Footnotes: Tai Chi and Movement as Metaphor

Who hasn’t heard or seen Tai Chi described as meditative movement? It’s an extremely appealing description. As a beginner, I can’t claim to have attained a meditative state. After six or eight months of not-quite-daily practice, the flailing of my limbs is starting to require less conscious effort and feels less awkward. When I think of the movements and even while performing the movements, I am struck by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi.

To help explain what I mean by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi, I’m going to posit a definition of Tai Chi. At the most practical and fundamental level, Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 human movements. This practical definition is a denotative type of definition. It describes only the thing in itself. Just the movements of Tai Chi without anything else. The most basic fact of Tai Chi. All of the elements of meaning contained in my suggested definition refer only to the physical practice of Tai Chi.

Any definition that would move beyond this basic, practical definition would have to include elements of meaning outside of the physical practice. Any extended definition would be more connotative in content and would communicate information about the broader world.

For example, if I modified my definition to say Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 specific human martial arts movements, the definition becomes dependent upon what “martial arts” may mean. To say “martial arts movements” connotes (infers, imbues) additional meaning that has nothing to do with the movements themselves.

Such added connotative elements of meaning would be relational or metaphorical in nature. Tai Chi is replete with these connotative and metaphorical meanings.

The Movements Themselves

108 movements is a lot of movements and I will not attempt to evaluate them all in this article. But I do think it is worth exploring the metaphor of one or two of the movements.

One of the most iconic of Tai Chi’s movements is “Single Whip”. Even if a person doesn’t know the name and hasn’t practiced the motion, it is instantly recognizable as Tai Chi. Of itself, the motion is just a motion. The arms and legs moved in a particular set of patterns. But observing it immediately conveys “Tai Chi” and/or “martial arts” to whoever the witness may be. It probably also suggests a number of other things, based on that witness’s experience. But at the barest minimum, it says “Tai Chi”. This one motion is a symbol of Tai Chi and a symbol, if not quite a metaphor, for martial arts. By suggesting “Tai Chi” or “martial arts”, the single whip movement communicates information not only about itself, but about the broader cultural world.

Tai Chi Single Whip - Wikipedia
Singe Whip Image Courtesty of Wikipedia: Tai Chi Single Whip (or Taichi Single Whip) is an outdoor sculpture by Taiwanese artist Ju Ming, installed in Montreal‘s Victoria Square, in Quebec, Canada

Consider also “Calming Waters” or “Calming the Waters”. This simple movement is one of my favorites exactly because of the metaphorical value that the movement communicates. In this movement, the Tai Chi practitioner stands in a ready position – legs slightly apart, feet pointed straight ahead and apart. The feet may be only slightly apart or perhaps up to 12-18 inches apart. The arms are in a resting position. Then one raises their hands up to shoulder height, palms out and slowly lowers them to a horizontal position with the arms not extended. There is no pressure or tension through the arms. As one of the feet steps forward and about 35 to 45 degrees to one side, the arms extend. At the apex of the step, the arms are at their maximum extension within the movement without having stretched or locked the arms. There’s no tension in the movement. At the apex, the arms begin to withdraw from the extension with a slight outward circular motion, remaining in the horizontal, where each hand traces a half circle and returns to nearly meet at the body. During this motion, the Tai Chi practitioner shifts their weight from the ball of their foot to the heal and the toes are raised from the floor. The motion of extending arms is repeated and weight is shifted back to the ball of the foot. The movement’s entire cycle is repeated as long as seems needed and then the Tai Chi practitioner returns their arms and legs to their ready position. The same motion for the other side may be attempted or some other motion in the Tai Chi practitioner’s routine may follow-up.

This is “calming the waters”. The motion is a metaphor of calming or smoothing out a horizontal surface. Observing the motion, it is an elegantly simple routine. Performing the motion is wonderfully easy and relaxing. It also conveys the idea of smoothing out a surface. Of itself, “calming the waters” is a sequence of movements. When observed or performed, it suggests other matters. Perhaps it calls to mind walking in a shallow pool. Perhaps it suggests smoothing out the difficulties and hassles of daily life.

Naming of the Movements

108 is a lot of different movements to remember, so they aren’t denoted by numbers. Instead, each of the movements has been given an evocative name such as “single whip”, “brush knee” or “calming the waters”. It is much easier to remember the movement referred to as “brush knee” than if it had been called “Movement 23”. “Brush knee” is a connotative name that conveys an idea of what the movement might be. “Movement 23” would be a denotative name that could be found in a nicely-ordered manual, but the name itself wouldn’t tell you anything about the movement.

The names of the movements, as a function of their mnemonic value, have a metaphorical value. The names are memorable because they are metaphorical – they refer to something else. They connote meaning. When I perform the movement called “calming the waters”, I am not literally (denotatively) calming any water. The movement is not even a pantomime of calming water The movement refers to the action only as a mnemonic device and as a metaphorical ideal.

Tai Chi as Poetry of Movement

Each movement within the 108 movement set known as Tai Chi is both itself, the denoted movement and the metaphorical name that has been applied to it. This is the beginning of the poetry within Tai Chi.

In an art where each movement has imbued metaphorical values, the complicated dance that emerges from combinations of these movements approaches a poetry. Instead of aural rhymes and rhythms, there are rhymes and rhythms of movement. During my practice, I include frequent returns to “calming waters” as that seems to be what my Tai Chi is currently about.

Tai Chi as Metaphor for Physical Combat and Living

As a martial art, Tai Chi is a symbolic representation of physical combat. It is not physical combat. Indeed, there are martial arts critics who are enthusiastic to indicate that Tai Chi is not an effective physical combat methodology. To whatever extent this is correct, I am not terribly concerned about whether Tai Chi makes for good combat. What cannot be denied is that Tai Chi is a movement metaphor for physical combat. It is an idealized form of what combat may be. By extension, Tai Chi is also a metaphor for living and engaging with the challenges and problems of life. Not everyone actively views life as a set of conflicts and problems to be engaged, but Tai Chi provides a set of physical movements to express whatever may be their perspective and experience.

As a symbolic or metaphorical representation of engaging with life, Tai Chi is a wonderfully expressive art form.

Tai Chi as Meditation in Movement

I’ve already admitted that a meditative state while practicing Tai Chi is currently outside my ability. I simply haven’t put the hours in for the movements to be comfortable, natural and effortless. For those who do attain a meditative state during their practice, I expect that the metaphorical qualities of the movements must either entirely subside or entirely transcend during the practice.