5.a.ix.-taijiquan-getting-it Section

Taijiquan - Getting It

By Nick Gudge

In my opinion, the vast majority of people practising taiji have not made significant progress in gaining taiji skill. Nor are they likely to make significant steps in this direction. These are deliberately provocative statements, aimed at getting taiji players to think and rethink what they are training.

While this may not be a widely accepted point of view, and it most certainly will not be a well-liked point of view, I believe it is accurate. It is also full of assumptions however well reasoned. Let there be no misunderstanding what I am saying. What do I mean by ‘vast majority?’ I mean optimistically speaking over 95% of all taiji practitioners do not make significant progress. (In my more pessimistic analysis I suspect this figure exceeds 99%!) What do I mean by ‘significant progress’? I mean they fail to complete or reach even the first level of taijiquan gong fu.

This article provides three arguments and a suggested solution:

  1. A reasoned argument that there are only a very small number of practitioners making significant progress in gaining the skill set of taiji.
  2. That proportionate to other arts this is a smaller percentage of progress than we might reasonably expect
  3. I propose some rationales for this
  4. A suggestion for remedy of this problem.

1. A reasoned argument that there are only a very small number of practitioners making significant progress in gaining the skill set of taiji.

Although I studied Yang Style for many years and Wu style briefly I am most familiar with Chen style so I will present my argument based on Chen Style. I know of no reason to suppose my arguments are not equally or every more valid in other taiji styles.

Chen Style is described as having five levels of skill (gong fu.). There are relatively objective descriptions for each although they are very prone to misinterpretation by those who simply want to believe that A really means B. They have been described by various writers. Chen Xiao Wang’s article on these five levels is widely available on the web. (Details of where these can be found are provided at the end of the article.)

There is much room for confusion not only in the understanding of what it means to reach these levels of gong fu but in how Western and Chinese cultures simply count them. In Chinese culture we have our first birth day when we are born, so being a year and a day old in China someone is described as being 2 years of age whereas in the West we would say they are still one.  The difference is between being in Level 1 and completing Level 1. So we need to be clear what exactly we are counting. We could talk about being in Level 1 mean “having not yet completed Level 1.” We could talk about “reaching” Level 1, meaning to complete Level 1. We could talk about being a Level 1 also meaning “having completed Level 1.” In China these last two examples would be described as Level 2.

To the Chinese way of thinking reaching Level 5 is attaining mastery, not the ultimate pinnacle of skill. When asked back around 2005, Wang Hai Jun suggested there were no practitioners currently at Level 5. (Curiously, when pressed for example of a level five he suggested Yang Lu Chan.) He also says that there are only three Level 4 practitioners (namely Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei and Wang Xian.) In the same over dinner conversation Wang Hai Jun estimated that there are perhaps 50-100 Level 3 practitioner’s (including himself.) The entry to Level 3 is said to be when “qi saturates the whole body” and “when the qi reaches the feet.” When pressed he guessed off hand that there were between 3,000 and 5,000 Level Two practitioners. In conversation over breakfast several years ago he commented that few people get into Level Two and almost no-one graduates beyond it. While I would not hold him to these specific numbers (they were just informal guesses over a meal,) they do give a general idea.

It is difficult to accurately gauge the number of people who claim to be taijiquan practitioners around the world. Estimates vary by an order of magnitude, with conservative estimates of 20 to 50 million and more enthusiastic estimates of 200 to 300 million. Despite much searching on the web I have not seen one shred of statistical or survey data to support any of these estimate. In my own community the population size is approximately 150,000 with approximately 300 practitioners, providing a rate of around 0.2%. (This figure also approximates for the other two cities closest to Limerick with similar population sizes.) Looking at the sports participation survey done in 2002 by the UK government the taiji population was too small even to appear on it. I will not presume to provide even another guess at the size of the taiji practicing population. However, for the purposes of this article let us assume it is at the lowest end of these estimates, around 30 million, this being 0.5%. of the world’s population.

If there are 3,000 Level 2 or above, this represents 0.01% of the taiji population. By corollary, 99.99% of these 30 million people practicing Taijiquan are in Level One. (If the population of taijiquan practitioners is bigger then the proportion of those reaching Level 2 is even smaller!) In my experience, most people I have met practicing taiji who I have asked assume they have reached / completed Level 1. I would contend that almost no-one completes Level 1. WHJ informally commented, in his estimation less than 5% of practitioners finish level 1.

