Yang/Chen Side-by-Side (3)

Continuing the Yang and Chen style comparison project (scroll down for the first and second posts in this series), the third video starts with the second set of Cloud Hands and finishes with 收势 Shōu Shì (Closing Form).

Again, I am an old lady; there are no drop-splits to be seen in this video! But you can see that the two forms continue to track each other closely. One disparity occurs at the very end, where Yang does 搬拦捶 Bān Lán Chuí opposite the final occurance of pounding the mortar. Also, nothing in Chen corresponds to the final Yang 如封似闭 Rú Fēng Sì Bì (Like Sealing as if Closing). So I have slowed the closing of Chen to allow Yang time for a hasty finish.

It bears repeating that, necessarily, neither style has its normal pace in these videos. Both alternately speed up and slow down in order to line up against each other. The three videos total about thirteen minutes—a slow-ish Chen and defnitely a very fast Yang!

Also, both of these forms are widely practiced, with minor variations. Where I have had to choose which way to do a particular move, I have used to the following sources to settle the issue:

  • The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan by Yang Chengfu
  • Mastering Yang-Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen
  • Chen’s Taichi Old Frames One and Two by Chen Zhenglei

See also, this series Part 1 and Part 2

Yang/Chen Side-by-Side (2)

Continuing the Yang and Chen style comparison project (see the first post in this series), the second video starts with the Single Whip before the first Cloud Hands and finishes with the Single Whip after Fair Lady Works the Shuttle.

This segment was considerably more difficult to make than the first. For one thing, the movements are more challenging physically; most of the kicks occur in Part 2. I am an old lady; I don’t kick high and I certainly don’t do double jump kicks! I have modified 踢 二 起 (Tī Èr Qǐ) to a slap kick.

But also, the two forms diverge more dramatically in some places. There really is nothing in Yang to correspond to the forward and backward tricks in Chen (前着 Qián Zhāo and 后着 Hòu Zhāo), and although there is a nice parallel between the right and left Part the Wild Horse’s Mane (野马分鬃 Yé Mǎ Fēn Zōng), Yang has a third and Chen does not.

Fair Lady Works the Shuttle (玉女穿梭 Yùnǚ Chuān Suō) is even more problematic. Both the Yang and Chen forms include a full 360-degree turn to the right, and both employ 挒 liè (splitting). They have the same name and occur in the same position in the overall sequence. But they are very different. It’s the only near-complete breakdown in alignment between the two forms.

Fair Lady Works the Shuttle (Yang on the left)

In the clip above, you can see the contrast between these two moves. The Chen lasts about 10 seconds, while this faster-than-normal Yang takes almost three times as long. Moreover, Yang finishes where it begins, while Chen travels about six feet. In making the middle side-by-side video, I have paused and reined in the Chen.

Next: Part 3 Cloud Hands (2) to the end

Yang/Chen Side-by-Side (1)

I’ve just completed a study comparing the Yang and Chen styles of Tai Chi. The two styles look and feel quite distinct, but the one (Yang) is derived from the other (Chen) and retains much of its essential content.

In an earlier post on this subject I made reference to a very clever video in which the Yang and Chen traditional long forms are shown side-by-side, with Chen Zhenglei performing Laojia Yilu and Yang Jun performing the Yang 108.

In that video, the alignment between the two forms is achieved entirely through very skillful video editing after the fact. The two separate videos have been subtly sped up and slowed down so that certain obvious touchpoints such as Single Whip and White Crane Spreads Wings occur at the same time side-by-side.

At the time I worked up a list (PDF) of the movements in the two forms, side-by-side, to show as many correspondences as possible. Now I’ve gone a step further. I wanted to link up the two forms much more closely, not just move-by-move but down to every corresponding step, shift, and block—as far as possible—working on the assumption that the two forms share a common deep structure.

In this manner, I’ve made three videos of roughly equal length:

  1. 起势 Qǐshì to 单鞭 Dān Biān 2 – Beginning to the second Single Whip (above)
  2. 单鞭 Dān Biān 2 to 单鞭 Dān Biān 5 – from Cloud hands through Fair Ladies
  3. 单鞭 Dān Biān 5 to the end

I am not a master of either style, so I am not the best person to make these videos. I would be happy to see this project replicated at a higher level of proficiency.

