The Magic of Taiji

by Bhargav on 2020/04/04

Ever wondered why Taiji is so magical especially at the hands of true masters?
I first experienced that magic when I met Master Zhonghua Chen in Daqingshan on a warm July evening of 2012. Ever since that moment I have developed a fixation of sort to figure out what is behind that magic – it is so ever present in everything Master Chen does, it is impossible to differentiate between the magic and the magician! With no disrespect meant, I have seen and met many Taiji practitioners including some who claim to be masters but not one in my humble view truly possesses that magic, not even remotely. So, what is it that sets him apart? What’s that magic and what’s behind that magic? Here’s what I think:
The magic is the energy flow or energy manipulation that the master brings to play at will, something that most people perhaps figure out without much difficulty. The difficult question however has been what creates that magic? What conditions are needed to be met before the magic starts to appear? This is what I am attempting to focus in this piece.
The answer to that question perhaps lie in the phenomenon known as “Emergence” – often displayed by complex structures. So, what is this Emergence?
Complex things like stars, planets or living organisms like human beings consist of diverse components bound into large structures. Those structures are patterned in very precise ways. You take a lot of components and put them together in a particular structure. There is also a second but slightly less obvious feature of complex things. These structures that bring together diverse components display distinct “emergent” properties: features that are not present in the components from which they are constructed but appear only when these components are assembled in specific ways. Here is an illustration: You could study the properties of hydrogen and properties of oxygen as long as you like without being able to predict the properties of water, which is what you get when you combine 2 hydrogen atoms with 1 oxygen atom in a very specific way. The properties of water are emergent properties. They exist not intrinsically in the components but because of the way those components are arranged. They arise from a particular arrangement of those atoms. You arrange them differently and you get different properties.
What is the common element in these complex systems? The building blocks are relatively simple, but when they mass together, they display the characteristics of emergence: Low-level rules lead to high-level sophistication, or the rise of complex systems out of relatively simple interactions. Doesn’t this sound like Taiji?
The individual components of an emergent structure are fairly simple and/or stupid, the way computers are built using the binary system of ones and zeros. Don’t the building blocks of Taiji follow the same rules? We have heard Master Chen talking about binary while explaining Taiji movements, haven’t we? If the components are too smart, they might begin to make their own decisions, throwing the system out of whack – isn’t this the most common error amongst most practitioners? Does the remark “you are too smart to learn Taiji” ring a bell?
Emergence comes in two forms: emergent behaviours and emergent structures. Behaviours describe the actions of a group of individuals (body parts in our case), while structures are the actual patterns.
Hope you are getting the drift. Technically I would therefore argue that when considered holistically, Taiji displays emergent properties which are not evident in its components. This behaviour and property are very much evident when you look at the bigger picture of Taiji. Everything the Master teaches will ultimately go back to the whole theory, but every piece appears to be very far from it. Not every part from day one looks like Taiji, together it is Taiji. But here is the thing – it is one thing to understand this conceptually but another thing to achieve it physically. This is where Chen Zhonghua comes into the picture. He not only has the understanding and the ultimate physical mastery but also the ability and willingness to bring out the true emergent nature of Taiji and hold it under clear light for others to learn.
Without calling it emergence, the Master often explains this property by giving the example of a car. A car has many diverse systems like the electrical system, the hydraulics, the engine etc., all performing what they are individually designed for, but when arranged in a specific way they come together to produce a result that is completely different from the individual components. The car as an entity has properties the parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviour emerge only when the parts interact in a very specific and precise way. Similarly, the movements in Taiji are bounded in very precise and specific ways. The interaction between a set of simple rules that govern the behaviour of the different body parts yields a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence however depends on very specific and precise interactions and not haphazard interactions. Haphazard interaction, the default action of most of us is often the most common problem that prevents us practitioners from making progress in Taiji. That’s why the requirements of PM Taiji are so stringent that there is no margin of error to allow for any contravention. Specifications of Taiji are very clear but the difficulty lies in what I say – achieving code compliance. Often, we are tricked by our own mind into believing that whatever we are doing is compliant with the codes. Every time I get that feeling, I hear a voice in my head saying ‘son, you are not there yet, you are merely preparing to be ready to do Taiji!!’.
One can be highly skilled in the art, be a champion yet as long as one cannot re-configure the internals, establish the correct relationship between different body parts, interact and move (or don’t move) in the precise way as prescribed in the Taiji code book, there is no emergence hence no magic!
P.S. – This is not to say I am trying to advocate some airy-fairy stuff regarding Taiji and/or demean other arts, I penned this mainly to connect a few dots that I happen to be dwelling on for quite some time. The idea is helping me as a Taiji practitioner in getting a framework with which to approach the art.

About Bhargav

I have recently started learning Chen style Tai Chi. I have been very impressed with whatever little I have seen of GM Chen Zhonghua through the on line vids available on the net. Since it is difficult to have access to him from being in different countries, I would like to start by buying some of his videos.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Liu Yuxin April 4, 2020 at 11:34 pm

Nice article. Deep thought. Thank you! Like what master says: the theory is precise, the method is complex! Practice under the principles!


Harshil April 5, 2020 at 6:45 pm

Nicely Written Bhargav!


Rick Pietila April 9, 2020 at 5:51 pm

Great article Bhargav, well done.


Susanna Chwang April 9, 2020 at 7:32 pm

Thanks! I appreciate that you linked Master Chen’s video in your last sentence. Master Chen _gives_ us a clear framework, so all one has to do is listen. Then we know how to approach taiji!


Anup April 10, 2020 at 10:16 pm

Very well written. We have been witness to your quest towards getting at the depth of the Taiji principles. Your post session discussions are always insightful and we are happy that you have started (hoping that this is first of many articles to come) penning down your thoughts and ideas. Something on Rules, Methods and Principles will be welcoming. Rgds.


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