Wang Peisheng on Taiji Pushinghands Exercises

What is Taiji pushing‐hands? What should one pay attention to when learning and practising pushing‐hands? The solo form sequence practice and duet form pushing-hands exercise are the two component parts of the art of Taijiquan. Doing sequence practice enables one to learn the substance of Taiiiquan, while doing pushing-hand exercise trains one to apply the art to actual self-defence. Therefore, after having learned how to do well a complete sequence of Taiiiquan, one should proceed to learn pushing-hands. Only when one has become proficient in both, can he be counted as being possessed of the substance as well as the application of the art of Taiiiquan.

Pushing-hands is a form of exercise to sharpen the sensitivity of one nerve endings to the degree as sensitive as that of the feelers of a cricket. The feelers are not only very quick in sensing out what the cricket is facing against, but are also very quick in directing the insect to dodge nimbly an attack with the slightest necessary shifting movement, or to be fully attentive in locating and taking advantage of any of the opponent’s weak points. Such kind of exercise will enhance one’s interest and arouse the spirit of enquiry and analysis in the process of learning Taiiiquan.

Pushing-hands is a technical term used in Taiiiquan, and it is sometimes called Joining-hands, or Closely-attached‐hands, or Kneading-hands. There are similar kinds of practice adopted by different schools of Chinese martial arts for practising the methods of getting into close contact with one’s opponent and making good use of some combative device and technique.

“Knowing how to interpret energy” is looked upon as the gist of mastering the art of Taiiiquan, and the primary step toward the knowing is to sharpen the sensitivity of the skin through pushing-hands practice. For that, the fundamental way is to let one’s elbow, wrist, palm or fingers get attached to a certain part of the opponent’s body while doing pushing, pulling, or other movements, to learn to sense out the forcefulness, direction, speed as well as the substantiality or insubstantiality of the opponent’s energy to be issued. After a long time of such kind of practice the sensitivity of nerve endings will be greatly sharpend, and the pair will know how to advance or retreat, and how to issue energy or neutralize it aptly. Then, at the opponent’s slightest stir, one will know instantly the direction, the forcefulness, the speed as well as the substantiality or insubstantiality of the energy he is to issue. Such ability is known as “knowing how to interpret energy.”

After one is capable of “knowing how to interpret energy”, one’s art will become more and more refined through further practice. In an encounter with an opponent, taking an accurate measure of him is of utmost importance, and the basis of an accurate measure is knowing oneself and one’s opponent. There is an old Chinese saying: “Knowing oneself and also one’s’ opponent will make one a hundred times victorious in a hundred battles.” Sensitive feeling is the meduim for knowing the self and the opponent. So the fundamental theory of pushing-hands is actually not very complicated. Of course, from the point of keeping one’s body centered and in equilibrium, it is harder to be so with the duet form pushing‐hands than with the solo form sequence practice, for the latter calls for keeping balanced in doing different sorts of movements by oneself only, while the former demands keeping balanced under an opponent’s every measure to set him off balance, and losing no opportunity to set the opponent off balance. The often cited saying “Seeking to know one’s own energy through the sequence practice, and the other’s energy through pushing-hands exercise” shows that the two actually serve the same purpose of knowing oneself and knowing one’s opponent.

Only through constant practice can one obtain true knowledge. Whether in doing pushing-hands exercise or sequence practice, one must observe the prescribed way of doing them, and must try one’s best to do every posture and to apply any method as correctly as possible. In pushing-hands, the insubstantiality and the substantiality of the two legs must be clearly differentiated. For instance, the foreleg must bend to the required degree when taking the “archer stance”, and one must sit back firmly on the rear leg when assuming the “sitting stance.” Also, one’s trunk must be kept centered and in equilibrium as in doing the sequence practice. The. eight forms of hand‐ methods: warding, rolling, pushing, pressing, pulling, splitting, elbow‐striking and shoulder‐striking should be practised one by one again and again, to obtain accuracy. Therefore, a beginner is asked to devote his full time and attention to “rotation-practice” which is a system of exercise done cooperatively by two persons. When A does warding, B counters it with rolling aside then A changes to pressing, B overcomes it with pushing, or vice‘versa.‘ Going on this way in rotation round after round till tired, it is not unusual to do up to a few hundred rounds at a practice session. In the older days, some had done up to a few thousand rounds, and even to ten tho‘usand rounds! When the above four forms of hand‐methods are mastered, the pair should proceed to four more forms: pulling,  splitting, elbow-striking and shoulder-striking in the training system called Da Lu. Only after one has become proficient in the use of these eight hand-methods, should one start to make enquiry (to test) the opposite party’s energy. In pushing-hands, the movement of eyesight generally follows that of the hands.