So, to summarise these numbers, I suggest that approximately:

- 99% of practitioners do not complete Level 1.

- 1% complete Level 1 (1 per 100) projecting around 300,000)

- 0.02% complete Level 2 (1 per 10,000) assuming there are 6,000 Level 2 practitioners.

- 0.0005% complete Level 3 (1 per 300,000) assuming there are 150 Level 3 practitioners.

- 0.00001% complete Level 4 (1 per 10 million) assuming there are 3 Level 4 practitioners.

From this data and following this argument I draw my conclusion that “that there are only a very small number of practitioners making significant progress in gaining the skill set of taiji.

2. That proportionate to other arts this is a smaller percentage of progress than we might reasonably expect

Looking at these numbers in association with other sports, e.g. football, gymnastics, tennis etc., in many respects they mirror a general pattern, except that in taijiquan the practitioner base is bigger and the level of sporting elites is significantly smaller. There are at most a few million gymnasts across the world yet there are several hundred top gymnasts (say capable of performing at the Olympics - arguably equivalent to Level 3.) This is a proportion of around 0.01%, twenty times that achieved in taijiquan.

While there are probably a much larger number of football/soccer practitioners than taiji practitioners there are a considerably higher proportion of football elites, most probably because there is so much more money to be made by a football elite. (A top taiji elite might make a hundred thousand per year yet there are hundreds of footballers worldwide who make ten times this much.)

So why mention this? What I am arguing here is the general validity of these numbers and the relative inefficiency of bring an adequate proportion of students to a certain level. If we fail to recognise these circumstances we will fail to change them. If we don’t recognise the problem why would we attempt to address it? By recognising and understanding the problem we increase our likelihood of success.

3. What might be the possible rationales for this?

In my experience most people think of taijiquan in a highly glossed and wholly unrealistic fashion. Taiji is not an “unbeatable” martial art. Just think about taijiquan competitions: people lose half the time. It is not a panacea for all ills: taiji practitioners get injured, sick and die. It is not the answer to life’s problems, despite many ongoing attempts to convert taijiquan into some form of Daoist path. What it is however, is an unusual method of co-ordinating the mind and body to produce power which has some beneficial side effects in terms of improved circulation and reduction in strain on the joints. So one major reason why students don’t make progress is because what they hope to attain (e.g. martial perfection, immortality and life understanding) are not the end result of taijiquan training.

We can look at why this is true. Generally people improve in skill at something because they are motivated to put in the time and effort. For most of us this motivation comes in the form of financial or social reward. In taijiquan I suggest these rewards do exist in sufficient degree for them not to be the primary barrier to making progress.

My own research suggests that the primary reasons for this lower than expected degree of accomplishment are as follows:

1.      Insufficient practice

2.      Failure to identify core skills and their lack

3.      Insufficient understanding of how to gain these core skills.

It also appears that a common pitfall among many taijiquan practitioners in many communities is the inability to accurately determine skill level and an almost unshakeable willingness to determine skill level to be higher than it is. The net result of this is that practitioners focus on attaining a level of skill that they feel is imminently possible but is in fact unattainable without a significant prior number of steps being achieved.

So perhaps looking at various aspects that are required to gain entry into and then to graduate from Level One would be more appropriate than trying to figure out how to get into the subsequent Levels.

In Davidine Sim and David Gaffney’s book ‘Chen Style Taijiquan’  there is an interesting line quoted and translated from Chen Xiao Wang that says simply “The first level thus begins with refining the postures to gradually be able to detect and understand jing.” The first level begins with this.

As I stated above, in my estimation, over 95% of taiji practitioners do not make it to Level 1 and perhaps over 99%. While most people I meet are concerned with grasping approximate choreography – which is very important – this is the barest of beginnings. It is the construction of a framework or workshop, a place of work within which work can take place. Its exact physical appearance is of less concern than what happens within it (though, to persist with the analogy, it should be immediately apparent that it is a taiji framework and not a karate or taekwondo one.)

