“But I Don’t Wanna Kick Butt!”

It’s likely to happen in class – and I’ve addressed it somewhat – that a student will come to me and point out that he or she took the class to improve their health, not learn to dislocate joints or crush skulls.  I’m not judging – it’s a perfectly valid reason to study the art and it’s baked right in to the art itself.  We come right out and say it’s got health benefits and that it’s a safe form of exercise.  Crushing skulls does not sound “safe,” no matter what sort of flowery language we may try to attach to it.

So it’s worth taking the time to be very explicit in what’s being taught, how it’s being taught and most importantly, why it’s being taught the way it is.  Any student deserves two things from his or her instructor:
1)  The teacher’s best effort to get the student ready for a teacher who’s better than he himself is, and
2)  Honest, sincere answers to their genuine questions and concerns.

The first point is self-evident or at least it should be.  As to the second, the reason I teach the art the way I do is because the Grandmasters of the art say I should teach it this way. 

While this answer may be correct, it’s also unsatisfactory.  Grown adults need more substantial answers than “Because I said so!” especially if the one who says so has been dead for years!  However, the Grandmasters who did write their thoughts down took the trouble to prepare such an explanation, and I can do no better than direct the student to their own words.

From “Methods of Applying Taiji Boxing” by Grandmaster Yang Chengfu (1931)


The civil & martial in Taiji:

In Taiji, if you can cultivate your health but cannot fight with opponents, you have achieved the civil aspect, or if you can fight with opponents but do not know how to cultivate your health, you have achieved the martial aspect. The way of softness in Taiji is the true method of application in Taiji, for while it can teach people how to cultivate their health, it is also supplies the ability to deal with opponents. Build both health and self-defense simultaneously, for it is both the civil and martial aspects that make for

complete Taiji.

To practice Taiji Boxing, learning the applications is crucial. Even if you are someone who is only doing it to exercise your body, you still need to learn the applications, because if you do not learn the applications, you will get bored with it, like most of those who stick with it only halfway and then quit, with the ironic outcome that you will also have abandoned your body’s chance to be developed by the exercise. If you learn the applications, it is not for the purpose of fighting, but so that you may investigate the

subtleties of the theory with your fellow students:
You attack me, I neutralize it. I attack you, you adapt. There is a ceaseless flow of all sorts of transformations manifesting endlessly…

When you understand that within Taiji Boxing there are countless transformations, the joys of moving your hands and feet in this way will become more intriguing by the day, a constant and addictive pleasure. Then after years of practice, the body will be strong and

robust. Thus building up the body requires learning the applications. And of course it is even more important if you do also have it in mind to deal with opponents. Therefore to practice Taiji Boxing, it is essential to learn the applications in order to get it right.

From “Explaining Taiji Principles” by Grandmaster Yang Banhou (1875)

The civil quality is the substance. The martial quality is the application. The civil training within the martial application is a matter of the essence, energy, and spirit. It is the physical cultivation. The martial training of the civil substance is a matter of mind and body. It is the martial reality. The civil and martial qualities in the training process are a matter of when to coil and when to release. This is the basis of physical cultivation. The civil and martial qualities in a fighting situation are a matter of when best to store and

when best to issue. This is the foundation of martial reality.
It is said that a dose of civil in the martial makes it a softened physical exercise, the sinewy power of essence, energy, and spirit, while adding more martial to the martial would make it a hardened fighting drill, a solid effort of mind and body. The civil quality

without the martial quality at the ready would be just application without substance. The martial quality without the civil quality in tandem would be substance without application. Since one piece of wood will not support a whole building, and since you

cannot clap your hands with just one hand, this is not just a matter of health and fighting, but is a principle that applies to everything.


As far as the Way goes, without cultivating the self, there is no source from which to obtain it. It is separated into three vehicles for cultivation, “vehicle” meaning accomplishment. The greater vehicle takes you all the way to the top. The lesser vehicle gets you at least to the bottom. The middle vehicle is to succeed via sincerity. The methods are separated into three kinds of cultivation, but are working towards the same accomplishment.
Cultivation of the civil quality is internal. Cultivation of the martial quality is external. Physical training is internal. Martial affairs are external.
When the cultivation methods, both internal and external, surface and interior, are merged and achieved together, this is

a grand accomplishment, the top.
When one obtains the martial quality by way of the civil training or obtains the civil quality by way of the martial training, this is the middle.
When one knows only the civil training but knows nothing of the martial part of it or focuses on only the martial part of it but does not do the civil training, this is the bottom.

So I teach tai chi as a martial art that has long-term health benefits; and simultaneously, I teach it as exercise that has use as a martial art.  The two facets are complimentary.

We won’t derive the full benefits of health, well-being, balance, efficiency in movement and confidence in our environments unless we understand why we’re doing the postures and transitions.  This includes how the energy in them flows from one place to another within us, what “good structure” is supposed to feel like, when to be yielding and nebulous and when to be solid and firm.  This means we must learn the applications or the “martial.”  If the student insists on avoiding this aspect, it’s just graceful movement without any substance – like dance lessons without the opportunity of meeting a cute partner.

In exactly the same way, we can’t use tai chi as a martial art until we let go of old habits, learn to listen to what our bodies are constantly trying to tell us, relax and be open to new ways of doing.  This means we must learn the intent or the “civil.”  And in order to grow in tai chi, we must have each in more-or-less equal measure.  If the student insists on avoiding the work on this internal aspect, he’s turned away from the only thing that makes tai chi an effective martial art.

A reasonable middle-ground, whether one’s aim is the “civil,” the “martial” or both, is to approach the martial applications in the same way we might approach the abilities of the different pieces on a chess board.  The Queen moves in such-and-such a way, the pawns move like so, the knight can do this-and-that, etc.  So with the various postures and transitions…

When we play a game of chess (or any game we enjoy), we are usually playing with a friend; and while the goal of the game itself is to win, the goal of playing the game at all is enjoyment.  The game symbolizes a battle, but we don’t intend to leave our opponent-friend actually bloodied and humiliated.  We want to have a good time, play to the best of our abilities, and create a meaningful experience with another person.  Tai chi can be thought of in much the same way – when we’re interacting in push-hands, we want to keep upright; we don’t want our opponent-friend to topple us over, and he or she feels the same way.  But nothing bad happens, no matter what the outcome; we leave as friends, and hopefully learned something in order to do better next time. 

Approaching the art with a spirit of playful-but-focused inquisitiveness is probably the healthiest attitude we can have, no matter what our ultimate goal is.