Grandmaster Jesse Tsao is the real deal: Chinese born and trained from childhood, he has spent his life studying and teaching Tai Chi. He is a master of all four major styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun—and is a former collegiate wushu champion. He is an elite athlete and martial artist, but also a scholar, with a PhD in traditional Tai Chi from the prestigious Shanghai University of Sport. His book includes ample reference to the Tai Chi classics and clear explanations of the most complex issues.
Master Tsao is also a teacher with a large international following, not just because of his knowledge and achievements, but also because he is a kind, helpful, and generous mentor to students at all levels of ability and accomplishment. He is so unassuming and approachable that everyone who studies with him just calls him Jesse.
I’ve traveled to China with Jesse twice, an unforgettable experience with lots of Tai Chi along the way. This picture was taken in the Wudang mountains.
The new book, Practical Tai Chi Training: A 9-Stage Method for Mastery, (available from Amazon) represents a lifetime of study and collaboration with some of the most illustrious Tai Chi masters of our time. The book contains ample detail about external matters such as posture, footwork, and style, but its ultimate focus is on the internal nature and wholistic benefits of Tai Chi — benefits to mind, body, and spirit.
Clearly written and well-illustrated, this reference volume is absolutely comprehensive, a must-have for your Tai Chi library. If you have a question about Tai Chi, the answer is in these pages.
General Qi Jiquang was one of the most famous and successful military leaders in China’s long history. He came from a military family and assumed a hereditary post in Penglai, Shandong Province, at the age of 17.
Despite his youth, Qi quickly distinguished himself as an exceptional strategist and leader. Qi is best known for eradicating the threat of Japanese Pirates along the coast, but he was also famous for defending Beijing from Mongol invaders and directing the fortification of the Great Wall.
In 2018, I traveled to China with a group led by Master Jesse Tsao. In Penglai, we visited General’s Qi’s residence.
The Yang-style 24-step Tai Chi routine is the most widely practiced form in the world. It is said to be simplified in the sense that it is short—much shorter than the traditional Yang-style long form on which it is based—and some movements have been modified to make them a little easier for beginners to learn. Here is a brilliant demonstration of 24 by Gao Jiamin:
The name of the form is 二十四式简化太极拳 (Èr Shí Sì Shì Jiǎnhuà Tàijíquán): 24-style Simplified Tai Chi. Here is a PDF list of the 24 movements.
Many people practice this form with little or no training, and it’s the only Tai Chi they know. Others learn 24 as an introduction to Tai Chi, train to a higher level of performance, and then move on to learn longer and more advanced forms.
Among this latter group, many continue practicing 24 routinely as a review of fundamentals. Twenty-four may be simplified, but it’s not easy! With heel kicks and xiashi duli (low form to standing on one leg) on both sides, it is as physically challenging as Yang Tai Chi gets.
History of the form
Twenty-four dates from the 1950s. At that time, the prevailing Tai Chi practice was the long form of Yang Chengfu. That form is a brilliant exercise, but it is very long—85 to 108 moves, depending how you count it. The problem is not so much that it takes a long time to perform (25-30 minutes) but that it takes such a very long time to learn. Most people never get there.
Recognizing that tai chi was a remarkably good exercise for health and longevity, the Chinese government’s sports commission sponsored the development of a shorter, more accessible form for beginners, in hopes that more people would learn and practice tai chi.
Yang Chengfu was long gone, having died in 1936. A number of well-known masters were consulted or involved in this development project. Li Tianji—son of Li Yulin—was a leading creative force behind the new form, and it was Li who wrote and illustrated Simplified Taijiquan, the first textbook on 24, which was eventually distributed to physical education departments throughout China.
In any case, the resulting form has only 24 movements derived from the traditional long form and little or no repetition. The long form contains 50-odd unique movements, so 24 has not quite half as many moves. It can be learned in a matter of weeks or months, not years. A person who has learned 24 can then move up to the 108 fairly quickly, having already learned the fundamentals of Yang-style Tai Chi and nearly half of the moves in the long form.
