A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing
"My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing"
By Xiang Kairan
(Written in 1929, published in Wu Zhinqing’s Authentic Taiji, 1936. Brennan Translations, July 2016. 30 pages.)
“On Studying Taiji’s Pushing Hands”
By Xiang Kairan
(Written in 1955, two years before Xiang’s death and later published within the 1980s reprints of his novels. 14 pages.)
Review by Christopher Dow
This short book, whose collective title is My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing, is really two long essays combined into one volume. As the publishing information on them above makes clear, the two were written many years apart. The first, dated 1929, was written when Xiang had practiced Tai Chi for only four years, which makes the latter essay his take on the art after thirty years of practice. This makes for an interesting bookends look at a practitioner in both the early and late stages of his practice life.
Translator Paul Brennan mentions that Xiang was a novelist. More specifically, he was a writer of wuxia, the popular Chinese fantasy action-adventure literature containing martial arts stories. Wuxia novels are the genre that spawned kung fu movies and TV shows and are, in many respects, the Chinese equivalent to the American Western. In fact, Xiang is historically significant to wuxia genre—both written and cinematic.
Xiang Kairan (pen name Pingjiang Buxiaosheng) became the first notable wuxia writer, with his debut novel being The Peculiar Knights-Errant of the Jianghu. It was serialised from 1921–28 and was adapted into the first wuxia film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) (1)
The first episode of this movie was directed by Zheng Zhengqiu, and the rest were completed by Zhang Shichuan, both founding fathers of Chinese cinema. It was released from 1928 to 1931 in 19 feature-length episodes, and runs an astounding total of 27 hours. I’d love to see it, but don’t bother trying to find a copy. None survive. (2)
The two essays in this book are extremely interesting, but for somewhat different, though linked, reasons. Neither are instructional in nature, but are expository and discuss a number of historical tidbits, principles, and theoretical aspects of Tai Chi. The relatively early date of the first essay lends modern readers a number of revealing insights into Tai Chi as it was practiced in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Xiang had earlier studied external kung fu, but his story begins by detailing how he first learned about internal styles of boxing—Bagua, Xingi, Tai Chi, and a more obscure style known as Yue School Continuous Boxing— in 1907, oddly while visiting a friend from Hebei who was living at the time in Japan.
He subsequently began searching for teachers of those arts, but it wasn’t until 1913 that he met two practitioners of Bagua and Xingi. In addition to demonstrating their arts for him, these practitioners told him about Tai Chi, further piquing his interest. He had to wait until 1925, however, while living in Shanghai, when he was fortunate enough to meet and study under Chen Weiming, a leading student of not only Yang Chenfu, but also of Sun Lutang. During the same time, Xiang also studied under Wang Zhiqun, who had been a student of Wu Jianquan, son of the founder of Wu family Tai Chi, who also had learned his art from the Yang family.
Working under teachers of such disparate backgrounds—Yang, Wu, and Sun—and seeing Tai Chi performed so differently among them, Xiang became puzzled by the same issues that generations of beginners have pondered ever since: What exactly is Tai Chi, which forms are “real,” and who is doing Tai Chi correctly?
At this early stage, Xiang figured he was too much the novice to adequately judge any of these practitioners, and before long, he had to leave Shanghai for Hunan. There, he could not find another Tai Chi teacher, so he contented himself with practicing on his own. In 1928, he followed the Chinese army to Beijing, and though some of the more famous Tai Chi exponents who had lived there, such as Yang Chengfu and Wu Jianquan, had already relocated to Nanjing or Shanghai, Xiang did find seasoned practitioners in Xu Yusheng and Liu Enshou whose forms were similar to that taught by Wu Jianquan, though both men also had studied under Yang Chengfu and Chen family practitioner Chen Jifu.
