Chinese Medicine and Culture

: 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 179--183

Mindfulness-based communication: Reflections on the role of taiji practice in enhancing intercultural competence

Meghdad Abdi, Mina Mirahmadpour 
 International Education College, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai, China

Correspondence Address:
Mr. Meghdad Abdi
International Education College, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 6th Generation Disciple of Yang Family Taijiiquan, Certified Taijiquan Instructor, Shanghai


Taijiquan (太极拳) is a discipline that influences the practitioners' body–mind and could lead them to a healthier state. In this article, the intercultural aspects of Taiji practice are explored, specific characteristics that practitioners could develop through the continued practice of Taijiquan. These qualities are studied through the lens of Taijiquan Classics, a collection of ancient theoretical and philosophical texts that is the foundation for Taijiquan theory and practice, in the framework of the science of intercultural communication. Our purpose is to explore yet another less-known benefit of Taijiquan practice besides its many, already well-known ones. We argue that Taijiquan has the potential to develop qualities and attributes associated with intercultural competence.

How to cite this article:
Abdi M, Mirahmadpour M. Mindfulness-based communication: Reflections on the role of taiji practice in enhancing intercultural competence.Chin Med Cult 2019;2:179-183

How to cite this URL:
Abdi M, Mirahmadpour M. Mindfulness-based communication: Reflections on the role of taiji practice in enhancing intercultural competence. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2021 May 8 ];2:179-183
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Full Text


“Lao zi said: 'Focus on your breath and achieve softness. Can you be like a newborn?' Zhuang zi said: 'Obtaining the center of the circle, one responds without limitation.' Understanding these statements, you can study this volume.”

-Chen Weiming.[1]

Taijiquan nowadays is a rising star; it has drawn the attention of athletes, the general public, researchers, and even clinicians. It is an ancient Chinese traditional martial art that, today, is also practiced as a graceful and multifaceted form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, relaxed and focused state, accompanied by deep breathing and expanded awareness of the body, mind, and the surrounding environment.[2] Taijiquan is at the same time a profoundly philosophical discipline that is designed to put into practice classical theories, in particular, the theory of Yin–Yang (阴阳). It is a method to take Yin–Yang concept from the pages of the ancient books and the abstract world of the mind and bring it to the substantial physical realm and thus help the person to benefit from it in action. According to this theory, Yin-Yang is an inseparable pair; there is no Yin without Yang and no Yang without Yin, just like the pair of day and night. They give birth to, complement, and oppose each other. Applying this understanding to ourselves, we can think of the body-mind pair having Yin-Yang relationship and thus one would affect the other either in the direction of health or disease. Taijiquan, therefore, is a discipline that influences body-mind and could lead them to a healthier state. Here, we would like to discuss the mental aspects of Taiji practice, specific characteristics that practitioners can possibly develop by practicing Taijiquan. These qualities are emphasized in a series of theoretical and philosophical texts collectively known as Taijiquan Classics that is the foundation for Taijiquan theory. The theory from Taijiquan Classics (太极拳经) is used to show the traits and characteristics that can be developed through the practice of Taiji which contributes to intercultural competence of individuals according to acceptable models proposed by the scholars of intercultural communication. Our purpose though is not to introduce Taijiquan as a platform or tool to educate and train people to become more competent in their intercultural communications; rather, we are exploring yet another benefit of Taijiquan practice besides its many, already well-known ones. Here, we try to draw your attention toward the intercultural aspects associated with this beautiful art.

 What Is Intercultural Communication?

We are living in a connected world. People from different cultures are meeting each other more often than any other time in human history. Human movement across borders is facilitated through the advanced transportation systems which are accessible to the general public. Only considering China in 2018, 5539 million trips were made inside China (bringing exposure to different subcultures inside the general Chinese culture), with a 10.8% increase compared with that of 2017 in which 141.2 million trips were made by foreign people coming to China and 149.72 million trips made by Chinese nationals going abroad.[3] This is the movement of not only the people but also cultures. On the other hand, the rising usage and popularity of online communication tools such as social media[4] lead to more and more exposure to people from other cultures. What do we know about other cultures, and what is the proper behavior in communication with people from different cultures? Are people competent enough to handle these situations? Intercultural communication is a communication between people whose “cultural perceptions and symbol systems are distinct enough” to alter their communication.[5] Nowadays, intercultural communication is an established interdisciplinary field of study in universities all around the world.

 Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is one of the key concepts in the field of intercultural communication. It refers to the practical aspect of this academic field, about how people learn and practice to behave in the intercultural situation, i.e. facing people from other cultures. Intercultural communication competency aims to promote an individual's ability to respect and integrate cultural differences in order to transform oneself into a multicultural person who knows how to foster multiple cultural identities and maintain a multicultural coexistence for the development of a civic community.[6] According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “intercultural competencies aim at freeing people from their logic and cultural idioms in order to engage with others and listen to their ideas.”[7]

The academic definition of intercultural competence is the subject of endless challenges and discussion among scholars from different disciplines, and there is no consensus on one specific definition. However, some definitions have received more attention in the researches and publications. Among them is the definition proposed by Professor Michael Byram. He defines intercultural competence as “knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others' values, beliefs, and behaviors; and relativizing one's self” [Figure 1].[8] One of the widely cited models of intercultural competence proposed by professor Darla Deardorff uses a grounded theory approach resulting in the consensual aspects of intercultural competence agreed upon by leading intercultural experts, and he has developed a process model that identifies attitudes that facilitate intercultural competence (i.e. appropriateness and effectiveness), including respect, openness and curiosity. Motivation is enhanced by the influence of knowledge (cultural self-awareness, deep cultural knowledge, and sociolinguistic awareness) and skills (listening, observing, evaluating, analyzing, interpreting, and relating) components. These aspects of motivation, knowledge and skills also follow a path to facilitating shifts of internal frames that enhance empathy and adaptability. These shifts of internal frames then also predict appropriate and effective outcomes.{Figure 1}

The model begins with attitudes and moves from the individual level (attitudes) to the interaction level (outcomes). This process model of intercultural competence depicts the complexity of acquiring intercultural competence in outlining more of the movement and process orientation that occurs between the various elements. This model denotes movement from the personal level to the interpersonal level (intercultural interaction).

In the next part, we explore qualities such as moderation, softness and pliability, self-awareness, understanding others, active listening, tolerance and control, adaptability (forgetting oneself and following the other), and peacefulness (philosophy of not imposing force on others) from the standpoint of the teachings of Taijiquan Classics and how they might affect the practitioner in a way that would contribute to effective communication in situ ations where it is most needed by multicultural environments.


“When practicing Taiji, doing too much is the same as doing too little”[9] (Wang Zong Yue Classic 王宗岳太极经). This is based on the Yin–Yang theory that emphasizes the principle of harmony and balance. Too much Yin or too much Yang will destroy the harmonious balance as too little Yin or too little Yang does. In the practice of Taiji, it is essential to follow the principle of moderation. This principle is an inseparable part of the teachings that each practitioner would be taught early in his or her practice. “If your opposite side is hard, change your own side to make it soft. This is called yielding”[9] (Wang Zong Yue Classic). In Taijiquan Tuishou (推手 Push hands or two-person practice), when the practitioner senses that the opponent is putting pressure on him/her, he/she adjusts and changes his/her own side to make it soft and yield to the opponent. This response is in the Taiji manner: not too much, not too little. The practitioner adjusts the pressure in proportion to the opponent's level; this is the kind of sensitivity and controlling skill that is emphasized in Taiji practice. Important results of this unique practice are flexibility, awareness of the situation as a whole, self-awareness, adjustment, knowing and feeling the partner, adaptability, patience, and tolerance, to name a few.

 Softness, to Be Like Water


“Nothing in the world is more supple than water, yet nothing is more powerful than water in attacking the hard and strong”[10]Lao Zi (老子).

“When in stillness you should be as the mountain. When in motion you should move like the flowing river”[9](Wu Yuxiang 武禹襄太极经). In Taiji practice, the practitioner always starts from stillness; he or she tries to mimic the state of Wújí (无极), in which Yin-Yang are still united as one and there is no movement, pure stillness. From stillness, a movement begins and the flow of Yin–Yang emerges. This is Taiji as put forth in the classical theory of Taiji, “Taiji, being born of Wuji, is the mother of Yin-Yang. In movement it differentiates; in stillness, it reunites. It is without excess or insufficiency.”[11] When practicing Taiji, everything is flowing, the body movements, breathing, mind, Qì (气) and it is nicely described in the classics, “What is Long Boxing (Changquan 长拳)? It is like the Long River, or a great ocean, flowing smoothly and ceaselessly”[12] (Wang Zong Yue Classic) (Changquan was another name for Taijiquan at the time this classic text was written).

Why is this relevant? When you are soft, pliable, and flowing both mentally and physically, things will not get stuck. You know how to change and how to adapt yourself to different situations and people. Many conflicts begin when the interaction is stuck, at a time, when the exchange of ideas stops, in other words, when there is no flow between the two sides. Therefore, qualities such as softness, flexibility, and adaptability are crucial factors in effective communication, especially in multicultural environments where the knowledge of the other is more limited and continued interaction and mutual understanding are required. “ In Tajii, being very soft and pliable leads to being extremely hard and strong”[9](Wu Yuxiang). Therefore, the true power comes from being soft, flexible, and yielding.


