Falling off the Edge of the World

Ever since I read, and re-read Chen Xin’s book, I’ve been unable to write anything on the subject of Tai Chi. It all seems somewhat meaningless. There are things I want to say, but I fear that they would be useless, or that no one would understand them. If I justified it by telling myself it was for the seekers, the people that sought me out and sought out things to learn, even then I wouldn’t know quite where to begin.

A snippet of a conversation between two martial artists which I overheard somewhere:

A: So is the argument then that traditional arts in the East have a much higher percentage of skilled practitioners? It’s just that the traditional arts in the West that aren’t passing things on very well? I don’t have a dog in it either way, just curious what exactly is being said.

B: The traditional arts have a way of teaching only the chosen few; the rest can come along for the ride but won’t be taught in any significant way. So the East has not produced such high a percentage of skilled practitioners. The problem of the West is that they were allowed to come and train, but rarely realized they weren’t really taught. So the West never received very much to pass on.

I wonder, so much, if all these concepts about being taught and being shown and learning martial arts aren’t just someone’s illusion. They don’t seem to make sense. I’m especially talking about the recent fad of “Mixed” martial arts, which directly contrasts with a “Shu Ha Ri” approach (good article). We can’t forget that many traditional, “Shu Ha Ri” based arts were in fact ecclectic mixed martial arts, which were created out of the most combat-tested portions of the original arts. Not delusions dreamed up in someone’s head. So perhaps what I am trying to express is not traditional arts versus modern (mma) style arts, but the differences in culture and teaching methodology which I have experienced living in America and also in China.

Frankly I cannot bring myself to see a better way than the traditional way of training, and I have seen and been involved with “modern” arts for a little while now. I don’t like them very much. If I had to express the difference like a politician hoping to be elected and liked by everyone, I might say that traditional arts are more powerful but take longer to learn, while modern arts take less time to learn but are less powerful. This kind of dichotomy is also applied to traditional (and modern) arts, for example “tai chi” versus “wing chun”, or “boxing” versus “BJJ”.

In the end though something seems terribly wrong with all this, no, in fact it is not this way, but that the traditional arts are better overall, and what’s worse is you can’t save time by learning, say, boxing first and then progressing to preying mantis or any other traditional art. You have to start where you want to end up. The major problem is that yes it does take ten years to learn but you have to learn it properly! And most people, as suspected, just aren’t taught at all, let alone properly. So you have the typical tai chi student who can’t fight his way out of a paper bag after ten years thinking “one day I will suddenly be a master. Maybe in another ten years“. And you can’t reason with these people, they’re convinced they have the goods.

If you thought I was just going to insult tai chi people, think again. Modern MMA people have a similar attitude. They think that their modern MMA are the best thing ever, and theyre not. They’re actually a step backwards, but it’s difficult to see that. As proof their art is superior they issue an open challenge to all those 10 and 20 year taiji guys I just mentioned. An oversimplification perhaps, but one which is a little truer to reality than the MMA guys would have you believe. And no, issuing an open challenge for anyone to come play in your ring under your rules is not proof that your art is the best. Does anyone really believe that?

So wrapping up all this babbling, let me close with a proposition that may help some people. Do not approach the art from the standpoint of all of the techniques and names. Let me propose that these arts are LIKE a hologram; in that a small peice of it reflects the whole art. For example, fune-kogi undo in Aikido. Or some of the Aikido katas you see on youtube. If you could get the point of aikido, the secret of aikido, then would you really need to learn every single aikido throw? Or would you somehow be able to invent your own?

What is it we’re really training to do?

Same thing with Chen Style Tai Chi, or Yang style, or any style. Although for tai chi stylists this point is more obvious. If you learned the secrets of tai chi, would you really need to learn EVERY move and EVERY application? No, of course not. So how do you learn this secret, what is it? Paradoxically some people need a large amount of input to have it click. A large number of moves. That’s one way of looking at it. However to have things click on a physical as well as mental level I believe that only a difference approach is needed – that is, two, or at most three exercises which expose the same principle, practiced to excess. For example, forward threaded silk reeling, single hand cloud hands silk reeling, and perhaps, double hand, or reverse hand, if 2 isn’t enough. Just those two exercises, done say 500 or 1000 times a side every day. Yes it takes a couple hours to do all that. But is it WORTH it? Should you DO it? What is the benefit BESIDES doing the form, that is, why should I (you) do it if we’re already doing okay in our practice with the form?

Well if you were doing okay with your practice as it is now, then you probably wouldn’t be reading this far. Anyways. Why is it that Morihei Ueshiba is viewed as some sort of mystic genius? Aren’t his words actually very simple to understand?

