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What are TaijiQuan, Qigong and Wushu?

Taiji Quan

The Chinese characters for Taiji Quan (or T'ai Chi Ch'uan) can translate as "the supreme ultimate force", a notion often associated with the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, the dynamic duality that is present in all things. Also known as "ultimate energy boxing", Taiji has a philosophical background: that of Taoism, the Chinese tradition first associated with the scholar and mystic Lao Tsu. Taoism fundamentally espouses a calm, reflective and mystic view of the world steeped in the beauty and tranquillity of nature, and accordingly it is in the natural motions of animals and birds that its creators found their inspiration.

Taiji as we know it today is the fruit of a long evolution that began steeped in martial arts and is now centered on dynamic meditation and the notion of Qi. In Chinese philosophy and medecine, Qi is the vital force that animates the body: one of the aims of Taiji is to foster the circulation of Qi to enhance the practitioner's health and vitality, in ways that are directly related to oriental healing arts such as acupuncture.

Another aim of Taiji is to achieve a calm and tranquil mind, focused on the precise execution of specific exercises. Learning to do them correctly develops awareness of and skill in balance, alignment, fine-scale motor control, rhythm, the genesis of movement from the body's vital center, and so on. For comparison's sake, Taiji can be thought of as a moving form of yoga and meditation combined.

The essence of Taiji is distilled in sequences of movements known as forms or dances, which are performed slowly and gracefully. The forms crystallize much of the Taiji teachings, and therefore make up the core of most classes.

Martial applications of Taiji are not entirely forgotten; Tui Shou or Push Hands, for instance, is a category of partner exercises that develop sensitivity and responsiveness to another person's Qi.

Some of the benefits of Taiji Quan:

- The practice improves postural alignment, movement patterns, balance, breathing etc.

- The meditative nature of the exercises is calming and relaxing in and of itself.

- Taiji Quan exercises evolve with the practitioner and can cater to all ages, temperaments and physical abilities.

- The discipline is a wonderful tool for self-discovery by appreciating the outer/inner movements; creating bridges with flowing models of identification, and therefore with Life itself.

Qi Gong

Qi Gong (or Chi Kung) means "Energy Cultivation". This practice improves health and longevity as well as increase the sense of harmony within oneself and in the world. The principles of Qi Gong are simple, but it takes years of practice to truly grasp and apply them: the mind is the presence of the intention, the eyes its focus, the movement its action, and the breath its flow.

Qi Gong is part of the family of inner martial arts, Nei Gong, that cultivate access to energies that are not ordinarily used. Exercises characteristically involve little or no movement from the muscles, but intense inner work and Qi manipulation. Ultimately the aim of Qi Gong is harmonious existence and action in all situations.

The practice of Qi Gong:

- Boosts the immune system and enhances the body's natural healing power.

- Awakens mental abilities (clarity of focus and intention, creativity,...)

- Slows the aging process

- Lowers high blood pressure

- Develops resilience- Creativity, responsiveness and a fluid balance in the body

- Cultivates subtle awareness


Wushu is the correct term for all Chinese martial arts, the roots of which date back many thousands of years. Literally translated, wu is "military", shu is "art": Wushu is therefore the "art of fighting", or Martial Art(s).

China considers Wushu to be one of its great cultural treasures. Today, it has been organised by the Chinese into a formal branch of study under performance arts, and is the country's most popular national sport.

Wushu offers two orientations:

  • Contemporary (or Modern) Wushu, which includes the many categories for competition like Changquan (Long-range Boxing) and Nanquan (Southern Boxing) along with a number of standardized traditional styles: Eagle Claw, Mantis, Bagua, Ditang, etc.
  • Traditional Wushu, often designated as Kung Fu, which remains a fighting practice. Traditional Wushu preserves all the combative meaning of the original styles.

Furthermore, Wushu can be divided into external and internal styles. The best knowx external styles are Changquan and Nanquan, characterized by speed and powerful movements. Internal styles include Taiji Quan, Bagua and Xing Yi.

To understand Wushu, one needs to understand the philosophy of its teaching. Every movement must exhibit both sensible combat application and aesthetics. The richness of the contents of Wushu, the beauty of its movements, the added-difficulty factor, and the scientific training methods are the elements that set Wushu apart from other martial arts. Movement sequences known as routines or forms are performed in solo, pairs or groups, and may be barehanded or using one of the many traditional Chinese weapons : staff, sabre, sword, 9-section whip, 3-section cudgel, etc. All this makes Wushu a highly exciting martial art to watch or better yet, practice. Much emphasis is placed on speed, difficulty and presentation, making Wushu an athletic and aesthetic performance as well as a competitive sport that may be entered in the Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing.

