MY EXPERIENCE OF PRACTICING TAIJI BOXING
by Xiang Kairan
[written in 1929, published in Wu Zhiqing’s 太極正宗 Authentic Taiji, 1936]
[translation by Paul Brennan, July, 2016]
In 1907, I was in Japan visiting a friend from Hebei, and I happened to hear him talking about northern practitioners of boxing arts: “There are several major schools, such as Bagua Boxing, Xingyi Boxing, Taiji Boxing, as well as Yue School Sanshou, and another system produced from it called Yue School Continuous Boxing.”
Although beyond these there are many more styles, there are fewer practitioners of them and so they have been unable to build themselves up into fully fledged systems, and when I heard his words, I only knew of these major names anyway. Each system has its own batch of techniques, its own distinguishing characteristics, and belongs to a particular place. But because my Hebei friend was unable to perform each of them for me to look at, I could not get to know them.
Then in 1903 , I met two of Li Cunyi’s students, Ye Yunbiao and Hao Haipeng, and was then able to see a portion of Xingyi Boxing and Bagua Boxing. I still had not seen Taiji Boxing, but I once listened to them talking about its concepts, causing me to yearn for it that much more.
A number of years passed and I still had no opportunity to make the acquaintance of a friend who was a decent practitioner of Taiji Boxing. Not only was I unable to study it, I began to feel I would never be able to achieve the goal of even seeing it. Then in May, 1925, fortunately Chen Weiming came to Shanghai from Beijing with the Yang family’s transmission of Taiji Boxing, establishing an “Achieving Softness Boxing Society” expressly to teach it to people. I took this opportunity and engaged in the study for several months.
Then unexpectedly during the course of this education, Wang Zhiqun, who had taught me boxing arts twenty years previously, arrived in Shanghai. By this time, I had not seen him for several years and I had heard only that he was in Beijing. I was so intent upon the study of Taiji Boxing, and due to the deep earnestness I felt for this basic goal, I could not decide which person it would be easier for me to achieve success from, so I also studied with Wang.
As for the Taiji Boxing he had trained in and that of Chen Weiming, Chen learned from Yang Chengfu and Wang learned from Wu Jianquan, both of whom had learned from the second generation of students in the lineage of Yang Luchan. Although it is the same branch of the same school, two people teaching a boxing art will naturally have differences. I was very uncertain at that time and did not dare to casually judge who was right and who was wrong. My goal was just to study boxing arts, and so I was incapable of being biased toward any style, that much more so in the case of the Taiji boxing styles, which had emerged from the same school.
I was only concerned with facilitating my studies, and since Wang was staying in my home, it was convenient to focus on learning from him. I also often pushed hands with Chen at that time, but before long I left Shanghai to return to Hunan. In Hunan I could not find a practitioner of Taiji Boxing, no one for me to push hands with, and so the only thing I could do was practice by myself.
In July, 1928, I followed the Hunan army to Beijing, from that time now called Beiping. Because the government moved the capital city to Nanjing, the Beijing economy fell into a depression, influencing some famous practitioners of Taiji Boxing, such as Yang Chengfu and Wu Jianquan, to follow better conditions to Nanjing or Shanghai, where I have met several such teachers. But there are still equally prestigious people in the north, such as Xu Yusheng and Liu Enshou, who have both studied Taiji Boxing for many years.
The postures they practice are similar mainly to the teachings of Wu Jianquan. I therefore also spent some days learning from Xu and Liu. Xu has learned from Wu, Yang, and other Taiji Boxing experts who all went south. He set up a “Physical Education School”, but unable to find an expert instructor of Taiji Boxing, has put his reliance into the people of Chen Family Village in Wen County, Henan, specifically inviting Chen Jifu [Zhaopi].
Tradition has it that Yang Luchan had gone to Chen Family Village to learn Taiji. His teacher was called Chen Changxing, and people have carried on his teaching to this day. Presently in Chen Family Village, there are few people who do not practice boxing arts, and what they practice is always Taiji, there being no other kind of boxing art popular in that area.
The Physical Education School therefore invited a member of the Chen clan. Chen Jifu is not yet forty years old, has practiced Taiji Boxing since childhood, and has never practiced any other boxing art. After arriving in Beiping, not only is he teaching in the school, there are also many people who have invited him to teach in their own homes. When I heard about such a noteworthy person, I had to take a look. I was then recommended by Xu to come to the School and see this unique boxing art and its pushing hands, and to discuss with the man for a while.
If might have been better if I hadn’t. After meeting him, I was left even more confused than before, because this authentic version of Taiji Boxing is not only entirely different in appearance from Wu Jianquan’s teachings, but also completely dissimilar to Yang Chengfu’s. Even the names of the postures are not the same.
Despite some postural distinction between the teachings of the Wu and Yang families, their opening posture has the same name – CATCH THE SPARROW BY THE TAIL. In the version Sun Lutang learned from Hao Weizhen, the opening posture is called LAZILY PULLING BACK THE ROBE [lan za yi], similar in sound to CATCH THE SPARROW BY THE TAIL [lan que wei], and regardless of who changed the pronunciation, the sounds are still not that far apart.
As for Chen Jifu’s opening posture, it is called ARHAT POUNDS THE PESTLE, and although his set contains a posture called LAZILY PULLING BACK THE ROBE, the movements of his hands and body bear no resemblance to the CATCH THE SPARROW BY THE TAIL of either the Wu or Yang schools, nor even to Sun Lutang’s LAZILY PULLING BACK THE ROBE.
Furthermore, throughout Chen’s postures there are many different names, such as BLUE DRAGON LEAVES THE WATER, DOUBLE-HAND PUSH, IMMORTAL HANDLES EVERYTHING, SMALL CATCH & HIT, INVITING IN FRONT & BEHIND, IRON FORK [DROP AND EXTEND], CATCHING THE EARTHWORM, or CANNON AIMED STRAIGHT AHEAD.
There are also many Wu / Yang names that do not appear: Instead of SEALING SHUT [ru feng si bi], there is SEALING OFF ALL DIRECTIONS [liu feng si bi]. SINGLE WHIP [dan bian] is TRANSMUTING ELIXIR [dan bian], RETREAT, DRIVING AWAY THE MONKEY [dao nian hou] is RETREAT WITH TWISTING FOREARMS [dao nian gong], SHOULDER [FAN] THROUGH THE ARMS [jian (shan) tong bi] is DODGE THROUGH TO BE BEHIND HIM [shan tong bei], KICK TO THE RIGHT SIDE [you qi jiao] is RIGHT INSERTING KICK [you cha], KICK TO THE LEFT SIDE [zuo qi jiao] is LEFT INSERTING KICK [zuo cha], TURN AROUND, PRESSING KICK [zhuan shen deng jiao] is PRESS WITH A HEEL [deng yi gen zi], CAPTURE THE TIGER AND SEND IT BACK TO ITS MOUNTAIN [bao hu tui shan] is COVER YOUR HEAD AND PUSH THE MOUNTAIN [bao tou tui shan], and CLOUDING HANDS [yun shou] is CIRCLING HANDS [yun shou]. The sounds are close, but the patterns of movement are very different.
Then I noticed that his pushing hands consists of only the same-side [i.e. opposite-step] moving-step method, meaning that when one person has his left foot forward, the other person has his right foot forward [whereas Wu and Yang practitioners tend to practice this primarily with the same foot forward], warding off and pressing with an advancing step, rolling back and pushing with a retreating step.
I asked him: “How many patterns does your pushing hands have?”
He said: “Just this one.”
Then I asked: “Is there no fixed-step version, with the feet not moving?”
“Is there no four-corner advancing and retreat exercise like the ‘large rollback’?”
I thought this was quite strange. What Yang Luchan learned from the Chen Family Village has gone through a mere three generations. How is it that Chen Jifu’s teaching differs so much?
The Yang family’s practice methods seem more comprehensive. Yang family pushing hands patterns go from the easy to the difficult, with a total of four kinds of exercises:
 First there is single-handed “connecting and drawing in” for developing dexterity in sticking and yielding.
 Then there is the exercise for the four techniques of ward-off, press, rollback, and push, which uses both hands, the feet fixed in place, the advancing and retreating happening with only the body and hands.
 Then there is moving-step advancing and retreating.
 And then there is four-corner advancing and retreating, called “large rollback”.
The footwork, body movements, and hand techniques become gradually more complex, causing the practitioner to be able to advance and retreat more efficiently, to be always in control in every situation and never controlled by the opponent.
If there was only the moving-step method, beginners would find it difficult to stick and yield. If instead there is training at an appropriate level, moving steps will feel effortless when the time comes, the hips will develop genuine skill, and once the next level is sought, there will only be the worry that it might be too easy.
The principles of Taiji Boxing are different from those of other boxing arts. Taiji emphasizes sticking and yielding, the principle of “neither coming away nor crashing in”. Sticking means not coming away. Yielding means not crashing in. This concept is easy to speak of, but very difficult to achieve.
To stick and yield with one part is fairly easy, but to stick and yield with the involvement of the whole body is more difficult. If you want efficient whole-bodied sticking and yielding, this is not achievable without the large rollback exercise. The large rollback exercise was most likely not created by the Yang family, so presumably it was something that Chen Jifu had not yet learned, and thus his method is again not as complete as the Yang family’s.
As a result of my personal research into Taiji Boxing, I am deeply convinced as to the meticulousness of the boxing theory and the thoroughness of the boxing techniques, and that the practicing of it is a case of pros without cons, something other boxing arts are not capable of.
In recent years, the government has been promoting martial arts, establishing a Martial Arts Institute in the capital [Nanjing], followed by Institutes being established in every province. Within the Nanjing Institute, material is divided into the two schools of Wudang and Shaolin. Taiji Boxing makes up the major portion of the Wudang curriculum. Because of this, Taiji Boxing’s influence has gradually invaded Nanjing, where practitioners of it become more numerous by the day.
After the first martial arts competition in Nanjing [October, 1928], it was noticed that those who specialized in Taiji Boxing often did not win. But among challengers from Beiping who did win, although seventy-five percent had trained in Taiji, those participants had not stated that Taiji Boxing was their specialty. (During the Martial Arts Institute’s tournament, participant’s had to declare what martial arts they had trained in and what their specialty was.) Consequently, ordinary people tend to be skeptical about Taiji Boxing, and in fact are so critical of Taiji boxers that, sure enough, they are on the verge of mockery.
Usually those who have practiced Taiji have only faced Taiji practitioners of an equal level, and they end up themselves doubting that Taiji can be used for practical application. As I am so confident in Taiji’s exponents, I now must put forth my personal experience and understanding of Taiji Boxing. Perhaps I will thereby explain the doubts of some people, enhance the belief of others, and will at least provide some evidence for those who are interested.
In this piece, there will sometimes be jargon that the layman will find confusing, but it is part of my writing flow, for I merely seek to convey my thoughts. As this is an unrevised text, please forgive me. [Since Xiang was the kind of writer who pushed himself to write a large amount of material in a single sitting, it is a possibility that this entire piece was written in one day, which might explain its somewhat rambling nature.]
