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TAIJIQUAN – one of the greatest contribution from China to the world by Priit Kelder

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1. China´s cultural phenomenon in AJALIS-AJALOOLISES TÄHENDUSLIKKUSES/ meaning.
2. China´s cultural contibution to the world civilization through history.
3. Specific features of medieval China.
4. Philosophy as the dominant of societal consciousness in the Middle Ages.
5. Emergence and main features of Neo-Confucianism.
6. Syncretism of main ontological categories.
7. Taiji as central category.
8. Trait of character of physical culture in China´s history.
9. Taijiquan as the essence of physical culture.
10. The philisophical understading of Taijiquan.
11. Free from eurocentism.

In history the happening of the story of time is presented as multidimensional, at least two-dimensional. Mainly in the parameters of time and geography, in addition comparing discussions. World history has also been undrestood and presented whether in epoches or in observing the local cultures. Both methods do not exclude, but elicit parallelmethod. Studing the epoches of global history gives the background, tapestry, while the study of individual nations and civilizations embroiders the colours and rhythms of different events on that tapestry.

China´s culture is really magnificent and very unique (as the cultures of all other nations). For estimating it two things need to be remembered. First, China´s culture together with India´s culture is exceptional in world´s history in a point that neither of those awesome cultures during their amazingly long age have never been totally destroyed, unlike other ancient cultures (egypt, hittites, greek, romans etc) that emerged, evolved and flourished, but in the course of time crumbled into dust. But not India, nor China. These countries as giant, powerful rivers have carried an ancient at least four thousand years old wisdom into nowadays, enriching it ceaselessly with new and beautiful virtus. Understanding this every traveller who is on its way to China should bend his head to honor the durability of that ancient wisdom that China has presented to the world.

The richness of Chinas´s intellectual culture that has been gathered for thousands of years, has generously given more valuables to the world than any other, although I admit the bizarreness and meaninglessness of that kind of measuring – cultures can not be measured in a scale of „better or worse”. Maybe only in a scale of time, but even that does not need to be germane.

Experts on world´s culture admit with almost one acccord that many inventions that are important for human civilization are from China. This trivial comprehension doesn´t need repeating or accentuating. I just add that the vantage China had in inventions during ancient times lasted till early modern times and only then this civilization started to lose its dominant position in technology. One can find an adequate and gleeful overview of China´s technological inventions in „The Te of Piglet” by Benjamin Hoff. (Hoff: 1993).


As the topic of this lecture antedates from the medieval China, it is useful to bestow some consideration upon this period. One can find a longer analysis in my book „Historical analysis of the main cosmological and ontological categories of the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism” (Tallinn, Argo, 2005), here I bring forth just some main features.

The traditional and recognized chronology of China´s history is based on dynasties. According to that approach the epoches of Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) both belong to the Middle Ages. With less certainty can be said that both epoches were also the periods of advanced feudalism in China. „Among historians the polemic on the chronological frames of feudalism is not ceasing, even less is it fading on the essential characteristics of this (possible) formation and that in the case of European history that is quite well studied. When it comes to China´s Middle Ages the discussions are even more passionate, including disputes on the formational definition of that period.” (Kelder 2005:22).

If we name the periods of Tang and Song China´s Middle Ages, then we keep in mind some symtomatic analogy with Europe. Indeed, „there are some common features between China´s society and Europe during that period: aggression of „barbars”, heyday of religion, political disunity, occupying of the land by „strong aristocratic houses”, cropper´s different forms of dependence... With that it seems the similarity with Europe ends” – this comparative analogy was presented by A. Martõnov (1984:283). One can totally agree with this analysis, except the thesis about „heyday of religion”, that is obviously wrong and does not fit in China´s society – the experts are in concord in the point that the spiritual dominant of China´s history has been philosophy, not religion.

Besides the general historical and cultural resemblance between China and Europe other parallels can be found. S. Tihvinski brings forth the likeness of the ground belief system of foreign policy between the sovereigns of Song and Byzantine Empire. „This empire just like China made of itself a centre of civilized ecumene and thought that its mission is to convert the „barbaric” world and give them „true dogmas”. (Tihvinski 1987: 18). But we also know that the notorious chenese world-centeredness that lasted for centuries didn´t come easily: it was necessary to stand for it not only in words in theoretical field but in real fights in battlefields, and also in political and economical fight in China´s society. The historical path of China in the Middle Ages was not too easy.

