What is Tai Chi?  What is Wudang?  What is internal martial art?


Tai Chi, Wudang, and internal art are a method movement, a set of body mechanics in which all movement originates from the waist.[i]


My Sifu was constantly reinforcing this: “Don’t move the arms.  Don’t move the legs.”


Most practitioners get the “don’t move your arms part”—the changing position of the arms is entirely a function of the turning the waist, sinking the joints, and “emptying”, which can be thought of as an action of the tendons and connective tissue.[ii]  But how can you move without moving your legs?  Simple, use the waist.


This may controversial—many teachers hold that there are techniques and systems where you use the legs or use the arms.  It’s incumbent on all of us to research.


Springing forward in a hsingyi step can be an action of pushing down into the foot with the waist and rebounding to generate force and acceleration forward or backward. It requires less energy the pushing off with the leg, and can be executed more quickly.  This is also the secret to the Fu style bagua stepping—pushing back into the heavy foot to drive the light foot forward. This rippling waist motion also puts power into the extended palm, which can be used to push or strike. In Fu style Liangyi, the bow steps have an extra boost, granting additional range and power to displace an opponent’s leg, and can be utilized in their form of Yang Tai Chi. Even kicks—waist, then sink the joints to direct the power into the framework of a kick.  Leg sweeps especially depend on the waist for sufficient power to displace an opponent’s leg.  The leg needs to be cocked to displace and opponent’s rooted leg, and the waist is the mechanism for cocking it. Even lift the knee begins with contraction of the abdomen, then sinking the joints and emptying to fully stretch the tendons.


Bow Sim Mark held that the waist was stronger than the arm or leg, and specifically “Even though you are weak, your waist is stronger than their arm, even if they’re very strong.”  That must have been true because she was a five foot tall woman who had to take all comers for the first few years teaching in America.[iii] Luckily, in her years of internal training, like Kayla Harrison, she had to spar and grapple with the boys, who tended to be bigger and stronger.  When people see her praying mantis they are astonished.[iv]  The secret is the waist.


Some teachings hold that tai chi is the method of moving the body with the mind.[v]  Examination of this statement however reveals it as potentially meaningless.  It fair to say that all conscious movement originates with intention, whether Tai Chi movement or any other.  If this is the method of Tai Chi, how can it be distinguished from any other martial art?


My teacher didn’t really like to talk about “chi” (qi) because we don’t have a scientific explanation for what it is.  When she spoke about “energy” it was in the physical or economic sense; as either force or expenditure.  She used to call energy expenditure “spending money”.[vi]  Force we call “focusing” (fajing) to distinguish from brute force generated by the muscles and limbs.[vii]


Bow Sim Mark preferred to talk about “feeling”.  Feeling the opponent’s energy (physical) and center (body alignment and “frame”).  This concept has also been called “listening”, and rhe ability to do allows one to apply internal technique properly, without brute force.  Putting feeling into the blade and maintaining that continually is the most difficult aspect of internal sword, and one only the most assiduous practitioners will truly master.


In my school I talk about inertia principally. This is the measure of the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest, and an object in motion to stay in motion. 


The “feeling” in the blade requires maintaining constant inertia, to counter, to cut, and to feel the opponent’s blade.  This capability allows the internal practitioner to sense when the opponent is moving their blade, how much inertia they have in it, and therefore “counter” any strikes as they are developing.[viii]  If the inertial is not constant, a practitioner can put energy into that blade, and cause the opponent to momentarily lose control. This is all it takes to create an opening.  The maintenance of constant inertial is what makes the skill so difficult to attain.


Moving the blade with the arm is weaker where the power is not generated by the waist. In this scenario the wielder has broken the connection, such that the whole body is not engaged. The arm moves separately from the core and legs, even if the timing of the movement of all three is coordinated.


Moving the blade with the waist is strong. It allows constant, unbroken inertia.  The whole body is engaged.[ix]


One school of thought holds that tai chi and internal technique derive from a mystical power.  Another school of thought holds that it is “all just physics and physiology”.[x]  Looking at the most prominent practitioners over the last couple of generations, for whom we have footage, the answer seems quite clear.



Requirements of Tai Chi


Bow Sim Mark usually listed these as: Circular, Relaxed, Calm, Continuous, with Energy and Intent.”


I might further explicate as “Circular, Relaxed, Calm, Continuous, with Inertia, Feeling, and Intent,” because “energy” is too often interpreted as something mystical as opposed to physical and physiological.[xi]


“Yin and yang are clear” is a further requirement, and relates to the distribution of weight between the feet, which is generally never 50/50 except in the “Wu Chi” stance at the opening and conclusion of a form. [xii]  Weight distribution can vary anywhere from 100/0 to about 60/40.  “Yin and yang clear” is an especially important requirement of exhibition of tai chi.