I feel that among the various boxing arts, Taiji Boxing is the most difficult to apply. Why is this? Practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts do not seem to have a deep level of skill, training only for fighting, intent upon equaling opponents physically, and undergo less training for health. Taiji Boxing practitioners, on the other hand, do not emphasize strength. The beginning of the training goes on for over a year, yet physical strength does not appear to develop much further than that of an ordinary person. Because the physique does not get bulked up, Taiji Boxing’s applications have nothing like the simplicity of the postures in other boxing arts, which are easy to comprehend.
The beginning of the training for everybody in Taiji Boxing takes three to five years of hard work. Beyond the fixed patterns of pushing hands, if the rest of the techniques throughout the solo set are each taught and explained, I fear that very few practitioners would be able to make sense of them anyway. And if you are unable to understand the Taiji Boxing techniques you have been practicing, how are you supposed to be able to apply them?
When practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts start to compete against opponents, even if they are unable to grasp the techniques they have been learning, there is nevertheless not the slightest confusion when they apply them. This is because during their ordinary training, their sideways thrusts and straight strikes become habitual, and then they only make use of these habits. Adding on top of that their vigor and directness, they are always capable of defeating opponents.
For practitioners of Taiji Boxing, this is not the case. During ordinary practice, slowness is the main principal, and not using any exertion is the key to it. However, the solo set from beginning to end is performed continuously without pause. Techniques such as PARRY, BLOCK, PUNCH and PUNCH TO THE CROTCH seem obvious, but when practicing them there is no interrupting of the energy, and so when applying them there will naturally be difficulty in having any power.
Human beings innately have in their hands and feet a self-defensiveness, as well as an awareness of how to grab someone. Children who do know any boxing arts sometimes get into fights, yet they understand how to smack to the head, lifting a hand and lashing out, and the kid on the receiving end also knows how to dodge and hit back.
When Taiji Boxing is not trained to the point of applicability, it is risky to go compete with someone. Not only would you not be able to attack the opponent, sometimes you would not even know how to protect yourself, rendering it all useless. Or if you stay in the same type of posture and receive all of his attacks, you would be like the mediocre boxers described in old novels, who have only the skill of parrying, no word of them achieving any counterattack.
As for practitioners of Taiji Boxing who have never practiced it properly, they do not even have skill in parrying attacks. This is because within Taiji Boxing there actually are no techniques specifically for parrying. But without techniques of parrying, how would an opponent’s attacks not be getting through? To explore this question, we first need to gain a clear understanding of Taiji Boxing theory.
The terminology in various other boxing arts often does not have much relation to the techniques. But there is a term in Taiji which fully encapsulates the meaning of this boxing art, for a “taiji” is simply a “circle”. [According to this explanation, we could thus translate Taijiquan as Circle Boxing, Circular Boxing, Circularity Boxing, Circuitous Boxing, or perhaps Round Boxing, Roundness Boxing, Roundabout Boxing, etc.] Taiji Boxing is likewise an endless circularity, linking up all the techniques into a single theme. Whatever way a hand or foot moves, there can never be separation from this circularity. To depart from this circularity is to violate the taiji theory.
Then to refine this idea a little, it is not only that the movement of the hands and feet cannot depart from being circular. If the four limbs and the body as a whole are not moving, nothing is happening, but once they are moving, no part may depart from moving with roundness. The parries in Taiji Boxing thus become attacks, and so the attacks are also parries.
One who is unable to use Taiji Boxing’s techniques to attack an opponent would be completely unable to use its techniques to parry. This is because they are always moving with circularity. Within this circle, half the circle is parry, half the circle is attack. The deeper the skill, the smaller the circle, and sometimes the rotation is not even seen, showing a peak of ability in parry and attack.
That is why a practitioner of Taiji Boxing while pushing hands gives tremendous attention to the skill of “listening” to energies. The phrase “listening to energies” is the specialty of Taiji Boxing. Its meaning has nothing to do with listening with the ears, but with listening with the skin. Put simply, it is the training of a keener sensitivity of touch.
If your skin can listen for the direction of the opponent’s energy, then you can go along with his incoming force, using half a circle to parry, then the rest of the circle to attack. It says in the Taiji Boxing Treatise [Classic]: “Sticking is yielding and yielding is sticking.” That statement is exactly this principle. It explains the reason for Taiji Boxing’s difficulty of application, and why Taiji Boxing practitioners who have a combative personality and a competitive mentality always end up so inferior to practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts.
Although pushing hands with fellow students is a method of training practical application, the fixed rules of pushing hands are not the same as in typical competition. You will not necessarily be able to put your pushing hands skills to use when competing with others. If you obtain your sense of application entirely from practice, rarely engaging in friendly competition with practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts, then after about a decade of training, you may enjoy a level of renown, and once you have been put on such a pedestal, you will become increasingly even less willing to compete with others. This is the major defect of Taiji Boxing practitioners. There are practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts who have also not been able to avoid this flaw, but they are not as widespread as those Taiji Boxing practitioners.
To use Yang Chengfu as an example, he received his family’s Taiji tradition, put half his lifetime into working at it, taught many students who talk about his skills, and there are people within the Beiping martial arts community who would not dare to criticize him in any way. The Yang family’s Taiji Boxing postures are more spread out then those taught by Wu Jianquan, with larger stances. In the beginning of the training, it is easy to increase internal power. As Yang Chengfu’s body was tall and big, he naturally possessed a strength that was not meager, and so with the addition of his family’s boxing art, he should have been able to be proclaimed the “top hero” for a while.
After I arrived in Beiping, I investigated the result. Although there are within the Beiping martial arts community those who know of Yang Chengfu’s reputation, there are few who know what level his skill was at, because he lacked fighting experience. To only practice Taiji Boxing and go without experience of sparring is not adequate. Taiji Boxing especially requires a great deal of sparring experience, for it is otherwise quite difficult to be able to tell if one is succeeding in it. Practitioners of Taiji Boxing by all means must not overlook this sparring experience aspect.
Those who engage in boxing arts competition know there is an indispensable quality: speed. When practicing Taiji Boxing, why is there instead the idea of the slower the better? This principle is inevitably distrusted by practitioners of other kinds of boxing arts, but it is also misunderstood by practitioners of Taiji Boxing. It has to be understood that the solo set is entirely a matter of foundation training, of building essential skills, which are listed below:
1. Clearly distinguishing between emptiness and fullness:
It says in Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Classic: “If you drop one side, you can move, but if you have equal pressure on both sides, you will be stuck. We often see one who has practiced hard for many years yet is unable to perform any neutralizations and is generally under the opponent’s control, and the issue here is that this error of double pressure has not yet been understood.”
By “double pressure” is meant that one is not clearly distinguishing between emptiness and fullness. I have noticed that typical practitioners of Taiji Boxing usually interpret the principle of double pressure as both feet pressing against the ground in unison, making an equal pressure, whereas with one foot empty and one foot full, there is no doubling of the pressure. Both hands attacking in unison may also make an equal pressure, whereas with one hand empty and one hand full, there is again no doubling of the pressure. If that is all there is to it, then why should the double pressure error be hard to grasp? Why after many years of ardent practice would one still be incapable of comprehending such a small idea?
I know from my own experience that double pressure cannot be only an issue of two hands or two feet. Even down to a single finger, you still have to distinguish clearly between emptiness and fullness. If you use a single finger to connect with an opponent without knowing how to distinguish between emptiness and fullness, you will make the double pressure error. While practicing the solo set, throughout the limbs and entire body, from head to heel, emptiness and fullness circulate. Even in a single hand, emptiness and fullness alternate with each other. The scale gets ever more compact and subtle.
From beginning to end, everywhere there is a roundness, and everywhere there is a corresponding emptiness and fullness. If there is an area as much as an inch that has not been given attention, this tiny area will inevitably possess the error of double pressure. How then could practicing in this manner be done quickly? Practicing the set just once in this way is more effective than rushing through it ten or twenty times.
2. Increasing internal power:
Taiji does not exhibit the use of effort in other boxing arts. How then can we compete with opponents? Really now, if we should not use any force at all, will we be able to summon the hundred and something pounds of pressure it takes to knock down a powerful opponent? The Classic contains the phrase “four ounces of force to move his of a thousand pounds”. This only describes a smaller force overcoming a larger one, for surely four ounces of force cannot mean no force at all. When practicing the solo set, you must put forth no effort, for if the movements are performed with thoughtless haste, in the manner of other kinds of boxing arts, you would be finished in under a minute. How then would that develop internal power?
The movements are instead to be performed so slowly, as well as in a continuous flow to the end, no pausing throughout, that it will take at least seven or eight minutes. Such ceaseless motion of the four limbs and hundreds of bones will naturally be able to increase strength. If we compare this means of increasing strength to the training of other kinds of boxing arts, with their heaving of weights and hitting of sandbags, it is completely different.
This kind of strength, called “internal power” by experts, is whole-bodied movement. The key is that wherever the whole body is applied, the whole is concentrated at a single area, not just relying on the shoulders or back, hands or feet. When this kind of internal power touches an opponent’s body, being different from ordinary strength, it can cause him to feel like he has received an electric shock.
 There is still another part of the theory that requires slowness, which those of us who study Taiji Boxing have to understand and give attention to: the principles in Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Classic of “your headtop pressing up naturally and energy sinking down to your elixir field”. Although other kinds of boxing arts discuss energy sinking to the elixir field, it is merely a case of practicing with expressive eyebrows and angry eyes, a thudding pulse, and the energy gets sent upward instead. I fear this will not work. How can you get your energy to be sinking thoroughly into your elixir field? Just let it be there and seal in it, or use an intention of sinking downward.
Taiji Boxing was passed down from Zhang Tong [Sanfeng] of Liaoyang. In the first year of Emperor Hongwu’s reign , he summoned Zhang, but the road from Wudang was blocked. Zhang dreamed during the night that the “Dark Warrior” Emperor [i.e. a Daoist “god of war”] taught him a boxing method, and he then defeated the bandits. His boxing art was thereafter branded “Wudang School”, and it was passed down to Song Yuanqiao, Zhang Songxi, and seven others.
Zhang Sanfeng, called Junshi, was a scholar during the end of the Yuan Dynasty who wrote poetry and was an expert at calligraphy and painting. During the first year of Emperor Zhongtong’s [Kublai Khan] reign , Zhang’s unusual talents were recognized by the emperor, and he was appointed Scholar-Official for Zhongshan. But because he admired the work [nature paintings] of Ge Zhichuan, he was inspired to abandon his official career and cultivate the Way at Mt. Baoji. The mountain has three peaks [“san feng”], hence he was dubbed the “Three Peaks Master”.
