Not Your Grandmother's Tai Chi

(Someone out there is probably thinking, "you never met my grandmother."  My apologies to those of you who are the offspring of an unrestrained warrior woman.  Here is an alternate title for you: Pure Fighting.)

Kids have less of a filter, they often say what adults are thinking but are too reserved to say directly.  In a way, the practice of Taijiquan is about trying to be less reserved.  I know that sounds funny; aren't softness and weakness near synonyms for being reserved? But the goal of practicing Taijiquan is to reveal your true nature, if you are by nature reserved, than fine, but I think most people have what Freud called the id, a wild unrestrained, unrefined, spontaneous nature waiting underneath their ego.

But it's wrong to say that we are "trying" to be less reserved, it's more like we are letting go of the need to control, temporarily dropping our social guard, in order to rediscover how our body works.

One of the most popular questions kids ask, particularly about slow circular Taijiquan, is, " Can you use it in a fight?"  I have 100's of posts on this blog talking about Taijiquan as a healing art, a performing art, a pantomime art, a dueling art, a wrestling art, a throwing art, a religious ritual art, a spiritual development art, a game, a form of social engagement, a tool for developing police type threat control skills, a self-defense tool, a way to deepen intimacy with oneself and others, a way of managing stress associated with overwhelming guilt, embarrassment, or fear, a mental relaxation tool, a movement meditation tool, and best of all, a way of revealing our true nature--the way things actually are.

But I would be remiss if I did not occasionally address the Pure Fighting aspects of Taijiquan.  (I believe you can practice in all these ways simultaneously, especially if you set aside a lot of time for it, but it's just as beautiful to choose just one of these ways of practice.  If you don't care about Pure Fighting, that's great!  It is not important.  Really if you want to do something to reduce your chances of ending up in the hospital, wearing reflective clothing while crossing the street is a much better use of your efforts than studying martial arts!  Please skip the rest of this post and plug one of the phrases from the last paragraph into the search box!)

Pure fighting requires discarding restraint.  As an act of necessity it requires being truly wild yet totally committed.  Pure fighting presumes (and this is a huge and difficult presumption to make) that all the moral or psychological restraint one may possess has been discarded.  (Can you tell I'm a big fan of horror movies?)

For Taijiquan to "work" as a pure fighting training system it must be "practiced without pretense" (the first precept of religious Daoism).  I say this because it is very easy to fall into bad habits when practicing with a partner.  Push-hands (tuishou) is the most common two person exercise people use to practice taijiquan.  There is a school of Push-hands which has popularized the expression, "Invest in Loss."  This is absurd, ironic, and also wrong.  They mean that if you practice loosing for a while, you will eventually figure out what your partner is doing and start winning.  This is a fools errand.

To train for pure fighting you must completely discard the notion of winning.  In pure fighting you must be capable of vanquishing multiple threats who are bigger stronger and have longer arms.  In fact, you have to assume that every attack is a potential sacrifice move, meaning the threat is risking everything in order to either, strike you in a vital area, knock you into something hard, get you on the hard ground, or make you vulnerable to one of the other attackers.  Sacrifice moves work, but martial artists don't usually train them because the risk is too high; however, dangerous people can and do use them.

All this while remaining light-hearted, good-natured, and lovable.  All this without becoming possessed by aggression.

The possibility of our art becoming a fantasy is ever present.  For instance, one cliche I hear batted around is that in order to learn fighting you must practice with a non-cooperative partner.  That is a sure way to create pretense.  In order to train for pure fighting your partners must be supremely cooperative.  They must expose all your errors to the light of day.

So now that I've gotten all that out of the way, we can talk about push-hands.  Obviously push-hands can be practiced for one or all of the reasons I listed above in the third paragraph of this post, but I'm talking about push-hands as training for pure fighting.  Of course, I'm only scratching the surface of this subject.

There are an enormous number of push-hands conventions, or rule sets.  Each one trains different things.  If you fail to acknowledge this you will train yourself for a fantasy.  For instance, there is a convention that if your partner moves their foot at all, they have lost.  In the convention, moving your foot is a stand in for being knocked to the ground.  In order to not make this convention a fantasy, you have to sometimes practice it all the way to the ground.  In a pure fighting situation moving your foot doesn't matter very much, as long as you can see where you are moving your foot.  And for this reason, in a Pure Fighting situation, moving forwards is often better than moving backwards.  (With multiple opponents, moving backwards exposes you to being tripped by an opponent on the ground.)

