Tai Chi as a Martial Art: Self-Defense, Energy, and More

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

man practice traditional Chinese martial arts Tai Chi fighting
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Many people have asked me about Tai Chi (Tai ji quan) over the years, and one question that crops up often is about the legitimacy of Tai Chi as an official martial art.

Many want to know if it really can be used as a self-defense method because the classes they have watched do not make it look at all possible. Most people assume that because Tai Chi is not seen used in mixed martial arts (MMA) tournaments, that it’s not a martial art. So, what is the answer? Is it a martial art or is not it? Let’s find out!

Is Tai Chi a martial art? Yes, Tai Chi is officially a martial art. “Martial arts” can be defined as any form of traditional self-defense or combat art that, among other things, uses physical, mental, as well as spiritual skills. As a result, this places Tai Chi firmly into the martial arts category.

While it is considered a gentle and meditative art form, Tai Chi, when done correctly in a self-defense scenario, can cause injury and even be deadly.

Tai Chi is a martial art that is part of the Chinese culture – it has been revered and practiced for hundreds of years. While it was developed as a self-defense mechanism initially, it is mostly practiced in the Western world for its meditative value and health benefits too.

I wanted to find out more about the origins of Tai Chi and why it is considered a martial art even though it appears to be a very slow, non-contact sport. How could a non-contact martial art be effective in self-defense or even “deadly”?

If you want to know the answer to these questions, read on to find out what I learned.

Why is Tai Chi a Martial Art?

Man hands doing Tai Chi or Tai ji with Yin Yang symbol
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The history of Tai Chi and how it was invented explains quite well why it is, in fact, a martial art and not just a mere form of exercise. Tai Chi is short for “Tai Chi Quan”, which means “Supreme Ultimate Boxing. This art was originally developed as a fighting art; whereby a person would use the opponent’s energy against them by swiftly and intuitively avoiding contact instead of striking back.

A snake and a crane …

Where does Tai Chi come from? Who invented it, and why? The fighting art of Tai Chi was developed by Zhang San Feng some 700 to 1,500 years ago.

Legend has it that while at the Purple Summit Temple in China, Zhang watched a snake and a crane in combat. He paid particular interest in this fight because while the snake appeared to be “winning,” it was not behaving in typical combat style. Zhang observed the snake winning the battle by skillfully avoiding the strikes of the crane. The snake seemingly moved with the crane and used its own energy against it. And thus, the self-defense concept of Tai Chi was born.

While most people nowadays use Tai Chi for health benefits and not self-defense, it does not mean that it cannot be a highly effective form of self-defense . It must be noted that Tai Chi, as a self-defense form, is a lot more combative than Tai Chi for health and meditation even though the same movements are used.

How Tai Chi Can Be Used For Self-Defense

You might wonder how you can defend yourself without actually hurting your opponent. It might seem impossible …

Tai Chi teaches fluid, natural movements that can counteract the attack of the opponent. In many instances, the opponent can tire themselves out trying to strike/attack with no success. The martial art can also help you to “put an opponent down” quickly, thus interrupting the fight. The soft and slow movements of Tai Chi can be turned into exceptionally fast and effective movements when required.

man making Thai chi movements on the beach
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The Push

This brings us to the “push” movements that are taught in Tai Chi training. While in a Tai Chi training sessions, opponents do not strike each other, a push can very quickly be turned into a strike. And it can have a massive impact on the opponent.

Flow of energy

As a form of martial arts, Tai Chi focuses on building up a seamless flow of energy between opponents. Counterpunches, kicks, and throws are all used. Some forms of Tai Chi (probably not the fitness classes of Tai Chi that you attend in your neighborhood) such as Dim Mak actually teaches students to make effective use of pressure point strikes.

The self-defense version

If you want to learn Tai Chi for self-defense instead of just for health and meditation benefits, you need to make sure that you are studying the correct version of Tai Chi and that you are being taught by a professional Master. Chat with the Tai Chi instructor about the version of Tai Chi that they teach and what sort of experience he has with Tai Chi as a self-defense form.

What Makes Tai Chi Effective in Combat?

You might wonder what benefits Tai Chi has when it comes to self-defense. While the various poses, movements, and stances are beneficial, there are some obvious benefits to knowing Tai Chi when in a combat situation:

Unmatched Stability.

If you have ever seen a Tai Chi class, you will know that those who have been practicing the art for some time are extremely sturdy on their feet. Tai Chi training develops and strengthens all muscle groups, which enables exceptional stability and steady co-ordination, which are ideal in a self-defense scenario. Being stable and sturdy on your feet in a fight is quite important.

Woman in white suit makes taiji chuan exercise across sunset
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Disrupts Balance of Energy Between Opponents.

The balance that Tai Chi practice provides essentially enables a person to off-balance the opponent by being able to create a degree of sensitivity between the energy of both opponents. Your stability will exacerbate your opponent’s stability and balance. It is all about using the energy around you and the energy of your opponent to your advantage.

Quick Counter-Attacks and Versatility.

Knowing the various Tai Chi moves makes it possible to deliver immense strength and short-range blows/responses. The versatility allows you to deliver blows in any direction and from any position or stance, thanks to the natural flow of movements taught in the art.

The Downside to Learning Tai Chi as a Martial Art

While Tai Chi is a highly effective form of self-defense, it does not mean that it is easy to get the hang of. In fact, many of the Tai Chi instructors dominating the fitness market right now have attended short courses on Tai Chi and therefore lack the more profound understanding of the art, which is required to teach it as a self-defense mechanism.

Difficult to learn

Real Tai Chi, in its martial art form, is actually quite challenging to master. It can take many years to reach a level of Tai Chi skill required to use the art for combat or fighting. Learning Tai Chi in this form can be costly and complicated, mainly because there are not many classes that teach this style or even know how to teach this style.

True Tai Chi Masters are often so ensconced in the culture of Tai Chi that they live and breathe it. They truly embrace their inner energy and know-how to work with the energy around them. And I have heard that many of the “real deal” Masters are so good at Tai Chi self-defense that even the most dedicated students can put hours (and years) of training in and will simply never get to the same level of skill.

When a Master knows the martial art of Tai Chi in its classic original form and uses it for combat or self-defense, it can deadly.

Most Tai Chi classes don’t focus on self-defense

Chinese Taiji Master teaches a group of Belgium tourists
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Most Tai Chi classes available at fitness centers nowadays are more focused on exercise, meditation, and other health benefits instead of self-defense.

That being said, the movements that you are taught in a regular Tai Chi class can be used for self-defense if you are taught to fully understand them and how to put them into practice in a combat situation. Speed all these movements up, and you might notice how you could block, push, pull, and impact on someone.

Tai Chi, as a martial art, does involve contact and in the right (or wrong situations) people can get hurt. A push in Tai Chi training can be used as a strike in combat, which can be quite painful and as you might have guessed, effective too. It is misguided to consider Tai Chi to be a “soft” martial art because if you know what you are doing and how to fight with it, it is anything but soft.

All things considered

If you wanted to know if Tai Chi is a martial art, the easy answer is yes. It was designed as a martial art and always will be a martial art. Nevertheless, the Tai Chi classes offered regularly nowadays are more focused on mediation and exercise and have little focus on self-defense.

If you are specifically interested in learning Tai Chi as a form of self-defense, you may have to look a little further than a local Tai Chi fitness class. You will need to take instruction from an experienced Tai Chi Master.

Tai chi chuan masters hands
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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.