From the October 2022 edition of our free Tai Chi newsletter.
I spent ten years, literally ten years, searching for the real Tai Chi Chuan.
I tried everything I could imagine. I read all the Tai Chi books in the Seattle Public Library system, and ordered additional stacks from Amazon and local bookstores. I borrowed dozens of obscure DVDs and VHS tapes from Scarecrow Video, paying deposits up to three hundred dollars each. I read thousands of pages on Usenet and web forums. I visited every Tai Chi school in my city. I traveled across Canada and the United States, and went to China twice.
I did all of this… and it was still not enough. I could not find the real Tai Chi.
Three times I gave up and quit searching.
In each instance, an unexpected visitor arrived to guide me forward. They invited me through a previously hidden doorway, towards a deeper level of attainment. And finally, to experience the legendary, the authentic and unadulterated, Taijiquan.
It is an incredible story, a true story. One day I hope to share it all with you. The draft is already over one hundred pages long.
I was relentless and uncompromising in pursuit of the supreme art. Not some diluted version, focused on retelling old stories about its past achievements. The original version, which could inspire new stories and effortlessly prove them true.
Once I found that art, I devoted myself to study. I faced the wall for nine more years, metaphorically speaking. Cultivating my own skill and understanding, with no other agenda than personal development.
I inherited this approach from my own mentors and teachers. They did not invest in sales and marketing. They did not promise any specific benefits for health, fitness, spiritual enrichment or self-defense. (In fact, some of them spent more time and effort trying to keep new people out of the school, then bringing them in!)
Mainly they just allowed me to observe their own advanced practice, and to quietly follow along.
Over time, I came to understand that their extraordinary abilities were a product of their unconventional values. The esteem of the world meant nothing to them. They never showed the extent of their skills in mixed company, and they collected just enough tuition to cover the rent.
Rarely did I hear any of them say a good word for public martial arts tournaments, or public demonstrations in general. They would not endorse such events—despite occasionally participating in them as an exhibitor or a judge.
When I finally started teaching, I followed their precedent. I made only as much noise as needed to preserve the art for another generation. I ran local classes at low or no cost, with minimal advertising. I ignored the big shows, martial arts celebrities, and industry events. Most of all I avoided tournaments.
That was my approach, up until this year… when I accidentally became a renowned public Tai Chi Champion.
Now I have collected seven gold medals across the United States in the past six months. No other Tai Chi instructor has ever won more gold medals, in more distinct events, in more cities, in a shorter time.
How I did this is less important than why. As an instructor, I want to explain why.
Let me tell you a story about two recent, monumental events in the world of Tai Chi. How they changed my perspective on competition and propelled me headlong into the international tournament circuit. Why the critics of these events are all wrong. And why you, as a Tai Chi enthusiast, should care about any of it.
In April 2017, mixed martial arts coach Xu Xiaodong fought a public challenge match against Tai Chi master Wei Lei. It was the consummation of a technical disagreement, which had escalated to personal malice…
- Escaping a proper chokehold is nearly impossible, Xu Xiaodong noted.
- Actually it is easy for a master such as myself, Wei Lei replied. He posted a demonstration video to social media.
- Xu said the demonstration was fake.
- Wei said, come over and find out.
- Xu said, why don’t you come over and find out.
- And so on…
Their fight was streamed online. You can still watch the footage on YouTube. The first ten seconds show Wei Lei with arms outstretched, slowly circling his opponent, imitating a classic Kung Fu movie. The next twelve show him stumbling backwards in a fusillade of punches, then falling down. And the match was over.
Against a spirited attack, Wei’s so-called “Thunder Style” of Tai Chi Chuan had proven completely useless.
Somehow their fight became international news. It was reported in martial arts discussion groups; but also by some of the world’s largest media organizations, including the New York Times and the Daily Mail. Journalists posed trite questions about the match.
Has modern MMA just proven the obsolescence of Tai Chi Chuan?
Even so, can we show a crumb of respect for its enduring and ancient traditions?
Sure, whatever, why not.
Personally, I was disappointed by these news reports. They started from a clearly false premise—that we had just witnessed a revealing contest between Tai Chi and MMA. And they hastened towards a banal conclusion, the superiority of Western scientific rationalism over Eastern mystical beliefs.
This fight was newsworthy, they implied, but also not worth any real analysis or investigation.
“Nothing to worry about,” the subtext read. “We were right all along. The mystery of Tai Chi is all just nonsense and lies.”
Comments showed that most readers believed these reports. But I had spent the previous twenty years grappling with these complex issues… and I knew better.
I would like you to know better too. So let’s audit this story together.
