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A Study of T'ai Chi Push-Hands

People who practice T'ai Chi Ch'uan know that practicing the form is the body (t'i), practicing push-hands is the use (yung). But are body and usage two different affairs?
In order to answer this question, we must first clarify what is body: what is usage? Practicing the form, one never departs from the 13 Postures; practicing the usage one also neverdeparts from the 13 Postures. Without the 13 Postures there is neither T'ai Chi Ch'uan nor push-hands. The 13 Postures are peng (ward-off), lu (roll-back), chi (press), an (push), ts'ai (pull-down), lieh (split), chou (elbow), k'ao (shoulder stroke), chin (advance), t'ui (retreat), ku (look left), p'an (look right) and ting (central equilibrium). This is again well known by all. But when the average individual practices T'ai Chi Ch'uan or push-hands, does he pay attention to each of these thirteen postures?
Naturally there are some who know that they must pay attention to this; but there are also many who imitate mindlessly. Even among those who practice the thirteen postures assiduously, there are those who practice the form but cannot get it or who practice the usage but cannot grasp the usage. Because of this the Song of the Thirteen Postures says,
"If you don't diligently search for the meaning, you will only waste your effort and sigh (from disappointment)."
Practicing the form is equivalent to understanding the essence of push-hands usage. Practicing the push-hands one utilizes applications attained from form practice. We can say that the entire body (or form) is functional and that the entire function (all applications) has a body. Accordingly, is there no difference between practicing form and push-hands? Yes, there is a distinction. Below, I will record what ancient T'ai Chi Ch'uan theoreticians have written regarding push-hands. After presenting my interpretations, we shall draw some conclusions. And finally, I will present research gleaned through my personal experience in push-hands. The T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classic says,
"When the opponent is hard and I am soft, this is called tsou (yielding, moving away). When I follow harmoniously and the opponent gets backed up, this is called chan (adhering)."
Hard has the significance of an attack.
But this should not be a hardness that is forceful or stiff. Rather, a good example would be the attacking movements of ward-off or press as used in push-hands. Soft has the significance of protecting, guarding or conserving (shou). But this should not be a softness that is weak or limp. Rather, a good example would be the defensive movements of roll-back or push as used in push-hands. Although hard and soft are nouns which stand in opposition as attack and defense, one should completely rely on yi (intention, mindfulness, inner meaning) and posture. One should never use stiff, forceful energy to attack.
If the opponent uses ward-off or press to attack and oppress me, I should use the defensive movements of roll-back and push to neutralize him. This kind of movement is called tsou (moving away). Following harmoniously and getting backed up reveal the difference between maintaining or losing the stance. Following harmoniously means the ability to keep the center of gravity and thus maintain the posture. Getting backed up means losing the center of gravity and thus losing the posture.
An example would be my using ward-off or press to attack, intending to cause my opponent to lose his stance. It is also said,
"If the opponent moves quickly I must respond quickly; if the opponent moves slowly, then respond slowly."
This is a very pure way of speaking about defense. Scholars should not mistakenly believe that one is thus losing control. Slowness or speed follows the attacker. You should understand that the attack depends on the opponent, the response depends on oneself. If I can follow the speed of the attacker, then I can respond naturally and easily, not losing the center. One could say that this is the ultimate in T'ai Chi push-hands skill.
It is also said,
"If pressured on the left, empty the left; if pressured on the right, empty the right."
T'ai Chi Ch'uan is thus a way of exercising the central pivot (or moving like the axle of a wheel). Therefore the Explanation of Practice says,
"The body is like a wheel; the waist is the axle."
Since the body is like a wheel, if there is pressure on the left, turn to the left. If there is pressure on the right, turn to the right.
This is natural law. But if you want skillful practice, the hands responding as the mind wishes--this is not a very easy matter. It is also said,
"Looking up, he seems even higher. Looking down, he seems even deeper. Advancing, he is even further away. Retreating, he is even closer."
The meaning of the first three sentences is that one leads the opponent's force so that it comes upon emptiness. That is to say, if he attacks upwards, I lead him even higher. If he attacks down, I lead him even lower. If he attacks straight in, I lead him further. In each case, I follow his incoming posture and direct him to an empty place. I neither struggle nor oppose. The fourth sentence explains the inability to retreat (from a T'ai Chi boxer). If the opponent advances and I retreat, I crowd myself into a corner.
No matter whether one practices the form or push-hands, one should avoid straight advance or straight retreat. The Explanation of Practice says,
"Advancing and retreating require turning the body and changing the steps."
