After a year and a half of isolation, my long-time neighborhood weekend practice group has resumed its routine, and I am so glad.
At a nearby park, we start with about a half-hour of basics: baduanjin (the eight brocades qigong), 24, 42, 32-sword, and kungfu fan. What we do after that varies. Right now, we are learning a new fan form: 28-step fan.
The name of the form is 杨氏28式太极扇:Yáng shì 28-shì tàijíshàn (Yang-style 28-step Tai Chi Fan). We call it èr shì bā shàn (28 fan) for short. The form is relatively new, created in 2014, and is quite popular in China. It has many intricate and enjoyable movements, but it has no level-of-difficulty moves, so it is appropriate for people of all abilities. It makes a good ensemble piece too, for group practice or performance.
China Wushu is a great YouTube station with tutorials for many forms, including 28-fan. A very beautiful demonstration by Yang Li (pictured above) begins at 1:20 in the introduction to a series of teaching videos. The whole series:
This famous fan form was created in the early two thousands by Li Deyin as part of the pageantry that surrounded the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is the second of two fan forms that Li composed for that occasion. The first was Kung Fu Fan. Both routines immediately became very popular.
This form is called Xi Yang Mei (Beautiful Sunset), or 56-Fan, or Fan II (第二套 dì èr tào, “the second way”). It is one of the most sophisticated and spectacular modern forms, first performed in Beijing by Li’s daughter, Faye Li Yip. Here she gives an amazing performance:
Xi Yang Mei is eclectic in style. Its movements are drawn from Tai Chi (both Yang and Chen), Bagua, Long Fist, Bajiquan (never heard of it! I had to look it up), sword, staff and spear, Northern and Southern Fist, even Beijing Opera. Like the music that accompanies it, Kung Fu Fan, it is a celebration of the Chinese martial arts.
Li has made more than one instructional video for this form. A new one, posted in 2020, is the first I’ve seen that has English subtitles. While I prefer to listen for the Chinese instructions (see the PDF below), it is very helpful to have English translations of the discussions where Li explains important points and also identifies the provenance of the various movements.
The tutorial is in three parts, each about thirty minutes long:
Xi Yang Mei is a good bit more difficult than Kung Fu Fan. Also, while Kung Fu Fan is a great ensemble piece, Xi Yang Mei is more suitable for a solo performance. You do see groups of three performing Xi Yang Mei—I have performed it with two other people myself—but it’s a lot easier to field a group for Kung Fu Fan.
Xi Yang Mei is an endlessly absorbing form to study and practice. I first learned it from my friend and teacher Hu Pei Yi, and I have studied Li’s various tutorials over the years, but even so, watching this latest set of videos, I see a whole slew of corrections for myself:
Obviously, I have a long way to go yet! I can only admire the elite performances in Li’s video—I particularly like to watch Fang Mishou (on the left in the opening demonstration), who is Li’s wife and an accomplished Tai Chi master in her own right.
One especially interesting point: Talking about this form as an exercise for older practitioners, Li says that it elevates the heart rate to about 120 beats per minute, and a maximum of 150 beats per minute in its most demanding parts. Perfect.
Last year, my doctor, who knows I do Tai Chi every day, asked me about whether my practice was sufficiently aerobic. He was no doubt picturing slow, Yang-style Tai Chi (which involves more exertion than most people realize, if they haven’t tried it). Next time I see him, I’ll tell him about the heart rate for Xi Yang Mei.
The Sun 73 is a modern form designed for competition. As such, it is between 6:00 and 6:30 in length and eliminates the repetition in the traditional long form. Also, as is usually the case with modern forms, it is more left-right balanced than the old form.
My current teacher here in Austin, Grandmaster Aiping Cheng, learned from Sun Lutang’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun. Years ago, the Chinese government made a video of Aiping performing the Sun competition form, and this is the standard for judging the form. Unfortunately, the copy on YouTube is incomplete (only the first three minutes) and not the best video quality.
The name of the form is 孙式七十三式太极拳竞赛套路, Sūn shì Qī Shí Sān Shì Tàijíquán Jìngsài Tàolù, which translates as Sun-style 73-Step Tai Chi Competition Form. Below, Gao Jiamin demonstrates the Sun 73 with Li Deyin providing the names of the movements.
The 98 and the 73 start out the same—the whole first section is the same, in fact. But then in the second section of the 73, several of the movements occur on the unfamiliar side: Lanzhayi is on the left, single whip is on the right, and cloud hands travels to the right.