The secret of Aikido lies in uniting ourselves with the universe, by purifying ourselves, and harmonizing with the movement of the universe. For those who master the secrets of Aikido, the universe lies within. Thus may I say, “I, who am the universe”. – Morihei Ueshiba

I, who am the universe. Sounds like a treaties on push hands, if you ask me! I mean wow, this is like a quote right out of the tai chi classics. Page 124 on Hong’s book instantly springs to mind – following the opponent means harmonizing with him, of course. And what was that line in the classics about ‘myriad changes, which cannot be predicted’? I can’t remember where I heard that, but the commentary was that they couldn’t be predicted by the practitioner himself, due to the intent being removed from the exercise and replaced with a general harmonizing intent (instead of a contrary intent).

So okay we got this far, now what? Keep practicing? Sounds like a plan.

Good luck out there.


From “Shu Ha Ri” (linked above)



Volume 7 number 2 #54 FEB 1995


by Ron Fox, MWKF

Shu Ha Ri are three kanji which describe the cycle of training, or perhaps more properly the cycle of progress of a student in a martial art under, I would add, idealized circumstances. The application of Shu Ha Ri is not confined to the study of a martial art or way, but can also serve as a model of any sort of learning. Shu, or Mamoru means to keep, protect, keep or maintain [1]. During the Shu phase, the student builds the technical foundation of the art. Shu also implies a loyalty or persistence in a single Ryu or, in the modern interpretation, a single instructor [2]. In Shu, the student should be working to copy the techniques as taught without modification and without yet attempting to make any effort to understand the rationale of the techniques of the school/teacher [3]. In this way, a lasting technical foundation is built on which the deeper understanding of the art can be based.

The point of Shu, is that a sound technical foundation can be built most efficiently by following only a single route to that goal. Mixing in other schools, prior to an understanding of what you’re really up to is an invitation to go down a wrong path. A path where the techniques developed will not have sound theoretical or practical value. In the traditional interpretation of the Shu stage, it is the instructor that decides when the student moves on from Shu to Ha, not the student. It’s up to the student to follow the instructor’s teaching as an empty vessel to be filled up [1].

Ha, is the second stage of the process. Ha means to detach and means that the student breaks free from the traditions of the Ryu to some extent [2]. In the Ha stage, the student must reflect on the meaning and purpose of everything that s/he has learned and thus come to a deeper understanding of the art than pure repetitive practice can allow. At this stage, since each technique is thoroughly learned and absorbed into the muscle memory, the student is prepared to reason about the background behind these techniques [3]. In academics, the Ha stage can be likened to the stage where enough basic information is available to the student that research papers of a survey nature could be expected.

Ri means to go beyond or transcend. In this stage, the student is no longer a student in the normal sense, but a practitioner. The practitioner must think originally and develop from background knowledge original thoughts about the art and test them against the reality of his or her background knowledge and conclusions as well as the demands of everyday life. In the Ri stage, the art truly becomes the practitioner’s own and to some extent his or her own creation. This stage is similar in academia to the Ph.D. or beyond stage.

Now I’d like to give a few of my own thoughts about Shu Ha Ri. In particular the role of Shu Ha Ri in a learning environment which is less than ideal. Since circumstances differ from person to person, and since the availability of instructors in some of the rarer martial arts will also differ, I make no attempt to claim that anything I say is universally applicable. However there are some ideas which I think can be helpful to students practicing in circumstances in which they are isolated from qualified instructors by large distances.

I have applied these conclusions to my own practice of Kendo in Michigan where I am 4-5 hours drive from the nearest instructors (Toronto or Chicago). I believe that the methods I have applied are most applicable to arts that have a competitive side as I will explain later.

There are three things which the ‘lonely’ student needs to address. These are:

1. How to manage the Shu stage (or as we shall see stages), lacking qualified instructors to copy.

2. How to handle the progression from Shu to Ha to Ri without the guidance of an instructor.

3. How to judge your progress and the correctness of your practice.

The key to handling the Shu phase is to locate a good instructor and to visit them as often as possible. From them you have to build, as rapidly as possible, a mental picture of each technique you’re trying to learn. Throughout your own practice you must continually and honestly compare your own actions against your mental model. There won’t be a Sensei handy to tell you what you’re doing incorrectly so you need to be your own instructor here and go slowly and carefully.

Each time you visit your distant instructor, examine your mental model once more against what your instructor and what members of his dojos are doing. Bit by bit refine your mental model, and use that to refine what you yourself are doing. Recognize that you will progress slowly, but self examination and careful observation are the only tools you have at this stage.

As you visit your distant instructor, listen to *everything* s/he has to say. Don’t assume that corrections s/he may give to others do not apply to you or will not apply to you later. Examine your own motions for the problems the instructor points out and work to eradicate them if you find them.

