Compliance vs. Aliveness in Tai Chi & Martial Arts

I recently got in a discussion with someone who had a strong emotional reaction related to considering degrees of “compliance” in a martial arts video.

Compliance, and its opposing concept of Aliveness are two critical factors in any martial art training. Indeed, both are required to earn progress when it comes to preparedness for real self defense and fighting. To understand each, obviously a good start is to define them.

[Compliance] vs Aliveness in Martial ArtsCompliance vs [Aliveness] in Martial Arts

Compliance in Martial Arts Training.

Compliance’s dictionary definition has to do with “complying” or doing “what you have been asked or ordered to do.”[1] In other words, someone in a state of compliance will be “fulfilling official requirements,” whether willfully as a response “to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen,” or against one’s will “to coercion.”[2]

To say it more simply: Compliance means someone is cooperating. It means they are going along with another’s will.

In martial arts training, especially very subtle arts like taijiquan, this is absolutely critical, because it is how we learn!

Every time your instructor gives you a correction, every time you’re manually adjusted into a more correct position, every time you feed a technique for an application, indeed even every time you are playing push hands, you are in varying degrees of states of compliance.

There is a mutual agreement as to what is going on. Both participants are engaged in the same general goal.

Again, especially in an art like taijiquan, this type of compliance is absolutely critical. To wit:

From familiarity with the correct touch,
one gradually comprehends chin [or jìn - 劲] (internal force),
from the comprehension of chin
one can reach wisdom.

-The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Translated & Edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo

Tai chi is one of those arts that literally must be taught “hands on.” You can’t learn it from books, you can’t learn it from DVDs, you can’t even learn it (correctly) via distance learning courses w/ ongoing video corrections. Due to some of its subtleties, you must literally feel it from someone who already has it, and learn directly via “the correct touch.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot that can be learned outside of touch, but for certain important milestones, hands on instruction is required. And for hands on instruction to work, Compliance is 100% necessary.

However, to achieve martial effectiveness, we also need something more. Namely…

Aliveness in Martial Arts Training.

Aliveness is a term coined / popularized by a Jeet Kune Do stylist, Matt Thornton. Even though I’ve shared it before in my article on “Hypnosis & Martial Arts Part 2 – Self-Delusion” … I’m going to share this most classic, brief, and simple explanation of Aliveness again here.

You only need to watch to the 0:29 mark to get a visual example of what Aliveness means.

To put it simply, Aliveness means non-compliance.

And, like most things in our world, Aliveness comes in varying degrees. The least Alive (most Compliant) training would be something like feeding a scripted punch for your opponent to practice executing a prescribed counter or technique, then going along with them (not resisting or countering at all), even if they messed up. The most Alive would be a violent encounter like a high octane street fight, or even close quarters military combat. There is no cooperation going on at all… both parties are trying to totally incapacitate (or kill) each other.

Some ideas of more Alive types of taijiquan training include things like: free sparring; wrestling / grappling; unscripted focus mitt work; certain types of push hands; moving target striking & dodging; and anything similar.

The point to an Alive training method is that each participant is less than cooperative. Since the hallmark of a real fight is that the opponent is completely uncooperative, this is obviously an absolutely critical training method to be prepared for any type of real “live” confrontation.

Contrast Between Compliant vs. Alive Training Examples

To see some contrast between what is a Compliant “training scenario” designed to help demonstrate a technique, and/or for the student to repeatedly train the technique to improve proficiency, I have shared one of my favorite Judo videos below.

Now, this video is nearly an hour in length, so obviously I am not expecting you will watch the whole thing… but that is the greatest part! The entire format of the video goes from showing a specific Judo technique in the dojo (or, the “lab” as I like to think of it), then showing multiple highlights of the technique being applied in high level Judo competitions.

While obviously a Judo match is not as alive as a military encounter (or even as an MMA fight) due to its rules to which both of the participants are Compliant… this still paints a very easy to understand picture of what things can look like in a controlled, Compliant setting, vs. applying the same exact technique & core concept against an equally skilled, totally unwilling opponent.

You can skip ahead to 1:18 to see the first technique demonstrated, then by only 1:36 you are into competition examples of the same technique at World Championship levels.

By watching this video, you do get a relatively one-dimensional idea of Alive vs. Compliant training, in that it’s all 100% Judo techniques & competitions. The most important reason I wanted to share it was as a demonstration of the enormous difference between following scripted patterns and trying to execute those same patterns on a fully resisting opponent.

