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The Role of Intent in Tai Chi Chuan

by: Fernando Bernall

My first site, which I built with plain old HTML back in 1997, The Standing Post was an online magazine. You can see the way it looked back then at archive.org. At that time, I had several martial artists submitting articles to the site. One such article was submitted by Vincent Chu and I’m reposting it here on Swimming Dragon. I also have included a couple of videos of each Master Chu’s teachers and one of Master Chu performing a form for your benefit.


The Role of Intent in Tai Chi Chuan

By Vincent Chu

About Intent

One day, a new student asked me. Why is Tai Chi Chuan called an internal art? Is it because the movements are executed slowly so one called it internal? Yet, there are many solo forms that one can execute the movements in different speed. How do you differentiate Tai Chi Chuan from other Chinese martial art? My reply to the questions simply that Tai Chi Chuan’s movements are control by the Intent, an internal component that is not visible and it is the key to Tai Chi Chuan’s success.

Tai Chi Chuan practitioners often emphasize the important of using the Intent in training. The Tai Chi Chuan Classics say “Every movement based on the intent” , “When the intent and QI come, the bone and flesh are secondary”, “First on the mind, later, on the body”, “First, the intent moves, later, the power follows”, “All of them are based on the intent, it is not based on the external movement”, “When the QI is not there yet, the intent already there”, “When practice the solo form and push hand exercises, one should pay attention to the intent”.

These quotations clearly defined the priority and relationships among the Intent, Qi and Body. In every Tai Chi Chuan’s Solo Form movement, it is initiate by the Intent, continue with the QI and end with the body movement. Does not matter it is the QI circulation or body movement, it directs by the Intent. In the Intent’s creativity, QI circulation and body movement, they are the disciplines that Tai Chi Chuan incorporates the Intent to work on the three subject of Intent, Qi and Body. It is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy which said that the body is the basic matter for life. Mind is the life’s controller. Qi is the life’s communicator. The objective of the QI’s function is to have the body and mind joint together. A visible body is considering alive because of the mind. The Intent manages the body and base on the function of the QI. The three components joint together is the key in Tai Chi Chuan training.

The emphasis on Intent by the Tai Chi Chuan practitioners involve two areas. It is the initiator to activate the physiologic organ functions. Intent or Intent’s power is a special kind of conscious behavior of the brain which carry a coded message to function inside the body as well as outside the body. In other words, Intent controls all physiologic functions.

The nature of Intent

If the Intent is so important in Tai Chi Chuan training, it is necessary for one to fully understand and define what is Intent. There are two approach to understand it. The Intent guides the body movement and the Intent guides the QI circulation.

a. The Intent guides the body movement
When the Intent moves, the body follows. In the situation when the Intent guides the body movement. This mean all movements are control by the Intent. Intent’s movement means creativity. The body follows mean the body is moving according to the Intent’s instruction. In Tai Chi Chuan training, it demands all movements are initiating from the Intent and than follow with the body movement. Therefore, the body movement is the expression of Intent’s creativity outward. If one is able to follow this expectation throughout the Tai Chi Chuan training, one’s skill will progress quickly.

b. The Intent guides the QI circulation
When the Intent moves, the QI circulates. In the situation when the Intent guides the QI to circulate. This mean all QI circulation are following the Intent’s instruction. Intent movement means Intent creativity. Qi circulation means the QI circulates inside the body follows the Intent’s instruction. Intent creativity and QI circulation are internal. How can one interprets and understands? It is often said that to find out what is inside, one has to begin from outside. What is internal, will expressed outward.

Although the Intent creativity and QI circulation are intangible, the posture and movement a practitioner demonstrates in Tai Chi Chuan, is an expression of Intent creativity and QI circulation outward. From observing the change in a movement, one can tell the Intent creativity and QI circulation condition. The highest form of Tai Chi Chuan training is to have the Intent creativity and QI circulation inside the body combined with physical movement outside the body. Therefore, if there is no movement inside the body, there should be no movement from outside the body. When there is movement, the components from outside and inside the body move together in unity.