Xu recommended that Xiang meet Chen, but according to Xiang, “It might have been better if I hadn’t. After meeting him, I was 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.” (p. 3)
I think it’s safe to say that his words echo the confusion most Tai Chi practitioners experience early on in their Tai Chi careers. To compound Xiang’s puzzlement, all his teachers pushed hands using different patterns and with different emphases. His conclusion at the time was that the Yang version of four-corners was the most complete, with the others missing elements and therefore lacking comprehensiveness.
Xiang’s opinion here may be inaccurate, colored by his lack of observing experts other than the few he had already encountered in his four years of practice. Be that as it may, Xiang had, by then, become a firm adherent of Tai Chi. “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.” (p. 5)
Again here, I have to insert a similar caveat. While I, too, am convinced of the efficacy, on many levels, of Tai Chi, I also recognize that many masters of other martial arts also are superlative. A Tai Chi exponent is only as efficient and adept as his or her experience with the art is long and deep. Real masters are few and far between, and I’ve seen videos of Tai Chi “masters” being knocked out in seconds by much younger opponents trained in external fighting arts or MMA. In the end, it’s not the art that makes the master. It is the hard work, diligence, and sincere and extensive effort put in over time by a talented individual. And, as has often been noted, hard stylists tend to become softer in their approach as they age, and soft stylists become harder in the expression of their energies. Long experience, it seems, leads martial artist from many backgrounds to a comfortable middle ground.
Even Xiang is aware of the shortcomings of Tai Chi as a martial art. “After the first martial arts competition in Nanjing [October, 1928], it was noticed that those who specialized in Taiji Boxing often did not win.” (p. 5) He then goes on to try to explain this situation thus:
First, of all the boxing arts, Tai Chi is the most difficult to apply. This, he says, is due to the lengthy training period required to achieve a high level of proficiency in Tai Chi as opposed to the external martial arts, many of which can be effectively learned in a fairly short time. This is not because of the relative difficulty of Tai Chi movements, per se, many of which can be found in other martial styles.
The real reason is that a large part of Tai Chi’s training is to tap into continuous, circular movement that is developed in and issued from a specific location—the legs—guided in a specific way from another specific location—the waist, which includes the lumbar region—and manifested in various ways in various places in the body, most usually the limb and hands, but just as importantly from the shoulders, back, and just about everywhere else in the body. Many years—even decades—of practice are required just to begin to recognize these fundamentals in one’s own body, stance, posture, and energy flow, and if they are not adhered to in practice until they become fully integrated into the body and its method of movement, then potentially fatal faults will manifest during combat.
Another reason for Tai Chi’s apparent weakness against hard-style opponents, Xiang says, is that most practitioners of other martial arts engage in sparring and actual combat with others, while Tai Chi’s reliance on push-hands as its sole method of combat training can leave a Tai Chi practitioner—even one who is advanced—at a disadvantage when facing an opponent who has fought often.
To this, I would add another important aspect that Xiang only touches on. Tai Chi is primarily a defensive rather than an attacking art. It relies on initial input from the opponent, which the Tai Chi exponent then takes advantage of. But in a ring or combat arena, both fighters must initiate attacks, not just respond to them. Expert Tai Chi exponents might be able to feint or otherwise cause an opponent to launch an attack to which they can respond, but most Tai Chi players do not have that level of combat sophistication.
Xiang then goes on with a discussion of “double pressure,” more commonly known as “double weighting.” He begins this with a quote on the subject from Wang Tseug-Yueh’s Taiji Boxing Classic, which concludes that this fault is largely responsible for any failure in the Tai Chi exponent to successfully neutralize and emit power. Xiang follows this quote with his own take on double pressure, which moves the concept beyond what he considers to be misconceptions of it envisioned by many Tai Chi practitioners, who limit the concept to avoiding putting equal pressure on both feet. “Even down to a single finger,” he concludes, “you still have to distinguish clearly between emptiness and fullness.” (p. 9)
Internal power is the subject of the next section, with Xiang discussing the idea that power developed through circular movement is far different from the sort developed by using muscular force, lifting weights, and punching bags. Instead of relying on one or another part of the body to deliver energy, it relies on whole-body power which produces a shocking, rather than slamming, blow.
