The Influence of Gender on Tai Chi Transmission

Some years ago I was at a friendly non-competitive pushing-hands event in the U.S. It was one of those situations where veterans were encouraged to work with beginners and newcomers in an exchange of skills. One veteran, a senior male practitioner who is very well-regarded and has published a number of books about Tai Chi, was partnering a woman with an extensive Kung Fu background; she was there to explore Tai Chi in a non-threatening workshop-retreat setting. She was rooted, sensitive, responsive, and to his surprise she was quite able to effectively hold her own against him. Instead of embracing the situation, he attempted (unsuccessfully) to apply force. The next day, driving me to the airport, she showed me the bruises he had left upon her arms.

Given this kind of not unusual experience, is it any wonder that so many women are turned off Tai Chi and pushing hands? The fact is that the male urge to dominate or condescend to women is pervasive in the Asian martial arts; it is a strong cultural meme that is imbedded in Asian society and is common in our society too.

The prejudice against admitting the female role in martial activities is pervasive. Modern scholars and archaeologists are resolutely “uncertain” how to interpret the presence of swords in the graves of Viking women despite ample evidence in the sagas as to the existence of women warriors. From a saga account of the early Norse settlement in Canada we read an account by Leif Erikson’s…

"…half-sister Freydis. When discord broke out within her colony, Freydis executed all of the other women with her own axe, then threatened with death any man who reported the deed."

(retrieved in September 2017 from

Lagertha, shield maiden of the Vikings series, clearly had her sisters!

Recent forensic examinations of the skeletal remains unearthed on the site of one Viking battle has demonstrated that a sizable percentage of the slain were female. The remains were originally excavated decades ago, but at the time no effort was made to confirm sex, the assumption at the time being that any Viking warrior would be male.

In 2017 it was determined that a fully armoured and equipped Viking warrior whose remains had been discovered in the 1800’s was (gasp) a woman!

"Aside from the complete warrior equipment buried along with her – a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses – she had a board game in her lap, or more of a war-planning game used to try out battle tactics and strategies, which indicates she was a powerful military leader,” Hedenstierna-Jonson said. “She’s most likely planned, led and took part in battles.”

But Professor Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University has opined that she probably wasn’t a real warrior, but came from a prominent family – thus establishing that the sexist academic attitudes of the 1800’s are still alive and well in Sweden. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that maybe she was just a really good fighter and leader?

Nor were ancient women warriors limited to Germanic and Scandinavian society according to contemporary accounts of the Scythians, who may have been the models for the ancient Amazons so feared by the classical Greeks. The illustration here of Greek warriors fighting Amazons is from the Elgin Marbles which once adorned the Parthenon.

In ancient China the tomb of Mme Fu Hao, a consort of a King of Shang, contained one hundred and thirty bronze weapons. She was his warlord, and her tomb was appropriately adorned with a Shang general’s honours. She is not alone in receiving such funerary recognition; tombs have been found in which the female occupants were surrounded by weapons of jade.

The first Chinese martial arts performance on record is a sword dance performed before the King of Yueh by Yuenu, a “Lady of the Dao”. So impressed was he by her weapons form that he made her a general and the trainer of his officers. Her tale was recounted by Chuang Tzu and is a staple of Kung Fu romances.

Given the repressively patriarchal nature of classical Chinese society, these are rare examples. Women in positions of authority are usually presented as lascivious and degenerate exceptions to the orderly rule of Heaven as in the case of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty.

…or the more recent Dowager Empress Cixi who was the last ruler of Imperial China…

…or Jiang Qing who was the spouse of Chairman Mao and leader of the “Gang of Four”.

Within the Chinese Tai Chi community women typically have been accorded the position of senior grandmasters or Lineage Holders only when there is no suitable male heir around to wear the mantle. Examples are Grandmasters Wu Ying-hua, Sun Jian-yun and Wu Yen-hsia (at left). Is it any wonder that one of my senior female students once lamented to me the lack of female martial models and archetypes?

This situation is changing, but slowly, and the skill of women is still often deprecated in martial arts and Tai Chi circles. For one example, much negative criticism has been written and has been said of Tai Chi pioneer Sophia Delza who was recognized as a Wu-style master by Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang and taught Tai Chi for many years in New York at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations. The scant video evidence makes clear her skills, despite the fact that, by choice, her Tai Chi was directed toward dance and artistic expression.

Modern female masters have received more acceptance, but still face in many situations an uphill battle. Where male teachers are forgiven much, self-assertive women such as shifu Delza tend to be written off as shrill, pushy and aggressive. Even today a female master who participates too confidently on a Tai Chi Facebook site can unexpectedly have the “lads” viciously turn on her.

