On the martial path, only one person ever gets to evaluate skills, the person themselves, this is the point for all players, MMA, taiji,, Wing Chun, Karate etc, it is all about personal development and improvement in terms of mentality and physicality.The problem is that if matches are private, nobody else can use them to evaluate the skill of these participators.
I take it that you mean information concerning the history of the arts?Because these people who learn taijiquan usually have 3 main sources of information
1) Words spoken or written by their teacher(s) and elder students. Words usually sound good and impressive. They are about glorious history and secret private matches.
You are right that there is a lack of objectivity inside martial traditions, including both Taiji and MMA, and any other tradition. In this day of line dancing type training of large groups of people there is a group mentality that involves pride of a rather blinding intensity. This problem is due to specific flaws of human group and personal psychology and can be found in many group activities, not just martial arts. How humans approach team sports and how they participate and interact regarding them can illustrate my point.
Demos are silly and are very hard to take seriously for many people, no matter how great they look. They really have no place in martial arts traditions of the past and are an aspect of of capitalized consumer culture and the emergent social mentality, which accompanies it. In short they are advertisements far more than they are genuine demonstrations or evaluations, they are about generating income. One might realize that traditionally many martial artists had jobs unrelated to their martial arts, they practiced out of something other than a career choice.2) Things that they can actually see and feel by themselves. These are excercises that they do and demos that they see. Demos usually look good and impressive. Real experiences in sanshou with non-cooperative duifang (some good martial sportsman fom other school) do not look so good.
Concerning a story, just because one man uses a martial art to become amazingly skilled does not mean you will reach that same skill level ( so to speak, level has some inaccurate connotations)
to illustrate this simply look at the game of chess, just because you learn to play does not mean you will become a master. Sure it is the same game, with the same pieces, which move the same way, that the chess masters play, but there is more to it.
Consider Judo and Kimura, google those two words to see what I mean. Perhaps the best fighter Japan ever produced, who did defeat the best the Gracies could offer, was found in the system of Judo. That does not mean if you do judo you will become the greatest fighter in the world. Skill represents a person, not a system.
True enough in general, but there are some interesting exceptions. In China you there are push hands competitions in the parks that are open invite and often involve injury. I know a Chen stylist who was trained in China by the Chens and at one point he was told that he should enter these matches to work on his method and skill. Over all he did rather well, but at one point did have some broken bones and injured another man badly. These still happen, in a Beijing park, weekly and are considered to be more real than sportfighting or a demo and they attract people of many martial traditions.3) Webpages and videos in internet. These usually contain good-looking demos & stories and bad-looking competition videos. In demo you can see master who pushes non-resisting student far away. In competition you don`t see taijiquan techniques and body mechanics at all.
I have trained with MMA people, and many others. For me the reputation of any art means nothing, only results mean anything. I know of several others who are in the same position.The real problem is lack of information, lot of statements that can`t be verified. The reputation of taijiquan as martial art is based on
1) stories about historical events and people (can`t be seen and verified) and stories about nowadays private maches (can`t be seen and verified).
2) good-looking demos and extrapolation-thinking "if he could do it so powerfully with cooperative oponent, he can also do it with resisting oponent" Extrapolation is very powerful tool!
I was at a class the other year when the teacher tried to teach us some applications he had learned on video. It involved twisting the arm around to the back and using it to lever the person over, I calmly let him put me in it and hold me to the floor. Then I began to resist, as he tried everything he could think of i stood up and got out of his arm lock with some simple movement technology, his methods were worthless against me, although nobody else in the class seemed to have the will or the skill to escape them. My point being that you are right, just because something looks effective doesn't mean it is, and just because it works against one person doesn't mean it will against all people.