Too Much Karate in my Tai Chi

1493 words by attila written on 2023-01-04, last edit: 2023-02-03, tags: carpaltunnel, karate, martialarts, personal, taichi, writingPrevious post: Corporate ChurnNext post: Economic Activity Theater #1: The Traffic Accident

On the surface all martial arts might look like the same thing, more or less: fight choreography and knowledge, transmitted down the ages by various means, evolved and influenced and mutated over time like everything else we do. Philosophically, though, I don't think they are grounded in the same ideas.

My Brilliant Career

I started studying Tai Chi in Balboa Park, San Diego with the old Chinese man and his band of self-organizing anarchist warriors. Okay, not (necessarily) anarchist warriors, but it was largely self-organizing.

Some time in the early 1960s The Old Man (whose name I never knew) started coming to the park to do Tai Chi, by himself at first. He would arrive in front of the indoor badminton courts at 6am or so every Saturday and Sunday, do the long form a few times and go home. Slowly, students started to join him. As more people arrived, a self-organizing principle asserted itself:

That was it. There were not many words spoken, generally. I don't recall knowing too many other people's names (a common theme in my life); at most it was on a first name basis. I would say the crowd tended towards the lower end rather than the higher on the material plane; I remember one of the other students was studying to be a massage therapist. Don't think there were any e.g. lawyers. It was low-touch. No uniforms. There was a donation basket, but no specific amount was requested. By the time I got there (late 70s) the old man was very old indeed and there was an advanced student who acted as his assistant, drove him to and from the park, etc. He was a janitor at the UCSD campus.

So I was this vegetarian Tai Chi dork at 15, when a Karate practitioner from a strange and non-public dojo kinda recruited me off the street based on seeing me do Tai Chi in the park. Weird when I see it written out like that.

It should also be noted that when I started Tai Chi I was 12, by which time I already had a beard and was frequently passing as some kind of adult: a creepy, bearded, intense little presence, that came and went as I pleased (usually the bus). Solidly bourgeois/middle class.

By the time Thor (real name) recruited me for Karate I had grown into it a bit, but I was still underage. I remember having to have a parent sign something to be allowed to practice Karate. Nobody signed shit for Tai Chi. I think this is also why I didn't really do push hands too much, although I don't remember details... it was over 40 years ago. I did the (Wu) long form obsessively on my own, probably too much.

I ended up switching to Karate mostly because (1) KILL KILL KILL seriously resonated with me at 15, and (2) I felt various aspects of the Wu form were incompatible with Karate: the way you point your feet, the level at which you hold your stance, etc. Thor also kind of encouraged this way of thinking: that it had to be one or the other. So, I switched, and practiced Karate with my usual extreme intensity for several years.


Anyone who has been around martial arts will recognize it if they would see me doing the Ho'o eight minute short form. I have Karate Person Syndrome:

This speaks to the underlying motivation/emotional basis for the martial art in question. They all have one...

These are all ways of stating more or less the same thing (Win The Fight(s)) but the emphasis and the grounding is all different. The idea of what it means to "win" can be different.

Karate people are basically drama queens, whatever else you want to say: every blow is a killing blow, lots of screaming and pausing for dramatic effect. Every kata is basically a fight scene from Xena. I mean a good episode. Maybe even Ong Bok in some cases. That's all drama. The story every kata tells is drama. Your hands are trembling by the end from pushing as much energy as you possibly could through them. Your legs are burnt out.

Karate also inherently worships hierarchy: colored belts and ranks are a dead giveaway, but there is in fact an implicit worship of hierarchy at every level. As I pointed out above, there is even a hierarchy of movements. In Tai Chi there is none so far as I know: every bit of every movement is as important as any other, there are no uninteresting movements or moments that we just suffer through so we can get to the "good part" (KILLING). We are plumbing different depths.

From my white/settler perspective it appears this way, and maybe this is all just Whiteness Rounding Error or something. I will also cop to a robust case of orientalism at this age, which I hope I have reigned in a bit: walking around town in my Tai Chi gi and shoes, hanging out at the martial arts store, constantly seen eating at Kung Food in Balboa park.

Slight Return

It has been decades since all of this and I found myself needing something that my aging bones can handle. I am disabled now from carpal tunnel syndrome and other maladies. I have tried doing a few katas from memory and the form is still there but the strength and resilience are not: everything is too fast, too hard.

On the other hand, Tai Chi is it. I have been doing the 8min short form now for a few months and it has definitely helped the arm and hand affected with carpal tunnel, which hand I also recently broke. I could not do Grasp the Bird's Tail at all when I started, now it is almost unnoticeable, same with Wave Hands like Clouds.

In any case, there is obviously too much Karate in my Tai Chi: that would be my first and biggest criticism so far. I have been working on getting the Karate out of there, but it's kind of hilarious how it starts sneaking back in if I am not ever-vigilant. In the notes I have from the (excellent) Black Belt Magazine book on the Ho'o short form he even specifically points out how your shoulders should be in certain movements, how your feet should be and what pattern they should describe on the floor as they move. It is detailed and it is definitely not Karate. I do it a disservice if I don't do my best to render it as described.

Of course, everyone ends up being an interpreter in the end, and my interpretation might be invalid due to cultural DQ/whiteness. That's fine, I'm not trying to found a new style or anything, just get back my old shape; my goal is to start doing the long form again. I need it. The psychic exercise of pushing back against the Karate is helping me understand a few things, as well. For me, that's what's necessary, as much as physical rehab and reconnecting with the thing that initially drew me in.

I'm not saying Karate is evil or anything. It depends on the individual what effect this kind of shit has on them, especially when they are young, and by "this kind of shit" I mean all of it: physical training, philosophy, social dynamics and how they all interact with personal damage and personality in general. For someone else it might be the opposite... and if I ever meet this person we will obviously have to fight!

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