How to Recognise a Good TaiChi Teacher
(copyright 2004 Malisa & Bernard Ng Williams)

Learning TaiChi is an investment, an investment in your life. As is usually the case with precious investments you will want to do your homework in order to make your best possible choice. You know that if you don't do your homework and make a fully informed decision then you may well later discover that you have got poor returns on your investment at best and wasted considerable time and effort at worst.

This is a difficult topic and their are no sure fire answers. But from our own experience and reflection we have some guidelines/checklist that may help you come to a decision.

What is "good"?
But first up what do you mean by a "good" teacher (or Sifu or Master) anyway? Here we presume you are a beginner and you mean that you want a teacher/club with depth. You want to know (even if you don't always rise to the challenge) that you won't exhaust your teacher's skill and learning in a few short years but will still be learning and advancing efficiently.

Presumably you are interested in Traditional Chinese TaiChi. By that we don't mean "old fashioned" but rather you want to learn the complete Art Form with both its external and deeper internal skills and teaching. Presumably you realise there are many, simplified "externalised" versions of TaiChi (even sometimes Chen style) - recognised by either their "stiffness" or "hardness" or attention only to outward movements/position alone.

We also take the approach that a good TaiChi teacher needs two very different attributes: he must have a minimum of TaiChi skills, principles and theory; but even more importantly must know how to communicate these skills in a practical fashion.

Teaching as a separate skill from Martial Arts skill.
Good teaching skills (either through sheer talent or long experience of what works) are not common in TaiChi teachers. Many teachers/Masters who are gifted in Martial Arts skills are not so good here.

These poorer teaching methods sometimes rely on farming community based "master/slave", "fountain/cup" models of authority and learning which are not readily helpful to intelligent, busy urban, Western minds. Many European teachers un-critically adopt these less helpful teaching styles.

A teacher with a good teaching method will have the imagination, confidence and familiarity with the TaiChi principles to adapt his method to whatever works in changing times - and times have certainly changed from the rural communities where TaiChi grew up.

Beginners may not have a lot of choice available in local TaiChi teachers/clubs. Be aware that if you consider yourself "modern" then traditional teaching methods and ethos in your chosen club can make it harder for you to keep up the enthusiasm needed to become a "self-starter."

Good Teaching method:
A teacher with a good teaching method recognises that different students learn in different ways. "One size fits all" might be ok for many students in the class but by no means all. This is an understandably easy way to teach but a good teacher makes the extra effort to go further. In time a good teacher will start relating to his students as unique individuals. He will use his imagination and teaching experience to discover the best way to advance each student.

Asian Teachers:
European students tend to prefer Asian teachers as they assume that their Chinese cultural heritage puts them in closer contact with the world of TaiChi (via language, opportunity and personal contacts). This is generally true.

Yet when it comes to actually learning from these "better resourced" Asian teachers this advantage can disadvantage European students. Many Chinese teachers possess English only as a second language. It can be difficult to accurately communicate the subtleties of TaiChi's principles and theory in a way that makes good, easy sense to the modern European mind (which thinks very differently). The problem is more than a just a matter of words - it is also about whole systems of thought.

While learning is of course possible, do realise it may be slower, clumsy, fragile and in constant need of re-assessment with later experience. This is not too important for beginners but as one's skill grows it becomes more of a concern. It will be helpful to "cross check" your learning against other sources (books, bilingual Chinese friends, other Asian teachers) to ensure you really have grasped the teaching. A teacher who uses a lot of "body language" overcomes a lot of these obstacles. Keep in mind that any learning is confusing to start with - even when teacher and beginner share the same culture and language.

European Teachers:
If your teacher is European you must realise that he probably learnt from an Asian Master. This is especially true of Chen style TaiChi which has been kept as a relatively secret art even in China. Public teaching only really started in Bejing from the early 1930s. The spread to Western countries has been even slower, probably only since the 1980s.

If you are European then a good European teacher may be able to communicate and explain much better - especially as he will have been through exactly what you are going through but with more difficulty due to the language barrier. Hopefully he will have had time to work out and adapt Chinese concepts and systems of thought in a manner that makes sense to Westerners yet is true to the original.

Yet, even here, be aware of the difficulties. Jumping cultures is not easy. There is a story that some publishers wanted to have "The Grapes of Wrath" (a European modern classic novel) translated for the Japanese market. This was duly done but as it was such a classic novel they wanted to check the translation. To this end they had the novel re-translated by another translator back into English. They then sat down and began reading the re-translation. The title instantly said it all. The novel was now called "The Angry Raisons."

