Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The 100 Fists of Taijiquan

Below is an excerpt from a post at Tai Chi Thoughts on Taijiquan and punching techniques. The full post may be read here.


Many martial arts, or maybe the very most of them, tend to organise punches into different types. There are many ways to arrange and define methods. This is common by using names as “lead”, “jab”, “cross”, “uppercut”, “hook”, “haymaker”, “standing fist”, “lying fist”, etc. Different styles have their own ways to organise what they do and they tend to use different names.

The problem with all of these names and definitions, is that it’s all too easy to associate any of these labels with punches from other specific styles and martial arts systems, as from Karate or from Western boxing, and with their ways to generate power. However, to understand what punching means is in Tai Chi Chuan, you really need to get rid of all of the different kinds of associations and knowledge about “how other styles do it”. So in order to understand what a punch is in Tai Chi, it is better to first ask: what is punching in Tai Chi?“.

Yes I know, I should probably demonstrate what I speak about – show and tell – instead of just writing about it. Hopefully I can accomplish this in the near future. But for now on, let me try to explain some important points using words.

This is the first part of a 3 part series about Punching in Tai Chi Chuan, so let’s go on and get serious.

There’s no standard of defining or organising punches in Tai Chi

The interesting thing with Tai Chi is that there is no real standard of organising, or naming, punches in Tai Chi, as what you can find in most other martial arts. Most Chinese styles have names for different punches. But in some Chinese styles, especially in the Northern styles, the fist, or the method of punching, is incorporated in a movement or a stance, which means that the name is for not only the punch, but for the whole body’s movement and structure as well. Thus, the name and posture, or movement, becomes a symbol or general idea that expresses more than only the fist strike. (If you understand how Chinese characters work in the Chinese language, you can compare with how postures can express many different things at the same time.)

In Tai Chi forms, we only see a few movements or postures using a closed fist. Does that mean that the fist is one of the least popular weapons in Tai Chi? And are the punches really that limited? Some Yang Style teachers speak about the Five Fists of Yang Style Tai Chi. This has become a concept in certain schools. Many of those teachers might assume that those 5 explicit fists that are shown in their Tai Chi form are the only fist methods in Tai Chi Chuan. And most people don’t go outside their form to look for punches, as they believe that the form should contain everything necessary in their art.

But however you name or count the different fists, it’s still a simplification and generalisation that is mostly useful only to briefly satisfy asking students. The truth is a bit different. In no classical Chinese text, there is a concept of “five fists”. And in no classical Tai Chi manual you can see a specification of a limited set of fists or anything that comes close to trying to set a standard. All of the other styles have the same problem. They might name a few punches by the names of the movements in their forms, but still, this doesn’t really represent the nature of a “punch” in Tai Chi Chuan.

So what is punching in Tai Chi and how many ways of punching can you actually find in the art? If we start naming different punches with common names people would start to associate “punching” with other arts. And it doesn’t help that some people try to explain the punches in a Tai Chi manner, because most people believe that all punching need to have the same kind of prerequisites. But this is really not the truth about Tai Chi and punching in most other styles does not really reflect what punching mean in Tai Chi.

The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan

In my own Tai Chi practice, which is mainly Yang based, in the exercises and the methods I myself practice, I have counted and arranged the methods I have learned into ten basic fists. I can also take out one of them, and create many different variations on the same fist according to the use of different body mechanics behind the strike. But still, this is is my own way to organise different striking methods. However you would label different punches and variations, this kind of system would still not reflect the essence of what a Tai Chi punch really is.

Therefore, I would rather use the Chinese term “hundred” and speak about “The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan”. Wow, that seems a lot, doesn’t it? Can you really punch and strike in so many ways? Well, maybe not if you translate it literary. In Chinese tradition, “hundred” can surely mean literary “one hundred”, but it is also used to express the word “many”. Compare with “the hundred schools of thought” which was a common phrase in a period of China a long time ago. Here it doesn’t mean literary as many as one hundred schools, it just means “many schools of thought”.

There’s no need trying to be specific. “Many” is enough. You need to realise, that in Tai Chi Chuan, as I have already mentioned before, there is no standard across different schools or lineages. All of them have their own ideas. So why is it hard do exactly define a strike or organising methods? Well, let’s head back to the question: what is a strike or a punch in Tai Chi?

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