Inheriting the Art, Enriching the Tradition
A Discussion of the Characteristics of
Hong Jun Sheng’s Tai Chi Chuan
A discussion of the characteristics of Master Hong Jun Sheng Tai Chi can be very straight forward, or it can be a very difficult task. Master Hong’s Tai Chi indeed has an abundance of unique features, and it is easy to pick just a few and have plenty to talk about. On the other hand, the difficulty lies precisely in the richness of its contents, and to systematically and comprehensively introduce Master Hong’s art is an immense task. To be able to undertake such an assignment, one must have learnt the essence of Master Hong’s Tai Chi in a comprehensive way. He must also understand martial arts theory as it is necessary to make comparisons with other Tai Chi styles in order to attempt a complete discussion. In this article, I will avoid the complex challenge and take the simpler option, but of course I shall not be talking about triviality. I will employ the form of a casual discussion to explore a number of aspects of Master Hong's art.
Inheriting the Art
Chen Fa-ke was one of the recent masters who attained an exceptional level in Tai Chi and we can say that he has not been surpassed by anyone. To say that Chen Fa-ke was good is not based on which experts he had defeated or who had learnt from him. Rather, it is an observation from the events and achievements that demonstrated his skills. In his contemporaries and those after him, it was rare to find practitioners who could eject someone into the air over a substantial distance. Chen Fa-ke could do this in a very spectacular fashion. According to Master Hong, when Chen was in the mood, he would have a student draw 3 lines, 2 closer in and 1 further away. He then engaged the student in push hand. On releasing his force, the student would be sent jumping back 3 steps landing on the furthest line. This he could repeat time and again without fail. Sometimes he would pull (“lu”) a student into a somersault then landing back on his feet. This is a very dangerous manoeuvre that is immensely difficult. It requires the correct internal strength with a very strong force and at the same time highly exacting skills .
Master Lei Mu-li, a student of Chen Fa-ke related an encounter of Chen with a challenger who was very adept at kicking techniques. The challenger was sent flying over the fence by Chen, but he then walked back in through the gate to continue a conversation with Chen. Master Gu Liu-xin described how two wrestlers were launched onto a table and out of the window respectively. Master Fung Zhi-qiang, another student of Chen Fa-ke said after Chen launched someone into the air, two successive noises followed. The first was when the subject hit the ceiling, and the second came when he landed on the floor. These varied ways of launching opponents without injuring them are much more spectacular than simply throwing someone in a particular direction and very much more difficult.
Chen Fa-ke’s martial arts were necessarily rich and complex because his family was engaged in the traditional trade of escorting goods and personnel transportation. Not only was he adept at bare hand combat, he was also good with many types of weaponry. Chen also knew pressure point striking techniques (dim xue). Master Hong had heard him described how to strike a person to cause unconsciousness, and then revive him afterwards. His strict regime of martial arts training was extraordinary. He even joined in military action (against the Red Spear Boxers). In another display of his prowess Chen defeated a sabre wielding army training-officer while keeping his hands behind his back. His skills were indeed very formidable and applicable in real life.
In modern times, there simply has not been any one who could inherit all of Chen Fa-ke’s Tai Chi. Times are different now and it is not feasible to train in the same way that he did, so it is only possible to inherit and carry on the main streams of his martial arts. Many of Chen Fa-ke’s students were very adept. To say which one of them has best succeeded Chen Fa-ke is not to deny the skills of the others. Rather it is an observation of who is most outstanding of all his exceptional students.
To consider the ability of inheriting skills from the master there are two schools of thoughts. One is to judge who could perform the Tai Chi routines most resembling the master. Another is to observe who could display effective skills closest to the teacher’s. I tend to think the true judgement of skill inheritance should be based on the latter. Let us suppose an old herbal doctor has two sons. One looks like him and dresses like him, and even takes the rickshaw when going out as the father does. However this son's professional ability has not reached his father's level. The other son dresses and behaves differently, but his medical skills are comparable to the old doctor's. Who do you consider as the successor of his father’s tradition?
