T’ai-chi ch’uan, also spelled taijiquan and tai chi chuan, is a martial art that many people practice for promoting good health, balance and for stress reduction. The interest in it as a martial art has resurrected in recent years, as has t’ai-chi competition. Some instructors promote realism and competition by advocating the use of force. Others believe relaxation is the key. Who is correct?

There are some basic questions that need to be answered. Can a soft art be effective in combat? Does competition turn a high level art into just another version of “Point karate” and modern dance? How does the evolution of the art effect technique? In t’ai-chi ch’uan spirit and softness are not incompatible.

Over the last twenty years as an exercise physiologist I had the opportunity to work with some incredibly powerful athletes. I was in charge of human performance testing for many professional sports teams such as the Los Angeles Rams, Lakers, Dodgers, and Kings. I also worked with Benny the Jet, Howard Jackson and Sho Kosugi’s Karate team, and was consultant for Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield and his power lifters.

Dr. Hatfield was built like a tank, could squat over a thousand pounds and was trained in aikido. I worked with football players who could do a single cybex leg extension of over 360 foot/pounds, and literally blow out the hydraulics of strength testing devices. Those men, plus the powerful martial artists I worked with give me a clear view of the meaning of human power. It is hard to understand when you don't meet these powerful men and women.

Then in contrast there are the middleweight t’ai-chi ch’uan students who delude themselves by using force against force, as is seen in many pushing hands competitions. Many strong competitors do very well for points against average strength students. They may get away with it, but how realistic is that against the likes of a pro football player who kicked boxed as a youth and can bench press 500 pounds. I think the highest t’ai-chi principle is best, “You don’t want them to touch you!”

I observed many styles over the last 30 years and studied with Masters. I appreciate the “artistic differences” of the styles, but also know there are many off the mark offshoots. Lately I have found more masters recommending the use of force. That puzzles me. Lets explore the concept of relaxation and power generation.


From the dawn of history innovations and modifications of systems were made which evolved individual styles. This process represents the art in “Martial art”. Changes took place for many reasons including temperament, aesthetics and the response to new techniques and technology. It seems the great masters and innovators were influenced by many different sources. Today arguments over the best style continue. Though, noncritical thinking may be the real problem. No doubt it was the same story 200 years ago, of followers and innovators. According to grand master Tchoung Ta-tchen, evolution is part of the art. With technological advances we must change, that is a Taoist concept.
Recently many instructors have been focusing on the merits of using force in t’ai-chi ch’uan to promote realism or feeling “ch’i” (bio-electric energy). For example, some instructors teach pushing with the hands in sort of a dynamic tension sort of way, with force. By pushing the palms the students think they are feeling ch’i, but what they feel is muscle tension in the palm. It is easy to get side tracked into thinking one is feeling ch’i thereby reinforcing tense hands. In reality the feeling is muscle tension. Some call this hard ch’i or hard “chin” (jin). Tchoung Ta-tchen recommends relaxing the hands and wrists allow the ch’i to flow to the finger tips. Tension in the hands blocks ch’i and reduces sensitivity which is necessary for applications. Using force in the hands would be an example of “hard” version of t’ai-chi ch’uan.

There are softer styles and harder styles of t’ai-chi ch’uan. This may be confusing, as in the larger pugilistic community, kung-fu is considered “soft” when compared to karate. Even though there are kung-fu systems that match any karate style in terms of power, tension and speed. T’ai-chi ch’uan is considered the softest of the kung-fu systems. Hardness means the use of muscular effort and tension. The harder the style means more effort used, greater muscle tension, and the use of force to overwhelm an opponent. In all martial arts both soft and hard can be found, it is just a matter of degree. What then is hard and soft in t’ai-chi ch’uan? Why do many t’ai-chi ch’uan fighters maintain the soft version is more devastating than the versions that use force? By exploring the evolution of the art we can gain some perspective.


