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Dale Napier, Writer

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Taiji in Times of War and Peace
(C) 2003-2006 Dale Napier

When I first describe taijiquan to people unfamiliar with it, I first say that it is a martial art. Most people do not know taiji as a martial art, they know it – or think they know it – as a pretty little dance, a beautiful exercise that looks very nice and tranquil. How can that be a martial art?

I am willing to take this seeming contradiction even further. Taiji, seemingly the most peaceful of the martial arts – and certainly the healthiest – was forged in times of peace within war. How can peace reside within war? How can an art like taiji emerge from it? What do we learn of this when we look within ourselves?

Yin-Yang Basis of Taiji

To understand, we must first examine the philosophical underpinnings of taijiquan – which is frequently translated as “Grand Ultimate Fist.” Taiji is based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang – the theory of opposites. The taiji (yin-yang) symbol today is so ubiquitous that it is more common than the Christian cross, but do we really understand what it means?

None of us are all one thing or another. When one politician decries another as “evil,” he is obscuring the truth in order to achieve a political effect. All of us carry good and evil within us, and in our actions.

As verse 69 of the Tao Te Ching says,

There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy.
Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil.
. . .
When two great forces oppose each other,
The victory will go to the one that knows how to yield..1

Take any attribute, and we carry with us both the good and bad extreme of that attribute. No one is pure good or pure evil; all good intent or bad intent; all hard or soft; and so on. The same is true for nations, and for martial arts.

Indeed, without evil there is no good; without softness there is no hardness. Each extreme is our barometer for measuring the opposite extreme. Draw a line anywhere through the center of the taiji symbol and it touches the black as well as the white, the white as well as the black. We are not sometimes good and sometimes evil; we are both, all the times, although in varying proportions.

What does this have to do with taiji and war? As Yang Cheng-Fu once put it,

Taiji is the art of concealing hardness within softness, like a needle within cotton.2

The softness is evident to all, like the cotton wrapping. The hardness is there only for those wishing to penetrate below the surface.

War and Peace

The origins of taiji are obscured within the mists of time. Of the many stories about its origins, not all can be true. Some are the stuff of legends. Yang Family taiji came into being more than 150 years ago, during the time that Manchurians ruled the Chinese empire.

We do know that early taijiquan was a vigorous, dangerous martial art that left its leading practitioners unbeatable – hence the name Yang the Invincible for Yang Lu-Chan, creator of the original Yang Family taiji systems. How and why did it become the apparently soft, slow, gentle art we know today?

Here legend steps in, not for the first time. According to one story I was told, the subtlety of taijiquan was invented for the purpose of hiding the real art from the Manchurian imperial family, which demanded training from the famous Yang Family fighters.

By this story, Lu-Chan and his sons held back their important secrets so that they could not be beaten by the ruling invaders. They created a soft, weak looking style wherein only a master could see beyond the surface and its underlying intricacies; the Manchurians would never know the real taiji, never be a danger to the Yang Family.

While this story is likely true as far as it goes, the truth is likely more nuanced. As has been pointed out, the Manchurians were neither weak nor stupid; otherwise they could never have conquered China. No, they knew real martial arts from pretense, and would demand only the real thing. Anything less would see Yang heads separated from Yang necks ... a total violation of taiji principles.

Most likely Lu-Chan did learn to turn his "obvious jing" into "hidden jing" during that time, by teaching external forms publicly and internal forms privately. But it is also true that the greatest softening of the Yang Family taiji, for it which it is famous, came later in the earliest 20th century when Lu-Chan's grandson, Yang Cheng-Fu was in charge of the family art.3

Engagement and Non-Contention

To all but the most determined hegemonists -- and there is ample evidence that many within the Bush Administration wanted to invade Iraq no matter what -- the invasion of Iraq was faced with a very taiji-like concern: to engage or not to engage. Those opposed to violence maintained that all American goals could be accomplished through diplomacy. That diplomacy had apparently worked for a dozen years was the cornerstone of this point of view.