“Also it is said:First you should exercise your mind, then discipline your body. Relax your abdomen and let Qi condense into your bone marrow. Make your spirit peaceful and your body calm. Pay attention to your mind at all times.”[9] Therefore, the mind is always the first. Taiji is a kind of mindfulness exercise. The practitioner starts with the stage of body awareness (着熟 Zhao Shu); continues with becoming aware of the subtle feelings of the breath, the movement of Qi throughout the body, and the subtle Yin-Yang changes in himself/herself and in interaction with the opponent (懂劲 Dong Jin), and finally reaches the state of Shen Ming (神明). Shen Ming is the state in which mind is balanced and centered, things happen spontaneously without the need to think while the mind is focused on the situation as a whole and covers all aspects, this is where creativity and spontaneity blossom. The person is aware of the self, the opponent, and the surrounding environment.

 Understanding the Other Person

“故曰: 知彼知己,百战不殆;不知彼而知己,一胜一负;不知彼,不知己,每战必殆。”

“So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”[13]

The wisdom from the famous masterpiece of Sun Zi (孙子), The Art of War, reminds us about the definition of intercultural competence by Professor Michael Byram, “Knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others' values, beliefs, and behaviors; and relativizing one's self.”[8] Traditionally, it has been said that the practice of forms in Taijiquan is to know yourself (知己 Zhi Ji) and the practice of Tuishou (push hands or two-person training) is to know your opponent Zhi Bi) and these two important skills should grow hand in hand in each practitioner. Therefore, each one of us, as practitioners, knows that he or she should cultivate two things, the knowledge of self, and the knowledge of the other; more interestingly, while learning Taijiquan, the person is equipped with tools and training methods to help him/her reach this level; however, the mastery of such skills is up to the practitioner.

 Emphasis on Active Listening

Ting Jin (听劲) means listening to the force (Jin), and listening here actually means to feel, feeling the opponent's body at the point of contact, feeling the opponent's movement and stillness, the direction and amount of force applied toward you and ultimately to feel his or her intention. Therefore, the practitioners try to understand the minds of one another; they listen, feel, and try their best to understand the other. Grand Master Yang Jun, the 5th generation lineage holder of Yang style Taiji and one of the foremost Taiji masters of our time, describes Ting Jin in these words, “Highest level of Ting Jin is that you feel the opponent as soon as he/she has the intention of moving. So the highest level is feeling the intention of the partner.” Mindful listening is a critical skill in all forms of communication, including communication in the intercultural context, conflict resolution, and negotiation. If a person is trained to be an active mindful listener, he or she could communicate effectively and efficiently.

“If there is no motion, you will remain still. If there is even a slight change, you have already moved accordingly”[9] (Wu Yu Xiang). This is the degree of sensitivity which a practitioner should cultivate to be able to interact with the opponent based on the knowledge he or she obtains through listening and trying to understand the intention of the other. This interaction is based on the knowledge of the self and knowledge of the other and therefore it is competent.

 Forgetting Oneself and Following the Other

“The Taiji principle is as simple as this: yield yourself and follow the external forces… Instead of doing this, most people ignore such obvious and simple principles and search for a more remote and impractical method. This is the so-called inches mistake, that, when allowed to develop, becomes the distance of thousands of miles”[9] (Wang Zong Yue Classic).

Grand Master Yang Jun explains, “The relationship between you and your opponent is Yin-Yang, so you and your opponent are Taiji, you become one… Only when you give up yourself you can be a part of the other, like water that yields to the shape of other things (i.e. container). That's why the biggest obstacle is in our mind: we do not want to give up, ‘舍己从人’ That's why Taiji requires us to practice softness to become like water, then through this, you can join the hard” (舍己从人 shě jÇ cóng rén means to let go of yourself and follow the other person).

This is the highest form of communication because it is based on the pure intention of understanding the other person, in which one learns to forget about the self and follow the other person in order to understand him or her, and based on this understanding, one would act accordingly. This attitude brings peace to each and every mutual interaction because it is based on listening, yielding, following, understanding, and only then, acting. Therefore, if the other is hard, the practitioner becomes soft and in doing this you dissolve the is reflected in the saying, “When the other is hard, and I am soft, this is called yielding.”[11] (Wang Zong Yue Classic).

