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Secrets of Taijiquan Posture Names

This blog reproduces material from the ongoing series on Taijiquan posture names that appears in our monthly Newsletter. It will be updated on a continuing basis.

 


In 1919, Master Xu Yusheng (許禹生), an early student of the Yang family, published an incredible and informative book simply titled, Taijiquan (太極拳), one of the earliest literary records on Taijiquan. Master Xu’s book appeared nearly twenty years prior to publications released by Chen Kung and the Yang family.

A portion of Master Xu’s book deals with the actual meanings of the Taijiquan posture names. He did this because the posture names during his time were just handed down verbally, and many pugilists were for the most part illiterate. Therefore, depending on the dialect and tones uttered by the teacher, the true meaning of a posture name and use could be misunderstood by students. Master Xu then wrote a record to ensure that the posture names tallied with the actual posture and application.

Translation © 2017, 2018 by Stuart Alve Olson. All Rights reserved.

 


From April 2017 Newsletter

In this installment the character of Peng (), normally translated as Ward-Off, will be examined. The original character for Ward-Off was 掽 (also pronounced Peng) and later re-composed as , a character that does not exist in the Chinese dictionaries because it was created as a specialized term by the early Yang family.

The original character of 掽 meant to “collide,” or “plow into” the opponent’s upper body with the forearm of one arm (the lead arm) and the rear hand of the other arm performing what was originally explained as Seizing and Breaking. In subsequent books on Taijiquan these three characters and ideas of Seizing (採, Cai, later defined more as a Pulling action), Breaking (挒, Lie, later defined more as a Splitting action), and Colliding (掽, Peng, later defined more as a Ward-Off action) were never mentioned as being the important intermediate actions of what was collectively later called Grasp the Bird’s Tail (攬雀尾, Lan Qiao Wei). See photo of Yang Zhengfu (1883–1936) performing Grasp the Bird’s Tail.

There is also the matter of Ward-Off Right Style, as performed in many Yang Style forms, being completely different in execution and application from what is called Grasp the Bird’s Tail (攬雀尾, Lan Qiao Wei).

This Ward-Off Right Style combined with Roll-Back, Press, and Push has been erroneously referred to as Grasp the Bird’s Tail, but the Ward-Off used in this configuration is different from that employed in the performance of Colliding, as it does not make use of intermediate actions of Pulling, Splitting, and Colliding.

 


From May 2017 Newsletter

In this installment, the character for Roll-Back will be discussed. The original meaning and application of Roll-Back (, Lu) was actually to be more of a jerking motion than a neutralizing action. Meaning, the right arm of an opponent is led back in a diagonal and downward direction, via a seizing of the opponent’s wrist with your right palm (see Roll-Back illustration below). This is not a pulling type action, but a “leading and guiding” one. Then the opponent’s elbow is “cut” with the ulna of the left forearm. The idea is to lead while simultaneously attaching the left ulna onto the opponent’s arm (forearm, elbow area), and once the opponent is in a defective position then instantly issuing a quick jerking motion to snap or break the opponent’s elbow.

The character Lu () was specifically created by the Yang family. Without the radical Shou (meaning “the hand”) Lu means “to Pull,” but with the inclusion of Shou the application was much less revealing and forceful, and secretly meant to indicate a leading by the hand motion.

Three levels of Lu can be applied: The first or “upper” version takes place when the opponent strikes to your face, wherein you step back and to the side to initiate the actions of Roll-Back (in this cases known as “Pull-Back,” see illustration).

The second “middle” version happens when the opponent strikes to your chest, wherein their wrist and fist are encircled by your left hand, thus causing the opponent to bend, and then Roll-Back is applied. This type of Roll-Back is sometimes called “Hammer Fist” as your right arm will make a hammering type downward motion when applied to the opponent’s elbow.

The third “lower” version occurs when the opponent strikes to your stomach, wherein their lead striking arm is led diagonally downwards, and then Roll-Back is applied (as explained above). This is the signature example of Roll-Back that one makes when practicing the solo form.

Master Xue claims that if you master Roll-Back, you’ve mastered 50 percent of Taijiquan applications because in all applications of Taijiquan postures Roll-Back is used in one form or another. Whether it be in neutralizing, seizing, or attacking, Roll-Back is the basis.