All the above principles, he says, are developed by practicing slowly, which allows the individual to carefully observe the body and correct its postures and movements according to Tai Chi fundamentals.
The author then gives a mini-bio of Chang San-feng, which states that Chang was a scholar, a poet, and expert calligrapher and painter. Xiang also states that Chang moved to the mountains after being inspired by the paintings of Ge Zhichuan. These descriptive terms and ideas might well describe Chang, though they are more specific than any I’ve read before. Most scholars state that little is known of Chang, or even if he actually existed. Xiang's descriptions also clash with the more usual depiction of Chang as sloppy and dirty. Most Tai Chi people know the legend of Chang, which says he learned Tai Chi in a dream after watching a fight between a snake and a stork, in which the snake was victorious due to its undulating, evasive movements that kept it from being stuck, then striking back at opportune moments. Xiang foregoes the fight between the snake and stork, but declares that the entity who came to Chang in his dream was the “Dark Warrior” Emperor, who translator Brennan clarifies as being a Taoist “god of war.”
Following this is a discussion of the three “elixir fields,” or tantien, of the human body: the crown of the head, the solar plexus, and the more commonly known area just below and behind the navel. He also goes into the need for the Tai Chi Chuanist to utilize abdominal breathing to stimulate this lower tantien. This sort of breathing is not possible, he says, without proper posture and relaxation.
The next section is a discussion of technique. Xiang is not a fan of Tai Chi exponents explaining Tai Chi’s functionality through the practice of techniques. In fact, he seems to dislike even considering techniques as viable, and he decries teachers who try to impart elements of Tai Chi functionality through demonstrations of them. True, Tai Chi is more of a spontaneous, interpretive art than one that tends to impart specific responses to specifics attacks, but I think that Xiang takes his criticism a little too far here. Even though the techniques he mentions are legitimate within the form, his main observation is, “Good grief!”
Techniques are not the goal of Tai Chi, but they do exist within the form, and it can be helpful for beginners to see and understand them to get an idea of how Tai Chi works. No practitioner should learn a technique or two for each movement and let it rest at that, especially as many of Tai Chi’s movements contain a great number of possible techniques. Within the simple egg-shaped Pull Down and Ward Off of the Northern Wu style that I practice, I’ve found more than twenty possible techniques, though admittedly some are variations on a theme. Knowing them allows me to use them. And if I’d never seen how Wild Horse Tosses Mane can be used as a throw, I’d never have been able to use it on a rude fellow who tried to attack me during push hands because he couldn’t get to me any other way. Learning techniques can give beginners and intermediate students an idea of how Tai Chi functions, but it also should be stressed that once a technique is learned, it should be largely forgotten. Afterward, the innate knowledge of a technique allows it to spontaneously manifest during sparring or combat—something that would not be possible if potential purposes of the movements are never understood.
The next subject Xiang tackles is the idea of speed in Tai Chi, which does not mean fast but is embodied in the phrase from the Tai Chi Classics: “If my opponent moves, I move before him.” Thus, speed can be fast or slow, depending on the situation. The point is to match the speed of one’s own movements to the speed of the opponent’s movements. A large part of this is employing “listening energy,” which combines accurate and prompt observation with physical sensitivity, and “sticking energy” in finding an opportunity to appropriately counter an opponent’s movements.
Xiang’s next target for disparagement is the idea that one can add practices from external boxing styles to the benefit of one’s Tai Chi. This, he rightly states, would actually be counterproductive because these external elements would stiffen the body and make it less sensitive, while the goal of Tai Chi practice it to become relaxed, flexible, lively, and sensitive. Further, hard-style practices emphasize direct muscular force, while Tai Chi aims at an elastic energy. And finally, the linearity of hard-style exercises would impede the circularity of Tai Chi.
