The Essence of Taijiquan Part 1: Perspective from Taiji Push Hands

In an earlier article “Yin-Yang Theory and Martial Applications of Taijiquan” published in December 2006 in this website, we said that Taijiquan was originated as a martial art and we discussed the underlying basis behind Taijiquan as a martial art.  In Taijiquan, one doesn’t oppose an opponent’s attack force with a frontal counter force, but one utilizes the opponent’s force and momentum to get him off-balance.  Saying it another way, one complements the opponent’s force (Yang force which could be large) with one’s force along the same direction or at a slightly different direction (Yin force which could be small) either to get the opponent off-balance or to deflect the attacking force.  When one senses the opponent changing direction, one also changes direction and again utilizes the opponent’s force and momentum to get him off balance.  This gives rise to the statement that four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds.  The two fundamental features of Yin-Yang complementarity and their constantly changing nature are symbolized by Taijiquan’s Yin-Yang symbol. 

In this article, we continue that discussion and elaborate on the essence of Taijiquan as a martial art.  This discussion is based on material from several books, especially from the following three books:

  • The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan, by Yang Cheng-fu (grandson of Yang Lu-Chan, founder of the Yang Style Taijiquan), translated by Louis Swaim, 2005
  • Tai Chi Secrets of the Wu Style, translated with commentary by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, mostly based on the book The Lecture of Taijiquan by Wu Gong-Zao (grandson of Wu Quan-You, founder of the Wu Style Taijiquan), 2002
  • The Essence of Taiji Qigong:  The Internal Foundation of Taijiquan, by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, 1997

In Part 1 (current article), we discuss the essence of Taijiquan from the perspective of Taiji Push Hands, which focuses on the martial application techniques of Taijiquan.  In Part 2 (article in a future release of this website), we discuss the essence of Taijiquan from the perspective of Taiji Qigong, which focuses on regulating Qi, the internal energy in one’s body, to increase the power and effectiveness of the martial application techniques of Taijiquan.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is extremely important for a Taijiquan practitioner to be sensitive to the movement and intention of his opponent.  To increase that sensitivity and to respond appropriately and almost automatically to any movement of the opponent, Taiji Push Hands is used as a training technique in a one-on-one close-contact environment, where each person tries to use his hands and body to attack or to defend.  These training techniques consist of choreographed push-hand form-sets and un-choreographed free-style push hands.

There are eight basic moving patterns in Taiji Push Hands:

  1. Wardoff:  Expands one hand or both hands outward and often also upward to stop an attack or to attack
  2. Rollback:  Uses one or both hands to roll/pull back an opponent’s attacking arm and to cause him to lose balance
  3. Press:  Uses one hand behind the other hand to press against an opponent’s attacking hands or body and to counter an opponent’s rollback movement that can cause one to lose balance
  4. Push:  Uses both hands to push (down and/or forward) an opponent’s attacking hands or body to mitigate an attack and to initiate a counter-attack
  5. Pull Down (also known as Pluck):  Uses two or more fingers to pull an opponent’s arm (e.g., at the wrist) downward
  6. Split (also known as Rend):  Moves an arm or hand in a cross-body motion to defend (e.g., to block a punch) or attack (e.g., to strike the opponent’s face)
  7. Elbow Stroke:  Uses an elbow to strike an opponent (e.g., at his chest or rib cage)
  8. Shoulder Stroke (also known as Bump):  Uses a shoulder or back to bump an opponent

In addition to the eight basic moving patterns, there are also five strategic skills in Taiji Push Hands.  Each subsequent skill is a refinement of the previous skill.

  1. Attaching:  In order to feel the opponent’s movement and intentions, one must be attached to the opponent’s body in some way.  So at the beginning of sparring, if one is not already touching the opponent, one may fake an attack to cause the opponent to defend and thus resulting in attachment.  The Chinese word for attaching is made up of two words:  the left word is rice which in ancient times was also used to make glue, and the right word is occupying.  So attaching means to use glue to stick to your opponent (i.e., to be in the same space as your opponent).
  2. Connecting:  To be attached to your opponent is not a one-time thing, but a continuous state of being connected to your opponent.  Connecting means do not separate from your opponent.
  3. Adhering:  Adhering refers to the state of being connected independent of the motion of your opponent.  When your opponent advances, you retreat.  When your opponent retreats, you advance.  When your opponent floats up, you follow.  When your opponent sinks down, you also follow.  You always stay connected to your opponent without resisting.  If you resist and if your opponent is stronger than you, then you will lose and not being able to accomplish the objective of Taijiquan that a weaker person can defeat a stronger person.
  4. Following:  Means to give up yourself and follow your opponent, i.e., obey your opponent’s will.  If he is moving fast, you move fast.  If he is moving slowly, you move slowly.  However, when the right opportunity arises (i.e., you sense a potential weakness in your opponent’s position or movement), you initiate a quick and strong counter-attack.
  5. No Losing and No Resisting:  Losing means separating, and resisting means to stiffen against.  If you separate, you can no longer sense your opponent’s motion and intention.  If you stiffen, then you decrease your sensitivity.  No Losing and No Resisting can be considered to be the epitome of all five strategic skills.

Combining Taiji Push Hands’ eight basic moving patterns and five strategic skills gives rise to 13 techniques.  That is why Taijiquan is also called Thirteen Postures.

In executing the above techniques, a Taijiquan practitioner must relax his body and mind.  Relaxing his body not only allows him to be more sensitive to his opponent’s movement and intention, but it also makes it more difficult for his opponent to sense his movement and intention.  Relaxing his mind allows him to process the information received and choosing the appropriate response quickly and almost automatically.  Furthermore, following his opponent’s movement may mean that he has to change directions quite often.  To facilitate such frequent and quick changes of directions, a Taijiquan practitioner should keep his upper body straight while relying on his feet, legs, and waist to execute the changes.  Keeping the upper body straight also helps to maintain his balance. 

It is important to point out that the root of martial power is from the feet, and that power is controlled by the waist, and manifested in the hands (fists or fingers).  Taijiquan, unlike some of the other martial arts (e.g., Shaolinquan or Taekwondo), doesn’t frequently use the feet to strike the upper body of an opponent.  Instead, it uses the feet more to solidify a person’s stance, weaken an opponent’s stance, and for low strikes. 

In summary, the essence of Taijiquan from the perspective of Taiji Push Hands is to sense the opponent’s movement and intention and respond appropriately and almost automatically.  Usually the appropriate response is to follow your opponent’s motion, and wait for the right opportunity to initiate a quick counter-attack.  To achieve that objective, one has to stay connected to his opponent in a relaxed manner.  This is a skill learned through a combination of choreographed push-hand form-sets and un-choreographed free-style push hands.

Part 2 (in a future release of this website) will discuss the essence of Taijiquan from the perspective of Taiji Qigong and discuss regulating Qi, the internal energy in one’s body, to increase the power and effectiveness of the martial applications of Taijiquan.

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2 Responses to “The Essence of Taijiquan Part 1: Perspective from Taiji Push Hands”

  1. Strike Wong says:

    Dear Sifu Tow,
    The best detailed explanations in English, I have read so far! Thank you!
    Yours truly,
    Taiji Boxer

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