Welcome to the “Ten Principles” blog.
Although I am someone who teaches Tai Chi Ch’uan, I always choose to think of myself and to introduce myself as a student of the art. It’s not false modesty. At the time of writing, I have only been studying the art for eight years, regularly interrupted by old injuries from a car accident. Eight years is not a long time to have been a student of Tai Chi! I hold no recognised qualifications in the art; unlike the Japanese arts with their grading systems, Tai Chi only uses belts to hold one’s pants up. The majority of my training has been limited to the form. My knowledge of push hands and the martial applications of the form are far more theoretical than practised and honed.
By any sensible way of measuring such things, I am still at the beginning of learning this most excellent of arts. To say that I am not still a student would be a colossal over-statement of my progress and ability to date. Any yet, here I am, also teaching the art. What’s going on there?
My own teacher, Robert Earl Taylor, has long recognised that teaching others is a vital part of our own learning process. Teaching forces us to confront our own understanding, and our own assumptions. When we learn mostly on our own, we are free to cover up our own gaps with a mixture of blindness and false assertions. Contrary to popular wisdom, we are not always our own worst critics, especially when taking on a new field where our opportunities to apply what we think we have learned are few. But it is difficult to escape a hall full of eager students, each looking to us for satisfactory answers to their questions and scepticism. These students, these wonderful people who are joining us for a time; they provide an important challenge to our own skills and knowledge. I teach what I know of the art in order to make me a better student.
That’s not the only reason I teach. In a world where every Tai Chi teacher claims to have the “one true style”, I’m privileged to have been taught a style that normally resonates well with students. Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan is the Ng family’s own take on the popular Yang Style. Robert learned the art here in Cardiff from Dr. Louis Ng, who (as I understand it) in turn learned the art from his grandfather before the family left Asia for Europe. It appears very similar to the Yang Style taught by the famous Cheng Man-Ching in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, and contains many of the same moves and shapes. For his part, Robert has ensured that the form he has taught to his students maintains both the health and martial aspects; that it adheres to the underlying principles that are the true essence of Tai Chi, and that it is accessible to all students through the use of simple, organic measures and attributes. By teaching this art, I am playing my part in ensuring that it survives my generation of Tai Chi players. If others come to remember my contribution simply as a teacher of Tai Chi, I shall be content, as my duty to the art will have been fulfilled.
But I will always prefer to think of myself as a student first and foremost. There is simply so much to learn about playing Tai Chi, about what we play and why, and about applying it not only for health and self defence, but also to other aspects of our lives. The habit of being constantly open to new ideas, information, and interpretation is vital. We can’t accept the old simply because it is what we have been taught. It must be challenged; it must be able to stand up to reasonable scrutiny. Otherwise, our own knowledge of the art is a sham; we are no more than parrots repeating something we don’t understand, and what we pass on to the next generation is nothing more than an echo of the art. Along the way, mistakes are going to be made, misunderstandings will occur, and there’ll be plenty of blind alleys for us to chase down. But we have to try anyway. Otherwise, even the most basic fundamentals of Tai Chi such as its history as a martial art can be lost. (Alas, I’m not exaggerating here. Many other martial artists don’t believe that Tai Chi is a martial art, and there are Tai Chi teachers who teach that Tai Chi was never a martial art).
Why call this blog “Ten Principles?” Our Tai Chi style consists of cultural exercises, the form, and push hands drills. These physical activities are guided by ten key principles, and it is only when a student has attained all of these ten principles that they are proficient in their daily practice of the form. Principle-based learning is one of the key benefits of Tai Chi, and it is the main tool that students such as myself ultimately use to guide ourselves day to day. “Ten Principles” therefore seems like a fitting reminder not of the ultimate destination of all Tai Chi players (which is to master investing in loss), but of the minimum standard that I hope to help all of my students to achieve.
I’m currently teaching on Tuesday evenings. My aim is to update this blog most Wednesday mornings with topics inspired by the previous day’s class, as well as other ad hoc posts on further subjects