Can Tai Chi Be Used for Self-Defense (i.e. in a street situation)?

by | March 13, 2020

Can Tai Chi Chuan be used for Self-Defense in a street situation?

The truest answer I can give is Yes…and No.  Confused?  You won’t be after you finish reading this.  So, read on.

Let’s start with the first answer to that question: “Yes.”  Let’s enumerate the reasons why “Yes” would be an appropriate answer to the question: Can Tai Chi Chuan be used for Self-Defense in a street situation?

Yes” because:

  1. Tai chi cultivates a humility that offsets any arrogant need to prove oneself tough, badass, etc., therefore it makes walking away from a potential fight like choosing to walk down a gentle slope rather than climb down the cliff-face.
  2. Related to number 1… the calm, humble awareness cultivated by Tai Chi opens up the use of logic, and reasoning boosted with an intuitive awareness to help in the avoidance of potential or unnecessary conflict, or danger.
  3. This strengthened intuitive present-moment awareness increased though Tai Chi form practice, and especially through the two-person practice of push-hands cultivates a sensitivity and awareness to present moment danger.  With this heightened awareness you can avoid danger, even during an actual  fight.
  4. To avoid danger during an actual fight means to be sensitive to the movement and intention of one’s opponent(s) and thus respond accordingly to their actions.  Avoidance is often a standard response – your opponent cannot attack what isn’t there, either situationally (as in avoidance of a potentially dangerous situation ) or, positionally (bodily) wherein a strike from an opponent is avoided by moving the intended body target out of the immediate harm’s way.  One can do this by pocketing the body, stepping off-line, or even using  techniques like parrying a strike and redirecting its energy past you.  You could even add your own force to the redirected energy of an attack and unbalance your opponent. 
  5. The positional avoidance described above that allows one to avoid strikes, and attacks during a fight is due to the fluidity of movement that a dedicated Tai Chi practice grants.
  6. The movements of the Tai Chi form are martial in nature.  Some are obvious, such as the punches, kicks, and strikes; others are more subtle, such as the movements that can be interpreted as throws, or unbalancing techniques.  The potentially multiple purposes of each movement can be extrapolated with some reasoned thought, and dashes of creativity and imagination.

On the other hand I could answer with a “No” because:

  1. The practice of the techniques within the form are practiced much too slow.  Techniques need to be practiced at the speed they will be used in a Self-Defense situation and ideally with an actively resisting partner, that is, in a sparring situation.
  2. The 2 partner practice used within the Tai Chi curriculum that is called “ push hands” is too stylized, and therefore unrealistic to be considered sparring practice.  Push hands is more of a sensitivity and awareness training for two partners and not meant to be free-flow sparring… at least initially.  Eventually, after many, many years of practice, it does become a sort of free play sparring.  That brings me to my next point.
  3. It takes much too long for our Western sensibilities to develop sufficient awareness to benefit you in Self-Defense, or a street fight.
  4. My last remark about why Tai Chi would not be good for Self-Defense in a street fight is that no ground defense is taught at all.  I don’t necessarily believe that  you need to learn full-on grappling for street defense, but some basic knowledge on how to fall in a relatively controlled and safe manner, and what to do on the ground to inflict as much damage to your opponent as possible while trying to get to your feet (and how to get back to your feet without exposing your most vulnerable parts to attack, or control) would definitely be an asset.

So what is my final answer?  What is my conclusion for all the previous reasoned thoughts? The conclusion is :

Yes, Tai chi can be used for self-defense in a street fight, but it would take a hell of a long time of practice and study to get to that degree of skill.

Thus if time is at a premium (as it is for most of us), you’d be better served studying a martial art style (or mixed style) that can be learned to a sufficient degree of mastery to defend yourself in a street altercation that doesn’t require decades.  One that only requires, years, or for those styles that follow the Pareto principle of efficiency, only months.

Having said that, all the positive qualities that a practice of Tai Chi cultivates, such as: awareness, looseness, etc, can only make your existing marital art more effective and you, ultimately, a better person.