Thoughts on Chen Taijiquan Illustrated #1 – Yang style vs Chen style

The newest addition to my collection!

My copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated arrived, and I’ve almost finished it. It’s an easy read since the word count isn’t very high – it’s essentially a series of high quality training notes, illustrated, which I think really helps to convey the message in a way that text alone cannot. I’m not going to do a full review for a while, I’m going to let the book sink in first, but I might do a series of posts on ideas it has sparked in me.

Here’s the first one.

The thing I wanted to talk about today was how similar Chen style (as described in this book) is to Yang style. I think a Yang stylist would get almost as much out of this book as a Chen stylist. While the content and methods described in the book all clearly derive from Chen style, as do the illustrations, I’d say 90% (or more) of what’s described here is exactly the same as Yang style.

So what’s different? Bits and bobs on silk reeling, some stepping methods and stance details and the bits on fajin. But even then, they’re not something alien to a Yang stylist, and would be easily within reach of anybody who wanted to take their practice in that direction.

What’s the same? The emphasis on posture is really good here – how to round the back, contain the chest, round the kua, the eight energies, the 5 steps, push hands strategy and training methods, quotes from the classics, being centred and upright, rooting, the dantien, martial applications, etc.

What was I surprised not to find more of? Opening and closing using the 5 bows, and empty and solid. Perhaps more on using the force from the ground… There are mentions of these things throughout, but the book never really goes deeply into them. Perhaps it was too complex for the illustrated book-based approach? There’s only so much you can fit in one book, and there’s plenty of content here.

However, the emphasis on the body requirements of Tai Chi, and explanation of why these things are done, is excellent and transfers effortlessly across Tai Chi styles. It’s reminded me a lot how similar Yang style and Chen style are ‘under the hood’, so to speak. I wrote a post recently where I talked about them being similar but different. I still kind of think that. My view is that at some point Chen style incorporated the ideas contained in “Taijiquan” wholesale from Yang Luchan’s lucrative teaching business in Beijing into its larger, pre-existing, village style (which was more militia fighting and weapons-based) – it absorbed it whole – a bit like a whale swallowing a smaller fish. It was easy because all Chinese styles are similar to some extent. But of course, this means that the Yang style is still there inside Chen, and it’s impossible not to see how ‘almost the same’ they are when reading this book. (I think the spiraling and silk reeling stuff was from the pre-existing Chen style). Your opinion may be different. Food for thought!

Why you should know (at least) two different styles of Tai Chi Chuan

Back when I interviewed Michael Babin on my podcast he mentioned that in addition to Yang style he also practiced Sun style on the side. He felt he got quite a lot out of it because Sun style emphasised different things when compared to his main style.

Single whip posture by Sun Jianyun, 1957

I didn’t mention it at the time, but I also have a Tai Chi-style (1) that I do on the side, and I practice it for exactly the same reasons as Michael: I get things out of it that aren’t emphasised to the same extent in my main style.

While my Yang style uses deep, wide stances with obvious circular movement coming from the dantien, my side style has slightly higher, narrower stances and is less obviously centred around the dantien area. Both styles use whole body movement, but with the different physical emphasis there’s more headspace available to focus on other ways of achieving whole body movement – effectively making more use of opening and closing the body. I think that is also exactly how Sun style compliments Yang style, too. By practicing my side style I get to focus more exclusively on the opening and closing of the body, and I can then bring that back into my Yang style practice.

Of course, style purists will find fault with this approach. I’ve nothing against people who only practice one Tai Chi style all their life, or even practice only one martial art all their life. There’s definitely something to be said for ‘don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 techniques, but fear the man who has practiced one technique 10,000 times’. And, of course, any Tai Chi style should be enough, on its own, to take you to the highest levels of the art. But I think that if you only practice one style then it’s at least worth dabbling in another, just to get that new perspective on what you already do. In my experience this will make you a better Tai Chi practitioner and a more well-rounded martial artist, if for no other reason than you’ll gain experience of defending attacks from more than just one style.

When we look at well known martial arts masters of the past there’s a pervading view that they only practiced one style, or were only permitted to practice one style by their teachers, but history is full of examples of famous masters who were well known for cross training – Ku Yu Chang, Sun Lu Tang and Wang Xiangzhai, to name but 3.