Instructional material for 24 abounds. Arguably the most authoritative is this instructional video by Li Deyin, nephew of Li Tianji and for many years one of China’s most influential teachers, as well as its number one tournament judge. He has produced a number of instructional videos on 24. This one is almost two hours long, very complete.
This video is in Chinese. Li does a lot of talking, but if you are patient, you can learn from watching. He’s very clear, shows everything from multiple angles, and goes into great detail. After a brief introduction, a full demo starts at 3:15, back view of the first part at 9:00, and instruction begins at about 17:00.
Although the 24 moves are derived from the 108, they are not all exactly the same. In fact, 24 is revolutionary in some respects. For one thing, the traditional forms tend to be one-sided; a lot of moves are only ever practiced on one side.
Twenty-four, by contrast, is more left-right balanced. Grasp the Bird’s Tail is practiced on both sides in 24, and Snake Creeps Down is performed on both sides as well, which makes the Golden Rooster Standing on Right Leg considerably more difficult than it is in the 108. This left-right balance turned out to be a trend; nowadays, in contemporary forms, we practice almost everything on both sides.
The retreating move in 24 is simpler than the traditional Repulse Monkeys. Some people call the backward-stepping move in 24 Repulse Monkeys, but it is a different move and has a different name in Chinese. Repulse Monkeys is 倒攆猴 Dào niǎn hóu, and the move in 24 is 倒卷肱 Dào juǎn gōng (Go back whirling forearms).
The upper body movement in these two steps is pretty much the same, but the footwork is different. Many beginners have a hard time learning the footwork for Repulse Monkeys. Dao Juan Gong is a more basic 退步 tuìbù (step back)—step straight back, from empty stance on one side to empty stance on the other.
I love 24 and practice regularly to keep my fundamentals up to speed. My only comment would be that 24 requires a warm-up. The 108 starts so gradually that by the time you get to the more demanding moves, you are ready for them. When you do 24, you are doing heel kicks and squats within two minutes. Of course, you could take it easy, but I like to practice 24 after I am thoroughly warm so I can perform each move as well as I can. Ba Duan Jin (the Eight Brocades) serves very well as a warm-up for 24.
My daily backyard 24 below is considerably less impressive than the world-class performance by Gao Jiamin above. I am an old lady, and I was never very athletic to begin with. If I can do it, anybody can. I offer this as a more accessible model, and also because my dog is in it. And birds are singing in the background. I find that animals tend to ignore me when I do Tai Chi, possibly because they can sense that I am focused elsewhere.
More Taijiese: Chinese for the western student of tai chi. Something I said in my original post about Taijiese bears repeating: if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from a Chinese master who does not speak English, a relatively small vocabulary of the terms of art for tai chi can open up a whole world of knowledge.
[Photo: My weekend practice group for years consisted entirely of women who did great Tai Chi and spoke no English.]
In addition to the specialized vocabularies I’ve covered (for steps and stances, kicks and punches, sword, etc.), here are some general words and phrases I have found useful for receiving instruction in Chinese. The top ten:
左 Zuǒ – Left
右 Yòu – Right
下 Xià – Down, downwards
上 Shàng – Up, upwards
平 Píng – Level
开 Kāi – Open
合 Hé – Together/close
后 Hòu – Behind/back
慢 Màn – Slow
快 Kuài – Fast, quick
Combine left and right with the words for body parts (listed in another installment of Taijiese) to get 左脚 zuǒ jiǎo (left foot), you shou (right hand), and so on.
A couple more directional indications:
斜 Xié – Diagonal/oblique (usually means toward the corner; 45 degrees)
直 Zhí – Straight, straight ahead
Hòu (above, meaning back) often combines with 坐 zuò, meaning sit: Hòu zuò is sit back. This is the familiar command to bend the back leg and sink the weight into that leg. Sit back.
抱 Bào – Hold (or embrace)
球 – Qiú is ball
Qiú (ball) is pronounced cho. It is a worthwhile investment of half an hour to learn the rules for pronouncing standard Pinyin. Easy to find, just google it: pronounce Pinyin. Anyway, bào qiú is to hold a ball—the familiar position preparing for Part the Wild Horse’s Mane in 24, or for Grasp the Bird’s Tail. That instruction, by the way, occurs in textbooks dating from Yang Chengfu’s time.
From Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, Fu Zhongwen (Louis Swaim, translator): “The heart of the [right] palm faces down. The left palm concurrently passes before the abdomen, following an arc, and arriving beneath the right palm…the two palms are now facing each other as though holding a sphere.”
转 Zhuǎn – turn
身 Shēn – body
转身 zhuǎn shēn, literally turn body, means turn around. It’s not just twisting the torso; the feet move. It’s a 180-degree turn.
When you hear màn (above, slow): you are being told to slow down. When you hear kuài (above, fast) you will usually hear 太快 Tài kuài. Too fast! Again, you are being told to slow down.
More instructional words, phrases:
一点 Yīdiǎn A little
再一次 Zàiyīcì – Again. Do it one more time (repeat)
落 Luò – Lower, sink down. Bend the knees, lower the center of gravity.
看 Kàn – Look, direct your gaze (eye-spirit)
圆 Yuán – Rounded, make a smooth circle
体重 Tǐzhòng – Body weight
应用 Yìngyòng – Application
动 – Dòng – Move
One of my favorites phrases: 一动全动 Yī dòng quán dòng means literally, “[if] one [part] moves, everything moves.” The movement needs to be connected and continuous, with upper and lower body coordinated, movement from the feet through the waist to the arms and hands.
For movement, as in a movement within a form, I have heard both 动作 Dòngzuò and 套路 Tàolù; the latter may also refer to the entire routine or set.
You’ll want to be able to ask questions. I don’t know conversational Chinese, but in a very primitive way, I can ask questions easily, often just relying on keywords, a questioning tone (rising inflection at the end), and an inquiring expression. It works, with a minimal vocabulary of Taijiese. I try to be polite:
老师 Lǎoshī – Teacher
请 Qǐng – Please
问 Wèn – Ask
I say, Laoshi (teacher), qing wen (pronounced ching wun) (may I please ask?), and then I might just say body weight left leg? Or application? The word for body weight can be combined with left/right jiao. Body weight left foot? Or to ask what the application is, I might just say Yingyong? Application? Again, my questions are not well-formed, but they work.
Your ability to ask questions is hugely boosted if you learn the names of the movements in the form you are studying. This allows you to locate the point in the form where you are confused or where you have a question. For every form I study, I work up a list of names in Chinese with Pinyin, and these are all posted on this website.
More common words that I find surprisingly useful:
然后 Ránhòu next
这个 Zhège – This
是 Shì – Is
不 Bù – Not
Zhège shì/bù shì – This is/is not
知道 Zhīdào – know
我 Wǒ – I (me)
你 Nǐ – You
Now you can say, Wǒ bù zhīdào (I don’t know) and Nǐ zhīdào? ([Do] you know?).
要 Yāo – Want
Yāo means want; when you hear bùyāo: you are being told what not to do. If your teacher mimics you and says bùyāo (don’t want), you are being corrected. What you’re doing is wrong.
对 Duì (pronounced dway) means right. correct. 吗 Ma converts a statement to a yes/no question, so Duì-ma? means Is this right? If you have been corrected, You can try again and say, Duì-ma? Right? (is this correct?)
好 Hǎo – Good
很 Hěn – Very
Duì! Hěn hǎo! This is what you want to hear: “Right! Very good!” You got it. You are being praised!
I have traveled to China twice with groups led by Jesse Tsao. Both trips were wonderful. In 2017, we spent the last weekend in Wuhan. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of the city before that trip—I certainly didn’t know anything about it. I have only the best memories of it now.
We visited the marvelous Yellow Crane Tower, which is set on a hilltop and surrounded by a beautiful public park.
We visited a huge lake, also set in a beautiful park—the Chinese do not skimp on parks!
But the best thing was Tai Chi in the middle of the city. On Saturday morning we walked to a nearby mid-town park which was, like all the city parks we saw in China, full of people dancing, walking, working out, playing games and—what we were looking for—doing tai chi.
We had no plan, no appointment, nothing set up in advance. We just went to the park. And there we found the lovely Master Tan, dean of martial arts for this whole city of 11 million!
