What Is Tai Chi Form?

The tai chi form is a combination of tai chi postures and movements practiced in a specific sequence. Each style of tai chi, and most martial arts for that matter, have their own specific forms.

Purpose of forms

The tai chi forms were created as way to organize and preserve all of the techniques of the art, to imbed the theory and principles during practice, and to preserve the art for future generations.

How did the forms develop?

Remember that first and foremost, tai chi is a martial art.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago in rural China, most if not all villages had their own family style of martial art. This was to protect the village and families from bandits and unwelcome visitors.

Initially, the martial techniques and applications for self defense were practiced as solo exercises and with a partner to test their efficacy. These techniques evolved over hundreds of years, based on whether or not they were practical for fighting. The ones that were effective were maintained. The ones that did not work when under attack, were either corrected so that they were, or discarded.

Eventually, these individual self defense techniques were joined together in a sequence to help remember them, and as a way to preserve the art for future generations. Over the centuries, the forms evolved to what we now know and practice today.

Tai chi form training: how and why

The tai chi form can be compared to an encyclopedia.

Encyclopedias have volumes. The volumes have chapters. The chapters have sentences. The sentences have words. The words are made up of letters.

  1. As beginners, we learn and memorize the whole form, which we could say is like an encyclopedia.
  2. Once we have memorized the entire form, then we begin to study specific sections of the form, which are like the volumes.
  3. With time, we break down the sections into smaller sequences of movements, which are like the chapters.
  4. The smaller sequences are then broken down into individual postures, from chapters to paragraphs.
  5. The individual postures are then broken down into individual movements for continual refinement, from paragraphs to words.
  6. The individual movements are further broken down into subtle gestures, the most refined details, from words to letters.

This process from encyclopedia to letters, or whole form to subtle gestures, happens over a long period of time, many years.

Then, the next step is to start combining again: from individual letters to words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to chapters, to volumes, and finally to the whole encyclopedia.

We continue this process – from encyclopedias to letters to encyclopedias – for our whole lifetime. This is how we continually evolve and develop our tai chi practice.

Introducing Old Frame First Routine: the encyclopedia

In our school, under the guidance of Grandmaster Wang Xi’an (link to article), all beginning students first learn Old Frame First Routine (Laojia Yilu) (link to article). This 75 movement form will be their encyclopedia to study. This form is not only the foundation for Chen style tai chi, but is also the basis for all other major tai chi styles today.

When we say that Laojia Yilu is like the encyclopedia for tai chi, this means that all of tai chi’s elements for cultivating good health and self defense for the whole lifetime are within its structure.

What does Old Frame First Routine teach us?

Old Frame First Routine teaches us how to stand, how to breathe, how to loosen up, how to silk reel (move in full body spirals), how to relax and “let go”, how to align our bodies with gravity, how to block, strike, kick, sweep, apply and escape joint locks (qinna), and much more. (all future linked articles)

In Grandmaster Wang Xi’an’s school in Chenjiagou, all of the students practice this form for a minimum of 2 years before learning other forms, Push Hands (partner training to develop self defense skills), or free fighting.  This includes rigorous daily training (yes, Sundays too) and very critical corrections by Master Wang and his senior students.  When Master Wang feels a student has a deep enough understanding and can perform the entire sequence to his expectation, then the student is allowed to go on to the next step in his Chen style tai chi curriculum.

The result of this training method is that not only the student can remember and perform the entire sequence accurately with skill, but that the art of Chen style tai chi will be passed on to the next generation intact.  In a day and age when instant self gratification is the rule, well… this just doesn’t work when it comes to “mastering” tai chi!

I am including a list of the names of the movements of Laojia Yilu, and an old video of me demonstrating the entire sequence.

Just a side note – since I began to study with Master Wang many years ago in China, he taught me many different forms – empty hand and weapons.  In my daily  practice, I really only practice Laojia Yilu, as I feel it is enough for this lifetime!

I have people contacting me on a regular basis and asking me to teach them other forms.  But I politely smile and tell them no, that first they must demonstrate to me a good understanding and skill of Laojia Yilu.  In this way, I am sure to do my part to pass on Grandmaster Wang’s lineage for future generations!

I strongly suggest to all tai chi practitioners to learn one traditional form and keep that as their main training method.  Years of daily training will hone skills and a deep understanding and appreciation for this subtle internal martial art!

Click here to watch an old video of Grandmaster Wang Xi’an performing Chen tai chi Old Frame First Routine (Laojia Yilu).

I hope this will inspire you to practice more diligently and cultivate your tai chi skills!

I wish everyone good luck on your tai chi journey!


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