Second Lesson – Quanfa

Tai Chi is a method of Quanfa (拳法) using the intent () to develop one’s combat skills. Instead of physically doing repetitions of a technique, the learning of the Tai Chi of Grandmaster Wei Shuren calls for us to exercise our grey cells ahead of our physical movements, i.e. every movement shall be preceded by an intent.

Is not wanting to throw a punch an intent? Is thinking of where to step an intent? Is turning your body as you are thinking of turning it an intent?

Yes, yes and yes. They are all intent.

However, the intent in Tai Chi is a lot more specific and specialized than that. For example, when you throw a punch where is your intent? When did it start moving? What are you thinking of when your punch is moving through space?

Let’s examine an example. This is part of the Fair Lady Threads Shuttles technique from the 22-form.

Spear-3.png

Without the benefit of an explanation and relying on the two pictures alone it would seem as if Grandmaster Wei is lowering his right hand from shoulder height to about waist height.

Now if you were asked to do this movement without being told about the need to use specific intent how would you lower your right hand? Do you :-

a) Just lower it?

b) Think first about lowering your right hand before doing it?

c) Ensure that your right hand lowering is guided by your body / dantian movement in conformance with good biomechanics?

Now if you were told that this movement is called “Mountain Splitting (the) Five Peaks (or Summits)” would it alter the way you do the movement?

Close you eyes and let your imagination roam. Mountain splitting five peaks. What does it mean? How does a mountain split five peaks? It does not make much sense, does it? Most people would have given up and think the name is just for reference; basically saying they do not know and just want to shelve the matter.

But what if the name of the movement is important? Would we not miss out on a possibly important part of training? Knowing what the name means, how it relates to the training of Tai Chi force is a distinguishing feature of our Quanfa.

The name is there not because some bored Taoist monk decided to jazz the name up. There is a reason for it, an important rationale behind it and everything points back to the training of the intent.

Consider – what if we were to write out “Mountain Splitting Five Peaks” in Chinese? This is how it is written :-

山劈五岳

Would this make a difference? I guess to most readers and practitioners their mind would still register a blank and its alright. This is where I jump in and say that a knowledge of China is helpful. The name in English does not tell me much either but once I say the name in Chinese this is what comes to mind :-

山-劈-五-岳 (how most people see it)

山-劈-五岳(how I see it)

Can you see the difference now?

You can either read it as a mountain-chopping down-five-peaks (i.e. five different peaks). Or you can read it as mountain-chopping down-five peaks.

The former tells me a mountain is cutting down five mountains, possibly one after another. The latter tells me that a mountain is cutting down Five Peaks (五岳)!

If you know something about the geography of China you would realize that Five Peaks (五岳) is referring to The Five Great Mountains in Chinese history. Emperors in the past would make pilgrimage to these mountains. The Five Great Mountains are Tai Shan (Shandong), Hua Shan (Shanxi), Heng Shan (Hunan), Heng Shan (Shanxi) and Song Shan (Henan).

The Five Peaks are sacred and their association with the pilgrimage of Emperors bestow on them an aura of majestic might. A mountain that is powerful enough to cleave the Five Peaks is mighty indeed! By association, the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks should be a powerful stroke!

Note of interest – Tongbeiquan, a very old powerful northern style of Chinese martial arts, has a vertical palm strike called 劈山 so I guess Tai Chi players are not the only ones fond of chopping down mountains.

Below is how the image of a mountain cleaving five mountains lined up in a row comes to my mind :-

Spear-4.png

But how do we perform the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks with intent to develop our power?

This is how we can do this technique in a nutshell :-

Step 1 – imagine you are holding a Chinese spear in your hands. Behind you stands a mountain.

Step 2 – as the mountain behind you bows forward to cleave the five great mountains imagine your spear is also cutting down.

Spear-5

If you practice this for a sufficient period of time your arms can develop a powerful downward force without appearing to use obvious biomechanics. You can use this force in push hands to sink your opponent’s bridge arm or you can use it to power a downward chopping strike.

In order to arrive at a level where you can use this power freely you need to reach the level of “true intent” (真意). Ironically, at the stage of “true intent” (真意) is when you should have “no intent” (无意). This is consistent with what I mentioned in the First Lesson as 从繁到空.

And that dear readers is what the Quanfa (拳法) of our Yang style Tai Chi Chuan that is descended from Grandmaster Wei Shuren is about.

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About Movement

I remember seeing this video. I was amazed not so much by the study itself but by the fact that the researchers said they were doing a study on Tai Chi but what was shown on the video was not Tai Chi but Baji! There is a write-up here and notice – no mention that it  was Baji that was studied instead of Tai Chi.

 

It is even more astonishing when you consider that the researchers were post-grads and you would think that they should know something about what they were actually studying versus what they thought (or led to believe) they were studying.