The meaning is that one must not linearly advance or linearly retreat. For instance, in the advancing motion of Brush Knee Twist Step, you must look to the left and right. Or in the retreating motion of Repulse Monkey, you must similarly turn and step towards the left and right. All of the other advancing and retreating movements are like this. Because turning and changing allow you to use the retreat as an advance, it is not a true retreat.
A true retreat would mean defeat. Therefore the ancient boxing treatises say, Advancing is advancing. Retreating is also advancing, In the Newly written Annals of Service it is said,
"Every step advances forwards; then you are without peer under heaven."
There is also a saying,
"A feather cannot be added, a fly cannot alight."
That is to say, push-hands must be practiced with completely refined and acute sensitivity. Then even if a feather or something as light as a fly falls on the body, it will be felt.
But one does not allow the feather to stop or the fly to rest its feet, The feather cannot stop because it does not arrive at a flat or stable surface, For the same reason, the fly cannot stand balanced; it will not stop its fluttering wings and alight on the body. This is an extreme way of describing the light agility of T'ai Chi push-hands. The meaning is: absolutely do not allow the opponent to make use of your force (whether applying strength to you or borrowing strength from you). This is the most important and basic theory of push-hands. It is also said,
"People do not know me. I alone know others."
This is the realm of ultimate accomplishment in push-hands. In order to apply push-hands techniques, it is important to train the sensitivity. In technical terms this is called t'ing ching, listening to energy. That is, use the two hands, especially the tips of the fingers, to feel the path and intention of the opponent's movements. Then I will be able to anticipate the opponent no matter where he moves he will have no time to defend.
Ch'en Chin, a writer from Ch'en Village (Honan Province, Wenhsien County), has an excellent way of speaking about push-hands in his T'ai Chi Ch'uan Treatises:
"My spirit allows me to know what is coming. My wisdom allows me to hide the attack."
Spirit simply means using the nerves of the hands to feel the posture that the opponent is about to manifest. Then, according to my own wise strategy, I conceal an attack. In this way we arrive at the realm of People do not know me. I alone know others. There is another saying,
"If you are single weighted, then you can be responsive, If you are double weighted, then you are stagnant"
ln the practice of push-hands, it is most important to pay attention to these two sentences. You must at all times, in every moment, use your practical experience to really understand this. If you don't know this theory, then you cannot say that you know T'ai Chi Ch'uan; you have only had a superficial impression. And if you don't spend several years in diligent practice of push-hands, you cannot speak of "applying technique according to circumstance". The interpretation of these two sentences is actually just common-sense and very easy to comprehend. Above, we have said, "The body is like a wheel. The waist is like the axle." Consider a wheel resting on the ground. Where can there be two heavy places? If there are two, then it cannot move, Therefore the T'ai Chi Ch'uan Treatise says,
"Do not allow any breaks or deficiencies; do not allow hollows or projections."
The reason is that if there are breaks or deficiencies, hollows or projections, then you cannot be circular. And if you are not circular, then you will be double weighted.
Some people explain double weighted as both feet touching the ground at the same time or both hands striking at the same time. Thus, one hand and one foot means single weighted. This explanation is the worst kind of misunderstanding. We should understand that single weighted or double weighted is not a matter of outer appearance but of the inside. T'ai Chi Ch'uan is only the exercise of a central pivot. When you have found where this pivot is located, then your feeling will become spherical and every place will be single weighted, If you do not find the center of gravity, then your feeling will become stagnant and every place will be double weighted. And it is not only the feet and hands--even one finger will be double weighted, Ch'en Ch'in's Boxing Treatise says it best,
"When your practice is most refined, even the smallest place is circular"
Every sphere has its center. Within the sphere that issues from this central pivot, there are no breaks, deficiencies, hollows or projections. So where can there be double weighting? There is a saying,
"Adhering is moving away. Moving away is adhering."
The term T'ai Chi actually means the center of a circle, where the outer portion is called yang and the inner portion yin [that is, outside the circle and inside the circle]. Yang is applied by adhering and attacking. Yin is applied by moving away and defending. Furthermore, adhering is preparation for moving away. and moving away is preparation for adhering. Thus, we can continue,
"Yin does not depart from yang; yang does not depart from yin."
It can also be said that Yin and yang balance each other; this is known as comprehending energy (tung ching). What is called yin and yang, adhering, moving away, hard and soft, following and so on are all words referring to attacking an d defensive movements. Within the attack, there is defense, and within defense, there is an attack. For this reason, we speak of mutual balance. Recognizing this principle is equivalent to comprehending energy. If we practice our kung-fu with comprehending energy as the base, then the more we practice, the more refined we become. A further saying is,
"Originally, this is giving up yourself and following others. But many people mistakenly avoid the near and seek the far."