Requirements of Application


The fundamental requirement of internal application is: “Never goes force-against-force.”


This was constantly reinforced by Bow Sim Mark, reprising other true masters that preceded her.  The principle relates to the circularity of the art, where force is redirected, not resisted.  This forms the basis for the axiom of “using four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.”[xiii]


I’ve heard some practitioners reject this, more often in the context of swordplay, but they likely hold this view because they haven’t practiced sufficiently to be able to apply techniques without resorting to some brute force, or haven’t learned true wudang applications—this view and practice seems relatively common, as any martial art will tend to dilute as it spreads, in particular where teaching is informal.[xiv]


Those with a deep understanding of the art recognize that even in the “beat” attack,[xv] where one hits the opponent’s blade to make them momentarily lose control to create an opening to strike cleanly, one is attacking the weak part of the opponent’s blade with greater inertia, “putting energy into their blade”, a form of “pushing into emptiness”.


While the current thinking in some reconstructed sword systems is to clash, in wudang we come around the other way, knock the opponent’s blade off-line, and continue fluidly into a strike.  We’ve been doing it this way for at least a century, and probably a bit longer!


It’s all about leverage.





[i] This according to the Fu system. You can see it in Victor Fu, the 3rd generation lineage holder, in his siblings, in Bow Sim Mark, another prominent disciple. It’s what distinguishes their bagua “ripple step” aka “mud walking step” which allows the practitioner to apply force at regular intervals to continually uproot push an opponent back while walking. This technique appears in Dragon Palm and other Fu forms, including their version of Leopard Boxing. Fu style waist turning seems to be a fairly unique exercise, that may derive from drunken boxing. Fu waist is additionally allows forward/backward waist action, leaning to expend or build potential energy (what is sometimes called “the rubber band” in that it “snaps back”.)  Yu Chenghui “has real waist”, and it’s a quality you see in all real Taoist Wudang sword.  If you look carefully, you can even see it in Donnie Yen, especially his old-school kung fu movies like Iron Monkey. The root of his power and origin of his movement is the waist. That’s why he hits so hard. That’s why he’s so fast. That’s why he can go and go and go—using the waist expends less energy.

[ii] The muscles are relaxed but the tendons are always fully stretched. This is especially important in straight sword.  The exception is that in focusing (fa jing), the muscles will fully activate for an instant.

[iii] She taught in Boston, MA, where fighting is something of a tradition and there are perhaps a greater ratio of “knuckleheads”.  CWRI lore holds that within a few years she had trained students of sufficient prowess that they could intercede and take would be challengers out side to “set them straight.”  In my own experience practicing extensively in parks in Boston, it was not entirely uncommon for a stranger to approach enthusiastically and ask what I was doing, then, when hearing it is a form of martial art, making me prove it there and then, not taking no for an answer.  People who lack sufficient formal training often don’t understand sparring as an exercise to prepare for fighting, as opposed to an actual fight.  These practitioners will often try to “knock your block off”.  There the inefficacy of going force against force when one has less mass, and the need to stay calm when less experience especially. Luckily, brute force attack, especially from a non-professional, tends to make attacker slow and tight; easy to defend against if one has mobility.

[iv] When you see Donnie Yen’s blindingly fast, sustained punching in Ip Man, this is where it came from.  It’s possible her interest in Mantis was driven by the finger strikes, which are intended for nerve strikes, and require less brute force because the force is concentrated into the pointer finger.  She even used the Mantis hook for Tai Chi exclusively, favoring it’s applications in that art over the applications of the conventional hook hand. The Mantis hook forms the basis of one of the most common Chin Na joint locks and can also be used for striking with the back of the hand in movements like single whip. She also felt it was optimal because it make the palm more empty than the orthodox hook, where emptying the principle function in strong body framework, and a method of generating force.

[v] Sun Lutang lists three distinctions for internal martial art: controlling the movement with the mind, circulation of Qi, and certain principles of movement associated with Daoist practice. As all conscious movement is a product of intention, and we have no scientific validation of chi, only the third distinction, that of body mechanics, is concrete and distinct. 


Note: My hsingyi comes from Sun through Fu, making Sun my “Sitaigung” (teacher’s teacher’s teacher) for that art.  I don’t take updating his scholarship lightly, but he was working from a 19th century framework that precedes modern scientific method in China.  We understand more now about how the body works, and have a deeper understanding of the internal arts after several generations of continual refinement, conducted by masters like Sun and his distinguished colleagues, true masters all.