Sometimes European teachers, enthusiastic and knowledgable though they appear, have a simplistic view of what they have learnt from the East. An appeal to vague, almost magical descriptions of TaiChi concepts (eg "Chi") may indicate that imagination is filling in the gaps between facts.Good teaching will be exotic (ie unfamiliar as it is "imported") but should not be "New Age". Take it "with a grain of salt" and, as above, be mindful of the need to "cross check" and autheticate things for yourself. This is not easy and will take time.

Multi Discipline Teachers/Clubs:
Some teachers/clubs offer teaching in a wide range of Martial Arts disciplines. You will need to be more careful than usual in considering these teachers.

Often Masters have a wide range of skills and it is not unusual to find practicioners of the hard External Martial Arts (eg TaeKwanDo, Karate) later taking up "soft" Internal Martial Arts like TaiChi. There are probably a number of reasons for this.

Those who dedicate themselves to external arts, or start young, face two difficulties with time: cumulative damage to the body and loss of peak skills with age. This does not impair teaching ability but can be an incentive to consider other Martial Arts they previously ignored. These martial arts of renewed interest tend to be those that rely on deeper skills/training for their effectiveness rather than raw speed, strength and bodily performance. This of course is exactly what the Internal Martial Arts are about.

Also, as the Internal Arts seem to have a higher cultural status in Chinese society (possibly due to historical association with the leisured, noble class) having TaiChi in one's reportoire is a very good look indeed.

The consideration for the beginner here is how expert can such a multi-disciplined teacher really be? Chen style TaiChi has very different principles from the External Arts. The outward Form can be learnt relatively quickly by those with previous martial Arts experience. However understanding and skill in the "internal form" is a completely new learning curve and it takes many years to gain both understanding and proficiency. TaiChi's martial prowess is founded on "soft" (ie relaxation) principles which are contrary to those hard skills largely required in the External Arts. Therefore it is very diffilcult to make good progress in traditional TaiChi while still teaching and practicing an External Art.

It would be a rare and gifted person who can attain a high level of skill in traditional TaiChi while still practising and teaching his original external martial art as well.

Isolation from opportunities for critique of oneself is a great danger in any endeavour regardless of how talented one may be. This loss of contact with one's peers, with the "real world," allows a teacher's own weaknesses, imperfections, and lack of knowledge and experience (no matter how small they may be) to grow like weeds unchecked. At best this can lead to idiosynchroses/eccentricities in your teacher's form and teaching - at worst downright abberations.

These deficiencies will be amplified many times in the unwary students themselves by reason of the "xerox squared" law (you know, photocopy of a photocopy etc)! Such bad learning in oneself can be very hard to discover and even unlearn later down the track.

A good Master will have "checks" in place as a foil to these isolationist tendencies that pride tempts us all to. Such things as open and willing participation in demonstrations, TaiChi associations, conventions, collaborative teaching, visiting teachers, updates, attending overseas workshops, study, videos etc all help to keep things in check. It is also good for students to be involved in similar events and competitions.

A good teacher will also regularly correct his students in a matter of fact, friendly manner. Beginners and advanced alike should be open to such timely advice, even from ones peers. On the road of learning there is much to be gained from helping each other whatever one's level of attainment.

There is always a tendency in clubs to compare oneself with similar clubs, styles and practicioners - usually to the advantage of the one comparing! This is a good thing as it means one is very committed to attaining a high level of competence and probably has the talent for it. However excessive critique of "others" (along with excessive adulation of one's own teacher) is often a sign that such a person/club has strong isolationist tendancies that still need to be worked on.

Teachers will always have imperfections in whatever they teach and practice. Beginners must be aware that this is so both in their own teacher and later, in themselves. The important thing is to choose a teacher/club that has a healthy spirit of openness. One can still learn from a more "isolationist" club but go in with your eyes open and realise that you yourself must put in the spadework to discover where the weaknesses are so that you can correct them for yourself with assistance from auxiliary learning resources. If the club teaching is just too eccentric and there is no healthy spirit of openness then it may be better to find a "lesser" club with more openness.

Principles for Recognising a good teacher:
When you know nothing (or next to nothing) about a new undertaking, as in most spheres of life, Authority, Reason and Experience are probably your best and only "guides" Each of these has its own weaknesses and strengths so good choices come from being alert to the weaknesses of each approach. Obviously a decision that is based on all three of these guides has the best chance of being successful.

Authority: This encompasses such considerations as your proposed teacher's credentials, his lineage, his reputation, his association with others of high reputation, publications, size of the club, what his own students think of him, what his former students have to say and so on. For example, with respect to lineage, a long time student of one of the "Four Tigers" could be expected to have something to offer.