In terms of biology, nature prefers diversity, if the gene pool of a species starts to become too small you get inbreeding leading to genetic defects. You can see this happen in marital arts styles that become too insular as well. They maintain their purity, but at what cost? They becoming dysfunctional.

I’m all for diversity in my martial arts training and in life.

  1. The side style of Tai Chi I practice is a UK-centric style called Li style. I’ve been doing it since the 90s and while my interest in it can wax and wane it’s been a constant for over 30 years now. The Li style form is a nice, relaxing form to do. It’s slightly controversial because you can’t find the style in China, which is an obvious red flag, but I stopped caring about that a long time ago. I do it because I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter to me if it was “made up” in the 1950s, or not. I mean, at some point everything was “made up” anyway, right? So what matters is if you get something out of it and if you can do it following the Tai Chi principles, which in the case of Li style, you can.

    Li style essentially looks a bit like Wu (Jianquan) stye. The form starts off following (very) roughly the same pattern as Wu Jianqan style, but after White Crane Spreads Wings it splits off into its own sequence, which is nothing like any other Tai Chi style I’ve seen before. It’s a very long form, with no repeated sections, and I’ve never quite been able to get to the end of it and remember all of it satisfactorily, but I can get quite a long way through it. Here’s a video of the Li form being done.

Yang style Tai Chi: The needle in the cotton

My recent podcast with Chen stylist Ken Gullette has led to me thinking a lot about the differences between Yang style and Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. I know the official view is that these two arts are both the same art – “there is only one Tai Chi” – but I’m not really sure I believe that entirely.

Single whip posture by Li Xianwu, 1933.

The issue is confusing because a lot of highly partisan Tai Chi practitioners tend to view one of the arts as being a more ‘watered down’ or ‘less internal’ version of the other – if they’re on the Chen side of the argument then they view Yang style as a “watered down for the masses” version of Chen style, and if they’re on team Yang style then they view Chen style as a more “external and Shaolin” aberration of Tai Chi.

I’ve never been interested in either of those two arguments myself as they betray a kind of small-minded “my style is THE BEST” attitude that seeks to simply put down the other style for no good reason beyond “I don’t like it”. It reminds me of the worst aspects of jingoism that seeks to war with other countries simply because they are not us.

When I say I think Yang style and Chen style are really different beasts I mean it in a positive sense – they’re both good, and share a lot of similarities, and both exist under the banner of “Tai Chi”. But the emphasis is quite different between the two. I find Chen style seems to be more concerned with the body mechanics like silk reeling and opening and closing in different parts of the body, and going from being soft to sudden explosive movements (hard) then back to soft again.

Of course, opening and closing is there in Yang style too, but I don’t really know of any Yang stylists that put as much emphasis on it as Chen stylists do, especially the Chen Yu branch of the art, which goes really deep on it (to my eye at least). And as for silk reeling, that seems to be absent in Yang style.

Yang style, in contrast, has its main emphasis on a kind of “needle in cotton” feel throughout. It’s soft on the outside and hard on the inside and all done at the same speed – drawing silk, rather than reeling silk, like a long river flowing. That’s not to say that Chen style can’t be like that too, but the emphasis on that way of being is greater in Yang style.

Of course, the official view from the Chinese government (and Yang and Chen families) is that Chen style is the ancestor of Yang style. End of story. But like most things in China, I suspect it’s more about political expediency than historical accuracy. For example, there’s a complete lack of evidence that Yang Luchan ever visited Chen village, let alone trained there for years and years. (If you want to get picky, there’s hardly any evidence available anywhere that Yang Luchan actually existed at all!) And the Chen family didn’t get in on the Tai Chi teaching business until 1928, which is very, very late in the day compared to Yang style, since Yang Luchan was reputedly teaching Tai Chi in the Forbidden City from the 1860s onwards. There are a lot of holes in the official story. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the official story can’t be true, but there are enough holes in it to make me the journalist in me question it.

