Tai Chi Chuan : a way of life

Tai Chi draws upon the simplest of principles, but mastery does not come as easily

Anyone who has visited China and found themselves on the streets in the early morning will be familiar with the sight of people practicing the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi in unison. Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan is an internal Chinese martial art, and literally translates as "supreme ultimate fist".

All styles that have emerged over the past 100 years can trace their roots back to a family boxing, or fighting, style developed in a small village in the Henan province of China during the 17th century, although where the exercises came from before then, is somewhat open to conjecture.

More recently, Tai Chi has found global fame due to its health-enhancing benefits. However, while many people today may practise Tai Chi solely for its physical benefits, it has at its core the ancient philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that goes back around 6,000 years.

Tai Chi works on the principles of Yin and Yang – which in Taoist philosophy represent the two opposite forces in action in the Universe, from which all things stem. The Taoists believe that the human body is a reflection of the Universe, and it can be used as a gateway to understanding and achieving the Tao— which means the ‘path’ or the ‘way’.

This interplay of opposites within the Universe is reflected in every movement within traditional Tai Chi Chuan, as you change constantly from Yin to Yang — from closed to open, passive to active, empty to full, soft to hard, slow to quick, each part, each side of the body is engaged in this dance that mirrors the nature of our internal ‘selves’ as well as the Universe outside.

The more you practice, the more these opposite forces of Yin and Yang become balanced and a part of yourself, leading to a greater sense of harmony and fulfillment.

Seems simple? In a sense, it couldn’t be easier — you are following the natural laws of the Universe, forging balance and harmony out of performing seemingly simple physical movements. But it may seem contradictory that this supposedly easy ‘path of least resistance’, as many people think of Tai Chi training, actually requires considerable effort and dedication to follow.

To become proficient at Tai Chi, the training requires the student to practice daily, and the skills don’t come easily. Despite the primary principle being to just relax and move comfortably, it takes considerable work to achieve this!

Just as a proper foundation has to be laid for a house to stand firm, so must a proper foundation be laid within the body for a solid practice to take shape. And just as it is physically hard for us to re-learn how to relax and follow our natural way of moving, so it can be just as difficult to find the ‘way’, and find balance and harmony within life.

Stephanie Fowler first began learning martial arts in 1992 at the age of 17. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan began a year later. She has trained with many top masters from all over the world, including the current Chen-style lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. She has also practised Qigong and another internal martial art, Bagua Zhang.
Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge