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Validating Your Taijiquan

(C) 2007 Dale Napier

One of the great advantages of taijiquan over other forms of exercises, such as yoga or Pilates, is our ability to validate our efforts by putting them to the test. What test is that? The same as any test for a martial art: it either works or it does not.

Why does it matter whether it "works" or not? By working I mean you can perform useful martial arts techniques for self-defense. Such utility matters because taijiquan is first and foremost a martial art, but also because it is healthy due to its martial aspects. So to expect full health benefits from taijiquan, without exploring the martial aspects, is an approach that defies logic.

How do we go about validating our taijiquan? To be blunt, we fight and either win or lose. If you win, you have validated your efforts. If you lose, and survive the encounter, you have the opportunity to learn and make adjustments so that you can be more successful in the future. One "unbeatable" master I have read about spent ten years losing, and learning from his losses, before he became "unbeatable".

Less than a century ago - as recently as the days of Zhang Qin Lin and Yang Cheng-fu - it was common to take (or offer) no-holds-barred challenges in order to test one's skills. The events depicted in the recent movie Fearless, featuring Jet Li playing Chin Woo (Jingwu) founder Huo Yuanjia, took place during this period. Many of us know stories of Zhang and Yang being tested by outsiders, and sometimes the test was not voluntary.

Today there are options available with less severe consequences. I advocate the usefulness of one of the most common approaches, which is tournament competition.

Most martial artists can easily list the disadvantages of tournament competition, but short of street fighting, which carries its own attendant disadvantages, there are few approaches more useful to you. In the end, listing the disadvantages is nothing more than making excuses. The bottom line in martial arts is, you do it. You do not just talk the talk, you walk the walk. Anything else is - well, anything else, but not taijiquan. Maybe taijigong.

Author uses ward-off to expel opponent at 2001 Taiji Legacy Tournament in Plano, Texas, in fixed-step push hands competition. Note the chief judge in the foreground and two corner judges in the background.

Competition Categories

Tournaments featuring taijiquan as a main event typically offer these competition categories: form, fixed-step pushing hands, moving step pushing hands, taiji sword, other internal weapon, sparring, and perhaps san shou (extreme sparring, with fewer rules. In Texas events it is typically restricted to ages 18-32). Even if you avoid the last two categories, as most people do, there are a lot of opportunities to test yourself and offer your skills for judgment by outsiders. Since we are aiming this discussing at validation of martial arts skills, let us focus on the pushing hands competitions. If anyone has questions of the other competitions, I will be glad to respond, but for the moment let us set them aside.

Rules and Conduct

One advantage of pushing hands competition (as opposed to forms) is that it spans across all taijiquan families, and allows them to be tested directly against each other. Thus it is striking that forms competitions, in my experience, are often frequented most by Yang stylists, while pushing hands competitions are often frequented most by Chen stylists - further solidifying taijiquan stereotypes. It need not be this way because, to quote Master George Hu, "Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan is a fighting form". I and other students of Master Hu have regularly defeated Chen stylists in such competitions, but most Yang stylists do not even try. Let's talk about what is required for the effort.

Fixed Step

Rules typically call for the competitors to go for 90 seconds, rest for 30, and then compete for 90 more seconds but starting from reversed positions. This reversal is intended to nullify any slight advantages of starting position. The "90 seconds" are rarely non-stop: the clock stops every time a point is called, and restarted when the match resumes.

A point is called on behalf of a competitor when he/she executes a technique that clearly causes the other to lose balance - perhaps slightly, perhaps enough to go hurtling out of the ring. Normally there is a head judge and three corner judges. The head judge will halt the fighting, call the point, and look to the corner judges for confirmation. At least two corner judges must concur for the point to be awarded.

A point may also be called for a competitor's opponent if the competitor violates the rules of the competition, which are established primarily for safety reasons. Blows to the head, neck, back, and knees are good examples of illegal play, as are extended or double grabbing. For lesser offenses, the competitor may be stopped and warned. Three to five warnings in a match may result in the head judge disqualifying the competitor, but that is rare. In regional competitions most judges are local teachers, and a lot of the competitors are their students or their competitors' students, so there is a general reluctance to take such as drastic step.

The most distinctive limitation is the fixed step aspect. While competitors are not required to compete without moving their feet at all, you are not allowed to step and cross legs: you may take shuffling baby steps forward or backward only. You may also not move off the main line of the action, which is the line faced when you as competitors first set down against each other.

At the end of time, the competitor with the most points wins.

Moving Step

Moving step competition has the same rules about the types of strikes and holds not allowed, but much looser rules in regard to movement. Competition circles are set up with one smaller circle inside another. Competitors start in the middle of the circles, and must stay inside the smaller circle at all times. If a competitor goes to the ground or is expelled outside either ring, the opponent wins the point(s). If both competitors go to the ground no point is awarded, but if both go outside a ring, the loser is the one who got there first.

Point scoring is slightly more complex than with fixed step. A competitor loses a point to his/her opponent for simply losing balance or going to the ground; two points for being expelled outside the smaller ring, and three points for being expelled outside the larger ring. Rounds normally last 60 seconds instead of the 90 seconds in fixed step competitions.

Competing and Interpreting the Results

Competitors are divided into groupings that vary from event to event, but not much: categories for men, women, and children; for beginners, intermediates, or advanced practitioners; and for pushing hands, by weight. A beginner is thought of as someone with up to two years of experience; an intermediate, two to four years; and advanced, more than four years. Competitors usually place themselves, on the honor system.

I have competed in these events, sometimes winning, sometimes losing; I have gold and silver medals sitting in a drawer somewhere. And while I truly enjoyed winning, everything I learned came from losing. These are the lessons that I replay in my mind over and over again.

