Is Tai Chi a Martial Art?

Is Tai Chi A Martial ArtAs the sun rises in China, public parks and playgrounds welcome loads of people who move in graceful unison, flowing from position to position. This mesmerizing dance-like practice is Tai Chi. The ancient art is gradually increasing in popularity for its undoubted mental and physical health benefits.  The various patterns of movements involve punching and kicking motions and I’ve always wondered whether Tai Chi is a martial art.


What exactly is a martial art?

Martial arts are complicated systems consisting of various elements and there are many conflicting ideas as to which components matter more than others. 

The main element of traditional martial arts is that they are systems designed for combat – both armed (with weapons) or unarmed.  They were developed in turbulent times, when people had to learn to defend themselves literally as a matter of life and death.

Today, most martial arts have developed a sporting element allowing practitioners to compete without injuring each other. 

Certain martial arts involve a spiritual element, and can be considered mental endeavours as much as physical activities.

Another important aspect of martial arts is the cultural heritage and tradition they proudly preserve and pass on.  

Martial arts also develop the physical abilities of the practitioner.


Is Tai Chi a martial art?

Let’s see whether Tai Chi meets any of the elements described above.

Can Tai Chi be used for fighting?

From the myriad of martial arts practiced today, the Chinese art of Tai Chi is one of the most divorced from its martial origins. 

Although the benefits from Tai Chi are many and celebrated by people of every age, the combat aspect of it is almost missing. The graceful movements do involve punches and kicks, but the slow and gentle delivery of the moves can hardly be translated into a physical conflict situation

Most people who start Tai Chi do so for the physical and mental benefits as opposed to developing self defense skills.


However, Tai Chi can become an effective fighting system if the training is done in a particular way.

The first element that needs to be developed are the external aspects of a martial art.  These consist of strength, balance, flexibility, and fitness, all of which can benefit greatly from practicing the Tai Chi forms. 

One particular style of Tai Chi worth considering is the Chen lineage.  It is argued that this style has retained its combat efficiency more than others. 

The internal component of martial arts can also be developed using Tai Chi.   The constant improvement of your mental balance, clarity of mind, and relaxation are invaluable attributes you need for fighting.  Indeed, martial arts masters frequently say that the mind must be still like the surface of a pond, allowing it to react instantly to the movements of your opponent.

Tai Chi practised as a fighting art should also incorporate hands pushing practice.  This involves training against a partner and learning how to control their energy and movements which is a pivotal skill in a real fight. 

Tai Chi training for combat should also incorporate sparring. This is where the application of all your skills is tested against a resisting opponent. Of course, sparring is used to prepare for combat, so the point is not to hurt your opponent but to complete a field test of your abilities.

The only issue with the approach I’ve described is that you’ll have great difficulties in finding a Tai Chi class that caters for those looking to develop this martial art as a self defense system.

Is Tai Chi a sport?

The next feature of many martial arts is that they have a sporting element.

Believe it or not, there are Tai Chi championships which are especially popular in China.  Competitors are judged on how well they perform a particular pattern in Tai Chi.

Other martial arts have fixed sequences of movements that are referred to as katas (karate) or forms (taekwondo).  In competition, individuals are judged on how well they are performed.  

Tai Chi does meet this particular element of a martial art.


Is Tai Chi a spiritual practice?

There is very much a spiritual side to Tai Chi.

The slow, graceful movements involved in Tai Chi are designed to stimulate the flow of chi within the body.  Also referred to as qi, this is the Chinese word for life force that is believed to flow through all living things and the Universe.  Chi flows through meridians or channels in the body and when these are blocked, so the theory goes, health problems can occur.

The practice of Tai Chi therefore meets this element of a martial art.


Does Tai Chi have a cultural heritage and tradition?

Tai Chi has a rich history.  Based on Qigong and thousands of years old, Tai Chi is one of the main branches of traditional Chinese martial arts. Also known as Shadow boxing, it is very difficult to separate the actual history of the art from the legends, so we cannot be certain exactly when and how it originated.

