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.
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 backyard 24 below is considerably less impressive than the world-class performance by Gao Jiamin above. This is more like what most of us do:
I first learned this form from a friend from Beijing who used to join my neighborhood practice group on the weekends. When I learn a new form, I always want to know the correct names of the movements. In this case, arriving at a list was a challenge. I felt like Sherlock Holmes. I started with the list at the beginning of a teaching video. But I couldn’t just copy the text, because all I had was an image.
I found a (somewhat loosely translated) English list. Using that, the voiceover of a teaching video (link below), Google translate, and the MDBG online dictionary (which allows me to draw a character if I can get the order of the brushstrokes right), I have arrived at a list of the moves.
Zhongji Hua Wu Shan is a combined form, with elements of the four main styles (Yang, Chen, Wu and Sun). The opening to this form is clearly Sun-style.
A couple of names of movements are particularly interesting. #4, 推波助澜 Tuī Bō Zhù Lán, Push the Waves even Higher, is a saying that means something like the English “Add fuel to the fire.” #29, 贵妃醉酒 Guìfēi zuìjiǔ (sounds like gway fay djway joe), The Drunken Beauty, is the name of a well-known Qing Dynasty Beijing opera.
And here she is, the Drunken Beauty, reeling away in Huawu fan:
Like many other fan forms, this one includes a number of names familiar from sword forms, with the fan movements mimicking swordplay. And where the sword forms feature Xianren, the Immortal, the fan form names Xiannu, the Spirit Woman.
For the next few weeks I am going to be reviewing the 42-step competition form. This form was created in 1989 by Li Deyin specifically for tournament play. It is a combined form that incorporates movements from the four major styles of Tai Chi: Yang, Chen, Sun, and Wu.
Gao Jiamin demonstrates 42-step competition form
Here is an outstanding demonstration of the form by Gao Jiamin, one of the most celebrated tournament champions of our time. Not only is this a great demonstration of the form, it also identifies the movements with Chinese/English subtitles.
You can read more about Gao Jiamin in this interview, originally published in Kungfu Magazine in 2000, republished by the US Wushu Center in Portland, Oregon, where she sometimes teaches.
I originally learned 42 from my friend Long Feng in 2014, then again under the excellent instruction of Hu Pei Yi in 2016. For review and further instruction, I am using a 50-minute YouTube instructional video by Li Deyin, the author of the form. Gao Jiamin demonstrates each move; Li also demonstrates and elaborates on detail.
With the instructional vocabulary that I call Taijiese (much of it incorporated in this online notebook), I find I can understand most of what he says in this video, despite knowing just about zero conversational Chinese.
Another very useful resource is a book by Li Deyin, available in English from Amazon, in which he details the standards for judging a performance of 42. You couldn’t learn the form from this book, but you can correct your form by referring to it in detail. He explains both important points and common mistakes.
Book by Li Deyin
I particularly like the chart that he offers at the start of the chapter on 42, in which for each move he gives the hand shape, footwork, techniques, and most interestingly, the style (school) from which the movement is derived.
It’s very hot here right now—lows around 80 and highs in triple digits—so I’ll be working early in the morning, one lesson at a time from the tutorial above, reviewing each movement with reference to Li’s book.
Thirty-two-step Sword, also called the simplified sword form, is a short routine for Tai Chi straight sword that was developed in the 1950s, around the same time as the 24-step simplified taijiquan. Li Tianji was the master who created this form.
Purely Yang in style, 32 is a shortened and somewhat rearranged version of the longer traditional Yang Sword form. All of the movements in 32-sword are drawn from Yang Sword, though some of them are executed somewhat differently.
I first learned 32-sword from my friend Long Feng, then relearned it with Hu Pei Yi, an excellent instructor from Jiangyin. I was learning yet again from Frank Lee when the pandemic intervened. Over the winter (of 2020), I studied an excellent tutorial by Li Deyin.
The tutorial is an hour and forty minutes long and it’s in Chinese, though as I have pointed out before, his demonstrations are so clear that you can understand a lot without words. Also, with a modest vocabulary for sword and the list of names, you can follow more of what he says than you might have thought. I especially like Professor Li’s back-view demonstration at 1:28.
Though simple enough to be learned easily the first time, 32 is both subtle enough and robust enough to reward frequent practice and ongoing study. It employs most of the major sword fighting techniques found in Yang sword, yet it takes only three to four minutes to perform.
There are two lists of names, which I have combined. The modern names specify the footwork (or stance) and the sword technique employed. The traditional names indicate the movements in Yang Sword from which the 32-steps have been derived. 起势,Qǐshì (Beginning) and 收势,Shōu shì (Close form) are not included in the 32 steps. Here is my combined list: 32-sword-list (PDF)
Here, also, is a good article about Ma, who started out as a street performer, then became a quite well-known wushu master and coach. She was born in 1940, so she is 66 in the video (published in 2006), which is inspiring to someone as old as I am.
Though it seems to be considered predominantly Chen-style, it looks like a combined form to me. Several saber techniques used here are not found in either the Yang or Chen saber forms I’m familiar with—jiao and ya, for example. Hit the Tiger and the double jump kick are both in the Yang form, not the Chen. And I have never seen yang shen in saber anywhere. Interesting!
Yet another form that I have been revising this year is Chen sword, and right now I’m working through it with Hu Pei Yi. Chen Zhenglei’s demonstration of the form is an excellent paradigm:
In a series of short videos, Chen Zhenglei goes through the form a few moves at a time, with names and some instruction. The videos are in Chinese, but with a list of names and a modest vocabulary for sword techniques and stances, etc, I find I can understand a fair bit.
I have also worked my way through Jesse Tsao’s English instructional video for Chen Sword, which can be downloaded or streamed from his website: Taichihealthways.com.
Master Tsao’s Chen lineage is directly to Chen Zhenglei, so the form is the same. It is called 陈氏太极剑四十九式 (Chén shì tàijí jiàn sì shí jiǔ shì): Chen Style Tai Chi Sword 49-step form. Here is a list of the 49 steps:
I arrived at this list by transcribing from the six videos by Chen Zhenglei. The Chinese names should all be good. The English translations are mine and are not guaranteed (or even likely) to be what anybody else uses. This form is not so well known that there are established English names. I use the Chinese.
Here is Chen Bing, Chen Xiaowang’s oldest nephew, performing Chen sword:
In the frame below, you can see that Chen ZiQiang gives the nine sword techniques (Jian fa) in the Chen system as follows: beng, gua, liao, pi, ci, dian, tuo, jia, and sao (for the characters and standard pinyin, see my vocabulary for sword). The move he’s doing is Qing Long Chu Shui (Bluegreen Dragon Emerges from the Water). It repeats twice, in moves #14 and #33.
Just for fun, some of the personalities in the form are:
Zhong Kui (鍾馗), the Ghost King (vanquisher of ghosts);
Luóhàn (罗汉), aka Arhat, an enlightened person in Buddhism, one who has reached nirvana;
Yèchā (夜叉), a malevolent spirt;
Nézha (哪吒), the protection deity; and
Wéi Tuó (韦驼), aka Skanda, one of eight divine protectors in Chinese Buddhism.