Is T’ai-chi Ch’uan Compatible with being Christian?


By Donald Verwayen



The reason is that t'ai-chi ch'uan is secular as this paper hopes to show. While many churches offer or rent space for t’ai-chi classes, including the National Cathedral, some Christian groups question whether t’ai-chi is compatible with Christianity and some even go far as to demonize it. This negative attitude is disturbing to those who enjoy t’ai-chi, and is perhaps unfounded and based on misconceptions, even racism. Christian attacks on t’ai-chi would seem to be counterproductive and hampering to its success in East Asian countries at a time when China, for example, will soon have the largest population of Christians of any country in the world.  This paper is directed at those who might have concerns, and hopefully it will temper criticism of t’ai-chi and help keep church venues open.  The paper will look at what t’ai-chi is in terms of physical practice, mental practice, Neo-Confucian philosophy, and also at t’ai-chi’s secular identity in modern China. Accusations of the use of tutelary spirits will be addressed.   Also, the Ch’i (qi) Hypothesis will be discussed in terms of the confusion it has led to.  That some Christian theologians identify the Holy Spirit with Ch’i will be mentioned. Ch’i Gung, and acupuncture will also be addressed.  The arguments made here may well apply to Chinese Martial Arts in general, but for the sake of brevity only t’ai-chi is taken up in this discussion.


It cannot be ignored that the objections to t’ai-chi ch’uan to some degree are a lingering vestige of colonial ethnocentrism.  Many scholars, both eastern and western, are presently involved in the process of decolonizing  attitudes that held Western Culture, clothing, institutions, and medical practices superior to those of Asia. Rejecting a core and popular Asian cultural tradition, such as t’ai-chi, may offend Asians drawn to Christianity and may also deprive western Christians, who believe these objections, of the potential health benefits of t’ai-chi practice. 


T’ai-chi terminology can be confusing.  Common western usage for the art is t’ai-chi ch’uan.  An apt translation of t’ai-chi is “grand terminus” (Brennan 2017).  Brennan’s translations are particularly helpful in terms of t’ai-chi ch’uan theory.  T’ai-chi also is translated as “supreme ultimate”.  In any case, t’ai-chi refers to a philosophy most notably expounded by Neo-Confucianist, Chow Tun-i (Zhou Dunyi).  Ch’uan is translated as “fist” or boxing.  So, t’ai-chi ch’uan (太 極拳)translates more or less as “grand terminus boxing”.  Ch’i () is a different word altogether, usually translated as energy. I use either pinyin or Wade-Giles Romanization on the basis of which I perceive to be more common in North America.



Physical aspects

Some understanding of t’ai-chi is necessary to address the issue of Christian compatibility. T’ai-chi is a slow moving exercise through a series of figures derived from the Chinese Martial Arts.  Students are taught song, an onomatopoetic word often said to mean relax or release while maintaining structure.  When sounded out while exhaling the word can make a bell-like sound. All the movements in t’ai-chi are generated through the whole body either pushing the ground with a foot or the feet and generating through the body an upward or sometimes sideward force, or relaxing enough to let gravity drive an inward or downward force or absorb an incoming force.  The Chinese somewhat poetically call using these natural forces ‘Heaven’ (pushing up) and ‘Earth’ (using gravity to push or move down).


Out of this relaxation and upward ground force and/or gravity, a sudden force can be generated called fajin, which is the martial application of many of the t’ai-chi figures.  “When the fajin is released from the body, all of the joints in the upper and lower limbs shift from flexion to extension” (Chang, Chang and Huang 2014:218).  There is no magic here, only the results of centuries of deep study by Chinese martial artists. Recently, these ways of developing movements have been studied scientifically (Chan, Luk and Hong 2003; Chang, Chang and Huang 2014a; Chang, Chang and Huang 2014b; Chen 1986 Chen; Cheng and Liu 2010; Nien 2003, 2004; Wang 2013).  Another important physical aspect of t’ai-chi is the tan t’ien, a muscle plexus involving the abdominal area and the lower back.  Tightening and releasing these muscles almost in a rotational manner is the driving force behind fajin. The tan t’ien has been associated with chakra-type energy fields described in yoga and Taoism. Dispelling this metaphysical attribution is the topic of this brief essay as a whole, so it will not be gone into further here.  Simply though, the tan t’ien is best understood initially as core strength. To speak of the mental aspects of t’ai-chi, it will be necessary to touch on the concept of the Six Harmonies that guide t’ai-chi and other internal-style martial arts. 


