There have been countless works published on the species of martial art, their variety of incarnations and attitudes. It seems pointless to tear a single page from the encyclopaedia of combatives in order to repeat what a hundred authors have repeated before. Often, a lesson hard-learned in life is that what is not the highest question, but rather, why. Why, then, study the martial arts, taijiquan specifically?
This brief essay will seek not only the answer, but look also to the question itself. Every question is asked by an individual, and we are not all the same. Though Taijiquan is a heritage from the East, the author is a child of the West. Perhaps the most honest way of answering a question is to look, if only a little, at our question in light of how the Western person is taught to ask questions, and what he may seek in Taiji.
The Western question reflects the world view of an ancient Greek, though many may not know it. To him, not all forms of knowledge were equal: Sophia was Wisdom, a treasure and achievement far superior to Techne, the technical knowledge of some practical skill. The ends and the means are not the same, and one does not justify the other.
The Ends to daily life is to survive. Animals compete for food, and so do people. We compete for our mates on our own behalf. On behalf of our family groups and nations, we compete for territory, for property. Men fight for women, raiders for property, Lords for land. Husbands, traders and Gentlemen struggle to keep them, because these are the terms of our survival as human beings in this world.
The Means to our survival is, of course, any method we adopt to achieve those Ends. Violence is a time-honoured method in nature. It was the first method, and remains always the final recourse. As wisdom prevailed, we devised laws to lift our contest out of the mud and blood, and learned for the most part to observe them. We have hoped to follow a better road. We’ve found ways of life that draw boundaries of thought rather than steel, and many of us have become accustomed to living rich lives punctuated less frequently with the reminder of our most basic ingredients. However, the unhappy truth is that law or wisdom may fail, and when our desperation becomes too great we return all too often to bloody terms. So, ultimately, we have the need: to develop a method of violence superior to the violence we fear, which we must ultimately recognize as a basic reality of life.
And, as animals take different forms from North to South, martial arts took form according to the social environment: some were military, some civil; some weapons-based, some empty-handed. But the final word in Nature is Success, and beyond this She doesn’t care much for shape of Her children. In the lands where the laws had been invented and matters were not typically solved by physical strength, the physically inferior merchant or family man needed the means to defeat superior strength. And so the martial became art. This is the Techne, the skill of getting it done.
Yet, despite our having occasionally to fight for life itself, few of us are content merely to live it. We wish to live it well. Having protected our family and interests, the fighting man must still be able to care for them tenderly and well, and the martial arts evolves beyond the fundamental body of techniques, and involves a body of ethics and morality also. Taijiquan, in particular, is said to have addressed the civilian reality, a concern not only for short-term survival, but also for long-term well-being.
Here is our Sophia, the wisdom of our martial art.
Like most wisdom, it most immediately eludes the individual. Modern life defies the martial art, making it seem more folly than wisdom. Why should one know how to fight? Society has evolved. We are more organized than ever before, with a military and police force structurally engineered to fight our battles for us, and to keep our persons comfortably removed from the rage and gore that moves under the prettiest layers of society. The legal structure in many cases actually discourages self-defense. The need is really no longer there; we could very conceivably live a long and full life without ever needing to know how to fight. If the Ends were once survival, then the Ends to martial arts must now be found invalid, if not retrograde to the qualities of civilization we’ve sought for so long.
The Means are altogether unattractive. After all, the art is difficult, full of confusion, effort and humility unnecessary to a perfectly viable lifestyle of work, television and social distraction. Western culture nurtures the ego, and is very comfortable. Taijiquan rounds off and erodes the ego with endless physical and emotional challenge, a curriculum of sweat, counterintuitive physical movement and personal humility: undeniably a more uncomfortable process. Having a “good reason” for what we do is a luxury to which the modern Western mind has become happily accustomed. All in all, Taiji is an opposite: a hard road to a place for which we no longer have an easy name. It winds up a defiant mountain of learning, whose inhospitality conceals the treasure at its peak.
The wisdom of Taijiquan is in its origin: Nature. Nature demanded our fight for survival, to keep ourselves alive. Taijiquan as method of higher culture reminds us to keep Nature alive within us. Otherwise, we are orphaned on Earth and lost under Heaven.
By pursuing the art’s tradition we as a generation reassert our willingness to fight for life, and honour the values we pursue in life. The process, the means of our study makes us equal. Our sweat cleans us, our mistakes are the currency of our skill, our humility is the pearl we purchase with it, and our continued health and confidence are the privilege of this wealth that we enjoy. All of society benefits from this attitude and example it sets.
Taijiquan exists in service of life. It preserves life explicitly, by serving to guard those we protect against others who are hostile, and wishing to cause them harm. It nurtures life implicitly, by causing inside of ourselves an intimate and honest relationship with our most basic and instinctive realities, and urging us to rise above them. It is a thorough endeavour, soaking the person in its virtues through all of his or her aspects, and must be recognized as an activity greatly superior to most of our daily dumb chores, a treasure of civilization. In the end, the crowning virtue of Taijiquan is that we no longer need it, and yet we choose it; and in it have made the Ends, out of the Means itself.