References to the ‘Tao’ or Taoism can be baffling if not downright confusing to a student who’s starting out in Tai Chi Chuan. Taoist influence in Tai Chi Chuan is evident in the Yin-Yang symbol, references the snake and bird, names of the Tai Chi Chuan postures, and comparison to a waterway path. The question is, why is Tai Chi Chuan associated with Taoism?

The word Tao (Do in Japanese, i.e. Judo or Karate-do) literally means “the Way.” In his poignant explanation of Taoism, Benjamin Hoff, the author of The Tao Of Pooh, refers to a Chinese philosopher named Lao Tze (4th century B.C.E.). Hoff tells us that Lao Tze called the universal force behind “everything in heaven and earth,” the Tao or the Way. Lao Tze believed that to follow the Tao would result in harmony, to resist would bring disorder and problems. It is this characteristic of non-resistance or yielding to a strong force that is so prevalent in Tai Chi Chuan.

Exactly how and when Tai Chi Chuan came into being remains a mystery. There are many theories and anecdotes about the origins of this internal art. One popular account is that of a Taoist monk by the name of Chang San-feng, inspired after observing a fight between a snake and a crane. He saw how soft and yielding movements of the snake could neutralize and eventually overcome hard forceful attacks by the bird. Hence, the idea for Tai Chi Chuan originates. Wu Wei, or “letting things happen” without direct force, is a central theme of Taoist philosophy. They believe that, the more forcing there is, the more trouble. So go with the “flow” of things.

The Tao Te Ching, a Taoist classic, appears to be a virtual guidebook for Tai Chi Chuan. Its verses are classic examples of the Taoist philosophy:

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight.

- Tao Te Ching (22)

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.

- Tao Te Ching (54)

The weak can overcome the strong.
The supple can overcome the stiff.

- Tao Te Ching (78)

The heavy is the root of the light
The still is the master of unrest.

To be light is to lose one’s root.
To be restless is to lose one’s control.

- Tao Te Ching (26)

The following lines are excerpts from a Tai Chi Chuan classic. Notice how similar they are to verses from the Tao Te Ching:

Be still when attacked by an opponent
Be calm and move in stillness
My changes caused by the opponent will fill him with wonder
- Song of the Thirteen Postures

Tai Chi Chuan also has many Taoist references in the names of postures in the form. For example:

White Crane Spreads Wings

Wave hands like clouds
Grasp sparrow’s tail
Snake creeps down

References to nature play an important part in Taoist thinking. The Taoists who once believed in mysticism and alchemy often looked to nature for symbolism and inspiration.

Tai Chi Chuan is clearly Taoist in its strategy of yielding, its cultivation of internal energies, references to Taoist symbolism in its forms, and its emphasis is on long life. You could say that Tai Chi Chuan is the physical expression of Taoist philosophy.

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