China’s Daoist limbering arts all focus on the elixir field. In the human body, there are three elixir field areas. The first is at the crown of the head. Daoists consider this to be the place where spirit is stored. The Yellow Courtyard Classic says: “He who wishes to be immortal cultivates himself at Kunlun.” This mountain’s name is a metaphor for the headtop. The second is at the Zhongwan acupoint [between the navel and the solar plexus]. Daoists consider this to be the place where energy is stored. The third is below the navel. Daoists consider this to be the place where essence is stored.
“Your headtop pressing up naturally” means that your headtop seeks a naturalness, a spirit arising from your elixir field in a contemplative quietude. “Energy sinking down to your elixir field” means sinking energy below your navel, seeking a sense of fullness. The Yellow Courtyard Classic also says: “When breathing, take outside air into the elixir field and see how long you can keep it there.” The length of the ordinary person’s breath is short and only goes as deep as the belly (i.e. meeting the diaphragm [but not expanding it]) and cannot make it to the elixir field, thereby reducing the volume of the lungs, consequently draining away strength and increasing weakness, and this has a huge influence on one’s life span.
Taiji Boxing can be considered a kind of Daoist limbering art. Daoist breathing arts are usually done as a seated meditation. A limbering art is therefore a moving meditation. Regardless of seated meditation or moving meditation, full attention should be given to collecting spirit into the upper elixir field while receiving energy into the lower elixir field.
Laozi, the founder of our nation’s Daoism, once said [Daodejing, chapter 3]: “Empty your mind, fill your belly.” Likewise, there is an intention of the upper elixir field seeking emptiness and the lower elixir field seeking fullness. When practicing the solo set, if the movements are too fast, your thoughts will be in disorder and your breathing will be hurried, and then how will you be able to get your headtop to be pressing up naturally?
As for the result of sinking energy to the elixir field, we have to understand that the distinctions between Taiji Boxing and other kinds of boxing arts do not lie in differences of body movement, hand technique, or footwork, but are instead entirely a matter of being able to give attention to collecting spirit and receiving energy during practice. Therefore the classics also say [from the Thirteen Dynamics Song]: “Your tailbone is centered and spirit penetrates to your headtop, thus your whole body will be nimble and your headtop will be pulled up as if suspended.” If you do not understand that you are to work upon this principle, and you concentrate instead on the movements of the body, hands, and feet, then how would you be any different from an external stylist?
According to my own personal experience of practice, it is best before going through the solo set to spend some time in silent sitting. This kind of meditation method is not like a Daoist [Buddhist] version involving closing off the senses to merely hide oneself in silent contemplation intent upon clearing away karma, but is instead abdominal breathing that draws energy into the lower elixir field. After this seated meditation, the practice is then calm.
While practicing, the most important thing to pay attention to is that the entire body be relaxed. There must not be a single inch of your body that you allow to put forth effort as you go through the movements of bending and extending, going forward and back, and turning around. It is just like a cloud moving through the sky, without the slightest interruption or stagnation. From beginning to end, there must be no pauses and no edges. There also must not be any sudden speeding up or slowing down, and no resemblance to practicing external styles.
Some techniques may benefit from knowing what the application is, or what targets to attack, or which response should be expressed, but while this kind of visualization is indispensable in the practice of other kinds of boxing arts, it is really not necessary when practicing Taiji Boxing. If you obsess over such visualizations, then you will restrict your own progress, because ultimately your envisionings will not be what happens in reality, for they represent only a portion of the potential outcomes. For instance, a practitioner of other boxing arts who is an expert only at using his elbows, or perhaps his legs, could not succeed. Taiji Boxing, however, is composed entirely of circles.
Within the solo set, there is actually no separation between techniques of attacking and techniques of parrying, and so it can be said the whole set has no techniques of attacking or parrying, or that the techniques throughout the set are all methods of both attacking and parrying. If a person who overthinks wants to separate the techniques in the solo set into which ones are attacks and which ones are parries, he would get only a hundredth of a percent of their uses, and would merely be reducing his options to methods of attacking and parrying.
I have seen a Taiji Boxing instructor who teaches groups for a living getting asked by his students about how to use the techniques in the solo set. Forcing himself to come up with explanations, he said that FAN THROUGH THE ARMS uses the right hand to parry the opponent’s hand and uses the left hand to strike out to his chest [instead of the two actions working simultaneously], and also that NEEDLE UNDER THE SEA uses the right forefinger to poke through to the opponent’s anus, because the anus is also called “under the sea”, therefore NEEDLING “UNDER THE SEA”. Good grief.
Explaining Taiji Boxing applications in this way, then how are the applications not stupid and unreasonable? This kind of person can be described as not understanding Taiji Boxing theory.
Someone may ask: “You say that in Taiji Boxing, we should not move fast nor put forth effort, and that during ordinary practice we should not visualize which movements are attacks and which are parries. So then what are we supposed to do when competing with opponents?”
To which I say:
We practitioners of boxing arts, whether practicing Taiji or some other boxing art, should all understand the meaning of the word “fast”. It does not mean that the hands are extending and withdrawing rapidly, nor that the feet are advancing and retreating rapidly. Of the hands and feet, the level of speed in extending, withdrawing, advancing, and retreating, except in the case of old and decrepit people, or weak and crippled people, is generally not that different for most of us.
It must be understood that the distinction between fast and slow is really a matter of vision, meaning that the distinction is whether or not you can quickly spot opportunity. If the opponent is not showing an opportunity that can be taken advantage of, and your hands and feet are constantly striking at his body, not only would you not be issuing with any effective power, it would undoubtedly turn the tables and give him opportunity to attack you.
During sparring, what is meant by “opportunity”? The instant the opponent loses his balance is an opportunity. When you spot an opportunity, take advantage of it and attack, and thus you will be able to defeat him. But it will not be a sure thing by itself, and so as long as you do not lose the position or direction, it will then be effective.
Even though the opponent has lost his balance, you still have to analyze his error in order to ascertain from what position and to which direction you are to attack, and then you will be able to use little effort and yet achieve great results. But if the direction and position are not yet determined, his loss of balance may instead cause you to get attacked in response.
While sparring, when there is an opportunity to attack, the moment is always up for grabs to either one of you. The only hardships are that your eyes may not be able to spot it, or that sometimes you will spot it too late and the opportunity will have passed, or that sometimes the position and direction are off, rendering your attack ineffective, and again the opportunity is missed.
To practice “listening to energy” in pushing hands is mainly a matter of “seeking opportunity”, and of selecting opportunity based on attacking from the right position and the right direction. As long as your eyes are able to not miss the opportunity, then your attack will also not miss the direction. Your martial skill will thus be superb, and will not at all depend on speed in your hands and feet.
Discerning whether your achievement is deep or shallow, whether your skill is high or low, will lie entirely with this principle. If you do not wait for opportunity, and do not sense the right direction and position, your performance could only be regarded as hitting and grappling like a savage.
Within the practice of other kinds of boxing arts, there is always a self-reliance of strength and stubbornness, training to make a habit of two or three techniques instead of paying attention to what his opponent is up to. Blindly sending his hands into sideways thrusts and straight strikes, he is frequently able to win, and consequently earns some fame. But practitioners of Taiji Boxing are not able to produce such men of “talent”. This is because Taiji Boxing trains to put forth no effort.
Beyond practicing the solo set, there are several kinds of pushing hands patterns. Those who want to train should work from fundamental skills rather than become obsessed with a particular exercise. In learning external styles of boxing, there are exercises such as hitting posts and pushing sandbags. Someone may ask: “When practicing Taiji Boxing, if we have any spare energy to put into such exercises, would it not be beneficial rather than counterproductive?”
To which I say:
How would it not be counterproductive, even greatly so? Taiji Boxing uses roundness as the foundation, and so when practicing the solo set, make sure to loosen your whole body. After a long time, you will naturally be able to have an unimpeded roundness. But if you let yourself put forth so much as an inch of effort, you would inevitably end up with stagnancy, surely even more so if you are also hitting posts and pushing sandbags, which focus particularly on using brute strength.
By practicing Taiji Boxing, you will gain an elastic energy. But by hitting posts and pushing sandbags, you will merely gain a directness of force. Taiji Boxing especially avoids using direct force. When someone who habitually uses direct force practices Taiji Boxing, he has to gradually get his directness of force to transform into an elastic energy. Once this process of transformation has been completed, he will then be able to obtain the subtleties of Taiji. When training in Taiji, how can one simultaneously be training the fundamentally opposite quality of directness of force?
Or someone may ask: “Usually when practicing Taiji Boxing, no attention is paid to stances. Also when practicing the solo set, there is entirely no putting forth of effort. Because the strength of the lower body grows very slowly, when we start competing with other people we are always inflicted with instability in the lower body, and it is easy to become affected by the opponent. The result of hitting posts and pushing sandbags is only that we will increase directness of force, certainly an obstruction to Taiji’s fundamental roundness. But if instead we are only simultaneously engaging in stance training to get the lower body to increase its level of stability, this ought to be a situation of pure benefit and no harm, right?”
To which I say:
You really should not engage in this activity of adding unnecessary features that will only end up destroying what you are trying to achieve [to “make a drawing of a snake and then add feet to it”]. You have to know whether or not your lower body is stable. While practicing the solo set, it is entirely a matter of whether or not you are able to actually sink energy to your elixir field. If you are at a reasonable level in the training, you will certainly be capable of giving attention to energy sinking to your elixir field within each breath, and then your lower body will surely always fulfill the principle.
There is another layer to this principle which you should also understand. When you are competing with an opponent, if you are easily affected by him or compelled to retreat, the problem is not really a lack of stability in your lower body, rather a lack of liveliness in your waist and thighs. If your waist and thighs are able to be lively, then you will stand and walk as you please. When you are not crashing against the opponent, how would he be affecting your lower body or compelling you to retreat?
In external styles of boxing, there are always techniques of using hard power to strike an opponent, and they lack the principle of “neither coming away nor crashing in”. In the beginning of the training in those arts, it is necessary to emphasize stance training. But the waist and thighs also have to be able to be lively. If your waist and thighs really have no skill, your feet may be standing on the ground and your whole body may be standing firmly, but stability will not be achieved at all. If I hammer two posts into the ground, then tie your legs to them, I will still be able to knock you over just as easily.
I once saw a martial arts master who, with both feet standing or even with one foot raised, had five or six strong men push and pull at him, but they could not move him. The spectators were all surprised by how solid his stance was. The raised foot had nothing at all to do with it. It was entirely based on the alertness of his waist and thighs. He was able to lead the strength of those men into a state of emptiness. The Taiji Boxing classics [Playing Hands Song] calls this “guiding him in to land on nothing”, though the technical term is “neutralizing energy”.
The more you clash with an unyielding area, the more you demonstrate the effectiveness of its strength. Take for example bullets or cannon shells. The more they are fired at a solid area, the more opportunity is given to the enemy to rush in. This principle is very easy to understand and illustrates why Taiji Boxing does not use strength as its foundation. You must train to become extremely soft and supple. Using the principle of neither coming away nor crashing in, you cause the opponent to be unable to make use of his strength, no matter how great. If you are engaged in stance training, with the goal of opponents pushing or pulling at you without making you budge, how is this not contrary toward the principle of neither coming away nor crashing in? If there was a necessity in Taiji Boxing for stance training, then surely previous generations would have taught standing methods before teaching pushing hands methods.