 Philosophy of not Imposing Force on Others

“There are many other schools of martial arts besides this one. Although the postures are different between them, they generally do not go beyond the strong bullying the weak and the slow yielding to the fast. The strong beating the weak and the slow submitting to the fast are both a matter of inherent natural ability and bear no relation to the skill that is learned. Examine the phrase 'four ounces moves a thousand pounds', which is clearly not a victory obtained through strength. Or consider the sight of an old man repelling a group, which could not come from an aggressive speed.”[14]

All of the martial techniques that exist in Taijiquan forms start with a defensive movement rather than an offensive one. This is indicative of the philosophy of not imposing force on others. In Taijiquan, the practitioner is taught to borrow the force of the opponent and using it against him or her. This is one of the ideas behind the saying “using four ounces of energy to control the force of a thousand pounds.” This causes the least possible overall harm, as the clash of two strong forces damages both sides, the weaker side more than the stronger side. Therefore, as mentioned before, the way of Taiji is that of moderation.

 Tolerance and Control

“Your spirit should be controlled internally; externally you should appear calm and comfortable”[9] (Wu Yuxiang).

In Taijiquan, practitioners are trained to remain calm and centered during mental and/or physical conflict regardless of how rapidly the situation changes. This requires mental discipline and indicates that the practitioner should be able to control himself/herself to successfully cope with any kind of serious situation. The mind and body are mutually connected and influence one another. When the mind is in chaos, the body is affected through the nervous system and tension builds up in the musculoskeletal and organ systems. Likewise, when the body is under tension due to external stimuli, the mind becomes scattered and not relaxed. Therefore, in order to maintain the kind of mindset mentioned in the above saying amidst the tension, Taiji offers a practical solution: the practice of Fang song (放松) or continuous relaxing and softening of the physical body while moving or standing still. Fang Song is a training strategy in Taijiquan practice to help the practitioner become soft and flexible and in later stages of practice lets the different parts of the body become integrated as one whole, so that “when one part moves, there is no part that does not move. When one part is still, there is no part that is not still”[12] (“Wu Yuxiang). With the combination of sustained mindfulness with this form of relaxation (fang song) during Taiji practice, the practitioner gradually develops a calm and centered state of body-mind that permeates all aspects of his or her life and thus would help him/her to be able to maintain this state even in rapidly changing and serious situations with conflict and tension.

Dimensions of Intercultural competence

We discussed how the practice of Taiji would help to improve qualities of moderation, softness, self-awareness, understanding others, active listening, and tolerance. Coming back to the literature of intercultural competence, we analyzed which aspects of intercultural competence are more related to the practice of Taiji. Matveev and Merz[15] analyzed several intercultural competence assessment tools focusing on 10 scales of Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) and the Arasaratnam's Intercultural Communication Competence Instrument (ICCI), Intercultural Adjustment Potential Scale (ICAPS), the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI), Culture Shock Inventory (CSI), Intercultural Sensitivity Inventory (ICSI), Intercultural Competence Profiler (ICP), Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC), and Intercultural Competence Questionnaire (ICQ). They identified three dimensions of 1. Cognitive 2. Affective and 3. Behavarioual as covered in all major scales. Considering the principles discussed, a first look at the dimensions of the intercultural competence reveals that Taiji could lead to the enhancement of intercultural competence in all three dimensions. Here we will discuss briefly the cognitive dimensions. Attitude is the core of the cognitive dimension of intercultural competence, and it is the starting point of the process model of intercultural communication, as discussed before. The core principles of harmony and balance, the emphasis on knowing the other side of communication, and forgetting oneself are among the constructive attitudes that could be cultivated by practicing Taiji. Further, we argued how openness and flexibility as the most repeated quality in the major scales of intercultural competence could be considered as fundamental and critical learnings of Taiji. It is well described in the metaphor of being like water. These attitudes internalize and deepen by regular and repetitive practice of Taiji [Figure 2].{Figure 2}


Taijiquan has been an inseparable part of Chinese traditional culture, and although it is a martial art, it has incorporated elements of this culture mainly due to its rich philosophical foundation. Therefore, apart from its numerous physical and mental health benefits, the practitioner gradually absorbs its cultural and philosophical influences into his or her worldview and lifestyle as well. At the beginning of this article, we proposed that Taijiquan has the potential to develop qualities and attributes associated with increased intercultural competence. We deduced these associations by comparing the theoretical foundation of both fields and found strong links. These qualities cover the necessary skills for effective communication according to the established models of intercultural communication and therefore we can safely conclude that the practice of Taijiquan would significantly contribute to intercultural competence of the practitioners. It seems appropriate that this work would stimulate quantitative research to further establish this association.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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