But anyway, In Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points, we find number 6 – use the mind not force. Cheng-Fu goes on to explain that, “In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

I’m willing to bet that this piece of writing is responsible for leading more than a few Tai Chi practitioners down the wrong path, towards wet-noodle Tai Chi. The attitude of being a needle in cotton is the antithesis of this. If you’re going to make the outside soft then the inside of the body has to be hard, otherwise you are just a wet noodle, which sadly a lot of Tai Chi practitioners are. That’s how the Yin/Yang balance is maintained in Yang style.

Importantly, Yang Cheng-Fu goes on to say: “The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “when you are extremely soft, you become extremely hard and strong.” Someone who has extremely good T’ai Chi Ch’uan kung fu has arms like iron wrapped with cotton and the weight is very heavy.”

There it is – the needle in the cotton.

If you can imagine a needle (or an iron bar) wrapped in cotton, then just brushing your hand over the cotton we feel like everything was soft. But if you squeezed the cotton you’d feel that hardness at its centre. That is how the whole body should be when practicing Yang style. It’s a kind of presence that can only be acquired by long practice of Tai Chi Chuan, learning to move while relaxing the muscles and letting the flesh hang from the bones, while keeping the skeletal stricture strong. Both light and heavy at the same time.

I also think it’s very hard to get this feel by only practicing Tai Chi Chuan, and that’s one of the reasons that standing practice and Yi Quan has become so popular amongst Tai Chi practitioners. I think standing practice (Zhan Zhuang) provides a kind of shortcut to the kind of power required to be a needle in the cotton, but that’s a story for another day.

Wang Xiang Zhai doesn’t like Tai Chi

Somebody posted a quote by (founder of Yi Quan) Wang Xiang Zhai from his 1940s interview containing his thoughts on Tai Chi. It is pretty clear, unambiguous and to the point. Have a read:

Wang Xiang Zhai on Taijiquan (from an early 1940’s interview):As masters of the original Taijiquan, I should recommend the Yang brothers Shouhou and Chengfu. They are my friends, and I know that their Taiji has some knowledge of mechanics. But out of one hundred students, not even one gains its essence…and even then, it is still one-sided, because the skills of intuitive perception died out a long time ago. Originally, Taiji consisted of three fists, Wang Zongyue changed it into thirteen postures, and it was later embellished into as much as one hundred and fifty postures. This is the cause of the distortion.Sticking to mechanical movements, seeking beautiful postures and mistaking it for the glory of martial arts…that is terrible. Such a person cannot comprehend boxing for life. If a man of insight sees such a performance, he will feel sick for ten days.As a means of health preservation, Taijiquan restrains the spirit, and brings discomfort to its practitioner. For combat, it harms the practitioner’s limbs and trunk, and causes a useful body to become a mechanical and stiff thing…it’s nothing more than a waste of time.As for the training method—a punch with the fist here, a slap with the palm there, a kick to the left, and another one to the right—it is pitiful and laughable.As for dealing with an enemy in a fight: please do not even consider it. So ruined is this boxing that it has become useless. There are many more things, but I feel embarrassed to say them.

He doesn’t think much of Tai Chi, but there are some things to consider.

  1. Wang was building a brand – Yi Quan – in a commercial setting. Setting out how you are different to/better than your competition is the first stage of building a brand.

2. This “three old fists” idea of history I don’t put much stock in. I think it’s a reference to the three old fists of Xin Yi (info on Jarek’s website), which he is therefore assuming as the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s not much of a link there that I can see. Or if there is, it’s very tenuous.

3. I think he’s criticising the Tai Chi training method, more than the art. He seems to hold the Yang brothers in high regard, but it’s their students and training methods he thinks are flawed. Wang was never a fan of forms training.

4. I think we need to consider what was happening in China in 1940. China has never (and still doesn’t) had a free press. If this was published it would conform to the political direction of the day.

From Wikipedia:

“In 1940, the Japanese set up the collaborationist Wang Jingwei regime, with its capital in Nanking, which proclaimed itself the legitimate “Republic of China” in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s government, although its claims were significantly hampered due to its being a puppet state controlling limited amounts of territory.

