Taiji Push Hands: An Introduction

Taiji is both a good exercise for health and a good martial art for self defense. [1,2]  In the West, it is usually known as a good health exercise for senior citizens; however, it can also be practiced as a good martial art.  Furthermore, Taiji is a good art to learn for people of all ages, including youths and children, although we are a long way from attracting a lot of children to Taiji. [3]  To learn Taiji as a martial art, “push hands” is an integral component of the practice.  This article gives an introduction to push hands.


Fundamental Basis of Taiji As a Martial Art:  The fundamental basis of Taiji as a martial art is that you don’t oppose an attacking force head on, because then the winner will be the bigger and stronger combatant.  Instead, you shift your position to avoid a head-on attack, and at the same time apply your own force to supplement  the attacking force along the same direction or nearly the same direction.  This will avoid being hit, and at the same time may cause the opponent to lose his balance.   When the opponent senses that he may be losing his balance, then he will change course, e.g., by pulling back, i.e., reverse the direction of his motion.  Then you change the direction of the force that you are applying, and change from being in a defensive mode to an offensive mode.  To properly execute this sequence of actions, you need to be able to have a good sense of your opponent’s motion and intent so that you can quickly change your own motion.  This is precisely what push hands tries to train you.

What Is Push Hands?  In practicing Taiji as a form, you usually practice alone.  To practice push hands, just like in one-to-one combats, you practice with a partner.  The purpose of push hands is to have two people in contact with each other, and using various moves such as some of the moves in various Taiji form sets, each person tries to get the other person off balance (e.g., by pushing or pulling).  Push hands provides an opportunity to apply the various Taiji forms in a combat-like situation to create an opening to attack your opponent by causing your opponent to lose balance.  Push hands is practiced via initially a series of choreographed-exercises for the two participants (e.g., one-hand, two-hand, stationary, and moving choreographed-exercises), and later to non-choreographed free-style push hands exercises.

Learning the Art of “Ting” (Listening Power):  As discussed earlier, in order for you to decide what your next move be, you have to be able to have a good sense of your opponent’s motion and intent.  For example, if your opponent is pushing you in direction x, then you need to deflect that force at least slightly away from direction x and at the same time turn you body so that the attacking force misses you or glances off you.  However, you need to detect your opponent’s motion, and better yet detect his intention, at the beginning of his movement to give you sufficient time to mount a defense and counter attack.  This detection is primarily via the “feel” at your point of contact with your opponent, i.e., where your hands are touching. [4]  This is the skill of “Ting,” which in Chinese means listen, which in this case means “listen” to the stimuli that you feel through the skins of your touching hand.

By relaxing your body and mind, you can sense better your opponent’s motion and intent, because the stimuli that you feel in your hand will come mostly from your opponent and will not be mixed up with the stimuli that your body generates from tensing up and your own response.  Furthermore, by being relax, it is much more difficult for your opponent to sense what you are doing or your intent.  Therefore, relaxation which is the underlying basis for why Taiji is a good health exercise is also an underlying basis for  why Taiji is a good martial art.

Building on Top of Relaxation:  Several other techniques build on top of the base of relaxation of body and mind.

  • Stable Stand or Rooting:  To be an effective combatant for both offense and defense, you must root yourself to the ground to provide a stable stand, which is always emphasized from your first lesson of Taiji even if you are learning Taiji just for health.  That is why you don’t put your two feet along the same line, but your two feet should be separated in the transverse direction from the direction of motion by approximately a shoulder width.   So as long as your center of gravity is within the two lines of support from your feet, you don’t fall.  You also drop your weight to the lower part of your body.  Another emphasis from your first lesson of Taiji is that you keep your upper body straight as though there is a rope tied to the ceiling from the top of your head.  This results in good posture from a health perspective, and from a martial arts perspective, it makes it more difficult for the opponent to pull you off balance if you are not leaning forward, and you are not holding yourself back when you are attacking an opponent if you are not leaning backward.
  • Yielding:  Previously we have already mentioned that in Taiji as a martial art, you don’t oppose an opponent head-on, instead you supplement his attacking force with your own force along nearly the same direction to try to get your opponent off balance.  This is sometimes known as yielding.  You try to flow with your opponent, and then create an opportunity to attack your opponent by getting your opponent off balance.  Yielding is constantly being practiced during push hands exercises.
  • Release of Power (Fa Jing):  When the opportunity comes for you to attack your opponent, you need to exert enough force to make an impact on your opponent.  That is, at that moment, you need to generate some power.  While relaxing body and mind, the ability to generate that power quickly at the moment of impact is known as Fa Jing, meaning release power in Chinese.  Fa Jing is also constantly being practiced during push hands exercises.

Eight Push Hands Movements:  There are eight basic hand-moving patterns in Taiji Push Hands.  These movements are practiced during push hands exercises.

  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 or one or both hands 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

Summary:  Taiji is both a good health exercise and a good martial art.  Push hands is an important training method of Taiji as a martial art.  During push hands, you are in an environment with an opponent, and you try to use many of the forms that you learn from Taiji form exercise to try to get your opponent off balance to create an opportunity to attack.  You practice relaxing your body and mind, to root yourself to a stable stand, to yield and to listen (or “Ting”),  and then counter attack with power (“Fa Jing”).  Taiji is well known as a good exercise for senior citizens.  However, it is also a good exercise for all ages, including children. [3]

[1]  See, e.g., “Health Benefits of Taiji”.

[2]  See, e.g., “Martial Applications of Taijiquan.”

[3]  See. e.g., the article “How To Popularize Taiji in the U.S.?”  This article was also published in the Fall 2015 issue of Tai Chi Magazine.

[4]  To a lesser extent, this detection may also be via your eyes, i.e., your opponent’s expression may disclose some information about his next move or intent.

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