by Dr. Mei Ying Sheng, Si Chuan Province, China Translated by Ted W. Knecht, Shen Zhen, China
From the books of many famous traditional Yang style Taijiquan practitioners (Diagrams 1, 2) and also from the books of the newly formed styles of Taijiquan (Diagrams 3, 4), one can see that the basic method for performing Single Whip seems rather similar. For example if the front of the diagrams face south, noted as 12 o’clock, then the hook hand is located at 2 o’clock. Afterwards, the left palm pushes out from 2 o’clock over to 9 o’clock. Diagram 1 and 2 show the hook hand at the 2 o’clock position and Diagram 2 shows the left palm at the 9 o’clock position. From these diagrams one can see that within the process of pushing the left palm out to 9 o’clock, the right hook hand barely moves.
Over the past several decades the author has observed the above mentioned method for performing Single Whip by numerous practitioners; no matter if it is being performed in the traditional Yang style routine or from the newly created competition routines. It has been suggested that this way of performing Single Whip is a “method of habit” rather than what was originally taught. The following is a discussion to suggest a more concise definition of the practice of Single Whip as taught by Yang Chengfu.
Yang Chengfu’s Single Whip
An explanation of the practical application of Single Whip can be found in Yang Chengfu’s book entitled “Taijiquan’s Practical Applications” published by Wenguang Printing Press in 1931. In this book, Yang Chengfu explains that “if an enemy attacks from the rear [as you stand in Push from Grasp Sparrow’s Tail], I would use my right hand to form a hook hand to dissolve the attack; at the same time the left palm would straighten out from the front to the left attacking the chest of the enemy…. The dissolving of the attack and the palm strike must be conducted simultaneously”.
In Yang Chengfu’s book entitled “The Complete Volume of Taijiquan Usage” published by the Zhonghua Book Company in 1933 explains the use of the right hook hand and the left palm in Single Whip. “If the enemy attacks from the rear, I would move my center to the left foot…. When the two hands wipe over to the left, the right hand forms a hook hand. The left palm moves inward with the center of the palm facing out. The waist and hips should relax as the left palm attacks the chest of the enemy. This pattern of movements must be conducted at the same time.”
Even though the words used to describe the usage of the hands in Single Whip’s application are different, the meaning is essentially the same. From the aspect of observing the postures in these two books, there is only the one posture of Push from Grasp Sparrow’s Tail prior to the stationary posture of Single Whip. Unfortunately, there are no transitory pictures from Push into Single Whip to illustrate the complete motion of the hook hand.
From only observing the diagrams one would assume that the hook hand basically does not move while the left palm pushes out to the left. However, this does not conform to what Yang Chengfu describes in his explanation of the application. He states that “the hand movements must be completed in one motion”.
Principles in the Taiji Classics
In the “Taijiquan Lun” it states that “there is no place that is concaved or convexed. There is no place that is disconnected”. The “Explanation of the Thirteen Posture Moving Abilities (Shisan Shi Xing Gong Xin Jie)” states that “when one point moves there is not one point that does not move” and “when one point is silent there is not one point that is not silent”. The “Five Character Song” states that “when raising the hands, they cannot be stiff… the two hands must be suspended up and penetrating in one breath”. It also states that “the internal strength of the body must be completely united into one”. The “Zou Jia Da Shou Xing Gong Essentials” explain that “the upper body movements must be coordinated with the lower; when one part of the body moves, then all parts move; movement is termed opening but within opening there is also closing.”
Yang Chengfu taught in his “Taijiquan Ten Essentials” that “when the hands, waist, and feet move, the spirit of the eyes follow with the movement; if there is a discontinuity in movement either in the upper or lower body, there will be chaos in motion”. It also states that “the frame must contain opening and closing and full and empty movement; the so-called opening, not only includes the hands and feet, but also the opening of the intent; the so-called closing, not only includes the hands and feet, but it too includes the closing of the intent; one must combine the internal with the external to form emptiness”. Presently, the way in which many people perform Single Whip is very far from the way in which it is stated in the Classics.
In the book, “The Complete Volume of Taijiquan Usage” Yang Chengfu was able to describe in detail the usage of the hook hand in Single Whip. He states that “if the enemy attacks from behind, I would shift my body weight to the left leg… allowing the two hands to move to the left….” There are several meaning to the above sentence in terms of moving the weight onto the left leg. Firstly, it is a way for closing distance. Secondly, it is a way for the two hands to adhere to the on-coming attack. This will allow the practitioner to focus on listening to the energy (Tingjin) of the attacker. Next, Yang Chengfu goes on to say that “I hook the right hand with the fingers pointing down”. The right hook hand is used to dissolve the attack and to also stick and not allow the enemy to escape. This will then allow the left palm to issue internal strength “fajin” to the enemy’s body. In this way, the attacker will lose his center and fall into empty space. As seen from the above scenario, the way in which Yang Chengfu describes the use of Single Whip can satisfy the requirements of “listening (Tingjin)”, “adhering, connecting, sticking and following”, “leading the attack into empty space (Yin Jin Luo Kong)”, and “not loosing the attacker and not resisting attack (Bu Diu Bu Ding)”. During the moment in which the attacker’s center is lead off balance, the hook hand and left palm are positioned to the south. The left palm moves inward with the palm facing toward the outside. Following, the left palm issues out toward the attacker’s chest. At the same time, the right hook hand is arcing to the right rear corner.
