4oz deflects 1000lbs

The Yang Family Secret Transmissions book contains a number of writings that are seen as additions to the main Tai Chi Classics documents.

Amongst the documents is “The Song of Pull down”. “Pull down” is the name of one of the ‘8 energies of Tai Chi’, there’s a song, meaning verse, for each of the energies in the book. Here’s the Pull Down song:

The Song of Pull-Down

How can we explain the energy of Pull-down?
Like weighing something on a balance scale,
We give free play to the opponent’s force
whether great or small.
After weighing it we know its lightness
or heaviness .
Turning on only four ounces,
We can weigh a thousand pounds .
If we ask what is the principle behind this,
We discover it is the function of the lever.

The verse is not talking about something mystical, it’s quite clearly talking about the principle of leverage. A lot of Tai Chi people don’t like the idea that ‘Pull down’ might be about something as mundane as leverage, which is found in all other martial arts. Well, tough! The verse is clearly talking about leverage.

You’ll see the reference to four ounces moving a thousand pounds in this verse. This also appears in the ‘Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan’, one of the main Tai Chi classics, where it says:

“From the sentence “A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds”
we know that the technique is not accomplished with strength. “

Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan

Leverage, of course, is different to pure strength. As Archimedes said about leverage:

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth.”
(quoted by Pappus of Alexandria in Synagoge, Book VIII, c. AD 340)

By using leverage you can significantly increase the amount of power you can generate. The martial arts that will teach you the most about leverage are all grappling arts – Shuai Jiao, Judo, BJJ, etc..

For an example of leverage in marital arts – look how much pressure is required to break the elbow at the end position of an armbar in BJJ – you could say that it’s about….. 4 oz.

When looking for the energy of Pull Down in the Tai Chi form you find it all over the place. A classic posture its used in is the Raise hands/ Play Guitar type of movements. Here you hold the wrist and elbow of the attacker, and apply pressure to hyperextend the arm. Again, this is another example of leverage.

Raise Hands, Yang Cheng-Fu

My Tai Chi teacher tends to call the energy “shock” rather than “Pull down”, but its application is the same. It’s a short sharp jolt to the system that usually has the effect of getting you up on your toes, or moving forward or backwards whether you want to or not. And the only way to do that to somebody, without being significantly stronger than them, is through the use of leverage.

Look out for the movement in the video where he pulls the attacker’s arm down to uproot him and says “this is shock” (around the 1 minute mark).

Now, all these different applications of ‘pull down’ or ‘shock’ energy looked very different to each other, however, they’re all applications of the same principle – leverage. The technique can look very different, but the principle (or as Led Zeppelin would say, the song) remains the same.

Feet-together postures in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Xing Yi

I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:

From: Sun Lu Tang, A Study of Taiji boxing, 1921

From: Long ZiXiang, A study of Taiji boxing 1952

Here’s an example of the posture in application in Taiji performed by my teacher Sifu Raymond Rand:

Sifu Rang, Brush Knee, Twist Step.

It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.

Sun Lu Tang showing a selection of postures from , A Study of Xing Yi Boxing, 1915

Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.

If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).

Video:

Example feet together transitional posture:

Byron Jacobs of Mushin Martial Culture

In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.

From: Selected subtleties of the Xing Yi Boxing art, by Liu Dianchen [1921]

So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.

It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.

For example:

From: Wu Yuxiang style Taiji Boxing by Hao Shaoru

While the feet don’t go completely together as much, if at all, in Wu(Hao) style, they are very close together for a lot of the time. Watch this video for an example of the form in action:

One theory about why this is is that Wu Yuxiang was a member of the Imperial Court at the end of the Ching Dynasty, and was therefore expected to wear traditional court dress, which restricted the stepping.

I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.

Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.

Xing Yi:

Taiji:

However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:

Chen Ziming for example:

From: The inherited Chen family boxing art, Chen Ziming

My Drunken Boxing interview with Byron Jacobs

I appeared on the Drunken Boxing podcast run by my friend Byron Jacobs yesterday where we dived into the story behind all the martial arts I practice, who my teachers are and how I discovered them.

I’m usually the one interviewing other people on my podcast (I interviewed Byron back in episode 2) so this was a bit different. To be honest it feels a bit cringe listening to yourself talk about yourself, but hopefully there’s some interesting stories here to entertain people.

Drunken Boxing #042 Graham Barlow

Here’s a few links to some of the many and varied things I talk about:

Master Lam and Sifu Raymond Rand on the cover of Fighters magazine 1983:

Sifu Raymond Rand, Tai Chi Chuan applications 2022:

Stand Still Be Fit, Day 1: Master Lam Kam Chuen’s original Channel 4 TV series.