Diligent adherence to proper Tai Chi practices, Xiang goes on to say, produces both the right kind of Tai Chi power and the famous ability of longterm practitioners to root solidly, both of which depend a great deal on centeredness. These characteristics—or their absence—can be experienced during push-hands practice, which is why the practice is so valuable. Push hands not only gives the practitioner the experience of finding errors in one's partner and learning to take advantage of them, but more importantly, it presents the opportunity analyze and correct errors in oneself, improving the quality of his or her overall practice.
Xiang points out that many hard stylists will turn their bodies sideways during sparring or a fight. They do this to minimize the area they present to the opponent and to extend their reach with the forward hand. But this is not the Tai Chi way. Instead, Tai Chi Chuanists should directly face the opponent. This allows them to center their bodies and tuck their tailbones, giving their waists free play—a factor essential in eliminating double pressure, neutralizing the opponents energy, and delivering full-body power.
Then, in a lengthy and curious passage, Xiang attacks the idea of describing Tai Chi in terms of “Thirteen Postures.” As any serious practitioner knows, the Thirteen Postures are the foundational movements of Tai Chi, but Xiang criticizes those who describe the postures as foundational. “This is an interpretation,” he states, “so forced as to be beyond belief.” (p. 20)
Asserting that the Thirteen Postures can only be analyzed through experience in pushing hands, he proposes that they be termed the “Thirteen Dynamics.” He further says of the eight postures known as the four Cardinal Directions (Ward Off, Push, Press, and Rollback) and four Ordinal Directions (Shoulder Strike, Elbow Strike, Split, and Pull), “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.’” (p. 20)
“As for the five ‘postures’ of stepping forward, back, left, right, or staying in the center,” he continues, “this is even more nonsensical and silly.” (p. 20) His reason for this statement is that the idea of five major stepping patterns is a no-brainer. Every martial art utilizes footwork that goes in all the directions as well as staying centered.
Certainly this is true of the five stepping patterns, but it doesn’t hurt to codify the idea, particularly for beginners. Perhaps the most applicable idea for Tai Chi exponents is that central equilibrium is the primary stance from which the other four extend. And further, the idea of front and back and left and right help remind the Tai Chi Chuanist that any movement in any direction requires an initial movement, no matter how minute, in the opposite direction. This is a simple matter of physics: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” As the Tai Chi Classics put it, “If there is up, there is down; if there is forward, there is backward.” This is an important principle to consider.
As for the eight postures that comprise the four Cardinal and four Ordinal Directions, Xiang proposes that they be considered eight kinds of hand techniques. I think that Xiang is onto something, though I would have stated it differently—and have at length in my book, Circling the Square: Observations on the Dynamics of Tai Chi Chuan. Most people do think of these eight elements as postures, but there has to be more to them than that. If they are simply the postures of Tai Chi, then what about all the movements that aren’t one of those eight postures? Needle Sinks to the Bottom of the Sea isn’t obviously one of them, nor is Parry and Punch or many others.
So, instead of thinking of these eight forms as postures or even, as Xiang suggests, eight kinds of hand techniques, I believe that we should look at them as something else entirely—especially the four Cardinal Directions, which seem to me to be the true foundation of the art’s movements. Every Tai Chi movement contains at least one of the four Cardinal Directions, which are the four principal ways that the body can act and that energy flows through the body to create the many diverse Tai Chi movements.
Ward Off is the expression of energy, either forward or backward, from one leg into the opposite arm, Push is the expression of energy directly forward or backward, Press is the expression of energy, either forward or backward, from one leg into the same-side arm, and Roll Back is the expression of energy on a circular plane around the waist. All of these expressions of energy occur circularly, most commonly in arcs of ovals or circles, and often in spirals. Thus, the four Cardinal Directions should really be termed the four Cardinal Energies. The four Ordinal Directions—or Energies—are simply convenient categories into which one can combine one or more of the Cardinal Energies in various ways.
