The form is not the goal-Tai Chi and calligraphy

May 26, 2009


Magda, a Tai Chi friend and I were sitting outside in the late spring sun at a wonderful sheltered café yesterday after class.  We were talking about the discipline of learning Tai Chi.

I keep seeing parallels between tai chi and calligraphy. But I get stuck on the fact that Tai chi demands a traditional repetition of form, as does calligraphy, but with calligraphy I find this restrictive and with Tai Chi it is not.  I guess I feel that the goal of learning calligraphy is to not just parrot the letters but to eventually use them to express yourself. So creativity is a goal for learning the technique. With Tai Chi, creativity isn’t a goal, but still something similar is at play here .

Magda commented that the deeper you get into Tai Chi practice, the more you realize that learning to do the form (Tai Chi ‘form’ is the sequence of movements) is not the end goal.

She pointed out that through disciplined practice of Tai Chi, you move beyond the form. You no longer have to think consciously about the movements, the movements become a channel for the energy as it moves through you and around you.  But to experience this one first has to master (to some degree) the movements.

Our whole class is at the point where we can all do Tai Chi in a flowing decorative way that would impress anyone who knew nothing about it.  And every new student aspires to this goal of external appearance and achievement. But once there, you either quit because as a goal in itself it is dead ended. Or you hit a wall because you realize how little you really know.

If you stay with the practice regardless, and just keep going, eventually it all opens out again in a new way. Your teacher points out how the tineist adjustments to thought and movement can radically change your experience of your own body and thus the form.  It becomes an ongoing journey of learning and deepening.  The form is not the end goal, but the medium for discovering about energy as it flows up from the earth through your body, or from the stars down to your toes. It teaches you about how your joints function, and how to use them better, You learn how to distribute your weight, how to hold your head, how to maintain a relaxed tension deep in the muscles, so every gesture is loaded with grace and power.  Tai Chi touches on so many aspects of life: your health,  your emotional well being,  your balance,  how your body uses energy, your concentration, your mental picture of yourself, how you relate to the space around you, how you stand and walk, how you relate to others, your weak and strong points. It is endless.

I suppose calligraphy too could be approached as a spiritual practice of sorts.  Because in the end, all these disciplines- Tai Chi, calligraphy, dance music, writing, alternative therapies, etc,  are just keys to universal truths that seem to run throughout all of life. You just have to be alert to them, and practice seems to be one effective way of achieving that.

5 Responses to “The form is not the goal-Tai Chi and calligraphy”

  1. The Taijiquan form’s movements as you say aren’t the be all and end all, we’ve always told our students that the form is just a vehicle for learning, it’s the way of moving that is important, not what the movements themselves are

  2. Hi S.,
    Synchronicity strikes again. After not doing tai chi for two years I recently dropped in on a class given by my old teacher. I brought my 13-year-old son because he had expressed interest. Don and his wife were so welcoming. Best of all M. likes what he saw so we will be joining the class in September when they start up again. So nice to have an activity to share with my son, and I think I can really benefit from all that tai chi has to offer. Thanks for writing so eloquently about the practise and journey v.s. learning the steps. Learning “how my joints function” will be all too apparent as I am presently challenged with frozen shoulder. But I am game to try…

  3. sarah Says:

    Hi Dale, nice to hear from you. Wonderful that you will be taking up Tai Chi again, and with your son. There have been several parent/child couples in classes I’ve done adn it seems to be a nice thing to do.
    I think there’s a good chance Tai chi will have a positive influence on your frozen shoulder. I experience it as a very soft effect, an awareness of your body and a gentleness within the strength.
    I know I really benefit from it, if I stop my daily practice for too long, all the old aches and pains set in again. good luck, S

  4. James Roach Says:

    One of the few articles I have come across that does the subject justice, thank you. In the numerous styles there is really only one that has a “round” form and a “square” (fang) form. The Wu Style with all its own derivatives often surprises people at the directly opposite requirement between Square and Round. This is not unique however:

    Just think how one learns the art of calligraphy. My own teacher echoes this in the video link. My own experience had me learning how to write in print form (brush and ink of course). Then one learns the cursive form. The differences between these two writing forms are very much analogous to the differences between those two Tai Chi Forms.

    Square Form is analogous to the block printing of (pinyin) Kai Style or what is called “Kai Shu”. The round form analogous to Tsao Style or “Tsao Shu/Cao Shu” or the cursive script.

    In Square form, as in calligraphy, movements take place in relatively straight lines, between points (start and end points of inflection). The Round form with its curves has the curves going through those points…the square is like a template for the round.

    Like the Calculus of mathematics however, I would like to point out that the round form is like the calculus which integrates a tiny segment of a curved motion as a straight line to form the curved motion. Square form is like taking one of the important tiny straight lines expanding it into a straight movement. I guess the way of the universe is based on similar principles for everything which appears to be unrelated.

    I think it is in Jou’s Tsung Hwa’s book: Tao of Tai Chi where he makes a statement about movement being like individual frames in a movie film. Taken separately or even 2 or 3, it makes no sense and one sees no motion. Only when one puts all the frames together do we have the illusion of motion.

    In regard to square form and perhaps to the critics: Although the major purpose is to teach students to delineate yin and yang, there are many, many individual “points”, “stops”, “pauses”, etc. As it was said, “changes of direction occur at those points”. It would seem then that much like the individual frames in a film being many but producing a fine product that gives us the illusion of motion. That, the more “points” are present in something such as square form, the more capacity there is for those points to join and produce a round form.

    If I only have 2 or 3 points, it would be hard to see the round if I join them with straight lines. If I put 10 points in that same situation and join them, one begins to see the round very clearly. Much as in the 8 straight lines joining and changing direction in the I Ching diagram and one can draw the circle around those 8 points. it would seem as well that lines joining thusly form angles at the joints. Ideally, one would think a good place to mount an attack would be at an angle or “tangent” as well.

    The points where one changes direction are referred to as “Dingdian” or fixed points actually inflection points. Those starting and ending points provide definition to the curved movement in the round form. Of course nothing ever starts or ends in Tai Chi, like ocean waves, breathing, each has its own peak and trough…sine waves come to mind. This takes the concept of “reversal” into consideration which is a mainstay in the I Ching.

    When I was learning calligraphy, I appreciated the stop and go of the strokes in Kai Shu. It gave me opportunity to reflect on the stroke I just did and to prepare the next movement. The square form of Tai Chi allows us to gather energy, align the joints, gather strength at the “points”. I can prepare the next move by gathering energy for the coming move. This is why the moves in the Square are resolute and appear abrupt.

    Based on this, I would say that Tai Chi is not only very analogus to calligraphy, but also very scientific…in light of the Calculus one can appreciate the mathematics as well.


    James Roach

    p.s. Read the biograpy of the Chows at this link. They were both outstanding artists, calligraphers and Tai Chi teachers. They both learned from Wabu Young who was my own teacher’s teacher.


    and finally the Square and Round forms in one video:

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