Tai Chi Chuan is a deeply technical art. When you forsake the advantages of strength and speed, as Tai Chi is well known to do, skilled technique is what remains. Isn’t this obvious?
Had we seen any technique in Wei Lei’s fight performance? Not really, no. Go back and watch the video yourself. We did not witness failed attempts on his part. There were no attempts at all. We saw only a timid and bumbling retreat.
So how are we meant to view this fight as evidence against the art of Tai Chi, when no art had been shown?
This is not meant as an insult to competitor Wei Lei. If nothing else, he showed the courage of his convictions. Nobody arrives to wisdom without courage. If nothing else, we must respect that at least.
The problem here isn’t that some Tai Chi expert lost a fight. No. Any genuine expert can lose a fight, and most of them have.
The problem is that, on a technical level, this supposed expert did not try, and seemingly did not even know how to try. Which is to say, he was no expert at all.
Nevertheless, Xu Xiaodong versus Wei Lei was a convenient opportunity for journalists to highlight many troubling contradictions in the story of Tai Chi Chuan.
Taijiquan is centuries old, as that story goes. Carefully preserved through generations and hard times, based on its mettle and merit. A peerless method for attaining health, fitness and martial skill. We’ve all seen or heard these allusions. Tai Chi is an apologue, which shows us the importance of honoring its caretakers (and their country of origin).
Frankly, the supporting facts are difficult to confirm. Relevant historical evidence is anecdotal, circumstantial, dubious, secret or otherwise impaired.
Yet, there is little profit to be made in disputing, or even clarifying the true historical role and achievements of Taijiquan. So the tales of its venerable greatness only seem to grow taller.
Journalists were right to note a problem. But in the end, they deliberately avoided the point. This isn’t a story about negotiating between the values of tradition and progress. Nor it is about weighing the virtuous pursuit of good health, against the practical necessity of self-defense. No, it’s plainer than all that.
Either the history of Tai Chi Chuan is a myth; or this minstrel show we see today is a counterfeit.
That’s the inescapable dilemma. And nearly everyone involved in the Tai Chi community over the past fifty years is indicted by it.
“Mad Dog” Xu Xiaodong knew this all along. It was never his goal to toss one or two bad apples. He aimed to expose the fungal rot infesting the entire orchard.
This is exactly the dilemma which I had personally faced decades earlier, when I first attempted to learn Tai Chi. Nobody could, or would supply honest and useful answers to my pointed questions. Which is the reason why I had initially avoided the art, and quit many times after.
Xu Xiaodong defeated Wei Lei in the spring of 2017. By this time, I had already resolved my own questions about the true nature of Tai Chi. I understood what it is, and how it works.
I had the real answers, and the fake answers. I understood why insiders maintain two separate answer sets, and who should receive each of them. I had already moved on, past these fundamental student questions, to focus on the practical challenges of coaching the art in the 21st century.
Why hasn’t the Tai Chi community at large made any significant progress in the past thirty years?
How had every single news reporter covering this monumental fight, somehow overlooked the central issue? Whether Wei Lei was a fake master, or a completely genuine master of fake art?
I want you to understand why I became a Tai Chi Champion. That is still our purpose here, which I have not forgotten. But in order to follow the story, you must also learn what I uncovered five years ago. You must learn how Tai Chi Masters are made; and how Wei Lei in particular became a self-proclaimed Tai Chi Master.
There are important distinctions between these two categories, Champion and Master. A Champion is someone who wins a Championship. Nothing more or less than that, necessarily.
You might assume that a Master is someone who exhibits mastery… but if so, you would be mistaken. That is simply not how the Tai Chi community operates.
Tai Chi Masters are, for the most part, created through racketeering.
Our Masters build an illusion of expertise, by grooming a legion of credulous disciples.
Here is the outline of the grift. I’ll provide just enough detail to grant you immunity from it; without publishing a complete recipe for any future misdemeanors.
When the enterprising Tai Chi Master auditions a new disciple, they begin by issuing a list of vague, arbitrary and debilitating rules. The prospective disciple is meant to be handicapped by the rules. Made slower, weaker, and ideally somewhat confused.
The Master explains these handicaps as “Tai Chi principles.” By doing so, the Master reframes obedience as a form of moral righteousness, and the prospect’s resulting weakness as a sign of their true inner strength.
The prospect is then led through a series of obscure compliance drills. These are contests, in which the Master is a seasoned expert. They are framed and disguised as “exercises.”
The prospect cannot win, due to the combination of voluntary handicaps, clever rhetorical traps, and an experience deficit.