The period of Song has gone to history as an epoch of many discoveries and inventions. Besides the incipience of Taijiquan that took place at that time, three great inventions in cultural area – typography, compass and gunpowder – were put to use. At that time the printing houses and libraries appeared and spread all over the country, progress in philosophical thinking took place, artistic culture advanced. There were great achievements in Song´s period art, especially in monochromatic painting and calligraphy. (Kelder 1984, 1988c, 1991).


On a such vivacious cultural background the quests in physical culture geared up, especially glaringly in martial arts, that was an area of very many and very ancient traditions. As the spiritual source of China´s society was philosophy not religion then Taijiquan that belongs to wushu was between two cultural areas, having both philosophical and practical meaning.

The history of China has been and is an interesting subject to many people as it is ancient and deep, varied and original. It´s been a magnet to people who are interested in the history of philosophy, as well as to those who study specifical oriental teachings, as well as to specialists-sinologists. The phenomenon of China as an endless source of wonders as well as bizarrenesses is an object of interest also to people whose main subject is Europe.

The sources for studying the history of Chinese philosophy are alike to those used in the studies of other cultures: first of all these are written texts and philosophical tractates, theoretical essays and disquisitions. But there are also other sources which used judiciously and comparatively can complement the meaning and content of purely philosophical texts. This gives an opportunity to estimate doctrines; it brings forth the unexpected attractiveness of some theories that so far were left without necessary attention; it proves the nature of dry leitmotifs and sometimes annihilates the trivial ideas.

These other sources that complement philosophical texts, are non-philosophical writings – theoretical writings of other disciplines as well as pure fiction. Good use can be made of other aspects of societal consciousness that have retained in nation´s memory. Because of that reasearces could be interested in the the areas of practical achievements, in mythological and epical traditions, in other aspects and manifestations of cultural experience.

One sphere of Chinese national philosophy that has so far been less studied is the philosophical discussion of physical culture and its connection to the basic postulations of philosophical cognition of the world. Although nowdays there is no lack of interest toward that side of China´s culture, there is a lack of spirituality in these interests.

One of the most distinguished phenomenon among many psychophysiological systems and teachings that have been known in China since ancient times is the practical and theoretical system of Taijiquan and its „materialization” of philosophy. I consciousy emphasise the philosophical side of this teaching as the the philosophy was the dominant of Chinese spiritual culture during the middle ages.

Taijiquan or boxing of the supreme ultimate value is one of the most refined products of Chinese culture and with chan these are the most valuable gifts to the whole world that the other nations just start to understand. The short overview that I´m going to give on the philosophical side of this phenomenon should help the people in learning the culture of China.

The sphere of Old China´s martial arts is large and inexhaustible. I would not overstate if I said that most of the martial arts that are practiced nowdays in the world are from China. It is also an axiomatical comprehension that all martial arts in China were based on philosophical grounds, so that the martial arts were the actual indications of philosophical understanding of the world. And as the ancient times and middle ages were the periods of the domination of philosophy in Chinese culture (while in Europe people´s mind was dominated by religion, not by free philosophical thinking), then explanation of wushu would help in intoducing the Old China´s culture.

Now I explain one widely spread misunderstanding. Wushu is generic name of Chinese martial arts and it includes the general areas of war and martial arts, so it includes both the knowledge of how to use army in the battles as well as how to fight man to man´s fight. Unfortunately american action movies have brought into use the notion of kungfu as a synonym to martial arts and this is very misleading. Namely, kungfu is also a very general term and its meaning is to do something very well, whether in cooking or painting or cureing or fighting. If something is done skillfully, it is kungfu in that area. So we can rank these term according to their capacity: kungfu, wushu.

Wushu is devided in two main areas: internal (nei), that is soft, lissome way and external (wei) that is stiff, forceful way. First of these is connected with taoistic natural philosophy, and the second with chan-like canons (if it is possible at all to speak about canons or principles in this doctrine; in chan-like context it would be absurd). Stiff style was practiced mainly in buddhistic monasteries.

Zou Yunjians.jpg

Three main school based on the soft style are bagua (eight trigram), xing yi (directed intention) and Taijiquan. „Taoistic schools of wushu based in their ideas of world and humans on understanding of naturalness and spontaneity.” (Dolin, 1988, 1:58). This characteristics has captured the essence of Taijiquan very well and all I´ve left to do is to complement and extend it a little bit.

