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
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.
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.
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.
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:
老阳 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art that has evolved over the last couple of centuries into a popular practice with multiple applications, including self-defense, exercise and physical conditioning, stress relief, disease prevention, and improving overall health. Many people (myself among them) consider it the ultimate age-defying art. Why?
What is so special about Tai Chi?
Tai Chi, in its martial aspect, is founded on the principle that a smaller, weaker person can prevail over a bigger, stronger opponent. The most basic tenets of Tai Chi, as explained in the Tai Chi Classics, address how this is possible. [See The Origins of Tai Chi, on the Taijiquan Jing and Taijiquan Lun.]
Tai Chi is said to be an internal martial art, more concerned with cultivating and issuing internal energy than with developing muscular (“external”) strength. A person who seeks only to build muscles and deliver heavy kicks and punches will always be pitting strength against strength, and the bigger, stronger opponent will always prevail.
The person who practices Tai Chi uses technique, intention, and natural movement to capture a stronger opponent’s energy and turn it to advantage. To do this, it is necessary to achieve the frame of mind most effective in fighting—which is not anger, fury, desperation, fear or any other such strong emotion, but calmness and presence of mind.
The goals of Tai Chi
The goals of Tai Chi therefore include cultivating internal energy, adhering to the body’s most natural ways of moving, and practicing deep, deliberate relaxation. The value of these goals is obvious, even for a person who has no intention of fighting.
Another important objective lies in achieving balance—not just the ability to stand on one foot or to avoid falling, but balance in the broader sense of managing opposite tendencies. In traditional Chinese philosophy, this means balancing Yin and Yang—yielding energy versus warding-off energy. Earth-energy versus sky-energy.
In more Western terms, this means maintaining balanced emotions and a balanced center, both literally and figuratively: being aware of one’s center of gravity, being alert yet calm, aware of both one’s internal state and external surroundings, which might take the form of an adversary (physical or otherwise) or the natural environment.
The free flow of Qi
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the foundation of health lies in the free flow of qi throughout the body. Qi is variously defined in English as vitality, life force, or simply as energy. The channels for the flow of qi are called meridians, and they are mapped in traditional Chinese medicine much as we map arteries and veins in the West.
The free flow of energy is not exactly the same thing as what we call good circulation—the latter refers to circulation of the blood and delivery of Oxygen. But the two are analogous. In both cases, the general idea is that blockage and binding are damaging and unhealthy, while free circulation throughout all parts of the body is beneficial and enlivening.
Whatever the technical explanation or scientific theory behind this concept of free flow, it works. A steadily increasing body of evidence shows that people who practice Tai Chi regularly experience improved overall health and balance, lowered stress levels, and greater resistance to disease.
Those of us who have already incorporated Tai Chi into our daily lives gain a whole new level of well-being that has to be experienced to be believed. As a form of physical training, it is gentle, effective, and free of drudgery or injury. Having once tapped into that, who would give it up? Most of us will do it for the rest of our lives.
Legend has it that Tai Chi originated in the Wudang mountains, but the earliest concrete record dates from the seventeenth century. Chen WangTing (1580-1660), from Chen village in Henan Province, was the founder of Chen-style Tai Chi. His statue stands in the center of the courtyard to the Tai Chi Museum in Chen Village.
Statue of Chen WangTing (my photo, 2019)
Yang Luchen (1799-1872) learned Chen-style Tai Chi during the time of Chen Changxing, the 6th generation master after Chen WangTing. Yang was the first non-family member to learn the art, and according to legend, he did so by subterfuge, taking a job in Chen village and watching lessons in secret.
Eventually, Yang was discovered and surprised the master with his ability. Yang stayed on and studied with Chen Changxing for a total of ten years. When Yang left Chen village, he was sworn to secrecy about the Chen routines and soon developed his own Yang style of Tai Chi.
