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The Art and Science of Taijiquan

Key words: Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Wu Shu, Taoism,

By: Yun Choi Yeung FIFL FIMAS

Editors note: Mr Yeung, as well as being a Tai Chi instructor, is heavilly involved with

the traditional Greek martial art of Pankration, and is involved in preparing the British

team for the 2012 world championships in Greece.

Abstract:

The aim of this article is to discuss the uniqueness of Taijiquan from the perspectives of art

and science. The concept of Tai Ji (Tai Chi) is rooted in the Classic of Changes (Yi Jing)

originated with the mythical culture hero Fu Xi (2800 BC to 2149 BC). The uniqueness of

Taijiquan is not to use brute force. The term brute force in Chinese is “Zhuo Li” which can be

traced back to poetries in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). The concept of not using brute

force is understood clearly as to avoid the use of concentric contraction of muscle. Without

the use of concentric contraction, the muscle actions of Taijiquan have been identified as

eccentric contraction of muscles and elasticity of muscles. Extensive research in eccentric

contraction confirms the various claims of Taijiquan. The art of Taijiquan is very complicated

but it is possible to contribute to the development of exercise program for people with

conditions within the framework of the non-concentric exercise model.

 

 

The concept of Tai Ji (Tai Chi) that gives rise to the Yin Yang binary system is rooted in the

Classic of Changes (Yi Jing) originated with the mythical culture hero Fu Xi (2800 BC to

2149 BC) in China. The story of how the Yin Yang binary system and its misconceptions

applied to martial arts is quite complicated and the origin of Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) is still

in dispute up to now. The earliest claim is that Taijiquan was developed in the 12th Century at

the time of Song Emperor Huizong (reigned 1101-1126) connected to the development of

Internal Martial Art (Neijiaquan) which disappeared during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912,

the Manchurian occupation of China). Taijiquan was relatively unknown until the collapse of

the Qing Dynasty, and became one of the dominant martial arts in Beijing during the early

period of the Republic of China (1912-1949 in the mainland of China). Since the founding of

the People’s Republic of China in 1949, much effort has been made to promote Taijiquan as

part of the nationwide health improvement program. This propagation has made a dramatic

impact in the health industry in China as well as outside of China. Thousands of pre-post

research articles have confirmed the benefits of doing Taijiquan compare to those not doing

any exercise. But it is very difficult to verify these findings without a clear identification of

the uniqueness of Taijiquan and the standards in various practices. The aim of this article is to

discuss the uniqueness of Taijiquan from the perspectives of art and science.

The uniqueness of Taijiquan is not to use brute force. The term brute force in Chinese is

“Zhuo Li” which can be traced back in poetries of Chao Shuo Zhi (1059-1129) and Ye Shi

(1150-1223) in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). The distinction between internal and external

martial arts first appears in 1669 in the Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan (1617-1669) by Huang

Zongxi (1610-1695). The concept of how not to use brute force in martial arts was first

 

published in 1916 by Sun Lu Tang (1860-1933) in his book entitled “Baguaquan Xue” (A

study of eight trigrams boxing). This concept was also endorsed by Yang Chen Fu

(1883-1936) and Fu Zhen Song (1881-1953) who were also the head instructors of the

Central Martial Arts Academy (Zhong Yang Guo Shu Guan) established by the Nationalist

Government in 1927. Sun Lu Tang was the head instructor of Xingyiuan, Yang Chen Fu was

the head instructor of Taijiquan, and Fu Zhen Song was the head instructor of Baguaquan. At

that time they were the representatives of Internal Martial Arts and recognized to be the best

in China, and their teaching conformed to the Classic of Changes. There was no fundamental

disagreement regarding the theory and practice of not using brute force, and Sun Lu Tang and

Fu Zhen Song were already well versed in Taijiquan. There were many reasons for the

popularity of Taijiquan during the Twenties and early Thirties, as it is easier to learn and the

development of pushing hand techniques enabled the demonstration of power embedded in

Internal Martial Arts. The theories and practices of Taijiquan also attracted a lot of attentions

from scholars of classics and practitioners of traditional medicine. At that time Yang Chen Fu

was already very successful in teaching Taijiquan as a health exercise to the rich and famous.

It was suggested that Yang Chen Fu’s grandfather Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872) and others

made Taijiquan more suitable to practise as a health exercise with less fiercer movements,

softer, slower and more even when he was hired by the imperial family in 1850 to teach

martial arts in Beijing (Li and Du 1991).