As Yang Chengfu states in his book, “the left palm and right hook hand move to their designated positions simultaneously as if drawing a bow and arrow”. As can be seen, this satisfies the requirement of “when one thing opens, everything opens”; as well as, “within dissolving there is attack, and within attack there is dissolving”. If one practices the Single Whip posture as many people do today whereby the right hook hand is placed in position prior to the movement of the left palm, then it will not conform to Taiji fighting principles as taught by Yang Chengfu.
During the process of dissolving the oncoming attack with the right hook hand, one can also borrow the attacker’s force for one’s own benefit. When using the right hook hand to borrow the attacker’s force, one must use the “waist as the center of the wheel and the arm as the spoke”; thereby, the left palm simultaneously attacks the enemy. This can be viewed through the theory of rotational mechanics. If you were to push on the front end of a rotating door, the rear end will swing around and push you. Whatever the amount of force you use will be the amount returned by the swinging door. Another example of this principle is when an acrobat jumps onto the end of a seesaw from three feet high, the person on the other end will be propelled up into the air three feet. In terms of Taiji theory, one borrows to attack just as “four ounces can deflect one thousand pounds”; as well as the Taiji practitioner “stands like a balanced scale and moves lively like a cartwheel”.
For example, in Single Whip, the right hook hand dissolves and borrows, let’s say, 50 pound of force from an attacker and is diverted to the left palm for a counter attack. When one also adds into the equation the ground connection of the feet that is transmitted up the legs, controlled in the waist, and issued out through the arms, this 50 pounds of force that the attacker used may increase several times when used in the counter attack. The method in which Taiji uses to fight is not based on how much force oneself puts forth, but is based on how much the attacker puts forth. A common phrase in Taijiquan is “if you ask me how much force I will use to hit you, it is best first to ask yourself how much you are going to use.”
The most commonly seen way most Yang stylist perform Single Whip is by using the hook hand to dissolve the enemy’s attack starting at 9:00 passing through 12:00 and ending at 2:00. During this time period of dissolving the attack, the left palm has yet to attack out. It is only after the hook hand has arrived at 2:00 that the left palm pushes out for the counter attack. By this time, one has already lost the opportunity to borrow the striking force and revert it back upon attacker. Not only this, but one has also lost touch with the requirement of “within dissolving there is attack, and within attack there is dissolving”. Through the lose in the opportunity to borrow the force of the attacker, one has also lost the Taiji fighting principles of “guiding the attack into empty space (Yin Jin Luo Kong)” and “no excess and no deficiency (Wu Guo Bu Ji)”. One other important point is that while the two hands are moving to the right side prior to the hook hand formation and left palm pushing out, one leaves the left rib cage open for attack by the enemy. In the past, Taiji masters called this type of motion “Getting Close to the Fist (Ai Da Quan)”.
Presently there is also another way in which the hook hand of Single Whip is performed. Some perform the hook hand by first forming the hook hand at 3:00 and then as the left palm pushes out, the hook hand moves over to 2:00. The application for this way of practice is very difficult to comprehend. (Please note Diagrams 3 and 4 for an example of this method).
Yang Chengfu wrote that “when the two hands move to the left, the right hand forms into a hook hand with the fingers pointing downward” during the transition into Single Whip. The above statement is identical to his disciple’s (Chen Weiming) description in the book entitled “The Art of Taijiquan” published by the Zhong Hua Shu Ju Press in 1925. Another of Yang Chengfu’s high ranking disciples, Li Yaqian, also explained the usage of the hook hand in Single Whip as “after the two palms wipe over to the left side, the right hand forms into a hook”. The above methods of conducting the hook hand during the performance of Single Whip quite obviously conform to the principles of Taijiquan. In addition, the manner in which Yang Chengfu’s disciples practiced the hook hand was quite different from the way in which it is most commonly practiced today.
