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How to Go with the Flow

Their movements were slow, graceful, continuous and rounded and beautifully demonstrated the basic principles of China's most famous martial art. A special group of 1,000 Chinese and Japanese performers made a spectacular sight on Sunday at the Great Wall.

They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the simplified version of Tai Chi Chuan. Though Tai Chi Chuan has a centuries-old history, it was only 50 years ago when Chinese masters created the simplified 24-form exercise routine. This easier style has won popularity among millions of Chinese and millions of more people in Japan and throughout the world.

According to Li Deyin, a well-known master, Tai Chi Chuan first showed its unique advantages over other Chinese martial arts in the 1953 National Sports Mass Meeting. "It has no specific requirements for space and apparatus. It can be practised by either men or women and older or younger practitioners alike," he said.

Before the birth of the modern Tai Chi Chuan, its complexity and its many different styles prevented it from spreading to the general public, Li said.

The forms of traditional Tai Chi Chuan may involve 85 to 100 different movements, which could take more than 20 minutes to complete.

Like Chinese dialects in different regions, the forms of Tai Chi Chuan also varied significantly.

The most popular and wide-spread styles are: Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan, Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan, Wu-style Tai Chi Chuan, Wu Yuxiang-style Tai Chi Chuan and Sun-style Tai Chi Chuan.

To make it easier to be followed by beginners, old Tai Chi master Li Tianyi, uncle of Li Deyin, along with other masters, developed a simplified and shortened version of the Tai Chi Chuan in 1956 by dropping repetitious and difficult movements. It originated from the basic movements of the Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan. This style had easier movements and actions, which combined hardness, softness and a natural flow. Practitioners could relax to form softness, which then transforms into hardness.

The new short form consisted of 24 movements, and this routine could be performed in four to eight minutes. It was less physically demanding than longer forms and especially appealed to older beginners who want to improve their health.

Practising short forms could also lay a sound foundation for learning longer forms or other styles of Tai Chi Chuan, Li said.

Learning to breathe

Tai Chi Chuan is one of the most precious parts in Chinese therapeutic exercise, for it combines martial arts and qigong (deep breathing exercise).

Deep and regular breathing accompanies the whole process of a Tai Chi Chuan routine. A participant breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. He or she breathes in when pulling back or reaching up, and breathes out when going forward or reaching down.

The gentle flow between various movements contributes to a state of calmness. The nervous system can be regulated and strengthened in the process.

If practised properly, every movement of Tai Chi Chuan will be a training of body, energy and mind, known as jing, qi and shen, the "three treasures" of every person.

In Chinese medical philosophy, practising Tai Chi Chuan can enhance the natural operation of body, energy and mind and finally prevent or cure diseases.

Kan Qiang, in his 50s, was a member of Chinese Tai Chi Chuan performance team at the celebration event. He has practised Tai Chi Chuan for three years and felt every part of his body move in a co-ordinated and relaxed way.

Every morning, he would go to the park to practise it with other old people. "When I am entering old age, I felt my flexibility, balance, and legs strength decrease a lot. Practising Tai Chi Chuan well enhances these weaknesses," he said.

When the simplified Tai Chi Chuan style was introduced to Japan 50 years ago by Japanese politicians, it was named "health Tai Chi Chuan." Its health benefits quickly won favour with the fitness-conscious Japanese.

Li Defang, daughter of Li Tianyi, arrived in Japan 18 years ago, and opened a Tai Chi Chuan club. Tomozaki Atsushi, 45, a member of Japanese performance team, said he was always broadening his knowledge about the Chinese martial art. He began with the simplified 24-form Tai Chi Chuan and later learned 42 forms as well as Tai Chi sword play.

"The philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan is very profound and limitless. The longer I practise it, the more appealing it became," Atsushi said.

He's even become a coach of a Tai Chi class himself. Most of his students are women and seniors.

"After I started to practise Tai Chi Chuan, I felt energetic and happy everyday. More amazingly, it keeps me young," said Atsushi, who looks like 30 years old.

Nakamura Shinichiro, 41, is only a beginner of 24-form Tai Chi Chuan. One year ago when he joined a fitness club, he began this new sport. He practised it originally for one hour a week and now he spends four hours a week developing his technique.

"Its health benefits are amazing," he said, adding that his waist ache disappeared and his body was now more upright.

He had lost seven kilograms and his previously high cholesterol levels were back to normal.

It also changed his mind and moods. His temper vanished and he became more kind and gentle to others.

Half a year ago, under his influence, his wife also started to practise Tai Chi Chuan.

"There are more and more Tai Chi lovers around me. Each time there is a new fitness club opened, there certainly will include Tai Chi classes," he said.

(China Daily September 27, 2006)

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