Having examined the mechanisms of internal force (nei jin) in the previous two-part blog entry, we can now take a look at the practice and strategies of taiji (tai chi) as a martial art. This post will be a broad-brush overview only; nearly every topic mentioned could itself be the subject of another post.
Below we’ll summarize taiji as a combined striking and grappling art. Of course kicking and punching is only a part of self-defense; I would argue a smaller part. In Part II we’ll look at a more important component of self-defense in taiji.
Before delving into the martial strategies of taiji, though, let’s briefly address two issues – the old “health vs. martial arts” debate and an understanding of gong as the fundamental purpose of taiji (or any martial art) training. This was all initially explained in Dr. Yang’s book Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, but here I assume this article may be read by the occasional non-taiji practitioner, and these concepts must be made clear before developing even a nascent understanding of martial application.
Health vs. martial arts
People come to taiji for different reasons. Some seek the therapeutic benefits, while others are interested in martial arts. There is, ultimately, no difference between the two, as the gong (foundational skill/ability) developed through the fundamental curriculum of meditation, static qigong, form, agility drills, and push-hands practice is the source of improvements in both health and self-defense. If you are improving your health, you are improving your self-defense ability. And to defend yourself as best possible, you need to be healthy. But you are probably not here to be told the obvious. Personally, I have always been interested in the martial arts, and believe that hand to hand combat requires, at its higher levels, a greater combination of physical and mental skills than any other action – certainly more than the specialized skills of symbolic combat or battle in most sports. Hence the aim in training to develop one’s entire being – physical, mental, and spiritual.
Regardless of motivation, the initial training is the same. Once you have built the gong, you can play with the martial application if you wish.
So what is the gong of taiji practice?
Gong(fu) – the foundation
In Chinese the word gongfu (or the more familiar Wade Giles spelling kung fu) does not mean martial arts – the term is a reference to skill level in any endeavor. To say that someone’s “gongfu is deep” (gongfu tebia shen) is a recognition that they have worked hard to develop a solid foundation of skill and understanding of their art. In taiji the opposite of this is expressed in the saying kong jiazi, mei you gongfu, which literally translates as “empty form, no gongfu.” It is possible to have an attractive and/or athletic form but no internal gongfu.
To quote from Taijiquan:
Physically, the accumulation of gong refers to constant improvements in balance, coordination, agility, flexibility, sensitivity, and strength or power. Mentally, and spiritually, the accumulation of gong refers to constant improved awareness and confidence, and constant advancements toward realizing tranquility of heart and mind. These physical, mental, and spiritual benefits are the benefits and purpose of practice. The priority of accumulating gong (as opposed to martial technique or trickery) is repeatedly emphasized in many of the most famous sayings from the oral tradition of the Chinese internal martial arts.
Without gong the martial strategies summarized below are nearly worthless. Referring to the physical, or yang aspect, of gong, Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang accurately and succinctly said, “If you have the power, everything works.”
Martial Strategies and Skills in Taiji
Zhong Ding (central equilibrium)
Taiji prizes both mental and physical balance. Balance is, indeed, the very meaning of the word taiji.
Physically, zhong ding, and the related term zhong zheng (straight and centered) means that one strives to develop and maintain an upright and rooted posture. As discussed in Part I of the previous two-part article on internal power, an upright, rooted, and balanced posture is essential to develop and use internal power.
Of course many arts emphasize balance. In boxing, for example, the common advice is to “keep your feet under you,” with training emphasis on stance and footwork and not overextending with any strike so that one is not placed in an unbalanced and compromised position subject to counter-attack. All of taiji training fundamentally emphasizes posture and balance.
In traditional language, taiji movement is summarized as the eight forces – peng/lu/ji/an/zai/lie/zhou/kao, and the five cardinal directions – forward, backward, left, right, and central equilibrium. Once you understand what the eight forces are, you may appreciate this succinct traditional formulation as a brilliant summary of taiji as a striking art.
