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.

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.

How do I raise the spirit of vitality?

“Could you tell me if there is a specific exercise to raise the spirit of vitality?
Or could this be just any exercise at all rather than a specific one?
I have been learning tai chi and it talks about Spirit/Shen and its importance,
but I haven’t a clue exactly what it means. I know to feel full of spirit means you feel on top of the world and ready for life- this is what I would like to feel.”

Well, that’s a tricky one to answer. You have to ask what is meant by “spirit”. In the Mongol language, for example, there are a whole plethora of words that in English would translate in “spirit” and they all mean something slightly different. The Chinese word “shen”, I think, could be translated into several different English words depending on context. In English we have to add more words to a sentence containing “spirit” to add context. For example, “spirit of vitality” – this would be the sense of feeling full of energy and ready to face the world that you talk about. But there are other words that we translate as “sprit” that have all sorts of meanings, from the mundane to the profound – and all slightly related. For example to “raise the spirit” can mean something as mundane as keeping the posture upright with the head up, or as profound as the creative realm of the tree of life.

This idea of being upright (physically, mentally and spiritually) is a big thing in Tai Chi – we are told to “let a light and intangible energy raise to the head top” in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points.

Yang Cheng-Fu

So, to get to the other part of your question – how to do it. There is no specific exercise for raising the spirit of vitality. Rather, it is a part of the postural requirements of Tai Chi, so it should apply in all exercise orientated towards Tai Chi practice. You want to feel as if your head if being pulled up by a thread from the crown point (between the tops of the ears). The result should be that the back of your neck gently lengthens and the chin tucks in. As always, you don’t want to achieve this posture with force, so don’t push your head into it. You should find that if you stand, focus on your breathing, generate that lightweight observation of self that is required in Tai Chi, your head and neck posture should naturally want to assume this posture.

Everything in Tai Chi works together. If you are breathing well, then it will encourage your posture to be upright and strong, which in turn will encourage you to ‘raise the head top’. If you can remove stress and tension from the body then the weight will sink down simultaneously, so you should feel strongly rooted into the ground and drawn up from the crown at the same time. These two pulls in opposite directions provide balance. You are separating yin and yang in the body – again, another part of the Tai Chi process.

I hope that helps.

The Tai Chi form of Yang Shau-Hou

220px-Yangshaohou

Yang Shou-Hou

Below is a video, shot in 1977, of the Tai Chi form of Xiong Yangho who was a student of Yang Shau-Hou, the (much) older brother of Yang Cheng Fu. Born in 1862 he was effectively of a different generation than his brother Yang Cheng-Fu who was born in 1883, which is 21 years later.

You can see that the form follows the same pattern as the Yang Cheng-Fu version but has a few unique characteristics. Again, this hints that there were different ways of doing the form before Yang Cheng-Fu standardised it into “Yang style”.

These different interpretations are a bit like the Gnostic Christian gospels – they’ve been rejected from the main orthodox canon, but they have just as much validity as any ‘official’ version of the form.

The description reads:

“Taiji Grand Master Xiong Yang He (1889-1981) The Interpretation of Taiji Quan The Teaching Frame of Hundred & Eleven Styles in Taiji Quan Video & voice edited by Li Ri Xing 28th September 1977”

 

 

What’s particularly interesting is the second video, at 7.51 onwards, after the form has finished, he does what looks like a couple of silk reeling exercises in which he traces a Yin Yang symbol in a manner described in Shen Jiazhen’s book.

silkr1

giphy

In the video Xiong Yangho then does some fast moves that look a lot like Southern Kung Fu – Pake Mei or Wing Chun, that sort of thing:

Edit: A comment on this post from Bai Yiming reveals that these are from another martial art called “Xiyangzhang”

“What Xiong Yanghe shows in the later vids has nothing to do with TJQ; those “5 little hands”, as they are called, originate form Xiyangzhang, another style. Xiong has cross-trained a lot and taught a huge curriculum. There is no Taiji symbol traced, it is purely an application. I know as I’m training in the Xiongmen, the Xiong system, do the Xiyangzhang and also those hand moves!”

Here’s a video of Xinog Yanghe doing some more Xiyangzhang:

 

Here’s another video of Xiong Yangho doing Tai Chi:

 

Originally from the mainland, Xiong Yangho was a military man who escaped to Taiwan with the nationalists once the Communists took over in China. There’s a short biography of him here.

 

Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

singlewhip

“Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form.”

A guy on a discussion forum called Wayne Hansen uses that quote in his signature. I don’t know if this is a famous quote from an old master, or if it’s just something that Wayne thought of himself, but it’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, upper body muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, talked about in the Tai Chi classics.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how Tai Chi is done, which is pretty standard in Chinese martial arts. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, which have very little explanation, and are only useful for people who already understand what they mean. So let’s break this one down and see where we get, starting with:

1. Fang song

In Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to fang song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it sacrifices flexibility. This sort of force tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. In contrast, relaxation can be more like thick sea ice – strong and solid all the way down.

