The Best of Tui Shou, The Worst of Tui Shou

In theory, the Seattle Martial Arts Club has no teacher. Members meet to practice martial arts drills and exercises of their choosing, under their own direction, for the benefit of all involved.

In practice, no two practice partners are ever equal, and the partner in control usually sets the pace and the tone of a practice session—if not intentionally, then haphazardly.

As I am often the senior Taiji practitioner in attendance—or in other words, the unpaid and under-appreciated Taiji instructor in attendance—it seems appropriate to briefly discuss my personal guidelines and preferences for tui shou (pushing hands) practice.

Tai Chi Form, Push Hands and Sparring'

Tui shou is about using what you have to get what you want. What you have, as a dedicated practitioner of Taiji solo forms, is a highly cultivated set of physical abilities (e.g. the ability to rotate the torso while standing balanced on one leg). What you want, as a martial artist, is the capacity to win fights, or at least avoid losing them.

The practice of tui shou is the application of Taiji body skills against light or moderate resistance. These skills, as encoded in the forms, include striking an opponent, throwing them to the ground, and dislocating or breaking their joints. From a tight self-defense perspective, Tai Chi’s famous relaxation and sensitivity benefits are only the means to these ends.

Ideally, tui shou provides an opportunity to explore the full Taiji suite of attacks and defenses, principles and techniques. In practical terms, this means moving in and out of clinch range while maintaining subtle contact, and seizing opportunities to attack while denying those same opportunities to a practice partner. Thereby, it presents a manageable subset of the real problems that define a real fight.

The worst tui shou, in contrast, offers elegant solutions to imaginary problems (e.g. wrist grabs), and fails to bridge the gap between self-cultivation and combat. Illustrating the point, see this video by Sifu Wei-Chung Lin of the Chinese Taoist Martial Arts Association.

To be perfectly clear, this video does not depict its creator’s attempt at Taiji pushing hands practice. I will critique as if it did, only because I have met a few people who do like to perform tui shou in exactly this manner. The demonstration shows how a fixed step push hands exercise can simultaneously be impressive and ridiculous.

The critical issue is not whether any kind of skill is employed, or even whether that skill produces the desired outcome, in this limited engagement, of uprooting the opponent. Winning is not enough; it is necessary but insufficient. The critical issue is how that skill is related to the solo Taiji form on one hand, and to free fighting on the other. Without that synergy, push hands is just a baroque and Orientalist strain of MMA.

The artificial restrictions of fixed step push hands are beneficial–when we recognize them as such, and consequently avoid reliance on strategies and techniques that would fail outside of these restrictions.

Push hands should not be regarded as a separate course, for that minority of Taiji students who enjoy fighting. On the contrary, tuishou provides a vantage point, from where we learn whether our solo form practice is actually correct. Afterwards, our success or failure in sparring will show whether our conception and execution of tuishou is correct. In my opinion, this is the most, and the least anyone should expect from the practice.

15 comments on “The Best of Tui Shou, The Worst of Tui Shou”

  1. While I do not advocate form practice in the manner that has become conventional, I do think this article is a great read.

  2. Hi,
    In service of helping folks understand the connection between form practice, Tui Shou (Push Hands), self defense and harmonious living, I wanted to let you know about a potential resource for you and your students, The Push Hands Workbook, recently made available on Amazon.com. It is also available at my website (http://www.nando-r.com/MN.asp?pg=pro200) with spiral binding so that it can lay flat. The book includes 50 two person patterns clearly explained with more that 180 photos.

    From the back of the book…

    This workbook is a step-by-step guide to push hands (t’ui shou). These T’ai Chi Chuan two person exercises are the foundation of the self-defense skills of the art. Written for the beginner through advanced practitioner and teachers, this book presents fun exercises and games that train sensitivity and responsiveness. Specific component skills of push hands (eg. sticking, listening, neutralizing, pushing, rooting etc) are systematically developed through sequential drills presented in the workbook. Important topics that are often poorly addressed in the English literature are explained in clear language and paired with activities.

    “As a Grand Champion Push Hands competitor and instructor. I appreciate the format of the book and its usefulness. A book for the beginning student, advanced practitioner, or instructor. Nando clearly leads the reader step by step into the complex world of Push Hands in a fun and non-threatening way.” – Michael Gilman, Director of Gilman Studio, Port Townsend WA, author of 108 Insights into T’ai Chi Chuan and 101 Reflections on T’ai Chi Chuan.