The concept of not using brute force is understood clearly as to avoid the use of concentric

contraction of muscle. However, it is the concept of how to move or generate strength to fight

that has puzzled many people. For example in a review Hong & Li (2007) concluded that

there is no comprehensive and quantitative basis for understanding the mechanisms of Tai

Chi to address why Tai chi is a better exercise. In practice Taijiquan is focused on stretching

by the rotation of joints and recoils of muscles. These muscle actions are eccentric

contraction of muscles and stored elastic energy of muscles (Yeung 2006). When Taijiquan is

viewed as an action of eccentric contraction then there are many scientific experiments

confirming the advantage of eccentric contraction over concentric contraction. For examples,

it is superior in strength, does not degenerated by age, utilize less metabolism of the body,

strengthen muscles and the immunity system, etc. The uniqueness of eccentric contraction

seems to confirm many traditional theories of Taijiquan such as very powerful in pushing, the

elderly can still fight, strengthen the tendons and bone for examples. The unique skill

developed in Taijiquan is the ability to replace concentric movements with eccentric

movements and making use of muscle elasticity.

Scientific literature regarding eccentric contraction can be traced back to the mid-1950s.

There is no lack of studies on this subject as eccentric contraction is involved in delay onset

muscle soreness (DOMS), muscle strains, plyometric training in performance improvement,

performance improvement and fall prevention for elderly, and training for weightless

conditions. Eccentric contractions are currently a very popular area of study for three main

reasons. Firstly eccentric contractions are physiologically common in a muscle’s normal

activity. Secondly muscle injury and soreness are associated with eccentric contractions,

and finally muscle strengthening may be greatest using exercises that involve eccentric

contractions.

Since the introduction of plyometric training in the 1970’s, plyometric is being used in

many sport-specific drills to enhance performances including martial arts. Plyometric

exercise model is called the stretch-shortening cycle with four phases. The first phase is the

pre-stretch or eccentric muscle action to generate and store elastic energy. The second phase

is the time between the end of the pre-stretch and the start of the concentric muscle action.

The third phase is the actual concentric contraction of muscles to make use of the stored

elastic energy from the first phase. The fourth phase is to relax the concentric contracted

muscles in preparation for the next round.

In Taijiquan the action of relaxation in the final phase creates a break in the continuity of

movement render the practitioner vulnerable to opponent’s retaliation. This is basic in the

practice of pushing hands as one pushes concentrically the hands become stiff and needs to

relax before follow on to another technique. The action of pushing in Taijiquan is to depress

the shoulder downward, rotate the elbow pointing to the ground, palm up, and push forward

to generate a rotational forward stretch in the first phase. In the second phase it is to release

the tension and recoil. The third phase is using another group of muscles such the inward

rotation of the forearm to contract eccentrically to make use of the stored elastic energy

from the first phase. The fourth and final phase is to recoil in preparation for the next round.

This is the co-ordination of different groups of muscles with each muscle group just doing

eccentric contraction and recoil. These two groups of muscles can move the arm forward

and backward continuously without any break. This is just an example of movements of one

hand in pushing hand techniques, as it is much more complex to include the other hand

movements, torso movements and leg movements. Pushing hand techniques are also

making use of the other person’s force or forces to speed up neutralization and retaliation.

Therefore the model of not using brute force or the non-concentric exercise model (Yeung

2009) is in fact only rotational stretch and recoil of different groups of muscles. This is

where the Yin Yang binary system is applicable with Yin being passive and Yang being

active as interpreted from the practice of Taijiquan. This view is conformed to the origin

view of Yin and Yang of facing the sun and with the back to the sun, as we now know that

moon light is the reflection of sun light and not two different lights.

Taijiquan has the principle of 13 postures with 8 hand movements (8 directions) and 4 steps

(4 directions) and the centre. The division of hand techniques and leg techniques is for

obvious reasons, as the arms and torso bear very little weight while the leg or legs bear the

weight of the whole body. This is why Taijiquan uses the terms emptiness and heaviness to

denote no weight on one leg and all the weight of the body on one leg, and varying in

between the legs. The transfer of weight between the legs is created by the rotation of the

crotch and not pushing upward and downward with the legs. However, Lan and others found

that their group of subjects actually improve their eccentric strength as well as their

concentric strengths in doing Taijiquan (Lan et al, 2000). This is observable in most cases of

practitioners, and also partly explained why practitioners cannot do pushing hands properly

without overbalanced themselves when they are in the habits of pushing concentrically with

their legs. Chan and others (2003) did an electromyographic analysis on a master of Taijiquan

doing a push movement and found that the activity of the rectus femoris of the rear leg was

unexpectedly high, as the eccentric mode was much higher than concentric mode. From a

practitioner’s point of view this is due to the fact that this master was contracting

concentrically when moving backward to control the slow descending movement and the

pressure was off when back on the concentric mode. Electromyographic reading can only

shows the maximal voluntary contraction and does not differentiate muscle contract

concentrically or eccentrically or both with the body weight exerted on it.