I have often see that when practitioners of Taiji Boxing are doing pushing hands, specifically when they are engaged in free play, beyond the exercise for the four techniques of ward-off, rollback, press, and push, they often become constricted, causing them to lose the flow that is in the pushing hands sequence. Those who have not yet trained the sequence to the point of familiarity always become stagnant because they do not understand how to yield, impeding their movements in every way.
The technical term for this is “seizing”, an idea of seizing without letting go. When this kind of tendency cannot be gotten rid of, they are only able to practice one aspect of the exercise, and are unable therefore to train in the fundamentals. The benefit of fundamental training is that it makes it easier to understand the methods of switching between standing and stepping, and can also increase tactile sensitivity.
Regardless of what kind of skill, it is always the case that practice can produce skillfulness. But while one aspect is seizing, which amounts to sticking, the other aspect is yielding. Of course practice can lead to skillfulness, but if you are only practicing one aspect, how can you be training the fundamentals?
The depth of your skill is entirely a matter of whether or not you can stick and whether or not you can yield, and so if you are not at a decent level of skill, then you may understand the methods of sticking and yielding, and yet still be in a condition of having no sticking in your sticking and no yielding in your yielding.
The basic practice is the pushing pattern for ward-off, rollback, press, and push, and it is to be analyzed conscientiously. You must not be casually or indifferently attending to it, for then your techniques will be imprecise. Pushing hands is also a taiji circle. Within the circle are the four specific techniques of ward-off, rollback, press, and push. Ward-off / press makes half the circle, and rollback / push makes the other half of the circle. They are linked together to make the circle, so if one technique is slightly off, then the whole circle breaks down.
Within the larger circle made by these four techniques connecting, wherever you and your opponent make contact with each other, there is also a smaller circle for each hand. And within that smaller circle, there is also a division: half the circle is sticking, half the circle is yielding. Both hands are sticking and yielding simultaneously. Emptiness and fullness have to be clearly distinguished. If not, then you will commit the error of double pressure.
Once your hands are distinguishing clearly between emptiness and fullness, then you can move on to focusing on a single hand, the fullness within its emptiness, the emptiness within its fullness. Otherwise, within a single hand, you would again be committing the error of double pressure, equal to the error of double pressure with two hands.
Whether you are practicing the solo set or pushing hands, you must always pay attention to your tailbone and spine, for this is the area where movement originates. Your spine has to be upright, neither leaning nor inclining, because movement has to start from your tailbone. You are thus able to use your body to move your limbs, rather than using your limbs to move your body. When your tailbone is rounded in, then the roundness of every part will be able to stick and yield. If your tailbone is not involved, then the roundness of every part will be ineffective at sticking and yielding.
The moment a practitioner of Taiji Boxing who has not been practicing it long hears these words, he is sure to become perplexed, but if he continues to practice long enough, there will naturally come a time in which they suddenly become clear. If an instructor cannot get the student to give attention to these things, yet the student is intelligent enough and is able to do the hard work, he will perhaps one day comprehend it on his own, but he would otherwise be caused to go his whole life without understanding the theory. This is why martial arts practitioners value being able to obtain a noteworthy teacher. For those who wander through information, or seek to learn by practicing with friends, it cannot be done without the advice in the classics.
When practitioners of external boxing arts get halfway through some Taiji training, they typically decide that they will no longer practice their external arts, and then their progress in their external arts instead becomes twice as fast as before they started practicing Taiji. If they did not previously understand how to use their techniques, now they do. If they used to get stiffness in their shoulders and back, unable to transform their energy, now it courses through to their limbs, gradually changing into something more orderly.
And when people who have practiced Taiji Boxing for a while then switch to practicing external boxing arts, they strongly feel that the movements are easy because the movements of Taiji Boxing are whole-bodied rather than emphasizing any one part. As it is said [from How to Practice]: “If one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still.”
Although the movements in external styles are not necessarily restricted to working just one area, they each have a specific target and a specific function. Whether using a fist, palm, shoulder, elbow, hip, or knee, once a posture appears, it is always obvious what it is for, and therefore the power expressed is unsubtle. When practicing such movements, it is easy to imagine how they are applied, and thus it is easy for the practice to produce enjoyment, and easy to feel as if there is noticeable progress.
The Taiji Boxing solo set from beginning to end is comprised of over a hundred techniques, and any indication of how they are to be applied can very rarely be sought. You can indulge in coming up with strained interpretations of how a technique is supposed to be applied, but because it has a continuous energy, the focus for its path of power cannot be found. Because of this, you can receive throughout your body the effect of a rounded liveliness. This is not restricted to either internal or external styles, for both can give first priority to a rounded liveliness.
With that as the key factor, every technique can work. Therefore when practitioners of external boxing arts switch to practicing Taiji Boxing, it is to increase their level of rounded liveliness, with the result that they will feel they are progressing faster. External styles of boxing all have techniques in which both hands strike out in unison, or a hand goes out with a kick at the same time. This violates the principle of focusing the path of power. In appearance, Taiji Boxing postures seem to perform this kind of double-attack technique quite often, but actually they have a methodology of such movements being more successive than simultaneous.
However, practitioners have to pay it special attention. Teachers particularly need to be aware of these moments, for they have to carefully explain that within any given posture there is one hand which is leading and one which is following, and should also explain for a single hand which part of it starts with emptiness and which part of it ends up with fullness, and how this can then cause the path of power to circulate, forming a completely gapless roundness. If such things are even slightly overlooked, you will commit the error of double pressure without even noticing.
Why does the art forbid double pressure? Because it hinders the path of power from being focused. Do not be worried about having no power, only be concerned that the power be whole-bodied. You must not arbitrarily focus power at a specific point, only to waste your energy. Seeking the place where you can focus power is already difficult enough. And so how could you overlook the error of double pressure? You would only end up obstructing your path of power yourself.
When practicing or applying an external boxing art, it is common to turn the body sideways to reduce the target area that the opponent can attack, and also to increase the reach of the hand. This is very suitable as a boxing principle and for mechanical motion, but not for Taiji Boxing. This is because both hands form a roundness, supporting each other. You must not make the error of inclining to one side or the other. As it says in the classics [from the Thirteen Dynamics Song]: “Your tailbone is centered.”
Or we could say: “Chest squared to the opponent.” But then would the opponent not have a convenient opportunity to attack? I say that of the whole body, from head to heel, there is no place exempt from attack, and so it all comes down to one’s skill level. For this reason, Taiji practitioners have to “contain the chest and pluck up the back” in order to guard against the opponent using a kind of technique that would attack the chest. The only worry in all Taiji Boxing techniques is that the opponent might not be willing to attack the chest, for once his hand approaches the chest area, it is then always an opportunity for the Taiji practitioner to attack at will.
Nowadays there are people who cater to the superficially minded, who willfully adjust Taiji Boxing postures to have the body facing more sideways or enlarge the stance, making it similar to external boxing arts. The postures sometimes have overly expressive eyebrows or glaring eyes, or the fists grasp so tight they appear as vicious as talons. One thereby considers himself to have become extremely agile [“a rabbit bolting as a falcon descends”], little realizing that the Taiji Boxing principles have become ever more distant from his practice, and that in the future he will be passing down something erroneous, something that has surely lost Taiji’s sense of balanced ease and the internal school’s flavor of moderation.
People these days all talk of Taiji’s “thirteen postures”: the eight techniques of warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, plucking, rending, elbowing, bumping, and the five placements of stepping to the left, stepping to the right, stepping forward, stepping back, staying in the center. This is an interpretation so forced as to be beyond belief.
Warding off, pressing, pushing, and so on, are merely eight kinds of hand techniques. Whoever specializes in practicing Taiji Boxing is nevertheless incapable of performing each of these eight kinds of techniques in a coherent way to demonstrate them to people, for they can only be analyzed according to their appearance during pushing hands. But as a matter of fact, even if you could only have these eight terms, you would still get some of the idea of their functions.
As to whether these eight techniques should be taught to students to supply them with practice material, I know that all noteworthy teachers of Taiji Boxing do not use this “postures” description. We can only go as far as calling them “eight kinds of hand techniques” and are really not able to consider them to be “eight postures”, because the “postures” do not have fixed postures for people to adhere to. But if we step back from such a description, then each technique has its own ingenious method.
As for the five “postures” of stepping forward, back, left, right, or staying in the center, this is even more nonsensical and silly. As if any other kind of boxing art does not have moving forward and back, moving left and right, and staying put, just what fixed postures are there to Taiji’s forward, back, left, right, and center? When ancient people named a kind of technique, surely they did not do it this way with something unrelated to reality. There had to have been another “thirteen postures” and its techniques were lost or the names got changed. Indeed, let us from now on spread the Taiji solo set without calling it “thirteen postures”.
Li Ruijiu of Shanghai once engaged a boxing arts instructor, a Mr. Meng, who excelled in an art called Silken Boxing. It has a solo set of altogether eight sections. There are also two-person pushing hands patterns quite similar in intent to those of Taiji.
I have heard that Meng worked as a bodyguard in Shandong and Henan. He had an abundant brawny strength and he was especially skilled at the single saber, and so he gained a noticeable fame. Meng was young and overbearing. Arrogant about his skill, he was dismissive toward his peers.
One day, he had stopped his horse to stay at an inn for the night. There he was discussing martial arts with some fellows, but with an air of being the only one there, when suddenly an old man with bright white hair who was staying at the same inn gave a sneering laugh beside them, a look of disdain on his face.
Meng could not endure it and angrily said to the old man: “Being as decrepit as you are, what would you know about fighting? And don’t use your age as an excuse, or you’ll give me no choice [but to give you a beating].”
The old man calmly said: “‘Among the mighty are those who are mightier.’ In martial arts, no one presumes to praise his own ability. But because you are young, you think you know everything [‘do not know the scale of the world’], and so you are unaware of how ridiculous you are. Why be upset about it?”
Meng was again unable to tolerate this. He felt compelled to challenge him and the old man did not decline. As soon as Meng extended his hand, he fell down several paces away. He had no idea what kind of technique the old man had performed to be able to drop a person so cleanly. Meng then considered the man’s age and thought he probably could not handle a flurry of strikes. So he sent out his hand without fully extending this time and exerted all of his strength.
Suddenly he found himself nearer to the old man’s body than he expected to be,
and his hands and feet seemed as though they were tangled in cobwebs, unable to apply his strength and unable to get away. Flustered and frustrated, his whole body was pouring with sweat. He saw how the old man’s arms rubbed back and forth as though he was playing with a ball, how he had a leisurely manner instead of the typical competitive bearing. Meng then knew the man was unbeatable. He knelt down and asked to become his student.