How I came to write about this topic today was somehow or rather I was talking about the Tai Chi Classics with my student and mentioned this video. I was surprised to learn that this lab had also done a study on him performing Tai Chi though I can’t find any information on it.

This early study is interesting but seem to miss out on a lot. This could be due to the fact of measurement instrumentation constraint, that the researchers did not know their topic enough to ask the right questions or that their focus is just on a specific aspect. I would say that the research paper here is better by comparison. At least, it really is on Tai Chi.

Still I would think that a proper study on Tai Chi has yet to be conducted. My thinking is that the first step is to identify a master, not so much by paper certificate or claims of lineage but by whether he really knows his topic. Herein, lies the first obstacle in that most researchers would not know enough about Tai Chi to be able to tell the difference.

Assuming that the first hurdle is passed the next part is to determine what is a suitable topic to delve into. I would love to see a study on the role of principles from the Tai Chi Classics in the practice and application of Tai Chi. The objective of the study to prove that these principles are consistent in optimizing the method in regards to movement efficiency and effectiveness.

To study this would require an array of instruments such as a high speed camera, motion sensors, shock sensors, temperature monitors, infrared camera, brain monitoring and software. It would also be important for the subject to narrate what he is thinking of as a movement is performed and correlate that to the part of the brain that is involved.

For example, if you want to study if The Song of Peng is a valid principle or mere flowery words it would be useful to call out each line to the test subject and capture what is occurring in his mind and body. From here you can compare and verify if he is actually doing what the principles called for or doing something entirely different.

For example, The Song of Peng calls for the energy to be like water supporting a moving boat. How should this be actualized? The test subject will narrate his thinking, after which he will demonstrate that the movement just performed is consistent with the real life example of water supporting a moving boat. The video below is an example of how water supports a boat :-

So if the test subject is doing a movement that is consistent with what The Song of Peng said then you will be able to discern at least some of the principles mentioned in the video above in play.

When I was talking to my student we were talking about An (Push). I showed him what the problem was when trying to apply power against a resisting opponent and how to solve it. The way most Tai Chi practitioners do their push is something like what is described below on how to push a cart properly to move heavy objects in an industrial warehouse :-

cart

I am not saying the above way of doing Push (like pushing a heavy cart) is wrong. You can read that the cart pushing posture is consistent with biomechanics (you can read the entire paper here). My question is whether this alone is consistent with the principles outlined in The Song of Push. You can read a translation below taken from Lee Scheele’s website :-

What is the meaning of An energy?
When applied it is like flowing water.
The substantial is concealed in the insubstantial.
When the flow is swift it is difficult to resist.
Coming to a high place, it swells and fills the place up;
meeting a hollow it dives downward.
The waves rise and fall,
finding a hole they will surely surge in.

I am sure after reading The Song of Push you would agree that pushing a cart is nothing like Tai Chi’s Push movement. There are two ways to apply Push. The first is to move in and just apply the push. The second is in the midst of pushing hands you apply the push and your opponent resists hard.

I contend that it is in the latter that we can check our compliance to the principles outlined in the Song of Push honestly. Imagine this – you put both hands on your opponent’s arm and you push hard until his arm is jammed against his body. He should be pushed out and off balance.

But he managed to lean in, place his weight on his front leg and brace against the push. Now you have a problem. You can move back to try pushing in again but chances are your opponent will follow you and counter-attack. You can also dig in and push harder. They are two possible options but again, how are they in compliance with the principles. At this point some practitioners would say the principles are not true, just stuff made up by scholars to fool the gullible and elevate the art for snobbery purposes.

However, what if the principles are true? If so, then how do you prove that they are true and workable? Therein, lies the problem.

In my explanation of one example to overcome resistance without stepping back or changing to another attack I used the principle of “The waves rise and fall,…” to borrow the strength from the resistance and return it. I came across the explanation below which is related to the explanation I provided :-

cart2

I applied this principle through the fajing principle mentioned in Grandmaster Wang Yongquan’s book on Tai Chi (book cover shown below, from TaijiKinesis Official Handbook Volume 2 – Background) :-

cart3

So you see a movement applied properly should be traceable to the principles and not just rely on I say, you say or master says. Otherwise, we could be doing something wrong and not realize it, never mind it looks beautiful outwardly.

Note – doing right does not mean we must all do it the same way – it just means that we should have the proper principles running through it. So if I were to apply Push and using the below principle from Peng as well the flavor would be different :-

The entire body is filled with springlike energy,
opening and closing in a very quick moment.

This then is the thing about the nature of movement in Tai Chi. You can say same, same but not the same. This means that all Tai Chi are the same because the principles are similar if not the same. If the principles are different then we are not the same. No matter, all Tai Chi styles share the same core principles; for example lowered elbows, sunk shoulders. It is the unique principles of the respective lineages that make them stand out.