In T'ai Chi push-hands we respond according to circumstance. There should not be the slightest bit of preconceived strategy. This is precisely what is called giving up yourself and following others. We could also say that only if we reach the stage of "lively circularity, light agility" can we utilize adhering and moving away--without obstruction or difficulty.
However, there are some practitioners who take "giving up yourself and following others" as meaning that one should study the opponent's method of attack and accordingly prepare a response. Now, this is "avoiding the near and seeking the far".
The examples given above are all based on the theories of push-hands presented in Wang Tsung-yueh's T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classic. These are the highest, deepest and most accurate principles. Without careful study of the above, it is not possible to have any push-hands accomplishment. In the Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures , it is said,
"In order to issue power, you must sink and relax and be concentrated in one direction."
In order to understand issuing power you must practice issuing power and the other kinds of ching [methods of applying energy] while pushing hands. Then you will find out how to sink and how to relax. Furthermore, you must be able to sink and relax in order to have internal strength. Your strength should not be awkward or muddled. The phrase be concentrated in one direction looks very simple, but actually, this embraces the concepts of time, place and direction. If one of these is not in harmony, then the inner feeling of sinking and relaxing will not be crisp. Because of this, while pushing-hands, you must on the one hand be prepared to receive the opponent's power, without either moving away or neutralizing. On the other hand, the mind should be concentrated and ready to issue power according to the T'ai Chi principles. As you become familiar with this practice, you will be able to discharge the opponent as soon as he touches you. Your power will be centered and stable.
The Song of Push-Hands says,
"In ward-off, roll-back, press, and push you must find the real technique. If upper and lower are coordinated, the opponent will not be able to advance."
In the movements of ward-off, roll-back, press and push, you can find t he straight within the curved (or circular). These four movements embrace nine others: pull-down, split, elbow, shoulder stroke, advance, retreat, look left, gaze right, and central equilibrium. Thus when the text says to be conscientious in the practice of ward-off, roll-back, press and push, this is equivalent to saying that one should be conscientious in applying all thirteen postures. The first sentence in the Song of the Thirteen Postures says,
"The thirteen postures should not be regarded lightly."
The meaning is that you should find the real technique in each and every posture. If movements can be controlled by the waist, then upper and lower will naturally coordinate. And if these can coordinate then you will be able to neutralize the opponent's attack. Thus, the text says,
"The opponent will find it difficult to advance."
The second sentence in the Song of the Thirteen Postures--The source of life is in the waist, has the same significance.
It is said,
"Lure the opponent's advance into emptiness; harmonize with him, then issue power. Adhere, join, stick to and follow the opponent, without letting go or resisting," [that is, follow the opponent on both the vertical and horizontal planes"
Follow the opponent's incoming posture and lead him into emptiness. As I lead him in, I issue my own attack. The word lead actually has two meanings. The first is to accord with the opponent's posture and draw him further in order to take advantage [of his momentum]. The second is to feign weakness, causing him to rush in brashly. We read in Ch'en Chin's Boxing Treatise,
"Entice the opponent with an 'empty basket'; then Just make one turn."
Enticing with an empty basket is the same as Lure the opponent's advance into emptiness. Turning means striking the opponent.
The older generation says, "People who practice push-hands live according to the principle of 'neither let go nor resist'." Not letting go means not quitting the opponent's hand. Not resisting means not opposing him. This concept includes adhering and joining on a vertical plane, as well as horizontal sticking and following. Adhering motions belong to the category of not letting go. Following and joining motions belong to the category of not resisting. That is to say, when the opponent advances, I follow and join his motion. And if he retreats I adhere to him.
Although the Song of Pushing-Hands presents extremely simple and basic theories, if you have not had direct contact with a teacher or heard his oral transmission, then your understanding is like theorizing with a map [ with no knowledge of the actual territory ]. Even ten thousand words would be of no avail. Therefore the Song of the Thirteen Postures has,
"To enter the gate and be guided on the path requires verbal instruction. If you practice your kung-fu without cease, then you can cultivate correct methods on your own."
What does the text mean when it speaks of cultivating correct methods on your own? Just follow the principles presented above and you can cultivate on your own. Without these principles, effort is wasted. In the Boxing Classic written by Li Ch'ang-lo of P'ing Ching, it is said,
"Studying but not practicing is to cheapen the teacher's transmission. But to practice without principles is to become sick from one's art."
