The story of Tai Chi begins with its founder Chang San-Feng, a Taoist hermit who is variously reported as having lived either during the Sung (960-1279) or the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). According to legend, one day while strolling through the forests surrounding the Wu Tang Mountains in China's Hubei Province, Master Chang witnessed a snake engaged in combat with a crane. Master Chang was impressed with the skillful way the snake was able to dodge and counterattack the larger, more powerful crane. That night, so the story goes, the art of Tai Chi Chuan came to him in a dream.

A more likely explanation of Tai Chi's origins lies in the conjecture that Master Chang, if he existed at all, combined certain fighting movements together with other movements designed to increase internal energy in the body to create a new system which became a physical manifestation of Taoist philosophy.

Tai Chi Chuan means "Supreme Ultimate Boxing." The Supreme Ultimate here refers to the Tao, or more specifically, the framework within which the dualities of Yin and Yang manifest themselves in the field of time. The allusion to the Tai Chi in this context suggests that the art contains within itself (in its movements, shapes and patterns of breathing) all that is necessary for these dynamic forces to interact and be reconciled. The character Chuan refers to a school or method of boxing or combat. Therefore, it can be said that Tai Chi Chuan, as it was originally conceived, is a sophisticated method of fighting based on the reconciliation of dynamically interacting forces. Structurally speaking then, the Tai Chi Chuan practitioner seeks to neutralize his opponent's use of force before applying a countering force of his own. In this give and take, this interplay of energies, Tai Chi finds its highest expression as a fighting art.

At the time of its development, Tai Chi was a deadly art, jealously guarded by a few families and used for killing. It would be unwise for the student to forget this historical fact, because it is within the context of life or death struggle that the techniques of Tai Chi were refined over the centuries. The proper shapes for the transmission of energy, the methods of single-weightedness, techniques of relaxation and breath control all were developed with the express purpose of injuring the opponent in an efficient, scientific manner. It is probably desirable then, for the Tai Chi student to be able to appreciate and understand this martial context even if one is not interested in fighting. After all, all of the major Tai Chi styles (Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun) placed a great deal of emphasis on grasping the meaning of the movements through applications training.

Today, however, we live in a less violent era. So then: what is the place of Tai Chi in modern society? Now that we have "beaten our swords into ploughshares" how are we to appreciate this precious cultural transmission? The secret lies in enlarging our understanding of who "the enemy" is. Traditionally, the enemy was the opponent in a combat situation. Today the enemy may be fatigue, stress, overwork or lack of understanding of oneself and one's body. All martial arts were designed to increase one's longevity. Sometimes this means preventing another person from killing or injuring you. Nowadays, the same system can be used to help keep stress from killing or injuring you. Daily practice of Tai Chi promotes mental clarity and a healthy body, assists with balance and helps the circulation of the blood. Tai Chi is also a vehicle for the realization of surpassing beauty. As Aldous Huxley describes in Island:

"No leaps, no high kicks, no running. The feet always firmly on the ground...movements intrinsically beautiful and at the same time charged with symbolic meaning. Thought taking shape in ritual and stylized gesture. The whole body transformed into a hieroglyph, a succession of hieroglyphs, of attitudes modulating from significance to significance, like a poem or a piece of music. Movements of the muscles representing movements of the consciousness...It's meditation in action; the metaphysics of the Mahayana expressed not in words, but through symbolic movements and gestures."

This is Tai Chi Chuan.

Sifu John Leporati

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