Return to Synature Home      The Eight Principles of Tai Chi Chuan

by Brandon C. Smith

Published in Black Belt magazine, June 1993

(changed quite a bit by the editor -- this was my final draft)

Many martial arts schools are adding classes in Tai Chi Chuan to their curriculum these days. Tai Chi Chuan is often called a "soft" or "internal" martial art to contrast it with "hard" or "external" arts such as Tae Kwan Do or Karate. This article will explain eight of the principles that make Tai Chi Chuan a soft internal martial art and specify seven objective tests that can be used to measure progress in Tai Chi Chuan.

The eight principles were chosen out of literally hundreds of principles and concepts that are discussed in the vast literature on Tai Chi Chuan. They are Sinking, Suspension, Balance, Single Weightedness, Cat Jumping, Dragon Stomping, Silk Reeling, and Focus on Infinity. Before discussing these principles and the objective tests that can be derived from them, the concepts behind the labels "soft" and "internal" need to be explained and given some historical perspective.

"Soft" in Tai Chi Chuan work usually refers to the requirement that the work be performed in a relaxed state. But the quality of relaxation is more like that of a tiger patiently waiting alongside a game trail than like the relaxation typically associated with meditation. This is the kind of thing that Chang San-feng is getting at in his Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan, written about 1200 A. D. This short essay is probably the first explication of the theoretical basis of all the internal martial arts. A couple of sentences from this work, translated into English by two different masters, illustrate what is meant by "soft":

"Once you begin to move, the entire body must be light and limber. ... The form should be smooth with no uneveness, and continuous, allowing no interruptions."

"In any action, the whole body should be light and agile . . . Do not show any deficiency, neither concavity nor convexity in movement. Do not show disconnected movement."

The first translator is Waysun Liao, the second is Jou, Tsung Hwa. (See references.) In both cases it is clear that the Chang San-feng is describing a quality of movement which when done slowly will appear soft. However, Tai Chi Chuan is only soft on the outside. Internally it is hard. Chang San-feng describes what is meant by "internal":

"The internal energy should be extended, vibrated like the beat of a drum. The spirit should be condensed in toward the center of the body . . . In all of this, you must emphasize the use of the mind in controlling your movements, rather than the mere use of the external muscles." Translation by Waysun Liao.

"Chi should be stirred. The spirit of vitality, or Shen, should be concentrated inwards . . . Use internal consciousness, not external forms." Translation by Jou, Tsung Hwa.

The reason Tai Chi Chuan is practiced slowly, at least for the first few years, is to enable the student to learn how to use the mind to control not only the movement of the body, but also the generation and circulation of internal energy. Chi is the word used to name this kind of energy. Western science does not yet have any tools for detecting or measuring internal energy. There is beginning to develop an accumulation of evidence that it does exist, that Chi is what makes acupuncture work. For the time being, however, progress in Tai Chi Chuan work can be evaluated without reference to internal energy by focusing on the first idea -- smooth and continuous movement. The Tai Chi Chuan stylist must be able to go through an entire form slowly and smoothly, with no breaks, yet also distinctly showing each posture. The concentration required to do this must be present before control of chi can be learned.

Before objectively evaluating a student's mastery of the principles of Tai Chi Chuan, the student must show the ability to concentrate the mind by performing a complete form. The evaluation of form performance evaluation is necessarily subjective, since it depends in part on knowledge of the particular form being performed and it does not depend on any particular level of dexterity or muscular strength. An eighty year old stylist who lowers only a few inches in "Snake Creeps Down" but gets into and out of it smoothly and continuously is just as good as the twenty year old who smoothly and continuously goes down a couple of feet. This is the reason Tai Chi Chuan is so often touted as a health giver. Health benefits accrue even if the practicioner is unable to fully twist, turn, or lower the body as a master would. The benefits come from working through a complete form in a relaxed but concentrated manner.

It does not matter if the form performed is a short or long Yang family style form, or a Chen family style, or any particular family style. The only criteria for whether or not a form is a valid Tai Chi Chuan form is if it contains the eight postures and five directions specified by Chang San-feng: Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push, Roll-pull (or pull-down), Split, Elbow (or elbow strike), Lean Forward (or shoulder strike), Forward movement, backward movement, move or look to the left, move or look to the right, and central equilibrium.