Chang San-feng (1279-1368 A.D.) is the legendary creator of CHANG CH’UAN, long boxing, later to be called t’ai chi ch’uan. After subsequent evolution five major styles and a seemingly infinite number of sub-styles emerged. While historians disagree if Chang really existed, according to Professor Douglas Wile, “If Chang San-feng did not exist as the father of t’ai-chi ch’uan, it would be necessary to invent him... Starry-eyed students would feel cheated by pedestrian accounts of sweaty men punching each other around in the backyard.” (2) The mythology of Chang set the magical tone of the art. Later the popular Yang and Wu styles evolved.

In another trend many hard stylists studied t’ai-
chi ch’uan to supplement their art. By combining hard and soft they often end up with a power and force based system. Many hard stylists find their performance improves by practicing t’ai-chi ch’uan. Yet modifying the art to being force based system makes it into another art. If the student does not give up the hard and internalize the art, even if the postures look right, they are not doing t’ai-chi ch’uan.

According to Tchoung Ta-tchen, a well known T’ai-chi ch’uan and ch’i gung master in Vancouver, British Columbia, “Each style has its own merits, you can’t say there is a good style or bad style. Everyone can study t’ai-chi, (including) old men and women.” Tchoung maintains all styles are good as long as the basic concepts are practiced. The most basic concept is to relax and concentrate on proper mechanics.

As part of his curriculum Tchoung also teaches Pa
kua chang and Hsing-I ch’uan, but he emphasises the t’ai-chi concept of relaxation with them. He claims that if you practice these arts with tension it will in turn cause your t’ai-chi to become hard. This is especially seen in people who do hard styles of kung-fu and t’ai-chi. If you practice with force you will get stiff, one art carries its energy back to the other. He claims his friend Cheng Man-ching had an extremely soft style and was top notch at push hands and applications. Cheng developed a controversial and sophisticated style which emphasized relaxation and yielding to force.


In softness there is real power. Some of the
best athletes I have worked with are very relaxed. Cheng Manching style is one of the softest versions of t’ai-chi. Many people who criticize the softer (Cheng) form do so because they are looking at poor examples of the art. There are several offshoots. Experts claim those people either studied briefly or missed something, because they simply do not do the same energetic art Cheng did. It is easy to learn the 37 movement form without doing it correctly. Cheng’s short form was easy to parrot but be spiritless with a complete absence of alacrity in their art. If you do Cheng’s style properly there is spirit and alertness, the student should not be a zombie. (9) The state of relaxation in t’ai-chi is developed both through the requisite mental state and also through conscientious practice of physical principles such as sinking of the elbows, relaxing and dropping the shoulders, keeping the head erect, and proper use of the hip joint.

Relaxation is the key to power. You get more powerful when you are relaxed. People who say to use force don’t understand the biomechanics at all. Many believe Cheng and Tchoung raised the level of t’ai-chi ch’uan by emphasizing what was truly important. The softer arts are the next evolution in t’ai-chi ch’uan and to go back to using force toward external strength would be a step backward. Cheng would talk about investing in loss. It is better to relax and loose at push hands then win and be tight.


Ch’en style is considered by many to be hard. But that is not the case. The most difficult thing to do is to let go of force. According to Andrew Dale, Seattle based instructor of Ch’en style, “When applying a movement or technique, if you feel the power involved you’re blocking your power and strength. It’s being held inside you instead of permitting it to be released, i.e. fa-chin (fajin). Any feeling of work, strength, and power is a blockage of the chin.” Dale emphasizes, “Any application should be an easy flow, noneffort, non-strength. That’s when the chin is being released.” Dale responds to instructors who advocate the use of force as misunderstanding the terms. When the top masters talk about force their interpreters are probably confusing strength, LI, with internal power, CHIN. Dale feels that in t’ai chi you don’t use external strength and push hands should not use force. Dale believes that push hands is inappropriate for competition. According to Dale, “Applications should be like snapping your fingers.”(4)

Ch’en style is considered to be hard by some, as it seems to use force and has fast movements. In observing highly rated Ch’en Masters shows the form to be relaxed and balanced, even during fast movements. (5)

Dale said, “I don’t think there is a hard or soft style. If one is hard (using strength) he is doing it wrong.” If ones temperament is such to want to use force it is easy to put strength and extraneous movement into any style. It is harder to relax than to tense up, and if you practice using force, then force becomes a bad habit.