The various descendents of Yang Lu-chuan performed the Yang’s style Tai Chi routines differently, but we do not say that his successors have not inherited the Yang family martial arts. I have read an article by a Beijing artist who wrote about Li Ke-ran and Wu Zuo-ren, both students of the famous artist Qi Bai-shi. They never imitated their master nor are their styles similar to his. However their artistic achievements far surpass those of their fellow students who model their work on their teacher’s. If a person’s works are identical to that of the teacher, then he could not have digested what he has learnt nor has he unleashed his own talents. Imitation is important in the initial stages of learning, but when you have developed your own understanding and appreciation, then your style will depart from that of the master’s.
Amongst Chen Fa-ke’s students, I consider Master Hong to be the one who best inherited his martial art. This is not based on whether his forms are similar to Chen’s forms, but judged by the effect of his skills displayed during push hands and contests. Being able to launch an opponent into the air with both feet off the ground is far superior to pushing the adversary all over the floor. To achieve this, Master Hong needed to have skills in two aspects. One is neutralising strength (hua-jin) that could control the opponent effectively. Whenever someone applied force on Master Hong, he simply followed the advance with a slight turn executed appropriately. The opponent’s attack would be neutralised and himself fell under Hong’s control. If we observe people’s neutralising technique in push hand, although they could do this effectively, the deflection is so complete that the opponent’s body frame is relaxed. This result is not suitable for effecting control and so does not help in crisply ejecting the opponent. All that can be achieved is to find the opponent’s weak spot and forcibly push him away. Neutralising strength must be finely applied. Master Hong’s practical method in this aspect will be discussed later.
The second requirement to launch the opponent is that the spiral force must be released appropriately. Master Hong’s spiral force is initiated from the ground up, and he could eject the opponent from the floor into the air. A practitioner who cannot apply uplifting spiral force will not be able to launch the subject flying. He may be able to control the opponent, but the force generated is not spiral in nature and it can only push the adversary horizontally. Chen Fa-ke must have been extremely adept at these two skills, and so he could eject his adversary spectacularly and with great variety. Master Hong inherited the most essential features of Chen Fa-ke’s skills, and was able to display these feats. Practitioners who are not able to demonstrat this high level technique are most likely lacking in the ability to neutralise and control, or are unable to apply the correct sort of three dimensional spiral force.
Development and Enrichment of Tradition
I will not say that Master Hong’s skill was as good as or surpassed that of his master Chen Fa-ke, but I can say that he was the best I have seen and the closest to his teacher’s skills. When he ejected an opponent it was not as high (like sending flying over the fence or up to the ceiling), nor could he pull someone into a somersault landing upright. It is not simply a matter of techniques, as the ability to display these feats relies on the level of strength as well. However I can say that Master Hong has developed and enriched Chen Fa-ke’s martial art superbly. This is to say that Master Hong has expressed the connotations of Chen’s Tai Chi by developing his own enhanced forms and style, allowing students to learn and appreciate more readily.
Master Hong began learning from Chen Fa-ke in 1930 (at 23 years old) until 1944. When he moved to Ji-nan he taught Tai Chi, and the routines he taught would have been those that he had learnt from Chen Fa-ke. In 1956 Master Hong returned to Beijing to have his forms corrected by Chen Fa-ke and to consult on application techniques.
In Chen Fa-ke’s Tai Chi routines, the movements were quite dissimilar to the actions that he explained and applied in self-defence. It could be said that the detail movements in the Tai Chi forms were quite a departure from those he applied in practice. This could have come about for two reasons: 1) Martial art practitioners of old were guarded about their techniques, as combative skills were the trade secrets of people like security guards and conveyance escorts. It was undesirable to reveal the function of movements in the routines as it could affect their personal safety, honour, reputation, economic position, etc. 2) Out of respect for family tradition, martial art routines passed down through generations were practiced without alteration. Even if a practitioner had developed his own interpretation and appreciation, the movements were preserved faithfully so as not to be considered betraying the family art.
Regardless of the real reason, according to Master Hong, the movements as performed by Chen in the routines were quite disparate to the way he used them in applications. Master Hong sought approval from Chen Fa-ke to perform Tai Chi routines in the same way as the movements were intended. Chen Fa-ke agreed to his request, because I guess times were changing and the role of martial arts in society was becoming less significant. Master Hong’s was a very practical person and performing the routines according to application could better promote development of his skills.