These thirteen aspects of Tai Chi Chuan are directly related to aspects of Taoist philosophy and the I Ching. The study of Taoist philosopy is necessary for really advanced work in Tai Chi Chuan as well as the other internal martial arts. However, it is not necessary for getting health benefits from Tai Chi Chuan, nor is it necessary for objective evaluation of progress in the mastery of the principles which make Tai Chi Chuan an important adjunct to the mastery of external martial arts.

To describe the objective tests which show mastery of the selected principles of Tai Chi Chuan, we will assume Tai Chi Chuan has six ranks. Since there is no uniform for this martial art, we will assume further that rank is indicated by the wearing of the Tai Chi symbol with an appropriately colored background. The Tai Chi symbol plays a very important role in advanced Tai Chi Chuan work and is the key to understanding the play of yin and yang.

The beginning Tai Chi Chuan student wears the symbol with a white background. Once the student has learned all the postures and the sequence of any one form, he or she can become a tenderleg and wear the symbol with a yellow background. The term "tenderleg" is intended to convey one of the most characteristic features of getting past the initial hurdles in learning Tai Chi Chuan -- sore legs from so much standing on one leg and working with a lowered center of gravity.

Once past the tenderleg stage, Tai Chi Chuan students begin the real work. The apprentice wears an orange background. The journeyman stylist wears a blue background. The teacher of Tai Chi Chuan wears a green background. The master wears a brown background. The grand master you will know if you ever meet one. He or she will probably no longer care about ranks, since he or she would also be throughly grounded in Taoist philosophy.

The Horse Stance Test: Sinking and Suspension

The first test is the horse stance. It tests the student's mastery of both sinking and suspension. The first principle, "Sung," is sometimes translated as relaxing, but it is not a rubbery kind of relaxing. The translation to "sinking" more accurately conveys the result on the center of gravity. Without exception all martial artists lower their center of gravity when in action. Golden glove boxers, epee fencers, Tae Kwan Do stylists, even TV wrestlers bend their knees and sink a few inches. Standing tall is something done only before or after a fight, never during it.

In Tai Chi, sinking not only refers to lowering the center of gravity in the body, but also to relaxing the muscles -- slumping the shoulders, dropping the elbows. The idea is to sink into a totally relaxed but also alert state, from which a total explosion of energy is much more potent. The term "Tan Tien" is often used to describe the place where the mind should focus in order to sink properly. The "Tan Tien" is a center of chi origination and there are three of them in the body. For our purposes, the only important one is the lower one, the one that is physically located at the center of gravity of the body -- a little below the navel part way between the front and the back. It is not a point, but an area.

Suspension is most easily explained by imagining yourself a puppet with a string attached to the top of your head. You are suspended when you are sunk yet pulled erect by the string at the same time. Application of these two principles simultaneously insures your center of gravity is in fact centered.

As Chang San-feng puts it in Jou, Tsung Hwa's translation, "If precise timing and good position are not achieved and the body does not move as a unit, the waist and legs need more development. They may not be strong or flexible enough."

How well someone can sink and be suspended can be objectively evaluated by timing how long the horse stance is maintained. Feet somewhere around shoulder width apart, back straight, head suspended, one sinks to one of three positions: high, medium or low. For the purposes of testing, the low horse position is achieved when the top of the thigh is parallel to the floor. The medium horse position is about half way back to the vertical (top of the thighs about 40 to 50 degrees from the vertical), and the high horse is halfway between medium and standing erect (top of the thighs about 20 to 30 degrees from the vertical). The hands and arms should be held away from the body, but there need be no specified position for them. The feet may be considerably wider than the shoulders in the low horse posture and at an angle to each other. To insure suspension is present, the student balances six by six by one inch board on top of the head.

A tenderleg should be able to hold a high horse position for two minutes and the medium horse for one. An Apprentice should be able to hold the medium horse for two minutes and a low horse for one minute. A journeyman ought to be able to hold a medium horse for five minutes and the low horse for three. A teacher had better be able to hold the low horse for five minutes, with the back straight and perhaps a glass of water balanced on top of the board. A master can easily hold the low horse for twenty minutes.