Chinese Nationalist Army soldiers during the 1938 Yellow River flood

The United Front between the Kuomintang and the CCP had salutary effects for the beleaguered CCP, despite Japan’s steady territorial gains in northern China, the coastal regions and the rich Yangtze River Valley in central China. After 1940, conflicts between the Kuomintang and Communists became more frequent in the areas not under Japanese control. The Communists expanded their influence wherever opportunities presented themselves through mass organizations, administrative reforms and the land- and tax-reform measures favoring the peasants and, the spread of their organizational network, while the Kuomintang attempted to neutralize the spread of Communist influence. Meanwhile, northern China was infiltrated politically by Japanese politicians in Manchukuo using facilities such as the Wei Huang Gong.”

So while all this conflict with Japan is going on I think the general trend is towards westernising and modernising China, leaving behind the older traditions that had held China back. This interview – looking towards newer scientific methods of martial arts – is in keeping with that trend. Japan was also very into adopting western military methods and building an empire, like the British had.

5. Both Yang Shao-Hou and Yang Cheng-Fu died in 1936, yet Wang is talking about them as if they are still alive in the 1940s, so something doesn’t add up. This interview is either doctored, or was done a long time before it was published in the 1940s.

6. You can get a better idea of his larger themes by reading the whole interview.

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Challenging assumptions: Were martial arts really created to teach us how to fight?

What has this got to do with fighting? Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.com

Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.

It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?

Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.

It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.

I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.

Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.

This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.

The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).

The martial arts, as we know them, have very minimal connection to actual military arts. Those were for killing people, and required weapons. As General Qi Jiguang wrote in his 1560 Boxing Classic,

“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”

As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.

Podcast Episode 2: Byron Jacobs on Beijing martial arts

Episode 2 of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast is out!

Byron Jacobs is a teacher of Xing Yi and Bagua based in Beijing, China. He’s a student of the famous Shifu Di Guoyong and is heavily involved in the martial arts scene in Beijing. As well as training traditional martial arts he’s also a BJJ practitioner and competitor.

If you’d like to be taught by Byron in the arts of Xing Yi and Bagua, then he has an online learning platform available at https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

In this wide ranging discussion we talk about training Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi and whether Wu Shu will ever get into the Olympics. We also find out what it was like to train martial arts in Beijing during the Corona virus pandemic, and what the Chinese BJJ and MMA scene is like.

Show notes
—————

(9.45)
Byron’s Hua Jin Online learning platform
https://www.patreon.com/mushinmartialculture

(15.22)
Byron’s Mu Shin Martial Culture YouTube channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg_V6eznSvYOFz2naGlgRpg

(47.05)
DQ’d for Kicking TOO HARD? – Doctor Reacts to Olympic Karate Controversy and Knockout Science
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QFxxM3QOws

(1.05.30)
Speed passing by Rafa Mendes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qu_9Lcdrh_w

(1.18.11)
Ku Yu Chang (Guruzhang’s) Yang style Taijiquan:
A STUDY OF TAIJI BOXING by Long Zixiang
https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/the-taiji-manual-of-long-zixiang/

(1.23.00)
Stand Still Be Fit by Master Lam Kam Chuen
https://www.youtube.com/user/StandStillBeFit

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify
Apple
Web

Chasing perfection: Yang Cheng-Fu’s roll back posture

I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.

Yang Chengfu, Rollback.

Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.

Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”

You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.

You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.

There’s a lot you can learn from a photo.

Don’t stick out your bottom!

I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.

Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!

A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.

I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.

When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.

The fall and rise of Yang LuChan

Yang LuChan, portrait.

In part 4, the latest episode of our look at the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, we can see how the actions of the British and French acting aggressively in China forced the hand of the powerful new dowager empress, Cixi to make some changes in the Royal Court.

Empress Dowager Cixi, portrait 1905.

People like the Wu brothers and Yang LuChan were suddenly out on their ear and had to make a living in a strange new world that suddenly valued entrepreneurship over nepotism. When your family business is teaching martial arts and you’ve got a family to feed, then it’s time to open your own public martial arts school.

Wu Yuxiang

Here, in the 1860s, we start to see the birth of martial art styles in Beijing that can compete against each other for paying students. At this time Yang LuChan’s two sons were finally old enough to teach martial arts full time.

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