The 7 virtues of Wushu Gongfu

1. 坚持 Jiān Chí: Perseverance. "A forward step depends on the previous step."

2. 简单 Jiǎn Dān: Simplicity. "Simplicity is the way, observe the small daily things and life will light your inner gaze."

3. 智慧 Zhì Huì: Wisdom. "Being too attached to manifestations is cause of illusion."

4. 善良 Shàn Liáng: Goodness. "Goodness is not found at the end of the path, it must be found in oneself."

5. 谦逊 Qiān Xùn: Humility. "No thing should one run after, or want to escape from."

6. 真诚 Zhēn Chéng: Sincerity. "To not say something false is the basis for all just action."

7. 慷慨 Kāng Kǎi: Generosity. "Generosity is like the sound of a watercourse; take as much as you wish, it is inexhaustible."

Types of Qi in the body

1. 原气 Yuán Qì: "Original energy". This Qi is received from one's parents and stocked in the kidneys. It is the most important kind of Qi in the body, and the motor source of vital activity. A body containing sufficient Yuàn Qì is healthy and strong, otherwise it is vulnerable to all sorts of disease. Yuàn Qì must be strengthened by the three types of nutritive Qi below.

2. 宗气 Zōng Qì: "Ancestral energy". A combination of Qi from the air we breathe and the nutritive energy from digested food, it is stocked in the thorax and activates pulmonary breathing and blood circulation in the heart.

3. 营气 Yíng Qì: "Nutritive energy". It is mostly generated by the transformation of nutrients absorbed by the spleen and stomach, in other words it is the Qi contained in the food. It is a component of the blood and circulates throughout the whole body. Its main physiological function is to feed the "tissus du corps" and produce blood.

4. 卫气 Wèi Qì: "Defensive energy". Also originating in the food we eat, it circulates outside the blood vessels and in the interstitial spaces of the body. Its function is to protect the body against "energie perverse". It also controls the opening and closing of the spaces sudoripares to regulate body temperature.

The lifespan of the body is closely connected to that of its Yuàn Qì. Qi Gong feeds this Original Energy, thereby keeping the body in good condition much longer. It achieves this by adjusting the mind, the posture and the breathing in such a way as to act upon the entire body in the following ways:

  • Autoregulating the organism's functional activities
  • Maintaining its dynamic balance
  • Stocking energy
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Regulating Yin and Yang, blood and energy
  • Favouring the opening of the meridians and the external emission of energy

Based on Quintessence du Qigong, Dr Jian Liujun

Glossary of commonly used terms

丹田 Dantian: Situated 5 cm under the belly button, inside the abdomen, it is the most important point of Qi storage in the body.

定点 Dingdian: “fixed points”, or ending postures of the forms, where one must actually accomplish “seems to stop, does not stop”. They “must be understood to be both the culmination of one sequence as well as the beginning of the next”.

懂勁 Dong Jin: “Understanding strength”, which is the Taiji principle of leading an opponent’s force away so that it is useless and then uprooting him. 形 Xing: Form.

发劲 Fa Jin: “To send out strength”, which is to express effective explosive power through the body. “Store energy (蓄劲 xu jin) as though drawing a bow; issue energy as though releasing an arrow.”

功夫 Gongfu: time and labor devoted to an art; efficacious efforts and the fruits thereof. Quotes from the Classics: The qi should be excited, the shen should be internally gathered. Throughout the body, the yi relies on the jing shen, not on the qi.

劲 Jin: Energy or strength that results from the integrated use of body and consciousness, in contrast to li. It is written with a character that contains the li character associated with another character meaning “flowing water”. “The emphasis is not upon strength, but upon its integration, its adaptability, and its appropriate use in yielding and responding”. It also implies the presence of yi.

精神 Jing Shen: Spirit of vitality.

胯 Kua: translated as hips, thighs or inner thighs, but more specifically defined as “the area on each side of the body extending from the inguinal ligaments through the inside of the pelvis to the top of the hip bones”.

力 Lì: Muscular strength (written with a character representing a flexed arm).

力法 Lì Fa: the skill of Mastering the Force.

神 Shen: Spirit, mental liveliness.