When he returned to Ji-nan, he investigated application techniques as explained by Chen with his students. Combined with his own appreciation and interpretation, he revised the Tai Chi routines with movements that were dissimilar to those taught by Chen Fa-ke. I do not know the number of years Master Hong spent experimenting with the techniques, and when he finalised his revision of the 1st and 2nd routines. I can confirm that in the 1970’s the forms described in his manuscript were already identical to those of the present day. However the most importantly implication of his revised forms that I can see is that Master Hong had set the proper direction for future development of contemporary Tai Chi (not only Chen style).
Here below I will use my own manner of speech to describe my interpretation of Master Hong’s Tai Chi. It may not conform to Master Hong’s or others discussion on the subject.
1. Distinctive Concave (Inward) Curve, a new Tai Chi Concept
Many Tai Chi practitioners maintain that one should become like a sphere. When the opponent applies pressure one turns on the axis to deflect the incoming force without direct resistance. We can say this is the Tai Chi concept of avoiding contest of strength so making possible for the weak to defeat the strong. When I was young my uncle Luo Ji-hong (who was also my first Tai Chi teacher,) said to his students that to engage an oncoming force, one could deflect it along a convex (outward) curve like turning a ball. One could also neutralize the attack employing a concave (inward) curve. At the time, my understanding of Tai Chi was limited. I could appreciate the concept of deflection along an outward curve, but to neutralize using an inward curve was incomprehensible to me. I did not develop any concept of how it could be done, and how it could be applied. In my later studies, I heard inward curve mentioned, but still did not understand the how and why of it. It was only when I started to carefully reflect, practice and appreciate Master Hong’s Tai Chi routine movements and applications that I came to realize the subtlety of this concept.
In practicing to defend like a conceptual spherical shield, the advantage is the ease of neutralizing the oncoming forces. Its down side is the tendency to be excessive so that the opponent’s force is totally deflected. This causes the opponent’s body structure to become relatively relaxed which is not ideal for establishing control through the point of contact. A good neutralizing technique should alter the opponent’s force rendering it ineffective, but at the same time not to totally nullify the pressure. This means the opponent’s structure retains a certain degree of tension, and this sort of neutralizing effort can at once facilitate the next step of containing the opponent.
In training to employ an inward curve, when engaging the opponent’s force one rotates about a focal point to neutralise the attack. However the concave curvature also encircles the attacker (this curvature is not restricted to the arm or particular parts of the body, but involves the whole body like a satellite dish), so that the attacker’s force is not deflected, but enveloped. The opponent’s structure retains a certain degree of tension whereby his hand becomes my hand and his force becomes my force. This allows me to “string” (connect) to his structure and control him. (As to how one “strings” the opponent to control him, how to make his hand and force become mine, I will not enter into here.) In this way the concept of concave curvature is practicable and realised.
This sort of general and varied movements displaying envelopment of the opponent are only seen in Master Hong’s Tai Chi routines. Master Hong did not invent the concave curvature concept, but his Tai Chi forms are best able to express this idea and its application. When I observed Master Hong engaging his students and as the student advanced with force, Master Hong’s finely executed turn would readily neutralise the attack and control the student. In this skill the inward curvature has a very important role to play.
Here I will discuss two related issues concerning behaviour of the arm. One is the common practice of “keeping the elbow away from the ribs”. The other issue is that of placing the forearm horizontally across the front at chest level in the “ward off” movement. I believe most Tai Chi practitioners are aware of the principle of keeping the elbow away from the ribs. Some even emphasise imagining having an egg or a fist under the armpit so as to keep the upper arm away from the trunk. The reason is that if the elbow is touching the body, on receiving a strong force it may indirectly injure the rib cage. Having the elbow away from the body avoids this weakness. Moreover pulling of the elbow forward can generate the “ward off” (“peng-jin”) force. Having the forearm horizontally in front as in the “ward off” movement can achieve “repelling the enemy outside the frontier”, so the opponent’s hand cannot enter my defence circle. At the same time my arm generates even stronger “ward off” force that may be used to lift the attacker’s arm (like water floating the boat). These two techniques are familiar to many people and are emphatically practiced. They are not wrong, and previously I also subscribed to these approaches. However in comparison to Master Hong’s methods they are of a lesser level and not as advanced.
