In Shakespeare's lyrical tale of ill fated lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love. As members of two warring families, they are doomed from the beginning. In the extract above, Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention. In Tai Chi Chuan this is also the opinion of many a student, and regrettably some teachers. In this article I shall reveal something of the occluded meanings, of some of the names of Tai Chi techniques, and hopefully some reasons for their preservation.
Every style of Tai Chi Chuan has, as its primary means of solo practice, a hand form. The traditional styles (of Tai Chi Chuan) that have emerged, were at first only distinguished as people noticed significant differences in the practice methods of subsequent teachers, and therefore named the style after that particular teacher, Yang, Wu, Sun etc.
One of the features that changed with the development of the different styles was the order of the techniques, which technique was performed in conjunction with another; this may simply be a result of a teacher finding applications (self defence techniques) which worked well in that combination, it is also the reason why techniques in long-forms occur in varying combinations.
Another obvious development, perhaps more significant, was the changing names of some techniques. In some cases this may be a matter of dialect, or class / education related speech idiom, in others it pertains more to the way the technique is conceived and this is where I finally get to the main point of this article:
What is the purpose of the names of the techniques in the forms?
To begin with lets look at some fairly obvious examples `Step back to beat the tiger `, in this case the term tiger refers to the ferociousness, of the attacker, Similarly the technique´ Draw a bow to shoot an arrow at a tiger´ indicates a similar ferocious intrusion, but this time against a classical double handed strike as seen in many Shaolin forms or Goju Ryu Kata. The tiger theme is developed further in the form with Step back to ride the tiger´ in this technique, the performer is responding to a number of fierce attacks by a skilled opponent, who attacks high and low in close combination. Different responses are indicated against similar types of attack, indeed most techniques may contain several applications against differing attacks. The tiger theme continues in the sabre form for example where the association of the tiger with being low, and having a long back is significant in `Chop the tiger´as is the sudden nature of a tigers spring in `Hungry tiger leaps the stream´.
Some times a name appears simple and straightforward, this may be because the original term has been changed or indeed forgotten over time, or simply lost in translation. Such an example would be `Parry and punch´ which appears obvious, however its Chinese term (perhaps not the original?) is more informative; Bon, Lam, Choi, respectively indicate an upper parry, lower parry, and punch. Perhaps of most significance here is the term `Parry´ rather than `Block´, as the latter is more than somewhat out of line with Tai Chi Chuan techniques, yet frequently shown in demonstrations by those who do not understand that a block stops the opponents incoming energy, while a parry diverts it and allows you to make use of it.
In `Grasping birds tail´ we are being given more than just the advice of what kind of attack to expect, and how to meet it, but also the level of sensitivity that is required in the situation. This technique contains the four primary techniques of Tai Chi Chuan, Peng, Lu, Ji, and An (ward-off, roll-back, push, and press) and as such is an adaptable technique often used to enter inside an opponents guard. The bird is the opponent, who is quick and flighty, or changeable, you must be swift to grasp the tail of this bird, but if too forceful, you will be left with nothing but a handful of feathers, instead you must be sensitive to every change in the opponent so as to counter it before it begins.
There are other kinds of information hidden within the names of techniques, sometimes not in the most obvious names (many if not all techniques have multiple names) or in the name for the inner techniques (the form within the form) for example `Unity posture´ is also known as `Embracing the one´ and alludes toward the use of this posture in standing meditation amongst other things, whilst the stars of the eponymous `7 star style´ posture and similarly named pushing hand technique is a reference to the astral constellation Ursa Major, reflected in the shape of the performer, this constellation is of great significance in Taoist schools, and may often be seen engraved in to the blades of old weapons.
Speaking of weapons, the forms for the various weapons are rich in cultural references, both `Li Gwong shooting an Arrow´ and `Pui Kung cleaving a snake´ are direct references to historical events, and persons associated with Tai Chi or its weaponry, whilst ´Taking off the boots while drunk´ ( a means of extracting a sword from a stricken opponent amongst other things) is an indirect reference to the famous poet, swordsman, and drunkard, Li Mu Bai, not surprisingly one of those characteristics is usually missing when he is portrayed as a hero as in the film “Crouching tiger, hidden dragon.” yet ´Retrieving the moon´ may also allude to the same character and (missing) characteristic.
So, cultural heroes, historical (and hysterical) events, descriptions of tactics, opponents tactics, mind set, technique, meditation, mysticism, alchemy all are hidden within the names of our techniques, it’s a fascinating game of discovery, thought provoking and informing as well as inspirational. If after all this you still wonder of what use are all these archaic names and martial references to you? Consider this; the names are pneumonic, you can always just create a story that helps you remember the form….In the beginning there was absolutely nothing, then as the Tao divided in to yin and yang, the 7 stars appeared in the night sky, and I lightly grasped the birds tail, with a single whip I threw it into the clouds, waving my hands as I did so. I bent to pat the horse on high and turned to face left…..
Gloria dean teaching WuDang Tai Chi Chuan
I heard Gloria’s voice, and instantly knew she was restraining amusement, not quite managing to sound like a chiding schoolmistress “did you just use a rude word?” the offending student, towering over her meekly replied that he had but “as it was in Portuguese I did not think you would notice” very gentle admonishment delivered, it was back to training for all amidst quiet laughter.
What our unfortunate miscreant was expressing (not quite as privately as he hoped) was his understandable frustration at not achieving perfection in a movement of the form, its not that he lacks talent, or indeed effort and concentration, just that Tai Chi is like that, your intellectual grasp of a technique is only part of the journey. If you have been practising Tai Chi for any length of time you will have experienced similar frustration (if not apply for saint hood it will surely be granted) of course you may well have been more successful at keeping it to yourself.
Sometimes it seems as though ones practice is defined by difficulty and frustration, sometimes all goes well. As teachers we are accustomed to judging the level of temporary discouragement our students experience, before intervening in some beneficial manner. We are also often surprised to observe the form of expression such sentiment takes, pulling faces, stamping feet, or throwing things are more obvious expressions of self recrimination and dissatisfaction, thankfully less common than a muttered expletive but very disturbing for fellow students.
Wherever you may be in your personal study, soaring the heights of new understanding, or stranded in the doldrums of “Why can’t I get this” contain your frustration, be cool. There is in Daoism, a tradition that laughter is often the best response to the efforts of man to transcend his own nature.
Focus your Yi, (your intention) upon the simple act of practice, keep your Hsin (Heart/mind) concentrated gently upon your goal, and continue along your path with tranquillity.
Share your thoughts amidst some laughter after class; you may be surprised at how many share your feelings, and perhaps, the door will open a touch wider.
Keith has studied the Chinese Internal arts for over 40 years. He lives in England and Portugal with artist, designer and writer Gloria Dean and teaches in Portugal and the UK.