The One Leg Test: balance.

Balance is less a principle than a prerequisite. In Tai Chi Chuan work, the necessity for good balance shows up in the many postures that require standing on one leg. Tai Chi Chuan is sometimes referred to as exercises on one leg. There are kicks in Tai Chi Chuan. But in these kinds of kicks, the stylist should be able to do them slowly as well as fast and without having to shift the other foot. Properly sunk and suspended students will have no trouble balancing on one leg.

Balance by itself can be tested fairly simply: The tenderleg should be able to stand on one leg for one minute, then on the other for one minute. The other foot should be at least one inch clear of the floor. To insure suspension is present, a board should be carried on the head. The apprentice should be able to do the same for two minutes each leg, holding the other leg up so that the thigh is parallel to the floor. The journeyman also stands for two minutes on each leg with the other raised high, but also, during the two minutes on each leg the journeyman should sink to a medium horse on supporting leg, hold it for at least thirty seconds, then return to the high horse angle for at least thirty seconds more. The teacher and master should be able to stand on one leg indefinitely, but for a practical test, say ten minutes for the teacher, with two sessions of at least thirty seconds at medium horse. For the master, add in two additional sessions at low horse.

The Tai Chi Walk test: single weightedness.

The fourth principle is single weightedness. In almost all Tai Chi moves, most or all of the weight is on one or the other leg, never evenly distributed between both legs. The Tai Chi Chuan stylist must "clearly locate the substantial and insubstantial," must always know where the weight is and where it is going. Moving in a Tai Chi manner involves placing the foot first, then transferring the weight. This transfer is discussed in the literature as moving from substantial to insubstantial, or yin to yang, and vice versa. The smooth transfer of weight from one foot to the other is the primary characteristic of the Tai Chi walk.

This kind of movement is very similar to the walk used by aboriginal peoples around the world. The only difference between Tai Chi walking and the kind of walking done by an aboriginal raised in an aboriginal manner is that the aboriginal will usually place the toes or ball of the foot first and the Tai Chi Chuan steps are generally done by placing the heel first. In contrast, most modern people throw their leading foot out, lean forward, and crash onto the front foot. They transfer the weight before placing their front foot completely on the floor or ground, thus insuring loss of control over their center of gravity for a few milliseconds on every step. You can see this by using the slow motion on your VCR to study walking.

Single weightedness combined with balance can be tested with a set of four bathroom scales. The cheap kind at a discount store will do fine as we only need that they show the same weights, not necessarily the right weight. Calibrate the scales to each other so that a given mass weighs the same on each. Weigh the person to be tested and record it. Measure the actual length of the student's foot. For the Tenderleg, space the scales one foot length apart, Starting at a line one foot's length from the edge of the first scale the student steps on the first scale and then on to each of the other scales. Both feet may rest on the same scale between steps for the Tenderleg. The test is passed if the weight shown as the person passes over each scale never goes above the standing still weight.

For the Apprentice space the scales two foot lengths apart. For the Journeyman space them three foot lengths apart. For the Journeyman, we might want to add the requirement that only one foot can touch one scale. This will mean that the Journeyman will have to shift the position of his weighted foot without bouncing the scale needle. The teacher and the master can go at four and five foot lengths respectively. Again, use a board to insure suspension is present.

The Cat Jump Test: control

The principles of cat jumping and dragon stomping are two sides of one concept: control. The Tai Chi principle of opposites, yin and yang, means that when you move up, something else is going down. Or, as expressed in modern physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But there is also Chang San-feng's requirement that "Each part of your body should be connected to every other part" and "the entire body is integrated with all parts connected together . . . a vast connection of positive and negative energy units." In practical terms this means that you can control the physical reaction of opposites within your body. In Cat Jumping, you learn to use the muscles in your legs to control how your body lands after a jump. Not all styles of Tai Chi Chuan include a cat jump or a dragon stomp. But any student who goes into advanced work will encounter both.