Translator Brennan points out somewhere in the text that Xiang seems to have written this essay without subsequently refining it because it is excessively wordy, somewhat repetitive, and occasionally disjointed. Regarding the latter, the author frequently jumps from one topic to an entirely different one without either logical flow or any sort of segue, and sometimes takes up the same topic in two very separate locations. The next section is a perfect example. Here, Xiang jumps to an anecdote about a certain Mr. Meng, who excelled at an art called Silken Boxing, which is described as being similar to Tai Chi in that it was an internal style whose exponents practiced a Tai Chi-like push hands pattern.
Before he learned Silken Boxing, Meng, who was large and brawny, worked as a bodyguard and was skilled enough with a saber that he gained some fame. He also was an arrogant braggart and know-it-all when it came to the martial arts. One day while staying at an inn, he engaged others in conversation with his usual superior attitude. After a few minutes, an old, white-haired man at another table gave a sneering laugh. Incensed, Meng replied, “Being as decrepit as you are, what would you know about fighting?”
The old man responded, “Among the mighty are those who are mightier. In martial arts, no one presumes to praise his own abilities. But because you are young, you think you know everything, and so you are unaware of how ridiculous you are.”
Completely ticked off, Meng attacked the old man, with the usual consequence in situations like this in tales like this. After the old man thoroughly defeated Meng without doing much of anything at all, Meng begged him to take him on as a student. The old man agreed, and Meng began to learn the thirteen postures of Silken Boxing, but only absorbed eight of them before the old man died. (p. 21) The fact that this boxing had thirteen postures as well as Tai Chi-like push hands seems to indicate that it was a version of Tai Chi.
Xiang then goes on to describe two other internal boxing styles—Zimen and Yumen Boxing—both of which also were essentially Tai Chi. This seems to point to a factor regarding many martial arts, particularly today. That is, many people learn some sort of boxing art, rename it and give it some sort of mystical or pseudo-historical background, and claim they are the sole inheritors of this superlative style. Xiang says they do that to solicit customers, but many also do it to shroud themselves in mystique.
Next, Xiang discusses how difficult it is to learn Tai Chi, even for those who are dedicated. This is exacerbated by other factors. Even qualified teachers can either alter their teachings or tailor their teachings to particular students. Worse, some of their students learn only partially and then spread a watered-down version of their arts to their own students. These factors lead at best to differences and at worst to deficiencies or distortions and confusion when different students of the same teacher come away with different versions of the teacher’s style.
One example of this that Xiang cites is Yang style. “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 from 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…. 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.” (p. 24)
I’ve quoted this at length both to show what Xiang meant by forms being altered through time, but also to lead my observations into a discussion of how matters can be misperceive. Certainly Xiang was closer to his sources than I am, but he seems not to fully understand the development of Yang Shaohou’s Tai Chi and Wu Jianquan’s Tai Chi. Perhaps he should have asked Chen if Yang Shaohou’s energy really was broken since his comments on the subject also highlight what might be misperceptions of those who are not fully aware of how Tai Chi functions. Remember, Xiang had been practicing for only four years at this time.
To look more deeply into this matter, we have to look more closely at the style practiced by Yang Shaohou. By all accounts, Yang Shaohou, who was Yang Luchan’s grandson, did not practice the broad-framed style of Tai Chi that was passed on to and further developed by Yang Chengfu, but instead utilized a small-frame version learned from his father, Yang Jianhou, and from his uncle, Yang Panhou who was a Manchurian palace guard. It is said that Panhou preferred the small-frame form because the palace guards wore long, tight-fitting robes, and the small-frame form, with its higher stance, was more suitable for combat in such attire.
This version of Yang style was not well known, and I’m not certain that it’s still practiced, at least in that version. Instead, it morphed into Wu Family style. When Wu Quanyu, founder of Wu Family style, approached the Yang family for instruction in Tai Chi, he was not taught by Yang Luchan, it not being proper for a student to learn directly from the master, at least in the early stages. Instead, Wu was referred to Yang Panhou and Yang Shaohou, both of whom taught him and, eventually, his son, Wu Jianquan, who also were Manchu palace guards. This, then, is the origin of the Wu Family’s small-frame style, though the Wu Family has consistently tightened the frame of their style over the years, making many of its movements almost miniscule. If Xiang believed that Yang Shaohou's form used broken energy, did he also believe the same of the style of the Wu family, who learned in part from Shaohou?