The eight forces are simply a description of the direction and length (or distance) of force expression:
- peng – upward force
- lu – backward force
- ji – forward force
- an – downward force
- zai – pulling/plucking force, generally diagonally downwards
- lie – “splitting” force in opposing directions (e.g. a foot sweep with leg/upper body moving in opposite direction, or arms moving in opposing directions to lock or break a joint)
- zhou – middle range force, typically expressed with elbow or forearm
- kao – translated as “bump,” kao is the shortest-range force, the “inch force,” expressed through the shoulder, body or hip.
In combination, the eight forces and five cardinal directions ultimately contain all possible lengths and directions of human movement and force generation, and so contain virtually all possible (standing) martial applications of the feet, knees, hips, body, shoulder, elbows, and hands. Every strike could be explained as some combination of the eight forces, and most form movements contain the possibilities of short, medium, and long range strikes. Excluding, of course, strikes that sacrifice central equilibrium and intentionally place the practitioner off-balance, there is no strike in any martial art that is not contained somewhere within the traditional long forms and silk-reeling exercises. (Here I am referring to the Chen style long forms and movements/exercises created by Grandmaster Feng. I cannot speak with authority on other form styles).
In scientific terminology, we can say that all voluntary movement is governed by motor programs. Before we move, the extent of the movement is represented in the brain as an abstract plan – as opposed to a series of movements or muscle contractions. This mental image of a movement is called a motor program, and includes the intended length, direction and force of a movement.
Taiji forms are simply motor programs. The more forms we practice, the bigger our mental library of movement – and the more “our body will listen to our mind” and we can move in any direction, at any time, over any distance, with balance, power, and control.
All of which is not to imply that more is better. A famous traditional saying relates:
I’m not worried about someone that practices a thousand different forms. I’m worried about the person that practices one form a thousand times.
Which of course is a reference to the quality of one’s practice – the subject of Part II of our article on internal power. The truth is that, once a practitioner reaches the level of understanding energy, all of the potential strikes of the forms become obvious.
In many combat sports the hands are protected with wrapping and gloves. The bones of the hand are small and relatively fragile and can be easily broken when striking with a closed fist – even with the gloves used in MMA, broken hands are not uncommon. For every force there is an equal and opposing force, and when you strike something you hit yourself with that same force. If a clenched fist strikes slightly off-alignment, or hits something harder than the fist bones (for example, the top of the head), you can easily find yourself defending one-handed, a sub-optimal situation, to say the least.
In taiji there are strikes with the front, thumb/index finger (called the “eye” of the fist), little finger (called a “hammer fist” by some), and backhand sides of a clenched fist. For barehanded combat, however, an open hand strike is both safer and can generate more force. The pressure of any force is a function of the contact area. Given the same mass and acceleration, the smaller the striking area the greater the pressure exerted. For these reasons, many of the strikes of taiji are open-handed, and include the side or “blade” of the hand, lower palm, finger, knuckles, and even the wrist in very short distance striking.
Elbows and Knees
Elbow and knee strikes are practiced throughout the forms. Master Chun Man Sit of Kansas City is a taiji instructor and practitioner of the Six Elbows style of gongfu. I once heard him say in informal conversation that his teacher said that Six Elbows style was similar to Chen taiji.
Taiji specializes in very short-range forces (kao, or “bump”) expressed through the shoulder, chest, and hips. These forces can be expressed in different directions. For example, a shoulder strike is not limited to an upwards force generated from the legs, as is sometimes seen from the clinch position in MMA, but is also a forward or sideways directed force generated from the core. Contact at the upper thigh is used in grappling to unbalance an opponent. Again, the ideal is that any part of the body can be used to express force or, as they say, “the whole body is hands.”
The various taiji forms include many low (leg), middle (groin/torso), and high (head) kicks. Of course while kicking you have only one foot on the ground, and are therefore vulnerable to counter attack. In taiji the emphasis is primarily on relatively quicker low kicks in which balance/posture is not comprised (or minimally so), and in most kicks the body is maintained in an upright (as opposed to leaning) position. As with all taiji movement, the power of the kicks originates in the core.