Some domestic cats thud when they jump to the floor from a chair. No wild cat would. Nor will a student of Tai Chi Chuan.

With both feet flat on a wood floor about shoulder width apart, high horse stance, weight evenly distributed, place a penny on its edge midway between the feet, parallel with the feet. The Tenderleg jumps up at least six inches and returns to almost the same spot without knocking the penny over. Both the feet and the head must move at least six inches upwards before coming down. A preliminary lowering into a deeper horse stance is expected to get the spring action needed. The Apprentice and Journeyman jump a foot and two feet respectively. The Teacher and Master must start from the low horse position and jump a foot and two feet respectively.

The only requirement for the floor is that dropping a one pound weight from a height of six inches to a spot not more than six inches from the side of the penny knocks it over.

The Dragon Stomp Test: control

This test and principle are almost the opposite of cat jumping. A dragon stomp causes an earthquake. The Tai Chi Chuan stylist stomps with the whole body interconnected very similar to the way an external martial artist concentrates energy when breaking bricks. However, in Tai Chi Chuan we want control. As Chang San-feng puts it, "The internal energy roots at the feet, then transfers through the legs and is controlled from the waist, moving eventually through the back to the arms and fingertips."

The Tai Chi Chuan stylist uses the stomp, one or two footed, to generate internal energy. However, the stomp must be just as integrated an action as landing without any noise. The student who bruises a foot while stomping is not doing it correctly and should be disqualified.

Using the same floor that was used in the Cat Jump, the student attempts to spill sand out of a # 10 tin can. Since it would be easy to spill the sand by coming down with only one foot, the can is placed on a white dinner plate, the sand is smoothed exactly even with the top of the can, and the test is passed only if there is an even distribution of sand all around the circumference of the plate. Even distribution is measured by removing the tin can, dividing the plate into four equal divisions. If there is a concentration of sand in one place, then make the divisions so that the concentration is halved.

A Tenderleg should be able to knock at least 1/4 teaspoon of sand into each quadrant, with no more than three teaspoons in any one quadrant. An Apprentice must produce at least 1/2 teaspoon and no more than two teaspoons of sand per quadrant. The Journeyman must start from a low horse and may not jump higher than two feet and must produce 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoon in each quadrant. The Teacher may not jump higher than one foot, and must produce the same amount of sand as the Journeyman. The Master must go no higher than six inches and must produce a full teaspoon give or take 1/4 teaspoon from each quadrant.

The Reeling Silk test: gentle concentration

The reeling silk principle is related to the idea discussed earlier that the Tai Chi Chuan form should be continuous, with no interruptions. In the making of silk the worker must pull a single thread from the cocoon built by the silkworm, a caterpillar which feeds on Mulberry leaves. This requires considerable delicacy and attention as a single silk thread is very fragile. It is possible to completely unravel one of these cocoons, since they are made with a single strand. That is the kind of continuous concentrated gentleness that the Tai Chi Chuan stylist uses when following an opponent's moves. It is similar to the kind of concentrated gentleness a fisherman uses when he fights and defeats a 40 pound fish on a 10 pound line.

To test for a student's mastery of reeling silk, we reel in a weight. Since this is a test of Tai Chi Chuan ability, we insure that following the principles of suspension, single weightedness and so forth are almost necessary to succeed. More than a little upper body strength will also be needed. The secret ingrediant needed to pass this test is the use of the waist to control the movement.

The setup requires some sewing thread, a 3/8ths inch pine dowel, one, two, four, six, and eight pound weights and something that will provide a six or twelve inch high barriers. The floor needs to be marked with one straight line. The thread should break when the one pound weight is dropped no more than two feet with the tread tied to it.

The student stands in the arrow and bow stance, left foot forward with most of the weight, right leg a little more than shoulder width back and a couple inches to the right. The left foot must be on the line. The positions and moves may be reversed for left-handed students, if desired. The left hand is extended directly over the knee at or a little below shoulder height, palm down, grasping the dowel so that at least three inches project past the thumb and forefinger to the right. The right hand is held not less than one inch and not more than two inches from the dowel and grasps one end of the thread using thumb and forefinger. The thread runs over the dowel and straight down to the floor where it is tied to the appropriate weight. The weight is placed not less than one inch in front of the toes of the left foot and may be adjusted out before starting the test. There may be slack in the thread before starting, but that only makes it harder. The barrier is placed at right angles to the line on the floor at the midpoint between the feet.