She led us through 24, the 108, Laojia, and a couple of qigong routines I wasn’t familiar with. It was thrilling. We agreed to meet again the next morning.
Sunday morning, in addition to everything we did on Saturday, she demonstrated Wudang Tai Chi sword for us. The whole encounter was unforgettable.
On our last night in China, several of us went walking in a long, wide pedestrian mall not far from our hotel. There is no crime in Wuhan; we were assured we would be perfectly safe, and it certainly felt that way. Safe and relaxed. Throngs of people strolled and shopped into the evening hours, and we joined them, feeling what it might be like to live in China, in Wuhan. I loved it.
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that has evolved over the last couple of centuries into a popular practice with multiple applications, including self-defense, exercise and physical conditioning, stress relief, disease prevention, and improving overall health. Many people (myself among them) consider it the ultimate age-defying art. Why?
What is so special about Tai Chi?
Tai Chi, in its martial aspect, is founded on the principle that a smaller, weaker person can prevail over a bigger, stronger opponent. The most basic tenets of Tai Chi, as explained in the Tai Chi Classics, address how this is possible. [See The Origins of Tai Chi, on the Taijiquan Jing and Taijiquan Lun.]
Tai Chi is said to be an internal martial art, more concerned with cultivating and issuing internal energy than with developing muscular (“external”) strength. A person who seeks only to build muscles and deliver heavy kicks and punches will always be pitting strength against strength, and the bigger, stronger opponent will always prevail.
The person who practices Tai Chi uses technique, intention, and natural movement to capture a stronger opponent’s energy and turn it to advantage. To do this, it is necessary to achieve the frame of mind most effective in fighting—which is not anger, fury, desperation, fear or any other such strong emotion, but calmness and presence of mind.
The goals of Tai Chi
The goals of Tai Chi therefore include cultivating internal energy, adhering to the body’s most natural ways of moving, and practicing deep, deliberate relaxation. The value of these goals is obvious, even for a person who has no intention of fighting.
Another important objective lies in achieving balance—not just the ability to stand on one foot or to avoid falling, but balance in the broader sense of managing opposite tendencies. In traditional Chinese philosophy, this means balancing Yin and Yang—yielding energy versus warding-off energy. Earth-energy versus sky-energy.
In more Western terms, this means maintaining balanced emotions and a balanced center, both literally and figuratively: being aware of one’s center of gravity, being alert yet calm, aware of both one’s internal state and external surroundings, which might take the form of an adversary (physical or otherwise) or the natural environment.
The free flow of Qi
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the foundation of health lies in the free flow of qi throughout the body. Qi is variously defined in English as vitality, life force, or simply as energy. The channels for the flow of qi are called meridians, and they are mapped in traditional Chinese medicine much as we map arteries and veins in the West.
The free flow of energy is not exactly the same thing as what we call good circulation—the latter refers to circulation of the blood and delivery of Oxygen. But the two are analogous. In both cases, the general idea is that blockage and binding are damaging and unhealthy, while free circulation throughout all parts of the body is beneficial and enlivening.
Whatever the technical explanation or scientific theory behind this concept of free flow, it works. A steadily increasing body of evidence shows that people who practice Tai Chi regularly experience improved overall health and balance, lowered stress levels, and greater resistance to disease.
Those of us who have already incorporated Tai Chi into our daily lives gain a whole new level of well-being that has to be experienced to be believed. As a form of physical training, it is gentle, effective, and free of drudgery or injury. Having once tapped into that, who would give it up? Most of us will do it for the rest of our lives.
The poor Tiger is embraced but also ridden, hit, subdued, and shot:
抱虎 Bào hǔ Embrace the Tiger (Embrace tiger return to mountain)
跨 虎 Kuà hǔ Ride the Tiger
打虎 Dǎ hǔ Hit the Tiger
伏虎 Fú hǔ Subdue (or tame) the Tiger
射虎 Shè hǔ Shoot the Tiger (Bend bow shoot tiger)
The snake creeps down and spits out its tongue. Add 野 yě (wild) to 马 mǎ (horse) to get ye ma: the wild horse, whose mane is parted (ye ma fen zong). The wild horse also jumps across the stream in the sword forms. The crane spreads his wings and the golden rooster stands on one leg. The ape presents fruit, the monkey is repulsed.