There might actually be another explanation for Xiang’s belief that Yang Shaohou’s style utilized a “broken energy.” The smaller the frame, the tighter the circular movements and the more potentially shocking they are. In a truly expert practitioner, those circles can occur entirely within the body and cannot be seen externally. This relative invisibility of Yang Shaohou’s circles might account for the belief of some, including Xiang, that his energy was broken. They simply couldn't perceive its internal connectivity.
As for Yang Shaohou’s vocalizations and his style seeming to be no different from external styles, consider not only the ability of a higher stance to deliver greater shocking power, but also this from the Wikipedia article on him:
Yang Shaohou was also known to have had a very forceful nature, and both of these masters [the other being Yang Panhou] are considered to have been very demanding teachers; only interested in teaching those that could stand their tough training regimes….This [small-frame style] was characterized by high and low postures with small movements done in a sometimes slow and sometimes sudden manner. His fajin was hard and crisp, accompanied by sudden sounds. Master Yang Jun described him thus: "The spirit from his eyes would shoot out in all directions, flashing like lightning. Combined with a sneer, a sinister laugh, and the sounds of "Heng!" and "Ha!", his imposing manner was quite threatening." During practice with his students, Yang Shaohou was not known for pulling his punches. (3)
So, I have to take with a grain of salt Xiang’s criticism that Yang Shaohou exhibited broken energy and was essentially practicing like an external stylist. Tai Chi develops hardness equally with softness, and by all accounts, Yang Shaohou was a superlative, if vicious, Tai Chi Chuanist. But as I’ve said, despite Xiang’s closeness to the sources of the major family styles, he had only been practicing for four years when he wrote this text and might have been ignorant of some of the points I’ve made above.
In the next section, Xiang discusses several ideas. The first is the propensity for martial artists to usually but wrongfully attribute their art to a mystical past or to a mystical hero. This, he says disparagingly, is part of Chinese culture, which venerates forefathers more than it does present people, no matter how talented. But then, ironically, he uses as an example Chang Sanfeng, to whom he has already attributed characteristics and historical facts that are not generally borne out by serious historical research into Chang. And here, he adds additional “facts,” namely that Chang passed his art on to Song Yuanqiao, Zhang Songxi, and seven unnamed others. Though he does conclude that there are “no detailed records of his techniques” (p. 24), these are pretty specific details given that Chang might not really have existed, and if he did, there is some confusion about exactly which Chang Sanfengs he might have been among the two or three who are mentioned in the Chinese historical annals of that general time period. Nor is the lineage from Chang to the Chen family at all clear, and the references to potential intermediaries are vague.
Xiang’s next point also counters his original statement by reinforcing the idea that one should venerate the past when he states that there is a five-word secret in Huang Baijia’s Boxing Methods of the Internal School. These secrets, Xiang says, are “focused, potent, expedient, sticky, precise,” but they are not part of modern Tai Chi curriculum. These five points are pretty good, but Xiang is essentially giving here a criticism that is similar to the negative criticism of modern films: “They just don’t make movies like they used to.” Well, no, they don’t, at least not technically. But in the past there were just as many lousy and formulaic movies as there are now, at least percentage-wise. And today there are great ones. Likewise, a modern martial arts master is just as much a master as those of the past, overblown myth and legend notwithstanding.
Next, the author launches himself on another round of criticism that seems misplaced. Although often previously in the text he has referred to external and internal boxing, he now scorns the division of kung fu into Shaolin and Wudang. His argument is somewhat convoluted but breaks down like this:
1.) Division and competition produces progress in most human endeavors, but not in the martial arts. His logic for this is that the origins of many Chinese martial arts are obscured by the past and that probably there are many kung fu styles that do not fall into one or the other of these categories, such as those practiced by itinerant martial artists of the past.