Master George Hu of Houston

In my own practice of taiji in 2002 I was faced with a similar, if less consequential, decision. In 2001 my teacher, Master George Hu, started sending his senior students to tournaments. This was a very interesting turn of events because he had a reputation for avoiding tournaments.

Being a very competitive individual, if I was going to go, I wanted to win. Otherwise, why bother? Or so I thought at the time.

I came away with both wins and losses, and a deep feeling of dissatisfaction that made me want to avoid that experience again. What had happened? In the moving step pushing hands competition my opponent and I had worked so hard that we both came away heavily winded and more tired than after a hard weightlifting session in the gym. I knew that was all wrong, but it was difficult to fully understand what had happened, or how to correct it.

It became clearer the following year. Immediately prior to the 2002 Taiji Legacy tournament, I attended the YMT festival in Madison, Wisconsin. I discovered that within the YMT community there is considerable controversy over whether YMT should be allowed to evolve away from its martial roots to focus only on its health aspects.

Prominent in the proceedings were individuals who prefer YMT no longer be practiced as a martial art. My impression was that to them, the idea of taiji competition was not only to be avoided, it was simply unacceptable.

The tournament began the day after the festival ended, so I went to it imbued with the spirit of non-competition. My memory of the previous year was fresh enough that I was still unenthusiastic about participating. I had read enough of the ancient masters’ words to know that competition per se was definitely considered inappropriate – despite the fact that they had all survived many death matches (yin-yang again?).

The result was that I went into pushing hands competition without any intention of contending. I had pretty well dissolved my desire to “compete.” All I wanted was to come away feeling like I had experienced some real taiji.

That certainly happened. I came away with the same wins as before, which I no longer expected or cared about. Mostly I came away with a feeling of that I had indeed experienced taiji. My final match, in which I was “bested” by a student of William C. C. Chen, provided an interesting insight: taiji practiced at the fingertips. As with most such revelations, I learned more from “losing” than from “winning.”

Indeed, winning and losing were the same, or at least occurred simultaneously. Americans who supported the armed interventionism certainly believe we won. Americans who opposed it believe that in spite of any short-term military gain, the long-term prospect for American respect and prestige overseas is greatly reduced – in winning, we lost. Other countries certainly see in this the opportunity for advancing their own interests at our expense.

In winning these latest battles, has America really served its own best interests? As one who has seen firsthand the shortcomings of contending unnecessarily, I fear that we gained our victory at a cost we can ill afford.

2005 Update

Much has happened since I wrote this article almost two years ago. We "won" the war and established "democracy", but more Americans have been killed in or as a result of combat since we declared victory than before we "won".

We have seen paradox in a reversal of attitudes on "both" "sides" of the war/antiwar argument. I qualify "both" because one can certainly argue that there are more than two sides to this debate. I choose to use it nonetheless because the two best known sides help underscore the paradoxical role reversals.

Many who supported the war now question its wisdom, for a variety of reasons. Even the Congressman who proposed we redesignate French fries as "Freedom" fries, has now abdicated his early support for the war in Iraq. At the same time, some liberal Democrats are demanding that we remain in Iraq indefinitely or even increase our troop commitment.

War in time of peace -- we have been losing the war ever since we declared the peace. Iraqi terrorism is on the rise and Iraq is already in its fourth government in two years. How much more peace can we stand before the entire civil fabric breaks down over there, what little is left to break down? How much victory?

For those considering an active form of resistance to the war at this stage of the war/peace/victory, experience dictates patience. This is a time when little can be gained by contending, except to continue to extend the intention to prevail in our opposition. Searching within yourself, cultivating what you find there, is the best course of action. From there, let the Tao be your guide.

Dale teaches Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan at venues throughout the Houston area.   He was founder and chair of the Democratic Anti-War Group from 2003 to 2005.

1 Tao Te Ching, Steven Mitchell, translator, 1988, verse 69.
2 T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, Douglas WIle, compiler and translator, Revised Edition, 1983, p. 3.
3 "The Complete (?) Yang Taijiquan System, Part 2", Alex Yeo, T’ai Chi Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 1, p. 44.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Journal of the American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan Association, Summer 2003, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 28-29.