Personal instruction from an accomplished T'ai Chi Ch'uan player is the only way to learn a Form properly. T'ai Chi Ch'uan can only be mastered through diligent personal study and practice; however, it is difficult to imagine someone being able to learn the basic skills unaided. While the art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is essentially relaxed and natural movement, learning the correct execution of the postures involves extremely complex and subtle adjustments to our typical movements. In the Classics it is said that:
To enter the door and be shown the way,
you must be orally taught.
Practice should be uninterrupted,
and technique achieved by self study.
Chen Wei-Ming reported Yang Cheng-fu as saying that mastery could only come if you had a good teacher, worked hard, were strong and agile, as well as subtle and smart. With these prerequisites you could achieve a high level in ten years. (Chen Wei-ming, 1985 page 45)
As a beginner it is possible to get a rough idea of the external form of the postures and the gross motor movements from a teacher whose level is not very high. Since you would inevitably be copying errors, however, there is a limit to how far you can progress without instruction from an accomplished T'ai Chi Ch'uan player. Beginners should keep in mind that there are teachers who intellectualize the practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan and may have an impressive sounding line of patter, but whose actual ability to demonstrate T'ai Chi Ch'uan skills may only be moderate at best.
Watching the quality of a T'ai Chi Ch'uan player's Form and/or a few moments of push hands will give an experienced player a good sense of another's level of accomplishment. Unfortunately, the beginner may not have the background to make the necessary distinctions. It is particularly easy for the beginner to mistakenly judge superior athletic/gymnastic ability exhibited in externalities for real accomplishment in T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Some of the key indicators I look for initially are:
A teacher should probably have at least ten years of experience and have had significant time studying with a more accomplished teacher(s) initially. Be wary of teachers who have only studied with an accomplished instructor (perhaps even a not-so-accomplished instructor) for a year or two before they began teaching on their own. It is very unlikely that these teachers would have enough knowledge or skill to transmit much of the art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan correctly. A teacher who cannot trace his lineage to a styles founder, or who teaches an eclectic style, is immediately suspect as to the depth of their own studies. Of course, a teacher who has 20 years of experience with improper practices may be even more detrimental to a beginner's progress than someone with only a few years of good experience - but a strong sense of their own inadequacies.
Lee N. Scheele
Costa Mesa, CA
Copyright © 1996 Lee N. Scheele