There is one kick repeated several times in the Chen taiji forms that I have not seen in combat sport before, a hook kick to the side of the opponent’s knee with the sole of the foot. Since the force comes from the side, this is the “foot equivalent” of a hook punch in boxing. As the knee is kept bent, this is a closer-range technique than kicks executed with a straight leg. Again, this is a low kick and executed with a straight and centered body, and when executed from the core can be quite powerful.
Foot sweeping motions are also trained in the forms and are in some instances mechanically similar to low kicks but with the foot sweeping the ground as the movement is executed.
Targeting, too, is an important component of striking. Relative to gloved combat sports, perhaps, more emphasis is placed on body strikes in taiji. We can briefly yet fairly completely summarize that, in any self-defense situation, the targets that are illegal to strike in combat sport (e.g. back of the head, eyes, groin) are primary targets in self-defense – for precisely the reason that they are illegal in sports. Another primary target is the limbs – both to weaken the opponent’s ability to attack, and because an extended limb is often the closest target and can be struck while maintaining a safe(r) distance. Weapons training especially focuses on striking or cutting an extended arm or leg from a safe(r) distance.
There is a tradition in many martial arts of targeting pressure points. Learning the effects of pressure points on the body can be edifying from both a health and martial perspective (it’s the same thing, right? – healing and harming, yin and yang, equal but opposite energies of the same reality . . .). Grandmaster Feng said that any serious student should also study traditional Chinese medicine. But it is not easy to hit any moving, resisting target, even less so one that is striking back at you, and even still less so to limit yourself to a small, precise, target area. In an unexpected and fast-moving self-defense situation, there is no time for thought – there is only immediate, habitual response instilled from years of training. The taiji philosophy is to “give up yourself and follow the opponent” – to take what you are given – as opposed to forcing your will and stubbornly fixing your mind on any specific target – whether it be head/chin, pressure point, or any other hunting. Enough said.
Stance and Footwork
Stance and footwork are emphasized in all taiji training. The objective of taiji footwork is to move in every direction with balance and control – to never be off-stance or loose rooting, and to always be prepared for offense or defense. Adjusting to advantageous angles for attack/defense is another primary purpose of much of the form footwork and supplementary agility drills.
In Chen style, the basic on-guard stance is called santi. This is a staggered stance, with moderate width and length between the feet for stability front to back and side to side. Knees are always slightly bent, the body is straight and balanced, the waist is approximately 45 degrees from the front and the attention/hands are straight ahead with the lead arm higher and rear arm lower, and with the weight distribution 40% front and 60% rear. It is essentially the same position as a Western boxer’s stance, with two exceptions: 1) boxers typically carry more weight in the forward leg, and 2) boxers hold the hands in, with the gloves protecting the head/chin and elbows protecting the body. The reason that the front leg is lighter in santi is so that you can more quickly lift/move it to either defend/avoid a leg attack or to kick with the front leg, and because the 40 front/60 back weight distribution affords greater agility in moving either forward and back or side to side, it is an optimal position from which to attack or defend. The arms are held out further than a typical boxer’s stance and are closer to the opponent for attack and defense. The hands are also held with fingers open and pointing at the opponent. Because of the ease and effectiveness of eye pokes, it is illegal in MMA to even point open fingers at an opponent – the stance alone is enough to stop the fight, as experienced fighters are knowingly wary of moving into an eye poke. Daniel Cormier, the light-heavyweight MMA champion, recently joked while commentating an MMA event that, if eye pokes were legal, they “would all just be out there trying to poke each other.” 🙂
Grappling is an essential component of fighting, evidenced today by the fact that nearly all of the MMA champions have some background in competitive wrestling; indeed many consider wrestling to be the essential foundation of MMA. Those few that may not have a competitive wrestling background are still very highly skilled in grappling and take-down defense. The simple and unavoidable fact is that most fights involve grappling.