 


From June 2017 Newsletter

Pressing Forward (擠, Ji) is normally referred to as just Press, but it actually carries the meanings of “to cram,” “to force aside,” and “to squeeze.” There are two types of Pressing Forward actions. One, the left (or right) palm is attached to the inner right (or left) forearm. Two, the left fingertips are attached to the inner right (or left) wrist. The first type is used to Press upon the opponent’s upper rear shoulder and arm area, after the opponent has been turned via Roll-Back. The second application is used to strike Qi (氣穴, Qi Xue) points on the front of the opponent’s body. This second application is the most dangerous, especially if used on the heart region of the opponent’s body.

In Pressing Forward, the energy (勁, Jin) comes from the bottom of the rear foot and is expressed out the attached hand, not from the forearm or wrist. When issuing the energy (發勁, Fa Jin) to the opponent’s shoulder it will cause a disruption of Qi flowing through the opponent’s neck and thus cause a disruption to their equilibrium and mental functions, bringing about both pain and stoppage of Qi—so this application of Pressing Forward must be used cautiously.

The secondary radical of the character Ji is the character Qi (齊), which in older Chinese meant to “unite.” Combined with the radical shou (扌), meaning the hands, it holds the meaning of “uniting the hands,” for the purposes of Pushing (推, Tui) and Clearing Out (排, Pai). These are two functions of Pressing Forward.

 


From July 2017 Newsletter

Push Stroke (按, An), sometimes translated as Masse, means to make an inclined stroke, such as with a pool cue striking the cue ball to swerve it. The Push Stroke is never applied straight forward, but at an angle. In application the Push Stroke was done with the metacarpals of the palm, specifically the lower palm fleshy area connected to the thumb.

The Push Stroke is only to be applied with one hand, this is called Yin-Yang Push Stroke. One hand feints at the opponent’s body, while the other hand issues the Push Stroke. This is so one hand is always in reserve in case the opponent changes position or neutralizes the initial push. To Push Stroke with both hands will cause an extension of energy of which the opponent can more easily take advantage.

The Push Stroke, like all Taijiquan applications, is generated from the rear foot, otherwise it will be generated by just the shoulders and arms which hinders the Intrinsic Energy.

The Push Stroke is akin to the actions of a whip, the length of the whip (from the rear foot up through the arm) is yin (soft), and then appears in the hand (like the cracking of a whip, yang). The energy is issued like a whip but then turns yin immediately after issuing. As the Taijiquan Classic states, “Suddenly appearing and suddenly disappearing.” The yang energy of Push Stroke is expressed in an instant and then let go, returning to yin. This is just like the action of a whip. If the energy of Push Stroke is held onto or extended out too far the opponent will be able to take advantage of it.

 


From August 2017 Newsletter (first appeared in March 2017 Newsletter, but shown here because Single Whip follows Pushing in Taijiquan) 

One example of this rectification Master Xu points out has to do with the posture that is presently and popularly called Single Whip (單鞭, Dan Bian). This posture was originally two separate postures (and applications). Actually, the first four gestures of this posture were originally called Eight Diagram Fish (八卦魚, Ba Gua Yu), as the gestures were designed to imitate the pattern of Yin and Yang moving through the Tai Ji Symbol (太極圖, Tai Ji Tu). The posture Single Whip was the last two gestures of the posture, but as Master Xu points out, the entire movements of the Eight Diagram Fish and Single Whip were combined and just called “Single Whip.”

In application the Eight Diagram Fish gestures are used to take an opponent off his root by causing him to be fully committed into the front foot, bringing the upper body into a forward leaning position, and to be turned aslant. At this point the opponent could be toppled or, if recovering his balance, be struck with the back of the wrist to the solar plexus or throat.

Single Whip was a matter of neutralizing an opponent’s incoming punch and then initiating a strike with the palm to his heart (the kinetic application). But if the opponent neutralized the palm strike then he could be struck to the throat with the rear Crane’s Beak hand (the potential application), or to be seized by applying Lifting Hands (提手, Ti Shou) or Diagonal Flying Posture (斜飛勢, Xie Fei Shi).

 


From September 2017 Newsletter

Raise Hands While Moving Forward
(提 手 上 勢, Ti Shou Shang Shi)
This posture is sometimes simply called Lifting Hands and rarely is the aspect of moving forward implied. Also, the posture makes use of what is presently called an Insubstantial Stance (虛 步, Xu Bu). But according to Master Xu it was called a Remainder or Odds and Ends Stance (畸 零 步, Ji Ling Bu), of which there were two types: one with the heel placed on the ground of the forward foot (now called a Seven-Star Stance, shown in the illustration), and two, the toes of the forward foot were placed on the ground (now called a Seated Tiger Stance or Empty Stance). In this posture the first type (Seven-Star Stance) was used.