The above two different methods imply the usage of the hook hand in Single Whip. Yang Chengfu’s fighting methods used the theory of “first arriving, then issuing (Hou Fa Xian Zhi)”. During the process of dissolving the oncoming attack by the hook hand, one will be able to borrow this force to turn it back upon the attacker. One other type of explanation for the use of the hook hand in Single Whip is to “use the nape of the hook hand to strike the enemy”. The author finds that this is not very practical. It is more practical to use a fist or palm to make an attack rather than the hook hand. Moreover, the hook hand has a shorter striking distance than both a fist and palm. The amount of force that can be applied to a hook hand technique is relatively minimal. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the wrist could be easily injured while striking with the hook hand. In terms of the application/scenario as related by Yang Chengfu, the attack is originating from the left side. To use a right hook hand to attack a person on the left side would be impractical.
Another method often mentioned for the use of the hook hand is to use the nape of the right hook hand to strike an attacker on the right side while using the left palm to strike at a second attacker. This is quite obviously contrary from the Taiji Classics which state, “when emitting internal strength, be calm and relaxed, concentrated in one direction (Fajin Xu Chenzhe Songzheng, Zhuanzhu Yifang)”. When meeting an oncoming attack during Taiji free fighting (Sanshou), one must utilize the principle of “being calm and relaxed while concentrating in one direction”. Yang Chengfu was very careful to illustrate this principle of “concentrating in one direction” with each stationary posture in his book, “The Complete Volume of Taijiquan Usage”. The Taiji Classics also state that “the reason for not being able to neutralize and control the enemy is the result of double weightiness; in order to avoid this fault, one must understand Yin and Yang”.
The natural beauty of Taijiquan is based on the principles of the Dao. The theoretical basis of this can be found in Laozi’s Daodejing which states “the Dao produces all natural things”. The practice of Taijiquan can aid in returning to a natural form. It has its own universal viewpoint and artistic expression. It is to strive for a meaning between human-being (ren) and nature (ziran). It unites coordination between the form of motion with that of the mind to achieve a higher plane of awareness. Much of this beauty can be found within the poetry of the Taiji Classics.
The Taiji Classics state that “one should perform Taijiquan like a cloud floating in the sky and as water flowing in a river”. When clouds float in the sky, they move in a slow, smooth, and soft manner as a complete unit. Moreover, each and every water particle within the mass of clouds is in constant motion. Water flowing in a river is a complete body in constant motion and conforms to the laws of nature.
The Classics also state that “when the wind blows, the branches of the willow will sway”. During the gentle breeze of spring time the branches of the weeping willow will gently sway back and forth. As stated in the Taiji Classics, “When one part moves, then all will move”. And when the breeze ceases to blow, the willow will come to a peaceful state of silence. The Taiji Classics relate this to “when one part is silent, then all is silent”. The willow branch is in harmony with the dynamic state of mother nature. The willow’s characteristic of this dynamic state exhibits flexibility by continuously regulating itself to the conditions brought upon it by nature. Chen Pu states in his book entitled “Discussions of Taijiquan”: “Coming and going, bending and straightening like the wind blowing the willow tree, nature’s mysteries are in turbulence; lively is it without stagnation”. If by chance when the wind blows upon a willow tree and one of the branches looses its flexibility to move with the wind, this must mean the branch has stiffened and is most likely dead. Consequently, should the hook hand found in Single Whip imitate this stiff and non-moving branch of the willow tree?
As the Taiji Classics say, “Taijiquan must be completed in one breath” and “the entire body is a complete unit”. The degree of difficulty in Taijiquan practice is extremely high and the meaning of the principles are extremely important. The harmonization of the postures is produced by the movements of the four limbs of the body. The way in which the hook hand is commonly conducted by many practitioners today looses this harmonious regulation of the body. Not only does it loose the combative nature of Taijiquan, but at the same time it looses the artistic flavor found in classical Taijiquan. As a general rule, no matter what the posture, if the martial aspect is lost, then the artistic characteristic of the posture is also destroyed.
Taijiquan uses the principle of being relaxed and tranquil in practice and soft and round in application. The shape (xing) guides the internal energy (qi); the internal energy congeals the spirit (shen); and the spirit connects the form. This must be completely controlled by the mind or intent (yi) in order to express the calm, comfortable, and full feeling of each posture. Only in this manner can one guide the circulation of internal energy. Through the many years of practical experience in Taijiquan, the author has found that if a movement does not conform to the principles of Taijiquan, there will not be any sensation of obtaining internal energy (de qi). However, once the posture is corrected and conforms to Taiji principles, not only can internal energy be felt, but the entire body becomes more invigorated and energized. An example of this phenomena is when the lens of a camera is about to be opened. If the conditions/settings are not completely atuned, then the photographic negative will not be exposed correctly. Taijiquan can be seen in the same light. If one does not set up the correct posture by conforming to the principles as stated in the Taiji Classics, then all one is doing is “externally training the tendons, bone, and skin (Wai Lian Jin Gu Pi)”, not “internally cultivating the one breath (Nei Lian Yi Kou Qi)”.
