In 1956, the Chinese Sports Committee created a simplified form of Tai Chi for the public, and promoted it on a national level. Click here to read my article about this form and to watch me perform it.
Mao intentionally deemphasized the martial nature of Tai Chi, and instead emphasized the healing aspects.
So in a way, Mao stole Tai Chi’s mojo. He’s the main reason people no longer recognize it as a martial art. But he’s also the reason so many people recognize it as a healing art. So Mao was a mixed blessing for Tai Chi.
The 21st Century and Tai Chi
Will Tai Chi get its mojo back in the 21st century? I think so. Honestly, I think it’s already happening. The fact that you’ve read this far is evidence of that.
All over the world, Tai Chi is experiencing a renaissance. For example, in my studio, I’ve seen a huge rise in women — from age 15 to age 85 — who are interested in not just the self-healing aspects, but also the self-defense aspects of Tai Chi. And this is wonderful.
The truth is that Tai Chi can be whatever you want it to be. If you want to get healthy, then you can use Tai Chi. If you want to improve strength, balance, and flexibility, then you can use Tai Chi. If you want to learn how to block a punch, or deliver one, then you can use Tai Chi.
And at the highest levels, Tai Chi becomes much more than any of this. Tai Chi is, ultimately, a powerful form of spiritual cultivation. In the movement, we find true stillness. And in the stillness, we find movement.
In this regard, Tai Chi never lost its mojo, and it never will.