The old man said: “Okay, but only if you quit your job and work for me in my trading business.” Meng was in such earnest to receive instruction that he indeed abandoned his job and began transporting goods for the old man among the mountains of Shaanxi. But after two and a half years, the old man died of illness, and Meng had still not obtained the full transmission.
According to what Meng told to people while in Shanghai, his teacher’s solo set originally had thirteen sections. Over the course of two and a half years, he only received eight, and so the other five sections have been lost. I have heard that Taiji was formerly known as Silken Boxing. What Meng practiced was also called Silken Boxing, and it just happened to have thirteen sections. I wonder if it is these that are Taiji’s thirteen “posturings”.
There is also Zimen Boxing, which is currently in vogue in Jiangxi. Its body movement, hand techniques, and footwork are very similar to Taiji Boxing, and it likewise has eight basic techniques. And then there is also Yumen Boxing, which has a set in twelve sections. In application it is especially similar to Taiji, including two-person pushing hands patterns. Xiong Doushu of Jiangxi trained in the Yumen art for over ten years. In the year before last, I met him in Hankou, and we talked about the Yumen Boxing principles of the hands maintaining connection and drawing in the opponent. During practice, there is emphasis on slowness and not putting forth effort. Unfortunately, its practitioners know nothing about the art’s history.
There are so very many styles of our boxing arts. Throughout the whole nation, there are dozens within a single province, even within a single county. This being the case in the boxing arts world, there ought to be a great many talented people, and who are thus producing a lot of ability in others. I have carefully studied the results and have to come to know that in this spreading of all sorts of boxing arts, it is by no means a sure thing that they are being taught by competent people. Many are simply relying on the fame of their teacher.
Within the last two or three decades, they have disseminated dozens of boxing arts. Even though they proclaim their art has been passed down from some ancient figure, such as Yue Fei or Damo, there are also some who claim it to be from Sun Wukong or the Maitreya Buddha. All their techniques are in fact more similar than they are unique, and within any solo set, there are only a few techniques that conform to boxing principles and have practical function. Why would these teachers go to so much trouble to create such a variety of postures? Simply to solicit customers!
To learn a boxing art in the north, you do obeisance to a teacher and study with him for an indefinite period. Those who are devoted may engage a teacher to live in their home or they might leave home to live in the teacher’s house. To put in three to five years of continuous training is quite common.
In the south, it is often more limited. You can either engage a teacher to live in your home or you can learn from a teacher who has reserved a warehouse space to teach students, holding the space for thirty or forty days, fifty days at the most. Once the time has expired, the students all disperse, and if you wish to continue training, another space has to be reserved.
The students enter the space on the first day, disperse on the last day, and in the meantime they have to train hard day and night with the goal of being able to apply the art once they leave the building. After going through two or three of these warehouse sessions, if you are still not able to defeat ruffians, then your teacher will fall into disrepute.
In the case of Taiji Boxing, it is really not possible to calculate how many days it will take to get results. For other boxing arts with highly refined principles and very detailed techniques, it is just as difficult for foundation and function to be completed within the space of a hundred days.
It is always the case that among practitioners of boxing arts, many of them are crude individuals who would not understand this point. If after two or three sessions of warehouse training, they are still unable to defeat opponents, they do not find the fault in the teacher’s skill level not being high enough, and instead assume the teacher is holding back some of the transmission.
When teachers expect their students to get results according to a schedule, the genuine art gets put aside in favor of a few select techniques, then it gets distorted into the superficial movements of itinerant performers, until a solo set becomes created that is steeped in the common superstitious traditions of ancient people.
When the postures are simple and easy to practice, people with decent intelligence can learn it in just over a week. After a mere half month of instruction, they leave the warehouse with what they have gained and are surprised by their ability to beat up ruffians, the teacher’s fame consequently rises, and they continue to practice for a number of days. But people who tire of old things and always want new things will not continue to practice after about a year unless changes are made to the set.
In Pingjiang, there was a famous boxing master called Pan Houyi. When he was thirty, he started teaching boxing arts to make a living, all the way until his death at the age of eighty. Altogether he taught more than three thousand students, but having passed down his solo set in dozens of different variations, there are barely ten people who obtained the true transmission. This was not really because he was keeping anything secret. When students seek quick results, this is the inevitable outcome.
Nowadays there are also dozens of teachers of what Pan’s disciples transmitted, passed down through many hands over the course of four hundred years. The name of the art has repeatedly changed. How can we even know that Mr. Meng’s Silken Boxing or Mr. Xiong’s Yumen Boxing do not have the same origin as Taiji?
Yang Luchan’s art is only a hundred years old, but already his teachings are very different from Chen Jifu’s. For that matter, Wu Jianquan learned from the Yang family, and yet his version is distinct from Yang Chengfu’s.
Even more peculiar is that Yang Chengfu’s elder brother Yang Mengxiang [Shaohou] learned in the very same family, and yet his Taiji is only practiced as a broken-energy version, each technique expressing power, releasing a vocalized thumping no different from external styles of boxing. And apart from Yang Mengxiang, there is no other Taiji Boxing practitioner in Beiping using broken energy. I once asked Chen Jifu if among the practitioners in the Chen Family Village there is a version that practices broken energy. He said there is not.
I think that if it is considered good for Taiji to be practiced with broken energy, then it would be to miss the whole point of Taiji theory. It would turn a limitlessness of technique into a limited set of techniques, and this would do more harm than good to the future of Taiji Boxing.
It is the habit of the people of our nation to delight in venerating our forefathers and sneering at our contemporaries. Because of this, although the martial arts world is replete with creative and talented people, what they have invented and developed we do not dare to accept. Instead we always put our trust in ancient people who have passed things down secretly within their families, or who have received instructions in a dream. To find this type of situation in books and records is not rare at all.
As for the boxing art that Zhang Sanfeng passed down, how could we know that he did not create it himself? Though there is insufficient evidence to support the idea, it is believed that he received his art in a dream from the “Dark Warrior” Emperor. People nowadays practice martial arts from dawn to dusk for years or even decades and still find it difficult to achieve the level they wish. Zhang Sanfeng received his art from a spirit in a dream, and then immediately used it to defeat bandits. Is there really such a difference of intelligence and ability between ancient and modern people? Zhang Sanfeng taught his art to Song Yuanqiao, Zhang Songxi, and seven others, but no detailed records of his techniques were passed down.
Within Huang Baijia’s Boxing Methods of the Internal School, there is the five-word secret: “focused, potent, expedient, sticky, precise”. There are also secrets within Secrets of the Shaolin Boxing Arts by a certain venerable monk [including another and somewhat similar five-word secret: 印、擒、側、緊、切 “sealing, grabbing, slanting, tensing, cutting”]. The most popular boxing art is now Taiji, but these five words have not been taught as part of it.
I think that boxing arts should use refined principles and tested techniques, and that the criteria should be that they do not violate the principles of physiology or mechanics. There is no need to make strained interpretations or trust the hyperbole of ancient people. Just because a tailor might bow to his statue of the Yellow Emperor or a carpenter has a shrine to his patron saint Lu Ban, there is no reason to think that actually means anything.
When the Nanjing Martial Arts Institute was opened, I was in Hankou [in eastern Hubei], where I noticed in a newspaper that they were dividing their curriculum into two schools – Wudang and Shaolin – and appointing specialists for each of them. For “Wudang” to be isolated like this in the promotion of our martial arts is really not a good idea, and so I sent a letter to a friend in Nanjing who was working at the Institute, discussing in detail the pros and cons.
While I have nothing against division of skills, for divisions create competition, and competition produces progress, this is not true in the case of martial arts. Whichever of our nation’s martial arts, too few records have been passed down, the arts have been passed through too many hands over time, and students are hardly ever able to understand the literature.
Certain styles were passed down from certain people, but so long ago that it cannot be verified, unlike schools of painting and literature, for which there is no confusion. The categorizing of the two branches as Wudang and Shaolin has been made on the basis of ignoring the records of other martial arts. But whether or not what is being spread these days can actually be classified as Wudang or Shaolin, how could these two branches be able to comprise all of Chinese martial arts, including those that were transmitted by itinerant performers, or martial artists who taught their skills to make a living. In order to cater to our national habit of venerating ancient people, we have arbitrarily dragged forth ancient figures known to everyone, even to women and children, and assigned them the roles of founders of our arts simply for the sake of advertizing.
In the south there is a Qi Family Boxing, said to be passed down from the “Sage Equal to Heaven” [Qi Tian Dasheng – one of the names for Sun Wukong, the mythical Monkey King]. There is also a Maitreya Boxing, said to be passed down by the Maitreya Buddha [which would presumably have involved another tutorial in a dream]. These are far more ridiculous claims than that of Shaolin being passed down from Damo.
When people have received their knowledge through actual instruction, and are not using it as a means for making a living through either performing or teaching, their great respect for their art is not unreasonable. What is reproachable is when people contentiously pledge their lives to their “tradition”, for by this means, all the schools and styles become jealous of each other and hate each other. After a thousand centuries, there is no telling how much trouble would be caused by such behavior, or how many lives would have been ruined.
Such people have a limited knowledge, as well as a mentality of taking advantage of their forefathers in order to advertize themselves, a flaunting that cannot be admonished enough. And we can only blame gentlemen such as Zhang [Zhijiang] and Li [Jinglin] for having the ambition of promoting martial arts without also thinking of doing away with the vice of schools factionalizing. [Xiang clearly has no problem using generic descriptions such as “internal” and “external”, and so he is only taking issue against the pigeonholing of these arts into categories based arbitrarily around the names of places or personages, because it is too easy to give a mindless allegiance to them.]
Within martial arts, Taiji Boxing has the most interest and value as a subject of study, and so it should be given its fair share of attention in the promotion of martial arts. But we certainly should not turn Taiji into the universal boxing arts study. We can only set up a special Taiji Boxing department within the martial arts institutes.
Those who are not ambitious for advanced studies and are not sufficiently bright should not bother training in it because its principles are so profound and its techniques are so complex. No matter how nimble a body or clever a mind that a person may have been born with, it is not something that can be succeeded at after a mere year or so of practice. And if a beginner cannot develop adequate interest to keep training, there is no way to succeed in any of the skills.
If they instead practice other kinds of boxing arts, they can train diligently from dawn to dusk without needing to use their brains, and in a decent amount of time, they will have a considerable level of achievement. In the practice of Taiji Boxing, unless you have a very detail-oriented mentality and give it a lifelong commitment, you will only by chance become even partially functional at it, like practitioners of external boxing arts who devote themselves to mastering just a few particular techniques.
As it says in the Classic: “By absorbing through experience and by constantly contemplating, gradually you will reach the point that you can do whatever you want.” This indicates that unless you are meticulously mindful, you cannot practice Taiji Boxing. This mention of a meditative contemplation causes no contradiction as a boxing art, for its mentality of meditative imagination places Taiji within the internal school. And as it focuses on the upper and lower elixir fields, it is thereby akin to the Daoist limbering arts.
