Why can’t Taiji masters fight? Why? Because they don’t train to fight, because many techniques have been lost (in my own lifetime, I’ve seen parts of Taijiquan stop being taught), and because the weight of Chinese culture and its demands for multi-faceted excellence is crushing.

I don’t claim to be a fighter. But I got hit enough to know it’s a grueling process, that not everyone is good at it, and that it’s a dangerous activity. Head trauma is a sobering reality. I frequently worry that I might have permanent damage. Sure, we want to be able to defend ourselves and our families, but we have to balance that by making sure we keep all our faculties intact and continue to be a worthwhile part of our families.

When I was learning to drive in high school, we had simulators—a steering wheel in front of a TV screen. You can imagine how primitive that was half-a-century ago. But frankly, it did nothing to help me learn to drive. One second behind the wheel of a moving car was worth ten years in front of a screen. The same is true of Taijiquan. No amount of waving your hands around and mumbling about Taoist philosophy prepares you for that first time you get hit in the face—and then get hit ten times more while you’re still trying to catch your breath and reopen your eyes.

If you want to fight, go to a boxing or MMA gym. If you want to kill, learn to use knives and guns. But here’s the thing: you’ll be a different person. You’ll be risking permanent injury and, if you really enter that life, you’ll have a target on your back all the time. Many of the guys I grew up with took that road. They wanted to be formidable, feared, invincible. Most of them are nursing crippling pain, in prison, or dead today.

Taijiquan spans a continuum from combat to meditation. You have to decide where you want to be on that scale and train accordingly.