The problem with decisions based simply on "authority" are that, like the stock market, simply the act of (many morons) having confidence in something can make it so (at least for a short time) - even though the value is not really there! Club members are unlikely to say or believe that their Sifu is below average or should retire. Past club members may well have a grudge and could be equally subjective in their negative opinions. Many trained under "Chen Fake" (a Master of great repute) - some are bound to be third-rate, many to be average. Lineage isn't an iron-clad guarantee of a quality teacher. Be aware also that many self-made claims "fudge" the truth. For example, a claim to be a "disciple" of a great Master may mean no more than an intensive 4week course at Chen Village twice in three years with a large group of participants.

Reason: This is where you have the emotional and intellectual strength to observe, to enquire, to ask questions - and then stand on your own two feet in thinking out the logical conclusions that you come to.

Take a few lessons (they are usually free). Are the students happy, can you relate to the senior tutors (they usually reflect the attitudes of Sifu), can you relate to the teaching method? Do the students who have been there for 12 months or more look like they are getting the hang of it and progressing? Are their movements becoming more fluid and flowing, less wooden and stiif? Is everyone helped according to their ability or are there favourites who soak up the teaching time. Do students receive occassional and regular correction/feedback on their our own form?

Does the Club appear to be interested in quality teaching (theory, applications, practice)? Is it about both internal and external form or does it seem to be more about an exotic and beautiful external skill aimed at middle-class students. Is it an impersonal "mass production" business operating on quantity rather than quality? Does the Club socialise (eg meals out, demos, free summer practices in the park etc), does it relate to other similar clubs? While you may not be interested in these things it is often a sign of generosity and an openess of spirit. A good teacher will possess these qualities and such a one is likely to fully pass on their skills as a student becomes ready. Not all teachers will do this.

Are your teacher's movements liquid, relaxed and flowing? Do his arm (and leg) movements appear to start from his torso and "spread out" rather than the other way around? Does the Master regularly instruct the tutors? Does he spend significant time in class with beginners too? Does he practice the Forms and the ancillary silk-reeling or standing exercises every day (see the Chen FAQ)? Does he engage students in "Push Hands?" Is he still studying and learning from other Masters (perhaps workshops overseas), associating with similar clubs, inviting other Masters to give workshops? Does he teach Applications? Are the club's Routines close to the same you see in the traditional CDs etc?

Don't be tempted to over-analyse and don't expect to get a quick or even a clear understanding of what is going on right away. There will always be pluses and minuses - the important thing is probably to understand what you are getting into and whether you think you can live with it and grow.

Experience: In the end this is your final judge of whether your proposed Club/Master/Sifu is any good for you. The problem here of course is that you won't know the answer until you have invested a significant amount of time (and money) into your endeavour! However there are two points here that may be helpful for you.

First, your quest for a "good teacher" is not a once and for-all decision that you make before joining a club. Like end of year exams, maybe it is good to regularly review how you are getting on, whether you think you are progressing, whether Sifu really is as good as you were led to believe last year? Don't unrealisticly expect your teacher to be good in all areas. An intelligent student can still get a lot from poor teachers - at least at the lower levels.

Second, it should be clear by now that a "good teacher" should not only have the requisite martial art skills and knowledge - he must also have good teaching methods and generous human qualities as well. For beginners it is really the human and teaching qualities and skills that are more important because if these are present you will learn the basics very quickly and get lots of encouragement.

In conclusion, if you take TaiChi seriously as an ancient and skilled Art Form and your ambition is to learn the highest internal skills then you will come to a point where you must realise that you are your own Teacher.

This doesn't mean you can do it by yourself and now have enlightenment! You will need to study and search out and learn from others who are further ahead on this path than you. Your own experience will allow you to recognise their ability - yet even these can only partially help you.

You will have to learn how to teach yourself and this will require intelligence and good character - in addition to discipline and some talent. You will come to a point where you beat your own path in your own body and you must experiment and search for the right way forward for you. You may not know where it is but you will know when you find it. This is not a journey that ends.

Finally, despite some indications above to the contrary, keep in mind that at the beginning to intermediate stages good learning requires a stable relationship with your teacher. Constant shopping around, picking bits here, bits there, is no way to begin serious training in TaiChi. Once you have chosen a teacher/club commit yourself for good periods of time regardless of the shortcomings you will inevitably discover.

If you eventually find you must leave this teacher at the end of your chosen time (only for serious shortcomings) you will now know why and your integrity will be intact. This knowledge is itself good learning. You can now make a better-informed decision for your next stage of learning - hopefully for a much longer and fruitful relationship.

Much later you may come to a stage where your teacher can offer you little more that is new and you may need to seek others to assist in your progress.This should not necessarily mean a break in your relationship with your teacher but rather a change - perhaps approaching that of colleagues, helping one another on a shared journey. And though your old teacher may no longer be able to lead you on he can still tell you when you go off track!