However, when those who discuss Taiji nowadays look for a reason that it is called “taiji”, they typically invoke the eight trigrams, the interrelations of the five elements, the changes between the passive and active aspects, and some strained interpretation of the content in the Book of Changes.
Thus I suspect that although the theory is lofty, its reality lies in its eight techniques of warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, and so on, which do not even have fixed postures. I mean, what do they really have to do with the eight trigrams anyway?
As for moving forward, back, left, right, or staying centered, these things are not really described in the postures of the Taiji solo set. Furthermore, there is no boxing art that does not have these five things, and their association with the five elements is especially vague.
And Taiji Boxing of course gives attention to changes between the passive and active aspects. How could any boxing art not? The strong points of Taiji Boxing that are lacking in other kinds of boxing arts have nothing at all to do with this abstract concept.
In our modern age of flourishing science, we encourage research which should be based on reality and appraisal of facts, rather than getting carried away by the claims of previous generations or hastily accepting the statements of celebrated people.
The amount of work I have put into Taiji Boxing is quite superficial, but I have memorized the methods and terminology, and have keenly observed practitioners. If teachers and students were actually not learning that the eight hand techniques and the five kinds of steps are specific postures and positions, this alone could elevate the practice of many people. It would then be obvious to them that these terms cannot mean thirteen “postures”, and that the “thirteen postures” cannot be stretched into being representations of the eight trigrams and five elements. I do not know of any of my fellow colleagues also raising doubts about this, and I am curious why they have not.
Yang Chengfu and Wu Jianquan are equally renowned in Beiping as Taiji Boxing experts. It has been said: “Yang Chengfu is good at shooting people away but not good at neutralizing, whereas Wu Jianquan is good at neutralizing people but not good at shooting them away. Therefore both of these men have a shortcoming, but if they were strong in both qualities, then they would be at the peak of Taiji skill.”
To which I say:
It happens that some people possess the theory but really cannot understand its reasoning. Issuing and neutralizing only seem to be two things but are actually one, and so you cannot issue without being able to neutralize, nor neutralize without being able to issue. As it says in the Classic: “Sticking is yielding and yielding is sticking.”
However, a person with a hefty build and abundant strength will have an easy time throwing people far away and cleanly. Yang’s body is big and tall, and it is known that when he does pushing hands with his students, he often likes to test his issuing power. Therefore his students all describe him as being good at issuing.
Wu’s personality is gentlemanly and very urbane. Regardless of who he is pushing hands with, he is always only defensive, never crowding or grabbing his partner, and so his partner is never crowding or grabbing him. I have heard that while he was teaching Taiji Boxing at the Beiping Physical Education School, whenever any of his young and strong students were trying things on him during pushing hands, Wu would only neutralize to thwart their attempts, and never once threw them away. Therefore people suspect that he is only good at neutralizing and not good at issuing.
I say that if Wu is often issuing, but is not able to make his opponent move, or move away very far, then we could suspect that he is not good at issuing. That Wu is never throwing people away is evidence of a polite temperament, indicating that he does not wish to be issuing without good reason, which would only provoke resentment on the part of his partner, and it does not mean he is not good at issuing.
I came north too late to meet either Yang or Wu [both men having just moved to Shanghai], but I firmly believe they are both pure exponents of Taiji Boxing in our time, uninfluenced by other kinds of boxing arts. As for discussing their achievements, I cannot really judge the degree of their skill.
Among the external boxing arts that are currently in vogue are people who seek Taiji Boxing experts such as these two gentlemen. I fear it will not be easy to get them, for unfortunately those who promote boxing arts do not know how to look for talent: neither of those gentlemen are to be found at the Nanjing Martial Arts Institute.
When Yuan Shikai ran the government [1912-1916], within the general’s office was a Song Shuming, who claimed to be a descendent of Song Yuanqiao, and he was considerably skilled in the Taiji boxing art. During that time, famous boxing artists in Beijing such as Wu Jianquan, Liu Enshou, Liu Caichen, and Ji Zixiu all invited him to teach. I do not know what kind of skills they studied from him, but Song’s students have not been able to teach his art to other people.
Ji Zixiu, who was at that time already more than sixty years old, relates that Song said: “Some boxing arts practitioners feel that new generations are inferior to earlier ones. Even if students are unable to put in the hard work of training, it is teachers not openly sharing with others that is the biggest reason why these skills are falling into oblivion together. Therefore let’s not dismiss the older gentlemen, instead we should salute them and seek their advice, and then some day their teachings will be passed on to still others. If once it has been learned it does not then get passed down to anyone during that lifetime, will it be taught to ghosts in the afterlife?”
But he then followed this with only a criticism, for people who went to learn from Song come away with little, because his training was too profound. When your students are not able to teach further students, this is hardly any better than not being willing to teach people in the first place.
Each style of Taiji Boxing has its idiosyncrasies in the performance of the solo set, but whatever the differences in the hand techniques and postures, there has to be a continuous flow from beginning to end, no stagnation throughout. In the principles of whole-bodied sensitivity and energy sinking to the elixir field, they are unanimous.
By relying on these principles, you will also be able to constantly pay attention to the passive and active aspects – the alternations between emptiness and fullness – and thereby avoid the error of double pressure. Even without guidance from a knowledgeable teacher, it can someday all make sense to you.
If you practice the solo set, practicing until there is genuine skill, then your pushing hands will easily progress, and it will not be difficult to stand out from the crowd. If you do not do the hard work of practicing the solo set and instead focus on seeking function within pushing hands, then no matter how clever you are, you will only achieve skill in your hands. Developing skill through the rest of your body would have been curtailed.
I have been practicing the Taiji solo set since May, 1925, just over four years ago. In the course of that time, the set has gone through four revisions, because each person I have learned from has adjusted it to the version they teach. I believed at the time that their changes were necessary, but once I had practiced to the point of skill, I then realized these four versions of the solo set are different only in terms of superficial movements. The spirit is not at all different. But because each person’s way of teaching is different, they slander each other, especially when they have not personally experienced someone’s teaching, and when they have not let go of the vice of sectarian bias.
Practitioners of Taiji Boxing always have it in mind to look down on the training in external boxing arts and say that Taiji Boxing theory is more refined than that of external styles. However, the external arts nevertheless have an advantage. If you practice Taiji Boxing, but have not yet reached the point of being able apply it, then it is no better than any external style. The results of the recent competition in Nanjing verify that Taiji Boxing practitioners have a harder time applying their art than do practitioners of external styles.
– – –
[Included below is a related piece in which Xiang further elaborates on his experience of Taiji. Written in 1955, two years before his death, it was later published within the 1980s reprints of his novels.]
ON STUDYING TAIJI’S PUSHING HANDS
by Xiang Kairan
Among practitioners of Taiji Boxing, everyone understands that the solo set is for developing a foundation and that pushing hands is for training function. But are practicing foundation and function two different matters? Answering this question requires us to first understand just what Taiji’s foundation and function are.
To develop a foundation, you cannot do without the Thirteen Dynamics, and to train the function, you again cannot do without the Thirteen Dynamics. Remove the Thirteen Dynamics, then there is no Taiji Boxing, and there is also no pushing hands. The “thirteen dynamics” are: warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, plucking, rending, elbowing, bumping, advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center. Everyone also knows this, but are practitioners of Taiji Boxing and its pushing hands paying any attention to each of these thirteen movements?
Certainly there are many who understand that it is important to pay attention to these things, but there are still more who only know how to follow along mechanically rather than attend to them mindfully. And those who do not understand the hard work involved in the Thirteen Dynamics dare to talk about practicing foundation without having grasped the foundation, and about practicing function without having grasped the function. This is why it is said in the Thirteen Dynamics Song: “If you pay no heed to these ideas, you will go astray in your training, and you will find you have wasted your time and be left with only sighs of regret.”
Practicing the solo set is the foundation of practicing the function in pushing hands, and practicing pushing hands is the understanding of the function in the solo set. It can be said that the whole of the foundation is all function, and also that the whole of the function is all foundation.
According to this explanation, whether practicing the solo set or pushing hands, is there any distinction? Yes, for I consider the Taiji Boxing theory as set down in a previous generation to be specifically addressing pushing hands [rather than the solo practice]. I present it below, annotating it line by line, then drawing it all together into a summary, followed by my personal experience of studying pushing hands.
The Taiji Boxing Classic says:
He is hard while I am soft – this is yielding. My energy is smooth while his energy is coarse – this is sticking.
By “hard” is meant an intention of attack, not really hardness of strength or power. For instance, the two pushing hands actions of warding off and pressing are energies of attack. By “soft” is meant an intention of defense, not really softness as in weakness or suppleness. For instance, the two pushing hands actions of rolling back and pushing are defensive energies.
Hardness and softness are merely synonyms for the contrast between attack and defense. It is entirely a matter of using intention and energy rather than attacking with hard power. The opponent closes in on me using the two attacking actions of warding off and pressing, so I neutralize his attack by using the two defensive actions of rolling back and pushing. Such actions are an example of yielding.
By “smooth” and “coarse” is meant the distinction between being properly positioned and improperly positioned. If can I keep my balance and be properly positioned, I feel a sense of smoothness, but he loses his balance and upsets his position, and so he instead feels a sense of coarseness. When I close in on him using warding off or pressing with an intention of upsetting his position, such actions are an example of sticking.
If he moves fast, I quickly respond, and if his movement is slow, I leisurely follow.
This is purely describing defensive technique. You must not make the mistake of thinking that it means you are giving away control, just that your speed accords with his. You must understand that the attack is up to him and the defense is up to you. If you can follow along with his speed and deal with him calmly, without affecting your balance, you can say you have achieved skillfulness in Taiji pushing hands.
If he puts pressure on my left side, my left side empties, or if he puts pressure on my right side, my right side disappears.
Taiji Boxing is just a manner of movement through pivoting. As it says in Understanding How to Practice: “The body is like a wheel. The waist is like an axle.” If your body is behaving like a wheel, then pressure on your left turns you to the left, and pressure on your right turns you to the right. This is a commonsense principal, effortlessly understood. However, if you wish to practice to the point of skillfulness, your hands performing a technique exactly as you wish it to happen, this is something that is not so easy.
If he tries to find me above, he has to keep reaching higher, or if he tries to find me below, he has to keep reaching lower. When he advances, he cannot get to me, but once he retreats, he cannot get away from me.
The above, below, and advancing all have to do with drawing in his energy so he lands on nothing. In other words, if his attack is upward, I draw him in so that he continues still higher; if his attack is downward, I draw him in so that he continues still lower; if his attack is forward, I draw him in so that he continues still farther. In all of these instances, I go along with his incoming force, drawing in so that it goes nowhere. I do not resist or try to interrupt his force. The statement about retreating has to do with having no hope of escape. If he were to advance as I retreat, then I would be putting myself into an urgent situation. Regardless of practicing the solo set or pushing hands, by all means avoid directly advancing or retreating.