Combining grappling and striking is certainly not unique to taiji. The ancient Olympic sport of pankration was a combination of grappling and striking (with biting and eye gouging the only actions prohibited by the rules). Even London prizefighting was originally a combination of wrestling and boxing. It was not until the advent of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules, first published in 1867, that the sport of boxing strictly limited itself to fists only, with the original rules stating “no wrestling or hugging allowed.”
Though there are long range strikes in the taiji forms (including even jumping towards the opponent to cover ground while striking), taiji training specializes in closer, grappling range combat – in unbalancing an opponent to either take them down or to strike from close range. The internal power of taiji specializes in powerful, explosive movement, expressed even through very short ranges, in any direction, and with any part of the body. In taiji contact with the opponent is preferred, and the grappling skills of adhering and “listening” to the opponent are used to defend from strikes or take-downs.
Contact with the opponent is used to exert constant force, in an attempt to make the opponent feel as though they must always defend and to not allow time for them to set for an attack. As taiji is yin and yang, there is also the principle of not meeting force with force – of yielding to an attack, while counter-attacking a more vulnerable area. The ideal of this strategy and skill is the meaning of the classical saying:
advancing, the opponent finds the distance seems incredibly long;
retreating, the distance seems exasperatingly short.
While grappling and take-down defense are central to the art there is, however, no ground fighting in taiji, and though I wasn’t around as taiji developed it is quite easy to hypothesize why. Being taken to the ground can be very dangerous in self-defense for many reasons. First, any weight disadvantage is magnified on the ground. Even a 5 or 10 pound weight difference is quite large in wrestling, and lower and middle-weight high school weight classes are established at 5 -10 lb. intervals. A great lighter-weight wrestler cannot compete with even a relatively unskilled wrestler of considerably more weight – it is simply too difficult to carry the opponent’s bodyweight. A highly skilled, lightweight taiji player can, however, employ taiji skill and strategy to engage a much larger person standing (more about that below). Second, when engaged on the ground all of your limbs are occupied. Even the greatest grapplers are defenseless against a second standing opponent, and in a self-defense situation there may well be one or more of the opponent’s cohorts to worry about. Third, time is of the essence. A dear friend of mine was on the SEAL teams for 21 years. I remember talking to him about hand-to-hand combat training in the early 90’s. He was telling me about this new Jiu Jitsu submission grappling that a trainer had come to Coronado to demonstrate. They all had great fun rolling around on the ground, but he said that they rejected the practicality of the strategy simply because it took too long – they have seconds, not minutes, to finish the combat and move on with the job. (This may have changed since the early 90’s, I don’t know). Certainly one cannot afford to be rolling on the ground in a battlefield situation, a consideration when taiji was developed. And speaking of rolling around on the ground, a fourth and obvious consideration is that there are many surfaces that are not at all conducive to rolling on – the world is not made up of mats. Our Saturday morning taiji class meets under a chestnut tree. Nobody, regardless of grappling skill, would want to roll there – the ground is covered with the needle-sharp porcupine-like hulls of the nuts. Fifth, the ground submission game everyone knows today came from Judo, which is a modern martial created after the Meiji Restoration and decline of the samurai culture and was originally intended to be practiced as sport. If biting, eye gouging, single digit manipulation etc. were allowed it would be a very different thing indeed. Sixth and last, and as explained above and in previous articles, a standing, upright, and rooted posture is a requisite to using the internal power of taiji and other internal arts; the advantage for those who have this power is lost on the ground.
In no way do I wish to denigrate the ground game. As an ex-wrestler myself I loved it. (Well, not the weight-cutting part. I can think of few things in my life that I wouldn’t do all over again, but cutting weight is at the top of that short list). It is great training for (the younger) body and mind, and I would argue that knowing how to get up off of the ground if one is taken there is of considerable importance in self-defense. If you have a combat sport fight planned in the near future, you had at least best not be a fish out of water on the ground. Here I only attempt to hypothesize why it is not a desired strategy in traditional taiji.
