What Is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is an ancient art with many of its fundamental principles reflecting ancient Chinese wisdom.
Tai chi (太極; Tàijí), short for T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijí quán (太極拳), is an internal Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training, its health benefits and meditation. The term taiji is a Chinese cosmological concept that refers to the flux of yin and yang, and ‘quan’ means fist. So, etymologically, Taijiquan is a fist system based on the dynamic relationship between polarities (Yin and Yang). Though originally conceived as a martial art, it is also typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: competitive wrestling in the format of pushing hands (tui shou), demonstration competitions and achieving greater longevity. As a result, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims with differing emphasis. Some training forms of tai chi are especially known for being practiced with relatively slow movements.
Today, tai chi has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun. All of the former, in turn, trace their historical origins to Chen Village.
The concept of the taiji (“supreme ultimate”), in contrast with wuji (“without ultimate”), appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, where it represents the fusion or mother of yin and yang into a single ultimate, represented by the taijitu symbol. Tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many Chinese philosophical principles, including those of Taoism and Confucianism.
Tai chi training involves five elements, taolu (solo hand and weapons routines/forms), neigong and qigong (breathing, movement and awareness exercises and meditation), tuishou (response drills) and sanshou (self defence techniques). While tai chi is typified by some for its slow movements, many styles (including the three most popular: Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms with faster pace. Some traditional schools teach partner exercises known as tuishou (“pushing hands”), and martial applications of the postures of different forms (taolu).
In China, tai chi is categorized under the Wudang grouping of Chinese martial arts—that is, the arts applied with internal power. Although the term Wudang suggests these arts originated in the Wudang Mountains, it is simply used to distinguish the skills, theories and applications of neijia (internal arts) from those of the Shaolin grouping, or waijia (hard or external) styles.
Since the earliest widespread promotion of the health benefits of tai chi by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch‘üan and Sun Lutang in the early 20th century, it has developed a worldwide following of people, often with little or no interest in martial training, for its benefit to personal health. Medical studies of t‘ai-chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
It is purported that focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced students in some traditional schools.
Some other forms of martial arts require students to wear a uniform during practice. In general, tai chi schools do not require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.
The physical techniques of tai chi are described in the “T‘ai-chi classics”, a set of writings by traditional masters, as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize, yield or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases, as well as opens, the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis).
The study of tai chi primarily involves three aspects:
- Health: An unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person may find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use tai chi as a martial art. Tai chi’s health training, therefore, concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. For those focused on tai chi’s martial application, good physical fitness is an important step towards effective self-defense.
- Meditation: The focus and calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of tai chi is seen as necessary in maintaining optimum health (in the sense of relieving stress and maintaining homeostasis) and in application of the form as a soft style martial art.
- Martial art: The ability to use tai chi as a form of self-defense in combat is the test of a student’s understanding of the art. Tai chi is the study of appropriate change in response to outside forces, the study of yielding and sticking to an incoming attack rather than attempting to meet it with opposing force. The use of tai chi as a martial art is quite challenging and requires a great deal of training.
Tàijíquán and T‘ai-chi ch‘üan are two different transcriptions of three Chinese characters that are the written Chinese name for the artform:
|太极||t‘ai chi||tàijí||the source, the beginning|
Despite the one Chinese spelling, 太极拳, there are two different spellings in the English usage, one derived from the Wade–Giles and the other from the Pinyin transcription. Most Westerners often shorten this name to t‘ai chi (often omitting the aspirate sign—thus becoming “tai chi”). This shortened name is the same as that of the t‘ai-chi philosophy, sometimes causing confusion of the two. However, the Pinyin romanization is taiji. The chi in the name of the martial art should not be mistaken for ch‘i, (qi 气 the “life force,” especially as ch‘i is involved in the practice of t‘ai-chi ch‘üan. It is important to realize that the 极 in 太极拳 should be pronounced “dzee” and the word 气, say as in 气功 qì gōng， is pronounced “tchee”, so that, in fact, the correct pronunciation of these two words 极 and 气 is quite different. Most Chinese, including many professional practitioners, masters, and martial arts bodies (such as the International Wushu Federation (IWUF)), use the Pinyin version.