Mental aspects

An accessible introduction to this topic is provided by internal-style martial art researcher, Mike Sigman:

The Six Harmonies are the Three Internal Harmonies (Nei, San, He) and the Three External Harmonies (Wai, San, He). The Three External Harmonies are basically saying that if your body is connected together as a whole (think of a human-body-shaped balloon with the elastic skin connecting everything), when you twist your leg parts (ankle, knee, hip), the twist will be conveyed through the elastic skin of the balloon-body so that the twist also affects the arm parts (shoulder, elbow, ankle) because they are all interconnected…  [2018]

The Three External Harmonies are referred to in above paragraphs under the physical aspects of t’ai-chi as far as the scope of this paper allows.  The Three Internal Harmonies introduces the concept of ch’i.   The nature and origin of ch’i is for many the issue upon which Christian compatibility turns.


The subconscious adjustments (ch’i) are very effective.  Consider a winter camping trip using cross-country skies.  To take such a trip you would already be able to cross-country ski, snowplow, stem christie, and even telemark turns, perhaps.   Now you throw on a 45 lb pack and the body subconsciously, almost immediately readjusts the alignment center of gravity, so you can ski as you normally do.  Ch’i, as understood in t’ai-chi, is this alignment process, a phenomenal process, if one considers what is happening.


For a sense of ch’i, stand erect and imagine a wind of various velocities blowing toward the front of your body.  Do the same imagining the wind coming from the back or sides.  If one is relaxed (song), the body adjusts its center of gravity and moves slightly (Sigman 2018). The Three Harmonies are the mind, imaging the wind, the ch’i adjusting the axis of the body, and the movement in reaction to the countervailing force.  The adjustments are ch’i.  Ch’i is normally subconscious, but the practice of using the mind makes ch’i more conscious. 



Philosophical aspects

Where do concepts that t’ai-chi instructors might mention such a wuchi, or yin and yang come from?  Much comes from Neo-Confucianism, in particular Chow Tun-i from his treatise on what has come to be known as the t’ai-chi Symbol, An Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate.  When I first heard this from t’ai-chi instructors back in the 1970s, I was surprised.  I as many thought that t’ai-chi was a Taoist tradition.  I did not want it to be based on the almost secular cosmology of Chow Tun-i. I wanted, at that time, for it to have the mystery of Taoism.  Yet my original teacher Li Li-Ta, an educated man, stated clearly that the origins were Neo-Confucian.  Li was from Shanghai, a formal student of Wu Kung-i, but he practiced push hands with many of the Wu and Yang greats so he was familiar with the thinking of T’ai-chi proponents at that time.  I believe the oral tradition concerning Chow Tun-i is accurate. The 1970s were only 40 or 50 years after the founding of the major schools, except the original Chen style. The founders of Wu and Yang styles, in the milieu of Shanghai, would in all probability not have been misinformed about Chow’s contribution.


More important, if one reviews the t’ai-chi classics; Chow Tun-i’s influence becomes evident. Fortunately, it is not difficult to review t’ai-chi’s literature, because the written part of the tradition is limited and does not go back far (Wile 1996).  According to Chen Zhenmin and t’ai-chi master, Ma Yueliang (1935),From the internal school, t’ai-chi boxing is the most well known system, and because it began relatively late and has a relatively short history, it therefore has a lineage which is comparatively clear.”  Chen Yanlin (1943) explains  It [t’ai-chi  ch’uan] has a Confucian mentality” and   despite claims of antiquity, t’ai-chi ch’uan was developed by the Chen family, in Chen Village, Henan province no earlier than the eighteenth century.