Form a habit of doing all these in a correct way. When a good foundation is laid, it will be easier to reach the advanced stage of development. It is necessary to observe the rule of gradual progression. Avoid any hasty desire for success. Kungfu (skill developed through a long time of hard training) is an accumulation of improvement day by day and bit by bit.

There are quite a number of diferent forms of pushing-hands exercise. The basic four hand-methods practice on fixed stance, the same practice with moving steps, and Da Lu are the chief ones; while the so‐called “Rib-reaching”, “Folding up” and “Old Cattle Energy” are more advanced auxiliary exercises designed to develop a certain skill or power; and finally there is “Free-flower-picking” as a form of free sparring. However, pushing-hands on fixed steps is fundamental to all. Therefore, it is necessary to start with it in learning the art of pushing-hands.

When starting to do rotation practice, all the movements should be done to the required degree and it is advisable to gradually enlarge the movements and make them more and more rounded, avoiding any appearance of bumps and holes in one’s posture, any severance and discontinuity in one’s movement, and any defectiveness in the methods employed. Pushing-hands on fixed stance allows no moving of the rear foot, and any such moving is usually counted a loss of one point in a contest. Therefore, in the practice one should increase his reach only by extending the movements of his arms and trunk and his Counterpart should evade the closing in by sitting back on his rear foot as far as needed, and then neutralise the on-coming force at the apt moment. It is not allowed to resist or to ward off it with force. Only when one is so closely pressed by the on-coming force that any neutralising movement is no more possible, will he be allowed in practice to move a step backward, and if only half a step is needed, then just retreat half a step, not any more. Whether advancing or retreating, the two should maintain attachment to each other. Practising in such a manner, a kind of adhering and sticking energy will be gradually developed as time goes by.

The next step is to take up folding up practice and Da Lu to develop further the flexibility and tenacity of the waist and legs, and for the training of advanced skills. One important thing to remember is not to let your self go into inquiring (testing) your opponent’s energy too early. The common saying “Practice makes perfect” is most suitably applied to pushing-hands. Just concentrate your effort and attention on doing your daily practice, by and by, there will develop in you the sense of knowing how to “interpret energy.” When you really knows this you will be able to make use of the technique of overcoming hardness with pliability, and to use “four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds”

The sentence “Use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds” in the “Song of Pushing-hands” denotes a method with the highest efficiency employed in pushing‐hands. To achieve this, the primary demand after getting into contact with the opponent is “no letting go and no resistance”. Though the phrase “no letting go” surely denotes not getting separated from each other, but in fact it is not that simple. One should let some part of his arm, by his keen sense of touch, get adhered to the opponents. And in this state of adherance, one should follow the opponents movement, at the same time, issue a very slight amount of energy to try to drive the opponent into a disadvantageous or unstable position. At this juncture, if no counter-acting energy is felt (that is, at the moment when a sense of lightness appears from a sense of heaviness), one could use any hand-method that deemed fit to send the opponent off his feet. And if a sense of heaviness is felt at the attached point, one should slightly loosen the attachment to let opponent have a sudden feeling of emptiness, and follow with an attack immediately. That will send the opponent away much farther. Such is the effect of first making use of the principle of “no resistance”, to leave ones opponent in a state of being suddenly lifted from his root, and then immediately followed with the technique of “no letting go” to set him of balance. The phrase “no resistance” may be understood from the wording as not to use any strength and let oneself be handled in any way by the opponent, however, it is not entirely so. To be handled in any way by, the opponent will place oneself in a passive position, while “no resistance”   embodies an active spirit in making one’s movement suited to any of the opponents. Therefore, in pushing‐hands, while it is necessary to be able to receive  whatever comes from the opponent, it is also imperative to use ones keen sense of touch to find out the substantial and the insubstantial part of the opponent’s body, and to discriminate the real and the fake of his offensive or defensive movements so as to be able to adapt ones own movements to that of the opponent’s.

To counter an opponents forceful attack with forceful resistance is a commitment of the most serious fault in Taiiiquan, the double-weighting (this term will be explained in detail later). To hit back at any on-comming stroke right away is but a kind of natural reaction and not the way of  Taijiquan. The way adopted by Taiii pushing‐hands is “to neutralise the oncoming force first, then to follow with a counter attack”. And its also necessary to get oneself into a superior position, and one’s opponent, an awkward position before making the counter attack. Thus, one will be able to gain victory without spending much effort. This is in accordance with what is said in the Taijiquan treaties: “To meet hardness with softness is termed getting away”; “to get oneself into a superior position, and one’s opponent, an awkward position, is called adhering to.” One should take any on-coming force, big or small, as a hard one, and not to resist it with force, but to meet it softly while evading from the attack. This is what is meant by “getting away.” To create a superior position before making the counter attack, one must catch the right opportunity and make use of the advantageous situation, or try to get out from an awkward and disadvantageous position in time.