At the start of the test, the student reels up the weight by moving the right hand directly back toward the chest. Simultaneously he begins to transfer the weight to the rear foot and begins to turn to the right. The left arm is kept straight, but not locked. The left foot turns on the heel. As or slightly after the weight crosses above the barrier the right foot is raised and must be placed with the toe facing the opposite direction and the foot parallel to the line. Then the student begins to unreel by moving the right hand toward the dowel. Completion of the test is marked by setting the object on the ground directly in front of the right foot not closer than one inch. The piece of wood used in the early tests should be used again on the top of the head.

The tenderleg must cross a six-inch barrier with a one pound weight. The apprentice must cross a twelve-inch barrier with a two pound weight. The journeyman must cross a twelve-inch barrier with four pounds. The teacher must use the six pound weight, and, after changing hands, perform the same test back the other way with the same thread. The master uses a eight pound weight in both directions.

The eye test: focus on infinity

The use made of the eyes in Tai Chi Chuan is very important. Most beginning students are taught to stare straight ahead in a kind of glazed over meditative mode. This is obviously not very useful in a martial art, though perhaps sufficient for a health exercise. The basic principle for using the eyes in Tai Chi Chuan is that they look where the Chi is going, but at the same time they are focussed on infinity and they are bright. The eyes and the mind must be closely linked to get the control and smoothness characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan. For martial applications the eyes have to be alert, but at the same time they cannot telegraph intentions.

With elaborate equipment we can determine where the eyes are focussed, and we can subjectively tell if a student is "bright-eyed." But for a more practical test, we only have to determine if the student can use his or her peripheral vision.

To test the peripheral vision we need to prepare the floor with four parallel lines, each six inches apart and fifteen feet long. The student stands at the center of one of the outside lines facing the other lines, heels together at the outside of the outside line, toes thirty to forty-five degrees apart. The student must remain motionless throughout the test. About six feet in front of the student stands a judge whose job it is to verify that both the student's eyeballs remain directed to the front throughout the test. Two assistants stand at least a foot behind the line the student is on, at the ends of the line. Each assistant has at least two small ( three inch square) pieces of different colored construction paper with strings tied to the bottom and top and a small weight tied to the end of the bottom string. The colors used depend on whether or not the student is color blind. Insure that the student can distinguish them before starting the test.

At a silent signal from the director, who stands behind the student, the test starts. For a Tenderleg the assistants, after a fifteen to thirty second pause, holding the top thread, move one of the colored pieces slowly forward at shoulder height until the weight on the bottom of the string is over the outermost line. The paper is held there fifteen seconds or so and then brought back. At the end of one minute the director asks the Tenderleg which colors were on which side.

The test for Apprentice, Journeyman, and Teacher is the same except that the paper is advanced one less line forward each time until they do not go forward of the line the student is standing on. The master uses the same test as the teacher but must also identify who the assistants are.


These seven tests only scrape the surface of what the Tai Chi Chuan stylist must learn to become proficient. It is entirely possible to pass all the tests for a particular level and yet be a lousy Tai Chi stylist as shown by stiffness, muscular strain, tense shoulders and other defects. However, the person who diligently and correctly practices a Tai Chi form will have no problems. These tests are designed for students who have learned the mechanics of a particular form and want some objective way to test their increasing abilities. Attempting these tests will give a student a much better idea of what he is supposed to be doing during the form. This ranking system provides a sounding board that will resonate in improved performance and attitude as the student progresses.

copyright 1996, Brandon C. Smith


Chen Man Ching, "Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan," North Atlantic Books, 1985. Review and link

Jou, Tsung Hwa, "The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan," Tai Chi Foundation, Warwick, New York, 1991

Waysun Liao, "Tai Chi Classics," Shambhala Publications, 1990.

Lee Ying-arng, "Lee's Modified Tai Chi for Health."

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