The following questions were answered by Calvin Chin in response to a survey sent out by T’ai Chi Magazine in preparation for its Millennium issue. The text appeared as the leading essay in "T’ai Chi 2000 Perspectives", however, here we have reformatted the content as answers to the original questions for easier reference.
Q. Who do you feel have been the most important people in the past century and in fact the history of T’ai Chi Ch’uan? What were their main achievements?
A. The most important people of the past century were the inheritors of the T’ai Chi systems. They were able to bring forth the teaching of the founding fathers. Without naming styles or systems in particular, all the masters of the prevalent Tai chi systems have to be credited for their accomplishment in preserving the art of Tai Chi.
In those days, they already realized they possessed a living treasure. And they nurtured this art and passed it on to their family and their disciples. These were people willing to devote their lives to learning and they became obligated to their teachers to pass on the tradition. Through this obligation they were able to preserve their teaching method and the insights they gained through research and development. Secrecy and closed-door teaching allowed Tai Chi to be preserved in its purest form.
Q. What do you feel were the most important developments in T’ai Chi Ch’uan? This could include the proliferation of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and the development of skills, its use for health fitness, etc.
A. The most important development of Tai Chi is that we now know through modern scientific evidence that Tai Chi is beneficial for health. While the Chinese have known this all along, without the support of the Western scientific community, it remained an obscure form of exercise for the elderly in China. There is still much to research, and more will be told of the virtues of Tai Chi. We need to stop thinking of Tai Chi in terms of an exercise for just the elderly or the retired senior, but an exercise that will help all contributing members of society to balance the stresses of modern life. While the world takes a quantum leap ahead in this new millennium, it’s nice to know that an ancient discipline is what we need to practice in order to stay centered. Tai Chi will someday be the preferred mind-body exercise because anyone can do it and the benefits are immediate and greater than any other form of exercise.
Q. What were some of the most difficult obstacles that were overcome during the past century and before?
A. The most obvious obstacle in the past was the fact that Tai Chi was kept within the family, and oral and written transmission were reserved to those of direct lineage. Tai Chi was passed to family members and those who diligently practiced, who were loyal to the system and to their teacher, and who were ready to receive the transmission. The practitioners were few and contained so that an outsider was not able to penetrate that circle unless there was a recommendation, as well as financial means. It wasn’t until Yang Lu-Chan, an outsider, began teaching to the masses that the art proliferated into what we have now.
Obstacles in learning remain the same throughout the centuries. People can’t wait for the transmission to occur. Becoming skilled at anything takes time, but generally there is not enough time allotted to gain the knowledge. Lack of patience leads to shortcuts, which inevitably leads to a dilution of the art.
Commercialism also became a double-edge sword because money became the driving force in teaching the art, whereas before it was preservation of a family art. On the other hand, commercialism allowed more people to learn and for the art to spread.
The biggest setback for T'ai Chi and all martial arts was during the Cultural Revolution when people were not able to practice freely and martial arts became outlawed. While tai chi and other martial arts diminished in China, it spread to the rest of the world as immigrants fled to safer havens, originally to other parts of Asia and eventually to the Western world. When China opened its gates again to the rest of the world, its rich culture was promoted and martial arts became standardized and simplified in the process. This had its pros and cons too, allowing more people to learn, but this ultimately diluted and changed the virtues of the traditional form.
Q. What do you feel are the key problems to be face in the growth of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in a new century? How do you think they will be handled or should be handled?
A. The problems now are the same as in the previous century. With more T’ai Chi practitioner, the less quality control there is, and T’ai Chi begins to lose its integrity. What will happen this century is that this will become more widespread as T’ai Chi becomes increasingly popular and mainstream.
The problem is that whenever there is money to be made, someone without qualifications or the necessary credentials will take advantage of the trend and offer their take on T’ai Chi. This is already happening with T’ai Chi, but more so in the case of qigong, where imitation is easier to pass on. The public does not know the complexities of T’ai Chi or that it is even a martial art. It is the martial arts principles and concepts that give T’ai Chi its substance and the depth that is essential for it to be classified as an art. But not everyone can teach it as an art.
