In 1906, Vifredo Pareto made an observation that 20% of the population in Italy owned 80% of the land. This observation led to Joseph M. Juran naming the principle he suggested after Pareto. The Pareto principle aka 80-20 rule states simply that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
I am going to suggest that in the learning of Tai Chi Chuan if you but know and master 20% of the principles indepth you will be able to realize the other 80%. The challenge here is recognizing which of the 20% constitutes the critical ones. More important is that you must believe that the principles are the keys.
Some people do not believe in the principles. They are of the opinion that the principles have been copied too many times whatever this means. They also think that too much theory permeates the art. Such people remind me of those who don’t believe in using a map to get to where they want to go. They just want to start the journey. Sometimes they get to their destination but sometimes they end up going round and round. But then relying too much on GPS is not a good thing either because I have heard of GPS leading drivers on a longer route.
I believe that Tai Chi Chuan or any art for that matters started without principles. Through time the master practitioners understood the principles and gathered them to form the domain that defines the art. In this way an art is formalized and founded and is in a state that can be transmitted properly. The alternative is of course to transmit the art by telling the students to just learn a few techniques then go out and fight to learn how the art actually works. This would be a very practical approach but there are some key drawbacks in that the student who has tasted success would think that he has already learned everything when he has but learned only a small portion of the art.
You could accuse practitioners who are concerned with principles to be overly concerned academics but without a body of knowledge defined by principles a combat art cannot be elevated beyond normal physical limits. Without the body of knowledge you just end up trying to reinvent the art. However, there is no guarantee that even with the principles you can get far because knowing is not doing.
Many of the early masters were illiterate or semi-literate but its not the case that all of them are illiterate. You should know that illiterate does not mean not intelligent or smart. There are some who are literate who did write down the principles. One of the more prominent is Wu Yuxiang, the founder of the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan. He was a scholar and government official. He sponsored Yang Luchan to learn Tai Chi Chuan in Chen village on condition that Yang shared the teachings with him. When Yang withheld information in the later years Wu himself went to Chen village and in the outskirts found Chen Chingping from whom he studied briefly.
The question in my mind is whether someone like Wu Yuxiang would write up a bunch of principles that have little or no practical application in an era whether exchange of hands was not uncommon. Though little is known, I have read that Wu did take on challenges.
I think that those who dislike principles are harboring the mistaken notion that they are there to show up their mental incompetence. Far from it, as Master Luo Ji Hong wrote :-
Our task should not be the translation of the classic works. Rather we should reveal their essence, observe their internal organic system, illustrate issues and guide our practice.
I emphatize with those who catch no ball with the principles of The Tai Chi Chuan Classics. For a long time I didn’t know what they mean either. They were just a big bunch of words and had little to do with my practice. Some even sound like round and round arguments that had little practical value. However, it was partly my problem that I didn’t understand them. As pointed out in this article on Bruce Lee’s teacher of the internal arts :-
Liang told Lee that he had been taught by You in the same way. First he had to give up each movement of the external styles, and begin again from zhan zhuang, converting the muscular resistance into true jin, before he could reach the next level of martial arts. Just like a glass which is full, if you pour more water into it, it will overflow. If you drink it, it is muddly and unclear. It is imperative to pour out the originally polluted water, before one can pour in the clear water. In order to understand the philosophy, one has to study the classics, of which Zhuang Zi and Lao Zi were the best.
When I read the above passage I recall the time my teacher told me to put aside all the other arts I was practicing and focus on Tai Chi Chuan alone. From that point on my understanding of the principles grew and I gradually caught on to their importance. My teacher said that the principles are the written record of the experiences of the masters. If I do not practice in line with the principles I will never understand them. It is not easy to recognize and acknowledge one’s ignorance. Our ego does not allow us to do so. We make excuses. We accuse the principles as impractical when we are the ones with shortcomings.
Without knowing the principles when we read Master Luo’s description of the skills of masters such as Master Hao Shaoru as follows we know the words but not the meaning and skill behind it :-
…. Master Hao would be like a highly pressurized huge air bag. As soon as you pushed, he would rebound and throw you out. The harder you pushed, the harder you rebounded.
When I first read this I instantly recognized it as the Large Chi Sphere method of our Yang style as introduced in my post here. For a long time I had suspected that there is a close connection between the Yang style and Wu (Hao) style but in observing the normal Yang styles I could not see the similarities until I learned the Yang style that came down through Wei Shuren. The interview of Qiao Songmao in Tai Chi Magazine also confirmed this close link.
In the past I would have a problem understanding what Master Luo described. However, our teaching of the Large Chi Sphere has made it possible to understand it and Master Luo’s commentary on the Wu (Hao) style also renders this mysterious skill comprehensible to those who are prepared to learn :-
Taijiquan is an activity that unites the translational movement of a particle and its self-spinning motion; therefore think of a particle with no fixed direction. but also with direction, and it becomes magical when encountering the enemy. If there is only translational movement in Taijiquan, agility and flexibility will be greatly limited.
If you practice Tai Chi Chuan without understanding the principles the phrase “…a particle with no fixed direction. but also with direction” will sound utterly nonsense. But if you understand the 20% essential principles then this makes perfect sense and you will be able to bring your skill to this level. Learning Tai Chi Chuan is not easy. If you are impatient, overly obsessed with practical techniques you are better off not learning it.
Even with boxing which is known for its practicality there are principles. Don’t believe me. Try reading Jack Dempsey’s book on boxing. Don’t know Jack Dempsey you say? Think of him as a white Mike Tyson or rather I should say think of Mike Tyson as a black Jack Dempsey. Jack Dempsey aka the Manassa Mauler was the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926.
Read his book on boxing Championship Fighting : Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense. Chapters such as What is a Punch? and The Falling Step aren’t just how to do it chapters but goes into the principles using physics and biomechanics.
In summary, don’t be too quick to dismiss what you do not know. But that this is the norm is one reason why so few really understand the essence of Tai Chi Chuan. Again, to quote Master Luo :-
This reminds me of a poem by Su Shi of the Song Dynasty………
Sideways behold a ridge, upwards a summit.
Its height varies far and near.
Not knowing the true beauty of Lu Shan
Because I am in the midst.
It is my belief that looking at things from a fixed perspective instead of being objective would prevent us from gaining a real understanding.