Graham in a BJJ sub-only competition 2013, blue belt

Woven Energy podcast episode 1

Graham Tiger Shape Xing Yi

What is the point of Tai Chi applications?

Yang Cheng-Fu showing Tai Chi applications from his book.

In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.

The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.

There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.

I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.

That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.

Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.

Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:

I wonder – does the man in the mirror ever punch him back?

If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:

A great title for a video “Killer Choy Li Fut form!” It’s actually a great performance, especially with the drumming in the background.

Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:

Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time. 

Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.

So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.

Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.

If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.

I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.

As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.

Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.

Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!

So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.

The hidden takedown in Ward Off

Tai Chi Ward Off

Most people who do Tai Chi are familiar with the idea of Ward Off as being a block/deflection of an incoming strike, but there’s also a takedown application inherent in the movement.

As luck would have it there is a new series of videos being posted online of my Tai Chi teacher, Sifu Rand, showing various Tai Chi applications. Here’s a video of him demonstrating the takedown contained in Ward Off.

Check out the YouTube channel Spinning Dragon Tao as it looks like there will be more applications posted there soon.

Ji – To press or crowd in

I was reading through my latest purchase, Chen Style Illustrated, again recently and I got to something that piqued my interest – it’s the section where they are describing the 8 energies and we get to Press (Ji)

“When in contact the aim of this gradual rolling move is is to unsettle the balance of he opponent.”

It’s not a bad description at all, but I don’t resonate with the word “gradual” there. The most common application you tend to see for Press is of a kind of “bump” that puts the person off balance, but my experience of Ji has been that there’s nothing particularly gradual about it. That bump can be applied in a hard sharp way. Jin done in a forward direction (which is Press) can often be quite jolting and it hurts inside.

The 8 energies are:

掤 peng, 捋 lu, 挤 ji, 按 an, 採 cai, 挒 lie, 肘 zhou, 靠 kao

Google translates 挤 as “press” or “crowd in”. (I’m not sure that another translation you often see of “squeeze” is helpful. I’ve read people writing about squeezing the hands together – that’s not it at all. ) From that you get the sense of a situation where you are already in contact with the person and, perceiving a point of weakness in their defence you press them further on the point. It reminds me a lot of the strategy of Horse in Xing Yi, which is to attack a point of defence that is already defended but has a weakness you can exploit.

Cheng Man Ching doing Press

In the Tai Chi form Ji is usually done with the back of the hand in the typical Grasp Bird’s Tail sequence (presumably because it the easiest way to capitalise on a good position you’ve already achieved), but there’s nothing about the energy you’re using that means it has to be done with the back of the hand. It can be done with a fist or palm too.

And this is where the Tai Chi waters get a bit murky. There is the martial technique Press, which is to do with pressing further forward into an opponent you are already contacted with, and then there is the abstract concept of “jin in a forward direction”. Anytime you express jin (strength derived from the ground through a relaxed body) in a forward direction you could be said to be doing 挤, but when you put it into a Tai Chi context it takes on this quality of crowding in and pressing that attack.

The head kick from hell! Leon Edwards UFC 278

Congratulations to the UK’s Leon Edwards for becoming the new UFC Middleweight Champion of the world with his stunning head kick victory over Kamaru Usman. After a great first round Edwards was clearly losing on points having been dominated by the champion in each round since, but in the fifth and final he pulled off a near perfect head kick as you’re ever going to see, sending Usman crashing to the canvas and making him the new champion.

As the photos show, he set it up with a left that tells Usman to dip his head to the right, but that kick is already coming and it’s all over.

1. Feint the left.
2. Usman dips his head.
3. Kick connects!

Internal power and the 3 internal harmonies: Going beyond words like Xin, Yi and Qi to direct experience

Almost by accident I watched Onama vs Landwher from UFC: Marlon Vera vs Dominick Cruz this morning and heavens above, that was one hell of a fight! Possibly the fight of the year. I’ve no idea how you’d score it. Landwher won by decision, but it was possibly the MMA fight of the year. Wild exchanges throughout with both fighters being so tired they could hardly stand up, but somehow kept going. It looked like they both had almost beyond the levels of human endurance, going from looking so tired they could barley move to pulling off flashy 3 move combinations.

You could almost see their spirit rising within to propel them on. It reminded me of all the phrases about the internal harmonies (san nei he) that we use in the Internet arts. The Xin (heart) leads the Yi (intention/mind), the Yi leads the Qi (energy to work) and the Qi leads the Li (physical movement). Initially this seems rather simplistic, say if you want to do something like make a cup of tea then you first have a desire to do it (heart) that travels to the brain (yi) that decides and then it ends up in a physical movement (li) and you find your feet moving you towards the kettle.