In section three, ban lan chui is on the opposite side from usual. The four corners of Fair Lady Works the Shuttle (section five) are in a different order in the 73; the order in the 98 is the same as in the Yang 108: SW/SE/NE/NW. In the Sun 73 the corners are SW/NE/NW/SE.
Finally, here is Gao Jiamin in back view:
As usual, I got Jesse Tsao’s instructional video from Taichihealthways.com. Between that and Li’s videos above, I learned the form well enough to schedule some private lessons (outside, masked) with Aiping. I actually learned the 73 first, and found it pretty easy to move up to the 98 from there.
The Sun-style long form that Sun Lutang describes, move by move, in his book, Taijiquan, consists of 98 movements and echoes the overall structure of both the Chen and Yang long forms. It’s quite a bit shorter, however; it only takes about seven and a half minutes.
Here is a video of the Sun 98, with names, demonstrated first by Liu Jingshan (刘金山), then by Sun Lutang’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun.
Sun Jian Yun dedicated her life to preserving her father’s teachings. Li Yulin, father of Li Tianji and grandfather of Li Deyin, was a close disciple of Sun Lutang, and all three (father, son, grandson) have carried on the tradition as well.
My list of the movements in the Sun long form is derived from the book and the names given in the first video above. Where the two lists diverge, I have followed the video; footnotes in the book indicate that Sun’s form continued to evolve after he published the book.
My daily backyard practice in 2021 begins with the Sun 98. I learned the elements of Sun style from Grandmaster Aiping Cheng in 2020, and learned the 98 using Grandmaster Jesse Tsao’s instructional video (available on Taichihealthways.com).
I love the gentleness and accessibility of this style of tai chi; it’s perfect for an ordinary (and older) practitioner like me. These days, a modern competition form in Sun style, the Sun 73, seems to be more widely practiced than the old form. More on that next.
Sun Lutang (1860-1933), founder of Sun-style Tai Chi, was a martial artist of formidable reputation. Aspiring fighters came from all over Asia to challenge him and study with him. Sun’s arts were Xingyi and Baguazhang. He learned Bagua from Cheng Tinghua and Xingyi from Guo Yun Shen, both dominant masters in their time.
To get an idea of what Sun practiced in his fighting career, here’s a great video of Master Xia Boya demonstrating Sun-style Baguazhang and Xingyi. As a bonus, at the end he performs 32-sword (“Li Tianji’s Sword”). It’s the most beautiful demonstrations of that form that I have ever seen.
In 1914, when Sun was in his fifties, he met Hao Weizheng, who taught Sun what is now called Wu/Hao Tai Chi. In these later years, Sun abandoned fighting, focusing instead on healthful exercise and longevity. When young men came to him to learn to fight, he told them to find another teacher!
As Sun incorporated Wu/Hao into his practice, he developed his own style of tai chi, one that contained elements of Bagua and Xingyi as well. In this next video, a 4th generation disciple of Sun Lutang practices Xingyi. You can clearly see some of the distinctive elements of Sun-style Tai Chi, such as the back-weighted 30/70 stance called 三七势 Sān Qī Shì (literally “three seven form”).
The Sun style is characterized by lively and distinctive footwork involving 跟步 Gēn bù (the following step), neat turns, and a signature opening and closing of hands (kai shou he shou) that follows every major movement in the form.
开手 Kāi shǒu Open hands
合手 Hé shǒu Close hands
Sun tai chi is also comparatively upright and small frame, with no extreme low form, so although it has all the benefit of other styles, it is particularly accessible for people of all abilities, and is especially favored by the elderly.
Here’s a great video from a Sun-style martial arts conference, in which you can see Sun-style Bagua, Xingyi, and Tai Chi:
Despite having little opportunity for education in his early life, Sun became a distinguished scholar through sheer intelligence and hard work. He wrote several important books, including one on Xingyi (published in 1914) and one on Bagua (1916).
The book pictured here was written in 1924. This volume is available in translation by Tim Cartmell and it includes a very interesting biography of Sun by Dan Miller, based on interviews (also translated by Cartmell) with Sun’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun.
The biography contains a tantalizing anecdote about a mysterious letter that was delivered to Sun’s home upon his death, and a maddening story about how his diary, containing a detailed record of his entire career and teaching, was lost.