From a modern historical perspective, when tracing tai chi’s formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, there seems little more to go on than legendary tales. Nevertheless, some traditional schools claim that tai chi has a practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Song dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions, especially the teachings of Mencius). These schools believe that tai chi’s theories and practice were formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, at about the same time that the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. However, modern research casts serious doubts on the validity of those claims, pointing out that a 17th-century piece called “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610–1695), is the earliest reference indicating any connection between Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts whatsoever, and must not be taken literally but must be understood as a political metaphor instead. Claims of connections between tai chi and Zhang Sanfeng appeared no earlier than the 19th century.
History records that Yang Luchan trained with the Chen family for 18 years before he started to teach the art in Beijing, which strongly suggests that his art was based on, or heavily influenced by, the Chen family art. The Chen family are able to trace the development of their art back to Chen Wangting in the 17th century. Martial arts historian Xu Zhen believed that the tai chi of Chen Village had been influenced by the Taizu changquan style practiced at the nearby Shaolin Monastery, while Tang Hao thought it was derived from a treatise by the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang, Jixiao Xinshu (“New Treatise on Military Efficiency”), which discussed several martial arts styles including Taizu changquan.
What is now known as tai chi appears to have received this appellation from only around the mid of the 19th century. A scholar in the Imperial Court by the name of Ong Tong He witnessed a demonstration by Yang Luchan at a time before Yang had established his reputation as a teacher. Afterwards Ong wrote: “Hands holding Tai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes.” Before this time the art may have had a number of different names, and appears to have been generically described by outsiders as zhan quan (沾拳, “touch boxing”), Mian Quan (“soft boxing”) or shisan shi (十三式, “the thirteen techniques”).
History and styles
There are five major styles of tai chi, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:
- Chen style (陳氏) of Chen Wangting (1580–1660)
- Yang style (楊氏) of Yang Luchan (1799–1872)
- Wu Hao style (武氏) of Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880)
- Wu style (吳氏) of Wu Quanyou (1834–1902) and his son Wu Jianquan (1870–1942)
- Sun style (孫氏) of Sun Lutang (1861–1932)
The order of verifiable age is as listed above. The order of popularity (in terms of number of practitioners) is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun and Wu/Hao. The major family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training.
There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles, and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognized by the international community as being the orthodox styles. Other important styles are Zhaobao tàijíquán, a close cousin of Chen style, which has been newly recognized by Western practitioners as a distinct style; the Fu style, created by Fu Chen Sung, which evolved from Chen, Sun and Yang styles, and also incorporates movements from Baguazhang (Pa Kua Chang); and the Cheng Man-ch’ing style which is a simplification of the traditional Yang style.
Tai Chi in the United States of America
Choy Hok Pang, a disciple of Yang Chengfu, was the first known proponent of tai chi to openly teach in the United States of America in 1939. Subsequently, his son and student Choy Kam Man emigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong in 1949 to teach t‘ai-chi ch‘üan in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Choy Kam Man taught until he died in 1994.
Sophia Delza, a professional dancer and student of Ma Yueliang, performed the first known public demonstration of tai chi in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1954. She also wrote the first English language book on t‘ai-chi, “T‘ai-chi ch‘üan: Body and Mind in Harmony”, in 1961. She taught regular classes at Carnegie Hall, the Actors Studio, and the United Nations.
Another early practitioner of tai chi to openly teach in the United States was Zheng Manqing/Cheng Man-ch’ing, who opened his school Shr Jung t‘ai-chi after he moved to New York from Taiwan in year 1964. Unlike the older generation of practitioners, Zheng was cultured and educated in American ways, and thus he was able to transcribe Yang’s dictation into a written manuscript that became the de facto manual for Yang style. Zheng felt Yang’s traditional 108-movement long form was unnecessarily long and repetitive, which makes it difficult to learn and make progress. He thus created a shortened 37-movement version and taught that in his schools. Zheng’s form became very popular and was the dominant form in the eastern United States until other teachers started to emigrate to the United States in larger numbers in the 90’s. He taught until his death in 1975.