This situation is not limited to Tai Chi. A very salutary study of the way that women have had to struggle to receive martial arts training and recognition was written back in 1984: Linda Atkinson’s Women in the Martial Arts: A New Spirit Rising. In this book female masters of a wide range of martial arts share their stories. Their courage and persistence is enough to make one weep with admiration. It is to address their needs that in the U.S.A. organizations such as the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists have been formed.

It is my belief that the assumption that men and women should always be taught the same way needs to be challenged. Some research seems to show that men and women think differently at very deep neural levels, and that certain differences between them may be innate.

"Men, it is pretty well established, have better motor and spatial abilities than women, and more monomaniacal patterns of thought. Women have better memories, are more socially adept, and are better at dealing with several things at once. There is a lot of overlap, obviously. But on average these observations are true." (Science and Technology, Dec. 2013)

These findings are inherently controversial since not only the results of the research, but its terms of reference at the time of inception, may have been influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs.

Even entertaining the prospect that some of the cognitive differences between men and women are innate can be seen as political. One of the readers for this article writes:

"I would not refer to science as a way to explain the difference between a man and a woman’s brain, because I think that studies showing a difference between the brain of men/women, black/whites, heterosexuals/homosexuals, etc. are full of biases and the topic has not been fully explored. It is a good idea to bring your own experience and observations as an instructor. Nobody can question your observations and experience. But making your point about observed differences with neuroscience studies is to my opinion controversial. These studies often draw the wrong conclusion from limited measurements."

I respect this criticism. What I therefore offer here, based upon my forty-two years’ experience teaching in the academic, business, and martial arts worlds, are mostly questions and ideas – not solutions. I apologize in advance for anything that may be perceived as inappropriate!

1. Spatial Relationships

The difference between the sexes in the ability to handle and manipulate spatial relationships is the raw material of endless sexist jokes. The practical implications are to be seen in such mundane tasks as the ability to parallel-park a car.

The fact that there does seem to be a significant difference in the ability of males and females to perform such tasks has been the subject of much research. This research, at one time highly contentious and the subject of a great deal of academic controversy, is now generally accepted.

But given the fact that such a difference seems to exist, should we perhaps develop alternative methods of teaching the basics of combative range and angles? I am sensitized to this by the experience of having had a student who was blind from birth. For her an angle was an abstract mathematical concept; she had no instinctive grasp of the idea. She had to physically feel it. At the same time, she had compensatory sensory abilities that simply confounded me.

Can the lesson she provides be extended?

2. Physical Directions

When I was training field-underwriters in the insurance industry I soon became aware that giving directions in terms of the points of the compass was effective for males, but not for most females. Most women were better directed in terms of landmarks, turning right or left, going 3 streets instead of 2 kilometres, etc.

But the Tai Chi Classics refer to the points of the compass repeatedly as do many instructional texts dealing with forms. I now make a point of explaining changes of direction in forms-instruction in terms of both points of the compass and turning around, right, left, etc. It is a small thing but important. Assimilating this necessity requires real awareness for instructors. Where instructions are given in a “Turn north, step to the north-east” format, an effort must be made to translate this into a more easily assimilated way. To this end I am now rewriting my forms-direction documents.

Whether the issues above are innate or socially conditioned is contentious. We do know that the male and female brains are subtly different in terms of organic structure. The male brain has fewer neural connections between the right and left hemispheres and more connections within each hemisphere than the female. We also know that certain kinds of data seem to be processed differently in men and women. But what the relationship is between organic structure and function is a subject for ongoing research.

The other issue is that a difference in how information is processed does not necessarily indicate a deficiency. I am sensitized to this issue by my own experience with Aspergers, a form of high-functioning autism. While this syndrome has caused me suffering in the form of social difficulty, it also offers great compensations in the areas of pattern-recognition and conceptual work. Aspergers can be a real handicap when it comes to perceiving how a lesson has been received by students and in regard to associated elements such as cognitive processing and memory functions. But it also can offer an enhanced ability to learn forms in different styles.

3. Musculature

Muscles mean power, right!? The first lessons I teach a beginner in my club are intended to challenge this assumption. Initially I teach wuji-bu in terms of the interaction of resting-in (Yang) and supporting (Yin). This instruction is based upon touch-intensive physical adjustment and then two-person testing. The student in the photo below is a 73 year-old beginner.

