International Tai Chi Symposium – What is the State of the Art????

Master Chen Zhenglei, one of the "4 Tigers"

Master Chen Zhenglei, one of the "4 Tigers"


  • Barack Obama studied with Chen Tai Chi Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei in 1998!
  • According to the latest studies, Tai Chi practitioners were found to be more relaxed than yoga practitioners after one year of practice.  In fact, the yoga practitioners were more stressed than when they started!
  • After just 2 weeks of Tai Chi class, people with osteoarthritis reported major improvements, including weight loss and better pain management.

These are some of the more interesting tidbits of information that I picked up at the International Tai Chi Symposium held in Nashville, Tennessee from July 5-11.  This historic event brought together the grandmasters of the 5 major families of Tai Chi Chuan (Wu, Wu-Hao, Yang, Chen, and Sun for those who might not be aware of the fine distinctions) for the first time in a spirit of education and cultural exchange with 400 Tai Chi practitioners, teachers, students and academic and medical researchers who are committed to bringing Tai Chi into the 21st century.  Given the traditional secrecy associated with the various family styles, sometimes it felt like all of the Mafia dons of New York and New Jersey were having a major pow-wow!

Master Ma Hailong, Master Wu Wenhan, Master Yang Zhenduo, Master Chen Zhenglei, Master Sun Yongtian

Master Ma Hailong, Master Wu Wenhan, Master Yang Zhenduo, Master Chen Zhenglei, Master Sun Yongtian

3 of these guys were elders (75 to mid-80’s) and the other 2 were middle-aged holders of the family lineage.  Having lived and breathed Tai Chi since childhood,  watching them do their forms was witnessing the fruits of years and years of practice. They were inspirational examples of the best that Chinese martial arts offer.

We listened to all the grandmasters hold forth in a keynote speech translated for the audience and then attempted to learn a 16 movement routine in each style; watched beautiful demonstrations by them, their students, and other luminaries of the world of internal arts; heard panel discussions on academic and medical research on Tai Chi; listened to new and creative applications of Tai Chi for special populations, and contemplated the future of the art with new and old Tai Chi friends.

It was a very male, China-centric event with many toasts, speeches, endless clapping and self-congratulation at such a historic moment.  Women took a secondary role throughout the symposium.  Master Helen Wu

Master Helen Wu

Master Helen Wu

and Master Zifang Su Master Zifang Su, the two female masters,  gave pre-conference seminars and most participants did not even know they were there until the last demonstration. Two of the daughters helped their fathers teach and to their credit, did an excellent job, particularly Chen Zhenglie’s daughter, a very fine Chen style practitioner. In a poignant footnote to the value of women in Chinese culture, a local Nashville charity – Annabelle’s Wish – made regular pitches for financial donations to help the orphanages in China that are primarily full of unwanted girls due to China’s family planning policy.

Master Zifang Su

Master Zifang Su demonstrating self-defense applications w/ her son

One Grandmaster stated that one must understand Chinese culture in order to understand Tai Chi.  A Chinese master currently living in Kansas City rebutted this with a statement that I feel is more true at this stage of Tai Chi’s development.  He said the truth was that you couldn’t really understand Tai Chi unless you understand physics.  Ah so!  I can get behind that one.

It’s important to note that Buddhism developed differently in China than it did in Japan or Tibet.  It seems reasonable that Tai Chi will also have its own developmental trajectory and develop a distinctly western (if not American) flavor since it will inevitably be influenced by what’s going on here. This will not be the classicism of the original as represented by these 5 grandmasters, but a meditational movement form that will be influenced by scientific and medical advances, the fitness industry, and all of the so-called New Age movement styles (Feldenkrais, Authentic Movement, etc.).  After all, most people here although they are interested in the self-defense applications, practice Tai Chi for their health.   It seems logical that Tai Chi as well as other practices from the East (yoga included)  will necessarily evolve as the culture does — becoming more nurturing, less hierarchical, and less male-dominated.

©Photographs by Sharon Smith
All rights reserved.

Click here for more pictures of the Grandmasters.

Master Sun Yongtian w/ his student

Master Sun Yongtian (the Fighter) w/ his student

Master Yang Zhenduo, the Dalai Lama of Tai Chi

Master Yang Zhenduo, the "Dalai Lama" of Tai Chi

Master Wu Wenhan, the Intellectual

Master Wu Wenhan, the Intellectual

Master Ma Hailong, the Aesthete

Master Ma Hailong, the Aesthete


21 thoughts on “International Tai Chi Symposium – What is the State of the Art????

  1. loved this…….and all the pics…….so, how do you think tai chi will work its way into all the medical practices………..hospitals, etc……..I think it will, but how long will it take the american health system to realize that whatever we’re doing, isn’t working at its highest level???????