Tai chi today
World Tai Chi and Qigong Day (WTCQD), also spelled World T’ai Chi and Ch’i Kung Day, is an annual event held the last Saturday of April each year to promote the related disciplines of T’ai chi ch’uan and Qigong in nearly eighty countries since 1999.
In the last twenty years or so, tai chi classes that purely emphasise health have become popular in hospitals, clinics, as well as community and senior centres. This has occurred as the baby boomers generation has aged and the art’s reputation as a low-stress training method for seniors has become better known.
As a result of this popularity, there has been some divergence between those that say they practice tai chi primarily for self-defence, those that practice it for its aesthetic appeal, and those that are more interested in its benefits to physical and mental health. The wushu aspect is primarily for show; the forms taught for those purposes are designed to earn points in competition and are mostly unconcerned with either health maintenance or martial ability. More traditional stylists believe the two aspects of health and martial arts are equally necessary: the yin and yang of tai chi. The tai chi “family” schools, therefore, still present their teachings in a martial art context, whatever the intention of their students in studying the art.
Tai chi as sport
In order to standardize t‘ai-chi ch‘üan for wushu tournament judging, and because many tai chi teachers have either moved out of China or had been forced to stop teaching after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the government sponsored the Chinese Sports Committee, who brought together four of their wushu teachers to truncate the Yang family hand form to 24 postures in 1956. They wanted to retain the look of tai chi, but create a routine that would be less difficult to teach and much less difficult to learn than longer (in general, 88 to 108 posture), classical, solo hand forms. In 1976, they developed a slightly longer form also for the purposes of demonstration that still would not involve the complete memory, balance, and coordination requirements of the traditional forms. This became the “Combined 48 Forms” that were created by three wushu coaches, headed by Men Hui Feng. The combined forms were created based on simplifying and combining some features of the classical forms from four of the original styles: Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun. As tai chi again became popular on the mainland, more competitive forms were developed to be completed within a six-minute time limit. In the late 1980s, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized many different competition forms. They developed sets to represent the four major styles as well as combined forms. These five sets of forms were created by different teams, and later approved by a committee of wushu coaches in China. All sets of forms thus created were named after their style: the “Chen-style national competition form” is the “56 Forms”. The combined forms are “The 42-Form” or simply the “Competition Form”.
Another modern form is the “97 movements combined t‘ai-chi ch‘üan form”, created in the 1950s; it contains characteristics of the Yang, Wu, Sun, Chen, and Fu styles blended into a combined form. The wushu coach Bow Sim Mark is a notable exponent of the “67 combined form”.
These modern versions of tai chi have since become an integral part of international wushu tournament competition, and have been featured in popular movies, starring or choreographed by well-known wushu competitors, such as Jet Li and Donnie Yen.
In the 11th Asian Games of 1990, wushu was included as an item for competition for the first time with the 42-Form being chosen to represent t‘ai-chi ch‘üan. The International Wushu Federation (IWUF) applied for wushu to be part of the Olympic games, but will not count medals.
Practitioners also test their practical martial skills against students from other schools and martial arts styles in tuishou (“pushing hands”) and sanshou competition.
The philosophy of tai chi is that, if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certain to be injured at least to some degree. Such injury, according to tai chi, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin. When done correctly, this yin/yang or yang/yin balance in combat, or in a broader philosophical sense, is a primary goal of tai chi training. Lao Tzŭ provided the archetype for this in the Tao Te Ching when he wrote, “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.”
Traditional schools also emphasize that one is expected to show wude (“martial virtue/heroism”), to protect the defenseless, and show mercy to one’s opponents.
Training and techniques
The core training involves two primary features: the first being taolu (solo “forms”), a sequence of movements which emphasize a straight spine, abdominal breathing and a natural range of motion; the second being different styles of tuishou (“pushing hands”) for training movement principles of the form with a partner and in a more practical manner.