Although Intent is an important factor to determine the outcome of Tai Chi Chuan skill, it is abstract and difficult to understand. However, it has the following meanings and characteristics:

  It means attention.
  It has a meaning similar to QI. It is a form of energy and power.
  It is a form of thinking and imagination behavior.
  It has many levels. A student emphasizes the intent differently according to his skill.
  It is repeatable. At each time, the meaning and fulfillment are different.
  It can be understand from observing physical movement, feeling and sensation. A student maybe not understand at the beginning. After many practices, the understanding become better.
  For it is a substance of abstract and intangible, it can be interpreted into many meanings according to one’s experience. Therefore, it does not have any set priority and order.
  It is a state of mental condition.
  It is a mental activity and creativity.
  It is an objective and goal.
  Although it has many meaning, each meaning contribute to fulfill a complete whole. A unity.

Intent and creativity

To increase the Intent creativity, one must cultivate it daily and incorporate it throughout the Tai Chi Chuan training. This is included from practical experiences as well as daily activity.

From psychological experiment, we understand that Intent has a very close association with one’s emotion and experience. Whenever we have good and positive experience, the emotion is positive and the Intent creativity unrestricted. Otherwise, the emotion is negative and the Intent creativity limit. Therefore, it is necessary to have good experience and positive emotion which can be generated and supported from tranquil environment. A tranquil serenity is a condition better for one to concentrate, focus and the creativity to flow and coherent. Therefore, it has a miraculous result.

Intent and Tai Chi Chuan

From a martial art perspective, Intent is emphasizing on the technique, strategy and most importantly, on the opponent’s weak area.

Tai Chi Chuan is a relax, soft, internal and external activity. The movement is stable, circular, continue and the body should be upright. Base on these principles, Tai Chi Chuan movement is confining to a set of rules. When one is engaging in Tai Chi Chuan training, one is consciously control the body to function under these rules. How does one incorporate the Intent into Tai Chi Chuan training? Following are some of the common practice in Tai Chi Chuan:

When one is practicing the Tai Chi Chuan’s solo form, one should assume involving with an opponent in an offensive and defensive movement.

It is only when the Intent is true so the power is truly will get to the target and the movement is effective. One develops confidence in each movement by understand the application and variations. Believe in oneself during confrontation so technique can by apply freely without any hesitation and restriction. This is what the Tai Chi Chuan Classic said “When the QI is not there, the intent is already there.” When people said “confidence is half of success”. It already included the power of Intent.

One should understand each movement’s mechanic and application. Understanding the power and variation involve in each technique. Where and when to deliver the power. This is what the Tai Chi Chuan Classic referring to “One should pay attention to each movement.” One should pay closer attention to each movement so the power get to the target. One should clearly understand the power in each movement. Understanding the fist, palm or fingers strike in a movement? How to move the fingers to correctly apply the seize technique to easily control the opponent?

In any particular posture, the head should have the Intent of supporting an object upward. The body has sinking. The hands have pushing forward power. The arms move to the sides. The toes are pointing forward. The knees bent like a nutcracker. Buttock tuck in. The hip has roundness like a “U” shape.

The Tai Chi Chuan Classic said that one should walk like a cat. In practice, one can imagine the stepping in advance or retreat, and empty or full, should be very quietly, spontaneous and lightly. It is stable and continue like a running water.

The Tai Chi Chuan Classic said that mobilize the Jing is like pulling silk from a cocoon. In practice, one can imagine the movement is gentle, circular, smooth, even and continue like pulling silk. Otherwise, the silk thread will break.

Intent is a very important step in Tai Chi Chuan training. If one can incorporate it in daily practice as described above, one will definitely developed the Tai Chi Chuan skill and power quickly. The body is nimble and every part of the body is a weapon. It is an expression of the Intent, Qi and Body united.

Written By Vincent Chu.

About the Author:

Vincent Chu,M.Ed., The sixth generation lineage practitioner of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. He is the second of three sons of Gin Soon Chu. He studied Tai Chi Chuan from his father when he was very young. As age 16, he begins to assisted his father at Gin Soon Tai Chi Chuan Club in Boston and he has been teaching at the Brookline Adult and Community Education Program since 1984. To further his understanding and knowledge in Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan System, he obtained instructions from Master Ip Tai Tak and Professor Fang Ning. He has conducted many workshops and seminars in Canada and Europe and he is a frequent contributor to martial arts publications to share his knowledge



I can appreciate how the three components joining together is the key to Tai Chi Chuan . I hope to reach that level some day.Thanks, Tom

Posted by Tom Scott  on  02/26  at  12:28 AM
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