Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, 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 26, 2021

The Crane and Snake in Taijiquan

At Thoughts on Tai Chi, there was a very good post looking at the crane and snake in Taijiquan. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Even if you have only studied Tai Chi Chuan for less than a month, I still don’t think that it’s possible for you to have escaped hearing about the legendary creation myth where the filthy, mystical, Daoist priest Zhang Sanfeng invents the art of Tai Chi Chuan after witnessing a bird protecting its nest form a snake.

In the legend, “Dirty Zhang” watched the bird and the snake attacking and evading each other, so none hurt the other. And this was from where he got the “idea” to create Tai Chi Chuan. This is obviously just a story and a fairytale. In that myth, the bird was originally a small bird, but somehow, in Tai Chi Chuan, the picture of a crane has taken over its place. Together with the snake, they now both represent the Art of Tai Chi Chuan.

But still, even if it’s just a myth, the symbols of the snake and the crane have more meaning than just being sort of totems for the art. They represent the spirit iof the art, the vigour, the grace and the liveliness of the martial art, as well as the focus on evading and counter-attacking. But how to fully use the Crane and Snake practically in Tai Chi and adapt the essence of the animals in combat is something almost lost, or at least very seldom taught.

I have been lucky to have a couple of teachers speaking about these things and teaching it. I have also heard about others who teach things quite similar to what I myself have been taught. But I have never seen this written down in any book or on any Tai Chi webpage. So I have not looked at any other source before writing this post. Instead I have tried to verbalise myself what I was taught and tried to sum down the important points to be able to share them with you.

I believe that the very most of you will feel that these things represent something that is a bit different from what you have been taught, and some of it might seem strange. But I still hope that you will find these theories and my way of explaining the art of Tai Chi in this way, both useful and helpful. What is described here is foremost from a Yang Style Tai Chi perspective, but I believe that the methods could be adapted to most of the traditional tai chi styles and schools.

What is the Snake and the Crane in Tai Chi Chuan?

In Tai Chi, a few form movements are named after the Snake and Crane as “Crane shows its wing” and “snake creeps down.” Both the Crane’s Beak hand formation and Snake style palms can be seen in Tai Chi forms. This is the simplest version story, but it does not convey any of the real depth that is found in the snake-crane theory.

However, some teachers say that every movement in Tai Chi Chuan is represented by either the Snake or the Crane. In fighting, the Snake represents small, coiling movements – or small frame movements. And the Crane represents large, generous, sweeping, round movements – or Large frame movements.

The Snake and Crane together represent a Yin-Yang pair with two opposites that balance and complement each other. The snake is the Yin animal in Tai Chi. It is so fast that you cannot even see the start of its attack. And when you react, it’s already too late. The Tai Chi snake uses coiling movements to wrap its body around the opponent’s arms, and it attacks from every possible angle and from close range. The power is short, crisp and very hard to counter.

The Crane, on the other hand, is a proud, elegant bird and is the Yang animal in Tai Chi. It stands tall and it has a great power in its large wide wings. It is said that if cranes when they fly comes too close to houses, they can even strike through tiles on roofs and break apart bricks from chimneys. In Tai Chi, such methods as powerful striking and throws using large, bold movements, can resemble the use of the crane’s wings. However, the Crane has a second weapon as it can also use its beak to strike with.

Balancing snake and crane – By using them together

Two of my teachers taught that both small and large movements should be used together when you fight. Or in other words, you should use the Snake and Crane together when you fight, which is explicitly what one of them taught. In practical combat methods, this means that you can either defend with a snake or crane type of movement and then counter-attack with the other.

The snake and crane should work together seamless in action. When the movement from the snake and crane blend together, the opponent cannot tell where one stops and the other starts. Together, they form a whole. One starts and transforms into the other.

But there is also another aspect of the use: It is never you who decide what animal that should be used. You cannot compare the use of these animals in Tai Chi with a Hong Kong movie where a fighter test first one animal against his opponent and than another one if the first doesn’t work. And you can not approach any real Tai Chi fighting method with figuring out intellectually what technique or attack that should be used or what could work.

Instead, you need to respond spontaneously to the opponent. The snake or the crane, what will come out to respond will do so by itself not depending of what you “think”, but depending on what your opponent does. This also means that you will have to learn your snake and crane well before really knowing how they want to respond. But more about this later. 

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