To be good, t’ai-chi does not have to be pretty. It should be done for individual benefit not group performance. To pose in stances, and do squatting movements to look good are a waste of time and can be dangerous. Some schools focus on a cult of the teacher, rather than a critical and introspective study of the t’ai-chi principles and techniques. This develops a student who can never realize his or her potential.

Will competition strengthen or bring the demise of the subtle art? Form competition promotes posturing. Posturing is an affectation and is a fault of many t’ai-chi competitors. By posturing or making dramatic movements for effect, one looses the traditional martial aspect of that art and it becomes a dance. Traditionalists believe Wushu or performance t’ai-chi ch’uan should compete in a special category as they have a different goal than the martial art.


Tui-shou, Pushing hands is a partner sensitivity exercise and precedes sparring. No external strength should be used when practicing pushing hands. It is just an exercise used develop certain skills rather than an end into itself. To tense up and use force teaches bad habits. Any short term gain by winning by using force is really a long term loss. To make a competition of it is a only inviting the use of force. Though there are those who compete and win using force, it works for them. Some instructors believe real competition in t’ai chi should not be in push hands, but in sparring. There is no reason t’ai chi competitors should not occasionally spar. But, pushing hands is not sparring. People who think so are deluding themselves. You could push people over all day but get knocked out in ten seconds by a real fighter, if you don’t practice sparring, if fighting is your goal. But most t’ai-chi student are not interested in sparring so that is a mute point. The two person t’ai-chi form called san shou is taught along with rou shou - applications and chin-na - joint locking, to give a controlled sense of applications.


Factors such as body type, temperament, one’s teacher, and prior training will modify the art. A small deviation in training can change the total face of the art. For example one place hardness is seen is in the hands. To teach using force in the hands is an example of a teaching error.

The student’s temperament, interest, and comfort
will influence technique. More aggressive students with a bent on fighting will learn differently than those who are relaxed and easy going. Some people seem to like the feel of muscle tension or for some reason are not able to let go of tension; while others revel in stoned out flaccidity. If the student and teacher are aware of this proclivity then it can be worked on, but first one must have the desire to let go of bad habits.

Another factor that affects how a student learns is prior training. If a student learned a hard style such as Shaolin or karate, versus studying yoga or dance, the quality of movement will be affected. The prior training, if conflicting, will have to be let go. Old reflexes may persist, as well as any attitude the previous training brought with it. The emphasis on what is learned as well as how the body is held will be influenced by previous physical training.

The higher art is to relax and try not to use force, but at the same time not to fall into blase listlessness. Sink the ch’i to the tan t’ien and let the body be supple. If you let go of force your art will progress. Softness and reality based training are compatible.

1. Dave Harris T’ai-chi ch’uan & Aikijujitsu instructor interview .
2. Douglas Wile, T’ai-chi Touchstones, Sweet Ch’i Press, 1983, translators note.
3. Bob Engel, Multiple Interviews
4. Andrew Dale, Interview
5. Special demonstration Montery Park for visiting Master Gao Fu ranked in Hunyan Ch’en style in Communist China (I was the only non-Chinese Demonstrator), CA 1990
6.Kurland, H., NWTCCA Fact Sheet, 1985.
7. Kurland, H., Relaxation is the key, 1998

Harvey Kurland is a well known t’ai-chi ch’uan
instructor, exercise physiologist and writer. Kurland is certified by the Chinese T'ai Chi Ch'uan Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and National Strength and Conditioning Association. He
teaches for the University of California
Riverside, Riverside Community College, and Loma Linda University Drayson
Center. More at www.dotaichi.com

Author's Bio: 

Harvey Kurland is a tai chi chuan instructor and exercise physiologist. He was the Director of Exercise Physiology of the National Athletic Health Institute and Wellness Director for the Community College of Spokane. He is certified by the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan Association, American College of Sports Medicine and National Strength and Conditioning Association. Kurland Teaches for the University of California Riverside, Loma Linda University Drayson Center and Riverside Community College. http://www.myspace.com/hkurland