Tai Chi and Personal Transformation

by Randall Templeton, Associate Instructor

Cold Mountain Internal Arts, May 2020


Most people in Tai Chi circles today are familiar with the Zhang Sanfeng myth. Historical evidence about this person is lacking, but controversy about him misses the point. The central message in this creation myth is that Tai Chi is a martial and philosophical system based on an imagined battle to the death of a snake and a crane. There is also a strong suggestion that witnessing this battle was a moment of profound personal transformation. This is the real goal of Tai Chi practice. People who embrace Tai Chi as a means of self-cultivation stay with it. Others leave it after a few months.

To this end, Tai Chi provides powerful physical analogies designed to help cultivate positive personality traits. This article explains how Tai Chi is designed to do this.

Tai Chi as a Change Agent

The postures of Tai Chi forms, especially forms that predate Yang Cheng-Fu's 108 'Traditional Long Form', provide powerful analogies that allow us to cultivate five important attributes for our approach to the world around us. The five key attributes are Decisiveness, Persistence, Discernment, Fortitude and Adaptability, and together they form a system that has shaped Chinese endeavors for centuries.

Tai Chi practice can help us to develop physical attributes such as balance and flexibility, and is profoundly helpful in body rectification. Forms and Chi Gong practice can be a powerful mindfulness exercise, which improves concentration and reduces anxiety. Tai Chi has appropriated ideas and practices from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Buddhist philosophy and Taoist philosophy that can be instructive, but without understanding the system that provides the foundation of the old forms, this information is insufficient to fulfill Tai Chi's promise of transformation.

From a martial perspective, Tai Chi forms represent a mental rehearsal of a relatively small list of effective combat tactics. Each posture has a number of potential applications, but if one application of each posture is chosen, the form can be practiced as a solo combat drill. Mental rehearsal, including shadow-boxing, is a proven method for improving performance in sports activities and combat. In the case of Tai Chi, this rehearsal can also be more psychological, preparing us for confrontations and challenges that are not physical.

A useful definition of Personal Transformation has been summarized in an article by H.G. Wade.:

…… a dynamic, uniquely individualized process of expanding consciousness whereby individuals become critically aware of old and new self-views and choose to integrate these views into a new self-definition.”

-- GH Wade, 1998 Oct;28(4):713-9.

Tai Chi introduces those who practice it with a framework of five key strategy attributes using physical analogy. These attributes can be used not only for fighting, which was the original purpose for practicing Tai Chi, but also for navigating many life situations.

Five Key Attributes

The five key attributes are Decisiveness, Persistence, Discernment, Fortitude and Adaptability. Although these labels may not be traditional, this five-point framework is part of the Chinese Wu Xing system that is still used in TCM and Feng Shui. Not only does this system identify these attributes, but it also provides insights into the interaction of these five traits. Wu Xing is the system that categorizes things according to affinity to one of the five elements (Metal, Fire, Wood, Earth and Water). One of the core principles of Wu Xing is that no one approach dominates. Taken at face value the system suggests that any one strategy will be successful only 20% of the time. This brings us back to the Crane and Snake story. There is a strong message that one must have at least two strategies to prevail in a conflict.

Although Xing-Yi, an art related to Tai Chi, has retained references to the elements in its transmission, in most Tai Chi lineages this connection is mostly lost. In Tai Chi, part of the transmission is that the Fire, Water, Earth, Metal and Wood correspond to Advance, Retreat, Hold, Look Right, Gaze Left respectively, but the deeper meaning is rarely explored. Shaolin and other arts have animal and element references, but do not map directly into the Wu Xing. At Cold Mountain we study the "Old Yang Middle Frame Form" and Four Animal Chi Gongs as transmitted by Dr. Shen Zaiwen. that are derived from Yang Chien-hou through the Tyan and Shen lineages of Shanghai. In this transmission of the Old Yang form, Dr. Shen Zai Wen taught Chi Gong's for refinement of animal energies such as Snake, Crane, and Dragon, but there are gaps. For various reasons the postures and form of the 108, does not make the connection readily accessible. The Old Yang Middle Frame form has more explicit reference to these attributes, but without a more complete transmission these references are vague. Some Chi Gongs are designed to activate meridians. Activation of meridians promotes health of the internal organs, and according to Traditional Chinese Medicine there is a correlation between organs and the emotions, but in this transmission meridian activation is mostly about physical health aspects.

