Even though forms in Chinese martial arts are intended to depict realistic martial techniques, the movements are not always identical to how techniques would be applied in combat. This is especially true for Tai Chi Chuan which is often assumed to be only an aesthetically pleasing and health practice that is not very practical for combat in the real world.
However, nothing could be further from the truth and behind every movement lies a technique that can be applied to combat. For example, in an advanced stage of Tai Chi Chuan form practice or taolu, students are encouraged to visualise an opponent while training. This is one reason why Tai Chi Chuan is sometimes referred to as “shadowboxing”.
Applications are often practiced with a partner as a routine and they include the practice of Tuishou (push hands) and Sanshou (sparring), but also the various techniques like Chin Na (joint locks) and Neigong (internal skill), the latter demonstrating the soft-style of Tai Chi Chuan as opposed to a hard-style like Shaolinquan which is associated with external skill.
Without the above mentioned elements Tai Chi Chuan would not be complete and it would merely be “empty” as the Chinese would say. It is like playing tennis without the strings of the racket.
In China, martial styles and martial artists are judged by their jing, this is an advanced concept which is briefly explained in the Neigong section, but for a better understanding you should go to the Books section and specifically check out the Martial Power book from Dr. Yang.
How effective, coordinated and powerful you are as a martial artist is directly related to the above mentioned elements. It is not without surprise that the Chinese have tons of sayings for martial artists who perform their art without having a complete understanding of its underlying principles. One of these goes like this: “flower fist and brocade leg” (hua quan xiu tui, 花拳繡腿), which is obviously meant to mock martial artists who are weak like a flower and soft like brocade. Their art is beautiful but not useful. In that case you are just performing a dance.
Therefore, if martial artists learn their art without taking in consideration all its elements, they will come up short and will never be able to reap the full benefits.