Pushing Hands, a Marshal Art Element of Tai Chi Chuan


In Tai Chi Chuan you are not meant to use force against force. This is a lot easier said than done. Once a pressured attack is incoming or you have entered a grapple things start to get a bit sticky. The argument is that you should have attained such a high skill that you can anticipate the attack. As the Tai Chi classics say, 'When he moves, I move. If he moves faster, I move first'.


If an attack does beat this wondrous instinctive response or pre-emptive response then an opponent may have grabbed hold of you. As they touch you, you should be able feel (hear through feeling their intention) to neutralise this attack and turn into emptiness or redirect. That’s great once you mastered this skill but it is a long road of training, and I for one am not there yet. So what helps us develop that ability?


There are many things you can do if you wish to understand fighting, but the simplest is to fight or spar. If you want to be a carpenter you don’t work with metal to hone your skills you work with wood. You need to learn the applications of the Form, not the Form and then the applications. Remember, you want to learn fighting not Forms. The Form teaches you to remember a sequence or a particular posture so you can remember its structure and position. This will give you a good understanding anatomically of postural alignment from the outset by training in the basics or foundations. No matter how the Form moves on or what theory or new techniques are added, the founding principles never change. I drill on the basics and return to them often when something is not working. They are never wrong, only my interpretation is.


Pushing hands was invited so that we didn’t have to get injured when sparring. Rubbish! It's been softened to such an extent that it now looks harmless, but this was not its original intent. Nor was its intent to beat the crap out of each other. We all need to go to work the next day and this isn’t Fight Club. Pushing Hands has its place as a training or sensitivity tool, but there should still be intent and structure, not a floppy yielding practice. When we spar or push hands with an opponent ego very often gets in the way. It is counter intuitive to not want to win a battle. However, if you are to progress then you must at least be able to put your ego to one side. All of the texts, The Tai Chi Treatise, Tao Che Ching, I Ching, The Art of War, etc talk of this and they are not wrong. I say this not because I blindly follow them, rather through my experience I find them extremely accurate.


'Invest in loss' is one piece of advice they give. This often gets wrongly interpreted as does the text in the Bible ,'and the weak shall inherit the earth'. I quote them side by side because they have a similar meaning when quoted correctly. Invest in loss does not mean give up or give in, it means the same as, 'connect and follow' and 'when my opponent moves, I move'. The hardest fighter to beat is the fighter who has accepted defeat or death as the worst that things can happen. Or put another way, he has invested in loss. I remember the actor/fighter Jean Claude Van Damme once paraphrasing, “fear the man who has nothing to lose”. They mean the same thing, find humility, accept where you are, put aside ego, accept the worst that can happen and then you will be free of a pre determined outcome. Your mind is open to all possibilities that can occur rather than the pre programmed ones you set out in your head. Once you reach this point you will fight, spar, push hands, completely differently. This isn't easy to attain and like anything worth knowing it can take a long time. Hence this goes hand in hand with Wu Te, or martial virtue, so allow it to teach you patience.


And so the Bible quote, 'and the meek shall inherit the earth', the meek are the mild mannered, the humble, those who have learned to live along side rather than against. Those who have invested in loss.


Where does this take us to? Well it is just to drive home the point about pushing hands not being the be and end all. 80% of instructors I have met down the years teach Tai Chi Chuan as a form of health. Great, I have no problem with this. But they then go on to say that it has these awesome hidden depths, secrets or powers and once you have been training for a certain amount of time your Chi will condense into Jing and you will be all powerful. An incredible lack of understanding. Some of these teachers know a little single push hands, perhaps Grasp the Birds Tail and possible applications, but that is it and that is NOT fighting.


When you have run through your styles push hands drills (notice DRILLS, not fighting) the next stage is pushing hands sparring, applying the applications from the drills randomly. From here it is free sparring where you apply the techniques in much the same way as any other martial arts system. The you can mix with other styles to learn how they fight to utilise what you know. MMA is a great arena for this as the name suggests Mixed Martial Arts. It will come back to those teachers who say that they do not want to take this into a fighting arena. No problem, but go back to teaching Tai Chi as Tai Chi not Tai Chi Chuan.


After 24 years I feel like I have still only scratched the surface but know there is more to find out. It isn’t in the pantheon of condensing Chi, mystical powers or hidden secrets but in hard training and application. There is a reason Tai Chi is a form of Kung Fu... Kung Fu roughly translated means hard work.


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