Elements and Animals

The answer to this quandary, I believe is two-fold. First we need to know that the elements also have corresponding mythical animals, animals that are named in the postures of the Old Yang form (and to a lesser extent the 108), and that the messages of the I Ching are categorized by element. (Some of these postures and element references are part of the Chen transmission, but Old Yang provides the most accessible version.) Using these connections we can then understand how certain postures provide physical analogies for mental and emotional attributes.

The five animals and example postures are:

1. The White Tiger, symbolizing Decisiveness, related to the Metal Element and represented in the form by postures such as Hit Tiger, and Return Tiger to Mountain.

2. The Red Peacock, symbolizing Persistence, related to the Fire Element and represented in the form by postures such as White Crane Spreads Wings and Golden Cockerel.

Any reference to birds in Tai Chi can be interpreted as being a "Peacock" movement. The reason that the Peacock is "Red" is that the feathers on its head resemble an emperor's crown, and the emperor's colour is vermilion red.

3. The Blue Dragon, symbolizing Discernment, related to the Wood Element and represented in the form by postures such as Dragon Seeks Pearl and Plant Needle at Sea Bottom.

We would expect "wood" to be green, but green is not a primary colour, therefore blue is the convention.

4. The Yellow Dragon, symbolizing Fortitude, related to the Earth Element and represented in the form by postures such as Yellow Dragon Goes to Its Lair, and Slanted Flying. In many places in China the soil is yellow.

5. The Black Serpent, symbolizing Adaptability, related to the Water Element and represented in the form by postures such as Snakes and White Snake Sticks Out its Tongue.

These attributes and relationships are summarized in Table I.

Analysis of other postures in the form can lead to a categorization of almost all of the postures in the Old Yang form, but it is equally true that many postures can be performed in a way suggestive of any of these five animals. Without a definitive transmission this analysis can be subjective. This analysis of the form is also in some ways at odds with the transmission that links the five elements to the five directions.

The I Ching

The I Ching is one of the oldest surviving written artifacts of Chinese culture. Its current form was codified during the Warring States Period (1000 - 700 BCE), but it was already a sophisticated system used by shamanic advisors for centuries prior to this. My main reference for understanding this system is Alfred Huang's, The Complete I Ching, The Definitive Translation, published by Inner Traditions of Rochester,Vermont, 1998.

Many people have the impression that the I Ching is to be used for divination, but Huang insists that consulting the I Ching is not a "fortune telling" instrument in the sense of predicting the future. Instead one formulates a question, and the I Ching provides insight that will resolve doubt and confusion. Fortunately, Huang includes the original Great Seal pictographs that were originally used for the I Ching system. Since the objective of using the I Ching is to connect with the subconscious mind, from which new perspectives may be gained, images rather than symbols are helpful. Use of the I Ching for guidance is facilitated by an additional system for predicting how a situation will change. For our purposes the main use of the I Ching is to understand messages that help define the element category to which they belong.

Although I have relied heavily on Huang's commentaries for interpretations of the I Ching pictographs, I differ slightly from Huang's in an attempt to make them more relatable to my Canadian cultural background. Hopefully in doing so I have retained the essence of the system, but in any case I am confident that my impressions convey a sense of the characteristics of each element and cosmic animal.

Animal Attributes

The five mythical creatures are based on real animals, and represent archetype behavior modes. Examples from real-life animal behaviour and characteristics of the Tai Chi postures all align to provide an integrated framework that can be used to understand important approaches to problems and life challenges. These approaches are useful not only in a martial context, but in life generally. When studied from this perspective the Tai Chi postures provide powerful analogies for cultivating these five approaches. A summary of these factors is shown in Table I.