But to be both powerful and relaxed a body also needs to be:

2. Coordinated

On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives together at the same place at the same time. If you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all arriving together in a unified purpose then you can use relaxation to create a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story. You also need:

3. Sinking

The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking, which can be described as dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing, enables power from the ground to rebound up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who criticise sinking as merely “pushing from the legs”. They say that this will just be too slow. To that I’d say, go and ask a boxer if his punches are too slow, because that’s what a boxer does. But more importantly, that’s not what I’m talking about.

It’s true, the legs are very much involved in generating power from the ground, but when you can effectively drop your weight down it’s not a physical movement of pushing from the legs that matters. It’s the internal movement of power that is important, the jin. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not going to be too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it in your form. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day, right? Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of the famous Yang style Tai Chi teacher, Yang Cheng Fu. You can see how relaxed he looks and how his weight is sinking down.

He’s got it.

Using the waist in Tai Chi Chuan

You know how it is when you can tell a section of your form has gone to seed, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why? While doing the form this morning I was having major problems with one particular move. Which one is of no consequence, all that’s important is that it just didn’t feel right whatever way I did it. My form felt week and uncoordinated in that one particular spot. So, what is a student to do when they get stuck like this?

Luckily, I have a video of my teacher doing the form, so after failing to find the fault myself I simply popped open my laptop to watch how he approached that move. Immediately I saw my problem. He does the move with a lot more waist turning than I do. In fact, he does a lot more waist turning on all the moves compared to me, not just this one. The waist and legs are of utmost importance in TCC. In fact, it should have been the first place I looked for the solution to my problem rather than turning to a video, since the Tai Chi Classics already tell you that this is where you should be looking first to correct errors in your form. The Tai Chi Chuan Treaste (attributed to Chang Sang Feng) says it quite clearly:

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.

That seems pretty clear – if your movement feels uncoordinated or generally wrong to you then first look to the legs and waist for a solution to your problem. The emphasis on the waist echoes on through out the rest of the Classics. In the “Song of the Thirteen Postures” (Unknown Author) the first two lines are: “The Thirteen Postures should not be taken lightly; the source of the postures is in the waist.” And later: “Pay attention to the waist at all times; completely relax the abdomen”. From the Five Character Secret by Li I-Yu it says: “The ch’i is like a wheel, and the whole body must mutually coordinate. If there is any uncoordinated place, the body becomes disordered and weak. The defect is to be found in the waist and legs”, and also Yang Cheng-Fu recaps the whole matter neatly in his 10 Important Points:

“3.) Sung [Relax] the waist. The waist is the commander of the whole body. If you can sung the waist, then the two legs will have power and the lower part will be firm and stable. Substantial and insubstantial change, and this is based on the turning of the waist. It is said “the source of the postures lies in the waist. If you cannot get power, seek the defect in the legs and waist.””

On a purely physical level it’s the turning actions of the waist that generate Sung Jin (Relaxed force) in Tai Chi Chuan. For example, regardless of which style of Yang you do, after raising then lowering the hands most Yang forms start with a turn to the right accompanied by a ‘Ward Off’ movement with your right arm. For that movement to actually ward something off it needs to have power in it, rather than just being as soft as a noodle. But it needs the right type of power to avoid using just brute force. It’s the turning action of the body to the right that initiates the arm movement and puts the correct type of power (Sung Jin) in the arm. Rather than it being a separate movement powered only the arm muscles independantly, the movement is done by the whole body forming a unified shape. Still with me? Good. If not then read that again, and maybe watch a video of somebody who is good doing Yang style, like this guy.

The rotation of the waist is usually done in the horizontal vector and is most evident on the transitional movements between postures in the form*, but the waist is also the commander in forward and backwards motions which don’t involve rotations to the left or right, like the Push posture.

Integral to the idea of moving from the waist is the idea of empty and solid. If you consider the waist to be a like a wheel, which is what the Classics advise, then when you turn it to the left the upper body also turns to the left, and when you turn it to the right then the upper body also turns to the right. In Push Hands if you feel force applied to one side of your body you need to turn the waist, taking that side away from the force, effectively ‘emptying’ it, but at the same time ‘filling’ the other side. It is crucial that you fill the other side of your body at the same time as you are emptying the side that’s being pushed, otherwise your movement will be disordered and you will be pushed over. This can be trained in the form practice too, even without a partner to push you, using a simple mental awareness that whenever you turn the waist you are effectively emptying one side of the upper body as you fill the other. Imagine a fluid being transferred smoothly around your body if that helps. The principle of empty and solid is much further reaching than just this simple example, but it can really help you understand why the Classics stress that “the source of the postures is in the waist”, and later admonish you to “Pay attention to the waist at all times”.

If you’re looking to correct your form, then that’s the place to start.

* In effect, there are no fixed postures in any TCC form, but if you’re teaching it to beginners you have to stop somewhere. Once you’ve learned the form it needs to be smoothed out, so these fixed positions all dissolve into one flowing movement. That’s easier said than done though, since the process of smoothing out your form to a good enough standard to start incorporating other principles can easily take over a year.