Once the lesson has been received, it is then extended to the two actions of Commencement and, eventually, to the Brush Knee posture (below). The entire point is to bring home to the student the fact that the ability to manifest power, in terms of either withstanding or exerting force, is not dependent on muscular exertion. This being the case, it should be clear that in Tai Chi the male physique enjoys no inherent advantage over the female.

Going back to the beginning of this article, there is no reason why a woman cannot push a muscularly strong man off his feet and onto his ass. Skill is the great Tai Chi equalizer and has obvious implications in terms of the realization, in both physical and psychic terms, of a feminist awareness.

In my experience men are disinclined to surrender their reliance on muscular strength. They can and do, but it takes time and patience to get them to this stage. One method used by a senior teacher of my acquaintance is to require male students to push to the point of exhaustion; only when a male student reaches this point does my friend teach him the method of tui-shou. He figures he has to take masculine muscles out of the equation before the student will finally ‘get it’. In his club the students can push in a boxing ring, but usually only after pushing a sledge weighted with sand-bags many times back and forth across the floor to get them to the desired state of muscle fatigue. At this point he says they seem to become more trainable!

4. Pelvic Structure

Pelvic structure varies greatly between the sexes and affects both stance and movement. Due to the greater proportional width of the female pelvis, the angle between the femur and the perpendicular which extends downwards from the hip joint is approximately eleven degrees in males as opposed to fifteen degrees in females. This significant difference accounts for the fact that women’s knees look slightly more turned-in than men’s. In addition, the female lumbar curve is somewhat more pronounced than that of the male. These differences, which certainly do not apply to all males and females, must have some impact upon movement and stance.

In males, I expect the feet to be parallel in a high shoulder-wide wuji-bu (at left). But must this apply to the female? One of my mentors, shifu Gloria Jenner, teaches that the female should toe-out slightly; but certain of my own female students maintain that this is not an issue for them.

The point I wish to make is that in most instructional situations the implications of differences between the male and female physiologies is not even considered. I think it should be and I believe that this area requires further research.

Note: The preceding has focused upon issues that may be innate in differentiating between males and females. The suggestion has been that these differences are indicative of the desirability to develop sex-distinct teaching methods where the situation merits, or to at least be aware of the possibility that men and women may respond differently to certain physical protocols.

What follows is a consideration of issues which are more based upon culture and sociology. The issue here is not to consider whether issues of social and cultural conditioning should be accommodated or resisted, but just to recognize that these factors exist and can have a significant effect on the learning experience.)

5. Partnership and the Intimacy Zone

Female practitioners are often cautious of physical contact. They are usually wary of invasions of their physical space and unwanted physical attention. In our society contact with a man’s chest area is acceptable, but not of a woman’s. When teaching pushing-hands this can be complicated. It is tempting to pair off women with women, but some women see this as undesirable and want to work with men as well. When in doubt, ask! I make a point of asking permission of men, too, before giving physical adjustments.

In general, many Tai Chi postural corrections and adjustments must involve touch. Genuine transmission requires the engagement of the master’s hands upon the student. It is essential to request the student’s permission and to effect physical correction in a way that is respectful of their sense of personal space and intimacy. When adjusting a student’s sacral and pelvic angles, I generally invite others to watch. This ensures transmission of the adjustment technique and also hopefully ensures that there are witnesses to the fact that no inappropriate touching is being attempted. The nature of the touch should also be precise and clinical, anything that might be interpreted as expressive or sensual being strictly avoided.

Sensitivity also must be extended to cultural issues. For example, many Muslims observe a strict prohibition against male-female contact. In such a case the instructor should probably do his or her best to demonstrate, but absolutely refrain from touching.

It is essential, with regards to this issue, that the instructor work within the student’s standards and guidelines rather than seeking to impose his or her own upon the student. Tai Chi should be a safe place, and that principle must be extended to every aspect of the teaching / learning interchange.

6. Attitudes toward Violence

Some years ago, an American colleague asked me whether I would be willing to give her club, which consisted largely of women, a workshop on Tai Chi self-defence. In response, I asked her whether her students were seriously interested in learning how to injure or maim an attacker. “Absolutely not!” she said, adding that no woman would be interested in learning how to hurt someone else.

I feel this instance illustrates the extent to which the prohibition against violence weighs particularly heavily upon women in our society. In fact, my martial teaching career was sparked by a bizarrely vicious assault that was made upon a co-worker in her own home by a psychopathic sadist. In that instance, there was simply no question of my friend being psychologically capable of self- defence. She had been raised to be a perfect victim and, as a result, she almost died.