The White Tiger: Decisiveness

The White Tiger, symbolizing Decisiveness, is related to the Metal Element and represented in the form by postures such as Hit Tiger, and Return Tiger to Mountain. Examples of Messages in the I Ching that are categorized as "Metal" are #1- Qian- which Huang describes as "Initiating" and is a reference to the warmth that initiates plant germination; #28 - Da Guo- Great Exceeding- a reference to extraordinary effort for extraordinary circumstances. Tigers are apex predators that typically hunt large animals. Although they stalk and ambush prey it's noteworthy that they often fail in their attack, but when they are successful, they feast.

In practicing movements such as Hit Tiger and Return Tiger to Mountain, emphasis should be placed on striking with the full force of the body and without hesitation. This is an application of the maxim that power "comes from the ground, is guided by the waist and manifested in the hands."

In terms of life skills, the idea is to act deliberately and single-mindedly. First-mover advantage is emphasized. A person with this trait will not hesitate to speak their mind, or back-up their statements with action. Such an "all-in" approach can be exhausting though, so decisiveness can be overcome by persistence. Contests between these two types of energies are common in boxing; the famous Ali-Forman fight being one example.

The Red Peacock: Persistence

The Red Peacock, symbolizing Persistence is related to the Fire Element and represented in the form by postures such as White Crane Spreads Wings and Golden Cockerel. #56-Lu- Travelling, a Fire related I Ching message, is a pictograph representing "Chasing the rebels" which suggests persistence. References to peacocks may seem strange to North Americans, but peacocks are fierce, large territorial birds. They fight with their beaks and leg spurs, and they ward with their wings. In ancient China peacocks were associated with the Emperor, which may account for substitution of other bird names in the form. Peacocks, like roosters and wild turkeys will persistently drive off invaders from their nesting places. There are a number of videos on the Internet showing peacocks fighting. Before they strike, these birds pace back and forth numerous times studying their opponent. Peacock movements in the Tai Chi forms usually involve a warding movement and a counter-strike. They should be practiced with a sense of waiting for the ideal moment. From a martial perspective the implication is that an opponent is vulnerable just after their attack has been foiled. Persistence is predictable by nature, this makes a persistent approach vulnerable to adaptable strategies. This is the main reason why guerrilla warfare can be successful.

The Blue Dragon: Discernment

The Blue Dragon, symbolizing Discernment is related to the Wood Element and represented in the form by postures such as Dragon Seeks Pearl and Plant Needle at Sea Bottom. Important Wood element messages are #57 - Xun -a pictograph showing two cobras, a reference to coordination; #62-Xiao Guo- Little Exceeding, a reference to leverage; and #51-Zhen -Taking Action, a reference to strategic timing. The Blue Dragon is loosely modeled after lizards. It is the only animal in the group that can grasp things in its claws. A noteworthy characteristic of these dragons as depicted in art is that their spine is so flexible that the front feet and head can face in one direction while the rear feet face in the opposite direction. The Dragon Seeks Pearl movement in the Old Yang form is similar to "Twist Step, Parry and Punch" in the modern 108 form. In these movements timing and co-ordination are critical. First there is a grabbing motion, even though the adversary is moving in. The response is asymmetric. Second is a kick to the knee that must be timed to the opponent's step. Lastly a counter attack that can be a strike or a levered put down. The Blue Dragon uses tactics that are coordinated, timed and asymmetric. A person with this personality trait studies any problem they are faced with looking for a pattern that will help them get the greatest benefit form the least effort, by perceiving critical timing, root cause or by dividing one big challenge into a number of smaller ones.

Such an analytical approach however can use up precious time. This is why a poor plan well executed can often defeat a great plan poorly executed.

