Before assessing Taijiquan and its use for self-defence, certain logical ground rules must be established. Although in modern times Taijiquan can be used in a sporting or competitive setting – testing form and pushing hands through a point-scoring system – in philosophical essence and historical development, Taijiquan is not a sport, but a fully comprehensive martial art premised upon the principles contained within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). A Taijiquan form – regardless of style or length – equally emphasises both health maintenance and martial ability. However, according to the needs of each martial school, a short Taijiquan form might be used to emphasis health, whilst a long Taijiquan form might be used to emphasis self-defence – in either case – the opposite attribute is never abandoned, but merely re-organised through assigning a particular training prominence. Logic dictates that an individual can only participate in self-defence if a) they have trained in self-defence, b) experienced realistic martial situations, and c) gained an all-round appreciation of combat. Of course, Taijiquan self-defence IS NOT and never has been in anyway similar to modern combat sport, and cannot be compared to it. Taijiquan is far more subtle in principle and advanced in technique to be limited to this form of martial interaction. From a philosophical perspective, comparing Taijiquan with modern combat sport is a category error. Having made this clear, it is also important to understand that in many traditional Chinese martial arts schools, young people (and beginners in general) undergo a thorough training in a robust (external) martial arts method that toughens the bones, ligaments, tendons, muscle mass and inner organs, whilst simultaneously strengthening the mind. These systems of martial training involve extensive body-conditioning and bare-knuckle fighting (alongside weapons training), and quickly prepare a person for individual, community or national self-defence. These styles use (to varying degrees) a sophisticated brute force to destroy the enemy. It is only after mastering this dangerous, rugged and arduous path that a successful student is introduced to Taijiquan as a means of self-defence. This means that a martial arts student who can already hold their own in a violent encounter is fit to train in Taijiquan as a method of self-defence. Without this background in hard physical training and experience in real combative situations, it is very difficult for a student to understand Taijiquan at its most advanced levels. This is because Taijiquan was developed by martial artists that had survived a life-time of martial encounters, before creating Taijiquan as the summation of all their experience.
The Taijiquan form is NOT the method used in combat – but is merely the means through which the advanced technique that must be used in combat (in any manner suitable to the situation) is preserved and conveyed from one generation to the next. In this regard, the techniques of Taijiquan represent the ‘internal’ (i.e. ‘yin’) refinement of the ‘external’ (i.e. ‘yang’) martial systems, but it is the external systems that serve as the functional foundation of Taijiquan self-defence. Having made this clear, I am aware of Daoist priests in China who have never trained in any external style of martial arts, but who are renowned as being very effective (and dangerous) martial artists. How can this be? This can happen if an individual leaves society and lives a very pure and austere life-style free of the money and relationships that define ordinary existence. This form of meditative existence also requires an expert guidance from a fully qualified master. This type of mastery of Taijiquan is possible but is very rare.
However an individual arrives at Taijiquan mastery, the fact remains that the bones and joints are aligned (allowing the bodyweight to drop unhindered into the ground – creating an equal and opposite rebounding force), creating a rounded posture that deflects any incoming force – making the bones appear to have the density of concrete (thus damaging the opponent’s attacking limbs). This is internal iron vest. The musculature – although extensively trained though external exercises – is fully relaxed, but is able to contract at the exact point of impact of an incoming blow (protecting the inner organs) – this is external iron vest. The rebounding force generated from dropped bodyweight (referred to in the Chinese language as ‘combat qi’), can be instantaneously moved anywhere around the skeletal frame by an act of ‘will’ (or ‘intention’), and emitted through any part of the body without the requirement of ‘tensing’ muscles to generate the force. This allows for the massive generation of force where none would seem likely. This basic explanation maybe extrapolated through the individual movements of the Taijiquan form – using each set for particular self-defence applications – or deployed in free combat.