松 Song: Relaxed, loosened. Etymologically it describes a state like “long hair that hangs down” and is close to the English notion of tonus, or the partial contraction of the muscles that allows one to maintain balance and upright posture. Verb: 放松 Fang Song, to relax.

氣 Qì: “Breath”, The life energy that courses through the body and is present in the cosmos. The character represents steam rising from rice that is being cooked.

心 Xin: mind/heart

腰 Yao: translated as waist, but “understood as the small of the back, or the lumbar spine and the muscles and tissues that extend out from and surround the lumbar vertebrae. This includes the lower abdomen as a physical center of gravity, but the emphasis is on the central point.”

意 Yi: consciousness or mind-intent.

重心 Zhongxin: Physical center of gravity as opposed to dantian, but closely related in location and concept.

The Tao in TaijiQuan

Student essay by Joumana Medlej.

The following paper was presented as a student research and only covers a portion of the ways in which the philosophy of the Tao is expressed in the martial art of Taiji Quan.

I. Taoism: Elements, principles, aims

 Taoism (pronounced Daoism), although one of China's official religions, is originally a philosophy that has at its heart the book known as the Tao Te Ching. Its aim being the understanding of the laws that govern change, it has elaborated a system made up of several notions that are supposed to help man make sense of the universe and his place in it. 

  • The Tao

 The word Tao (Dao) refers to the Universe's guiding force and can be roughly translated as "the path" or "the way". The underlying meaning is that it refers to the power that is behind the way the manifest and non-manifest Universe functions. 

  • Yin and Yang 

In its manifestation the Tao expresses itself in sets of complementary notions, the simplest and first of which is the notion of duality. Taoism classifies opposites as being Yin or Yang. It is the interplay of the opposing yet complementary Yin and Yang that allowed Taiji, the "supreme ultimate" or Cosmos to be born of Wu Ji, the Great Void, by turning stillness into motion*. Yin and Yang can be understood respectively as the receptive principle and the emissive principle, where the ultimate Yin object is the Earth and the ultimate Yang object the Sun ("Yin is the breath that formed the Earth, Yang is the breath that formed the Heavens"). Accordingly, notions such as night, woman, dark are mostly Yin while day, man, light are mostly Yang. It should be pointed out however that the classification depends largely on context, as even an apparently Yang object can be Yin compared to an even more active one in a given situation.

 The opposites do not oppose each other immoveably as they do in Western systems. They are locked into a cycle with no beginning or end, where one flows out of the other to grow; when it reaches its peak it contains the seed of the other, and transforms into it. This process is illustrated by the well-known, though very abused symbol of the 2 black and white "fish" where the Yin and Yang together make up the whole that is known as the Taiji. 

  • The 5 Elements

 If we consider the Yin-Yang to be a vertical axis in Tao philosophy, the horizontal axis would be occupied by the principle of the 5 Elements or 5 Phases (Wu Xing): Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, originally the 5 parts of the sky. To each element corresponds a cardinal direction, body organ, emotion, energy, food, etc. All five are linked together by 2 different cycles, one of Creation (Metal creates Water which Creates Wood etc) and one of Destruction or Domination (Metal destroys Wood which destroys Earth, etc). One needs to keep in mind that the Wu Xing function as a metaphorical diagram that allows easy remembrance of interrelationships by creating a logical organisation for otherwise disparate objects (logical within the Chinese culture). For instance if you know that the lungs belong to the Metal element and you have breathing issues, the nature of the problem could be found in an excess of something of Fire nature – and the solution to neutralize the Fire would come from the Water category, such as an exercise or kind of food. 

  • The 8 Trigrams

 The 8 trigrams are a set of symbols that elaborate on the dynamics of Yin and Yang by taking one step further than the duality of the basic theory and introducing different states that correspond to different amounts of yin and yang present together. In each trigram, a straight line represents yang and a broken one yin. The first trigram, Qian, corresponding to the creative act that sets things in motion from nothingness, is pure yang, and the last, Kun, is pure yin. The 6 in between represent the evolution of the one to the other with the progressive addition of yin energy to the pure yang. Each is assigned a name (lake, mountain, river…) but symbolically the two polar trigrams are referred to as the father and the mother, with the 6 other the 1st, 2nd and 3rd son and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd daughter.

 In the Book of Changes, which legend says was written by the mythical founder of the Chinese civilisation, the trigrams are paired up to produce a total of 64 hexagrams. They cover every possible aspect of human life and were therefore used for divination. 