The Yellow Dragon: Fortitude

The Yellow Dragon, symbolizing Fortitude, is related to the Earth Element and represented in the form by postures such as Yellow Dragon Goes to Its Lair, and Slanted Flying. An important Earth message is #7 Shi: Multitude; represented by a pictograph of a crowd moving around a center pole. Other Earth messages are #52 - Gen- Keeping Still - and #46 -Sheng - Growing Upward- maintaining a positive outlook. The Yellow Dragon resembles the Chinese Alligator, which is often yellow so that it can hide in the yellow mud of rivers. The movement of an alligator's head is always matched by a balancing movement of its large tail. Movements such as Ward Off, Partition and Slanted Flying all generate power from rotation around a central axis. Over-reaching and reliance on complex movement are avoided. More than other Tai Chi movements, Yellow Dragon movements avoid complexity. Participants of Push-Hands competition will recognize Yellow Dragon traits in the Four Don'ts: 1) don't reach, 2) don't force, 3) don't disconnect, 4) don't distort. Similarly, a person with this personality trait appears grounded. They derive their power from resisting their initial impulses. Their response to a situation is always something they consciously choose.

Fortitude relies on experience, so more than the other strategies it can be mislead by appearances. A discerning opponent can often use an asymmetric response to defeat a person with a Yellow Dragon style.

The Black Serpent is Adaptable

The Black Serpent, symbolizing adaptability, is related to the Water Element and represented in the form by postures such as Snakes and White Snake Sticks Out its Tongue. Key Water messages are #8 -Bi -Union - moving in unison with your opponent, #60 - Jie- Restricting - avoiding interruption of movement. Serpents conserve energy, to the point that most snakes have (and need) only one lung. Some snakes are venomous and others use constriction. It's worth noting that constrictors don't actively squeeze their victims. Instead they contract when their victim breathes out, and resist when the victim tries to expand their lungs. Of course they also bite. Snakes imitate water in that they often seek the path of least resistance and adapt their form to the available space.

Based on this line of reasoning Snake postures should be done with a sense of flowing into the space left by the opponent. This personality trait emphasizes avoiding resistance.

The weakness of adaptable strategy is that it relies on something or someone external to provide structure. This strategy can be defeated by setting and maintaining boundaries. In boxing this means forcing your opponent into a corner. This approach is also a classic method used by parents to influence their children's behaviour. It works as long as the parents don't waver in maintaining the boundaries.

Symbolism in the Zhang SanFeng Myth.

A review of the animal symbolism in the Wu Xing system gives new meaning to the Zhang SenFeng myth. The absence of Tigers and Dragons suggests that Tai Chi is superior to other systems that rely on power and cunning. Instead Tai Chi's relies on Persistence and Adaptability. This was a powerful message for the Chinese people of the late 1800's who were experiencing collapse of the Empire and domination by other world powers with new technology and military power.

Personal Transformation and Choice

From the above analysis, it is clear the theory of Wu Xing prescribes how the Five Elements react to each other. No one strategy is superior to others, and any given strategy might only be successful one fifth of the time. Each person may be inclined to use one favourite approach, but to increase the chances of success, it is best to learn two or more strategies and to master shifting nimbly from one approach to another because the correct strategy, even poorly executed may be more effective than a poor strategy well executed. Our culture is full of expressions such as "Bull in a china shop", "Analysis paralysis", "Wishy-Washy", "Stubborn as a rock". These negative comments represent situations where a habitual attribute is being wrongly applied.

When a person can resist habit and actively choose one of the five attributes that best applies to a situation this indicates Personal Transformation.


In summary, Tai Chi forms offer a way to cultivate five key attributes of our personality using physical analogies. These attributes are Decisiveness, Persistence, Discernment, Fortitude and Adaptability. These attributes are reflected in Tai Chi postures that are associated with five elements and their respective five mythological animals. Characteristics of these elements and animals are further defined by messages in the I Ching associated with their respective element. The under-lying promise of Tai Chi, expressed in the Zhang Sanfeng myth is that practicing the postures and reflecting on the deeper meaning of these movements can lead to Personal Transformation, as the habit of exercising these attributes becomes one of choice. It is this opportunity for self-cultivation and Personal Transformation that keeps senior students practicing Tai Chi for many years. Even if they can't articulate this change, they sense it happening, and continue to pursue it.

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