[vi] Note that the Qi wiki explains the notion is unverified and represents pseudo-science. It also notes that there is no reference to scientific usages of “energy” in traditional Chinese medicine.  It’s a strong validation of Bow Sim Mark’s teaching that, lacking any training in either physics or economics, with no math, she naturally came to use the term energy in those concrete senses.  In the contemporary martial environment, post-MMA, the utility of mystical concepts in martial teaching is greatly diminished—practitioners who focus on esoteric elements over serious physical training can rarely apply the arts against stronger opponents.  Mental training without the attendant physical training has little to no practical value.

[vii] Again, muscles and limbs as opposed to the waist and connective tissue.  Muscles will contract at the moment of focus, but remain relaxed at all other times, as opposed to the tendons which are always at full extension, even when the arms are close to the body, via circular frames, joint sinking and emptying. 

[viii] The safest situation in swordplay, aside from standing entirely out of range of an opponent, is blade-on-blade contact.  In European fencing there is a similar notion of pris de fer ("taking the blade") but wudang sticky fencing extends this to consistently maintaining contact throughout the exercise or bout.

[ix] This is essential for wudang cutting, where the blade must press into the flesh to cut deeply.  The movements are often quick, so how can this be achieved?  Mechanics holds the answer: the waist driven cut is circular but the blade is straight; it naturally presses into the flesh when drawn across it.

[x] Clearly there is much we still don’t know about the human body, and adrenaline and endorphins, combined with inertia, seem to play a role in that feeling of chi. These naturally produced chemicals can heighten awareness and increase focus. The have a quality of reducing pain, which could contribute to the required muscular relaxation and corresponding vascular flow.

[xi] In regard to feeling we can consider that the nerves transmit information using electrical signals.  In recent years you may have heard some practitioners talk about piezoelectrical impulses generated by the bone marrow, but I haven’t had time to read any peer review papers in that field and so cannot comment.

[xii] In hsingyi, by contrast, the practitioner will sometimes want to hide their weight. In Shaolin, equally weighted horse stance is widely used. And there are exceptions to every rule—internal waist technique can be utilized in an equal weighted stance, which is seen in drunken boxing.

[xiii] Strikes can be linear, oblique, spiral (“drilling”) or follow a circular motion, as in “hammer fist” and “back fist”, but counters (parries) are always circular or spiral, which is are a three dimensional extension of a circular motion.  All of the internal arts contain all of these motions, but linearity is most associated with hsingyi striking, the spiral (coil) with bagua grappling, and circle with tai chi countering.

[xiv] This resorting to force occurs routinely in pushing hands, where many practitioners don’t have access to a high-level master to constantly correct them.  Cheng Manching explicated the principal of invest in loss for the general public, and this was further explicated by Bow Sim Mark as “It’s better to lose than to win and break the art.” The American culture however is hyper-competitive, such that  many practitioners find this hard to adhere to—"win, win win” vs. “lose and learn”.  The issue is further complicated by modern push hands competition, which is essentially wrestling—external application of internal movements—in that no one really has good internal technique when young.  But it’s useful to have competitions for many reasons.  The problem arises when practitioners conflate pushing hands competition with the deeper art, which only really comes with decades of assiduous practice.  It’s difficult to forgo brute force when we are young and have so much strength and stamina.  It’s only when the body starts breaking down over 30 and 40 and practitioners find themselves less and less able to rely on brute force that they naturally economize motion and begin to do the movements internally.  Only high-level masters seem to be able to neutralize brute force effortlessly in fixed step push hands, where there is no mobility, and for the majority of practitioners, it is rare to have opportunity to push with them.  Most pushing takes place between novices, in an art that takes decades to begin to really master. Fixed-step push hands is a feeling exercise with limited application in fighting, in that very few real-world attacks involve by standing in one place and pushing.

[xv] Here I use the term from European fencing. When I first learned it in FIE saber in college, it was referred to as a “beat cut”. One can see it utilized at a high level in Olympic fencing, and in advanced Chinese fencing.



Note: The application of tai chi and other wudang arts be martial or performative, but the techniques and mechanics are the same in either domain.  In a more literal sense, tai chi is a set of forms designed to be applied with a distinct subcategory of body mechanics in a method of movement, as are bagua, hsingyi, baji and wudang.  “Wudang” is also the umbrella term for the entire body of internal martial arts in the Chinese national sport of Wushu, contrasted with “Shaolin” as the umbrella term for the external arts.  But these umbrella terms are distinct from traditional Buddhist shaolin forms and traditional Taoist & secular wudang forms, although these forms are also part of the foundation of modern wushu.