I’ve found anytime similar completely Alive, non-Compliant tai chi videos get shared around the web, there will be a certain script that occurs, which I recently outlined in detail in my article on “Arguments Against Reality: Tai Chi Stereotypes.” If you feel yourself starting to object to the following videos, please have a look at that article to see whether your objection is listed as Type A, then consider if you have a more specific constructive objection (which I’d be happy to hear).

Non-Compliant, Fully Alive Tai Chi Videos

To start out with, I figured I might as well share the most embarassing and painful displays of Aliveness coming from a very famous tai chi video from 1954. If you don’t know the back story, this is a fight between two well known masters, Wu Gongyi (吳公儀) of Wu Style Taijiquan and Chen Kefu (or Chan Hak Fu – 陈克夫) of White Crane style kung fu (Pak Hok Pai). This was a major event for the kung fu world held in Macao, after the 53 year old Wu was challenged by a thirty-something Chen.

A bit more about the above fight:

The ring was set up as if for a Western boxing match, and there were many rules prohibiting various techniques being used by the fighters; kicks, throws or joint locks, for example. The contest lasted not quite two rounds. During the second round, the judges ended the fight, declaring the contest a draw. This was done to ensure that there was no loss of face to either party. Both Wu and Ch’en invited the opposing sides to celebratory banquets. The contest was reported in detail by the media of the day, and resulted in many new students for the Wu family school, including a martial art teaching contract for Wu Ta-k’uei from the Kowloon police.[3]

The last sentence is a bit surprising to me, but let’s just skip it & move on.

This next video is pretty interesting, and has gotten a lot of circulation around Youtube. The reason I’ve posted it here are the scenes from the “Fight Division” at the tournament in which the two profiled competitors participated.

Specifically, check out:

  • 1:13 – 1:56 (for Sam Masich, who says in the interview this was his first time entering the “fighting division”);
  • 2:08 – 2:28 (for Christophe Clarke)
  • 2:38 – 2:59 (for a mix of both)

As you can see from the video’s title, this took place back in 1988, and today both of these competitors have gone on to do great things in the internal martial arts world. For more info of who they are and what they’ve done, check out Sam Masich tai chi and Christophe Clarke tai chi.

Finally, here’s a highlight video from (as far as I know) the only person who’s claimed tai chi as their style fighting in the UFC: Nick Osipczak.

Of course, everyone will need to make their own decisions as to the level of prowess displayed in all the above videos… as well as whether one believes they are indeed “real tai chi” or not. For me personally, I have nothing but respect for everyone in the above videos, if for no other reason than they actual got in there and fought.

If you feel yourself making any types of nonconstructive criticisms mentioned in the “Arguments Against Reality” please take a moment to pause, and consider the last time you were in a full contact fight (and what that looked like). Also, when it comes to the common “that’s not real tai chi” complaint, unless you have video of the Yang family fighting, it would be hard to say that Wu Kung-yi (from the first video) is not as “real” of a representative as it gets. I’ve heard both fighters in that first video made significant changes to their training regimens after that fight, creating major improvements.

For those of you who feel the call, I highly encourage tai chi fighters to take that leap and enter full contact competitions. Regardless of your feelings on their rules, it is one of the safest environments to test your skills & development, and to discover holes in your game which you can work to improve in your training.

To conclude, I’d like to reiterate my utmost support for any and all taijiquan practitioners who are keeping significant Aliveness in your training.

Because without it, your martial art might end up “dead.”

1 comment to Compliance vs. Aliveness in Tai Chi & Martial Arts

  • Great article, the 1988 tournament was spectacular! It’s one of the few times where I can see the application of kung fu in a free form fight and the competitors actually using the skills they were taught. Many tournament fights (that I have been in or watched) can get pretty sloppy, so it’s great to such skill demonstrated like that.

    I use both both techniques to teach. It’s hard for beginners to be put in an “alive” training scenario when they have no skills. As my students progress, I loosen up the training drills slowly giving them opportunities for quicker responses and uncontrolled patterns until they are ready to spar. It usually beginners only takes a few weeks or months to get that point. Then I slowly introducing sparring and speed up the sparring technique drills where it could be considered “alive”. Most sparring matches, tournament fights or real fights are fast and leave little to no room for fancy techniques, so I usually don’t emphasize those. I try to keep it simple and try simulate what happens in actual fight or tournament match, so they can get used to the chaotic nature of a real fight.

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