    • Many alternative modalities are being looked at in a moderate way by the medical powers that be mainly because the insurance companies and the researchers see dollar signs. Most of the studies are short-term (20 weeks) and related to pain-relief or recovery from a disease or condition. Any Tai Chi practitioner knows that it’s very difficult for a beginner to really learn Tai Chi in that amount of time so what people are doing in these studies is getting a “taste” of the practice. So, in my humble opinion, they are doing this backwards. A better idea would be to do a long-term study (20 years or more) of Tai Chi practitioners who have been practicing for 10 years or more to see what Tai Chi actually does.
      Probably an untenable idea in terms of research dollars in a world where medical care is focused on disease and not health.

  2. Hi Sharon,
    Great newsletter! So inspirational and informative…
    Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective;-)
    Enjoy this gorgeous summer weather!
    Love, Ron

  3. What a thorough assessment of an ancient art in a modern setting.

    Seems at first that Nashville would be an odd place to host this event, yet the salvation and open-heartedness of that Southern city shines through with its consciousness about the female genocide disturbingly practiced in China over these recent generations.

    What a treat to witness such a collection of practitioners! What an experience to commence learning their styles – or at least be exposed to them – and the commitment of decades behind each one!

    Bet they loved your presentation as well – and it was written up in the Chinese papers on return.

    Thank you. I feel as if I were part of the East in the South!

  4. Such a magical time for Tai chi chuan and for you as well. Thanks a million for sharing, Sharon. To see all 5 family styles represented is such a privilege. Was there a distinction made between the traditional and the modern competition versions of each style? When I was in China, I met Yang Tai chi practitioners in the park who knew the 24, 48, etc. They did not know the Dao, Staff-Spear, Chang-Chuan, or 2-Person Sparring set. They did practice the Jian/Sword and the 108 solo form but it was different from the traditional form taught in the lineage of Grandmaster Yang Sau-Cheung, the eldest son and heir of Yang Cheng-Fu. In Chinese medicine, a similar process occurred with the propagation of TCM acupuncture. I have been studying with Jeffrey Yuen, Taoist priest of the Jade Purity and Dragon Gate tradition, who teaches Chinese medical classics, and he has been emphatic about this point.

    • The forms taught were 16 movement forms which were created for university students who had a 16 week class. As far as I understand, it was done for convenience and had nothing to do with competition.

  5. Yeah, Sharon! You are bringing a great and well needed slant to these gatherings when you comment about the male domination that still tends to hang on to such events. Some of these masters were at Pat Rice’s Taste of China annuals and quarterly meetings in Winchester, Va. Because Pat is a strong woman, I feel she managed to hold the reins and keep the stallions from emitting as much macho mish mash as they might. She presented the Chinese and other Eastern masters, but also American born and younger teachers who always did an amazing job. More American women were presented than Oriental women.
    Sharon could well do the official photos for future offerings.

    • Pat Rice was the program director of this event. She did an excellent job. I was not criticizing her, the masters, or the people involved just observing the generally male tone of the event. Interestingly, many of the academic researchers and teachers who are working with seniors or other special populations are women and this seems to be a major direction of the movement of Tai Chi in the culture at large.

  6. Sharon, thank you for your wonderful post. It sounds like an amazing event, in spite of any male bias there might have been. That point brings to my mind the time I accompanied my brother in Florida to one of his classes with his Chinese Tai Chi master. The master asked me whether the person who taught me Tai Chi was an American guy or a Chinese guy. I’m not sure what the master thought when I told him it was an American woman.

    As the practice of Tai Chi grows in America, it will of course evolve in its new environment. It will take on American energies, both male and female (though, thankfully, I haven’t heard of anyone doing “Power Tai Chi” yet.) The aspects that work will persist, the things that don’t will fall by the wayside.

    If I don’t see you have a wonderful summer. (And even if I do see you, I hope you have a wonderful summer.)


  7. Taosharon:
    I too was at the Symposium. My teachers, Bill Wojasinski and Carl Meeks, organized most of the event with Grand Master Yang Jun. I was priviledged to be on the staff as well.

    I would like to make a quick correction to one of your earlier replies to a posting: Pat Rice was Chair for Program Design and Scheduling of the Symposium, and she did, indeed, do a wonderful job. However it was Lauren Wade who was the Program Director. It was she and her daughter, Nicole Fedele, who organized all of the extra-cirricular activities for us. They set up the banquets and the BBQ for us all to enjoy.
    And did we ever enjoy them! I’ve rarely had so much fun in my life.
    Those two ladies worked themselves half to death for months leading up to the event so we could all have such an enjoyable time. The food was awesome and the atmosphere was perfect.
    Good job Lauren!
    Lauren was a fellow student of Bill’s with me before she moved to Nashville. I miss her still.
    Her daughter, Nicole, discovered Tai Chi Chuan at the Symposium and is now studying in Nashville as well.

