Martial Development

Martial arts for personal development

Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Trademark

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All characters and events in this post–even those based on real people–are entirely fictional. The following page contains coarse language and reasoning and due to its content, it should not be read by anyone.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been trolled! Hoaxed! Buffaloed and bewildered!

It doesn’t happen often these days. I’ve been discussing martial arts on the Internet since before Web 1.0. I’ve seen most of the pranks, and yes, pulled a few myself.

What is the best style of martial arts for fit, beautiful women with large breasts? Please let me know, so I can sign up for it. Serious replies only.

So when someone dangles a truly ridiculous assertion in front of my nose, I usually have the good sense to ignore it these days. Usually. But a few days ago, one fairly experienced martial artist and provocateur knocked me for a loop.

We were chatting about the relevance of Taijiquan and push hands to combat. I said that I considered it inappropriate to keep one’s arms below the chest for the duration of push hands practice, regardless of whether one is interested in the martial applications of the art. It wasn’t intended as a criticism, really–just a quick observation in the midst of a wide-ranging discussion. But he eventually replied,

All this about arm position and circling is irrelevant, because in Push Hands, as long as you can touch your partner anywhere on their body, you can pop ‘em (as long as they have just a bit more unconscious tension than you do). That’s it. Doesn’t much matter where you touch them as deep unconscious tension (unlike superficial and/or conscious tension) is not localized it is a diffuse property–like a dye that is wicked through a material rather than a local stain. So, hands up or down shouldn’t matter much in the deep sense except that by the standards of physicalized Push Hands which the Guest seems to advocate it should simply make it that much easier to pop me up and out.

In retrospect, I should have addressed the issue in terms a software engineer can understand–or should understand at risk of gross incompetence.

Any newly developed algorithm must be presumed broken until tests prove otherwise. A truly comprehensive verification is often infeasible, as it would require billions or trillions of individual test executions; in those cases, it is essential to test all the boundary conditions at least.

For example, if a particular algorithm was meant to compare two numbers, it should be tested with the largest possible numbers, and the smallest possible numbers, and a few random numbers, and with one or both numbers missing.

It would however be totally unacceptable to explore a small and contiguous fraction of the problem space during the testing phase, and to declare on the basis of these test results alone that the algorithm is fundamentally sound.

Learning Taijiquan is a process, and the desired “end result” is itself a process–a highly refined algorithm. However we choose to define the problem space of pushing hands, it certainly cannot ignore the normal range of human motion. And for the arms, that range is a large sphere centered at the shoulder. The edges of that sphere are higher than the top of the head, and lower than the hips.

So, even if we study push hands strictly for the sake of achieving relaxation, this full sphere is the arena in which we have to show and prove, or concede our defeat. We cannot retreat to a shadowy corner, and wait for some tension to come to us, surmising our skill and benevolence in the meantime. No, we must step forth and establish our dominion over the entire venue, left and right, high and low, forward and back, hither and yon!

Kung Fu Cat
Fig. A – Recommended fighting stance for a tabby cat

Hoodwinked!

Maybe that should have been my reply. But instead, I simply noted that habitually dropping the hands cannot be justified by either current standards (as exemplified by the heads of the five major Taijiquan lineages), or by reference to the classic written works in which the art was originally defined.

The classics state that when practicing, one should sink the qi. Collapsing the frame is a cheap substitute, and hardly any better than compulsively flexing the quads in my humble opinion. But, you know, whatever. It’s no great harm to me if someone holds a unique set of ideals for their personal practice. Unique, misguided, bizarre and unprecedented… it’s all good, or at least good enough for someone else, am I right?

In retrospect, I should have realized, at the point when I started explaining the obvious as if it were obscure, that I was being played for sport. But that fact didn’t penetrate my thick skull, until after he countered again:

Push hands practice is about developing the ability to gently and easily yet powerfully, energetically, exploit perceived tension in a partner. (And of course it has nothing to do with structure, mechanics, anatomy or anything physical like that.)

I touch them enough to detect their tension. That’s all that’s required…but generally I do try to have fun and play nice, and except for one case…apart from that I believe that in Push Hands practice (unlike sparring) I have never injured anybody whatsoever. I stand by that record.

I’ve seen the bruises, cuts and scratches on this fellow’s gentler playmates, with my own eyes. The first time it happened in my presence, I dismissed it as one of the unfortunate accidents that will naturally occur during martial arts practice. After I saw it happen a few more times, I came to understand that this guy likes to play rough, and then to blame his toys for damaging themselves. Highly amusing!

But now, to hear him assert that push hands is totally and completely unrelated to combat? That it is really all about detecting tension? When I read that, I could not contain my laughter!!

Look, I’ve attended a dozen different seminars with bona-fide Taiji masters, all of whom kept their hands up, and all of whom were able to diagnose their partners’ tensions without provoking enmity. (Quite the contrary: a demonstration of flawless technique usually seems to inspire joy and gratitude!)

I have been on a dozen meditation retreats in the USA and overseas, and never once seen anyone get poked in the eye!

And now, apparently, I’ve been trolled by one of the best!

Bamboozled!

When this fellow said that he is not obliged to reconcile his practices and views with the contents of the Taiji classics–because their authors might have been wrong, and their language is open to interpretation anyway–I realized that he couldn’t possibly be serious. Anyone who hangs a shingle to advertise themselves as a Taijiquan instructor, is trading on the reputation of previous generations.