The book is illustrated by photographs of Sun himself demonstrating the movements of his form. In the photo shown here, Sun demonstrates sanqishi when performing the Sun-style Shantongbei (flash through back).
See also Styles of Tai Chi. I will be posting two more pages on Sun-style Tai Chi, one on the traditional long form and another on the modern competition form.
Grandmaster Jesse Tsao is the real deal: Chinese born and trained from childhood, he has spent his life studying and teaching Tai Chi. He is a master of all four major styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun—and is a former collegiate wushu champion. He is an elite athlete and martial artist, but also a scholar, with a PhD in traditional Tai Chi from the prestigious Shanghai University of Sport. His book includes ample reference to the Tai Chi classics and clear explanations of the most complex issues.
Master Tsao is also a teacher with a large international following, not just because of his knowledge and achievements, but also because he is a kind, helpful, and generous mentor to students at all levels of ability and accomplishment. He is so unassuming and approachable that everyone who studies with him just calls him Jesse.
I’ve traveled to China with Jesse twice, an unforgettable experience with lots of Tai Chi along the way. This picture was taken in the Wudang mountains.
The new book, Practical Tai Chi Training: A 9-Stage Method for Mastery, (available from Amazon) represents a lifetime of study and collaboration with some of the most illustrious Tai Chi masters of our time. The book contains ample detail about external matters such as posture, footwork, and style, but its ultimate focus is on the internal nature and wholistic benefits of Tai Chi — benefits to mind, body, and spirit.
Clearly written and well-illustrated, this reference volume is absolutely comprehensive, a must-have for your Tai Chi library. If you have a question about Tai Chi, the answer is in these pages.
General Qi Jiquang was one of the most famous and successful military leaders in China’s long history. He came from a military family and assumed a hereditary post in Penglai, Shandong Province, at the age of 17.
Despite his youth, Qi quickly distinguished himself as an exceptional strategist and leader. Qi is best known for eradicating the threat of Japanese Pirates along the coast, but he was also famous for defending Beijing from Mongol invaders and directing the fortification of the Great Wall.
In 2018, I traveled to China with a group led by Master Jesse Tsao. In Penglai, we visited General’s Qi’s residence.
The Yang-style 24-step Tai Chi routine is the most widely practiced form in the world. It is said to be simplified in the sense that it is short—much shorter than the traditional Yang-style long form on which it is based—and some movements have been modified to make them a little easier for beginners to learn. Here is a brilliant demonstration of 24 by Gao Jiamin:
The name of the form is 二十四式简化太极拳 (Èr Shí Sì Shì Jiǎnhuà Tàijíquán): 24-style Simplified Tai Chi. Here is a PDF list of the 24 movements.
Many people practice this form with little or no training, and it’s the only Tai Chi they know. Others learn 24 as an introduction to Tai Chi, train to a higher level of performance, and then move on to learn longer and more advanced forms.
Among this latter group, many continue practicing 24 routinely as a review of fundamentals. Twenty-four may be simplified, but it’s not easy! With heel kicks and xiashi duli (low form to standing on one leg) on both sides, it is as physically challenging as Yang Tai Chi gets.
History of the form
Twenty-four dates from the 1950s. At that time, the prevailing Tai Chi practice was the long form of Yang Chengfu. That form is a brilliant exercise, but it is very long—85 to 108 moves, depending how you count it. The problem is not so much that it takes a long time to perform (25-30 minutes) but that it takes such a very long time to learn. Most people never get there.
Recognizing that tai chi was a remarkably good exercise for health and longevity, the Chinese government’s sports commission sponsored the development of a shorter, more accessible form for beginners, in hopes that more people would learn and practice tai chi.
Yang Chengfu was long gone, having died in 1936. A number of well-known masters were consulted or involved in this development project. Li Tianji—son of Li Yulin—was a leading creative force behind the new form, and it was Li who wrote and illustrated Simplified Taijiquan, the first textbook on 24, which was eventually distributed to physical education departments throughout China.
In any case, the resulting form has only 24 movements derived from the traditional long form and little or no repetition. The long form contains 50-odd unique movements, so 24 has not quite half as many moves. It can be learned in a matter of weeks or months, not years. A person who has learned 24 can then move up to the 108 fairly quickly, having already learned the fundamentals of Yang-style Tai Chi and nearly half of the moves in the long form.
Instructional material for 24 abounds. Arguably the most authoritative is this instructional video by Li Deyin, nephew of Li Tianji and for many years one of China’s most influential teachers, as well as its number one tournament judge. He has produced a number of instructional videos on 24. This one is almost two hours long, very complete.