    Master Ma Hailong was the gentleman who was speaking about learning Chinese culture to better understand Tai Chi Chuan. I do not believe he said it was not possible to learn Tai Chi Chuan without learning and understanding Chinese culture, the way I understood it he was saying that it would be helpful to do so. That while anyone who did not have an understanding of the culture could achieve a high level in the art, they would be well served to learn the culture to develop an even deeper understanding.
    You can read his, and the other Grand Masters, remarks for yourself in the latest edition of Tai Chi Magazine to get the exact phrasing he used. The entire edition is dedicated to the Symposium.

    I did not see or even hear about any particular gender bias. I was not at every event at the Symposium, obviously, but none of the ladies who were there ever mentioned such a bias, and one of the ladies who attended the event was my own mother.
    Believe me, she would have mentioned any kind of bias along those lines. At length.
    While I understand that there is a gender bias in Chinese culture, I feel that the inclusion of the Chinese women was quite well balanced and enthusiastically received.
    Chen Juan did not strike me as being particularly opressed. That is a young woman who definitely has a very outgoing, even forceful, personality.
    I feel privilidged to have gotten to know her, at least a little, while we were there and I felt no lack of respect for her from anyone. Quite the opposite. It is Chen Juan’s teaching that most of are still talking about! We all simply loved her way of presenting her art to us. She is amazing.
    Ma Hailong’s daughter, I was introduced to her by Yang Jun as Amy, that is what I called her and I do not recall her real name at the moment because of that, was also highly praised for her masterful ability to teach us their 16 form so well in so short a time. She is most definitely going to become very well known in her own time.
    Yang Jun’s wife, Fang Hong, was there was well and she is a wonderful person who is extremely active in the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association as our Secretary. Without her hard work and dedication, we’d all be lost by now!
    Maybe, being admittedly male, I did not notice these things. However your statement to that effect is the first time I’ve ever even heard of such a thing going on there.

    Looking at your photograph I do remember you. I’m glad you enjoyed the Symposium.
    Grand Master Yang Zhen Duo said “One more time” and so we’re going to see if we can’t do it again in 2012.
    I hope so. We all had more fun than human beings should be allowed to have!

    Bob Ashmore

    • HI Bob,
      I was not part of the official hierarchy of this event and don’t have the insider’s view that you do but a blog is a forum for opinions and these are mine..
      It seems that you have misinterpreted some of my comments about the event. It’s not that “such a thing was going on there” but that the bias that you speak of is built into the art itself. Tai Chi Chuan is by definition, a martial art and has been a traditionally male domain in China (and in most countries for that matter) and that is still true. Men have done the fighting with the exception of a few unusual women (mostly daughters of masters) who have entered the arena. While it’s important to preserve this knowledge that Tai Chi is based upon, it’s also important to recognize that we are not living in ancient China but have a completely different context for our practice.
      As a counterpoint to this, there were many more women involved in the academic and practitioner presentations and in my experience, many more women are involved in bringing Tai Chi to seniors and other populations and that seems to be the direction of Tai Chi in this country. Believe me, I’m one of those women and we are not teaching self-defense to our students. We are teaching (for want of a better term) “healing” and the movement of chi.
      You were very lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know some of the people who were presenting. If you read my blog above, you saw that I also noted Master Chen’s daughter’s (whose name I never heard) teaching as exceptional and truthfully, I look forward to experiencing more of it. But in reality, the women were in the background and with the exception of Helen Wu and Master Su Zifang, were assisting fathers and husbands. It’s common knowledge that if you are part of a family lineage, you will be able to learn the “secrets” of that lineage more easily than if you are not. Even if you are a woman! Family ties trump everything in China.
      By the way, through a translator, I personally heard Master Ma Hailong say “one must understand Chinese culture in order to understand Tai Chi” . Perhaps the translator made a mistake but the assertion was repeated by the Chinese master from Kansas City who made the statement about understanding physics.
      Thanks for your post and for clarifying who was in charge of the program. I agree that they did a wonderful job.
      Looking forward to seeing you at the next one…
      Chi, Sharon

