Levels of Progression in T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan)

by: Al Duncan - updated 27 Oct 2000

The following is based on ideas presented by various experts including Cheng Man-ching, Fong Nan, Jou Tsung Hwa, Xu Zhi Yi, Christopher Pei, George Xu and Wang Xian. Not all experts agree on the number of levels, or their definitions.

Remember that learning T’ai Chi Ch’uan (also called Taijiquan) is a recursive process. Each thing must be relearned over and over again as the body changes – as relaxation (removal of tension) and body alignment improve – the student must return to the beginning to relearn to a new higher level.
Each of us "learns" Taijiquan at a different speed, and we all have different "bad habits" in body movement that must be un-learned before we can advance.

Basic Co-ordination (Human Level):

"Enter the door". Relaxes the sinews and vitalizes the blood. Working with yielding and neutralising. Consider lightness, slowness, circularity, and evenness.
This level takes about 3 to 5 years of constant practice to accomplish.

1. The beginning - learning to remove tension from the body, and working on the shoulder to the hand.
    (a) Memorize the sequence of a form.
    (b) Get rid of stiffness and rigidity in movement.
    (c) Learn to relax the wrists, elbows and shoulders. The shape of the arms should be rounded, not sharply bent or straight.
    (d) Feel the blood and ch’i (qi) flow to the fingertips.

2. Working on the hip joint to the heel.
    (a) Relax the hip joints so that all turning can occur there.
    (b) Learn proper stepping and weight shifting techniques.
    (c) Relax the knees and ankles so that the feet always remain flat on the floor.
    (d) Learn alignment so that the feet can be separated into full and empty.
    (e) Keep the weight centered over the "bubbling spring" point on the bottom of the foot.

3. Working on the sacrum to the top of the head.
    (a) Straighten and relax the spine, making the coccyx vertical.
    (b) Suspend the head as if by a string.
    (c) Align the three points of the body (yongquan/huiyin/bahui) vertically.
    (d) Learn to move in a more circular rather than straight manner.

No Independent movement (Earth Level):

"Go into the room" (don’t rest - keep practicing). "Opens the gates" so the qi can reach the joints. Working with the circular. Consider agility, purification of relaxation, entirety of movement, and interconnectedness.
The Human and Earth levels can both be completed in 6 to 10 years of dedicated practice under a good teacher.

4. Sinking the ch’i (qi) to the tan-t’ien.
    (a) Learn to co-ordinate all parts of the body. No part of the body moves by itself.
    (b) Development of a root.
    (c) Learn to breath into the tan-t’ien.
    (d) Shoulders and elbows are sunk, chest is relaxed inward and downward and the back is raised.

5. The ch’i (qi) reaches the arms and legs.
    (a) The heart-mind mobilizes the ch’i and the ch’i mobilizes the body.
    (b) The mind leads the ch’i from the tan-t’ien to the hip and then to the heel.
    (c) The mind next leads the ch’i to the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
    (d) All the joints of the arms and legs become open.
    (e) The ch’i extends to the "bubbling well" point on the feet and to the lao-gong point of the hand.
    (f) Development of fa-jin (expressing internal power).

6. The ch’i (qi) moves through the sacrum (hui-yin) to the top of the head.
    (a) This is the skill of circulating the ch’i through the three gates and is the beginning of the connection of the Ren and Du meridians.
    (b) Development of the ability to follow the opponent’s energy and apply energy. Minimal use of the major muscles of the upper body and great stability of the limbs. Clear distinction between yin and yang.

No Movement (Heaven Level):

Exercises the sensory functions. Consider differentiating between void and solid, regulating the breath, using intention, and seeking empty stillness.
Reaching the highest of these levels can take 20 years or more.

7. The "no circle" level, all circles are internal and cannot be seen externally. Comprehension of Jin. Every part of the body can be soft, every part can be solid. This is very difficult to master.

8. Levels 8 to 10 represent the highest levels and relate to references in the classics such as power without physical force, and moving even though appearing still.

