Taijiquan from My Perspective in Between East and West

The accumulation of Chinese health practitioners’ experience of many thousand years can be combined with the top-notch developments in natural science today – one just has to be open enough to think from a holistic perspective.

How to find access to a civilisation which you have not yet entered?  A first step is to enquire how people understand the body, how they deal with it, how they cultivate their vital energies. For me, one “access point” to Chinese civilisation has been Taijiquan. I learned a form of this art from my Chinese parents-in-law. This has also enriched my theoretical perspectives on traditional Chinese world views.

The history of Taijiquan is complex. Some say it originated in Song-era Neo-Confucianism and Daoism. I think the background of this art can be traced back much further! There are five main styles created by five “founding families” over generations since the late Ming dynasty and especially during Qing dynasties. Today, Taijiquan is practiced worldwide. As a living practice that we perform with our human bodies, regardless of whether we are Chinese or non-Chinese. Taijiquan has long become a part of world culture.

In my home country Germany, the study of Chinese martial arts began in the late 1960’s. The first inspiration was provided by the films of Bruce Lee. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping said “Taijiquan is good!” Some young Germans started to develop an interest in Taijiquan since the early 1980s. Taijiquan is more a form of movement meditation, which implicitly also embodies basic principles of Chinese medicine, but of course has in turn also influenced Chinese martial arts. This has led to a better practical understanding of the principles of Chinese martial arts. Likewise, traditional Chinese medicine started to be adopted in Germany since the 1980s in a steady fashion.

One of my friends in Germany, Dr Johann Boelts, was the head of the Project for Traditional Chinese Methods and Concepts of Healing (PCTH). It existed for many years at the University of Oldenburg, the Northern German birthplace of theorist of the Axis-Age Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). It was the only practice-based university institution in this field in the whole of Central Europe. When studying philosophy and humanities, I seized the opportunity to learn from Chinese health experts which had visited Oldenburg back then. People from all over Germany obtained university degrees in Chinese forms of healing and body-movement related forms of self-cultivation in this very furthering context.

Dr Boelts’ path had also started in the 1980s with studying Taijiquan at first. He later published several important books on the Chinese understanding of medicine. When he passed away much to early and tragically last year, he left a legacy in this regard. Many highly professional books are available on Taijiquan but also traditional forms of Qigong, like the “Five Animals Play”, and acupuncture etc. in countries outside of China today. Videos are easily accessible to those who are keen to learn health-related Chinese “body arts”.

Taijiquan and similar Chinese exercise arts offer a useful complement to our own cultural perspective, they provide Germans with a new and useful view of our body. In the context of pre-modern European education, physical training played no role. All of the Seven Liberal Arts of the traditional European university system were purely mental disciplines. People believed in overcoming the body by the principles of reason and the intellect. Body and mind were not much integrated. This view originated from the experience of inadequate forms of medicine, but also from Neoplatonic philosophy and the interpretation of religion, both of which valued the body as evil.

Since the Early Modern Age, the body has been misunderstood as a machine then (starting with Descartes). At the beginning of the 19th century, “the father of gymnastics” Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) finally invented modern artistic gymnastics. The idea was to strengthen the body’s resilience to diseases. While therefore returning to the tradition of sport and physical training of ancient Greece on the one hand, Jahn, on the other hand, established exercises that are mechanical and which can only be performed with apparatuses.

In China, the triad of bodily, mental and emotional aspects of our being has always been more balanced in ratio. At least two study subjects of the Confucian “Six Arts” were related to bodily training. In the Confucian classic Da Xue (The Great Learning), “xiu shen, taking good care of one’s own body, is a central imperative! The body was seen as a living “legacy” of one’s ancestors. For a true Confucian his/her body is not their private property. One has to strictly respect it, because it is a vessel of one’s ancestors. They are embodied in the form of one’s own vitality and appearance.

This view has always been absent in Europe. Even modern Chinese without interest in traditional world-views are still very careful not to gain weight and to rest their bodies properly. And we shouldn’t forget the background of more elaborate traditions of nurturing life in Daoism.

By practicing Taijiquan we learn: nature and the universe do not know angular movements! Everything flows and is based on round and curvy dynamics, spirals, based on changing patterns of tension and relaxation, organised in poles of opposition and mutual correspondences. To live is to maintain the appropriate balance in the rhythmically alternating opposites. This corresponds perfectly to the Chinese concept of yin-yang. In the extended form of the eight gua, these patterns of giving and receiving/nurturing were related to the moving human body in the commentary section of the Yijing. The Huangdi Neijing, the classic of Chinese medicine, is also based on the wisdom of yin-yang thinking.

I believe that the ancient Chinese world views which are also underlying Taijiquan harbour great potential for our future. As an important Chinese cultural heritage, Taijiquan should not only be preserved – it has to be developed further. It can be linked to modern science and the fields of quantum biology and theoretical biology. The accumulation of Chinese health practitioners’ experience of many thousand years can be combined with the top-notch developments in natural science today – one just has to be open enough to think from a holistic perspective.

Therefore, a false mechanistic understanding in natural science has to be overcome. We are living matter sustaining mind. We are on the threshold of a new age of science in which we can combine the experiences of the ancient traditions with new insights into the deep cosmic structures that underlie life.


The author is a Professor of School of International Relations and Diplomacy, Beijing Foreign Studies University.