Based on recent scientific studies in China, there will be a variety of influences on the body’s health due to changes in postures during the practice of Taijiquan. When the practitioner is in a so-called “qigong state” during practice, the electrical impulses of the muscles and skin, the particle flow within the body, and the constitute of “qi” will be under the direct control of the brain’s central nervous system. Due to this controlled state, there will be a wide range of beneficial effects on the physiology of the practitioner. During the practice of Taijiquan, the sayings “when one part moves, then all will move; when one part is silent, then all is silent”; and “changing, turning, emptying, and filling must have intent, then the internal energy will not stagnate” all directly relate to the circulation of internal energy and blood within the body.
Even though only the right hook hand and arm do not move in the “modern” version of Single Whip’s hook hand, however, this causes all the various muscle groups on the right side of the body to come to a halt. When this occurs, there will be an imbalance in the motion of the muscles found within the entire body which will injure the opening and closing of Yin and Yang of the entire body’s internal and external components. It will also influence the circulation of internal energy within the body’s meridian network. Only by allowing the internal energy to develop through the regulation of properly trained Taijiquan will one be able to obtain beneficial effects of improved energy and blood flow.
Every technique found within Taijiquan has a “rising”, “carrying”, “turning”, and “closing” motion. The beginning of each technique must have a “rising” motion with the coordination of the entire body behind the move. This will then satisfy the saying of “when one part moves, then all will move”. After going through the process of “carrying” and “turning” within the technique, the “closing” will occur with the entire body coming to rest. This will satisfy the requirements in “when one part is silent, then all is silent”. The body’s way of expressing the motion and calmness of each technique is shown through the hands, eyes, bodywork, and stepping/footwork. However, among these the most obviously seen expressions are in the hands and footwork/stances. Due to the differences in hand and foot positions within each posture, there is a very high degree of difficulty and sophisticated intent to coordinate the continuous motion of “rising”, “carrying”, “turning”, and “closing” so that everything (hands, eyes, body, feet) concludes at the same time.
The initial wiping motion of the two hands in the Single Whip posture, that follows the posture of Push in Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, is considered the “rising” component of the posture. As the hands continue wiping to the east, the motion goes through the “carrying” component of the posture. The “turning” component occurs when the hands move back toward the west. When the hook hand arrives at 2:00 and the left palm pushes out to the east (at the same time), the posture has completed the “closing” component.
When the two palms move in a wiping manner to the east from the Push posture of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, the two palms should gradually change from erect palms (Lizhang) to prostrated palms (Fuzhang). The reason for this is because the erect palms of Push are the final “closing” component which is consequently considered the “substantial” or “Yang” stage of the individual posture. The “rising” component of Single Whip is considered the “insubstantial” or “Yin” stage of that individual posture. Therefore, there must be a gradual change from Yang to Yin during each transition of postures in order to fully conform to the principles of “knowing Yin and Yang (Xu Zhi Yin Yang)” and “clearly differentiating substantial from insubstantial (Xu Shi Yifen Qingchu)”. The change from Yang to Yin must be gradual so that the motion conforms to the Taiji symbol where the Yang polarity gradually spirals to the Yin polarity. This is not a sudden and quick change.
When the right palm gradually forms the hook hand after moving to the east and then moves in toward the body, it forms the Yang polarity. As the right hook hand begins to move toward the south, minor Yin begins to arise. As the left palm wipes back toward the south from the east, the palm reaches the Yin polarity and gradually continues into the on-start of minor Yang. As the right hook hand continues to move to its destination at the 2:00 position, it goes into major Yin. At the same time, the left palm simultaneously pushes out to the east (9:00) to become major Yang. The following principles are met through this process: “Yin and Yang is the root (Yin Yang Huwei Qigen)”; Yin polarity produces Yang, Yang polarity produces Yin (Yinji Sheng Yang, Yangji Sheng Yin)”; “among Yin there is Yang and among Yang there is Yin (Yinzhong Shu Yang, Yangzhong Shu Yin)”; “Yin does not leave Yang and Yang does not leave Yin (Yin buli Yang, Yang buli Yin)”; and “a single Yin cannot become Yin and a single Yang cannot become Yang (Danyin buneng Cheng Yin, Danyang buneng Cheng Yang)”.
In traditional Yang style Taijiquan there are many movements where the transitional distance of the two hands are quite varied. Examples of these include Diagonal Flying, Advance Step and Raise Hands, Hands Play Pipa, etc. In some of these postures the movement of the right hand might be very short while the movement of the left hand is relatively long. Trying to coordinate the two hands can be quite difficult to conform to the requirement of “when one part moves, then all will move; and when one part is silent, then all is silent”. However, in Single Whip the two hands have approximately the same distance to cover during the process of “rising, carrying, turning, and closing”; thereby if the same speed is maintained for both hands, then the above stated requirement of moving and stopping all at once can be easily satisfied.