Master Hong stated that when required, the elbow should adhere to the rib cage. Indeed a lot of the times the elbow should touch the ribs. This approach has 3 advantages: First, the elbow not being forward avoids competing for space with the opponent. While the opponent’s force is advancing and if my elbow is also forward then it is easy to be cramping for space, resulting in unyielding resistance. Second, when the elbow is touching the body, the hand movements are more reliant on efforts from the hips, waist and legs, and not moving in isolation. This results in more powerful movements. Third, when the hand movements are generated from turns and rotations by the legs and hips, the neutralising movements are more measured and unlikely to be excessive so as to lose control.
Regarding the possibility of sustaining injury to the ribs when being pushed on the elbow, Master Hong resolved this very effectively. The elbow touching the body does not mean pressing the elbow against the ribs. If one is hit on the elbow when it is pressed in, the force will be transmitted onto the rib cage. The correct way is to allow the elbow to touch the torso but pulling it downwards, stretching to generate the Tai Chi force. This way there is an apparent buffering layer between the elbow and the ribs, and the incoming force is absorbed like pushing on a stretched rubber sheet. By allowing the elbow to touch the ribs appropriately there is much more space for the hand to move and thus avoiding resisting force.
Positioning the forearm across in front of the chest to meet the opponent’s hands has the tendency of reacting to the oncoming force. Moreover placing the forearm across in front makes it easy for the opponent to push it like the cross bar of a trolley. Master Hong’s method of engagement does not involve pushing the forearm forward and upwards. Instead my forearm is trusted upward and sideways while the middle finger leads with extension force. This avoids meeting with the opponent’s advance with opposing force. The middle finger is pointed forward and upwards, whereas the elbow is pulled in to form a curve. The forearm is rotated with the palm facing upwards at 45°. In this position it is difficult for the opponent to push on my arm, as it is easy to cause injury to his wrist. It is also convenient for turning my body to deflect his force. If these two methods are tried physically the superiority of Master Hong’s method becomes apparent, and the wisdom of Tai Chi is plain to see.
I will also discuss a related question concerning force release in Tai Chi (fa-jin). When performing the Tai Chi routines, at the various points where force is released some people strike with power. This is particularly true in Chen style training. When watching Master Hong execute fa-jin in the routines, one did not get any feeling of forcefulness. At most it appeared very quick. So how is it that Master Hong who did not express a lot of power in his routines, could launch someone in push hand more spectacularly, higher and further? On the other hand those who perform the forms forcefully could only eject the opponent unattractively, or not at all.
Actually these are forces of different substance, two types of fa-jin at disparate levels. Those who release force with a powerful stroke employ force that is similar to that in other martial arts (i.e. the striking as in the “kick/strike/trip/grapple” techniques.) The delivery is directed at a point and with a strong force one can injure the opponent. If the opponent is ejected, it is from the residual force after sustaining damage to the rival. On the other hand, the high level Tai Chi method of striking is launching. This requires controlling the opponent (i.e. stringing the opponent’s structure integrally after enveloping him), then ejecting the opponent as a whole. The force is not expressed at a point, but delivered to the adversary’s entire structure. The subject does not feel as if hit by a stone. It is rather like being tossed by a wave without suffering localised injury.
This is a very intriguing phenomenon. My skills are not perfected yet, but I am able to display some of this effect. With the same straight punch, if I have intention to hurt, then at the point of contact my force is sent directly into the subject’s body but stopping within. If I only want to eject the rival, then when my fist comes in contact with his body my force radiates to envelop his whole structure, while an element is retained to control the main body. The force released is not delivered in a line, but rather like a sheet that tosses the opponent without injuring him.
I sometimes experiment with a student by delivering a straight punch to his body. At the point of contact if I intend to advance my force at a point then even if I do not release force, the student will feel uncomfortable. However when I intend to launch his body, my force will adjust accordingly and upon release, he will jump as a whole. The student does not feel hurt or uncomfortable. If a Tai Chi practitioner can only deliver force at one point then his strike will be the same as that of other martial arts. He can only strike to injure. On the other hand, launching an opponent without showing any brute force, one displays integral power. From this alone we can see the level of a practitioner’s Tai Chi.