For that it is necessary to make a short excursus into philosophy of that time. We should take a look at those influential factors of intellectual culture that furthered the emergence of Taijiquan.

In the opinion of researcers the emergence of Taijiquan took place during Song period. At that time a new philosophical teaching – Neo-Confucianism – was emerging and becoming dominant. This new teaching was quite far from the ancient Confucianism, generalizing and synthesizing many buddhistic, taoistic and confucianistic ideas, using also ancient natural philosophy for its purposes. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism could not exist or evolve independently any more. In the 11th century new doctrine based on three teachings was formed and it was called li xue or xing li xue or tao xue, better known under the name of Neo-Confucianism.

The names of this new teaching open its aspects and heads. In explaining the world the philosophers of Song relied on Yijng – one of the oldest text of classical philosophy. One cornerstone of Neo-Confucianistic philosophy was doctrine of li that is a natural and universal prime principle, supreme law that governs everything in the natural world. Similarly with tao li does not have precise definition. This abstract principle is more like an essencial category, but also has a form of manifestation – qi. Internal essence emanates from li, qi determines the forms of their materialization.

Besides qi material aspect is also determined by xing, that forms the physical body of the things. But li is the ideal germ that embarks on it.

Besides li, qi and xing there are many other Neo-Confucianistic categories. We can construct the structure of at least six most important conception that all emerge in the philosophy during Song period.

And also of cause conditio sine qua non of Chinese philosophy – all-encompassing tao. Who´s interested can read about this important category in Chinese philosophy and intellectual culture from P. Kelder´s monograph mentioned above.

In the middle of all these categories one needs to remember that the central and main philosophical category of Neo-Confucianism was li. All li contains potentially in taiji that is in some way identical with chaos before being, non-being. It is also important to notice that abolute principle li contains in every thing, in every being, in every phenomenon. „The meaning of every single thing is the meaning of the world as a whole; li of one thing is li of ten thousands things; the cycle of one day is the cycle of the whole year.” (Feng Yu-lan: 530-531). In this Neo-Confucianistic thought we can see the dialectical interpretation of single and whole. The doctrine is declined towards objective idealism, although we should be careful in describing Chinese philosophy in european terms as it generally gives a distorted picutre.

An important component of Chinese philosophy was cosmology that dealt with traditional ideas of the origin and order of the universe.The oldest Chinese cosmogony used some fundamental notions that later had a decisive part in understanding the world and human activities both theoretically and practically.

Already the earliest mythological ideas involved the interpretation of the origin of the world. According to the best known legends at first before the sky and earth the universe was a chaos, dim, dark and formless, it was in a state before the being of the world. From that chaos two germs were born – yin and yang, that started to create some order in the world. Later they seperated: yang became the keeper of the sky and yin the ruler of the earth. In that way they became the forces through which the formation and evolution of the universe takes place; this is taiji´s form of manifestation. This cosmogonical model is in principle self-evolving, self-moving and does not need devine supervision, protection or intervention; this is a quite materialistic version of the spontaneous genesis and evolvement of the universe. Because of that the whole progression of the evolution can be imagined as such: taiji non-being – emptinesschaos – li – qi – dual-unity of the phenomenal world yin-yang.

There are other similar cosmogonical progressions of evolvement, but generally they all emphasize that being emerged from non-being or chaos or emptiness. Being after emerging is a world with thousands faces, variation and co-play of yin and yang. In the interaction of yin and yang the being of the being and evolvement of the being takes place; phenomenons, things, events are emerging, existing for a while and disappearing again into the great ocean of emptiness. According to Neo-Confucianism the objects are born and transformed spontaneously under the influence of the particals of qi; this is the essence of ceaseless transition between yin and yang.

The brief overview of cosmogonical conceptions of Neo-Confucianism is necessary for understanding the philosophical nature of Taijiquan and helps us in comprehension of the theoretical side of this Old China´s psychophysical phenomenon. In the theoretical centre of Taijiquan as in other martial arts are the mythological ideas that developed at the ancient times and determined the attitude of Chinese people toward universe and its laws of genesis and evolution as well as the human´s place in the cosmological whole.

For better understanding it is necessary to analyse the notion of Taijiquan linguistically. There is still no consensus among researcers about the reason why this system is called like that, but linguistic approach gives some answers.