Necessarily, neither form has its normal pace. Laojia usually takes ten minutes or so, the 108 twice as long. To match the movements, I have slowed and sped up however and whenever necessary. And it’s not always Chen waiting for Yang!

One irreconcilable difference between the two forms in this first segment is the signature pounding of the mortar (金刚捣碓 Jīn Gāng Dǎo Duì) that occurs three times near the beginning of Laojia. That move has no counterpart in Yang, so in the first video, I simply pause Yang and wait for Chen to make that move.

Also, in Chen there is no counterpart for Slant Flying (斜飞势 Xié Fēi Shì) and the second Lift Hands (提手上势 Tí Shǒu Shàng Shì). However, the retreating move (倒卷肱 Dào Juǎn Gōng) in Chen has five steps; Yang repulse monkeys (倒黏猴 Dào Nián Hóu) is just three steps. So I have mapped the two extra Yang moves onto the last two steps of dao juan gong. The two forms then come together again with White Crane Spreads Wings (白鹤亮翅 Bái Hè Liàng Chì).

Throughout, both forms return again and again to the counterpoint of Six Sealing Four Closing (六封四閉 Liù Fēng Sì Bì) and Grasp the Bird’s Tail (揽雀尾 Lǎn Què Wěi) followed by the shared move, Single Whip. In all, this combination will occur six times.

Next: Part 2 – Cloud Hands to Fair Ladies

New Tai Chi Books

This year, I have acquired a couple of books that I can recommend. One is an instructional manual by Chen Zhenglei for Laojia Yilu and Erlu. I’ve been using it as a review of Laojia Yilu, in connection with a video project comparing the Yang and Chen traditional long forms.

Chen’s Tai Chi Old Frame One & Two

In this book, every movement of the form is described in careful detail, with multiple photographic demonstrations by the author (a grandmaster of such eminence that I don’t need to cite his credentials). You certainly could not learn this rather difficult routine by studying Chen’s book. But if you already know Laojia, it is an invaluable resource for refining and correcting your form. I am working it to tatters.

Another book that has recently come to my attention is Martin Mellish’s A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook: Spirit, Intent, and Motion. This beautifully illustrated volume uses sketches, photographs, and diagrams to evoke, explain, and describe the internal experience of Tai Chi.

A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook

This book is not a manual for learning specific forms or styles. Rather, it is a guide to fundamentals such as posture, stepping, balance, and breathing. It would be equally useful to beginners, more advanced students, and (especially!) instructors. It is an attractive and readable book, too.

Yi Jian Mei Revisited

I first learned this beautiful sword form in 2016. It is unusually dramatic and theatrical, having its origin in a hugely popular song and both television and film dramas, the latter dating back to 1931.

This time around I found the following video on sword flowers (剑花 jiànhuā ) very helpful:

For more about this form, names of the movements, lyrics of the song, and links to instructional and performance videos, see these earlier posts:

Yi Jian Mei is not without its detractors. Some say it is not even Tai Chi Sword, and in fact, it is not. It is 抒怀剑, shūhuái jiàn, lyric (lit. express emotion) sword. The originator of this type of sword, and creator of the popular Yi Jian Mei sword routine, is 朱俊昌 Zhū Jùn Chāng. Read about him and shuhuaijian here: http://www.shuhuaijian.net/  [I owe thanks to Song Chen and Martin Mellish for this information.]

Professor Zhu is a teacher of dance, but he was trained in the martial arts from an early age. Odd as some of the movements in Yi Jian Mei might appear, I have seen most of them in one source or another in less well known, but definitely authentic, Tai Chi sword forms.

For example, this (to me) odd-looking position, called Fukan Renjian in Yi Jian Mei, is from the Michuan (secret) Yang Sword form that Yang Luchan taught the Manchu Imperial guards in the 1850s. The illustration here is from Scott Rodell’s excellent book on Chinese Swordsmanship.