Painting “Running Horse” is by Xu BeiHong (1895-1953).
雀 Què Sparrow (Grasp the bird’s tail)
燕子 Yànzi Swallow
雁 Yàn Wild goose
雕 Diāo Bird of prey (hawk, eagle)
Mythical animals abound, most especially dragons, but also the phoenix and roc.
龙 Lóng Dragon
鳯 Fèng Phoenix
鹏 Péng Fabulous bird (Roc)
The animals come in colors:
白 Bái White
乌 Wū Black
黄 Huáng Yellow
红 Hóng Red
丹 Dān Red
There’s a white crane (spreads wings), white ape (presents fruit), white snake (spits tongue), and white tiger (swings his tail). Dragons are black, blue-green, and yellow:
乌龙 Wūlóng Black dragon (also oolong tea!)
青龙 Qīnglóng Blue-green (or azure) dragon
黄龙 Huánglóng Yellow dragon
More animals, less common, less important to know, though they do occur in names of movements:
蟒 Mǎng Python
狮子 Shīzi Lion (shakes his head)
黃蜂 Huángfēng Yellow wasp, bee (returns to the cave)
蜻蜓 Qīngtíng Dragonfly (touches water)
蝴蝶 Húdié Butterfly
犀牛 Xīniú Rhinoceros (gazes at the moon)
豹 Bào Leopard
Bonus: 五禽戏 Wǔ qín xì Five Animal Frolics
武松 Wǔ Song Outlaw folk hero (who breaks the handcuffs)
鍾馗 Zhong Kui Ghost King (vanquisher of ghosts, he wields the sword)
罗汉 Luóhàn Arhat, enlightened person in Buddhism, has reached nirvana
夜叉 Yèchā Malevolent spirt (returns to the sea)
哪吒 Nézha Protection deity (searches the sea)
韦驼 Wéi Tuó (aka Skanda) is one of eight divine protectors in Chinese Buddhism
苏秦 Sū Qín Historical political figure (380-284 BC)
覇王 Bà Wáng A warlord whose actual name was Xiang Yu (202-232 BC)
魁星 Kuíxīng is the legendary scholar for whom the constellation we call the Dipper is named. In the sword forms, we find both the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper (Ursa Major and Minor):
This startling quote is attributed to Ba Wang (Xiang Yu): “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.”
Legend has it that Tai Chi originated in the Wudang mountains, but the earliest concrete record dates from the seventeenth century. Chen WangTing (1580-1660), from Chen village in Henan Province, was the founder of Chen-style Tai Chi. His statue stands in the center of the courtyard to the Tai Chi Museum in Chen Village.
Statue of Chen WangTing (my photo, 2019)
Yang Luchen (1799-1872) learned Chen-style Tai Chi during the time of Chen Changxing, the 6th generation master after Chen WangTing. Yang was the first non-family member to learn the art, and according to legend, he did so by subterfuge, taking a job in Chen village and watching lessons in secret.
Eventually, Yang was discovered and surprised the master with his ability. Yang stayed on and studied with Chen Changxing for a total of ten years. When Yang left Chen village, he was sworn to secrecy about the Chen routines and soon developed his own Yang style of Tai Chi.
Two of Yang Luchan’s most notable disciples were named Wu. Looks and sounds like the same name to us, but they are written differently (武 and 吳) and sound different to Chinese ears. These two disciples were Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880) and Wu Quanyou (1834-1932), and each founded his own style of Tai Chi.
Wu Quanyu studied with both Yang Luchan and Yang’s second son, Yang Banhou. Wu Quanyou’s style is today called Wu-style. The Wu long form closely tracks the Yang-style long form but is characterized by more of a grappling style, different footwork, different hands, and a distinctive leaning posture.
Wu Yuxiang first learned Yang Tai Chi from Yang Luchan. Then Yang introduced him to Chen Qingping, 7th generation Chen master. Chen Qingping practiced a small-frame version of Chen-style Tai Chi that was influenced by an ancient martial art called Zhaobao.
