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Apparent Closure:  Sister Arts, Divergent Paths

Volume 1 Number 2
Summer 2000

By Erik Vogle

In three short decades, Taijiquan and its sister art of Chinese medicine have become ubiquitous in the mainstream of North American culture. One can get acupuncture or herbs at the doctor's office, and then go off to the gym to take a Taijiquan class. However, the two fields have evolved in slightly different manners. While they originated in the same place, and have been practiced and promoted by some of the same people, their growth here has been influenced by distinct groups of Chinese immigrants.

Chinese medicine came to North America with Chinese workers in the 1800's. It remained localized in Chinese communities for the next one hundred years. When the Communists took over Mainland China in 1949, many refugees, including Taijiquan and medical practitioners, escaped and made their way to overseas Chinese communities. By the mid-1960's, the growth of the counter-culture movement in North America had generated much interest in Eastern disciplines, and both of these arts grew in popularity among non-Chinese. Teachers were steeped in Chinese culture and customs, including the use of family lineage and apprenticeship to transmit teachings, and they quite naturally continued to use those models with their Western students. Many of their students, sometimes in collaboration with them, went on to set up schools and clinics.

It wasn't until after American president Richard Nixon visited the PRC in 1972 and relations between the two countries became normalized that Taijiquan and Chinese medicine began to enter mainstream Western society. Not long after this, a wave of students and scholars came from the PRC for graduate educations; among them were numbers of Chinese medical doctors and researchers. This group had been trained in a Marxist-Maoist, state-regulated, homogenized method of Chinese medicine. This system intentionally cast aside family traditions, eclecticism, and the more spiritual and mystical aspects that had previously characterized Chinese medicine. These people arrived in the US and Canada and were quickly hired by the still-new schools of Chinese medicine which were experiencing rapid growth and were looking for teachers. It is quite natural, then, that the PRC approach, with only a few exceptions, came to dominate Western schools of Chinese medicine, and then, in turn, became the foundation for the content of regulatory exams.

Taijiquan in the PRC similarly fell under government regulation. A state-sponsored amalgamated and "simplified" form was developed, and family lineages were repressed. In the US and Canada, however, Taijiquan, in contrast to Chinese medicine, remained solidly eclectic, and, as a basically innocuous activity, never needed regulation. Family lineages and their offshoots have remained at the forefront of Taijiquan teaching here, largely because teaching was solidly dominated by the earlier refugees and immigrants. Building a reputation and gaining a following takes time, so these early traditionally minded teachers were firmly established by the time PRC immigrants came and began teaching the simplified Taijiquan form. Taijiquan, often of the traditional type for the same reasons outlined here, is required at most North American schools of Chinese medicine. Ironically, for many of their students, this provides some of the little contact that they will have with any type of traditional Chinese lineage.

While we can be happy that these two arts have become so well accepted in North America, it is unfortunate that so much of the variety of Chinese medicine has been lost. Perhaps the eclecticism of Taijiquan can serve as a model for Chinese medicine's future, one that will allow for digging back into its roots and recovering lost traditions.

Erik Vogle has studied Taijiquan, Chinese massage, and qigong.
He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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