It says in Understanding How to Practice: “In advancing and retreating, there must be variation.” This expresses the idea that you should not directly advance or retreat. For example, the advance of BRUSH KNEE IN A CROSSED STANCE requires footwork that inclines toward the left and right, and in the retreat of RETREAT, DRIVING AWAY THE MONKEY, you are also switching steps left and right. The rest of the movements that involve advancing or retreating are all the same situation. Since you are switching feet [rather than stepping back with both feet], retreating has a quality of advancing, and so it is not a real retreat. A real retreat results in failure. Thus it is said in the old boxing manuals that “an advance is an advance, and a retreat is also an advance”. It says in [Qi Jiguang’s] New Book of Effective Methods [chapter 12]: “Constantly advancing, you will be invincible.”
A feather cannot be added and a fly cannot land.
This means that pushing hands has to be trained until your sense of touch is so keen that whenever anything even as light as a feather or a fly lands on you, you will be able to be so aware of it that you do not allow it to land on you. The feather will not come to a stop because there is not a stable area on you to hold it, and the fly has no stable area to place its feet and so it will continue to flap its wings in search of another place to land. This is an exaggerated depiction of the sensitivity in Taiji’s pushing hands. The idea is that you do not allow an opponent to borrow any force from you at all, and this is the most important principle in pushing hands.
He does not know me, only I know him.
This is the highest level of skill in pushing hands. Applying pushing hands depends on training sensitivity. The jargon for this is “listening to energies”, which means using the hands, particularly the fingertips, to seek into the opponent’s movement and discover the direction of his intention and the path of his power. My intention is thereby always ahead of his, rendering him too late to defend himself.
Chen Xin of the Chen Family Village, Wen County, Henan, wrote a Taiji Boxing essay in which there are these two superb phrases regarding pushing hands: “Through mindfulness, I know his attack. Through craftiness, I conceal my counter.” Mindfulness is a matter of making use of the nerves in my hands to find out his incoming force, then I rely on craftiness to hide my counterattack from him. It is by this means that I achieve the condition of “he does not know me, only I know him”.
If you drop one side, you can move. But if you have equal pressure on both sides, you will be stuck.
These two phrases provide the most important thing to pay attention to while practicing pushing hands, and you must constantly engage in the actual activity in order to experience it. If you do not understand this principle, you will not really have an understanding of Taiji Boxing, merely going as far as getting a glimpse of it. Unless you put several years of hard work into pushing hands, you will still have no way of responding to circumstances. Once these two phrases are explained, it turns out they are actually very ordinary and easily understood.
As was already mentioned: “The body is like a wheel. The waist is like an axle.” Think of the way a wheel touches the ground. Are there two points of pressure? If there were two, it would not be able to move. Thus it says in the Taiji Boxing Classic [Treatise]: “Do not allow there to be cracks or gaps anywhere, pits or protrusions anywhere.” With cracks or gaps, pits or protrusions, there can be no roundness, and without roundness, there will be double pressure.
There are people who interpret “double pressure” as meaning both feet pressing the ground in unison or both hands attacking in unison, and that being single-footed or single-handed makes “single pressure”. This interpretation is utterly in error. We have to understand that a condition of single pressure or double pressure has nothing to do with external posture, but with internal substance.
Taiji Boxing is nothing more than a “central axis” exercise. If you find your center, then every point of contact will become rounded and you will thereby have a single pressure everywhere, whereas if you do not find your center, then every path of contact will become obstructed and you will thereby have a double pressure everywhere – not only a matter of double feet or double hands, but of a single finger being unable to avoid a state of double pressure.
Chen Xin’s essay expresses the idea supremely: “Once your training is at an exquisite level, there will be roundness in the microscopic places as well.” Circles all have a central axis point, and due to the roundness that radiates from this center, there are no “cracks or gaps anywhere, pits or protrusions anywhere”. So where would there be doubling of pressure?
In sticking there is yielding and in yielding there is sticking.
A taiji [“grand polarity” or “grand pivot”] is the central point of a circle. The half of the circle that rotates outward is active, and the half of the circle that rotates inward is passive. The active half performs sticking and attacking, and the passive half performs yielding and defending. Sticking is also a preparation for yielding, and yielding is also a preparation for sticking, leading us right into:
The active does not depart from the passive and the passive does not depart from the active.
The passive and active exchange roles. Once you have this understanding, you will be identifying energies.
Concepts such as passive and active, sticking and yielding, hardness and softness, adhering and following, are all synonyms for the two actions of attacking and defending. Inside attacking lies defending, and inside defending lies attacking. Thus they “exchange roles”. Understanding this principle will bring you to the level of identifying energies:
Once you are identifying energies, then the more you practice, the more efficient your skill will be.
The basic of basics is to forget about your plans and simply respond to the opponent. We often make the mistake of ignoring what is right in front of us in favor of something that has nothing to do with our immediate circumstances.
Taiji pushing hands is a matter of adapting to the situation, and so there must be absolutely no planning ahead, just responding to the opponent. This quote also highlights the necessity to have a condition of liveliness and nimbleness. You will then be able to be following along with the opponent, sticking and yielding without the slightest hindrance. And yet there are many people who think that letting go of your plans to respond to the opponent actually means examining his attack pattern in order to find a way to deal with it beforehand, again ignoring what is present in favor of what is not.
This series of quotes is from the Taiji Boxing Classic by Wang Zongyue of Shanxi, the theme of which is the principles of pushing hands. It forms the most profound and precise set of theory in Taiji Boxing. Unless you absorb it meticulously, you will never learn anything.
It says in Understanding How to Practice: “When issuing power, you must sink and relax, concentrating it in one direction.” To issue power, you have to issue power during pushing hands in order to train the power, and then you will be able to sink and relax. You then also have to have the two conditions of sinking and relaxing when issuing in order for it be a case of internal power rather than awkward effort.
Although the idea of “concentrating it in one direction” appears to be quite simple, it contains all three key factors of timing, position, and direction. If one of these parts is incorrect, then the internal power generated from sinking and relaxing will not be issued cleanly and precisely. Consequently it is necessary during pushing hands to, for one thing, be prepared to receive his issued power without yielding or neutralizing, and for another, to be dedicated to issuing in accordance with the principles. Once you have practiced to the point of skill, you will then be able to issue right at the moment of contact, and your issuing will be on target.
It says in the Playing Hands Song: “Ward-off, rollback, press, and push must be taken seriously. With coordination between above and below, the opponent will hardly find a way in.” Warding off, rolling back, pressing, and pushing are the names of the four actions within the concept of “within curving, seek to be straightening”. But within these four actions are contained the nine further actions of plucking, rending, elbowing, and bumping, advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center. And so to say that “ward-off, rollback, press, and push must be taken seriously” amounts to saying that the Thirteen Dynamics must be taken seriously.
The first line of the Thirteen Dynamics Song – “Do not neglect any of the thirteen dynamics,…” – means that you should take them all seriously. If you can put your waist in charge of your movement, there will naturally be coordination above and below. Able to coordinate your upper body and lower body with each other, you will thus have the ability to neutralize an opponent’s attack, and because of this, “the opponent will hardly find a way in”. Its second line – “their command coming from your lower back.” – has exactly this meaning.
[Again from the Playing Hands Song:] “Guiding him in to land on nothing, I then close on him and send him away. I stick to him and go along with his movement instead of coming away or crashing in.” Going along with the opponent’s incoming force, I draw him in toward an empty place. Drawing him in merges with my opportunity to counter, so I then send out my attack. There are two meanings to the term “drawing in”: 1. to guide his force according to the direction it is already going, 2. to deliberately show a weak spot [a “broken seam”] in order to induce him into rashly advancing. It says in Chen Xin’s essay: “Tricking him into an empty cage, you then only need to rotate.” To “trick him into an empty cage” is the same thing as “drawing him in to land on nothing”, and “rotate” is the moment of sending out your attack.
It was said by a previous generation: “Pushing hands simply comes down to the concept of ‘neither coming away nor crashing in’.” Not coming away means not separating from the opponent’s hands, and not crashing in means not resisting against his hands. Within this are the four actions of sticking, connecting, adhering, following. Sticking and adhering have to do with not coming away. Connecting and following have to do with not crashing in. In other words, when the opponent advances, I use connecting and following, and when he retreats, I use sticking and adhering.
The Playing Hands Song may be a basic and very stripped down rendition of principles, but without receiving personal instruction, it would be of no more use than getting explanations based on a set of drawings. Thousands upon thousands of words would still be of no benefit.
It is said in the Thirteen Dynamics Song: “Beginning the training requires personal instruction, but mastering the art depends on your own unceasing effort.” Why “your own effort”? This simply means that as long as you are practicing in accordance with the above principles, you are able to do the work by yourself, whereas if you ignore the principles, your effort would be in vain.
It says in the “Boxing Classic” by Li Changluo of Pingjiang: “To learn but not practice betrays the work of the teacher. To practice but neglect the theory makes a mockery of the art.” It can be seen from this that practicing pushing hands requires taking these principles seriously.
Above are the most widespread principles known to ordinary enthusiasts of Taiji Boxing, with a brief commentary added. Because my learning is limited, my comments may not necessarily be correct, but I will be so bold as to pledge to all who care that all of those ideas were told to me by noteworthy teachers, and then embellished by my own practical experience of thirty years. I will now present some conclusions I have reached from my experience, and my process of learning Taiji pushing hands during those thirty years, supplying a brief account for those who love pushing hands to refer to.
Among those of us who practice Taiji Boxing, why do we find it necessary to practice pushing hands? This question is very easy to answer: the reason is that the functional value of the more than a hundred movements in the solo set emerges entirely through experiencing pushing hands. However, we do acknowledge that pushing hands is different from sparring and two-person sets, and we always keep in mind that wrestling is not the same as pushing.
Pushing hands methods generally can be divided into four types:
1. single-hand fixed-step,
2. double-hand fixed-step,
3. moving-step (or “stepping to the nine palaces”),
4. large rollback.
 The single-hand fixed-step exercise is very rarely practiced nowadays, but we should actually take it seriously because single-hand pushing is indispensable for beginners. The practice method is very simple: both partners use a single hand, one sticking while the other is yielding. Nevertheless, regarding the early stage of listening to energies, and for developing skill in the waist and thighs, it is very helpful indeed.
