Thoughts on certification and standardization of Taijiquan
by Sam Masich
Certification for the nation?
Certificates? Sure. Certification? Perhaps. Mandatory national certification? Personally, I don't think so. The most anyone can offer on this topic are informed opinions. I think that the inherent nature of Taijiquan, in all its glorious and sometimes wacky variety, precludes any all-inclusive standardization for certification. The sometimes fierce individualism of representatives of various schools of thought in the world of Tai Chi has allowed the art as a whole to resist the rather sterile, homogenized, and overly political structures into which other martial arts styles have coalesced. (If you think that Tai Chi circles are political, hang around the Judo and Tae Kwon Do scenes for a while!) The structures of these associations tend toward the political, military and the corporate. The history of standardization and certification in martial arts organizations, has frequently involved the exclusion of undesired technical and philosophical variety by those in charge.
War and Peace
Historically, Taijiquan was developed by people defending their homes from the organized rampages of such forces as the Taiping Rebellion, large bandit tribes and government troops (who were not much better than the bandits). While it may be said that Tai Chi was a part of the training of the Chen family's local militia and that some Taijiquan masters did receive appointments to train government troops, Tai Chi was developed to resist military, nationalistic and profiteering groups. There is no history whatsoever of invasion, or of any hostile actions taken against another group using Tai Chi boxing.
Like anyone serious about the art, I find myself frustrated from time to time with hacks, charlatans and 'non-profit' organizations which capitalize on the public's lack of understanding as to what Taijiquan is, what it potentially offers and what it requires. My knee jerk response is to want to see regulation of the art in order to prevent the sad misadventures of so many individuals who have been adversely affected by participation with such groups and individuals.
However, setting up some kind of board of certification is very problematic. Technically speaking, without seriously limiting the definition of what constitutes 'real' or acceptable Taijiquan, there is no panel truly qualified to deal with all of the possible varieties of approach. It is, at least to some extent, an opinion driven subject. Also, while standardization may well suit certain approaches to competition evaluated by criteria similar to gymnastics or figure skating, this does little to address the myriad other motivations for practicing and training the art. Bear in mind that until the last thirty or so years, these competitions did not exist and thus have little to do with traditional Taijiquan training.
A Modern Approach
Recently arguments for criteria allowing certification of Taijiquan instructors has focused on the creation of an organization focused on considerations peripherally related to Tai Chi such as standardized training in general physiology, pedagogy and first aid as well as participation in a liability insurance collective. Such an organization might also make available Taijiquan judges training, special seminars and learning materials to its membership. An organization which offered such content might indeed be helpful in establishing some common ground between government, legal entities (such as community centers) and the Tai Chi community. It may also garner enough popular or political support to begin establishing the kind of standards which would allow national certification and its recommendation of Taijiquan instructors. In some ways this could be of great benefit, particularly if a policy of equal respect for traditional, sport and health oriented Tai Chi approaches could be maintained. This could be accomplished perhaps through the creation of various departments within the organization.
While such an approach to certification might be in some ways beneficial to many Tai Chi practitioners and to the public, I cannot help but feel that critical problems would be created as well. For example: Who decides which curriculum or programs would best augment the eclectic nature of Tai Chi training? How are those adversely affected by non-participation to be represented? How are administrative biases toward aspects of Taijiquan which generate the most revenue handled? Does such an organization necessarily guarantee better Taijiquan instruction or help preserve the diversity which makes the art so unique amongst the popular martial arts? Such problems inevitably become issues of politics, popularity and self interest...group dynamics rather than the individual citizenry acting as a whole. Personally I find the quiet anarchy of Tai Chi to be a healthy sanctuary from a world intent on globalization where the few decide what is valid for the rest of us.
A person takes a seminar or a class cycle in Taijiquan and receives acknowledgement of participation or completion of the course. This is a pleasant ego booster at the time, which may down the road serve as a reminder to that person to practice. "Hey, I remember that. I studied a Tai Chi applications form last year and I need to start practicing again!" For an instructor it is nice to have something to photocopy and include, along with a resume, when applying for new teaching possibilities, or to put on the wall to demonstrate credibility to passers-through.
A student works with a teacher for a period of time deemed adequate by that teacher and receives approval as an instructor, perhaps, but not necessarily in the form of a certificate. While this process does not guarantee the level of knowledge and ability of this individual, the tradition of teacher to student continuity is preserved.