2. Special Type of Spiral Force, Genuine Tai Chi.
Earlier we mentioned that Master Hong could send an opponent flying, on one hand it was because he could control the rival, and on the other his spiral force was executed superbly. Actually many Tai Chi practitioners’ forward force are not developed correctly, and very few could show a spiral force that uproots the opponent. Even a lot of well-known experts do not possess this type of internal strength. Little wonder there are so few who could launch people into the air. Master Hong could achieve this, and there are two points that we should learn from.
Many Tai Chi practitioners, especially those who practice the Chen style like to talk about spiral force or silk reeling force. I have observed many people’s action, and in reality they have not developed genuine spiral force. At best we only can say they have developed the wrong sort (opposite direction) of spiral force. When they deliver a forward push, with the straightening of the back leg their rear hips and knees also rise. The force developed is forward but pressing downward, not a scooping force in a forward and upward curve. When two forward and downward forces meet, they easily become a confrontation of strength. In push hands their arms circle with each other, but these are motion involving only the upper half of the body. This is not coordinated spiral force of the whole body but only localised spiral force.
In Master Hong’s forms, when forward force is applied the rear hip and knee sink while the front knee is lifted. The forward force developed this way is curved scooping upwards, and is therefore able to launch the opponent flying. This force is comprised of two different elements that travel in separate directions.
There is another point, i.e. the issue of the origin of force. A lot of Tai Chi practitioners maintain that “the waist is the master”, i.e. using the waist to direct rotation and turning. Another saying is “internal rotation of the dan-tien”, that is using the lower abdominal region as the focal point for twisting and turning. Actually these are relatively out of date and less advanced way of training.
If we examine different martial arts with different point of leverage, then we can see their various stages of development. When two people engage, and they both do not know how to twist and turn, then they can only be contesting their strength. If however one of them knows to turn his shoulders and rotate his arms, then he will be steadier. If the other uses his waists, then his leverage point is lower which is an advantage. Indeed if he knew to utilise his hips, it is lower than the waist still, and if he mobilises his knees, then the initiating point of force is further down. Master Hong emphasised the raising and lowering of the knees mainly because changes in the knees can be observed. In reality the changes of forces are initiated from the sole of the feet. However because the feet are flat on the ground, we are unable to notice their changes, so we can only observe the knee movements initiated from the under the feet.
Now let us combine the two points above, that is, forces being initiated from the bottom of the feet, and changes also originating from the feet. Changes in the knees, hips, waist, etc. are only manifestations of changing forces in the feet. Whenever force travels in a particular direction, it must form an upward scooping curve that is able to launch a person flying off the ground. That is why when Master Hong engaged in a contest, after he neutralised the opponent’s advance and had him under control, he then released his force. Because he applied the correct spiral force it looked effortless and in an instant sent the opponent up high.
To develop the proper spiral force, it is not only generated at the last moment when you launch an opponent. It must actually be applied throughout the various stages of engaging the opponent, i.e. intercepting, following, neutralising, etc. You can say that every action needs to be enhanced by the incorporation of the spiral force.
Besides the above two basic points about Master Hong’s spiral force, there are a lot more to be discussed regarding the torso (hips, waist, shoulders, etc.), arms and other specific issues. Restricted by the scope here I have to skip over these. However a mention of the spiral actions in the arms and hands is very interesting. Irrespective of whether it is executed as part of an integrated force, or as a practical self-defence manoeuvre, the spiral motions of the hands and arms (the circular movement and the rotation of the hands and arms) in reality give rise to very significant effect. That is why Master Hong said “changes of the hands and arms are the most complex, to the extend that a very slight turn of the finger tip could change the outcome of a contest.” Of course this slight turn of the fingertip is the result of an adjustment of the whole body that is finally manifested in the fingers.
3. Special Three-way Force, Amazing Results
Generally when a person executes an action, both hands apply similar forces. For example when pulling, both hands pull back in the same direction. In Tai Chi this type of action generates forces that are too simplistic and is easily countered and utilised by the opponent. Therefore in Tai Chi a better method is to apply forces of different directions in both hands, co-ordinated to achieve the desired result. This will make it difficult for the opponent to counteract and thus enhances the result. The force in Master Hong’s method is comprised of three different components applied simultaneously to the opponent’s structure. This is even harder to counteract, and the result even better.