It is naturally uncomfortable in an awkward position, and to transfer from being uncomfortable to comfortable, one must also do as pointed out in a Taijiquan classic: “If you fail to catch a good opportunity or to gain an advantageous position, your body will be in a state of disorder and the cause of such a fault must be sought from the waist or legs.” That is: in pushing-hands, if the waist senses some discomfort, adjust the legs and the trouble will be gone; and when the legs are not properly placed, hard to bare one’s weight and feeling uncomfortable, adjust the waist, and the problem will be solved. We must also see that when one‘s own body is in a comfortable state, there is no question that the other party is in a state of discomfort, and vice versa. And when one is in a superior position, this is the time to issue energy to upset the opponent. And remember: not a split‐second’s delay; any delay, the opportunity is lost and the situation is changed. Thus the aim of pushing-hands training is not to improve our natural reaction, to make it quicker and more forceful, but to inhibit and remould it. And it does not mean “not to use any force”, but to use a necessary amount of force at the right moment and with much greater effects.

The principle “no letting go and no resistance” is one of prime importance in pushing‐hands practice. The relationship between advance and retreat could be made more interrelated. The two persons engaged in this practice should neither stick together too closely, nor get separated, but to be linked into one in the continuous rotation practice. The procedure of practice is to let one party take up the role of an attacker, the other the defender, and then have the two changed around later. If the attacker advances one inch, the defender yeilds one inch, if one foot, also one foot, not a bit more or a bit less.  Yielding less will result in resisting, while yeilding more will result in letting go. And one must remember that all advancing or retreating most take a curved path, not a straight one. Another important point is that to practise “no resisting”, it is necessary not only to yield with the hands, but to turn the waist and sit back at the same time. Otherwise, because of lack of coordination between one’s own hands and the trunk, should the trunk stay unmoved while the hands are already retreated, it will offer the opponent an opportunity of discarding the hands and reach directly for the trunk. That is why in pushing-hands, it relies chiefly on one’s waist and leg-work. To train the waist and legs, aside from laying emphasis on fundamental training, such as the practice of the various forms of foot stance: the archer stance, the riding stance, the insubstantial stance, the resting stance and the sitting stance, etc., as well as the various forms of turning and twisting the trunk, one must take note of the training procedure of “seeking first for extending and opening; seeking later for closing and compacting.”

Formerly, speaking of pushing-hands, there is one way called “getting the gate tightly closed”, and another, “leaving the gate wide open”. The idea of “getting the gate tightly closed” is that as a defensive measure against any offensive move, one should block the entrance leading toward one’s own body. It is generally correct but not always so. If one has in his command good waist and leg-work, it is all right for him to leave the gate wide open, enticing the opponent to come in. On the contrary, if one only pays attention to closing the gate in his daily practice, and has no experience in leaving the gate wide open, then, at the instance of actual encounter, should the gate be opened by his opponent, he will find himself in great alarm and not knowing what to do. Therefore, in daily practice, one should first seek to make one’s postures more and more open and extended, and later on, more and more close and compacted. It is quite the same as in learning calligraphy.

To be good at writing small size characters, one generally starts with writing big size charcters to build up a strong foundation of penmanship. When one is already good at writing big size characters, one can achieve success in writing small size characters after a comparatively short time of practice. As it is harder to extend one’s movement when one is already accustomed to compacting, the training of Taiiiquan demands extending one’s movements first to increase the reach in applying the techniques of “adhering, connencting, sticking and following, without letting go and with no resistance”, so as to make possible “With the upper and lower parts acting in unison, it will be difficult for the opponent to come in”, no matter how far-reaching is the opponent’s movement. It is required that one’s movements be more and more compacted later, so one can be quicken,and nimbler in making any change of movements which will be harder to be sensed by the opponent. This is the training method designed for reaching a higher level of accomplishment: to make one’s sense of touch more sensitive one’s “hearing” (sensing) of the on-coming energy more precise, one’s “answer” (response) to an “inquiry” (the opponent’s testing move) more adequate and to discriminate the insubstantial and substantial more clearly.

Finally, a detailed exeplanation of “double-weighting” and the way to avoid it is given below.