Wu Yuxiang eventually developed a distinctive style that incorporated elements of both Yang and Zhaobao-Chen. One of the best-known followers of his style was Hao Weizhen (1842-1920). Wu Yuxiang’s style of Tai Chi has come to be known as Wu Hao in the West, to resolve confusion between the two Wu names.
Wu Hao is still practiced today but is not as well-known as Chen, Yang and Wu. This is partly because, at the turn of the twentieth century, Hao met Sun Lutang (1860-1933), a fighter of formidable reputation. Sun did not practice Tai Chi. Sun’s arts were Xingyi and Baguazhang.
Sun learned Wu Hao Tai Chi from Hao and then developed his own style, a fusion of Wu Hao Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Baguazhang. The Sun style, thanks to Sun’s reputation and wide influence as a teacher, went on to become quite popular. You could say that Wu Hao was eclipsed by the Sun.
Today, the four most popular styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun—are represented in combined forms like 32, 42 (the modern competition style), and 48. A more detailed history and comparison of the styles described in this post, can be found in a book by Andrew Townsend, The Art of Taijiquan, An Examination of Five Family Styles.
I first learned this form from a friend from Beijing who used to join my neighborhood practice group on the weekends. When I learn a new form, I always want to know the correct names of the movements. In this case, arriving at a list was a challenge. I felt like Sherlock Holmes. I started with the list at the beginning of a teaching video. But I couldn’t just copy the text, because all I had was an image.
I found a (somewhat loosely translated) English list. Using that, the voiceover of a teaching video (link below), Google translate, and the MDBG online dictionary (which allows me to draw a character if I can get the order of the brushstrokes right), I have arrived at a list of the moves.
Zhongji Hua Wu Shan is a combined form, with elements of the four main styles (Yang, Chen, Wu and Sun). The opening to this form is clearly Sun-style.
A couple of names of movements are particularly interesting. #4, 推波助澜 Tuī Bō Zhù Lán, Push the Waves even Higher, is a saying that means something like the English “Add fuel to the fire.” #29, 贵妃醉酒 Guìfēi zuìjiǔ (sounds like gway fay djway joe), The Drunken Beauty, is the name of a well-known Qing Dynasty Beijing opera.
And here she is, the Drunken Beauty, reeling away in Huawu fan:
Like many other fan forms, this one includes a number of names familiar from sword forms, with the fan movements mimicking swordplay. And where the sword forms feature Xianren, the Immortal, the fan form names Xiannu, the Spirit Woman.
For the next few weeks I am going to be reviewing the 42-step competition form. This form was created in 1989 by Li Deyin specifically for tournament play. It is a combined form that incorporates movements from the four major styles of Tai Chi: Yang, Chen, Sun, and Wu.
Gao Jiamin demonstrates 42-step competition form
Here is an outstanding demonstration of the form by Gao Jiamin, one of the most celebrated tournament champions of our time. Not only is this a great demonstration of the form, it also identifies the movements with Chinese/English subtitles.
You can read more about Gao Jiamin in this interview, originally published in Kungfu Magazine in 2000, republished by the US Wushu Center in Portland, Oregon, where she sometimes teaches.
I originally learned 42 from my friend Long Feng in 2014, then again under the excellent instruction of Hu Pei Yi in 2016. For review and further instruction, I am using a 50-minute YouTube instructional video by Li Deyin, the author of the form. Gao Jiamin demonstrates each move; Li also demonstrates and elaborates on detail.
With the instructional vocabulary that I call Taijiese (much of it incorporated in this online notebook), I find I can understand most of what he says in this video, despite knowing just about zero conversational Chinese.
Another very useful resource is a book by Li Deyin, available in English from Amazon, in which he details the standards for judging a performance of 42. You couldn’t learn the form from this book, but you can correct your form by referring to it in detail. He explains both important points and common mistakes.
Book by Li Deyin
I particularly like the chart that he offers at the start of the chapter on 42, in which for each move he gives the hand shape, footwork, techniques, and most interestingly, the style (school) from which the movement is derived.
It’s very hot here right now—lows around 80 and highs in triple digits—so I’ll be working early in the morning, one lesson at a time from the tutorial above, reviewing each movement with reference to Li’s book.