However if you step forward or lean forward without first finding an opening, your partner must show you that you can be struck; usually with an elbow strike, a slap to the head, or a hand on the neck or spine.  In training this doesn't have to injure your opponent, but it must convince them that they have made themselves vulnerable to damage.  Of course, in a Pure Fight, you can still continue to fight with some damage, so be careful not to presume that one strike is enough (but if you know how to chop, a chop to the back of the neck will sever the vertebra).  Similarly, if your opponent over extends, you must show them that you can dislocate their shoulder (cai).  If your opponent leans in, you have to presume they are willing  to sacrifice.  You have to presume that they are willing to take a strike to the head in order to strike you with their head, or wrap their arms around you and break your spine.  A partner leaning in with momentum, like a sumo wrestler, must be struck.  So in Pure Fighting training the better you get, the less you lean.

Tabby Cat actually had the audacity to say Taijiquan doesn't use strikes.  He says it isn't a striking system.  Look Tabby, in Taijiquan we fight using a ball, like a cat.  We don't point strike, or line strike, as Wang Xiangzhai put it, our "intent stays spherical."  This is because allowing our intent to come to a point, a line, an arc, or a ring will leave an opening. But that doesn't mean we don't strike.  Every movement in the Taijiquan form is a potential strike.  Period.  (Jianghu commented on that the same post.)

With multiple opponents, grappling is only used for sudden joint breaks.  You can damage and throw your opponent in less time and with less effort than it takes to seize and throw them.  In a Pure Fight you don't try to get your opponent to submit.  While it is always possible that a Pure Fight could happen in the shower or on the beach, chances are you and your opponents will be wearing strong clothes.  Grabbing or yanking clothing can be very effective, but it is not grappling.  Grappling gives the advantage to the bigger fighter.  Grappling in a multiple person fight leaves you vulnerable.

Now check out this video from the 60's.  They are training for a game, not Pure Fighting.  Watch at the end when the "loser" demonstrates how easy it is to get Stan Israel (the big guy) in a headlock.  Striking the neck would have been even easier.

Now jump ahead 40 years and watch Stan Israel's student Mario Napoli sweep away all the competition at an International Competition in the "birth place" of Taijiquan, Chen Village.

My hat is off to Mario Napoli.  Shirts off too!  A beautiful performance.  "Jiayou" America!  That must have been a load of fun.  But what did we learn?  First of all, the competition doesn't look very good.  Why?  Perhaps the old masters in China are too secretive.  Perhaps the highest levels of internal training never existed in Chen Village.  Perhaps the higher level masters had all left for Shanghai and Beijing by 1920.  It's pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the training in New York has been better and more consistent over the last 40 years than it has been in Chen Village.

I don't blame Napoli for this, obviously Chen Village set the rules.  He played the game and he played it well, but that rule-set doesn't look like push-hands.  It appears to give the advantage to the thicker competitor.  Having long arms and legs is a disadvantage because you aren't allowed to slap, kick, or strike.  It looks a lot like Sumo.  Don't get me wrong, I love Sumo, especially "Skinny Sumo," but nearly everything they do seems like the opposite of what a Pure Fight form of push-hands would train.  If they were to put on Gi's, would they all lose to Judo guys?  How would a couple of college Greco-Roman wrestlers do with this rule-set.  I'm betting pretty good.

Despite my mellow temperament and fun loving, parlor game, deepen your intimacy approach to push-hands.  I've never lost sight of the Pure Fight.  Among my teachers George Xu, particularly, has never let me loose sight of it.  On the other hand, despite the fact that this is a really long post that took me all morning to write, I care a lot more about dancing than I do about push-hands.

I've never been to a push-hands competition (or a Pure Fight for that matter!), but  I wonder if there is a rule-set that would make me happier.  Would disqualifying a competitor for grabbing, or leaning, or taking a step back, or losing their frame make a more interesting game?  That would be giving a whole lot of power to the judges wouldn't it?

I stubbornly believe it is possible to create a push-hands milieu where everyone agrees that the fruition of competition is to set everyone free by revealing our true nature-- through the cultivation of weakness.  Training for Pure Fighting, does not require aggression, it does not require us to give up even an sliver of our true nature.

Oh well, it's a good thing we have so many fun things to try.