From the previous posture of Single Whip, the right foot was brought forward into the middle of the body making use of a Remainder Stance. The right arm bending slightly also moves to the middle of the body along with the movement of the right leg, ending at nose level, palm facing inwards. The left arm is bent in front of the chest with the palm online with the right elbow, palm facing inwards.

The application was to perform a Splitting action to an opponent’s incoming punch. The left hand would adhere to the inside of the opponent’s left wrist, and the right hand to his outer left elbow. By stepping forward first with the left foot and then bringing the right foot forward, this action jams the opponent’s arm, and in that instance the right front foot sweeps behind the opponent’s forward leg while the opponent’s wrist is pushed to the right side and the elbow pushed to the opposite direction, thus making a Splitting action while the opponent’s leg is swept leftwards causing him to topple simultaneously.

 


From October 2017 Newsletter

Joining Hands to Shoulder 
(合手靠, He Shou Kao)
Master Xue wrote, “This is a very important intermediate action between Raising Hands and White Stork Spreads Its Wings. But other writings on Tai Ji Quan do not point out this action or even classify it as a posture.”

Originally this action was just called “leaning,” Shouldering being the idea of leaning into an opponent. Master Xue explains this action as “the right hand thrusts downward as if cutting something, and the left palm sticks to it, so that the body can lean and bump into the opponent with the right shoulder, using a Bow & Arrow Stance.

The idea of Joining Hands can be seen in how the two hands attach or stick to the opponent’s incoming arm during a strike. Both hands join together to lead the opponent’s arm and body off to the diagonal.

In some solo forms of Tai Ji Quan, Shouldering is performed with the waist directed to the front and in others, turned to the side. In both cases the left hand comes in and is placed on the inner part of the right elbow for support, which also makes the right elbow available for striking. Master Xue relates that Elbow-Stroke and Shoulder-Stroke are interconnected and should always be considered as a dual action. Meaning, if the Shouldering fails, one can revert to Elbowing, and vice versa.

Since there are no photographs of either Master Yang Zhengfu or Master Chen Weiming, nor does Chen Kung provide a drawing of the action, photographs of Chen Weiming’s disciple, Mr. Li Yichu, have been used above, and those of Suzanne Lee, from my book Tai Chi According to the I Ching, appear here.

 


From November 2017 Newsletter

Photograph is of a young Master Chen Weiming and the drawing is from Chen Kung’s work.

White Stork Airs Its Wings 
(白 鶴 晾 翅, Bai He Liang Chi)
The right foot is placed into a Substantial Stance [all the weight is placed in the right foot], the left foot is moved to be in front of the right foot into an Insubstantial Stance [no weight]. Both hands separate up and down, the left one below and the right above to the side of the forehead with the palm aslant and facing outwards.

The application of this posture is to carry and raise the opponent’s left arm with your right hand and to lower and seize his left hand, causing confusion in the opponent to be raised and lowered simultaneously. The left foot is placed to be a potential kick to the opponent’s groin.

The posture is also used in application as preparatory for performing Brush Knee and Twist Step.

 


From December 2017 Newsletter

Photograph is of a young Master Chen Weiming and the drawing is from Chen Kung’s work.

Brush1 Left Knee Twist Step2 (Left Foot Advancing One Half Step)
左 摟 膝 抝 步 (左 足 進 半 步)
Zuo Lou Xi Yao Bu, Zuo Zu Jin Ban Bu)

Alternate Translation: Brush Left Knee and Masse3 With Inverse Step.

Term Definitions:
1. Brush (摟, Lou). This character actually means to “drag” or “pull.” Now in performing the posture it appears the knee is being brushed, but in application it is the opponent’s hand and arm being dragged and pulled to the diagonal.

2. Twist Step was sometimes incorrectly translated as “Inverse Step.” Gou (as presented in the text) actually translates as “to hook” and “to connect.” The character for Gou is not to be found in Chinese dictionaries, as it is a specialized term created by the Yang family. It is comprised of 勾 (gou) with 扌 (shou) as the main radical. Shou means “the hand” or “action.” So to translate gou as “inverse” (meaning, “to move in the opposite direction”) is not very helpful in understanding this idea of Twist Step, as it is not a matter of making an opposite foot movement. Hooking and Twisting are much closer to the meaning and action being used in this posture. The basic premise of this Twist Step is to pick up the toes of the rear foot and then turn (or twist) the waist to the front with the foot (turning on its heel), like hooking the foot around to come to a 45-degree angle. This action is also referred to as a Third Step (三 步, San Bu) wherein the rear foot is dragged into position, such as is found in the sword, saber, and staff forms of Taijiquan (and many other martial art forms). But here, in the solo Taijiquan form, the rear foot is twisted or hooked around so to be in a good position to issue the Intrinsic Energy (勁, Jin) from the rear foot and leg.