(If the prospect does win too quickly or often, the Master will “correct” them for “misunderstanding the goals of the exercise” and “abandoning the principles.”)
With each victory, the Master demonstrates their superior character and inner virtue.
(Note, the Master does not claim to have superior virtue. Claims bear the risk of scrutiny. They demonstrate instead and the prospect quietly infers.)
The Master explains their successes using a private jargon. The words themselves are universally known, but their “true meaning” is verily understood by the Master alone. This maneuver further confuses the prospect, while hinting at the futility of independent verification or study.
This use of jargon also demonstrates alignment between the Master’s teachings, and the ancient writings of their time-honored lineage.
The Master’s explication is seasoned with mystery and false paradoxes. Complex tasks are actually simple, difficult postures are easy. Strain is relaxation, and vice-versa. Everything the prospect once thought they knew, is shown to be actually quite backwards and wrong.
Here we reach the denouement. The prospect is wretched. They know nothing, have nothing and are nothing. They have a problem, are a problem. What is to be done?
They must embrace the solution. They must fully submit and acknowledge the supremacy of the Master. Thereby embarking as proper disciples upon the path to Enlightenment.
Now the Master, in a gracious show of humility… will yield to the disciple’s assessment. Okay, yes, the Master is wonderful and amazing…. if you think so.
And that, my friends, is how the Tai-Chi confidence game is played.
(There are many similarities between this game and a legitimate training progression. The differences can be subtle. A novice is not meant to be capable of distinguishing them.)
This was a long tangent to my story, I know. My purpose in exposing this racket, here and now, is not to prosecute any of the individuals playing it.
My purpose is to emphasize the incongruity of a self-declared Tai Chi Master.
Within the parameters of this racket, there is hardly any such thing as a “self-declared Master.” You can see how such declarations would be counterproductive.
It is rare even amongst legitimate Tai Chi community experts. Self-certifications, whether valid or not, are perceived as cheap and crude. They invite your would-be rivals to slander you as an egomaniac.
Adopting the honorific title of Master? When applied to us, sure; but not by us.
Indeed, it is such a taboo to declare oneself a Tai Chi Master, that to accuse someone else of doing that, immediately puts your own claim under suspicion!
I hope all of that is clear enough.
Reporters covering the 2017 fight described Wei Lei as a “self-proclaimed Tai Chi Master.” Which I found to be a provocative detail.
Between that conspicuous claim, and reporters’ evasive approach to covering this story overall, I became suspicious enough to further look into it myself. To dig further where the journalists themselves couldn’t be bothered; or to learn what they may have privately known and chose to hide from their audience.
After which I concluded the entire fight story was misinformation and fake news. Please read on.
Could it be true that Xu Xiaodong, a professional martial arts coach, had agreed to a high-profile challenge match with some delusional Tai Chi crackpot? Speaking as an instructor myself, I must tell you that story rings false.
Martial arts coaches receive low-key challenges all the time, with every new student cohort. These challenges are either to be ignored or settled quickly without fanfare.
There is nothing to be gained by manhandling an amateur. It is neither personally fulfilling, nor particularly good for business. It turns off more potential clients than it attracts.
We certainly don’t mark these challenges on a calendar and invite a crowd to watch, as had happened in this particular case.
Well, as it turns out, Wei Lei was indeed something more than an amateur. In fact, he was a celebrity, by Tai Chi community standards. He had been featured in an hour-long Chinese state television documentary about Yang style Taijiquan, just a few years back.
Xu Xiaodong had watched that documentary, and he was irritated by what he saw.
Documentary hosts asked Wei Lei to perform various legendary skills once attributed to Taiji grandmaster Yang Luchan. Keeping a sparrow in his open hand, and using “sticking power” so that it was unable to jump up and fly away. Striking a watermelon with his palm, and destroying the insides without any damage to its surface.
Wei Lei agreed to perform these improbable skills on camera. Then, off-camera, he collaborated with the producers to fake these skills and deceive the television audience. Afterwards, the documentary hosts informed the viewers, “he looks like a great master.”
Wei Lei’s title was not just a deranged self-proclamation, as news headlines had implied. It was the product of an actual Taijiquan conspiracy. See for yourself.
Rather than admit their own culpability in the dispute between Xu and Wei, the news media decided to mislead the public yet again. They chose to portray Wei as some kind of indie goofball, when in fact he was an establishment collaborator.
Such journalists weren’t in the business of uncovering fake masters to educate the public, as they now wished to imply. Exactly the opposite. They were in the business of creating masters to cheat the public. Or whatever else might generate attention, engagement and short-term profits.
