Push Hands and Wuwei

The following article has been on my website for several years. I’m publishing it here because over the next week I’ll be integrating my website with this blog and moving my blog URL to northstarmartialarts.com. Enjoy.

There are innumerable different techniques used to teach the two person T'ai chi practice known as push-hands. This essay explores what the fruition of any push-hands practice method should be, so that when students experience a particular method coming to fruition they will be able to distinguish the method from the fruition itself. It is common for people to practice a method religiously and miss out on the results the method was originally developed to induce.

The Daode jing is a classical Chinese text said to be authored by Laozi. This text is a foundation text of religious Daoism. Two terms which summarize the most essential thrusts of the Daode jing are wuwei and ziran1 . The T'ai chi chuan practice known as push-hands (tui shou) appears to be a natural expression or embodiment of these two important concepts.

The first one, wuwei, means non-aggression or non-action. It is doing without doing. "...Wuwei--literally (means), water does not purposely "do" anything, and yet the environment thrives because of its presence."2

Actually wuwei is a concept which includes both action and non-action, aggression and non-aggression. The term itself suggests that we be flexible and adaptable in trying to give it meaning in translation. Perhaps arousal is a simplified way of stating it; arousal without a plan, without a strategy, without technique.

Ziran is the Chinese equivalent of beauty. I say equivalent because it means something different from our 'beauty' but it is the term used to describe inspiring art and great music. Ziran is spontaneity and naturalness. The way the natural world is. It is used to express a feeling of being "in-tune" with our surroundings, a cultivated yet natural sense of freedom.3 It expresses a sense of intrinsic conservation, a thing (event) appropriate to what it is.

Sounding like push-hands yet?

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This may sound funny but push-hands isn't really about pushing.

A teacher of push-hands tries to cultivate a very solid root in his or her students. The essence of a solid root is not sticking to the ground, it is one's relationship to an active partner and the ground. A solid root is one that is ziran, free and spontaneous, able to respond to any situation.

A teacher of push-hands also tries to give his or her students a good frame, a structure with integrity, which does not overextend itself. When students begin push-hands inevitably they are either too rigid or too flimsy. An honest assessment of the natural limits of our range of motion is what is called for here. With time, students become ziran, spontaneous and natural, like bamboo, firmly rooted and yielding.

One of the consequences of practicing T'ai chi chuan is the unfolding of proper (re: natural/uninhibited) alignment and push-hands is a great place to 'test' or experiment with this. Practicing push-hands with someone more experienced than yourself can also be a great training ground for feeling and learning to manifest the eight differentiations of qi used in the form: Peng, liu, ji, an, cai, lieh, zou, and kao.

When a teacher uses push-hands to teach real martial-arts strategies of avoiding an attack, or strategies for uprooting or disorienting a partner, it is to broaden the student's experience. It is to initiate them into a realm of subtle and intimate experiences which are part of being human. Such methods are in a sense tools for learning self-acceptance, but these 'strategies' are ultimately what you don't want to do!

It's like this, if you charge straight into the surf from the beach, the wave may knock you down. With a little practice, and experience with waves, you may get better at keeping your balance in the face of a crashing wave, but this is not the point!--The point is to be like water, to become one with the ocean.

Wuwei means not initiating action. As teachers and students it is perfectly appropriate to initiate action because we are becoming familiar with the qi shape of the practice of push-hands, like learning the acupuncture meridians of the body, in this case, a two person body. We are becoming familiar with the mechanism of qi flow.

"Although the changes are numerous, the principle that pervades them is only one."4

Ziran is the way you are in push-hands, wuwei is what you do.

The best strategy is no strategy, simply staying with the situation at hand. True confidence is no confidence, being content with life's uncertainty.

T'ai chi chuan is called the practice of "four ounces moves a thousand pounds." But what if you meet someone who practices "three ounces moves a thousand pounds?" The T'ai chi classics pose the question: "What is the true nature of inner strength?" Followed by the statement: "When you know this you will be the peerless boxer."

Push-hands is an intimate expression of our true natures. Practice push-hands with people you have an affinity with, push-hands is a very intimate affair. Observing practitioners at the very highest levels, it is possible to tell who 'won' because their partner will be blushing.

Students may find the following story helpful in unraveling what push-hands is really about. However, his story is not exclusively or explicitly about push-hand, and this unraveling process happens over time as the story is internalized.

One day while Xiao yun was staying at a hermitage in the mountains of Taiwan, an old man wandered in who announced he was there to teach him dream practice. The other people in the hermitage seemed uncomfortable around this old man and kept their distance from him. Xiao yun's main teacher consented to let this old man teach him and so for the next six weeks he stayed around to do this.

At some point during his stay the old man began to do things which made Xiao yun very angry. Actually for three days Xiao yun was pushed to the limits of what he could handle. At one point the old man held a knife to Xiao yun's throat for hours, saying if you move I'll kill you. Xiao yun's fury built steadily like that of a ferocious warrior preparing for battle, he began to plan his revenge. Deciding that he would have to kill the old man, he planned to do it as they were walking along one of the steep cliffs that were all around the hermitage. Later as they were walking along the path Xiao yun suddenly hunched down to a low position and struck the old man with his shoulder, skillfully launching him over the edge of the cliff. The only problem was that the old man held on to him and together they fell over a hundred feet to certain doom.

Just before being pushed the old man was talking to Xiao yun about something on another mountain, and as he fell he didn't loose his train of thought. Inexplicably they landed on their feet in some mud. The old man went right on talking as if nothing had happened and pointed out some structures near a distant peak. The anger and aggression which had been building in Xiao yun for the previous three days was completely gone, it just evaporated.

After the old man had left, Xiao yun found himself in an argument with the cook at the hermitage. She said, "That old man wasn't here for six weeks, he was only here for an afternoon! And nobody even knows his name!" Xiao yun suddenly realized he never did get the man's name, and when he asked around others seemed to confirm the shortness of the old man's stay. The vividness of the last six weeks still fresh in his mind he went to see his main teacher who explained that although they had sent for a special dream teacher to come and instruct him, the old man was not the one they had sent for and that he must have somehow interceded in the other one's journey. The old man had seemed keen on teaching Xiao yun and his teacher went along with it.

Xiao yun also went back to look at the place where they had fallen off the cliff. It seemed that for them to have landed where they did, they couldn't have fallen straight down, they would have had to fall slightly back in towards the cliff, around a rocky overhang.

1 Isabelle Robinet, Taoism, Growth of a Religion, p.27. (Stanford University Press, 1997.)

2 Roger Ames, Yuan Dao Tracing Dao to Its Source, with D.C. Lau, p.18, Ballantine Books, 1998.

3 See Jordan Paper, The Spirits are Drunk, S.U.N.Y. Press, 1995

4 Wang Tsung-yueh, "Tai Chi Ch'uan Lun", from The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, the Literary Tradition, by Ben Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe, North Atlantic Books 1985.