2.) Another negative element to division into the two major schools is that practitioners can become segregated by such divisions, with exponents becoming bound by their traditions to the detriment of not only their art, but of kung fu in general. And all too often, he says, this leads to corruption of both tradition and technique by those who have little or partial knowledge. To support this, he cites martial styles that he says are essentially phony and created for the purpose of “advertising,” such as Qi Family Boxing and Maitreya Boxing, both of which have questionable pseudo-mystical pasts. “Such people,” he says, “have a limited knowledge, as well as a mentality of taking advantage of their forefathers in order to advertise themselves, a flaunting that cannot be admonished enough.” (p. 26)
Regarding the first, I take his point, but the point does not logically follow from the criticism. And further, I agree that there are a great many martial arts that combine both soft and hard techniques—most often utilizing soft-style defense with hard-style offense. Perhaps we do need a middle ground between Shaolin and Wudang to accommodate these types of martial arts, which also include some that were developed in other Eastern countries, such as Japanese Kenpo and Hapkido, both of which owe a debt to Tai Chi, and Javanese Silat, which emphasizes defensive flexibility and liveliness. That’s not my call to make, but I do think that there is a fundamental difference in how external-style martial arts—even those with soft-style defenses—function as opposed to internal styles. Xingi is a good example. It is a very hard style, but it also is very internal.
Regarding the second point, it seems to me that humankind has no dearth of people throughout history whose rigid thinking cannot allow them to see the worthiness and excellence in others and who rely solely on their own cult of personality to give them emotional and psychological sustenance. Nor is there an end to scam artists. Just as we have plenty of them today, there were plenty in the ancient past of every country and region. There’s always somebody out to make a quick buck or yen off of the weak, the foolish, the naive, and the desperate. Those seeking martial arts knowledge, whatever the style, tradition, or level of advancement, will come across many such in their quest. So be it. That is the flawed nature of humans and of reality in an imperfect world. Caveat emptor.
Xiang then launches into a discussion of neutralizing and issuing power by quoting a criticism that he heard said by people who might be even less knowledgeable in Tai Chi than he was. “‘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.’” (p. 28)
Responding to this criticism, Xiang writes, “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, so you cannot issue without being able to neutralize, nor neutralize without being able to issue.” (p. 28)
Above I criticized Xiang for seeming to be unaware that Yang Shaohou’s circles were most likely so internalized that to a viewer only observing his external movement might mistake his energy as being “broken,” but here, he does not commit a similar error and is spot on. He explains that different experts are, first and foremost, different people with different builds, temperaments, and proclivities. Yang Chengfu, being a big, beefy guy, was fond of exhibiting his issuing power by shooting people away, while Wu Jianchuan had a polite temperament that was gentlemanly and urbane, and he was not inclined to antagonize his opponents and so usually just neutralized their attacks without bothering to shoot them away.
But Xiang does concluded that, although he attempted to meet both men when he moved to northern China, by then, both had moved south. Thus he had no opportunity to personally witness or feel their skills.
In the final section of this portion of the book, Xiang moves on to a discussion of several Tai Chi principles, such as continuous flow, sinking the energy, and paying attention to the active and passive. He then has some words concerning differences in form between styles and says that these differences are merely superficial as long as the forms adhere to principles of Tai Chi.
Next in the volume is “On Studying Taiji’s Pushing Hands,” which Xiang wrote in 1955 after studying Tai Chi for about thirty years. While the previous long-form essay contained some naiveté, it also presented some interesting historical aspects and showed some remarkable insights into basics principles of the art. This later essay delves, as the title states, into pushing hands, and it, too, is insightful—and a little little less naive and more cohesively written.