The movements of Yi Jian Mei are so intricate that it’s hard to imagine using them in an actual swordfight, but though intricate, they are composed of familiar jianfa. I have modified my own practice of Yi Jian Mei to stay within bounds of the Tai Chi sword that I am familiar with.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (3)

Continuing from The Sword of Li Jinglin (2), chapters 6-11 of the treatise (I am using the Brennan Translation) describe how training progresses from solo practice to two-person sparring sets and then to free-sparring.

Here, Li Tianji demonstrates a two-person sparring set in Wuhan in 1984 (that’s Li with the dark shoulders):

Solo practice involves studying and practicing the thirteen sword techniques. To prepare for solo practice with a sword, a student should first be proficient in empty-hand internal arts. The same principles apply. Those of us who only ever practice solo sword forms have not progressed beyond this initial stage of training.

Practicing with a Partner

Having achieved in solo practice familiarity with the thirteen jianfa, a student would then move up to sparring with a partner. The simplest two-person sets involve studying how the sword techniques fit together to make triangles.

For example, two sparring partners would take turns answering Jie (a check) with Ti (a lift) to make a triangle above. Other combinations form triangles above, below, to the left or to the right.

The next stage of training involves Yin Yang sword circling. A student must first learn this combination of jianfa as an individual practice.

阴阳剑圈 Yīn Yáng Jiàn Quān

For a Yin sword circle, Ci (a stab) is followed by Chou (draw) with Yin grip to the right. A Yang sword circle is formed when the stab is followed by Dai (drag) to the left with a Yang grip. A complete Yin Yang jian quan is a stab followed by a draw to the right, followed by another stab and a drag to the left.

As your body retreats, your sword advances (Ci). This combination stab/draw/stab/drag is similar to the two moves near the beginning of 32-sword that are called Xiang You Ping Dai (toward the right, level carry) and Xiang Zuo Ping Dai (toward the left, level carry).

When you are proficient at making sword circles, you would then try coordinating the circles with an opponent. Your stab and draw to the right would be met by your partner’s stab and drag to the left, and visa versa.

You alternately advance to thrust and then your sword retreats with a drag to the left or a draw to the right. One person stabs, the other defends with a draw and stabs; the first defends with a drag and then stabs, and so on.

Each of you would be (in actual fighting) trying to slip in a cut to the wrist, but the purpose of this sparring exercise is to learn how the Yin and Yang circles fit together. Sword circles can also be tilted, alternately using TI (lifting) with Shao Yin grip and Pi (chopping) with Shao Yang grip. Students must achieve skill at triangles and two-person circling before moving on to the next stage of training.

Two-person sparring sets

The sparring sets prescribe how one person attacks with one technique and the other responds with a countering technique. For example, one chops to the other’s head, the other responds with a block and a drag to the waist.

Initially, the sets are practiced with fixed stance and slowly, with correct posture and clearly defined jianfa. With skill, the partners can begin moving in circles, advancing, and retreating as in the video above). At each stage and in each set, partners trade roles to learn both sides of the exercise.

Ultimately, students abandon the choreography and free-spar. The most advanced level of training is free-sparring against multiple apponents or against a long weapon such as a spear.

Skipping any stage of practice is strictly forbidden. Only after completing all the stages of training in the prescribed order would one be prepared for real sword fighting. From the thorough and diligent practice of all the elements—jianfa, footwork, advancing and retreating—internal power issues through the sword, and the art of the sword emerges.

In the words of Sun Lutang: 剑与身合为一 (Jiàn Yǔ Shēn Héwéi Yī) Sword and body become one.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (2)

Continuing from The Sword of Li Jinglin (1), the 1931 treatise defines 13 essential sword techniques and eight grips. In the treatise, the word 势 Shì, meaning forms or powers, is used for the sword techniques. Usually, I see the word 法 fǎ for techniques, as in:

  • 剑法 Jiànfǎ – Sword techniques (jian is sword)
  • 手法 Shǒufǎ – Hand positions, grips (shou is hand)
  • 步法 Bùfǎ – Footwork (bu is step or stance)

Here is an interesting video demonstrating the grips and forms. The text on the screen for each technique is taken directly from the treatise and can be readily found in the Brennan translation.

