Most people have heard of Tai Chi. They’ve seen Tai Chi’s “graceful movements performed in slow motion” and increasingly more people are learning about Qigong and noticing that it too has “graceful movements performed in slow motion”. Both arts are famously good for health and both arts are centuries old and originate from China.
This begs several questions like:
What’s the difference between them?
Which came first?
And which one will suit me best?
In this blog I aim to answer those questions.
Defining Tai Chi
Tai Chi, which is more accurately named Tai Chi Chuan (Grand Ultimate Fist), is fundamentally a martial art. In fact, it was developed as a sophisticated form of combat uniquely based on the principal of Yin Yang as it’s foundation.
Like all Chinese martial arts it includes striking, kicking, felling and locking. It also includes an array of weapons training and partnered work in which combative skills are developed like push hands, striking hands and sparring. An important feature of Tai Chi as we know it today, is that it has maintained its historical roots from the Chinese villages and families where it originated, and various forms/styles are still identified under these famous family names such as Yang, Chen, Sun, etc.
However, most people are only familiar with the slow, harmonious, and graceful “solo hand from” of Tai Chi and are completely unaware of its martial nature. There are several explanations for this. Firstly, the Tai Chi martial forms were “neutered” from Chinese society during Mao’s reign and it became a demonstration sport touted for its health benefits ie. the 24 form.
By the time it reached the West, the martial components were rarely emphasised, replaced by the commercialisation of its more gentler health applications. The majority of people practicing Tai Chi today are living in relatively peaceful societies and are much more interested in health than in combat. Over many decades the Tai Chi solo form has been taught and practised to the exclusion of all of the associated martial aspects.
The benefits of Tai Chi fall into three categories: building robust health; becoming proficient in self defence and combat; personal development and spiritual cultivation.
Qigong is the art of energy cultivation, Qi meaning energy, in this case the energy that flows in the meridians of your body: and Gong meaning a skill acquired through time and effort. It is not a martial art. The movements are typically slow and graceful and can be categorised into at least 5 genres that deliver specific benefits:
Warrior Qigong produces benefits like endurance, strength, balance and agility;
Medical Qigong, developed by Chinese doctors, is often effective for treating specific injuries and health issues;
Intellectual Qigong improves mental clarity, thinking and reasoning powers;
Vitality Qigong focuses on improving energy levels, mobility and longevity;
and Spiritual Qigong was developed to strengthen the body and mind, improve meditation and access altered states of consciousness.
Qigong generally requires much less space than Tai Chi to train effectively. It can also be performed lying down, sitting, standing and moving. Qigong can positively effect your health much quicker than Tai Chi because the movements are typically simpler, easier to learn, and are geared towards specific outcomes.
Qigong is the fuel for Tai Chi
It was actually the fusing of martial arts with Qigong and meditation which gave birth to Tai Chi. This is what makes Tai Chi an internal martial art. Instead of lifting weights, running, or doing other forms of physical exercise, Tai Chi practitioners applied the Yin Yang principles of Qigong and fused them into their movements to generate great internal power and focus.
Basic Qigong skills such as relaxation, breath regulation, visualisation, and focus have all been interwoven into the martial movements to improve their effectiveness. Since Tai Chi does indeed include Qigong skills, it is often difficult for the un-initiated to differentiate between the two disciplines because the martial applications are subtle.
Which came first?
It’s fair to say that Qigong came before the martial art of Tai Chi. There are silk paintings that were discovered in Hunan province in 1973 that date to two centuries B.C. They show ancient exercises that were the forerunners to modern Qigong. It is likely that Qigong-like health movements existed many centuries before that.
On the other hand, Tai Chi is likely to be at most 800 years old. There are many “origin” stories with regards to Tai Chi. One of the most readily accepted is that it originated in the Wudang mountains in China with its creator Zhang Sanfeng, who lived in the 12th century. Zhang Sanfeng was an expert in the martial arts originating from the famous Shaolin temple. His genius was in fusing his martial skills with Taoist Qigong and meditation techniques. The hybrid he created was called Neijia and was the likely precursor of Tai Chi Chuan.
If Qigong came first, why is Tai Chi more well-known?
In the spread of anything that comes out of China, there are normally many factors at play. For centuries Tai Chi was a closely guarded military secret passed down from master to student. Tai Chi became well known over a hundred years ago when a famous martial artist named Yang Luchan became a head coach for the bodyguards and soldiers that guarded the forbidden city in Beijing. He later taught the health aspects of his art to the royal family and various members of high society. Once the Chinese public found out about this, they wanted to know more about the martial art that produced such great health results. Hence the origin of Yang-style Tai Chi.
Subsequently, many Tai Chi teachers spread the art throughout China, and then in the 50s and 60s across Asia and the West. It is important to note however that the martial aspects became less and less emphasised as the art spread.
Qigong on the other hand has traditionally always been a relatively secretive and closely guarded art. It’s only in the past few decades, that Qigong has been widely accessible even to a Chinese audience. However, now with the new speed of information more and more people are finding out about the powerful benefits of the art.
And this is how, even though Qigong is older than Tai Chi, most people are only finding out about it much later.
Which will suit you better?
I find that many people doing Tai Chi would be better served by training with Qigong because of their needs and objectives. The vast majority of people starting out in Tai Chi are interested in health and not fighting. They want something that is calming and of low impact. Great. However, Tai Chi takes much time and effort to memorise and perform an intricate sequence of movements. In a typical class, teachers will focus on solo forms which are confusing and incredibly difficult to learn and remember. People who are looking for benefits but who don’t have much time are left frustrated and de-motivated. They can’t progress without the teacher standing at the front of the class and when they go home they are often lost.
For those interested in staying healthy, spry and improving their longevity, Qigong is much more suitable. This is not to say Tai Chi can’t deliver the same, but it will take much longer. Qigong is easier to learn and more cost effective if those are your goals.
Let’s return to our questions:
What’s the difference between them? Which came first? And which one will suit me best?
- Tai Chi is a martial art. Qigong is energy cultivation. Tai Chi however, incorporates important Qigong concepts.
- Qigong came first, but you probably heard about Tai Chi before Qigong for a variety of reasons.
- If you are limited in either time or patience, and are more focused on health and vitality, Qigong is probably a better choice. If you are willing to devote more time (and money) toward personal training and instruction, and are more attracted to the martial arts – then Tai Chi might be the way to go.
I hope this blog has helped to settle the great Tai Chi vs. Qigong question for you.
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All the best