Two of Yang Luchan’s most notable disciples were named Wu. Looks and sounds like the same name to us, but they are written differently (武 and 吳) and sound different to Chinese ears. These two disciples were Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880) and Wu Quanyou (1834-1932), and each founded his own style of Tai Chi.
Wu Quanyu studied with both Yang Luchan and Yang’s second son, Yang Banhou. Wu Quanyou’s style is today called Wu-style. The Wu long form closely tracks the Yang-style long form but is characterized by more of a grappling style, different footwork, different hands, and a distinctive leaning posture.
Wu Yuxiang first learned Yang Tai Chi from Yang Luchan. Then Yang introduced him to Chen Qingping, 7th generation Chen master. Chen Qingping practiced a small-frame version of Chen-style Tai Chi that was influenced by an ancient martial art called Zhaobao.
Wu Yuxiang eventually developed a distinctive style that incorporated elements of both Yang and Zhaobao-Chen. One of the best-known followers of his style was Hao Weizhen (1842-1920). Wu Yuxiang’s style of Tai Chi has come to be known as Wu Hao in the West, to resolve confusion between the two Wu names.
Wu Hao is still practiced today but is not as well-known as Chen, Yang and Wu. This is partly because, at the turn of the twentieth century, Hao met Sun Lutang (1860-1933), a fighter of formidable reputation. Sun did not practice Tai Chi. Sun’s arts were Xingyi and Baguazhang.
Sun learned Wu Hao Tai Chi from Hao and then developed his own style, a fusion of Wu Hao Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Baguazhang. The Sun style, thanks to Sun’s reputation and wide influence as a teacher, went on to become quite popular. You could say that Wu Hao was eclipsed by the Sun.
Today, the four most popular styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun—are represented in combined forms like 32, 42 (the modern competition style), and 48. A more detailed history and comparison of the styles described in this post, can be found in a book by Andrew Townsend, The Art of Taijiquan, An Examination of Five Family Styles.
One of the things I enjoy most when I have the opportunity to study with Jesse Tsao is the linking and comparing of different styles of Tai Chi. In particular, I find it interesting to compare the two traditional long forms that I know best: Laojia Yilu and the Yang 108.
A video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HRaAIdkqiY] shows the two forms side by side, with Chen Zhenglei performing Chen and Yang Jun doing the 108. Whoever made this video did a clever job of matching up comparable moves. A timeline is also provided, showing where in the video some of specific corresponding moves can be found. In the picture above, both are doing single whip.
I’ve gone a little farther–put the lists of moves for both forms side by side, lining up and bolding the 24 points where the same named move occurs in both forms. In six more places (italicized), Six Sealing Four Closing (六封四閉 Liù Fēng Sì Bì) occurs opposite Grasp the Bird’s Tail (揽雀尾 lǎn què wěi). Different names, different styles, but comparable: peng, lu, ji, an. Contact, redirect, follow, and control.
The two routines are also similarly structured. Each begins by guarding the right side. Then both forms travel to the left. Both forms then travel backwards, with Whirling Arms and Repulse Monkeys. Both then turn around and punch before repeating Six Sealing Four Closing/Grasp the Bird’s Tail and Single Whip.
Then both forms travel sideways to the left with Cloud Hands. Then each form has a kicking section. Laojia features a greater variety of kicks, but both forms advance, turn around, and advance again. They travel back to the right with Part the Wild Horse’s Mane and Fair Lady Works the Shuttle, again repeating Six Sealing Four Closing/Grasp the Bird’s Tail and Single Whip.
Both routines then repeat Cloud Hands and offer a low form, followed by a lengthy repeat from Whirling Arms/Repulse Monkeys all the way to the Cross Form Kick. Both finish with a low punch and Step up Seven Stars, a crescent kick and double hand punch. The two forms track each other strikingly, when you compare the lists side by side.
Last year I worked my way through the Wu style long form, and that one follows the same general pattern, tracking the Yang routine quite closely. This year’s work, for me, is learning the Sun style long form. I’d like to be able to practice all four of these traditional routines.