    A little about me: Nando Raynolds has practiced Yang style T’ai Chi since 1978 and taught since 1988. He is a licensed psychotherapist and has studied bodywork, yoga and the martial arts. He holds his 3rd dan in Daimon Ryu Kenpo Karate. He wrote the instructional section for The Everything Book of T’ai Chi and Qigong and is a frequent contributor of articles to the Tai Chi Magazine.

    Please pass the word!
    Thanks,
    Nando

  3. Interesting. Can you explain to me what the point is in competition push hands?

    I know the reasons for push hands, but it is not competitive and i am trying to understand competitive push hands more.

    I know the rules of several push hands tournament type groups so do not need any help there.

    Does explaining things in a book really help? My experience is that there is no replacement for hands on transmission , that no book can provide the proper physical transmission and no amount of practice will replace or allow someone to discover the physical transmission. For this reason I see books and videos only as valid in addition to real transmissions, which are physical.
    Of course this is my opinion and I could be wrong.

  4. That’s a great post. Taiji push hands is a bridge between form and sparring, and an avenue to train skills without the pressure of someone trying to knock your block off.

    Also push-hands is a cooperative drill, whereas sparring is a non-cooperative endeavour, so you can develop skills and reactions in an environment that allows you to explore which is much much more conducive to learning than having to guard all the time.

  5. Yeah,
    Watching that video nearly turned my stomach. I got some relief though when the big balding guy leaning in, nearly beats him several times (starting around 2:30).
    But it’s a perfect example of what not to do! So what a wonderful learning experience!
    Don’t defend the middle, don’t root, don’t lean, do use your entire arm for contact, do keep turning, don’t use a fingertip jab to “win” after you have clearly lost, and for heavens sakes don’t put your palms on your opponents forearms.

  6. @ Josh: “Can you explain to me what the point is in competition push hands?”

    Having fun?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂

    Wim

  7. Ok if it is for fun I get it.
    I like fun.

    Sometimes I do push hands for 2 hours at a time with my friend.
    It is not often that competitive, but I have been punched in the throat by him and I have hit him in the temple too, never on purpose and we are both fine, but it can get very intense. We enjoy it and it is a good combination of competition and cooperation. Since we also practice different styles it allows us to practice using our own style against another in semi controlled setting.

    I have a long way to go before I am done developing my skill though.

  8. I see what you’re saying about clinching, range, etc., but I failed to see the source of the complaints with the video, albeit I only watched 3 minutes. It looked like he usually took yang energy in, absorbing with yin and had it come back out as yang. Applications might not be in this practice exercise that they’re doing at the time but the 10,000 things of which those are a part come out of the fundamental yin/yang change anyway. It’s more important to get this changing down under some constraints first. Sort of like doing positional sparring in bjj without the qin na. Can’t do the basics, it is pointless to talk about the stuff beyond that. Even getting beyond, I’d still want to work mainly the basics.

  9. another neijia,
    My complaint is not with this video specifically, but with “push hands” when practiced in the manner shown in the video. Scott has already identified some problems from that perspective, and I agree with most of his observations.

    I’ll ask you to look at the students, rather than the teacher. Assume they are doing, more or less, what they have been taught. Now, what do you think they are trying to accomplish, and if they succeeded, would you call it good Taiji?

    Have you ever seen a solo Taiji form executed as carelessly and desperately as this rou shou? If not, why not?

    IMHO, if a Taiji student approaches conflict with the attitude embodied here–nevermind if they call it “harmony of yin and yang”–they will have no advantage whatsoever.

  10. Ah I think I’m following you now. I think I was assuming those students had barely just started so when you say:

    “Assume they are doing, more or less, what they have been taught.”

    I guess I assumed they must have been taught very little so wasn’t quite following you. Maybe getting pushed around by the instructor a lot is instructive in the sense that they will wonder why that is, then start practicing whole body coordination more. I am thinking they need a little more work first and this push hands exercise, though not even moving step, etc., is just too advanced for them at the time of filming.

    “Now, what do you think they are trying to accomplish, and if they succeeded, would you call it good Taiji?”

    Ha, no, they can’t get there from here. I’d say go back a step or two. Come back to free push hands later. If I were in their shoes, I’d hope someone could convince me to do more basic training first.

  11. Interesting how the three aspects mentioned were form, push hands and sparring.

    I’d add two more things to this list at the least, 1st would be 2 person drills, second would be energy issuing practice.

    Also for me sparring would be changed to freeplay, just to move away from the idea of competitiveness.

    Also in the subgroup of form I would put basic moves, form gives you a context for them but doesn’t work them out the way a student needs to. For example take single whip, this is done with the left hand in the form but in practice you need to do with with both hands several thousand times to get it down right.

    I don’t even think people should do forms until they learn the moves properly, but that is my opinion.

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