Chow Tun-i’s ideas are repeated throughout the various t’ai-chi classics.  The term t’ai-chi, the name of the exercise, is taken from Chow. It was Chow who first presented the t’ai-chi diagram as we know it.  There are versions of similar symbols found on pottery deep into antiquity, but not the same symbol  The conceptual origins of the symbol is often traced to the I-ching, but you will not find Chow’s image there. By the way the I-ching, because of its antiquity cannot be said to be either Confucianist or Taoist.  Below is Chow’s, “An Explanation of the Diagram [the t’ai-chi symbol] of the Great Ultimate”, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1973:463):



The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi)!  The Great Ultimate through movement generates yang.  When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil.  Through tranquility the Great Ultimate generates yin.  When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again.  So movement and tranquility alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established.

Compare the above to an excerpt below from one of the important and earliest of the 100 or so classics:  

Taiji [“grand polarity”] is born of wuji [“nonpolarity”], and is the mother of yin and yang [the passive and active aspects]. When there is movement, they [passive and active] become distinct from each other. When there is stillness, they return to being indistinguishable. [Wang 1881]

The above is from one of the Salt Shop Manuals discovered in the late 1800s.  It has been attributed to the legendary Wang Zongyue, though probably written no earlier than the nineteenth-century (Wiki 2017a; Wile 1996).


A review of the T’ai-chi classics shows the strong link to Chow Tun-i especially to t’ai-chi movement theory. Chow’s emergence of yin and yang out of chaos is in a sense proto science as there are in fact male and female, positive and negative and so on.  There is also mention of the Tao Te ching in the classics, but as the origins of t’ai-chi are obscure, it cannot be said definitively how influenced t’ai-chi is by Taoism.   These days the popular notion is that t’ai-chi is Taoist, a headwind difficult to overcome.  The bottom line is concepts such as yin and yang and wuji were secular enough to be used by the Marxists when translating foreign concepts such as dialectic and syntheses.

Secular identity of t’ai-chi

It helps to recognize that already in nineteenth-century China, there were western medical schools, engineering schools, and universities.  China was not behind a veil of mystery, although many thought China was. Westerners in the late twentieth-century suffered from what has been referred to as representationalism that is they projected on the reality of China something along the lines a magical world of t’ai-chi sages. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it is important to apply Edward Said’s concept of representationalism to China.  Edward Said originally developed the concept to help decolonize the western view of Egypt.


What was going on in China was nothing like the representation in the minds of many who took up t’ai-chi in the 1970s and later. Since the 1920s, in an effort to combat the “sick man of Asia” appellation, leading teachers of the major branches of t’ai-chi ch’uan organized associations such as the Martial Arts Institute c. 1928 in Nanjing and the Physical Education Research Society c.1920 in Shanghai (Xiang 1936; Xu 1927).  To raise money for charity, Masters Yang Cheng-fu and Wu Chien-ch’uan, dressed in traditional robes, engaged in a pushing hands exhibition, which is reported to have been a memorable display of mutual skill.  In 1935, Wu Chien-ch’uan had the major book on his style of t’ai-chi published by the Health Society Magazine (Chen and Ma 1935), a secular approach. In the same year he founded the Chien-ch’uan T’ai-chi Ch’uan Association and located his school on the ninth floor of the Shanghai YMCA. Later, in the next decades, under communist rule, t’ai-chi ch’uan was further secularized and also de-feudalized eliminating any elitist or secret aspects and of course any possible religious aspects.


Supernatural  claims

Some western t’ai-chi practitioners have tried to make t’ai-chi ch’uan more mysterious.  They have associated t’ai-chi with ideas of Taoist folk magic and alchemy, not recognizing how secular t’ai-chi actually was.  Taoist magic does exist in Asia, but much more of Taoism is philosophical in nature.  Of course all Chinese and East Asian culture has been flavored to some extent by Taoism.  Again, there is no reason why t’ai-chi cannot be practiced independent of folk Taoism.  Consider that all Western Culture including Judaism and Christianity has been influenced by ancient Greek thought,  Yet, one can study Greek philosophy without accepting the Greek pantheon of gods. I think it is similar with Taoism.


