T'ai Chi in the Present

T'ai Chi has become very popular in the last twenty years or so, as the baby boomers age and T'ai Chi's reputation for ameliorating the effects of aging becomes more well-known. Hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers are all hosting T'ai Chi classes in communities around the world. As a result of this popularity, there has been some divergence between those who say they practise T'ai Chi primarily for fighting, those who practise it for its aesthetic appeal (as in the shortened, modern, theatrical "Taijiquan" forms of wushu, see below), and those who are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health. The wushu aspect is primarily for show, the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability. More traditional stylists still see the two aspects of health and martial arts as equally necessary pieces of the puzzle, the yin and yang of T'ai Chi Ch'√ľan. The T'ai Chi "family" schools therefore still present their teachings in a martial art context even though the majority of their students nowadays profess that they are primarily interested in training for the claimed health benefits.
Along with Yoga, it is one of the fastest growing fitness and health maintenance activities, in terms of numbers of students enrolling in classes. Since there is no universal certification process, and most Westerners haven't seen very much T'ai Chi and don't know what to look for, practically anyone can learn or even make up a few moves and call themselves a teacher. This is especially prevalent in the New Age community. Relatively few of these teachers even know that there are martial applications to the T'ai Chi forms. Those who do know that it is a martial art usually don't teach martially themselves. If they do teach self-defense, it is often a mixture of motions which the teachers think look like T'ai Chi Ch'uan with some other system. This is especially evident in schools located outside of China. While this phenomenon may have made some external aspects of T'ai Chi available for a wider audience, the traditional T'ai Chi family schools see the martial focus as a fundamental part of their training, both for health and self-defense purposes. They claim that while the students may not need to practice martial applications themselves to derive a benefit from T'ai Chi training, they assert that T'ai Chi teachers at least should know the martial applications to ensure that the movements they teach are done correctly and safely by their students. Also, working on the ability to protect oneself from physical attack (one of the most stressful things that can happen to a person) certainly falls under the category of complete "health maintenance." For these reasons they feel that a school not teaching those aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, and will be much less likely to be able to reproduce the full health benefits that have made traditional T'ai Chi Ch'uan's reputation in the first place.


Modern Forms

In order to standardize T'ai Chi Ch'uan for its citizens' daily exercise, and because many of the family T'ai Chi Ch'uan teachers either moved or stopped teaching after the Communist regime was established in 1949, the Chinese Sports Committee brought together four T'ai Chi experts who truncated the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956. They wanted to somehow retain the essential principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan but make it less difficult to learn than longer (generally 88 to 108 posture) classical family T'ai Chi Ch'uan hand forms. Because shorter forms don't have the conditioning benefits of the classical forms, they wanted more difficult forms for the purposes of further studies and demonstration that didn't have the demanding martial requirements of the traditional family forms. In 1976, the Combined 48 Forms were created by three T'ai Chi experts headed by Professor Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on combining and condensing elements of the classical forms of four of the major styles; Ch'en, Yang, Wu, and Sun. The idea was to take what they felt were distinctive features of these styles and to express them in a short space of time.
As T'ai Chi again became popular on the Mainland, competitive forms were developed to be completed within a 6 minute time limit. In the late 1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized the many different competition forms. It had chosen the four major styles and combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of T'ai Chi experts in China, but not by direct representatives of most of the T'ai Chi families themselves. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style, e.g., the Ch'en Style National Competition Form is the 56 Forms, and so on. The combined forms are The 42 Form or simply the Competition Form, as it is known in China. In the 11th Asian Games of 1990, wushu was included as an item for competition for the first time with the 42 Form being chosen to represent T'ai Chi. The International Wushu Federation (IWUF) has applied for wushu to be part of the Olympic games. If accepted, it is likely that T'ai Chi and wushu will be represented only as demonstration events in 2008.
Representatives of some of the traditional families do not necessarily agree with the assessments of the Chinese Sports Committee, however. T'ai Chi Ch'uan has historically been seen by them as a martial art, not a sport, with competitions mostly entered as a hobby or to promote one's school publicly, but with little bearing on measuring actual accomplishment in the art. Their criticisms of modern forms include that the modern, "government" routines, being what they see as a mostly random combination by committee of some external elements of the traditional styles, have no standardized, internally consistent training requirements. Also, that people studying competition forms rarely train pushing hands or other power generation trainings vital to learning the martial applications of T'ai Chi Ch'uan and thereby lack the quality control traditional teachers say knowing the martial aspect of the art is essential for.

T'ai Chi as a health practice and a form of traditional Chinese medicine

Researchers have found that long-term T'ai Chi practice had favorable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in elders. The studies also reported reduced pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects. Other studies have indicated improved cardiovascular and respiratory function in healthy subjects as well as those who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Patients also benefited from Tai Chi who suffered from heart failure, high blood pressure, heart attacks, arthritis and multiple sclerosis (See research citations listed below).
Citations to medical research

Wolf SL, Sattin RW, Kutner M. Intense tai chi exercise training and fall occurrences in older, transitionally frail adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003 Dec; 51(12): 1693-701. PMID 14687346

Wang C, Collet JP, Lau J. The effect of Tai Chi on health outcomes in patients with chronic conditions: a systematic review. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Mar 8;164(5):493-501. PMID 15006825

This article is part of NCCAM documentation in public domain...