3. Masse is an implied action, not actually found in the name of the posture. Sometimes in old translations the character 按, An, is used to mean masse. But An is actually the ideogram for Push in Taijiquan. Masse is actually a billiards term meaning “a stroke made with an inclined cue stick, giving swerve to the cue ball.”

Brush Left Knee Twist Step
(Left Foot Advancing One Half Step)

Movement: This posture makes use of both left and right Bow Stances4 in rotation. The left palm brushes over the left knee and stops beside it while the right palm is circled and raised up from behind to the side of the right ear and then makes a masse movement to the front.

Application: The left hand seizes the opponent’s left wrist and leads it across the opponent’s body (or if the opponent kicks with his right foot the ankle is seized). This is done in unison with the Twist Step. The right hand is then attached to the opponent’s upper right flank. The left foot advances simultaneously and is placed on the inside of the opponent’s right leg and knee. Then in one action the opponent’s upper body is directed into a downwards angle, the middle body is affected by the attachment of the right hand unto the opponent’s left flank, and the root of the opponent is upset by the placement of the left leg upon his right leg and knee. In one quick action all three areas of the opponent are affected, causing him to fall off his center of balance as the masse is employed to his body.5

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4. Bow Stance (弓 箭 步, Gong Jian Bu), sometimes translated as “Archer Stance” or “Bow and Arrow Stance.”

5. This is a common theme in the applications of Taijiquan postures. By simultaneously affecting the upper, middle, and lower parts of an opponent’s body, the opponent has little chance to recover. He or she  might be able to neutralize one of the three actions, but to neutralize all three at once would take great skill.

 


From February 2018 Newsletter

Photograph is of Master Yang Zhengfu and the drawing is from Chen Kung’s work.

Hands Playing the Pi Pa Posture

手 揮 琵 琶 式
Shou Hui Pi Pa Shi

Alternate Translation: Playing the Guitar or Strumming the Guitar

Term Definitions:

1. Playing (揮, Hui). This character actually means to “wave,” “wipe away,” or to “brandish.” The image is of the left hand holding the neck of the Pi Pa and the right hand strumming the strings of the guitar in a wavelike motion. Because of the ideogram shou (手) used in connection with hui the idea of the hands playing (or strumming) and holding a Pi Pa is implied.

2. Pi Pa (琵 琶) is a Chinese musical instrument looking similar to a western guitar.

Playing the Pi Pa Posture
Movement: From the previous posture of Brush Knee and Twist Step, the left foot is drawn back slightly into an Insubstantial Stance.* The left arm bends slightly with the upright palm facing [and online with] the nose. The right palm is lifted upwards in front of the chest and faces the left elbow.

Application: There are two applications of this posture. The first application makes use of a Splitting action, and the second a Pushing application. Both applications also include a simultaneous sweeping motion with the left foot.

1. Splitting application: From an incoming opponent’s right-hand punch your left hand and arm moves forward to seize the underside of their right elbow and the right hand seizes their right wrist. Your left hand pushes upward on their elbow and the right hand presses down on their wrist, thereby using a splitting action. Simultaneously your left foot sweeps against the opponent’s front foot causing him or her to topple. Or, the left foot is raised, placed alongside the opponent’s knee, and then stomped downward to collapse the opponent’s body to the ground.

2. Pushing application: From an incoming opponent’s right-hand punch your left hand and arm moves forward along the inside of their arm and attaches itself under their armpit area. The right hand attaches itself to the left flank of the opponent. Simultaneously your left foot moves rightward to sweep the opponent’s forward leg and foot, and your arms move leftward to push the opponent off to their right side. This causes the opponent’s lower body to be moved leftward and their upper body to move rightward, creating imbalance.

In both cases of the application used in Hands Playing the Pi Pa Posture there is a Splitting action. The first is a vertical, up and down split. In the second there is a horizontal, left and right split.

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Note

The Insubstantial Stance (虛 步, Xu Bu) in Taijiquan has two variants: The first is where the front foot is placed on the toes, indicating a potential kick. The second, as seen here, is with the front foot placed on the heel, indicating a sweep. However, with the first variant the foot should be placed in front or to the inside of the opponent’s leg so that the kick can have the necessary momentum. In the second variant the foot must be placed alongside or behind the opponent’s front leg. If placed in front, the opponent can easily sweep the foot by coming underneath it.

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