It is obvious that to practice push-hands one must attach great importance to this rule.
Why do those of us who practice T'ai Chi Ch'uan have to practice push-hands? This is a very easy question to answer. It is because the practical usage and value of the hundred or more movements in T'ai Chi Ch'uan can all be comprehended from push-hands. But we should recognize that push-hands is not the same as fighting, nor is it equivalent to the paired boxing sets found in other styles of martial arts. One should absolutely refrain from grappling as well as pushing and striking techniques from other systems. Push-hands methods can be divided into four categories:
1. single hand, fixed step,
2. double hand, fixed step,
3. moving step (nine palaces step),
4. Ta Lu (pulling)
The single hand, fixed step pushing method is now rarely practiced. But speaking truthfully, single hand pushing is a necessity for beginners. Although the method is simple-- two people both using a single hand, one adhering, the other moving away-- it is of great help in beginning to listen to energy and increasing the strength of the waist and legs. Nowadays two hand, fixed step push-hands is popular. The theories about push-hands presented above all pertain to this style. This method of pushing is the basic practice for increasing one's skill. To realize the practical usage of T'ai Chi Ch'uan you must lay a strong foundation in this kind of push-hands. As a beginner entering the gate of study, you must search for a way of unifying upper and lower. You must make sure that advancing, retreating and all turning movements are rounded and lively, movements must not be performed quickly. As you advance, you study ward-off, roll-back, press and push.
"When you adhere, I move away. When I adhere, you move away."
In all of this, you should not move too quickly. If there is too much speed, then your adhering and moving away are not grounded, and it will be easy to overlook the real meaning of each move. Furthermore, as you search for and listen to the opponent's energy, your responses will not match the circumstances. The four points listed below are the most important principles for developing the knack of push-hands:
1. Slowness: Whether adhering or moving away, you must be searching for, listening to the opponent's energy at each step of the way (whether the opponent moves an inch or a foot). You must not disregard any part of your interaction.
2. Circularity: It is most important to prevent your hands from forming right angles (whether in your own posture, or in relation to the opponent). You must in all places maintain the circular form.
3. Stability: In fixed step push-hands, you are allowed to alternate which leg is in front, but you are not allowed to step away. This is because the purpose of push-hands is to make the legs and waist a strong foundation. If the opponent oppresses you, you must be able to use leg power (literally, sitting the legs or dropping into the legs) and the turning of the waist to neutralize his posture. As you become accustomed to this, the waist and legs will naturally have kung-fu.
4. Closeness: Whenever you search for and listen to the opponent's energy (applying leg and waist kung-fu), you must stay close in for your movements to be effective.
Now we come to moving step push-hands: Advancing two steps, retreating two steps--neither partner changes direction. I advance a step with ward-off and then advance a step with press. My partner takes a step back with roll-back and then another retreating step with push. The process is repeated over and over. The advancing and retreating must be light and nimble. However, you will only be able to apply the power of your legs and waist if you are certain not to change direction.
Finally, we have Ta-Lu, big roll-back: Advance four steps, retreat four steps. Each person advances and retreats towards the four corners. I advance a step with ward-off, another step with elbow, a further step with press and a final, close step with shoulder-stroke. My partner rolls-back with three retreating steps. Then he turns his body, stepping behind me. This last step embraces the movements of pull-down, split and push. Because there are three retreating steps utilizing roll-back, the exercise is called big roll-back.
No matter what push-hands method you practice, it is most important not to neglect the principles and not to use force in attack and defense. Furthermore, you should have absolutely no thought of win or loss.
Above, I have brought together what various authors have had to say about push-hands. Although each school has its unique teaching, there is no sense of ambiguity. You may have the impression that in order to have a correct understanding, we practitioners and students of push-hands need deep insight and penetrating research. Actually, this is not the case! We only need to decide upon one exposition of theory and then devote our effort to really understanding it. When we have thoroughly understood one section, then all the rest will be understood at the same time. If you are persevering, you may suddenly come to a comprehension of this principle.
For instance, if you have a house with several doors through which you can enter or leave, anyone who wants to enter the house only has to go through one door. Although only one door is needed, if you don't reach this door, you will never have a way to enter the house. We should also understand that among these doors there is no distinction with regard to high or low, good or bad. From the east, we enter the eastern door. From the west, we enter the western door. Each person enters the one he is closest to. Studying theory is just the same. We just have to decide upon which theory is closest, which one is easiest to grasp and then devote our effort and research there. There is only one essential--it is like a hunting dog chasing its prey. As soon as the dog decides upon his object, he does not quit until he has it.