This video is in Chinese. Li does a lot of talking, but if you are patient, you can learn from watching. He’s very clear, shows everything from multiple angles, and goes into great detail. After a brief introduction, a full demo starts at 3:15, back view of the first part at 9:00, and instruction begins at about 17:00.
Although the 24 moves are derived from the 108, they are not all exactly the same. In fact, 24 is revolutionary in some respects. For one thing, the traditional forms tend to be one-sided; a lot of moves are only ever practiced on one side.
Twenty-four, by contrast, is more left-right balanced. Grasp the Bird’s Tail is practiced on both sides in 24, and Snake Creeps Down is performed on both sides as well, which makes the Golden Rooster Standing on Right Leg considerably more difficult than it is in the 108. This left-right balance turned out to be a trend; nowadays, in contemporary forms, we practice almost everything on both sides.
The retreating move in 24 is simpler than the traditional Repulse Monkeys. Some people call the backward-stepping move in 24 Repulse Monkeys, but it is a different move and has a different name in Chinese. Repulse Monkeys is 倒攆猴 Dào niǎn hóu, and the move in 24 is 倒卷肱 Dào juǎn gōng (Go back whirling forearms).
The upper body movement in these two steps is pretty much the same, but the footwork is different. Many beginners have a hard time learning the footwork for Repulse Monkeys. Dao Juan Gong is a more basic 退步 tuìbù (step back)—step straight back, from empty stance on one side to empty stance on the other.
I love 24 and practice regularly to keep my fundamentals up to speed. My only comment would be that 24 requires a warm-up. The 108 starts so gradually that by the time you get to the more demanding moves, you are ready for them. When you do 24, you are doing heel kicks and squats within two minutes. Of course, you could take it easy, but I like to practice 24 after I am thoroughly warm so I can perform each move as well as I can. Ba Duan Jin (the Eight Brocades) serves very well as a warm-up for 24.
My daily backyard 24 below is considerably less impressive than the world-class performance by Gao Jiamin above. I am an old lady, and I was never very athletic to begin with. If I can do it, anybody can. I offer this as a more accessible model, and also because my dog is in it. And birds are singing in the background. I find that animals tend to ignore me when I do Tai Chi, possibly because they can sense that I am focused elsewhere.
More Taijiese: Chinese for the western student of tai chi. Something I said in my original post about Taijiese bears repeating: if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from a Chinese master who does not speak English, a relatively small vocabulary of the terms of art for tai chi can open up a whole world of knowledge.
[Photo: My weekend practice group for years consisted entirely of women who did great Tai Chi and spoke no English.]
In addition to the specialized vocabularies I’ve covered (for steps and stances, kicks and punches, sword, etc.), here are some general words and phrases I have found useful for receiving instruction in Chinese. The top ten:
左 Zuǒ – Left
右 Yòu – Right
下 Xià – Down, downwards
上 Shàng – Up, upwards
平 Píng – Level
开 Kāi – Open
合 Hé – Together/close
后 Hòu – Behind/back
慢 Màn – Slow
快 Kuài – Fast, quick
Combine left and right with the words for body parts (listed in another installment of Taijiese) to get 左脚 zuǒ jiǎo (left foot), you shou (right hand), and so on.
A couple more directional indications:
斜 Xié – Diagonal/oblique (usually means toward the corner; 45 degrees)
直 Zhí – Straight, straight ahead
Hòu (above, meaning back) often combines with 坐 zuò, meaning sit: Hòu zuò is sit back. This is the familiar command to bend the back leg and sink the weight into that leg. Sit back.
抱 Bào – Hold (or embrace)
球 – Qiú is ball
Qiú (ball) is pronounced cho. It is a worthwhile investment of half an hour to learn the rules for pronouncing standard Pinyin. Easy to find, just google it: pronounce Pinyin. Anyway, bào qiú is to hold a ball—the familiar position preparing for Part the Wild Horse’s Mane in 24, or for Grasp the Bird’s Tail. That instruction, by the way, occurs in textbooks dating from Yang Chengfu’s time.
From Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, Fu Zhongwen (Louis Swaim, translator): “The heart of the [right] palm faces down. The left palm concurrently passes before the abdomen, following an arc, and arriving beneath the right palm…the two palms are now facing each other as though holding a sphere.”