Finally, don’t be in a hurry. You will progress at a less rapid rate than You might like, but don’t hurry the process. In a competitive art, do not jump into competition too quickly. Don’t jump into free practice too quickly, spend your time on the basics and the techniques and on making your movements match the model you’ve drawn from your instructor.

The transition from Shu to Ha and to Ri is extremely difficult without almost daily contact with an instructor. In the classical model of Shu Ha Ri, we have seen that this transition is managed and timed by the instructor. The instructor knows properly at what time the student is ready to move from phase to phase due to his or her greater experience in both the art and in the progression of students through their training. The ‘lonely’ student does not have the benefit of this advice however and must manage the timing of this transition on their own.

This fact has led me to a rather more cyclical view of Shu Ha Ri than the classical, linear progression. As You learn a technique, and as it asymptotically approaches your mental model of the technique as You see others practicing it, You can begin to reason about the technique. It seems the important questions to ask are:

1. How does this technique work?

2. Why does this technique work?

3. How is this technique related to other techniques that I am practicing?

4. What are the necessary preconditions and postconditions to effectively apply this technique in the combative situation?

It is not enough to simply accept your own answers to these questions. You must test the correctness of your conclusions using whatever means your art has at its disposal. If your art includes the concept of free practice, then You must seek out chances to try your conclusions in free practice with other practitioners. If your art supports competition, then You must also treat them as tests of your facility and comprehension.

As You develop a reasonable repertoire of techniques that You can perform correctly, You will need to expose yourself to as broad a range of practitioners as possible. As You watch others, You need to ask and answer at least three questions:

1. Which other practitioners do I respect and admire?

2. How is what they do different from what I do?

3. How can I change my practice (both mental model and attempts to correspond to it) to incorporate the differences that I think are most important?

This phase is a combination of the ideals of Ha and Ri. Your constant questioning, testing and incorporation of the results of your conclusions will bit by bit lead to both a deeper understanding of your art as well. The three latter questions to some extent embody the closing of the cycle. The first two questions are definitely in the province of Ha. The last one requires You to modify your training beyond that which You have received from your instructors and is part of the concept of Ri, however in application, the answer includes elements of Shu as well since You will have to go back to the beginning once You begin to attempt to change your practice.

The ‘lonely’ student has several methods that can be used to judge progress. In arts with competitive application, how You perform in competition is one indication. However, do not be seduced by using the *results* of your competitive efforts. These are as much influenced by who You compete against as your own abilities. This is especially true in the early stages. Instead, the questions You need to ask yourself about a competition in your post mortems are:

1. Were You able to control the pace and actions of your opponents.

2. Were You able to keep calm and make your techniques effectively with an unhurried frame of mind.

3. Does your competition look like those of the practitioners You admire.

Free practice with others is another way to test your conclusions. There’s less pressure there and the point of free practice is to try out different methods and techniques and to test your ideas about how to practice the art effectively.

Throughout all of this, You must honestly evaluate the results of each ‘test’. Cycle back to Shu through Ha and then Ri as You go down dead end paths.

In conclusion:

Shu Ha Ri in classical interpretation is a linear sequence which leads the student with minimal deviations down a path of learning. The student progresses from imitation, to reasoning to creating. When applied to the instructor-less student, Shu Ha Ri becomes a four stage cycle of imitate, reason, create, and test, cycling back to imitation again.

Shu Ha Ri developed in response to a need to build a learning method in martial arts where the only testing was actual combat. In these circumstances, cycles could not be tolerated since a failed test would leave the student maimed or dead. In the modern practice of the martial arts, where qualified instructors are not always available, competition, free practice and other forms of nonfatal testing are possible. This leads to a more cyclical piecemeal application of Shu Ha Ri as a tool for the ‘lonely’ artist.


1. Kuroda, Ichitaro “Shu-Ha-Ri” Sempo Spring 1994 pp 9-10

2. McCarthy, Patrick “The World Within Karate & Kinjo Hiroshi” Journal of Asian Martial Arts. V. 3 No. 2 1994

3. Private conversations with Nakamura, L. Sensei Toronto, Spring 1994.


5 Responses

  1. I read this article with interest. It made me think of something I was reading on Dynamic Balancing Tai Chi website at last week. He says that you can do whatever you like providing *how* you do it is tai chi… This is different to the MMA approach and the traditionists. DBTC not bothered about learning 500 year old moves involving medievel weaponry. He wants the underlying principles:- what it is that makes tai chi tai chi. He say that creativity is the capacity to see alternatives. This is thought-provoking also, I think.