What will occur in the new century is that there will be lots of imitation T’ai Chi out there and the public won’t know the difference. These eclectic styles will be passed on as authentic, and there will be fewer traditionalists amongst T’ai Chi practitioners. I do not, however, foresee long-term practitioners in these eclectic systems since the depth won’t be there to hold the interest.
Traditional teachers need to be more organized and systematic in their teaching to produce qualified instructors who can preserve the art. The traditionalists will have to teach openly and encourage those qualified to pass it to the next generation.
Today, most martial artists remain selfish about their art, as if it’s their special thing that others cannot relate to. Worse yet, some want to keep the art as a treasure, as if it were the last vestige of the previous millennium. All this impedes progress. Most never reach mastery because they are without proper guidance and lack the patience to stick with it.
Q. Who do you think will be the key figures in the development of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in the near future? Why? What do you think are the accomplishments of such figures as Yang Lu Ch’an, Chen Fake, Yang Cheng-fu, Wu Chien-chuan, Ma Yueh-liang, Chen Zhaoping, Sun Lu-tang, Chen Man-ch-ing? Are there any others that you feel made notable contributions?
A. All who teach have a part in shaping the development of T’ai Chi. While it is inevitable that there will be new styles and teaching method developed, it is up to the traditionalists to preserve the art of T’ai Chi. Traditional systems are the hardest to learn and teachers must be able to be more informative about the benefits of T’ai Chi and provide the guidance necessary for individuals to learn the complex theories and concepts.
New students need to be motivated and their interest constantly stimulated. Today is a different time. Students need to know where they can go with T’ai Chi, so teachers have to be open and flexible in their approach. The responsibility of a teacher is to put time in to develop a successful teaching method, and to persevere when obstacles are faced.
It is the beginning experience that makes the difference in capturing the long-term practitioner. All individuals should have a positive experience learning T’ai Chi, and teachers have a responsibility to adapt their methods so everyone can learn and gain. The responsibility of all teaches of this century is to be more sensitive, more aware, and to listen to their students’ needs by responding or answering.
These traits found in T’ai Chi should not only be practice in the form, but also in our way of teaching. In fact, all the lessons in T’ai Chi can be cultivated in our daily activities. The key figures are the teachers who will be able to put themselves into their student’s shoes and reflect on the past and the obstacles overcome. They will not only have the technical knowledge, but the creativity to adapt methods that will be successful for different learners.
Q. What do you think is the outlook for the growth of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in the new century? How might it grow? Any roadblocks? Are there changes that will have to be made to attract a greater interest? Are there things that should not be changed?
A. The advent of technology lends itself in various ways. On the one hand, it broadens the audience for T’ai Chi. On the other hand, T’ai Chi loses its dimensions. However there is definitely room for technology to assist in the education process. A single teacher cannot compete with technology in reaching a vast audience, but an infinite amount of technology cannot produce a skilled practitioner in the same way that a qualified teacher is able to. Throughout history, T’ai Chi has been passed from one teacher to a student. Learning needs to be interactive and there has to be an interchange between student and teacher. A teacher wants a student to become better, and a student performs so as not to disappoint a teacher. Technology cannot duplicate the human side of learning.
Q. What do you feel might be T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s contribution to society in the new century?
A. T’ai Chi’s growth will be tremendous in this century as people will find that in a fast-moving society, and an aging society, that there is a definite need for a form of exercise that will allow peace of mind.
T’ai Chi will fill this void and will become the prescribed cure-all. Today we have captured the elderly population, as T’ai Chi becomes an acceptable means of hedging against the aging process and ailments generated by a fast-moving society. My forecast is extremely positive for T’ai Chi. T'ai Chi is a classic, and it will endure.