A sceptic’s journey towards enlightenment. 5: Grasp the sparrow by the tail

Richard Vahrman
2 min readJul 28, 2022

Do it right and you won't fail!

Grasping the tail of a sparrow in a Chinese landscape (Midjourney)

As the sparrow tries to fly from your palm, you react ever so slightly by lowering your hand. Consequently, the poor creature cannot use the force of its legs to take off. Thus we learn to feel the force of our enemy and react to it with softness. Or so I was told early on in my tai chi training.

A number of years later I mentioned the story to a Chinese teacher who came to stay with me and run some classes. He burst into laughter and asked why it was that Westerners always had to bring pseudo-philosophy into everything from the East. He said, “the characters in Chinese that ‘spell’ catching the sparrow’s tale can equally mean hurting someone very badly!

When learning tai chi was at its most popular between about 1995 and 2010 (this is only my impression and I could be totally wrong) classes started springing up all over the place and teachers were advertising them as everything from “swimming on dry land” to a “moving meditation”. Wrong. Tai chi is a martial art and yes it is “soft” differentiating it from, say, karate where one learns powerful (brick-breaking) moves. Like aikido, we learn how to dissipate the force of our opponent.

In 2006 I helped organise a “festival” of tai chi in Brighton. Around 12 teachers ran free classes and demonstrated their forms. I can remember a rather irate person approaching me after I had shown off my routine. “I don’t like the way you did that — it looks far too aggressive. You need to dance!”

But I am getting ahead of myself. I need to tell you how I moved from dancer to aggressor. I will do that in the next section but just one final east/west thought. When you read that tai chi was developed in ancient times in Chinese monasteries, what picture does that conjure up? Probably wrong again.

Tai chi as we know it is modern (origins 200 years ago, but how we do it, maybe 100 years). Monks did monkish things in the good old days but were protected by mercenaries skilled in fighting (hurting people badly, perhaps) with fists and feet, sticks and swords. Maybe from this were the seeds of tai chi. I like to think that the best ideas filtered through with the survival of the fittest fighters.

Grasp the sparrow by the head — very soon you’ll be dead.

Richard Vahrman

Inventor, musician and tai chi teacher