The notion of Taijiquan consists of three marks: tai, ji and quan. The third one does not have much importants as it indicates only to the fact that this notion is involved with martial arts (hieroglyph quan – fist – takes this notion to area of martial arts, self defence). The first two hieroglyphs contain the philosophical idea of this phenomenon.

Hieroglyph of tai has many equivalents, for excample great, extreme, highest, honorable, respected, first, primary, primal; unduly, overly, excessively, quite, very; etc etc. Those equivalents that indicate as adjectives to the supreme, extreme character of this phenomenon should be noticed. But the hieroglyph of ji is really polysemantic, it is even wider than tai. Here is the list of its equivalents: end, completeness, fringe, limit; remote, uttermost; pole, navel; extreme limit, extremity; ideal, perfect; above, utmost; supreme extent, the most; exceedingly; patently, very precisely; arrive (at), lead; to give birth, cause etc etc. It can be seen that this notion is very wide, but in the context of out interest it is easy to see its general and main disposition. Namely, that li indicates to extreme state, to the ideal perfection. But the status of this ideal utmost state had already in Chinese philosophy been given to li, understood also as an absolute as the this pre-being state of the world that is full of potency; ready to give birth to everything while being the aim and outcome of being. Just like the motion had ambivalent character of „there and back again” in Chinese philosophy, we can see in the interpretation of the notion ji the character of dual-unity: the state of ji especially with preposition of tai has the vectors of direction that are addressed to the dehiscence of the phenomenal world from the void non-being and to the closing of the processes and other phenomenons back to post-existential state, to the state of post-being non-being that coincides with the primal state. (It is interesting to note that the hieroglyph of ji itsself consists of two components: tree, wood – mu that here means a sort of stiffness, hardness and ji that is characterized as a decline towards extreme speed, motion toward the grade of ultimate absolute.)

Together the couplet notion of taiji unites maximally the meanings of its parts and tendences that carry the burden of all being´s absolute, ultimate and greatest beginning/ germ. More important seems its equivalent as the primal border of all essencial; this border beyond what is the pre-being world, pre-existentail potency till the separation of the forces of yin-yang. The notions of pre-being being, primal void are very meaningful according to Neo-Confucianistic philosophy as it is a fundamental phenomenon – nonbeing, void, magnificent and always silent nothingness. The meaning of sacred creation in ancient and medieval China is included into these notions. These meanings formed the sanctum of Great Tao, the ultimate path of universe, that is the source of all being that evinces the form of all things in the visible world, ripping it out of the depths of non-being.

This void that comes forth so clearly in the conception of taiji is an important attribute of the way of thinking in Far East. The mark of void goes through all the traditional teachings and is ontologically and cosmologically in harmony with the notions like non-being, real being, really essencial etc; and also with suchness (budhhistic tathata). It is worth to pay attention to the fact that void in Chinese philosophy carries the positive mark of beginning; it is the premiss, beginning, source and aim of all things and phenomenons; it contains in itsself the whole spectrum of phenomenal world; the possibility of the most important ontological positive opening. Tao is void, but inexhaustible... About the interpretation of void and its place in Chinese philosophy look P. Kelder´s monograph (Kelder: 2005: lk 108-127).


In the level of practical interpretation the main accent of taiji lays on the „emptiness” of the movements, on their flowing, soft and graceful character. In its every element as well as in whole Taijiquan devides the movements into shi (real, full, complete, strong) that corresponds with yang and xu (non-real, weak, empty, wrong) that represents yin. Here interweave organically the most important postulations of the whole complex: domination of the spirit of void as a factor that is ready for following phenomenons-movements; acceptation of the dual-unity as the only and true manifestation of being. All the exercises carry in themselves „ the idea of the eternity of the changes of cosmos. Endless counteraction of yin and yang throug the critical state of Supreme/limit/value appear in the movements of hands and legs, in the turns of head and body, in the variations of high and low, narrow and broad positions” (Dolin 1988.2:58).