I don’t know to what extent Wei Lei’s participation in this fraud was voluntary, enticed or coerced. But I do believe that Xu Xiaodong, a passionate martial arts coach, was right to be annoyed. As should anyone whose teaching is grounded in honesty and reality; along with anyone who might seek to learn from good teachers.
In the English-language news articles written after his defeat, there was no exploration of who exactly had taught Wei Lei, when, or for how long. Such details are typically a point of pride among Tai Chi players; and obviously, a critical qualification for anyone who would step up to defend the art from its challengers.
Furthermore, there was no mention in these articles that Wei Lei had previously studied Taekwondo, Shuai Jiao and Muay Thai. That he was, in other words, a mixed martial artist himself, just like Xu Xiaodong; and that the Tai Chi he “represented” was actually least among his relevant skills.
All these facts did not fit well into the chosen narrative, so they were buried or forgotten.
Why had we seen deceptive international reports in 2017 about “Tai Chi versus MMA?” Simply because the truth, “Two MMA Dilettantes Fight and One of Them Loses” isn’t a winning headline. It’s a dog-bites-man story which nobody cares about. And if nobody cares, then nobody gets paid for the analysis and commentary.
Meanwhile, Xu Xiaodong temporarily went into hiding. His decisive victory had offended, exposed and embarrassed too many powerful people. He was now in real danger, personally and politically, for exposing corruption.
Xu eventually resurfaced, to give an interview and a justification for his shocking antisocial behavior. After some reflection on his circumstances, he had figured out exactly what to say.
“Taijiquan? Actually, it has some good stuff… we just aren’t seeing it.”
Whether he knew that or not… whether he believed it or not… at least that one part of the story was true.
The real experts are not showing Taijiquan. The media is not reporting it. And the public is not seeing it.
In 2020, the first known CƠVID-19 death in the United States was discovered and reported. This happened in the suburbs of Seattle, a few minutes’ drive from my Tai Chi school.
Our governor and mayor declared a state of emergency. Outdoor gatherings were sharply restricted, and indoor public recreation was banned entirely.
Tai Chi Chuan had just been declared unlawful. Not in a literal sense. Just by outlawing the conditions under which it had been taught for the previous century. Which is mainly in groups, and mainly in person.
We were all ordered by government officials to go home and stay home until further notice.
While my own Tai Chi class was suspended, I had plenty of time to reflect on the significance of these restrictions. I realized that nobody in Seattle could discover and distinguish the real art of Tai Chi under these conditions; in the manner that I myself had done years earlier.
There would be no more lucky chance encounters, as I had found in the basement of a Chinatown office building, an acupuncture school, or on the courtyard of a buzzing university campus. Nobody would be in a position to demand immediate physical proof, as I had done, and receive it. It would not happen again this month, or this year. Not in my classroom or any others nearby.
The COVƖD-19 paƞdemic was forcing Tai Chi online, and into even greater disarray.
New student opportunities would be limited to stories and videos on the Internet. Videos like that absurd Tai Chi documentary, and stories like those self-serving reports on the famous 2017 fight. Much of the information would be utterly false; the rest unverifiable and tainted by narrow commercial interests.
Economists call this the Adverse Selection Problem. A marketplace where students cannot distinguish quality in advance of their enrollment. Where they are misled and exploited until they are heavily invested, and indebted until they can offload the curriculum to a greater fool.
This would accelerate the downward spiral for Tai Chi. A descent ending only when there is nobody else to grift, and nothing left to steal.
I believe that expert online instruction is a wonderful thing. Here in the year 2020, I did not have the resources to launch my own remote learning platform. And I had no inclination to endorse the online courses which did already exist. They were all focused on what is easiest to teach, rather than what is most vital to learn.
I was more interested in sharing those invaluable hands-on learning opportunities I had once enjoyed, with the next generation of learners.
And anyway, the lockdown was only scheduled for two weeks, right?
One full year later, nearby practice opportunities remained sparse. Seattle had been among the first cities to shut down, and its citizens were among the last to let go of their self-proclaimed emergency powers. Each local neighborhood and organization had started inventing its own safety rules, in line with their political allegiances.
I was still not allowed to resume teaching classes, at least not in their original location and format.
For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, the next and nearest Tai Chi meetup would be another three months and 1000 miles away. In the summer of 2021, at an international tournament in Las Vegas.
I had plenty of logical reasons to skip this event. I wasn’t familiar with this competition, nor especially prepared for it. I was more than a year into a mandatory COṾID teaching furlough, and somewhat out of practice. My back was stiff and sore. Most importantly, my own mentors had never endorsed or entered this tournament, so why should I?