Solo (taolu, neigong and qigong)
The taolu (solo “forms”) should take the students through a complete, natural range of motion over their centre of gravity. Accurate, repeated practice of the solo routine is said to retrain posture, encourage circulation throughout the students’ bodies, maintain flexibility through their joints, and further familiarize students with the martial application sequences implied by the various forms. The major traditional styles of tai chi have forms that differ somewhat in terms of aesthetics, but there are also many obvious similarities that point to their common origin. The solo forms (empty-hand and weapon) are catalogues of movements that are practised individually in pushing hands and martial application scenarios to prepare students for self-defence training. In most traditional schools, different variations of the solo forms can be practised: fast / slow, small-circle / large-circle, square / round (which are different expressions of leverage through the joints), low-sitting / high-sitting (the degree to which weight-bearing knees are kept bent throughout the form), for example.
Breathing exercises; neigong (internal skill) or, more commonly, qigong (life energy cultivation) are practiced to develop qi (life energy) in coordination with physical movement and zhan zhuang (standing like a post) or combinations of the two. These were formerly taught only to disciples as a separate, complementary training system. In the last 60 years they have become better known to the general public.
Qigong versus tai chi
Qigong involves coordinated movement, breath, and awareness used for health, meditation, and martial arts training. While many scholars and practitioners consider tai chi to be a type of qigong, the two are commonly distinguished as separate but closely related practices, with qigong playing an important role in training for tai chi, and with many tai chi movements performed as part of qigong practice. The focus of qigong is typically more on health or meditation than martial applications. Internally the main difference is the flow of qi. In qigong, the flow of qi is held at a gate point for a moment to aid the opening and cleansing of the channels. In tai chi, the flow of qi is continuous, thus allowing the development of power for the use by the practitioner.
Partnered (tuishou and sanshou)
In addition to the physical form, martial tai chi schools also focus on how the energy of a strike affects the other person. A palm strike that looks to have the same movement may be performed in such a way that it has a completely different effect on the target’s body. A palm strike that could simply push the opponent backward, could instead be focused in such a way as to lift the opponent vertically off the ground, breaking his/her centre of gravity; or that it could terminate the force of the strike within the other person’s body with the intent of causing internal damage.
Most aspects of a trainee’s tai chi development are meant to be covered within the partnered practice of tuishou, and so, sanshou (sparring) is not as commonly used as a method of training, but more advanced students sometimes do practice by sanshou. Sanshou is more common to tournaments such as wushu tournaments.
Variations of tai chi (taiji) involving weapons also exist. The weapons training and fencing applications employ:
- the jian, a straight double-edged sword, practiced as taijijian;
- the dao, a heavier curved saber, sometimes called a broadsword;
- the tieshan, a folding fan, also called shan and practiced as taijishan;
- the gun, a 2 m long wooden staff and practiced as taijigun;
- the qiang, a 2 m long spear or a 4 m long lance.
More exotic weapons still used by some traditional styles include:
- the large dadao and podao sabres;
- the ji, or halberd;
- the cane;
- the sheng biao, or rope dart;
- the sanjiegun, or three sectional staff;
- the feng huo lun, or wind and fire wheels;
- the lasso;
- the whip, chain whip and steel whip.
A 2011 comprehensive overview of systematic reviews of tai chi recommended tai chi to older people for its various physical and psychological benefits. There was no conclusive evidence of benefit for any of the other conditions researched, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis.
A 2015 systematic review found tai chi could be performed by those with chronic medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, and osteoarthritis without worsening shortness of breath and pain, and found favorable effects on functional exercise capacity in people with these conditions.
In 2015 the Australian Government’s Department of Health published the results of a review of alternative therapies that sought to determine if any were suitable for being covered by health insurance; t‘ai-chi was one of 17 therapies evaluated and the conclusion was that there is very-low-quality evidence to suggest that tai chi may have some beneficial health effects when compared to control in a limited number of populations for a limited number of outcomes.