转 Zhuǎn – turn
身 Shēn – body
转身 zhuǎn shēn, literally turn body, means turn around. It’s not just twisting the torso; the feet move. It’s a 180-degree turn.
When you hear màn (above, slow): you are being told to slow down. When you hear kuài (above, fast) you will usually hear 太快 Tài kuài. Too fast! Again, you are being told to slow down.
More instructional words, phrases:
一点 Yīdiǎn A little
再一次 Zàiyīcì – Again. Do it one more time (repeat)
落 Luò – Lower, sink down. Bend the knees, lower the center of gravity.
看 Kàn – Look, direct your gaze (eye-spirit)
圆 Yuán – Rounded, make a smooth circle
体重 Tǐzhòng – Body weight
应用 Yìngyòng – Application
动 – Dòng – Move
One of my favorites phrases: 一动全动 Yī dòng quán dòng means literally, “[if] one [part] moves, everything moves.” The movement needs to be connected and continuous, with upper and lower body coordinated, movement from the feet through the waist to the arms and hands.
For movement, as in a movement within a form, I have heard both 动作 Dòngzuò and 套路 Tàolù; the latter may also refer to the entire routine or set.
You’ll want to be able to ask questions. I don’t know conversational Chinese, but in a very primitive way, I can ask questions easily, often just relying on keywords, a questioning tone (rising inflection at the end), and an inquiring expression. It works, with a minimal vocabulary of Taijiese. I try to be polite:
老师 Lǎoshī – Teacher
请 Qǐng – Please
问 Wèn – Ask
I say, Laoshi (teacher), qing wen (pronounced ching wun) (may I please ask?), and then I might just say body weight left leg? Or application? The word for body weight can be combined with left/right jiao. Body weight left foot? Or to ask what the application is, I might just say Yingyong? Application? Again, my questions are not well-formed, but they work.
Your ability to ask questions is hugely boosted if you learn the names of the movements in the form you are studying. This allows you to locate the point in the form where you are confused or where you have a question. For every form I study, I work up a list of names in Chinese with Pinyin, and these are all posted on this website.
More common words that I find surprisingly useful:
然后 Ránhòu next
这个 Zhège – This
是 Shì – Is
不 Bù – Not
Zhège shì/bù shì – This is/is not
知道 Zhīdào – know
我 Wǒ – I (me)
你 Nǐ – You
Now you can say, Wǒ bù zhīdào (I don’t know) and Nǐ zhīdào? ([Do] you know?).
要 Yāo – Want
Yāo means want; when you hear bùyāo: you are being told what not to do. If your teacher mimics you and says bùyāo (don’t want), you are being corrected. What you’re doing is wrong.
对 Duì (pronounced dway) means right. correct. 吗 Ma converts a statement to a yes/no question, so Duì-ma? means Is this right? If you have been corrected, You can try again and say, Duì-ma? Right? (is this correct?)
好 Hǎo – Good
很 Hěn – Very
Duì! Hěn hǎo! This is what you want to hear: “Right! Very good!” You got it. You are being praised!
I have traveled to China twice with groups led by Jesse Tsao. Both trips were wonderful. In 2017, we spent the last weekend in Wuhan. I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of the city before that trip—I certainly didn’t know anything about it. I have only the best memories of it now.
We visited the marvelous Yellow Crane Tower, which is set on a hilltop and surrounded by a beautiful public park.
We visited a huge lake, also set in a beautiful park—the Chinese do not skimp on parks!
But the best thing was Tai Chi in the middle of the city. On Saturday morning we walked to a nearby mid-town park which was, like all the city parks we saw in China, full of people dancing, walking, working out, playing games and—what we were looking for—doing tai chi.
We had no plan, no appointment, nothing set up in advance. We just went to the park. And there we found the lovely Master Tan, dean of martial arts for this whole city of 11 million!
She led us through 24, the 108, Laojia, and a couple of qigong routines I wasn’t familiar with. It was thrilling. We agreed to meet again the next morning.
Sunday morning, in addition to everything we did on Saturday, she demonstrated Wudang Tai Chi sword for us. The whole encounter was unforgettable.
On our last night in China, several of us went walking in a long, wide pedestrian mall not far from our hotel. There is no crime in Wuhan; we were assured we would be perfectly safe, and it certainly felt that way. Safe and relaxed. Throngs of people strolled and shopped into the evening hours, and we joined them, feeling what it might be like to live in China, in Wuhan. I loved it.