It doesn’t even matter whether the classics are right or wrong. You cannot simply ignore them, for the same reason that a Christian pastor cannot ignore the contents of the Bible. For the same reason you cannot sell gallons of bathtub “Coca-Cola” on the street, and then respond to the inevitable complaints by declaring that your version tastes even better.

One can always dispute the correct definition of the art, sure, but one cannot dismiss the significance of the standard definition outright, while at the same time relying upon it to identify or promote one’s own method. That is three different kinds of wrong.

When this fellow compared the practitioners of traditional moving-step tuishou to a caveman struggling with a sniper rifle–too stupid to employ their precision tool correctly, and opting to use it as a club instead–I knew he was having a laugh. There is just no other possibility, considering that his own preferred method suspiciously resembles the standard American competitive fixed form, which is roundly mocked for its decadence.

Eliminating tension is necessary but insufficient. Yes, it is immensely difficult to forgo any and all physical, intellectual and emotional tension while at the same time stepping around the floor in an agile and unscripted fashion, maintaining contact with an unpredictable partner, continuously circling with both arms, and neutralizing that partner’s attempts to apply the eight energies while searching for opportunities to apply their own. But if we intend to play the game of Taijiquan pushing hands (as opposed to making up a new game with the same name), this is the standard.

The exercise I have just described is fully congruent with the classics; it demands relaxation; it is good exercise; it is fun; and yes, it is relevant to combat.

Mystified!

Then he said that people who want to learn how to protect their head should give up on Taijiquan, and take up boxing instead.

OMFG LULZ. The good news is, I’m finally in on the joke.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between the characters in this story and the blogger known as Tabby Cat is strictly coincidental.

Categories: Fighting and Self-Defense · Philosophy · Tai Chi

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 chris // Sep 8, 2010

    The context of my original comment, was a discussion about the different people we both have interacted with, inside and outside of Seattle. The gentleman remarked that he often seems to bring out the worst in his practice partners.

    A fact that he attributes to his cultivation of deep relaxation, and others’ relative inability to perceive their own unconscious tension. Whereas everyone else–yes, everyone else, more or less–deals only with “conscious and structural” tension, a topic that does not sustain his personal interest.

    That is a supremely convenient explanation.

    They are upset by their own tension, of course! Not the fact that they were baited-and-switched with a promise of “push hands” interaction, only to find out that their partner operates under a completely different set of rules. But these rules are better, deeper, so the gentleman does them a favor.

    They just can’t help themselves–like any other animal, he suggests, they will get angry when a stranger starts poking their private areas with a sharp stick. (Don’t ask why the man wields the stick; it must be science, or something.)

    The esteemed gentleman insists that standards of position and movement do not matter–to him, and should not matter to others who understand the true purpose of the exercise. They do not matter, and yet he carefully adheres to his own irregular standard–which is doubly ironic in the context of Taijiquan, where the primary accepted standard is essentially to respect the opponent’s standard!

    At least that is what the classics said: follow, bend and extend; entice, unite, and throw them out. And by all accounts, that is what Yang Chengfu and his ancestors actually did, in theory and practice…and what serious teachers and students are trying to do today, at varying levels of success. But none of that is important, to the distinguished gentleman. It’s all too shallow.

    Maybe someday, the respected gentleman opines, Zhang Sanfeng and the rest of us will understand the true meaning of Tai Chi. We can only hope. Until then, may his sage words continue to guide us forward.

  • 2 Mike // Sep 9, 2010

    DAAAAAAAAAH!

    My brain is hemorrhaging!

  • 3 Mike // Sep 9, 2010

    If anyone was (like me) foolhardy enough to read some of Tabbycat’s blog, I’d like to recommend pullupachair.wordpress.com as an antidote. No, I’m not in any way affiliated with it, it’s just a good read.

  • 4 chris // Sep 11, 2010

    I would rate him above most other Taiji instructors in Seattle…just not above reproach. :D

  • 5 Mike // Sep 15, 2010

    I suppose I’ve just been spoiled by my teachers, then. ^_^

    Still though, I find his bit about boxing to be rather vexing. Personally, I think his teacher (if he has one) should give him some zhan zhuang to mellow him out a little.

  • 6 chris // Sep 15, 2010

    “More information than you require” on the topic of push hands can now be found at:

    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/wider-please-as-i-cant-see-your-tonsils-1.html
    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/today-the-world-tomorrow-push-hands.html
    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/get-me-a-hose-over-here.html
    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/word.html
    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/be-my-blanket.html
    http://cattanga.typepad.com/tabby_cat_gamespace/2010/09/the-drill-formerly-known-as-push-hands.html
    http://northstarmartialarts.com/blog1/?p=1783

  • 7 Brent Emery Pieczynski // Feb 15, 2012

    Deception is interesting with defining of terms determining if an argument based on those terms is valid or not. Tai Chi Chuan is not Tai Chi Kung and arguments are based on word games. If looking at non-forceful action with work divided by the time required for the work being the definition of force. A pushing can if taking less time be highly forceful with learning of correct alignments at slower speeds converting into damaging impact at higher speeds. People proclaiming push hands to have no combat applications have not kept themselves from flying off high places or into traffic, from murderous self-righteous attackers.

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