  1. Principles of the Taoist path

 The ultimate goal is to become one with the Tao. To achieve this, Wu Wei (Non Action) and Wu Xin (No Mind) are fundamental principles. They do not literally mean passivity but rather achieving action through minimal action and without struggle. A sentence from the TTC expresses the state on should seek to maintain: "Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river." 

II. Taoism in TaijiQuan

 We have seen that Taoism seeks to understand the laws governing change in the universe. TaijiQuan is the physical manifestation of this philosophy, seeking to embody those changes to move in complete harmony, in the natural way of things. Its status as an inner martial art means it was one way of understanding the Tao by living it rather than intellectualizing it. 

  • Tao in the principles of TaijiQuan: Non Action

 Flowing with the Tao by applying Wu Wei and Wu Xin allows changes to happen naturally, and therefore effortlessly. This was used in daily life and political rule, but it is also the cornerstone of Taiji Quan. Muscle contraction and the energy consumption that it causes are minimized thanks to a deep understanding of how to create movement and power using natural laws such a Qi circulation, gravity (shifting weight) and the properties of circular movements, governed by Yi, the intention. Water is the ultimate illustration of Taiji Quan movements, as it is a substance that resists nothing, always follows the path of least resistance, yet can never be grasped, compressed or struck. As expressed in the TTC: "Of the softest things in the world, nothing is softer than water. Any hard objects in the way will be defeated by water. Water never changes. Hence soft defeats hard, weak defeats strong." (This is why Taiji theory notes that movements should be like "iron inside cotton".) Like water, a Taiji practitioner flows along or over an attack.

 The flowing and spreading movements also make for a harmonious energy flow in the body and therefore promote health. The TTC says: "Plants when they enter life are soft and tender, when they die they are dry and stiff". It is with this in mind that Taiji insists on the power and qualities of softness rather than strength. 

  • Tao in the movement of TaijiQuan: Yin and Yang

 As mentioned above, the so-called Yin-Yang symbol is more accurately called the Taiji symbol. It is not by accident that the martial art of Taiji Quan bears the same name. "The" Taiji follows an uninterrupted rising and falling cycle that goes through the two phases of Yin and Yang; Taiji Quan is no more and no less than movement based on this principle, and its name of "supreme ultimate fist" can therefore be understood as "Fist based on the laws of the universe". What happens in the 2-fish symbol can be spotted in the way one movement is born as soon as the previous one dies, without ever reaching a place of physical stillness. The constant perfect heaven/earth balance is maintained by the palms facing respectively heaven and earth when not striking, and by the shifting of weight between full and empty in the legs. The still centre is identified with the Dan Tian, whose position is that of the body's centre of gravity. 

Further than just in one's own body, the Yin-Yang theory expands to another's in the practice of Tuishou, where again the movement knows no beginning or end (the goal is not to end the cycle by winning) and is created by the interplay of Yin and Yang action between the two practitioners. 

  • Tao in the forms of TaijiQuan: the 5 elements and the 8 trigrams

 The creators of Taiji Quan directly based themselves on the systems of the 5 Elements and 8 Trigrams to create what is known as the 13 Postures: 5 Steps (leg movements) corresponding to each element, and 8 Gates (arm strikes) associated to each trigram. They are the following:

 Five Steps: 





Jin Bu



Tui Bu



Zuo Gu

Left step


You Pan

Right step


Zhong Ding

Remain in center


 Eight Gates: 






Ward off



Roll back









Pull down






Elbow stroke



Shoulder stroke



Each of these basic movements seeks to express the energy of the element or trigram it is based on. Therefore the movements inscribe themselves into the relational diagrams discussed above, and stringing or countering can be done in accordance to the same rules. 

  • Tao in the 10 Essentials of TaijiQuan

 The Taiji Quan classics have boiled down the art's theory to a set of principles known as the 10 Essentials. Half of them pertain to correct body postures, with the other half obviously directly derived from Taoism. These are made bold in the list below.

 1. An intangible and lively energy lifts the crown of the head.

 2. Contain/ the chest and raise the back.

 3. Loosen the waist.

 4. Distinguish insubstantial and substantial.

 5. Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows.

 6. Use will, not strength.

 7. Upper and lower follow one another.

 8. Internal and external are united.

 9. Continuity/Linked without breaks.

 10. Seek stillness in motion.

 * TTC: "First you crawl, then you walk, then you run. Stillness precedes motion. Slowness precedes speed. Softness precedes strength. Stillness, slowness and softness are the foundations of motion, speed and strength."