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Kaihe & Kokyuho

My student was telling about some of the exercises he learned in Aikido. They are familiar to me as I have seen them in Aikido books.

He got around to talking about seated exercises for learning connection. For the fun of it I held his arms and made him try to do it on me. He couldn’t do it on me because he was basically still trying to go head on against my strength.

So I explained how the principles of Tai Chi can be used to improve his Aikido practice. We worked through some examples standing up and later seating down on chairs that a religious group had left in the void deck. We didn’t try seating on the floor as we weren’t trying to do Aikido, merely examining how to overcome someone holding your arms firmly.

Some of the exercises we talked about are similar to what is shown in the video below :-

Mostly if someone is trying to hold both your wrists you can use the Yang style 108 raising hands movement to break the power and send the training partner back. This is simple and straightforward.

The more interesting and difficult one would be where the person is holding and pressing your wrists down. When you are sitting down this would mean the your hands would be pressed against your thighs, making it more challenging for you to lift your arms.

When this is the scenario the way you would resolve it is by arching your body back so that you can use your entire upper body to raise your training partner’s arms to break his holding strength. You can see this exercise beginning 0:58 in the above video – the only difference is that they did not do it with the hands being pinned against the thighs at the start. The screenshot below shows how the upper body is used.

kokyu

When my student tried to do it by arching his back he could not unify his body and ended up trying to forceful push my arms back. Since my weight was on top of his writst and pressing down this made it difficult.

I told him to imagine that his entire body is welded together so that he cannot move one part without moving the rest. Then all he has to do is arch his back and his arms would follow gently, making it easy to break the hold, and issue his power. Oh, in Tai Chi we do not need to breath in and out purposely when doing this. All we have to do is to use our intention.

It sounded easy but still took a few tries before getting it right. In Tai Chi we train this particular movement in the Wu (Hao) form. We call this movement Kai He which means open – close. If you do Kai He properly you can arch your back a lot lesser than shown in the above picture – in fact so little that if you didn’t look carefully you may not even notice it. The reason why we need to pay attention to this is that if we over do the arching movement we risk hurting our spine.

Plus, if you arch too much your training partner may let go and follow up by moving in and attacking you. So its important to bind your opponent to you by connecting to him such that he cannot let go without you attacking him the moment he tries to release his grip. Its when you can do it this way that you are connecting properly.

You will also be amazed at how this simple concept can amplify your power instantly. I say this because my student is still struggling to master the Yang 108 form. Yet, it was possible to get him to use a principle from the Wu (Hao) form correctly within a few minutes of testing. Now I only hope he can retain it and go back to his Aikido class to have some fun training.

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Open Your Mind

Precision in your Tai Chi movements demand that every movement be correct. As one student mentioned this is what makes our Tai Chi difficult to learn.

Recently, he took my advice to go try out something different by taking up a trial Aikido lesson. He had a great experience and found many similarities between what we do in Tai Chi and Aikido. However, he also noted that the biggest difference between our Tai Chi and Aikido is that Aikido uses big movements whereas we utilize a lot of micro movements.

He showed me a technique he learned which was Kokyu Nage. If you know your Aikido the movement begins when your partner grasps your wrist. You then flow into Tai-no-Henko to blend and neutralize before going into Kokyu Nage.

If your mind draws a blank when reading Tai-no-Henko and Kokyu Nage the videos will give you an idea of what it is about. Kokyu Nage will probably remind you of Wild Horse Parts Mustang. I like the video on Kokyu Nage – nice stuff.

 

In Tai Chi learning how to apply a technique is one part of the learning. The second part of the learning is how to counter the same technique you just applied. Learning a technique this way helps to make your initial technique better.

For example, if you have a partner using Wild Horse Parts Mane against you in a manner similar to Kokyu Nage how would you counter it?

Similarly, if you are in the midst of applying Wild Horse Parts Mane and your partner attempts to counter it how do you counter his counter?

There are many ways to counter a technique such as Wild Horse Parts Mane depending on how it is applied. My student is not an expert at Tai Chi yet or in Aikido after one lesson so its easy to counter him even when I am still holding on to his wrist. When he moved to my side the use of Kao can disrupt the flow of his movement. Alternatively, I could use Wild Horse Parts Mane to counter the very same technique.

Countering in a flowing manner is just a matter of relaxing and emptying the mind. And of course, you need to know your long form like the back of your hand. Then the solution will come spontaneously to you. This is known as creating something from nothing. Learning how to Master Tai Chi Today can be quite fun, don’t you think so?

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One & The Same

Inevitably, the learning of Tai Chi will come to the topic of fajing. I would rather that this be later rather than sooner though I am aware that some teachers do cover it sooner rather than later.