Seated tai chi
Legends and anecdotes
- During the Qing dynasty, a man named Wang Yuanwai living in Beipinggao village (about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east of Chenjiagou), was threatened with death by a gang of highwaymen with bladed weapons, unless he surrendered his valuables. He sent for assistance from Chen Suole (see the lineage tree above), who was away according to his sons Chen Shenru and Chen Xunru – despite their being only around fifteen and sixteen years old, the boys volunteered their own help instead. They convinced the messenger to tell Wang Yuanwai to give the bandits liquor, discussed a plan and that night, traveled to the Wang residence in Beipinggao, where they jumped over the fence of the rear garden and there found Wang Yuanwai. He told them that the highwaymen, numbering around twenty, were drunken in his guest hall. While peeping in, Shenru pushed Xunru into the hall and extinguished several candles by throwing a bunch of peas at them. Xunru leapt onto beam and taunted, the panicked bandits who had seemingly started fighting each other, saying, “So you still will not hand over your weapons and surrender? Gods number one and two are here.” Some tried to escape the frenzy, but were attacked by Shenru, who was still at the door.
- In the 1940s, a man known as “Big Spear Liu” came to Shanghai’s “big world,” the city’s major performance and entertainment centre. Liu asked the doorkeeper, “Are there any good hands around here?”, looking for a skilled opponent to challenge. The doorkeeper told “Big Spear Liu” of Tian Zhaolin (student of Yang Jianhou). With that Liu set off to find him. He found Tian Zhaolin and immediately demanded to spar by each striking the other three times, to which Tian Zhaolin responded that it may not be necessary. He said, “Just let me touch you. If you can tolerate my touch, you win.” Liu, sensing a fool and an effortless victory, immediately agreed. The two men approached and Tian Zhaolin reached out his hand to touch Liu’s chest. Within a few moments, Liu’s facial muscles started to contort. Soon he grimaced and his face showed signs of intense pain. Spear Liu pulled away and, after recovering, commented, “I have travelled throughout five provinces and various cities but until today I have never seen such a profound skill.” Energy, including that of tai chi, may be thought of as transmission by wave. Earlier generation adepts in tai chi had an expression—”hitting the cow on this side of the Mountain.” This phrase referred to hitting an opponent’s front side with the pain and effect being felt on the back side. In years past, people who sparred with Yang Shaohou often described him as also having an energy like electricity. That is, it caused very painful sensations in the muscle and even on the skin surface. Tian Zhaolin, coming from that background, also knew this method.
- In 1945, Hu Yuen Chou, a student of Yang Chengfu, defeated a Russian boxer by TKO in a full-contact match in Fut San, China.
- At the age of 60, Huang Sheng Shyan demonstrated his abilities in tai chi by defeating Liao Kuang-Cheng, the Asian champion wrestler, 26 throws to 0 in a fund raising event in Kuching, Malaysia.
Attire and ranking
There is no standardized tai chi ranking system, except the Chinese Wushu Duan wei exam system run by the Chinese wushu association in Beijing. However, most schools do not use belt rankings. Some schools may present students with belts depicting rank, similar to dans in Japanese martial arts. A simple uniform element of respect and allegiance to one’s teacher and their methods and community, belts also mark hierarchy, skill, and accomplishment of practice in one school’s style and system. During wushu tournaments, masters and grandmasters often wear “kung fu uniforms” which tend to have no belts. Wearing a belt signifying rank in such a situation would be unusual.
Tai Chi as a generic brand
A new phenomenon (since the 2000s) is of various martial arts styles claiming a historical relationship or otherwise with tai chi, because of its popularity. A branch of Lama Pai known as “Tibetan White Crane” had popularized a slow-movement form by naming it “Needle in Cotton” (a common term describing tai chi mechanics), and referring to its practice as “Taiji”. However, there is no relationship between these arts, historic or otherwise. A similar phenomenon occurs with the usage of the art’s name as a universal brand for promoting various fitness programs, books and videos. There is, for instance, a book that describes how to use the training principles of Taiji to run better. Regardless of the questions of whether such claims are viable, these are all new trends, which historically were not endorsed or promoted by teachers of the art.
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