Muscles that recoil when stretched passively or actively can now be explained by titan, a

giant protein that functions as a molecular spring which is responsible for muscle elasticity.

In Taijiquan the concept of sinking down on the stance is very much emphasized that is to

relax and let the weight of the body transfer to the crotch and then to the ground, and any

concentric contraction will block this transfer. The example of the master of Taijiquan is

clear case of contract concentrically the lower back and knee, and not making use of muscle

elasticity.

It was noted that the neuromuscular control of eccentric contraction are unique when

compare to concentric contractions (Fang et al., 2004), and it was suggested that eccentric

movements needed a significantly longer preparation time compare to concentric

movements. This might explain why the practice of Taijiquan must use intension to prepare

the next movement rather than moving from static relaxed situation. There is the

requirement of conscious effect to follow a continuous path of movements so it is

concentration and not meditation as some people suggested.

The art of Taijiquan is quite complicated to master or almost impossible without proper

supervision, and the lookalike approaches in promoting Taijiquan do not work. The

promotion of the theories of Taijiquan with mismatched practices and explanations will

destroy the art of Taijiquan eventually. However, thanks to science to bring out the benefits

and problems of Taijiquan, and various researches in eccentric contraction and muscle

elasticity to confirm the theories and practices of martial arts and exercises within the

framework of the non-concentric exercise model.

There are many reports on the benefits of Taijiquan and eccentric exercise, and reports on the

better preservation of eccentric torque compared to concentric torque in chronic stroke,

amyotrophic and primary lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy (Eng et al

2009). Exercise professionals can capitalize on the arts and science of non-concentric

movements to the development of more effective exercise programs to regain motor function

in chronic health conditions. Furthermore, other studies of without using concentric

contraction in movements such as weightless conditions will also contribute to this type of

programs.

Taijiquan has been established commercially and politically as a health exercise and the hope

is that the non-concentric exercise model will contribute to the verification of various

movements and guidelines for further relevant scientific researches. There is limited research

in the consistency of theories and practices of martial arts within the framework of the nonconcentric

exercise model. Technically with scientific equipment, there is difficulties in

differentiate eccentric and concentric muscle actions, and the interaction of eccentric and

concentric muscle actions. It is also very difficult to differentiate between concentric action

and eccentric action in very soft and slow movements without understanding the mechanic of

eccentric actions. Taijiquan has linked martial arts to the health industry which warranted

many studies on the subject and the hope is that there will be more studies on the application

of techniques developed in Taijiquan and others arts to people with spasticity and other

conditions.

References:

Chan S P, Luk T C, Hong Y, Kinematic and electromyographic analysis of the push

movement in tai chi, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2003, 37:339–344

Eng, J J, Lomaglio, M J, Maclntyre, D L, Muscle torque preservation and physical activity in

individuals with stroke, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2009 July ; 41(7): 1353–

1360.

Fang Y, Siemionow V, Sahgal V, Xiong F, Yue GH, Distinct brain activation patterns for

human maximal voluntary eccentric and concentric muscle actions, Brain Research, 2004,

1023, 200–212.

Hong Y, Li JX, The biomechanics study on Tai Chi: A review. Sports Biomechanics, 2007, 6

(3):453-464.

Lan C, Lai J-S, Chen S-Y, Wong M-K, Tai Chi Chuan to improve muscular strength and

endurance in elderly individuals: a pilot study. Archives of Physical Medicine and

Rehabilitation, 2000 May;81:604-607.

IQ Vol. 1, Issue 3 IMAS Quarterly ISSN 2049-3649

© 2012 The Institute of Martial Arts and Sciences | www.instituteofmartialartsandsciences.com

31

Li T, Du X, A Guide to Chinese Martial Arts, Foreign Languages Press, 1991, Beijing

Yeung YC, Xiantian Quanshu, Fight Times Fight Game e-Magazine, 2006 August

http://www.fighttimes.com/magazine/magazine.asp?article=525

Yeung YC, A Revisit of Xiantian Quanshu, Fight Times Fight Game Magazine, 2009

November http://www.fighttimes.com/magazine/magazine.asp?article=1225

www.instituteofmartialartsandsciences.com