I will list an example: In “Six Sealing and Four Closing” if the opponent’s left fist attacks my right side from beneath my right arm, I can use my left hand to intercept his left forearm while my right elbow sinks to engage his left upper arm at just above the elbow. As I intercept the opponent’s hand, both my hands initially follow the direction of the incoming force. I then start the “roll-back” (“lu”) at which point my two hands diverge into separate forces. The hands operate in different directions but produce the same result: pulling the opponent off balance.
How do we separate the forces? Let us look at this closely from two different angles. First we take a top down view. Supposing I stand in the South and the opponent in the North, with my right side towards the opponent. His blow comes towards me and after I have intercepted him I follow his hands Southward (←). When I begin the “roll-back” I change into separating forces. My left hand is close to my torso and, with my body’s left the opponent’s fist is dragged towards South-East （ ）, i.e. towards myself and backwards. At the same time my right elbow retreats but without pulling back my right hand, and my right forearm moves towards the South West ( ), i.e. backwards but away from my body. This way my opponent is being pulled forward but is unable to get close to press (“ji”) me. This is Master Hong’s method and this is much better than both hands pulling backwards in the same direction.
While I was practicing this technique I discovered a very interesting phenomenon. Simply executing this action does not guarantee that you can lift your rival into the air. When Master Hong “roll-back” he could casually make his sparing partner jump with both feet off the ground without causing injury. What is the reason? I later discovered that Master Hong only described two of the separated forces when actually there is a third force that he did not mentioned explicitly. This third force is the “stringing” (connecting) force generated when his right hand fingers pointed and connected into the centre of the opponent’s body structure. Generally when people execute a “roll-back” to the rear left, they move the right hand and fingers backwards while placing the elbow forward. This movement is vulnerable to the opponent’s pressing (“ji”) attack. A more skilful practitioner lets his right fingers point obliquely upwards while sinking the right elbow and pushing it outwards to prevent being attacked by a press, but this still lacks the third force.
Master Hong emphasised when executing the “roll-back” the fingers of the front hand must be directed at the opponent’s centre. Only the elbow and the forearm are used to roll backwards. When he did it his front hand fingers were pointed at the opponent’s centre with extending force connecting into the opponent’s body. This caused the opponent’s arm and torso to be rigid as one structure so that when he rolled-back the whole body of the opponent was pull forward. Effectively the force of the “roll-back” is applied to the overall structure of the opponent.
Some of Master Hong's students externally showed the fingers pointing towards the opponent’s centre, but they did not apply the third extension force. They were not able to mobilise the opponent as a whole. The speeding up of the two separate forces only had effect on the opponent’s elbow but did not shift the body structure. One student of Master Hong stated that he had injured a thousand elbows while pushing hand. It was only later when he was more careful that he gradually became less destructive to his sparing partners. Perhaps damaging a thousand elbows is overstating it, but certainly he must have injured more than a few.
If we take a front view of the correct execution of a “roll-back”, we can see that in unison with the knees lifting and lowering, the elbow adhering to the body also rises and falls. It is not simply pulling back horizontally. When both hands have intercepted the opponent’s arm, the initial stage involves convergent forces, with both hands slightly pressing downwards. In the next stage when the forces are separated the front forearm depresses downwards and outwards. When the right hand fingers are directed at the opponent’s centre, a small amount of downward force is added to connect with the opponent’s body. In the last stage when force is released to roll the opponent upwards, the front kneecap turns slightly upwards. In a curve the right hand turns to stroke upwards （ ）. The left hand in the rear pulls using the turn of the body, and when releasing force it is directed downwards. During force release, the left hand is lower and the right hand is higher to cause the opponent’s body to be uprooted and sent flying with both feet off the ground.
Of all the different schools of Tai Chi, this method of generating three forces from two hands can only be seen in Master Hong’s style. It is very typical and very advanced. Enlightened by this method of “roll-back”, I have discovered that the other Tai Chi techniques (ward-off “peng”, press “ji”, push “an”, pluck “cai”, split “li” , elbow “zhou”, lean “kao”) are also able to incorporate this three-way force, and the effects of the techniques are much enhanced. Having become adept at this method then even with one hand you can produce this three-way force, which is extremely interesting.