Its modern form can be historically traced to Cheng Wang Ting as the originator of the Chen Tai Chi style in the 1600s. 

Tai Chi’s essential principles are based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which values the natural balance in all things. This is the basis for Tai Chi’s practice- to be in physical and spiritual accord with the balance of nature. 

Tai Chi consists of a number of movement patterns or forms that have been passed on through the generations.  Difference schools of Tai Chi have different forms and overtime, these have been modified and adjusted.  Today, significant work has been undertaken to unify the various styles and make the art more accessible by simplifying some of the forms.

It’s clear that Tai Chi meets this aspect of the definition of a martial art.


Does Tai Chi develop the physical abilities of the practitioner?

Tai Chi consists of slow, graceful movements and therefore doesn’t really qualify as an intense cardio workout.  It might be the equivalent of going for a medium paced walk.  It’s certainly better for you than sitting on the coach.

It also involves deep stances which not only develop the strength of the lower body but improves the flexibility of the practitioner.

Therefore, those looking for a more intense form of exercise might want to look elsewhere.  However, Tai Chi does improve a person’s leg strength and flexibility.

Tai Chi therefore does meet these particular criteria of a martial art.



The modern practices of Tai Chi meet all the characteristics of a martial art: there’s a sporting element; a spiritual side; it has a rich cultural heritage and tradition; and develops the physical abilities of the practitioner.

Tai Chi has its roots as a fighting art but over time this has been considerably diluted.  Most students learn Tai Chi for its relaxation and health benefits, as opposed to learning a self defense system.  

As I’ve outlined, if you’re looking to practice Tai Chi as a martial art, you’ll have to find a school that teaches it as a combat system.  



What movements are involved in Tai Chi?

There are many styles of Tai Chi to choose for your practice that may differ in difficulty and appearance, but all share one common foundation- they involve slow focused movements, accompanied by deep meditative breaths and promote inner calm and peace. Some of the more popular styles are:

  • Chen style- the parent style of Tai Chi alternate between slow and fast movements including some jumps, stopping, and faster hits, which is closer to actual combat training
  • Yang style- The most popular style today, practiced widely around the globe. The slow, large sweeping motions allow for the most diverse array of people to participate, which is naturally why Yang style has the most practitioners. 
  • Wu Hao style- A combination of Yang and Chen styles. The movements are done with narrower frames and high posture.
  • Wu Style- The essential difference of the “second Wu” from the other styles is the unique pushing hands practice, done in tandem with a partner. The moment you see it you will instantly recognize it. 
  • Sun style- The most gentle of the styles, it’s often used for physical therapy. It excludes the more rigorous movements from the other styles.

Is Tai Chi better than karate? 

This is a very subjective question and entirely depends on what you are looking for in your practice. Both Tai Chi and Karate are centuries old traditional martial arts and represent what most people think of when they hear the words martial arts. However, there are significant differences between the two. Tai Chi is a soft meditative form of martial arts, while Japanese karate is a hard form much more oriented towards self-defense and fighting abilities. 

A direct comparison between the two can be made for every aspect, but there can’t be a hard conclusion which is better- it all depends on your goals and aspirations as a martial artist.

Is Tai Chi similar to yoga?

Yoga is а thousand-year-old movement tradition from India and it has nothing in common with martial arts, as its movements do not derive from fighting techniques at all. There are many similarities between Tai Chi and yoga and you can benefit from training both. 

One of the main gains of both practices is that they support a strong meditative state that calms the mind and teaches the very important skill of mindfulness. Both practices use a series of poses and in yoga there are many flowing sequences not unlike Tai Chi, but there are also a lot of static position holds that are not present in the Chinese art.

What are the disadvantages of Tai Chi?

While boasting some amazing benefits, there are a few things you should consider when training Tai Chi. 