  8. Sharon,
    I do understand that blogs are about the opinions of the blogger. However, you also provide a place on here for responders to give their opinion, so I did.
    While I certainly respect your opinion and certainly agree with you about the long term gender bias in Chinese society, I was sort of puzzled by your assertion that it was carried over to the Symposium as I did not observe that myself. So I took the opportunity you gave me to respond with my own obervations and opinions of the Symposium, which were different than yours.
    I thank you for that opportunity and commend you on your willingness to hear opinions other than your own. Not everyone does and it is refreshing to see it here.
    This is what you stated:
    “It was a very male, China-centric event with many toasts, speeches, endless clapping and self-congratulation at such a historic moment. Women took a secondary role throughout the symposium.”
    Maybe I have misunderstood you, but your remark certainly did not, and does not, ring true to me about the Symposium.
    I concede that currently all the Grand Masters are male. Chinese society and martial history have dictated that, as you state. However, the Symposium did not cause this and did not, as far as I could tell, do anything to agrandize or continue it. If there had been a female Grand Master we certainly would have included her.
    Historically it’s not correct that all the Grand Masters of Tai Chi Chuan families have been male. The Wu Chien Chuan lineage has had a female Grand Master, Wu Yan Hsia who I had the priviledge of meeting once. The Sun style has had two as well, Sun Jianyun and Sun Shurong.
    Since there were several female Masters present as presenters and speakers, and many more as guests (Han Hoong Wang and Andy Lee come to mind), also a great many female academics were presented, I cannot understand how we could have made the Symposium any more gender equal than we did.
    However if we didn’t get it right, and I’m willing to concede we may not have and I just don’t see it, I wish to learn how we could have done better. I will be happy to pass on any suggestions anyone can give me to the people who organize the event so we can make things better next time.

    I happen to have the translated transcript of Grand Master Ma Hailong’s speech at the Symposium in my hand.
    It is printed in its entirety in Tai Chi Magazine this month.
    Since what he actually said about non-Chinese studying Tai Chi is printed in a published magazine, I can only direct you and others to that publication for clarification on the point as I do not wish to step on any copywrite laws.
    I was also slightly incorrect in my memory of the speech so I certainly understand how that kind of thing can get garbled around in memory. And let’s face it, listening to a speech through an interpreter is not the best way to understand what is actually said. I certainly understand that many important points are lost or misunderstood due to interpretation.

    You have a very good, open blog Sharon. I commend you on it. I found this site simply by typing in “Tai Chi Chuan Symposium” on google and then following links. I have been reading a lot of blogs and articles about the Symposium, and looking at as many pictures that I can find.
    I neglected to pack my camera, so I do not have any of my own pictures to remember the event with. So I’ve been gathering as many photos as I can find of the people that I know there.
    Fortunately I have found quite a few. People who were not as scatter brained as I and brought their cameras have been very good about posting and sharing their photos and I am very greatful for that.


  9. Sorry, I did wish to address another statement you made in your response but I forgot before.
    “Believe me, I’m one of those women and we are not teaching self-defense to our students. We are teaching (for want of a better term) “healing” and the movement of chi.”
    I think this is simply wonderful.
    I believe that teaching healing is harder than teaching self defense.
    Just for starters, it’s counter intuitive that a martial arts system could be considered a healing art! And let’s face it, Tai Chi Chuan started out and remains a martial art.
    That the very same art that can be used as a remarkable form of defense can be used to heal people is just mind boggling to me.
    It is yet one more reason to love this art.
    On a side tangent, I once had a teacher say to me that even the self defense portion of the art is good for health.
    His reasoning?
    If you are attacked and cannot defend yourself, how healthy will you be after?


  10. Hi Bob,
    This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for keeping it going.

    I’m sorry that it seems I have put you and your organizing team on the defensive. That was (and is) not my intention. I am not blaming you at all for not doing something that would have been impossible for all the reasons I have enumerated above. It appeared that you all bent over backwards to honor the cultural context of our honored guests and I commend you for it.

    I look forward to reading the articles in Tai Chi Magazine. But I know what I heard from Master Ma — My ears actually perked up at that moment! And I have heard similar things from other Chinese teachers. They might actually be right from their cultural context. But I really felt and still feel that the statement about physics was more true for me and my experience and practice.

    The title of my post is “What is the state of the art?” I think the symposium did a great job of presenting the state of the art and hopefully, that is clear from my writing in the post and my reply to you here.

    However, I still have opinions about Tai Chi’s development in the context of western culture and refer you to the last paragraph of the post.


  11. Sharon,
    TCC is definitely an art tied up in the science of physics. Understanding physics will definitely help you understand TCC.
    Understanding Chinese culture will most likely help you understand TCC better, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone suggest it as “necessary”.
    I think most people who study TCC will study Chinese culture though. But mostly out of curiosity rather than necessity.

    I was the only one getting defensive. I guess I misunderstood what the context of your original post was.

    I’ll check out the photos.

  12. Fantastic articles. I really hated to miss the event. I have been looking for any kind of programs or tee shirts from the event. Cannot locate any. If any one knows where I can find some items, please let me know. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Greg,
      Sorry it’s taken a bit to get back to you. This was asserted my Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei in his intro speech. I have not seen any photos or further documentation.

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