In the treatise, the jianfa are described in terms of footwork, targets, and grips. They are illustrated by photographs. An interesting point: The target is most often the wrist. It can also be the head or waist or leg, but more often, it’s the wrist.

This makes sense. The hand that holds the sword (protected by the handguard) is the part of the body that is nearest to the opponent’s sword. If you can get inside the range of your opponent’s sword at all, the closest target would be his wrist.

Moreover, a cut to the wrist with a sharp blade would almost certainly damage muscle and connective tissue needed for handling the sword. If the wrist of your sword hand were cut, you would be effectively disarmed. In a serious swordfight, with a damaged wrist, you would be at your opponent’s mercy.


The grips are defined in the treatise in terms of 阴 Yīn and 阳 Yáng. Yin grips are all more or less palm-down, tiger mouth (虎口 Hǔkǒu) facing left. Yang grips are palm-up, tiger mouth facing right.

in the middle (中 Zhōng), where the yin side meets the yang side, the tiger mouth points straight up or down. The grip that points up (palm facing left) is called 中阴 Zhōng Yīn. Point the sword straight down (palm facing right) and the grip is called 中阳 Zhōng Yáng.

Brennan explains the grips in terms of a clock face. The Tai Yin (fully Yin, palm-down) grip points the sword to 9 o’clock. Tai Yang (fully Yang, palm-up) points to 3:00. Zhong Yin points to 12:00, Zhong Yang points to 6:00.  The grips that tip upward, to 10:30 and 1:30, are called 少 Shào Yin or Yang; those that tip downward are called 老 Lǎo Yin or Yang.

Starting with the arm rotated all the way inward, so the palm faces right and the sword points down, as you slowly rotate your arm outward, you would pass through the eight grips in this order:

  • 中阳 Zhōng Yáng – 6:00, hukou facing down, palm facing right
  • 老阴 Lǎo Yīn – 7:30, hukou facing lower left corner, palm facing lower right corner
  • 太阴 Tài Yīn – 9:00, hukou facing left, palm-down, level
  • 少阴 Shào Yīn – 10:30, hukou facing upper left corner, palm facing lower left
  • 中阴 Zhōng Yīn – 12:00, hukou facing up, palm facing left
  • 阳 Shào Yáng  – 1:30, hukou facing upper right corner, palm facing upper left
  • 太阳 Tài Yáng – 3:00, hukou facing right, palm-up, level
  • 阳 Lǎo Yáng – 4:30, hukou facing lower right corner, palm facing upper right

At Lao Yang, your arm is rotated all the way out as far as it can go. To go from Lao Yang back to Zhong Yang, you would have to flip your wrist over. These grips are demonstrated at the beginning of the video above.

Sword techniques

Working my way through the treatise, I am reminded of a saying: “The more I learn the less I know.” I expected the techniques described in the treatise to correspond neatly to the techniques named in 32-sword. They do not.

The thirteen forms or jianfa are:

  • 抽 Chōu (draw) can be 上 Shǎng (upward) or 下 Xià (downward)
  • 帯 Dài (drag) can be 直 Zhí (vertical) or 平 Píng  (level)
  • 提 Tí (lift, carry) can be  向前 Xiàngqián (forward)  or 后 Hòu (backward)
  • 格 Gé* (block) can be  下 Xià (downward) or 翻 Fān (overturned)
  • 击 Jī* (strike, hit) can be 正 Zhèng (upright) or 反 Fǎn  (reverse)
  • 刺 Cì* (stab) can be 侧 Cè (upright) or 平 Píng (level)
  • 点 Diǎn (tap)
  • 崩 Bēng (flick) can be  正 Zhèng (vertical) or  翻 Fān (overturned)
  • 劈 Pī (chop)
  • 截 Jié (intercept) can be 平 Píng (level),  左 Zuǒ (left),  右 Yòu, (right), or  反 Fǎn  (reverse)
  • 搅 Jiǎo can be  横 Hèng (horizontal) or 直 Zhí (vertical)
  • 压 Yā (press)
  • 洗 Xǐ* (clear)

*Asterisks denote the original four techniques taught by Li Jinglin’s Wudang Master Song Wei Yi.