    Renli replies: Very interesting insight about ‘not bothered’ and why, thanks 🙂 Do you have a link to the DTBC article? I’ll go looking for it this evening. Update: I think he meant this article: http://dynamicbalancingtaichi.blogspot.com/2007/11/western-tai-chi.html

  2. I agree about MMA. As you almost say in the post, all styles are MMA to a large extent. None of this stuff fell out of heaven perfectly formed. All styles evolved from others.

    As to your training suggestions of doing a thousand reps of a few exercises, I didn’t find that personally useful. It caused me to over train and get injured. There’s a balance in there somewhere between too much material and too little. That balance point is different for each person. Some need more, some less. It’s up to the student to find it, assuming that the teacher is willing to show enough of his art. Sadly, many aren’t.

    Renli Responds: Of course, I should probably apologize for making that sort of suggestion. I’m not a doctor nor at all versed in sports medicine. Also you’re right, it depends on the person. What gave me an insight in the past might not work for others – and might not even work for me in the future!

  3. The theme I mentioned seems to crop up all over the DBTC website. Some example pages:


    He seems to have a point. What makes tai chi tai chi? Is it a form or is it the underlying essence? I think the latter.

    Renli Responds: Thanks for the links. There is a lot of material on DBTC and it is sometimes difficult to find what I am looking for 🙂

  4. You should read Douglas Wile’s article on taiji and the Zhang SAn-feng myth in the latest Journal of Asian Martial Arts. He says that there is NO reference to any of the Chinese medical theory or using the yijing to explain taiji that Chen Xin used in any Chen reference before his book. Wile suggests that Chen’s take on the subject was in response to the growing popularity of Yang style and THEIR way of explaining things. He further notes that Tang Hao found little to nothing in the way of writings in Chen family village around the turn of the century.

    Renli Responds: It gets very tricky, the histories.. It’s basically “known” now that the silk reeling exercises, for instance, are a modern creation. Or are they? It seems that Chen Fa-Ke came up with similar exercises on his own which implies he felt they were beneficial. So much is clouded in mystery. I have heard “credible” people relating stories such as that the Chinese government “decided” to make the chen village the center of the tai chi world, and that some aspects of history had been “written in”. There are very few people alive today who, by virtue of their lives, could be counted upon to give a credible account of what might have happened. And soon even those resources may dissappear forever. Not that I have access to any of them, or would have the opportunity to ask such a bold question, which further defines the problem.

    I take heart in that there is a rather long history of agencies trying to put a stop to the nefarious deeds of martial artists. If I recall correctly, efforts to destroy the “martial world” were carried out during the Tang and Qing dynasties, among others. In many such examples the government simply outlawed martial arts altogether. It didn’t stop martial arts from living on. In fact I would assume that part of the reason why the histories are cloudy is on purpose, so the governments of years gone by would not arrest, torture or kill the families of the people involved.

    Martial arts survived. So even if we may never know who really invented the arts we do, at least we can hope that they’ve managed to survive reasonably intact.

  5. “Modern MMA people have a similar attitude. They think that their modern MMA are the best thing ever, and theyre not. They’re actually a step backwards, but it’s difficult to see that. As proof their art is superior they issue an open challenge to all those 10 and 20 year taiji guys I just mentioned. An oversimplification perhaps, but one which is a little truer to reality than the MMA guys would have you believe. And no, issuing an open challenge for anyone to come play in your ring under your rules is not proof that your art is the best. Does anyone really believe that?”

    Mma (UFC) was not invented as some method to show “mma superiority”. It was really a vehicle to demonstrate bjj’s superiority in approach, strategies, training methods, assumptions and so on, not notions about mma superiority. The bjj stylists did not really have a “mix” but only pure bjj at the time. The hype about style vs. style was just that – hype. Don’t believe it. However the bit about traditional training methods (not just taijiquan) of “dead forms” being useless vs. “live” methods is a real claim that really started in the 19th century from Kodokan Judo’s performance at the Tokyo Police tournaments against traditional jujutsu (which basically had the same techniques but different training methods).

    Btw, I seriously doubt anyone issued a challenge to 10-20 year amateur scholar hobbyists. Anyway as far as bjj goes, it worked and “soft” conquered “hard” with no punches, kicks, or blood. Just “gentle” chokes and qin na. One might think “taiji” people would be pleased to see that soft did work against hard. I think most of them just don’t know that’s what happened or take erroneous offense about the disparagement against “traditional” (if one’s forms are not “dead” one shouldn’t take any offense, but if it rings somewhat true… hmm, time to re-evaluate….).

    I haven’t encountered the attitude you’re talking about with any “mma people”. Of course bad attitudes are found under every banner… ima, mma, whatever.

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