Chen Zheng Lei states simply (in his Laojia Yilu, Sword & Broadsword book) that when learning the form ‘practising ten forms per day is sufficient’, without missing a day. (Wang Hai Jin has mentioned on several occasions the Chen village aphorism, miss one day’s practice lose ten days progress.) How many people practice sufficiently to build up to a period where they practice ten forms per day (taking around 2 hours in total) without missing a day for the six months or so it takes to grasp the basics and attain Level 1?

For most people we spend perhaps a year, sometimes several years, working on absorbing the basic choreography. Usually we spent many years learning lots of choreography of lots of forms. (In my opinion this is a sure route to stagnation and indifferent practice. While variety does sustain interest, it also inhibits depth of understanding.) All of the high level practitioners I have spoken to (and read of) spent at least a handful of years and mostly around a decade simply practising one form, the Laojia Yilu. They spent many hours each day for many years training in this one form. With a minimum of ten forms per day, for 350+ days per year for at least five years, this means an excess of fifteen thousand forms completed before considering moving on to another focus within taijiquan.

The volume of repetitions means that something can be studied and embedded into basic physical mechanics. These include figuring out how to hold the body (structure,) figuring out how to move the body and figuring out how to connect the body. In short, grasping a set of principles. For most people, who are training perhaps one form per day or less, the absorption of these principles by the body will come significantly more slowly. (If I practice riding a bicycle for 30 minutes per day if might take me 60 minutes – i.e. two days to master. If I practice it for three minute per day it is more likely to take me 120 minutes – i.e. 40 days to master.) So we might say that if I train one form per day that it may likely take forty or fifty thousand forms to master, or more than one hundred years. That is not including the lost progress due to missed days.)

So I conclude that after learning the principal training form, (the yilu in Chen Style,) then perhaps two thousand forms completed in a relatively short time (say 10 per day over 6 months or 6 per day over a year,) under the tutelage of an adequate teacher, would likely put a taiji player into Level 1. How many taiji players have actually done this?

In risk of boring the reader I repeat my original argument. If there are 30 million people practicing taijiquan worldwide. There are perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 at level 2, around 150 at Level 3, and 3 at Level 4, and that around 3% get from Level 1 to Level 2. Simple arithmetic argues that there are around 200,000 in Level 1. This means that less than 1% of practitioners get in to Level 1. Put another way, 99% of practitioners do not reach Level 1. These are scary numbers. Simply put, only a very small proportion of those who practice seriously and in a dedicated manner ever get to Level 1. The overwhelming majority of people do not achieve this. Yet, reaching Level 1 is a realistic possibility for the majority of serious taiji player, regardless of age.

Moving from the First Level to the Second Level involves a similar proportion of success (perhaps 3% according to an informal comment from WHJ.) There are certain skills which have been described by various taiji masters which in my opinion can be described as:

1.      Accuracy, understanding and evidence of various choreographic aspects (form)

2.      Various mechanistic aspects understood and evidenced (e.g. song)

3.      Clear understanding and expression of peng

4.      Closing (he) evident in the body

5.      Movement of qi in the body

Chen Xiao Wang states ‘The (second) level starting from the last stage of the first level when one can feel the movement of internal energy or qi’ and that ‘generally, most people can attain the second level of kung fu in about four years.’ (Notice this is ‘can attain’ not ‘do attain’.) I strongly suspect that this means 4 years of study under a good teacher with a minimum of a couple of hours practice every day. In his article describing his method of practicing, CZL say practice 15 forms a day for three years (altogether around 15,000 repetitions of laojia yilu.) Then the second stage will be reached.

The purpose of stating this is not to discourage but to encourage. Mountain climbers become better mountain climbers (and survive longer) by understanding and preparing themselves.

So ‘getting it’ is a movable target. It depends where I am. If I am not in Level 1, ‘Getting It’ means reaching Level 1. If I am in Level 1, ‘Getting It’ means reaching Level 2 etc. I need to pay attention to what I need to do to reach the next step. I strongly contend that if I do not understand clearly where I am, (the skill level I actually have,) and do not have a clear understanding of where I am trying to reach in the short to medium term, the likelihood of me reaching that place becomes minimal to non-existent.