Generally speaking, double-weighting means that substantiality and insubstantiality are not clearly differentiated. It is said in the Taiiiquan classics, “The Insubstantial and the substantial should be clearly discriminated. Each single part of the body has both an insubstantial and a substantial aspect at any given time, as does the body in its entirety.” Therefore, in every posture taken, and in the way of issuing energy, there should be differentiated aspects of the substantial and the insubstantial. In pushing‐hands one must first seek to find out the insubstantial and the substantial aspects of the opponent’s postures and movements, as well as in his way of applying a defensive or offensive technique and in issuing energy. Then one should make good use of the opponent’s insubstantiality and substantiality found by attacking the insubstantial and evading from the substantial, and at the same time, one should make subtle and varified changes of the insubstantial and substantial aspects of his own, so as not to let them be found out by his opponent, or to puzzle and mislead the opponent by feinting. If one could not have the insubstantiality and the substantiality either of his own or of his opponent clearly discriminated, or to meet substantiality with substantiality, he is bound to be defeated in the pushing‐hands. Therefore double‐weighting is the most serious fault that must beavoided in pushing-hands. It is said in the Taiiiquan treaties: “Many people have spent years in practising Taijiquan, yet are often seen unable to apply it for practical use but to be generally subdued by others as the result of not having perceived the serious fault of double-weighting.” This shows that double-weighting is not only like an unnoticeable pitfall that one is liable to fall into at any time th is also like a sickness that could not be easily diagnosed and got rid of.

Letting both feet exert force against the ground to bear the weight of the body equally is certainly double-weighting. If both feet are exerting force but letting a greater part or the whole of one’s body weight be borne by one foot, with the other foot bearing a lesser part of body weight or just for the sake of balancing the body, that is not double-weighting. This is the generally accepted view. However, in actual practice, many Taiiiquan lear‐ ners are not quite clear about how to be in the state of non-double-weighting.

More often than not, they will think that it is not necessary for the insubstantial foot (leg) to exert any force. They fail to see that only when it is also exerting some force, can the body be kept in equilibrium and the centre of gravity stabilized. However, the force of the insubstantial foot should not be exerted against the ground, but in the emptiness just for balancing. If the insubstantial foot exerts force against the ground, one’s centre of gravity will tend to move out of the base; or if the insubstantial foot does not exert any force, he will be easily set off balance by the opponent’s slight push or pull. This is why we find such a statement in the Taijiquan classics “To be insubstantial is not a state of totally devoid of effort.” And we must also study and make good use of its counterpart, “To be substantial is not a state of being totally fixed onto the ground”, the gist of being in such a state is rather simple: think of your head as if being lifted upward by a string suspended from above.

If one has no understanding of both sides of the same issue, he may have no more trouble with double-weighting, but he may be again involved with a new fault of letting all the weight dropped down and all the force exerted at one side.

In all, double-weighting denotes the stereo-form of not having the insubstantial and the substantial differentiated. To avoid double-weighting, one must be capable of making rapid and subtle changes from being insubstantial to being substantial, or vice versa, related to any part of his body or to what is on his mind. At the moment when any of the substantial part on his body is about to be shaken, one should think of letting it become insubstantial immediately and vice versa. The training procedure is to make such changes going along from a bigger part to a smaller and smaller part of one’s body, up to the size of one square inch or a single finger. Of course, such kind of refined training and high level of achievement is beyond the reach of beginners. The beginners should only follow a course of gradual progression. They should, in their rotation exercise, try to make their movements more and more open, extended and rounded at first, and more and more closed and compact, but still rounded later on. The circular form is the ideal form for smoothly neutralizing any on‐coming force at any point of contact and for quick change of movements at any time. And having one’s movements well rounded is a prerequisite for attaining a high degree of harmony and continuity. There could be in one’s outer movements, many different forms of circles: the regular, the semi, the vertical, the horizontal and the oblique circles, as well as the ovals for one assortment; and the hand, elbow, shoulder, chest, abdomen, hip, knee and foot circles for another assortment. As to one’s inner activities, there should also be some sort of circular movements, one should think of his internal organs making some slight turning and inter-massage with the assistance of deep abdominal breathing. This will aid the sending out of inner spiralling energy from Dantian (a point about two inches below navel). This will also help making ones Circulation system, ones main and collateral channels (a network of passages, through which vital energy circulates and along which the acupuncture points are distributed) unimpeded. With proper guidance and ceaseless endeavour, the beginners will eventually become masters of the art of pushing-hands.

Reference: Wu Style Taijiquan by Wang Peisheng & Zeng Weiqi p. 188-196.