There is a good reason for not diving into the topic of fajing too early. Its basically the age old wisdom of learning to walk before trying to run. If you consider that doing fajing is unrelated to the application of techniques i.e. like saying that learning to walk has nothing to do with learning to run, then I accept that students can learning fajing sooner rather than later.

If you do push hands with the objective of just shoving your opponent off-balance, regardless of whether his hands are in your face or on your body, then you can say that fajing has nothing or little to do with the application of techniques. However, if you don’t then you would want to pay attention to where your opponent’s hands are.

If Tai Chi is to be trained as a combat art through the use of push hands as a training method then it is important to consider that if your training partner can put his hands on your body then in all likelihood if you attempt to use what you trained in push hands during a sparring session you would suffer hits.

In this sense, when beginning to learn Tai Chi we should pay attention to getting the postures right in terms of how the proper position can afford us a better defence whilst putting us in the right place to counter. We need to drill this many, many times until we can do it whilst under pressure otherwise we might as well not waste time learning it in the first place.

Cut to one training session. This student has learned and practiced the same set of movements so its time to introduce basic wave power. Bad idea. In her eagerness to do the power motions the carefully cultivated application-based movements are distorted.

The point is that though the power is there but if the technique cannot be executed quickly while maintaining proper defence then during push hands with a resisting opponent the student will suffer hits on the way in and will fail to get the technique in, thus the ability to fajing becomes useless. A similar situation has been experienced by other students so this point is important to make progress.

In Tai Chi how we do our form is how we do our fajing and how we apply the techniques. We don’t do the techniques in the form one way, use the techniques in push hands another way and generate power using the techniques yet another way. The three ways should be the same. In this manner to train one way is to train all three ways. This is why to Master Tai Chi Today is a process of building your skills layer by layer.

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Big Rock

I feel you are like a big rock” or words to that effect, so sayeth my student. She continued to elaborate that when she tried to push me her hands would slip off.

Well, I would actually like to think I am more like the ball riding the wave that Takuan wrote about in his treatise on Zen and the martial arts, The Unfettered Mind.

But yes, it would not be wrong to describe it this way. Or after a few days of training I would say perhaps like a stone ball coated with slimy moss. Why? There is a deeper implication here.

Seriously, it is a rock but is not a rock. The true model for what she is feeling can be summed up below in the model of the Large Sphere :-

20120409_021034

I think after seeing this model no words are required further. Like I said our Tai Chi approach is not something that can be easily made up and the process of Master Tai Chi Today no accident but a deliberate process of learning and practicing.

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Enjoy the Pressure

Different students react differently to pressure. Some will become agitated whilst some will start getting to run away.

However, if you want to master push hands you have to calm yourself down and learn to enjoy being pushed around. This is because the more ways you are attacked the better and bigger your database of movements will be.

I know, I know, no one likes being pressured. But if you over-react you will lose control of your movements and you will be unable to formulate a proper response to the pressure. For example, the same technique on two students with two very different reaction.

One student tried to hold me at arm’s length so I cannot do the usual attack. This is good because I get to explore a different way of countering and attacking. However, its not a good learning experience for my student because he was but an inch away from being overcome but he did not realized it though to an onlooker it would seemed he was in control. I only had to bait him a bit to cause him to overextend and then I could get back into his space.

On the other hand another student kept a bent elbow in fending off my attacking arm. This is good because its adhering to the principles but his body position was wrong so kept getting tagged. I pointed it out to him and advised him how to close the position.

After the adjustment I could not longer freely hit him. But then he inadvertently opened the other side and I quickly slipped in to attack. So now he’s got one door opened and one door closed. I kept attacking the newly opened door and when he tried to defend it his closed door started to open up but he was not aware of it. Ah, happy times as I had two open doors to exploit.

I emphasized again the important lesson on defense principles culled from Grasp Sparrow’s Tail to nail down how to keep both doors closed after feeding his chest a number of strikes. At one point he tried to step forward to smother my arm’s extension but I was able to keep my range so the only thing achieved was getting hit even more times.

I explained how to control one’s space and position against a swift attack such as the one we were working on. A well executed strike is like a snake darting in and out quickly. So the question was how to entangle a snake which called for good, precise control of space. One opening is all it takes to render the response useless.

This is why mastery of the 5-Count is paramount if only to enable the body to move the relevant parts in the right sequence when called for. Otherwise, it will be close one door only to open another. There are no shortcuts to Master Tai Chi Today merely good, diligent careful study of the principles.

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Want to learn Tai Chi in Singapore? At Singapore Tai Chi Yang Style (TaijiKinesis) lessons covering forms, weaponry, push hands, fajing and applications are offered. Lessons are conducted in English. Send enquiry today