But that process happens automatically in humans and all animals, so why do we need to make a big deal of it and describe all the parts that build up to making an automatic process happen?

It’s often explained as putting the intention and will (the brains and heart) behind the movement. You can do things with a sense of purpose, or you can do them absent mindedly. In the internal arts, like Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi, your actions need to have a sense of purpose. Your mind needs to be on the job, not half engaged. That’s one reason, but I think there’s more to these internal harmonies than just this.

I remember in BJJ training sometimes being so exhausted it was like my mind left my body and I became somewhat detached from my surroundings. It’s at moments like that that you start to be able to feel your “spirit” or mind as an identifiable thing. Through a sheer act of will you can force your mind to not give up and get back to the job and it can give you the energy you need to carry on fighting. That’s what I saw happening in Obama vs Landwher. A sheer force of will was being used to make them continue – their internal was leading the external.

Frankly, most people training only internal arts without hard sparring pay a lot of lip service to the internal co-ordinations, but do they ever reach an intensity of training where they can actually feel these things as tangible elements?

I’m not saying that you need to get an an MMA cage to experience your internal state under extreme physical stress before you have any idea what it is, but you can experience it in a safer way through things like Jiujitsu. Maybe Systema, too. Just some food for thought, and another reason why I think all Tai Chi instructors who re physically able should try and get a blue belt in BJJ if they are teaching the art beyond the health aspects.

There’s a risk, when reading this that people might think that using your Yi, or Xin in Tai Chi technique simply means to furrow you brow, put on a mean face, stare hard at something, get really tense and act like you really mean it, man. Because that’s not it either. That’s not what using “martial intent” or Yi means in internal arts at all. If I see people practicing internal arts like that I think it’s just bad karate. Not that there’s anything wrong with karate, of course.

Your internal state can be serious, but come from a place of calm. It’s a strange contrast between being expansive, yet laser focused, like the eyes of an eagle who is high up in the sky looking for prey. He’s taking in all his surroundings, but can pinpoint down on a single point when required. That’s using the 3 internal harmonies properly.

I think this is a Kite, not an Eagle, but you get the idea. Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

The Tai Chi classics say:

To fajin,
sink,
relax completely,
and aim in one direction!

There it is – the (sung) relaxed body is the first requirements, once you have it you can ‘point your mind’ in the direction you want your power to go, so that the internal movement matches the external movement. When the inner and outer harmonise together, then you have internal power.

What you can learn from Tai Chi kicks

Tai Chi kicks are a great way of testing your balance. Due to the circular nature of Tai Chi technique the sections of the forms where you are kicking often involve turning the body to the left or right while you are standing on one leg. It’s more challenging than a simple one direction kick and is a great training for your balance.

I shot this during this morning’s Tai Chi practice. It’s the kicking section of the short form that we practice in the Yongquan Tai Chi Chuan Association:

You’ll notice that the kicks are done lower than you see in a lot of modern Tai Chi forms. That’s because we’re aiming at the knee. The classical technique for these moves is to block their knee with your foot and pull their arm in the opposite direction to get a takedown. Effectively using the foot as a kind of brace, not really as a kick.

But it’s the training these techniques offer in balance that is their real value I think – a lot of people end up very wobbly on the standing leg when performing these techniques. The key to making it silky smooth is not to think about sinking down into the ground as you raise the leg, but to ‘raise the back’ as you lift the leg. That upward ‘pull’ holds you in place securely so you can deliver a smooth kick.

The inherent potential of the Tai Chi form

More thoughts inspired by Chen Taijiquan Illustrated

“Training the form helps one to learn the core substance of Taijiquan. Practicing the various push hands methods trains how to apply its inherent potential.”

The function and reason for forms (tao lu) in Chinese martial arts continues to fascinate me. Were they planned to be like this all along, or is the usage of tao lu a happy accident born out of ancient religious ritual festival celebrations and the hiding of marital arts in theatrical traditions? The answer is probably a bit of both, and more of the “wrong” answer than you’d like to admit, no matter which of the two views you take.

I think all Tai Chi practitioners, beyond the mindless followers practicing in parks, 12 rows deep from the front, have a basic understanding that the Tai Chi form contains martial applications which can be brought out in push hands. But it’s the wording of the quote above that caught me: “the inherent potential” of the form.

That’s exactly it – the form isn’t explicitly martial. Certain compromises are necessarily made to maintain an aesthetic and flow to the movements. If it wasn’t then Tai Chi would look more like more practical Shuai Jiao solo drills or jiujitsu kata. And I think that’s what bugs a lot of people who laugh at the idea that Tai Chi can be used as a martial art. The martial essence is there in the movements, but it’s not on the surface. It’s buried, inherent potential that you’ll need to mine if you want to discover it.