That had been my outlook just two years earlier. These had been my justifications. But against the backdrop of the ƿandemic, none of those excuses held sway any longer.
Life is precious, unpredictable and often too short. No great opportunity should be wasted, diminished or taken for granted.
So I bought a plane ticket to Nevada.
We met some cool people in Vegas, watched some great shows. I lost badly in the actual tournament, which seems fair under the circumstances. Learned some lessons and did much better the next time, in 2022.
After attending most of the major Tai Chi events in the United States this year, I published high-quality video from each of them. Viewer response has been quite positive overall, as it should be.
Mine are the rarest and most precious form of Tai Chi demonstration video. None of my opponents are paid actors, secret business affiliates or deferential toadies. Birds and melons are treated fairly at all times. Every moment is real. Our community seems to understand and appreciate that.
I am consciously showing exactly that which a phony Tai Chi Master can never do.
However, I must also acknowledge a vocal minority of critical viewers and commenters, who did not attend any of these tournaments, whose knowledge of them derives mainly from the video I published, and whose objections are aimed at preventing any similar events in the future.
These critics are too immature to lose graciously, thus unable to learn; and too afraid to try, thus unable to win. Rather than confront their own weaknesses and insecurities, they would rather turn the table over, and escape to the familiar confidence games I outlined above.
I will not allow it. I will not allow them to drag our community backwards again.
The critics will eagerly inform you that:
- Tai Chi was never intended to be a competition;
- Tai Chi for Health is different than Tai Chi for Combat;
- Competitors in these events are not using proper technique;
- Fixed step push hands doesn’t matter anyway, because in a real fight, opponents move their feet;
- Anyone with one year of Judo, wrestling or BJJ experience would easily defeat everyone in Tai Chi.
All of these statements are objectively wrong. As we approach the conclusion of this essay, let’s briefly review what is right.
The truth is that Yang Luchan, chief architect of Yang style Taijiquan, was a fierce competitor. His old-school matches were not measured by a countdown clock or supervised by a tournament judge. They were competition nonetheless.
The truth is that his grandson Yang Chengfu traveled across China sharing a gentler version of the family art. Teaching publicly in his era still meant continuously proving one’s qualifications to teach. Not by publishing an official certificate, or telling tall tales about your esteemed lineage. By responding to direct physical challenges from aggressive strangers with unknown skillsets.
Rest assured these challengers attacked with kicks and punches, grabs and attempted throws. Some even moved their feet around! All of that was no guarantee of victory.
While many today would rather avoid comparing their Tai Chi Chuan with other martial arts, either physically or conceptually—the truth is that Yang Chengfu taught classes at the Central Guoshu Institute, a Chinese MMA academy dedicated to precisely that.
Yang Chengfu was invited to this prestigious role because he actively engaged with the broader martial art community and was well-respected in that community. His students competed endlessly with each other, there and elsewhere, including within the context of push hands. Some competed well. Others did poorly, which is a necessary prerequisite for doing it well.
Friendly competition isn’t reserved for those who possess great expertise. It is an exercise for developing greater expertise. It is a form of play and education, which supports both physical and psychological health.
The truth is that Yang Chengfu popularized a calmer style of practice than his grandfather Luchan taught. Chengfu’s style is accessible and beneficial to nearly everyone, regardless of their interest or disinterest in fighting. That is the style I teach, and the style I use in public and private events. It seems to work okay.
The truth is that “Tai Chi for martial arts” is not separate from “Tai Chi for health.” 天下太极是一家. There is only one Tai Chi, and Tai Chi is One Family.
Once upon a time, I believed that my teachers had failed the future. They hadn’t solved the critical problem of adapting Tai Chi for the next generation of students. Making the art reasonably accessible, and demonstrating its continued relevance in modern times.
I thought their methods were brutal and outdated, such that they could only be tolerated by relentless maniacs such as myself.
Now I realize that I was wrong. My teachers hadn’t failed to solve this problem at all. They had fully empowered and entrusted me to solve it.
All of that is why I became a Tai Chi Champion.
Thanks for the inspiration, Mad Dog!
Attending a tournament means surrounding yourself with dedicated, experienced practitioners who are trying and showing their best. Even if their notion of the best differs from yours—as it almost certainly will—it is nevertheless worth experiencing. One minute of interaction with them may be as instructive as one hour, or one week, even one month or year of regular classes. It could alter the course of your training or even your entire life.
Should you try wholeheartedly to excel in your learning? Should you attend the next tournament? Should you train to become the next champion? All of these are ultimately the same question.
The answer is yes.
Shoreline Tai Chi