Some years ago I had a student who had previously studied Tai Chi for 15 years learning form other masters. He was very confident of his ability to neutralise an attack. In a class he challenged his fellow student that no one could hold his arm. Other student did try and really nobody could take a grip of him. I overheard this on the side and decided to try for myself. I grab him and applied the three-way force. My force connected to his hand, body and feet and he could not extricate himself, demonstrating the practicality of this three-way force.
Here I will talk about the technique of grappling and locking (“qin-na”) in Tai Chi Chuan. Some practitioners emphasise the use of internal strength (jin) and oppose to employing grappling techniques. They reason that grappling easily lends one to be manipulated by the opponent and I also used to have this belief. However after having practiced Master Hong’s Tai Chi and gaining more appreciation I discovered that if one has mastered the techniques of internal force, and at the same time understands good grappling and locking techniques then it is like adding wings to a tiger. There is no conflict between grappling techniques and the use of internal strength. Rather, the key is the sort of grappling techniques that you have learnt and whether you understood how they should be applied. Master Hong’s grappling techniques complement his exquisite Tai Chi and enhance the application of internal force. For example in applying connecting force, a good grappling technique can more easily “string” the opponent and prevent counteracting manoeuvres.
Above I discussed three major characteristics of Master Hong’s Tai Chi (encompassing smaller points), but they are only part of the many distinguishing aspects of his style. Other features such as his special extension force, neutralising force, 45 degrees direction of the torso, practical application techniques, development of chi (using body posture and movements), breathing (natural, but because of the special movements of the torso, it is an unusual sort of natural breathing) etc. If we spread it out to discuss there will be miles to talk about.
Master Hong’s Tai Chi is a high level Tai Chi. Being superior it is different to the normal way people exerts forces, more difficult to learn, and there are extra methods to understand and train. Sometimes because of the many aspects that are different and not yet sufficiently mastered, it feels awkward in application. It is in fact a question of skill. It is only with sufficient training and properly grasping of the techniques that in application it is more effective and the results more striking. In this regard I have personal experience. When certain technique is not ideal in application I do not retreat to the common method of applying it. I will investigate further based on theories to discover where I am inadequate. Once I have redressed the inadequacy the results are apparent. I can conclude that the theory is sound whereas the shortfall is in my own skill.
Of course a good martial art theory must be genuinely superior, one that has been demonstrated by true masters. It is not some “theory” ignorantly put forward by people who do not understand or cannot demonstrate what they are expounding. I have heard that some enthusiasts in Australia established a club to practice push hand. They advertised in the papers that they strive for realistic Tai Chi skills and not the fantastic notion of “sending people flying on contact”. Sending people flying on contact is conditional and is not achievable every time, but it is not fantasy. Like in soccer being able to shoot a goal with an up-side-down flip kick, it is not achievable every time but it is not pure fantasy. There are two flaws that many Tai Chi practitioners have. One is accepting as fact every hearsay legendary skill, and assuming that if it had been done once by a master, then it could be repeated under all circumstances. On the contrary there are those sceptical about every skill that normal people cannot demonstrate. In fact practitioners with either of these views do not truly understand Tai Chi. In hearsays some are real and some are not. Some stories circulated are fabricated, and others are distortions as they are passed on. Even the factual skills are not achievable under every condition. For some people these skills can only be achieved under some situations. Based on wrong sort of logic some people with limited experience assert that that these skills are not possible at all.
In truth, genuine Tai Chi skill is being able to apply force in a way different to normal using very special techniques. Skilled practitioners are therefore able to demonstrate feats that cannot be explained by common reason. Once you have understood the methods then it appears entirely normal and real. If we simply restrict ourselves to what untrained people can do as the sole curriculum for Tai Chi training, then it becomes uninteresting and we might as well stay home and drink tea.
In the face of the high level skills displayed by Master Hong and other contemporary experts, from my own studies and experience I feel that Tai Chi has not reached its peak nor has it declined. On the contrary I think Tai Chi is only at the initial phase of formation. Why do I say that? After several hundred years, different styles of Tai Chi have developed many unique features. However to present date there has not been a comprehensive and systematic treatment that provides a clear and concise consolidated categorisation. Tai Chi lacks a clear-cut and complete image, so I say it is still not mature. If we are able to seriously commit to continuing the Tai Chi art and to its integration and enhancement, Tai Chi should have an even broader future in development. It will attract more people to learn and practice, and we will find even more enjoyment within it.