In some cases, t’ai-chi instructors in videos have suggested that t’ai-chi brings about what seem to be supernatural powers.  Most commonly, these involve demonstrations of fajin, the ability to send or bounce someone away during two person pushing hands practice.  When westerners do this, it is different than when Chinese do it. These westerners might be accused of deception from the perspective of the western view of truth, established in the Greco-Roman philosophic traditions.  In the case of, for instance,  the videos of Master Ma Yueliang, at age 80 and 90, where the students are overly cooperative; it is the Chinese cultural tradition of Social Harmony that is at play, to the Chinese more important than the western value of truth.  The old are protected in their place and their position is not disrupted.  No young Chinese student is going cause a 90-year old master to lose face.  Still in the videos we can see that in the set up for these fajin demonstrations, Ma is exhibiting excellent technique, even though the students may exaggerate the effect.


 Some have attributed t’ai-chi skills to reliance on tutelary spirits interpreted by critics as demonic forces.  Recent books on t’ai-chi speak of spirits.  From their perspective t’ai-chi ch’uan is a subset of magical Taoism.  They speak of several t’ai-chi forms such as White Crane Spreads its Wings where the crane spirit is to be invoked. Of course, some Asians may believe that there are spirits but not wish to invoke them for any reason, similarly with Christians. The possibility of tutelary spirits appears rather recently in the t’ai-chi literature and in a lesser level of literature.


T’ai-chi ch’uan is unique among Chinese martial arts systems in possessing an extensive literature. For many years, this literature has allowed t’ai-chi students to judge the accuracy of what they are being taught. Translations of the t’ai-chi Classics can be found on line at Brennan Translation,, and at other places as well. Paul Brennan includes not only the t’ai-chi Classics but also an extensive t’ai-chi literature including that of some other internal-boxing schools.  An approach to the question is to review the t’ai-chi Classics and to see for you if contact with spirits is part of the t’ai-chi ch’uan tradition.  I think you will find that evoking spirits is absent from the classical literature, most of which was written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Besides those promoting tutelary spirits to attract students, the actual literature is fairly tame in this regard.  Xu Zhiyi (1927), in t’ai-chi boxing, “the magic lies in making adjustments based on being receptive to the opponent. It basically comes down to this principle, but for those who do not practice this art, such words may seem mystical” (from the Thirteen Dynamics Song).


Also misleading is the attribution of the origin of t’ai-chi to Taoist priest Chen Sang-Fen and also Wang Zongyue.  Even the Wu family does this (Chen and Ma 1935). There is no evidence for these early attributions (Wikipedia 2017a & c; Wile 1996) and analysis of the material shows that it was almost certainly written in the nineteenth century.


Based on the first sentence in Li I-yu’s “Short Preface to T’ai-chi ch’uan,’ which states, “The Creator of t’ai-chi ch’uan is unknown,” Hsu Chen concluded that the source of Chang San-feng’s association with t’ai-chi must have been Yang family partisans no earlier than the Kuang-hsu reign (1875-1904) of the Ch’ing dynasty.  [Hsu Chen’s T’ai-chi ch’uan yen-chiu cited in Wile 1996:108]



These false early attributions were maybe an effort to root t’ai-chi earlier in Chinese culture, but most likely are only a lack of academic rigor by twentieth-century writers.


Ch’I hypothesis

Besides intentionally misleading assertions, perhaps an even greater source of confusion is the unintentional influence of the Ch’i Hypothesis suggested by Sigman (2018).  Early on, ch’i was hypothesized by the Chinese and other Asians to explain the nature of human life, as a kind of underlying energy. The hypothesis is applied to spiritual forces, ch’i gung, and acupuncture among other subjects.  As it is only hypothesized, the force of a hypothesis does not make it necessary that the hypothesized ch’i is the same in all the various disciplines that use the term, and this has caused confusion. I think it has already been shown that ch’i in t’ai-chi is a handy term for skeletal, musculature, and nervous system movements practiced in t’ai-chi.  Ch’i is understood differently in theology, ch’i gung, and acupuncture for example.