I asked WHJ how many of the attendees at a particular Summer Camp had reached Level 2. He said less than a handful. However when I asked the attendees if they were at Level 2 yet most of them said that they were. I would say that some of the attendees still have to reach Level 1. The failure to perceive their true skill level is a major inhibitor in making progress. After lack of practice, I believe this lack of ‘understanding’ is the next most significant part of why people do not make it into Level 1. The principal reason for most practitioners is insufficiency of practice.

So what does it take to make progress in Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei, Wang Hai Jun and many other famous teachers say that it takes three elements:

1.      A Good Teacher

2.      Good Understanding

3.      Good Practice

Without all three, skill ‘gong fu’ will not develop. Many people train with good teachers. While 20 years ago lack of good examples was a major issue, for the last 20 years it has not been so. However, having a good teacher is not sufficient. Good understanding is required. In part this comes from a good teacher, but in part it comes from within, particularly the part I described earlier in this article. Finally that part that most people simply do not want to hear, namely practice - lots of it. In my opinion why do most Westerners who have access to good teachers not gain significant skills? Simply put, they do not practice sufficiently for their own goals.

Perhaps I simply want a little light entertainment and simple exercise providing some of taiji’s famous health benefits. If this is the case then do a short form. Do it repeatedly. Understand the principles and put them into place. Practice them using whatever time you have available. Practice standing and simple exercises. Accept that even complete taiji is not your goal and that learning to loosen the body and mind, to move with less stiffness is sufficient goal in itself. Set the goals and work towards them. Learning the choreography is not the goal. It is a stepping stone to the goal. If these are my circumstances then learning anything beyond a simplified form is wasteful and self-delusional. Aim to learn how to do silk-reeling and a short form correctly. With 20 minutes per day that in itself is a ten year objective. Level 1 is probable not a sensible target.

For those with more time available, then the Laojia Yilu is Wang Hai Jun’s proposed training method. He has said that between the ages of 9 and 16 this is pretty much all he trained. He trained this for 5 to 7 hours each day. Think about this. It was not luck but persistent hard work. It is what is required of any athlete or master of any art. Wang Hai Jun said that when he was in his teens, in his peer group he was not the best practitioner, he simply continued to practice when those who were better in skill gave up.

So let us say that my goal is to try and achieve Level 1, a very significant objective, that relatively few reach. I should aim to practice 3 laojia yilu forms per day to reach it in three years, 5 laojia yilu per day to reach it in 18 months and 10 laojia yilu per day to reach it in 6 months. For every days missed practice, add ten days to the timeframe needed.

So let us say that I am a Level 1 and that my goal is to try and achieve Level 2. In my opinion this is a very significant objective, that few reach. I asked Wang Hai Jun about this in early 2003. He said it was possible to achieve it with two hours training per day, but that the training would need to be just right. Train sufficiently hard to go to bed with the legs tired and get up with the legs still tired. I am still trying after 8 years.

Being realistic in ‘where my skill level is’ and ‘where I am directly and aiming for’ really helps. Skill in taiji is found in form practice, not in two person exercises or different routines. WHJ has stated this repeatedly every year I have trained with him.

Practice cannot be treated like many people treat work – something simply to be got through. This is a dead end route. In practice, pick some principle and work to improve it. Stick to it for weeks or months until you have it correctly. Ask any high level practitioner about it. Every session of practice should bring slight (miniscule – the thickness of a piece of paper) and steady progress in skill and understanding. Every form should be interesting.


The five levels of skill in Chen Style Taijiquan by Chen Xiao Wang translated by Tan Lee-Peng, Ph.D can be found at http://www.tai-chi-centre.com/chen.htm. Another rendition / translation of this can be found in an Inside Kung Fu magasine article by Choy & Chia (1991)

Another translation / variation can be found in Davidine Sim and David Gaffney’s book ‘Chen Style – the source of Taijiquan.’ Yet another translation can be found in Jan Silbersdoff’s book ‘Chen.’

Chen Zheng Lei also provides a highly interesting section in his ‘Laojia, Sword and Broadsword’ book under “Method and Progression.” He also has an article called “The Method Of Progression in Taijiquan” which provides additional information with considerable overlap with his book (or perhaps simply a different translator!)


Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.