Student Notes-The Chicken & The Sparrow

There is a chef who is renowned for 3 dishes. I tried all three before and one in particular, the crispy skin chicken was truly outstanding. Later I tried it a second time and it was still a good experience.

Then one day the chef called it quits and handed the kitchen over to the disciple. So by the third time I tried the crispy skin chicken it was during the period that the chef had left. This time the chicken had the flavor but the skin was no longer as crispy.

So the moral of the lesson is that if I want to have the great taste of this chef’s famous dish again I should wait for the day this chef cooks again or his disciple to up the standard.

Similarly the learning of Tai Chi is about experiencing it. We can debate it the whole day but at the end of it if we never experienced it can we say that we really know what it is about?

So to me this is a teaching dilemma. I can explain and demo but until I can get my student to replicate it he still cannot truly experience what Tai Chi is about. In this sense, learning Tai Chi is like learning to cook. You have to experience to heat, the oil splatter, the urgency of the cooking timing, and so on to really get what its about.

I had a good lesson this week where a student did see the point about Tai Chi not being about fajing only. Unfortunately, he was still unclear about other things especially the use of certain things to compensate for not having to rely on power. So I had to explain the use of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail from the perspective of imagery and qualia to clarify.

Grasp Sparrow’s Tail is literally about the art of catching the sparrow. Yes, I know its sounds ridiculous but its actually an interesting strategy to defuse the opponent’s strength and put him into a position where he cannot apply his power so easily.

To do this involves an element of OODA loop and psychology for those who love terminology. I just prefer to think of it simply as having timing as the main function, backed by sub-functions such as harmonizing, borrowing strength, etc. The explanation and terminology makes it sound logical but until you try doing it yourself you will not understand what is involved in getting it right.

In fact, I just read a passage from the book When Breath Becomes Air that is spot on in this regard; for those who have not read this book it is about a young neurosurgeon who found himself stricken with cancer and talks about his journey from being a doctor to being a patient (P.S. he died in 2015 before the book was completed) :-

….. I had sent nearly every one of my patients to physical therapy. And now I found myself shocked at how difficult it was. As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.

So one part of the use of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail involved getting the opponent to give you the position. I showed and explained it. But when my student tried it he couldn’t get it. I told him he used too much strength still. I showed what it would feel like if I used too much strength and how he would not yield the position.

Having understood how it worked it is not unusual for a student to try to resist the technique except that they couldn’t do it. Again and again I did it and my student could not help but kept giving up the position. Why did this happen? It is because psychologically speaking he cannot help himself. He had to do it even though he knew that he shouldn’t do it and did not want to do it but certain parts of us, probably the involuntary part, makes us do things we know we should not. Like an itch that had to be scratched.

As a game Grasp Sparrow’s Tail offers different possibilities to capture the opponent’s position. We can have an outer door or an inner door position. The inner position which was what we worked on involved the use of Rollback, Press and Push in a cyclical manner. An important lesson from Sun Tzu’s Art of War is also found here. This is a key to Master Tai Chi Today – knowing ourselves.


Want to learn Tai Chi in Singapore? At Singapore Yang Style Combat Tai Chi lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today at the link here.

2 thoughts on “Student Notes-The Chicken & The Sparrow

  1. Huh! Learn something new every day. I’m a terminology guy and I never heard of OODA. But even a quick look was pretty interesting and had immediate resonance with matters Tai Chi. Skim a different article, see other stuff, also applicable. Thank you


  2. OODA loop is basically, it boils down to moving first, baiting and changing to make the opponent unable to play catch up. Anyone who learns traditional arts would know this, OK, maybe they are not using the same terminology but in essence it is what it is.


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