  • It takes a long time to learn and master- martial arts in general do take a commitment and Tai Chi is no exception. You will have to spend a lot of time to learn the basic forms and even longer to master them. Of course for some this process is highly enjoyable and not a disadvantage.
  • Tai Chi is not a violent martial art; you will have to search far and wide for a teacher or class that will teach you a practical version of Tai Chi.
  • Modern Tai Chi is not the original form- Modern classes use only a fraction of the original moves in order to bring down complexity and be more accessible- to be precise only 24 of more than 100 moves. For the more ambitious of you this is not a small disadvantage. 
  • Tai Chi is practiced outdoors- Of course you can practice in your living room or any space large enough to fit for a workout, but the entire concept of being in harmony and balance with nature is kind of lost. So if you want to practice as intended you will have to consider the weather conditions.  

Where is Tai Chi from?

Tai Chi is an ancient form of exercise coming from China, but widely practiced throughout the world.

How old is Tai Chi?

It’s very hard to the specific beginning of Tai Chi, but it’s origins date back over 700 years, some say even 1500 years. Its modern form can be historically traced back to the 15th century. It is rooted in Taoism and is a martial art as a way of practicing Taoism. 

Can I learn Tai Chi on my own?

As with everything these days there are plenty of videos and online courses that can help you learn Tai Chi on your own. As it’s mostly an introspective and meditative practice if you are alone you can even reach the mindset easier than in a group. But the lack of a teacher to give you constant feedback, the process of learning the art may take longer than if you take classes with a good teacher. 

A bit of good advice for the solo training would be to make videos of yourself and analyze your mistakes in comparison with the learning materials you use.

What are the 13 postures of Tai Chi?

The foundation of Tai Chi Chuan (form) are the 13 postures, also called Thirteen powers, Thirteen skills, Thirteen movements. The first 8 are referred to as gates, while the other 5 are steps. They are:

  1. Peng (ward-off)
  2. Lu (roll-back)
  3. Chi (press)
  4. An (push)
  5. Tsai (pull-down)
  6. Lieh (split)
  7. Chou (elbow strike)
  8. Kao (shoulder strike)
  9. Chin (advance)
  10. Tui (retreat)
  11. Ku (look left)
  12. Pan (look right)
  13. Ting (center)

What is the best Tai Chi for beginners?

If you are new to exercise and fitness as a whole Tai Chi is a perfect fit for you. Regardless of which style and practice you choose you will improve your balance, flexibility, and strength while also improving your mind-body connection. The Yang style of Tai Chi is probably your best choice when starting out. It’s the most popular of the styles precisely for the reason it’s the most accessible.

How many times a week should you do Tai Chi?

Daily practice is the best practice for Tai Chi. For a beginner, 20-30 minutes a day should prove enough time to learn the basics, poses, and principles. But if you can’t train every day, 2 or 3 times per week will suffice and you will enjoy the benefits of Tai Chi without the need to feel guilty that you can’t practice more often. 

When you reach more intermediate levels you will be able to decide on the perfect frequency and length of your sessions to reach your personal goals within the art. 

Is Tai Chi effective in a street fight?

 As we explained, the physical benefits coupled with the skills and mindfulness without a doubt can be useful in a street fight or self-defense situation. If trained as a martial art, Tai Chi will most likely help you prevail against an untrained opponent. 

However, many of the modern martial arts like MMA or boxing are considerably more adapted to real-life situations. But training in them comes with a lot of wear and tear on your body in sharp contrast with the injury-proof training of Tai Chi, so you should assess the risks and benefits when choosing what to practice.

What do you wear for Tai Chi?

No special uniform is required for Tai Chi and most schools will allow you to train in any loose fitting clothes that allow you to move freely without restriction.  In time, you may want to purchase one of the traditional uniforms such as the one here (link to Amazon).

It’s important to use non-slip shoes for Tai Chi.  Some of the stances can be quite wide and you certainly don’t want to slip and lose your balance.  The types of shoes below are particularly comfortable – more details are available here on Amazon.


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Tai Chi vs Karate

What are the common mistakes untrained people do while fighting?

Why Chinese Martial Arts are not used in MMA?

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