It is necessery to remember that although Taijiquan operates with movements of the nature of yin and yang, it presupposes the state where the body is free and relaxed and it cultivates the „femininity” of the movements, so the leading force is xu. (Maybe here manifests taoistic tendence towards the prepotency of woman, femininity, mother and female and its undeniable attraction towards yin). According to Lao-zi void (xu) is cognitional ideal that is achieved with the maximum spiritual consentration. The notion of xu is a part of the tao´s category, giving the latter the characteristics of void, piece, standstill and do without doing; but because of the ambivalent character of taoistic movement this verisimilar passivity involves in itsself both the movement as well as birth and life and fugacity. Xu is therefore tao´s attribute that penetrates its whole essence.

Taoistic „slogan” of do without doing (wu-wei) means in Taijiquan the prepotency of the soft and weak movements, and yielding and retreating maneuvers (Zhou: 18) But the dual-unity of the character of the whole complex should not be forgotten: yin is in constant readiness for transition to yang and vice versa and the master who trains and performs this complex must keep in mind this trait of character. Actually the principle of performing Taijiquan is in essence following the next demand: „control over the activity through calmness. Something is produced out of Nothing; it looks like nothing but it is something; it seems soft, but it is strong” (Liang: 15).

We could continue with more detailed explanation of the technical side of Taijiquan according to the conceptions of Neo-Confucianist philosophy, but it would require a distincter treatment that would transcend this topic. But it is clear that Taijiquan is a very rich subject not only for those who practice it, but also for theorists who are interested in the variety of the applications of nonphilosophical phenomenons of Chinese philosophy.

The philosophical aspect of Taijiquan is very deep and multifarious. Here I only gave a brief overview of its main aspects that reflect the most important content of its philosophical system: taiji as a protoprimal, absolute state of the world; as the supreme/limit/value and aim of being. And second – in its emancipation from Nothing the supreme/limit/value manifests itsself in the form of yin-yang´s dual-unity. From these follow all the processes that take place in the world and around it: processes once appeared from Nothing exist for some time in the world of male-female dual-unity and then fall back to the protoprimal state of taiji.

In conclusion it can be said that the still and pieceful practice of Taijiquan gives the one who practices it a partipation in the „model work” of the natural forces and cosmos, puts him on the stronger cosmical rhythm and fills with vitalizing energy qi and opens the path to the understanding and cognition of the great truthknowing supreme/limit/value that has so subtly given by the wisdom of Chinese philosophy. In the history of philosophy Taijiquan´s phenomenon has written a lucid and enrapturing page about the uniqueness of the spiritual-practical understanding of the main grounds of Neo-Confucianistic philosophy; and this serves as an additional material and a source in studing the Chinese philosophy. As such it is worth deeper studing both by philosophers and other reasearcers who are interested in improving the methods of the cognition of the world and in achieving the highcultural unity of mind and body. Taijiquan is just opening to humankind; its riches and divinatory aspects that have so far been known only to one nation are going to shine in its glory while the rest of the world is looking at it in admiration.




1. M. Bogatscihin. 1987. The Lessons of Old China. (rus) In. Physical Culture and Heath. Vol 2. pg. 56-59.
2. A. Dolin. 1988.1 The Great Limit and The Tradition of Wushu. (rus). "Asia and Africa in Nowdays." Vol.3. pg. 57-60.
3. A. Dolin. 1988.2 Legendary Monastery or Wushu´s Traditions. (rus). "The Problems of Far East". Vol. 4. pg. 206-216.
4. S. Tihvinski. 1987. The History of Medieval China in the Works of Soviet Sinologists. (rus) "The Nations of Asia and Africa". Vol. 5. pg.177-184.
5. P. Kelder 1984. "About One Theoretical Aspect of Landscape Painting in Medieval China. In: "The Problem of Human in the History of Philosophy. (West-East in Intersectio).“ Vilnius. Pg. 79-82.
6. P. Kelder 1988. Pages About the Heritage of Chinese Philosophical Thought II: Dominant of Woman and Femininity, Mother and Female in Taoism and Where It Can Lead. - VIKERKAAR. Vol. 7. pg. 53-56.
7. Fung Yu-lan. 1953. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol.2. new. York.
8. T.T. Liang. 1974. T'ai Chi Chuan. Boston.
9. A.S. Williams. 1960. Encyclopedia of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives. New York.
10. A. Martõnov. 1984. The Culture of Art in The Region of Far East. In: Art Culture in The Ante-capitalistic Formations. Moskva.
11. Zhou Nenfeng. 1978. Taiji Chuan Changshi (Chinese - "Basics about Taijiquan"). Beijing.


Author: Priit Kelder