As a fighting art Tai Chi is known for its close range methodology. When we practice Tai Chi for fighting it can be very easy for us to slip into a kickboxing type of engagement. Actually, the strategical approach of tai chi is to get as close to the opponent as possible, while still being able to deploy our most effective weapons. This approach is relatively unusual in the martial arts, not because arts do not get close, but because tai chi is able to deploy highly powerful striking, grappling and locking methods at an extremely close range.
Being close to the opponent gives us a number of advantages, provided we have the body method to back it up. If we are close to the opponent and cannot express force in our strikes, in our locks and in our throws then we are at as much a disadvantage as our opponent. So the tactic of being close is heavily reliant on effective and refined body method, as always leading us back to our solo training, jibengong and power work.
What advantages does being close actually provide, assuming that we have the body method and tools in place? Firstly we can recognise that being close limits some of the opponents own tools; such as long-range kicking and punching. So at its most basic level, being close helps us to reduce the number of threats. However, we can take this idea further and look at how being close also limits certain types of power.
The ability of the opponent to express force against us is the main consideration and danger of a Martial encounter. If the opponent is able to enact their strategy and bring their power to bear we will be at a disadvantage and will be forced to fall into their game in order to counteract them. It is the tactic of many martial arts to follow this pattern, and tai chi is no different.
It just so happens that our comfort zone is it a closer range and many other martial arts, even arts such as judo or jujitsu. Although tai chi may play in the same ranges as some of these grappling arts, it is also able to strike inside of this range with devastating power and this is what differentiates it from those systems. The ability to strike, grapple and throw from close range can be an example of good tai chi in combat. Tai chi is simply not effective at longer ranges, and it is no wonder that we see tai chi adepts getting knocked out when they try to play in the long range with kick boxers or MMA fighters. But this of course poses another problem for our training, how do we get to the close range?
Perhaps one of the least focused on aspects of tai chi is our ability to actually get close. We see numerous drills and techniques while in close range, in fact there are entire areas of the system devoted to this; such as pushing hands. But the effort and requirements to get to the effective range should not be underestimated. It is extremely difficult to close the distance on a well-trained long range fighter. Just as we train it in the close range and focus our efforts on our skill, so many martial artists focus on the long range. They can be just as refined, tricky and powerful when at arms reach as we can chest to chest or shoulder to shoulder.
In order to get close there are many tactics and strategies that we must employ, all of which rely on expert timing position and footwork. Many tai chi exponents will simply wait for the opponent to come to them and although this is a valid tactic it can also prove to be our downfall. Presenting an opponent with a static target is never a good idea no matter how good our checking or blocking skills may be. So if our tactic is to get them to come to us,we must develop ways in which we can stay safe while doing so. To do this we actively develop our angle and use our footwork in order to create advantageous and safe positions which they must enter in order to reach us.
The use of correct footwork and positioning can also have an effect on our timing and rhythm. Think of it as a hunter laying a trap in a position where they know they can effectively hunt their prey, they do not simply sit in the open and hope that their prey walks past. Instead they choose an intelligent and advantageous position that will allow them to kill their prey whilst minimising damage to themselves. The same idea can be said of tai chi footwork where we choose to move to advantageous positions where the opponent is forced to enter. We may also advantage ourselves by creating an angle that the opponent must adjust to, and it is in this adjustment that we find ourselves able to advance on their position or force them to come to us.
Next we must consider the tempo of the encounter. If, for instance, our opponent is aggressively attacking, we must adjust our timing and tempo to compensate. This may mean that we use angulation in our footwork in order to save ourselves from the attacking strategy whilst enabling us to get close. If the opponent is defensive and is in fact waiting for our approach then we must adjust accordingly and use our own footwork to advance and gain an opportunity to enter.
Getting close should not be underestimated, it is an art unto to itself and requires deep study and focus. If you study tai chi and always work on your applications drills and combative explorations from the close range you may Be surprised when Unable to get to that range in a real encounter. So study deeply the processes and strategies to get close to your opponent, they could turn out to be one of the most important parts of your study.