An interesting point: we are told that beng and dian use energy directly from the dantian, as opposed to energy that issues through the legs, waist, and arms. The instruction for dian says that the body and arm should not move; only the hand (wrist) causes the sword to tap. It is the same for flicking (beng).

I note one discrepancy in the otherwise helpful video above: Chou is demonstrated both right and left. As I read the treatise, Chou is always to the right, an outside movement, away from the body. Dai is always to the left, an inside movement across the body. I have not had instruction in this sytem of swordfighting, so that’s just my reading of the treatise.

Next: Stages of training and sparring sets.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (1)

Li Jinglin (1885–1931) was a military leader during China’s Warlord Era. The Qing Dynasty, China’s last, was overthrown in 1912, and regional armies controlled the country for a couple of decades after that. The political history of that period is kalaidescopic and tumultuous, and Li Jinglin was active throughout the rise and fall of the various factions.

Li Jinglin

An accomplished and influential grandmaster of martial arts, Li is best known to those of us who study Tai Chi as China’s greatest swordsman. Li was schooled in the martial arts from childhood and learned sword as a young man from the great Wudang Grandmaster Song Wei Yi. Li became the 10th generation lineage holder of Wudang Dan Pai Sword.

Li also studied the sword of Yang Luchan by way of Yang’s sons and collaborated with masters of many other sword traditions, testing and selecting the most effective swordfighting techniques. Among Li’s closest associates were Yang Chengfu, Li Yulin (same surname, no relation), and Sun Lutang. Li Tianji, son of Li Yulin, was trained according to Li Jinglin’s teachings and later created the modern 32-step Yang-style sword form.

Li’s Wudang master, Song Wei Yi, was the first to create a manual for Wudang Dan Pai Sword. This manual was published in 1923 in Beijing and widely promoted and amplified by Li Jinglin. A disciple of Li Jinglin, Huang Yuanxiu, published a new, illustrated edition of the manual, Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art,  in Shanghai in 1931, the year of Li’s death. The various sword techniques are demonstrated by Huang and another Li disciple, Chu Guitang, in photographs.

Huang and Chu demonstrate

The Wudang Sword Treatise, while based on the art of Song Wei Yi, represents the culmination of Li Jinglin’s wide-ranging lifelong practice. Paul Brennan provides a translation of this work, along with the photographs:

Brennan Translation: Wudang Sword

At the beginning of the treatise, in his own calligraphy, Li Jinglin writes:

“The key in sword practice is that your body moves like a swimming dragon, never coming to a halt. After practicing over a long period, your body will unite with your sword, then your sword will merge with your spirit. There will be no sword anywhere, and everywhere there will be a sword.”

Read more about the life and times of Li Jinglin:

Next: notes on the substance of the treatise.

Huawu Fan Review

This has come to be my favorite fan form, partly because this time around I found and used the teaching videos of Master Zeng Nailiang himself, creator of the form. Read about him here: Kung Fu Magazine-Professor Zeng Nailiang.

To me the most beautiful demonstration of this form is that of Sing May Chen (Irvine World Tai Chi Day 2015). In this grab she is doing 飞凤回首 – Fēi fèng huíshǒu (Flying Phoenix Turns Head):

Here are the links to Master Zeng’s four-part tutorial, totalling about 45 minutes of instruction. I especially appreciate his emphasis on the martial aspects of the form and the use of the fan as a weapon. That is Master Zeng’s daughter demonstrating the moves at the beginning of each segment.

  1. Movements 1-8 (9:55)
  2. Movements 9-20 (11:25)
  3. Movements 20-32 (11:52)
  4. Movements 33-42 (9:26)

The name of the form is 华武太極扇  (Huáwǔ tàijíshàn). Huawu means “Flowery Martial” Tai Chi Fan, and here is a list of the 42 movements (PDF). For more about Huawu Fan and links to more video demonstrations, see my earlier posts: Huawu Fan (tagged).

28-Step Tai Chi Fan

After a year and a half of isolation, my long-time neighborhood weekend practice group has resumed its routine, and I am so glad.

Yang Li demonstrates 28-Fan

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:

Or go to the full playlist here. Here is a list of the 28 movements: PDF.