Note that the order of progression of learning does not necessarily follow the steps as numbered above in a sequential order. Learning of things listed in several different points may be occurring simultaneously.

Generally (according to some experts), in the first stage of learning Taijiquan, one is learning the movements of a form, developing balance, breathing and some coordination and flexibility.

In the second stage, one is learning "mind intent" in the form to direct movement. This is accompanied by the development of "whole-body" movement and proper body alignment. Many people are happy just developing these two stages and not progressing any further.

The third stage is the development of the martial arts aspect of Taijiquan. Internal structure and strength is developed and applied to the form which means starting over to relearn the form. There is a beginning of understanding the martial application of the parts of the form, and one learns not to resist but to neutralize (this requires the development of ones sensitivity to "listen" to your partner). Understanding is not just mental learning, the body has to learn also.

In the fourth stage, you must re-analyze the form to realize that there is more to the "transitions" between movements. These transitions must also contain proper structure, power and unbroken energy. As body sensitivity increases, it will begin to handle external force as a single unit rather than as individual parts. This ability to compensate throughout the body must occur automatically as a reflex action.

Christopher Pei considers there are five levels of learning based on knowledge of the energies contained in Taijiquan.

    Level 1: movements are learned, and the body and frame are corrected.
    Level 2: Qi is developed and strengthened, and alignment is improved.
    Level 3: developing an understanding of the energies.
    Level 4: study technique and usage of these energies.
    Level 5: understanding energy changes.

George Xu states that there are four ways to do Taijiquan:

    1. Practice totally relaxed - the body, energy and mind are relaxed. This type of practice is very soft and smooth but has no power inside it.

    2. Practice using physical strength. The muscles, bones and ligaments are strong and the mind is tense and energy is unable to flow. The strength is on the outside of the body, which will not be flexible or changeable.

    3. Practice using strength in the bones. This is a higher level technique where the outside of the body and the muscles are yin, and the bones are yang. The strength is now inside the body making the person more powerful, but the power is only from structure and not from internal energy.

    4. This is the most difficult method – using the energy (Qi) and mind intent (Yi) to support the bone and structure. The ward-off energy is from the mind and is not physical ward-off energy. This is the development of hidden power.

Wang Xian states that there are three stages to developing internal skill in Taijiquan:

1. Using the form to bring out the Qi, and refining it, and then activating it. At this stage the form may look very powerful externally, but is empty internally. People may feel more relaxed/flexible and extended.

2. Much work is done on experiencing and watching the basic aspects such as internal Qi. All joints should be open, and all muscles, joints and ligaments should be relaxed. Where there is tension - energy cannot pass. This is the difference between internal and external martial arts. If one is successful at reaching this stage, they will have a lot of Qi and will feel that their dantian is solid and heavy. The head will feel lightness and the feet will feel heavy.

3. The third level involves increased sensitivity and intuitive reactions. You don't have to make too big a movement, and the focus will be on sensation and awareness of your body. Your phisical movements will be agile, and you won't have to think about them. Whenever your intention forms, your movements will follow naturally.


On the Study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan)

Two of the most important things to practice when practicing Taijiquan, is the ability to be honest with yourself and be humble towards others.

No matter how beautifully you do Taijiquan, without bringing into play the mind and intent to create structure, it is not Taijiquan. It is just beautiful movement. But if you are thinking too much about what you are doing, it is also not Taijiquan because the movement becomes restricted.

You must learn to do the forms correctly. The purpose of doing the forms is not just to perfect the forms, but to learn how to move the body so that all the joints are dynamically related to each other. The forms also teach the use of mind intent.

All Taijiquan movement is comprised of continuous total body movement. The body always moves as a unit. There are no separate arm or leg movements, there are only total body movements.

Remember that INNER CALM creates RELAXATION which creates SINKING which creates ROOTING which creates REBOUNDING FORCE.
"Inner Calm" is developed through meditation. "Relaxation", "Sinking" and "Rooting" are developed through the practice of Stake Standing exercises and continuous practice of the form. "Rebounding Force" (Peng) occurs naturally in the body when the previous 4 achievements are developed to a sufficient degree.