Diversity: Good or bad?

By: Dr Paul Lam
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From a business magazine comes the following: “In such a world, the only thing we can trust is that the certain becomes uncertain, and the unlikely becomes likely. The future cannot be predicted – it has to be created. Einstein was wrong. No single theory can guide us. Diversity rules. Questions rather than answers fundamentally drive the future….”Dr Lam playing tai chi sword

This is a quote from the business world, which is a lot less tranquil than our Tai Chi world. In fact many business organizations are using Tai Chi to bring tranquillity into their world. While we know that relaxation and better health contribute to efficiency, we can recognize the similarities between our world and the business world and draw from them. For example: 1. No single theory can guide us. 2. Diversity rules 3. Questions are important.

1. No single theory can guide us.
Tai Chi is like a vast ocean – so much knowledge, skill and diversity! No one knows it all. The modern communication tools help to bring many styles and forms to our reach. Such diversity can be too overwhelming to Tai Chi practitioners, especially beginners.

As a beginner or someone who has limited exposure to other styles, you may want to reach the great height. Exposures to other forms or styles, however, could assist you to get there. This reminds me of the well-known story of the blind men and the elephant. A king was going to find out how blind people perceived an elephant. After each man felt the elephant, he described what it was he felt. One blind man felt the stomach of the elephant and said, “An elephant is like a wall.” Another thought the elephant was like a pillar (the elephant’s leg). Yet another insisted that the elephant’s nose was like a rubber hose. Each of them was right, but none had the complete picture.

The point is that all the blind men were right but only partially. To gain an overall picture would be much more useful. We Tai Chi enthusiasts could be likened to the blind people. Some of us can only see one facet of this great art.Dr Lam and Dr Stephanie Taylor performing 42 forms tai chi

For instance, in Yang style, you move forward and backward by lifting your foot just off the ground and touching down like a “cat.” In Chen style, you step forward, brushing your foot on the ground and often stomping noisily on the ground. It can be quite off putting if you have learned for many years that you should lift your foot up to step forward, and then you see the Chen stylists dragging or brushing their feet on the ground. But can you say all Chen stylists are wrong?

One of the essential principles most practitioners hold dear to our hearts is to maintain the body upright. Most of us would think this is simple and straight forward; there can be no disputes. In most styles, upright means the upper trunk is vertical to the ground. Yet in Wu (not the wu/hao) style, upright means drawing a straight line from foot to hip to head, and they lean forward compared to other styles. The point is that even such fundamental concepts can be interpreted differently.

One of the 10 essential points by Yang Chen Fu is “Depress the chest and raise the upper back.”

There are different interpretations of this point. To me, this means keeping your upper body straight but not stiff. To depress the chest means to relax the chest muscles. Raising the upper back means that it should not be hunched over, but to allow your Qi to reach your back. To put it simply: Relax your back and let your Qi reach there. Many people, however, hunch their backs because that’s how they interpret this particular point.

2. Diversity rules
Different styles have different hand shapes. For example, Yang style uses an open palm, while Chen uses a closed one.

There are numerous differences between the styles. Even within one style, you may encounter many variations, and even within one clan there are quite significant differences. For instance, among the three famous disciples of Yang Chen Fu, his eldest son Yang Shou-Zhong, as well as Cheng Man Ching and Dong Ying Jie, all have very significant variations. Yang requires a smaller frame with less outward movement and great emphasis on inner power. ( See my article re Yang Shou-Zhong in Tai Chi magazine, August 2001 issue.) Cheng greatly emphasis softness, and Dong includes variations like fast Tai Chi. He also leaned forward markedly in many of his photos.

3. Questions are important
Beginning Tai Chi can be bewildering. And beginners inevitably ask the questions: What is the right way? Is there a single theory to guide us? Does diversity rule?

This situation makes some of us wish we lived back in the old days, spending our lifetime seeking the best teacher and totally devoted to studying under him. Back then; when you were allowed to graduate, you were supposed to be a complete artist, almost second to none outside your teacher.

Not only can we not go back in time, we know this is an impossible situation Not everyone can be the best! Limited exposure could very often end with limited ability.

Practicing Tai Chi today is a great opportunity. How the ancients would have loved to have the chance to choose what style and teacher are best for them before committing their lives to one teacher. Spending some time choosing and appreciating what is available today can save us a lot of time from going to the wrong directionChen style tai chi sword from the tai chi workshop in Sydney 2005.

I believe we need to obtain diversified views from people with diversified backgrounds, and then pool those views together. This will help all of us see the art better and in a larger picture. We will gain deeper understanding, which would be impossible without better means of communication, tolerance and collaboration.

Through our diversity, we have a better chance to see the elephant better. We have a better chance to see what suits our own needs and what will work best for us. We don’t need to spend our lifetimes devoted to one path, only to find out later it was not meant for us.

Also, we can learn different things from different styles and interpretations, which will shorten our path to a higher level. Seeing the whole picture can help us to progress quicker. Like searching in a vast city, knowing the directions will help us to find where we are going.


Confronted with so many styles, forms and interpretations of Tai Chi, we should view the situation as an opportunity to enrich our knowledge and to help us progress more rapidly through our levels of Tai Chi.

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