 The double-hand fixed-step pattern is what is in vogue nowadays. The pushing hands principles as described above are all related to this pattern. This kind of pushing method is the fundamental training for developing skill. The functional value of Taiji Boxing depends on building a solid foundation through this pushing hands pattern. In the beginning, seek for your upper body and lower to be working in unison, for advancing, retreating, and turning to be nimble, and it is okay for the movements to be somewhat brisk. Step forward and drill the techniques of ward-off, rollback, press, and push. You stick when I am yielding. I stick when you are yielding. You must not move too fast, for then your sticking and yielding will not be consistent, each of the techniques will easily become neglected, and there will be no involvement of the intention to seek and listen to energy. Below are listed the four most important keys to this training:
i. There has to be slowness:
Regardless of sticking or yielding, always work inch by inch to seek his energy and listen to it, never rashly skipping over even the tiniest place.
ii. There has to be roundness:
Your hands especially need to avoid moving into positions that make right angles. You must at every point maintain a curved condition.
iii. There has to be stability:
This refers to the fixed-step exercise. You may switch your feet, but not start walking, for the objective in pushing hands lies in the importance of building a solid foundation in your waist and thighs. When your partner closes in, you can only use settling onto your [rear] thigh and yielding with your waist to dissolve his incoming force. Practicing this over a long period of time, your waist and thighs will naturally develop skill.
iv. There has to be nearness:
Generally, when you are seeking his energy in order to listen to it, and to develop skill in your waist and thighs, you have to get sufficiently near him in order for it to feasible.
 Moving-step pushing hands:
Two advancing steps, two retreating steps, both partners not changing their direction. For my part, I do a ward-off with an advancing step and a press with an advancing step. For your part, you do a rollback with a retreating step and a push with a retreating step. The movements then recycle indefinitely. In order for the advancing and retreating in this exercise to be nimble, you must not change direction [i.e. both people are walking the plank], and thereby you will be able to ensure skill development in your waist and thighs.
 Large Rollback:
Four advancing steps, four retreating steps, both partners advancing and retreating toward the four corners. For my part, I do a ward-off with an advancing step, an elbow with an advancing step, a press with an advancing step, and a bump with closing step. For your part, you do a rollback with three retreating steps, then switch to coming around behind me with a step that involves the triple actions of pluck, rend, and push. Because the retreat has several steps, it is an “enlarged rollback”.
Regardless of which pushing hands pattern you are practicing, you must avoid putting aside the principles and forcefully attacking, and you must never entertain any notion of winning or losing.
Collected above are ideas regarding pushing hands according to various schools. While they all have principles they emphasize, their theories are not that different from each other. For those of us who practice and study pushing hands, it seems like we have to deeply understand and intensively study in order to get it right. But it is not really necessary for us to do so. It is only necessary for us to focus on a single principle, scrutinize it until that one is understood, and then the rest of them will fall into place. This is the rationale of “practice a lot over a long time” and then one day “you will have a breakthrough”.
For an analogy, think of a room with several doorways. If you want to enter the space, you only need to use one of them. But while one door is all you need, if you cannot get through it you will never get in at all. We also have to understand that the height or craftsmanship of the door is not relevant. When on the eastern end of the room, the eastern doorway gets walked through. When on the western end of the room, the western doorway gets walked through. We each simply go through the nearest one.
The same is true for studying the principles. You only have to pick the one makes the most immediate sense to you and is the easiest for you to realize in your practice, and then by delving further into it, it will become a key to the rest. This is like a hunting dog pursuing an animal. Once it has aimed its snout, it never gives up till the kill.
Here is the process I myself went through in learning pushing hands:
In 1923 , I was in Shanghai, and I started learning Taiji Boxing from Chen Weiming. Though both he and his teacher Yang Chengfu were particularly fond of crowding in with the actions of warding off and pressing, Chen did not then issue any power, he merely caused me to end up in a position in which I could not transmit power through my body and became stuck, unable to yield, much less neutralize. I felt this was the most difficult phase in the beginning of my pushing hands training.
When Wang Runsheng later came to Shanghai, I also learned from him, practicing the Wu family’s solo set. When I used Chen Weiming’s method of crowding with warding off and pressing, Wang disrupted my posture of attack so easily. After all I had studied so far, I then discovered that my sense of touch was just too slow. He attacked when he pleased, with whatever technique he pleased, and always so quickly, whereas I always waited too long, until the point that I noticed I could not express any power anyway, for I was already off balance, unable to yield or neutralize.
I asked Wang: “During pushing hands, what kind of attacking does Wu Jianquan do?”
He said: “Wu hardly ever attacks. But if you tried some method of attacking him, he would right away cause you to be unable to use any power or hardly even move. For this reason, people generally say that Yang focuses on issuing and Wu focuses on neutralizing. Really though, issuing is neutralizing, because if you can’t neutralize, then you won’t be able to issue either. But since both of these men have their own personalities, it follows that the methods they use would be different as well.”
In 1929, I was in Beijing, and I learned pushing hands from Xu Yusheng. His Taiji Boxing was learned from Song Shuming, passed down from Song Yuanqiao. It focuses on opening and closing – coordinating the breath with each movement. He always emphasized awareness of the Thirteen Dynamics, particularly pointing out that staying centered was the basis of the rest, because it is necessary in every technique to be centered in order to issue.
He also gave attention to the five-word secret in Huang Baijia’s Boxing Methods of the Internal School: “focused, sticky, expedient, potent, precise”, and stated that “precise” was the most important of them, explaining that each movement has to be performed exactly as it would be applied. Therefore his pushing hands exhibited the greatest capacity for using the movements from the solo set. Alas, as he was during that time the director of the Beijing Martial Arts Institute and also of the Beijing Physical Education School, his work kept him extremely busy, and so he could not talk over techniques with me very often. But he introduced me to Liu Enshou, who then gave me special instruction in pushing hands.
Liu’s Taiji Boxing was also learned from Song Shuming, but his pushing hands was different yet again compared to the teachers above. Suddenly there was a lightness, then suddenly a heaviness. One moment he was far away, then out of nowhere he was close to me. He constantly rendered me incapable of connecting and following, incapable of sticking and adhering. Sometimes he would abruptly lift, and I would be lifted up all the way down to my heels. Sometimes he would abruptly withdraw, and I would topple forward into an emptiness.
Three months of this passed by, and by then I had little by little gotten used to it and was no longer so fooled by his lures. Having previously trained in external styles of boxing, sometimes when I felt cornered I would lash out with an external style technique, and he would instantly draw everything to a halt, then tell me: “Pushing hands is a kind of training method, not sparring. You can’t have a competitive mentality. It’s not about win or lose. If it was a win or lose struggle, we would both be using varying postures, never deliberately standing in one place waiting for each other’s attack.”
Once I had heard these words, I became rather ashamed, deeply feeling that I should not have any notions of win or lose while pushing hands, and that I should not disregard principles in favor of scoring cheap shots. In terms of the art, I was breaking the rules. In terms of society, I was being impolite. In terms of personal character, I was behaving dishonorably.
In 1934, in Changsha, a classmate and I were pushing hands while Wang Runsheng was off to the side observing us. He suddenly commented: “Why do you both do pushing hands without any opening and closing?”
I hurried to a stop and asked him: “All the time you were teaching me pushing hands, you never once mentioned ‘opening and closing’, so could you teach us now where to find it?”
He said: “It says in the classics [from How to Practice]: ‘Your ability to be nimble lies in your ability to breathe.’ It follows that your ability to breathe lies in your ability to open and close. You just haven’t noticed this concept on your own.”
I said: “I was already worried long ago about how that statement made no sense to me. But what do you mean that breathing depends on opening and closing? Isn’t someone who can’t breathe a dead person?”
He smiled and said: “No, no, you’re not getting it. Everyone breathes with a natural breath, which is not the breathing of a martial artist. If a martial artist is not able to coordinate his breath, then he is not able to ‘breathe’. This point is vital. Whenever you read something commending the performance of a martial artist, there’s a couple phrases that constantly appear: ‘no reddening of the face’, ‘no panting of the breath’. When you were both pushing hands a moment ago, your breath was panting, and the reason for it is that you weren’t paying any attention to your breath.”
I said: “Xu Yusheng once said to me that while practicing the solo set there should be coordination of opening and closing with the exhaling and inhaling. I overlooked this comment when he said it, and then I never went to him to ask him what he meant. On top of that, I had no idea that there is also opening and closing in pushing hands, or that it likewise is supposed to be coordinated with the breath.”
Wang said: “When you started learning, I could not yet talk about this action, because then it would’ve been too complex, too difficult to physically realize. But now it is time for you to work at opening and closing with exhaling and inhaling, otherwise you will not be able to progress.” He then gave a few examples within the solo set, such as “warding off and pressing are cases of opening, whereas rolling back and pushing are cases of closing”.
I thereupon looked for opening and closing every time I was practicing the solo set. After looking for it for a few days, I was sure I had found it, so I showed my set to Wang.
As soon as I was performing CATCH THE SPARROW BY THE TAIL, he grinned and said: “Stop doing it that way. When you open, you do not fulfill ‘opening’, and when you close, you do not fulfill ‘closing’.” He happened to be holding a collapsible fan at that moment. Flicking it open and flicking it closed, he asked: “What’s causing this opening and closing?”
I said: “Your hand.”
He shook his head, pointed at the fan’s hinge, and said: “It requires this thing in order to be able to open and close.” Then he pointed to a door and said: “That door also needs a hinge to open and close. And because you haven’t found your hinge, of course your opening doesn’t fulfill opening and your closing doesn’t fulfill closing.”
I asked: “So where’s my hinge?”
He said: “You have to find it for yourself. If I give you the answer, you won’t listen to it.”
For the sake of this hinge concept, I threw myself into an intensive study of everything to do with Taiji Boxing theory until I was steeped in it. And then it clicked – I finally understood that the ‘hinging’ lies at the waist.
So I then started looking for opening and closing from this context, adjusting most of the transitions throughout the solo set, until I eventually discovered there were multiple openings and closings within every single movement, and that they were always aligned with the breath. As the movements became more and more detailed, their durations became longer and longer.
Because Wang at that time was teaching in Hunan University, it was too difficult for us to meet. But then I bumped into him half a year later and promptly showed him what I had been practicing.
He smiled, nodded, and said: “Not quite, but almost. Your understanding is merely that the waist controls the movement, but you are not noticing that statements [from the classics, in this case the Thirteen Dynamics Song] such as “the command coming from your lower back” and “at every moment, pay attention to your waist” indicate the center of the waist area [i.e. the lumbar region of the spine]. You have to understand that this is a description of the lifeblood of Taiji Boxing. This area also supplies the source of the name ‘Taiji’ Boxing [being a central circularity of movement]. If you don’t get this, within the Thirteen Dynamics it is centeredness that will remain hidden to you. Furthermore, you will have no way of experiencing the concept of ‘if one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still’. However, this principle is pretty obscure. It’s difficult to understand, even more difficult to actually experience. It if were explained to beginners, not only would it be of no help, it would counterproductively lead them to doubt the art. Previous generations for this reason did not casually give out such information. It’s not that they were worried about people knowing it, but that they were worried people would not understand.”
Upon hearing these penetrating insights, I nearly wept with gratitude.
As for the principles and processes that I have explained above, I feel they express the supreme cultural heritage within our nation’s physical exercise traditions, and that I ought to share this wisdom publicly. There are many practitioners of Taiji Boxing and many books about it, but texts focusing on theory, especially pushing hands theory, which give a systematic exploration, an endeavor of research recorded for all to study, are still too rare. Thus I have written this piece to supply Taiji Boxing aficionados with some reference material.