For instance, in one match I found I could dominate my competitor by expelling him at the earliest possible moment allowed by the judges; see the photo, which demonstrates ward off in action. I closed my door and entered his house, and he was helpless to defeat it. After doing this four times in a row for four quick points, I got bored and decided to try a different technique. Big mistake! He was eager to retaliate and because I left my door open, he quickly racked up more points than I did. Lesson learned: in competition, in a fight, just win, and win quickly. Nothing else matters. We can explore different techniques during training, but in a real fight, there can be room for nothing but winning. You must be prepared for a ruthless opponent who will seize upon any opening you provide.

This lesson perfectly illustrates the value of stepping outside the sanctuary of our schools and testing our efforts against strangers. Within our daoguans we are all friends, a close rapport established from long years of regular practice together. Each of us learns the body types and moves of our gongfu brothers and sisters. And because we are friends, we do not want to hurt each other. Few are willing to push their friends to the edge. Some people call this problem "dojo syndrome". Your fellow competitors or other outsiders, on the other hand, have at most a passing interest in your feelings or well-being, no matter how good-hearted they are.

Now I participate primarily as a judge. In my early days of competing, the goal - as with most competitors - was to validate my skills and learn what adjustments might be required to improve the validation. As a judge, I get a chance to see, question, and learn from a much larger volume and diversity of competitors. Everything I see forces me to question my assumptions about what good taijiquan is or is not, and to widen my horizons about the possibilities of what taiji may accomplish and what is required to do that. I will have more to say about that in a bit.

Typical Pushing Hands Problems

Most pushing hands competitors use force. Force is the bane of such competitions and yet it is exactly the kind of exposure we need as martial artists. Any violence committed against you is certain to involve a burst of force. If we cannot successfully neutralize and counter such attacks, our taijiquan is inadequate. For this reason there is great benefit to be exposed to such bad taiji, even though your goal is to be soft while neutralizing. Discovering whether you can actually accomplish this, especially the first time you try, is a great awakening. You may have to make adjustments you never considered before, or you may discover you must make adjustments you always secretly knew you needed, but preferred to remain in denial. Learning to face these mental shortcomings is one of the great benefits that taijiquan offers - and is essential to any martial artist.

Outside of the use of force or inability to relax, a number of mistakes in core techniques stand out: knees not held open, standing on heels, legs not firm or straight, inability to use rising and sinking, lack of yin-yang separation. The biggest mistake may be lack of faith in the technique. The form is a good place to explore and correct all of these deficiencies except the last, but the proof is in the pudding: the practice of tuishou or tuishou preparatory exercises is important for destroying our illusions about what we can and cannot do correctly. But tuishou is not enough. You need applications practice that goes beyond the game of pushing hands. If we cannot do a movement correctly in application, our practice of it in the form can only make things worse.

What is Taiji?

Watching eclectic taiji is an exercise in self-examination. I have been taught very strict and certain standards for performance of Michuan, but once we step outside the family, which standards should we require and which should we relax? Without direct personal experience in the other systems - without direct personal experience in systems that I must judge - how can I establish standards for judging that are fair, reasonable, and appropriate? As it turns out a lot of judges must deal with this problem. A handful are specialists who judge only certain styles, while a lot of us are called upon to look at all sorts of material. Instincts formed by experience are key to pulling this off. My goal is to be fair to practitioners of systems I have a low opinion of, while holding everyone to a martial standard that make sense for fighting. There are many ways to do this, but judges tend to come together around common ideals.

For instance, in forms competition I have judged ordinary Yang, Cheng Man Ching style, Chen Pan Ling style, Wu style, 24 step, and 48 step. Without knowing the specifics of the forms of each style, we can examine a person's movement. By agreement, most judges will refer to the concepts of Yang Cheng-fu's Ten Essentials, and/or the Tai Chi Classics. We look for continuity, open knees, not rooting through the heel, rising and sinking, softness, hollow chest, expressive waist, and a firm lower foundation. The vast majority of mistakes we see lie in these areas. I also look for a form to be performed with useful martial arts techniques.

A good example of what I personally do not like is someone with extremely flexible legs to extend a leg high in the air in a faux kick, and hold it there: there is no application for holding it there. Taiji requires continuous motion, even at the end of a punch or kick, so holding the foot there is pointless. From a practical point of view, it could get you killed.

But outside these areas, what goes? In YMT we have relatively high stances; Chen uses low stances. So I may not say a high stance or low stance is necessarily good or bad. Instead I must ask, how well is this stance executed? Can it accomplish what is intended? Are the legs open, strong, and rooted? Are the fascia firm and tendons activated?

These self-examinations lead to a deeper level. If we can alter basic requirements of our taiji practice and it is still taiji, then how far can we go to stretch the limits of taiji and still be doing taiji? What primary feature, if removed, would force us to say "that is not taiji"?

Many people would say the use of force is not taiji, but what about the cannon fist that Chen stylists love so much? Is that not taiji? Some taiji masters insist on a perfectly straight back, while others prefer a slight curve of five percent or so. They think of that five percent as a slight concavity as a body bow buttresses the otherwise straight aspect. But what about ten percent? Twenty percent? Can this factor be changed indefinitely and still remain within the realms of taiji?


To the open-minded internal stylist, external exposure is an excellent way to test and extend the limits of our understanding of taijiquan. If you have not tried testing yourself at tournament, I strongly urge you to seek out opportunities to do so.

Dale Napier, a senior student of Master George Hu, is a YMT teacher in Houston, Texas and Vice President of the Board of Directors of the American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan Association.

This article was published in the Journal of the American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan Association, Summer 2007, Vol. 15, No. 1.