Ch’i and the Holy Spirit

Some theologians compare ch’i with the Holly Spirit (Lee 2013; Yun 2012).   

At a basic level, there are the problems of how to translate Judeo-Christian concepts into East Asian languages. Early translations of the Book of John use the term Tao for word or logos, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. “   More pertinent, the major problem is that it is difficult to discuss the Holy Spirit without using the term, ch’i.  However, these theologians argue more than that it is difficult to translate the term. They argue that at least one type of ch’i experienced in, for want of a better term, meditative prayer is in fact the Holy Spirit.  They reason that if there were not revelations by the Holy Spirit in other parts of the world, such as East Asia, God would have to be considered a racist.  Lee Hyo-Dong (2013) suggests that some of the colonizing western Christians even lacked  understanding of certain aspects of the Holy Spirit.   Yun  Koo Dong (2012) discuses commonalities in the terms associated with the Holy Spirit and ch’i in concepts of breath. Pneumatology, the Christian study of the Holy Spirit is one such term coming from the Greek for wind, air, spirit.  Part of their argument is that the antipathy toward the Holy Spirit manifesting as form of Ch’i is an artifact of colonization as already mentioned above.  I leave the theological issue for others, but they point out the need for a rapprochement from the West and how the acceptance of t’ai-chi is a very small step in this direction.


Ch’i Gung (qigong)

The term ch’i gung for internal exercises did not appear until the Communist regime organized these practices in the 1950s (Wikipedia 2017b).  For a while, there was repression of the various ch’i gungs during the Chinese Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976).   All this occurs in a very secular society as China has been since communist rule in 1950.  Post 1976 revival was under the auspices of a quintessential secular society. T’ai-chi was included under ch’i gung as a catch-all category for any of these types of discipline with various understandings or assertions about ch’i.  One cannot make analogies back and forth between practices so recently and arbitrarily grouped together. 



Acupuncture is a part of Chinese traditional medicine familiar to westerners.  It is asserted that an energy called ch’i can be manipulated affecting the course of its flow along meridian pathways in the body.  This ch’i seems different again from the ch’i in t’ai-chi, albeit a cousin of some kind and there are conceptual cross-overs. Nowadays, in the East and generally in the West acupuncture is considered an allied health profession. There have been what are probably misplaced, but not generally accepted, biblical assaults on acupuncture.   Acupuncture and ch’i have been debated among Christians (Johnson 1999; Kline 1988; Miller 1992).  Christian health counselor, Monte Kline who has a positive attitude toward energy healing has been criticized by Eliot Miller who cites verses, Deut. 18:11; 2 Cor. 11:14;  2 Thess. 5:22; 2 Thess. 2:7-9.  These verses are said to warn of Satan, but according to Philip Johnson, they may more accurately refer to false prophets.  Johnson explains, “Since it is a spiritual source, and the originators of the techniques were not Christian, it is argued that Satan must be deceiving people.”  A biblical argument could be made that if ch’i is part of the natural world, then it is probably part of the dominion given to mankind in Gen. 1:28.  Studies shows that acupuncture affects endocrine and other levels and processes in the human body (Ahsin et al 2009; Han 2007; Omuro 1976) and such studies suggest that ch’i should be considered as of this world.   Therefore, as part of this world ch’i would be subject to man and are not demonic in origin.


In conclusion, the theme of this paper is that t’ai-chi can be done as a secular exercise within the parameters discussed above or it can be easily adapted to the secular.    Also, evidence has been provided that ch’i in t’ai-chi is physical and natural and that accusations of the demonic are unfounded.  I think churches should allow t’ai-chi classes and hopefully this paper will reduce or undue criticism. In fact, decolonizing t’ai-chi ch’uan would also be a benefit to Christianity by helping to make Christianity more accessible to East Asians, without forcing them to abandon portions of their cultural context, especially those related to health-promoting practices.   This subject is vast, and nuanced, but perhaps the information here is helpful in promoting t’ai-chi and that people will not be unnecessarily barred from the exercise and health benefits of t’ai-chi, a harmless practice.





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[Donald Verwayen has practiced Taiji for 50 years and has had a career in archaeology.]