Interestingly enough, the author starts off by praising something he disparaged in the first essay: the Thirteen Dynamics. Or rather, let me rephrase that. In the previous essay, he disparaged the Thirteen Postures, which he believed were false and limiting categories. But in recasting them as the Thirteen Dynamics, he can praise them as foundational to Tai Chi and to pushing hands. I went into detail on that above, and while I still think Xiang does not go far enough in his recasting, at least he’s on a better track than simply thinking of the “Thirteen” as “Postures.” Tai Chi’s solo set is foundational to push hands, he says, but the Thirteen Dynamics are foundational to both.
To further explain Tai Chi principles, Xiang turns to that tried-and-true well-spring: the Tai Chi Classics. For the next six pages, he presents important principles from the Classics then explicates them with a paragraph or two of commentary. I won’t go into his commentaries, but here are the major categories he explores:
1) The soft and smooth vs the hard and coarse
2) Matching speed of response to the opponent’s speed of attack
3) Keeping one step ahead of the opponent in both defense and attack
5) Understanding, or, knowing the opponent while not letting him know you
6) Single-weighting vs double-weighting
7) Sticking and yielding
8) The exchange of passive and active
9) Spontaneous response vs planned response
10) How to issue power
11) The Thirteen Dynamics
The author then goes into the rationale behind pushing hands, followed by four principal types and discussions of each:
1) Single-hand fixed-step
2) Double-hand fixed-step
4) Large rollback
Each, he says, must adhere to the principles of Tai Chi, no matter what school-generated variations in the patterns might exist. “Practice a lot over a long time,” he writes, “and you will have a breakthrough,” (p. 39)
Next he relates his own personal journey in learning push hands. His first teacher, Chen Weiming, was fond, like his teacher, Yang Chengfu, of crowding in with Ward Off and Press, though Chen did not issue power but simply caused Xiang to become stuck and unable to yield. Xiang next worked with Wang Zhiqun (here called Wang Runsheng), and when he tried Chen’s crowding tactic, Wang simply disrupted the attack, leaving Xiang off balance. Xiang asked Wang what kind of attacking Wu Jianquan did, and Wang answered, “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.” (p. 40)
Wang gave Xiang a succinct lesson in opening and closing during both form practice and push hands. Flicking a handheld fan open and closed, he asked Xiang what was causing the opening and closing. “Your hand,” Xiang replied, but Wang shook his head and pointed to the fan’s hinge. “‘It requires this thing in order to be able to open and close.’ Then he pointed to a door and said, ‘The door also needs a hinge to open and close’” The Tai Chi hinge Wang was referring to is the waist. Further, the commands for the waist come from the lumbar region, which also supplies Tai Chi’s centeredness. (p. 42-43)
Xiang’s next push hands teacher was Xu Yusheng, of the little-known Song school of Tai Chi. His push hands focused on opening and closing, coordinating the breath with each movement. Because Xu emphasized the Thirteen Dynamics in both the solo practice and push hands, Xiang says, “his pushing hands exhibited the greatest capacity for using the movement from the solo set.” (p. 41)
One of Xu’s Song style brothers, a Mr. Liu, was different. Liu’s push hands was very light and then suddenly heavy, very close then very far away, rendering Xiang incapable of either connecting and following or 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 emptiness.” (p. 41) After Xiang grew savvy to Liu’s lures, he would sometimes lash out with external-style techniques only to be admonished: “Pushing hands is a kind of training method, not sparring,” Liu said. “You can’t have a competitive mentality. It’s not about win or lose.” (p. 41)
And with the following statement, Xiang closes the essay: “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.” (p. 43-44)
Despite its brevity, this has to be one of the best Tai Chi books that I have yet read from translator Paul Brennan’s collection. It transcends the typical Tai Chi manual to deliver interesting historical insights into the art in China from the early to mid 20th centuries. It also has many excellent and helpful hints on the practice of both the solo form and push hands. Despite my many criticisms of the work, I consider it to be thought-provoking and of great value.
(1) “Wuxia.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuxia
(2) “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burning_of_the_Red_Lotus_Temple
(3) "Yang Shao-hou." Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yang_Shao-hou