Tatsumi ryu and Tai Chi: A Comparison
One of our new prospective students expressed interest in starting Tai Chi and Tatsumi ryu at the same time, and this essay originated in an e-mail to give them some idea of the differences and similarities between the two arts so that, at least in theory, they would have some idea of what they were getting into. In the case of the two koryu I teach, I prefer people to do three years of practice in one before applying to do the other as well. However, while I appreciate the difficulties involved, I have allowed students to do Tai Chi concurrently with a koryu before the three year mark, because I believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. I have to admit I probably don’t seem entirely consistent in my approach. The main thing I hope to achieve in this essay is for potential applicants to gain an understanding of the distinguishing elements of the two styles. While I am specifically comparing Tatsumi ryu and Chen Style Tai Chi, much of what I have to say applies to most koryu and most styles of Tai Chi and perhaps, though to a lesser exent, to the other Chinese Internal Fighting Arts.
I’ll concentrate mainly on the technical side, and just briefly mention organisational differences. Tatsumi ryu is strongly centralised under the authority of a Headmaster. His word is law, and he is the only person who gives rank. In the case of Chen village Tai Chi, the consensus is that there are currently 4 “grandmasters:” Chen Xiaowang, Zhu Tiancai, Wang Xian, and Chen Zhenglei. So authority is dispersed, and there is no universally recognised ranking system. All four of the “grandmasters” trained together under the same teachers when they were young; indeed they are much the same age and grew up together, and are all related by blood to some extent. For example, Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei are first cousins.
First, both systems place a tremendous emphasis on postural training and natural body movement. Both have centuries of tradition behind them. Tatsumi ryu dates back to the early 1500s and Chen Tai Chi to aproximately 1600, if we accept Chen Wanting (1580 – 1660) as the founder of Chen style Tai Chi. If a fighting art is conscientiously trained in and passed down correctly, with positive input each generation, four or five hundred years should be enough time to see what works and what doesn’t, to acquire a tremendous body of combat related knowledge, and to sort out any problems.
Now to some differences. In Tatsumi ryu, you learn weapons right from the start. The training that has been passed down is for a hereditary warrior class which assumes you always carry a weapon as a matter of course. In Tai Chi, doing several years of unarmed training before progressing to weapons would not be considered unusual. Some people just don’t have the interest, and may be more interested on the health giving aspects of Tai Chi, and never take up the weapons at all. You actually have something similar in Tatsumi ryu with many students not training seriously in the yawara (CQC – Close Quarter Combat, not unarmed combat). Given that most people’s time is limited, they choose to concentrate on what they perceive as the core of their training.
Historically, the main aim in Tatsumi ryu is efficiency in actual mortal combat either on the battlefield, or in a duelling context. There are health benefits, but they are secondary, byproducts of the training, rather than an objective. The kind of combat Tai Chi is preparing you for is more civilian self-defense, defending yourself, you home and family, or the village.
In a word, Tatsumi ryu is more military, a true martial art, and Tai Chi is more of a civilian fighting art.
So the question is, if both styles emphasise posture, shouldn’t the body movement be more similar? It is a maxim of hoplology that morphology will dictate use. The central weapon of Tatsumi ryu is the sword which is used with both hands, and the fact that it is used asymmetrically explains why the Tatsumi body movement is different to Tai Chi.
Apart from iai practice, the main training method used in Tatsumi ryu is pair-work. The main way of training in Tai Chi is solo practice of the form. In Tai Chi, pair-work survives most typically in the “push hands” exercises. Sadly, all the weapons pair-work, which I would assume once existed and was practiced (there are references to “sticky spear”), is now lost. Most styles experience “bottle-necks” when they pass through hard times. This happened most recently in the case of Chen village Tai Chi due to the suppression of traditional fighting arts during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and Japan’s defeat in WWII and the subsequent occupation(1945 – 1952) in the case of Tatsumi ryu. However, I don’t want to get into that now, I’d like to concentrate on the technical side.
The way in which pair-work is conducted gives the koryu a unique and carefully graduated program which teaches students how to stay functional under stress. There is no equivalent program in Tai Chi.
“Get it right now” is a hallmark of koryu training and thinking. There is no tomorrow, just the present moment (the naka-ima). Tai Chi takes a long-term approach.
I will set this out in a table for ease of comparison.
|Tatsumi /Japanese Koryu||Tai Chi/CIFA|
|Aim||Victory on Battlefield or in duel||Self-defence or group survival|
|Training Methodology||Mostly pair practice||Mostly solo practice|
|Type of art||Military||Civilian fighting art|
|Expected opponent||Professional warrior||Civilian/Criminal/Bandit|
|Weapons/Unarmed||Emphasis on weapons||Emphasis on unarmed|
|Group||Solo to army size||Solo or small group|
|Physical Focus||On effective weapon use||On whole body movement|
|Posture||Based on sword use||Based on unarmed body use|
|Psychological aspect||Develops intent||Develops equanimity|
|Skill Acquisition||Immediate effect||Long term approach|
|Stress inoculation||Unique graduated program||No specific program|
|Admissions Policy||Selective||Open door|