Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Taijiquan

The Art of War” written by Sun Tzu (孫子兵法) about 500 B.C. is an ancient Chinese classic on conducting warfare.  A large part of this book is about how to lead an army of soldiers to defeat the enemy’s army of soldiers.  This classic has been read and studied by many military establishments, including the U.S. Army. Parts of this classic are also applicable to individual combats.  This article discusses the relevance of this portion of “The Art of War” to Taijiquan as a martial art as manifested in Taiji Push Hands.

Whether the combat is between one army and another army or between an individual fighter and another fighter [1], it is important that you know yourself and your opponent.  Sun Tzu wrote “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.  One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat.  One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.” [2]  In Taiji Push Hands, the most critical technique (and the most difficult technique to master) is to relax your body and mind.  By relaxing your body, you can better sense [3] your opponent’s intentions and movements (know your enemy), which you can then counter with suitable moves (know yourself).  By relaxing your body, you also make it difficult for your opponent to sense your intentions and movements (your opponent will not know you), thus making it more difficult for your opponent to defend against you.  Relaxing mind allows the Taiji practioner to process the information received and choosing the appropriate response quickly and almost automatically (again, know yourself).

Knowing your opponent also means that you are capable of recognizing a weakness or potential weakness of your opponent, sometimes in real time.  Then you can immediately respond with the right attack to take advantage of that weakness.  An example in Taiji Push Hands is when you are pushing your opponent’s arm toward his body, and he is a little slow in defending by letting your push get close to his body before he redirects your push to the side, then you immediately increase the speed and strength of your push directly toward his body.  He will most likely not have enough time to redirect your push before your push is onto his body.

Another illustration in Taiji Push Hands of the concept of keeping your opponent from knowing you is to keep your upper body vertical, and you move forward and backward by shifting your weight on your feet (of course, if you need to move a large distance, then you also have to take a step or two with your feet).  Your opponent’s eyes are normally focused on your upper body, and so it makes it more difficult for your opponent to detect your motion if you keep your upper body straight.

Sun Tzu wrote “Warfare is the Way (Tao) of deception.  Thus although [you are] capable, display incapability to them.  When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity.  When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.”  What Sun Tzu meant is that we have to confuse the opponent by feeding him false information.  For example, we may fake a retreat, and when the opponent pursues you, you lead the opponent into a trap and counter attack.  An example from Taiji Push Hands:  You may purposely soften your resistance; when your opponent thinks there is an opening, he attacks you by pushing hard.  But you are prepared and anticipated this attack, so you implement a lu (捋) motion to pull your opponent in the direction of his push but slightly to the side, thus leading your opponent to losing his balance.

Sun Tzu wrote “It is essential for a general to be tranquil and obscure, upright and self-disciplined, and able to stupify the eyes and ears of the officers and troops, keeping them ignorant.  He alters his management of affairs and changes his strategies to keep other people from recognizing them.  He shifts his position and traverses indirect routes to keep other people from being able to anticipate him.”  What Sun Tzu meant is that you should not do the same thing all the time, then your opponent can easily anticipate your next move.  Instead, you should vary your moves, and vary them not in any pattern.  In Taiji Push Hands, this means that even though your general movement may be determined by your opponent’s previous movement, you can still vary that general movement by changing the movement’s force strength, speed, extent of the movement, and its direction, etc.  Not seeing any pattern, then it will be more difficult for your opponent to anticipate your next move and therefore choose his response.

The above example of varying your movements not in any set pattern is also related to another quote from Sun Tzu “The location where we will engage the enemy must not become known to them.  If it is not known, then the positions that they must prepare to defend will be numerous.  If the positions the enemy prepares to defend are numerous, then the forces we engage will be few.”  Because there are many positions that your opponent needs to defend, your opponent cannot concentrate their defense against one or two positions, thus their defensive forces will also be weaker.

In summary, even though Sun Tzu’s classic “The Art of War” was written primarily for an army commander to lead an army to fight against another army, parts of the classic are also relevant for individual combats.  In particular, it has direct relevance to Taiji Push Hands from a martial arts perspective.


[1] In the rest of this article, combat refers to both combat between one army and another army, or between an individual fighter and another fighter, although our discussion will be on the latter only.

[2] These quotes are from the English translation “Sun-tzu:  The Are of War” by Ralph D. Sawyer, published by Barnes & Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Westview Press, 1994.

[3] Here we are assuming that the Taiji practitioner is in physical contact with (i.e., touching) the opponent.  For more discussion on Taiji Push Hands, see two previous articles in this website:

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One Response to “Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Taijiquan”

  1. Hu Zushu says:

    Thanks for explaining the link between Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” (孫子兵法) and the push-hands (推手) techinique.


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