Yang Cheng Fu performing the Single Whip posture.
Single Whip is one of the most recognisable yet least understood postures in any Tai Chi form. I think the confusion arrises from the name. Hearing “whip” most people think of an Indiana Jones style whip – a strip of leather or cord fastened to a handle. Add to this the phrase “whipping power” that’s often used to describe the type of force used in many Chinese Martial Arts and you get people trying to use the Single Whip posture as a strike that’s like a whip crack. Worse you also see them trying to use the beak-like rear hand to strike with, but more of that later.
Let’s try and solve this mystery.
Personally, I don’t think Tai Chi does use a whipping type of power at all – not in the same way that other Chinese martial arts, like Choy Lee Fut, for example, do. Choy Lee Fut genuinely does use a whipping power – the arms whip out, somewhat wildly, powered by the turning motions of the waist and body, but that’s not the same as Tai Chi movement. When you ‘whip’ the arms out in this manner you give up control of them for a brief moment, so they’re moving independently. In the Tai Chi classic by Wu Yuxian it says:
“Remember, when moving, there is no place that does not move.
When still, there is no place that is not still.”
It’s not possible to stop a whipping motion like this, once it’s started, which means it’s not really Tai Chi Chuan, at least not in my book.
Here’s the deal: The ‘whip’ mentioned in the name of the Tai Chi posture isn’t a flexible whip, as you’d imagine it was – it’s more like a stick. If you think about it not all whips are flexible – take a riding crop, for instance. The posture is called Single Whip because the finishing posture looks like somebody carrying a yoke, but only on one side, hence the “Single”.
The Chinese have used yokes – sticks carried across the shoulders and back – to transport good since ancient times. Buckets are usually hung from the ends of the yoke. Here’s a picture from a historical website of an 1860’s Chinese gold digger, starting for work with his tools suspended from a yoke on his shoulders.
Now take a look at this illustration of a Chinese man carrying a yoke with just one hand on the yoke:
That’s starting to look very like Tai Chi’s Single Whip posture, isn’t it?
The ‘whip’ could also be used as a weapon in Chinese Marital Arts. Again, it was usually referring to a short stick, not a flexible whip. In the excellent “Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals” by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo you’ll find a description of a book called “Tiger Tail Whip” by Jiang Rong Qiao published in 1930. It features a “long routine for the metal tiger tail ‘whip’, which is rigid and actually amounts to a type of cane.”
In English the words ‘Single Whip’ cause an understandable confusion. The name is simply an aid to memory for the visual shape of the posture, and it’s not meant to be a clue to how you use it.
And the beak-like hand? It’s simply a stylised version of a grab to the opponents wrist. It’s more elegant to make your finger tips touch your thumb when you perform the form, and it reminds you that this is a wrist grab. A simple application of the Yang style version of Single Whip is to grab one of their wrists and pull it in one direction, while striking them in the face with your other hand. There’s nothing mysterious there, either!