The bridge from form to fighting is practiced in push-hands (a misnomer, certainly, as the training involves the entire body). A discussion of the methods and purpose of push-hands will require its own article series. Here I will just say that push-hands includes drills (pre-determined patterns of movement), and freestyle pushing to gain experience with an unwilling opponent. Significantly, it does not include striking your partner in ways that can harm them (or you). The currently evolving Western understanding of the dangers of taking repeated blows in sparring training is a reinvention of the wheel – the wisdom of push-hands evolved through centuries of martial tradition and understanding. More about this in Part II of this article.
Mike Tyson famously said that “everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” An equally literal and metaphorical statement, if there ever was one. To know how to take a sudden blow it is necessary to experience it. There are drills in traditional taiji training called pai da (literally slap/hitting) that are designed to experience and train striking and being struck. Still, the objective is not to take or deliver potentially injurious blows, but to nurture oneself, and one’s partner, and to gradually and safely train the body and mind.
Some forms, such as the jumping movements, agility, and weapons training, are or can be moderate to intense aerobic exercises. Practicing the forms at a faster pace, especially with the jumping movements in Cannon Fist (the second routine of the Chen style), or waving a heavy broadsword around a bit, will get the heart rate up quickly.
For the taiji player, however, endurance is a function of efficiency. Taiji training is not intended to teach one to suffer extended physical exertion, but to learn efficiency of movement and force exertion. Movies, legends, and plain-ole wishful thinking aside, a lighter, skilled taiji player cannot easily dispense a stronger, heavier, and/or athletic opponent. But they can engage that opponent and defend/maintain their balance while expending a fraction of the energy. The larger, athletic person will tire much more quickly, at which point the difference in physical size and strength will matter much less. I remember my teacher (who weighed about 165 lbs.) playing freestyle push-hands with a former collegiate shot-putter (approximately 230 lbs.). Initially it was a draw. Not too long into it, though, the shot putter was tired and my teacher could move him anywhere he wanted.
Why was this? Simple – if you read Part I of our article on internal power, you know that in taiji “power is released from the spine,” and that it is the core musculature that flexes and stabilizes the spine. Core musculature is composed mostly of Type I muscle fibers, which have much greater endurance that the easily exhausted fast-twitch Type II muscles that everyone uses instinctively in grappling. That the core musculature is not easily tired makes sense, since it is always working to hold your body stable and upright in gravity. (Superman is strong because his planet had a higher gravitational force than Earth, right?). After the gong of internal power, my teacher’s considerable experience and technique in close range grappling was certainly a factor. But, to close this article as we began, without the gong of training it would not have been nearly enough to handle the larger, younger, athletic opponent.
In Part II of this post I’ll share my experience in other combat sports, and how that helped me to understand an even more important component of self-defense trained in taiji.
6 thoughts on “Self-defense theory and practices of taiji – Part I: physical strategies and skills”
excellent information and always just when I am ready to hear it. I especially am grateful for the reminder of that it is not how many different techniques we can learn, but how many time do we practice the one. looking forward to getting back into the class again next week.
Excellent article, as usual, Scott. Another reminder of the value of hard work and lots of it. I look forward to part II
Interesting presentation. I’ve just begun Tai Chi practice. This blog sounds supportive. Thanks
Thank you for preparing these interesting articles. The images you share and the comparisons help to focus the way I practice. Your point about how long jiu jitsu ground grappling can take resonates, too. Watching my son and others grappling on the mat in jiu jitsu was amazing to me. They seemed to move so little yet they were struggling so hard to get control of an opponent. I can well imagine in a real combat situation that jiu jitsu in an alley littered with broken glass, for example, could be punishing. A related point: how aware the masters were to consider nurturing as part of the purpose of push-hands exercises. Thank you for helping me to understand that aspect of the training.
Nothing is perfect. In Part II I will talk about the only self-defense “technique” guaranteed to “work.” 🙂
Thank you for sharing your most excellent thinking in such a clear and concise manner. This is some of the best writing i’ve bumped into on taiji theory and practice. I deeply appreciate your efforts in sharing this beautiful art.