Heaven’s Way: Tai Chi in Beijing

In China, the Way (or Tao) is a recurring theme in the core teachings of ancient sages. Laozi’s Tao Te Ching examined the way of being in the universe, while Confucius’s The Analects emphasised the way of proper governance and human social relations.

Down the centuries the boundaries of heaven and earth blurred as ancient teaching became enmeshed in all aspects of Chinese life: Statecraft, sericulture, architecture, food & drink, religious ritual, medicine and martial arts – all were imbued by the Way.

 In Beijing the place that perhaps best reflects this confluence of ideas (and ideals) is The Temple of Heaven. Now open as a UNESCO protected park, this Ming-Qing masterwork was constructed to meet strict philosophical requirements.

 

Walking past the Circular Mound Alter (which echoes to help send prayers to heaven) on the Royal Path the Emperors used to parade en route to commune with the gods, Tai Chi master Eric Liu observes, “the path slowly rises three metres. This implies you’re getting closer to heaven.”

With typical imperial verve the layout of the temple grounds is saturated with symbolism. For instance, two cordons of walls surround the whole temple complex. The outer wall has a taller, semi-circular northern end, representing heaven, and a shorter, rectangular southern end, representing the earth.

Though entrance to the park is RMB15 and admission to the temple a further RMB20, many tourist pay extra for expert guides to help them comprehend the intricacies of the architecture.

Liu, however, heads away from the crowds to the gentle shade of the West Annex Hall that flanks the majestic, 38-metre tall triple-gabled Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Here he leads daily Tai Chi sessions.

"It’s a great place to come to work each day,” says English-fluent Liu, who’s carved out a niche introducing the wisdom and benefits of Tai Chi to visiting foreigners.

"We lead a specialists program. We make it interesting and communicative. We try to help them understand Tai Chi through its theory Taoist theory. It’s a real pleasure to share this culture.”

Like the surrounding architecture, Liu sees Tai Chi as inseparable from the Way.

"In Taoist teaching one produces two, two produces three and three produces everything: The Yin, the Yang and their derivative, the cosmos. Like the earth, everything is a circle. To this end, one must make their body as soft as a baby, flexible, but full of energy, and turn the mind and soul to a neutral state, which is considered to be more energetic. This is because everything in nature follows its own way, the way of the Tao.”

 It's deep stuff for the early morning class to digest, but the group of practitioners appear to lapping up Liu's direction with attentive deference.

Tai Chi, or Chinese shadow boxing as it is often translated, is generally regarded in the West as a gentle form of training, typically practiced for its health benefits or to relieve stress. But Liu is keen to emphasise the key principles underlying the tradition: “We aim to acquire Qi's (internal energy) flow inside us through this continuous slow motion exercise, thus improving one's general state of health,” he explains. “For Tai Chi practitioners the three required essences are the spirit, mind and energy. We cultivate all three when practise Tai Chi. Yang is hardness, Yin is softness, but their interaction is the Way.”

Recognising Tai Chi’s connections to traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, Liu concedes that the form is part of the rich tapestry of what one may deem Chinese Culture. But he is keen to impart Tai Chi’s relationship to Kungfu in particular.

"Tai Chi is actually internal martial training, both in body and mind," he says.

And if you consider it soft, think again, as Liu observes by invoking natural imagery with classic Taoist clout: "Consider the rain is soft, but it still penetrates the rocks. Softness overcomes hardness."
Like the Temple of Heaven, designed to impose the human intellect on the natural world by fashioning order and symmetry, so too does Tai Chi draw from, and seek to cultivate, the natural order of things.

 

This extraordinary way of viewing the world is doubtlessly what maintains the West’s fascination with all things Chinese - and can best be experienced under capital blue skies, in the shadow of Heaven’s Alter, under the tutelage of Eric Liu.


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