The fact that studying the martial arts involves the consideration of violent methods seems not to bother most men. But it does deeply trouble some women. I have some female students who definitely are interested in acquiring good self-defence skills, but some are uncomfortable with this aspect of the art and prefer to focus on its therapeutic and artistic values to the exclusion of its more combative utilities.

My approach to this has been to focus on teaching the student, not necessarily on requiring the student to engage in all aspects of the art. I do not require that all students participate in pushing hands or combative drills; that should be a matter of personal choice. At the same time, I always ensure that every lesson recognizes the classical tripod upon which Tai Chi stands: combative utility, therapeutic values, and spiritual development. I do not think we do the student any favours by shielding her from part of what makes the art what it is. The complexities of this issue defy any definitive answer that fits all situations and every student’s needs.

7. Negative and Positive Reinforcement

It is my experience that in general men respond more positively to negative reinforcement than women. Friend-talk among men can be very aggressive and mock-combative. In my experience, there is no male equivalent to “girl talk”. Criticism or correction between men can therefore be forceful and direct, and yet not be perceived as threatening or in any sense diminishing by the recipient. My experience is that women tend to receive criticisms personally. The incautious male instructor’s effort to correct or address a problem may be perceived by female student as directed toward their persons, not the problem. This is such a deeply conditioned issue that the male instructor should try to accommodate this dynamic, not change it. Similarly, the female instructor should not refrain from giving critical correction to a man in a very forthright and direct manner. Try to be overly sensitive and he just may not get it!

8. Winners and losers

I am really uncomfortable with addressing differences in ego, narcissism and competitiveness as manifested in men and women; the whole area seems to be a cultural mine field. What research I have seen seems influenced by ideological factors and often by the prejudices of the researcher. That said, the area has to be a sensitive one for the teacher. All I can say here is therefore influenced by my own prejudices and by what I have seen in class.

In general, it seems to me that men more easily fall into a personally competitive mode with other men than do women; some in fact seem to operate in a mind-set of either winning or losing. Women often seem better able to cooperate with each other than do men. Men seem best able to cooperate with each other when there is a distinct disparity in skill and experience between them. With women, this seems less a factor. In addition, certain men automatically assume a superiority over women when it comes to physical issues. In bad situations, a man will resist correction by a female and resent the authority of a female with greater skill and experience. My own feeling is that this sort of thing should never be tolerated.

A danger point is that the occasional insecure male will exhibit diminished self-control in certain situations such as tui-shou. Threatened the possibility of ‘losing’, he may use sufficient force to injure his partner. This applies to both male-on-male and male-on-female encounters.

These cases represent worst-case scenarios which present themselves only rarely. Nevertheless, they represent situations and social dynamics which are problematic and of which the instructor must be aware.

9. Hierarchical Social Structures

There is a strong liberal prejudice in our society against hierarchical social structures. In a martial arts setting, this can cause problems because, deriving from traditional patriarchal models, the Asian martial arts tend to be extremely hierarchal. In many arts, the relations between students and the lines of authority are governed by gradings, belt colours, divisions of rank etc. Traditionally, such is not the case in Tai Chi.

This said, certain instructors and organizations are introducing or adopting such distinctions where there is an Asian model. Whether or not such structures are suitable is really a matter of club culture. Some senior students for example feel that the seniors in a club, sifu included, should mutually regard each other as friends and colleagues. This is a very worthy ideal. The problem is that the sifu has responsibilities which his senior students do not have, many of which cannot be shared. I feel that the viability of a club rests upon the balance that must be maintained between authority and collegiality.

That said, my experience is that many women seek in the Tai Chi community a certain relief from the omnipresent structures of patriarchy. In essence, while accepting of certain traditional hierarchies and cultural structures, they also demand respect. Accommodating this need can be demanding for some male instructors, but ultimately extremely rewarding.


As far back as the Fifteenth century it was said that “Comparisons are odious!” How much more is this the case with generalizations? There are many women who are utterly untroubled by the issues of spatial relationships and directions which I have outlined. In the gym I have met many women who could happily seize Yours Truly and rend him limb from limb. Regarding the relationship between pelvic structure and stance, I have some female students who find that this is an issue for them, and some not. Some women find martial arts hierarchies reassuring and ego-affirming. The careers of certain cage-fighters and boxers such as Rhonda Roussey, Holly Holm and our own Mandy Bujold, amply demonstrate that some females are quite comfortable with competitive violence.

Nevertheless, as our art grows into the Twenty-first Century, it may be productive for us to consider the issues here raised if we wish to instruct in a way that is inclusive and accepting of the needs of both men and women.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts