by Robert Amacker

This is an interesting topic for two reasons. It is an interesting technical subject all by itself, and I will get to that shortly, but it is also a very clear example of a general training protocol that is somewhat unique to Taijiquan, and which every exercise in the curriculum makes use of to some degree or other. This is something that I call disposable behavior. Most physical exercises, and martial art exercises in particular, use repeated behavior patterns in training in order to firmly entrench that behavior in the student, so that it may be reliably depended upon in moments of great stress, such as while fighting. When that behavior is prevented or corrupted, when it fails to duplicate the training pattern in some significant way or other, it fails in accomplishing its purpose. 

For example, many martial arts are based upon the use of structurally powerful positions of the entire body that support various offensive and defensive movements. The adept moves from one such position to another in reacting to the opponent’s aggression. When these transitions are incomplete, when the adept it prevented from fully duplicating this firmly entrenched behavior, the associated technique of attack or defense is weakened proportionally. Failure to duplicate the training protocol means failure to accomplish the purpose connected with it. In this way hand-to-hand combat is similar to open warfare. In war, things go wrong. Communications are interrupted, reconnaissance missions fail, orders are misunderstood. This all contributes to what is sometimes referred to as the “fog of war.” Also, guns jam, bombs don’t explode, ejection seats fail to eject, etcetera. Such failures may be expected, and provisions made to accommodate them. The experienced warrior expects that everything will go wrong, and a great deal of the measure of his competency is simply his lack of panic when it does. But however prepared he might be for failure, he counts on some degree of success; he still wants it to work, and the failure of his intended movements is always a disappointment, to say the least. 

The training method of Taijiquan turns this logic on its head. Rather than  repeat a certain behavior modification to insure its fidelity, the protocol is used to rehearse an associated behavior that is more subtle, less visible, more “internal,” if you will, than the “external” behavior being exhibited, but which is greatly facilitated by it. The purpose is to ensure the reliability of the internal habit or reflex, even when the external pattern is completely absent. In fact, sometimes the intended salutary effect of the internal training actually depends upon the “failure” of the external behavior that was used in its training. This is the source of one of my favorite things, and favorite sayings, about Taijiquan, which is that it works when it fails

The progressive exercises of the Yang Style quite often contain behavior that is in direct contradiction to the previous training protocol, as if diabolically challenging the student to do two contradictory things at the same time. For a student, this is challenging indeed, because it contradicts the method of almost everything else he has ever learned. External pattens of behavior are generally never learned only to be completely “de-programmed” at a later date. 

This accounts for a great deal of the skepticism with which Taijiquan is viewed by other martial artists. In observing the various training protocols, they cannot avoid the conclusion that these various patterns of behavior would never “work” in a real situation. Frequently, they are led to believe, either by their own logic, or by the insistence of “experts” and “masters” of the art, that this apparently cavalier attitude towards the apparent impracticality of their efforts is justified by the reliance upon a different sort of power, a power that, when added to the apparent impractical clumsiness being observed, will somehow make the utilization of such impractical clumsiness feasible. But carefully note that this assumption of a future capability, the existence of which will explain and justify certain otherwise mysterious practices, is not the same as saying that the external behavior associated with these mysterious practices will be a feature of one’s fighting technique when such capability is finally attained. In other words, the possibility of the realistic use of jing, or so-called “internal” force, will not render the behavior of the training protocols suddenly practical as behavior in real fighting, but instead will evoke behavior that is produced entirely from the convergence of a myriad of separate internal and rather invisible habits. 

This is why I say that Taijiquan, as it is observed, should be thought of as a method of training, rather than as a method of fighting. It is the misuse of these training protocols as models of either offensive or defensive behavior that causes the confusion. One contributing factor to the problem is that certain protocols of Taijiquan training closely resemble protocols of other martial arts that do in fact employ them as a method of fighting, the resemblance of tuishou to Sumo Wrestling being an outstanding example. This resemblance naturally supports a subversion of its true purpose. Even the more advanced exercises, ones that more resemble real fighting, should not be mistaken for accurate rehearsals of  expected external behavior. Their intent is to develop the ability to construct taijis with the opponent/partner under increasingly chaotic circumstances, finally culminating in free sanshou, the ultimate crucible for the development of boxing skill.

This makes the study of Taijiquan something of an intelligence test. The student should never accept any aspect of Taijiquan at face value, that is, as a simple behavioral directive with an obvious martial intent, but try to understand the deeper purpose of whatever exercise is being studied. Certain examples of this are so obvious that they fail to alert the student to the ubiquity of the practice. For instance, the form is done very slowly. No one is expected to assume that this aspect of practice is to be preserved in an actual fight. Others are more of a trap, and frankly can make fools of otherwise intelligent people. For example, many have accepted Taijiquan’s apparent tacit approval, implied by the tuishou exercise, for fighting without moving your feet. Everyone who knows anything about fighting realizes that this is patent madness, frequently  promoting the foolish and somewhat pathetic explanation that, again, some mysterious “power” or other will obviate the need for footwork, requiring only a single moment to overwhelm the opponent. As I have said, Taijiquan does proceed under the assumption of something of that sort, but in fact its actual implementation is completely dependent upon footwork. The assumption that this training protocol is a model of fighting reality is completely off base, and leads to a complete misuse of the exercise, the real function of which is to create a basis for footwork, rather than obviate its use. The explanation of this particular example, however, is quite involved and challenging, and should be undertaken at another time. On the other hand, the subject of empty steps is much more straightforward and approachable.

The term empty steps is used commonly to refer to a certain behavior dictated in the solo form. As I have stated, this external behavior is intended to facilitate the cultivation of a particular internal habit, and not to be repeated externally in stressful situations. The behavior is the practice of maintaining a one hundred percent weight on the standing leg until the stepping leg touches the ground. The internal habit concerns the condition of the stepping leg, as opposed to that of the standing leg. 

In terms of function, the legs always maintain what is called complete separation of substantial and insubstantial. One leg is always the sole controller of the torso and waist, while the other completely follows the torso’s motion. This action of the insubstantial leg is what is meant by “the steps follow the changes of the body.” -Classics. This act of following does not, however, completely prevent the leg from any independent movement altogether, only that movement which would interfere with or diminish the wave of change that flows through the body like, as the Classics say, “a breath.” In other words, we do not drag the insubstantial leg around as though it were broken. We are allowed to make shapes, to control to some degree its external configuration, as well as being able also to superimpose various internal (relating to chansijing) changes, as long as these changes do not adversely affect its insubstantial condition. The empty steps of the solo form are intended to demonstrate the degree to which the insubstantial leg may be manipulated without violating this rule. We are, in short, practicing maintaining the condition in which the insubstantial leg will faithfully “follow the changes of the body,” and exploring the kind and degree of manipulation that is permissible under that requirement. The movements of the solo form explore those possibilities. To be clear, the movements of the solo form are not designed to train the student to make a huge variety of steps, but to preserve a certain condition, under the influence of which that variety will be a natural result. 

As odd as the empty step protocol appears, it is remarkable how many students blithely accept the idea that this external behavior is what is to be faithfully reproduced under more exigent circumstances. Proof of the danger of this possible misconception was evidenced in the very first tuishou “tournament” in which steps were allowed as one possible protocol. I was not present for this event but I did view extensive video of the matches, and, as far as what I witnessed, every single one of the participants suffered from the apparent obligation to faithfully reproduce these “empty steps” exactly as they appear in the form, producing a kind of “Mr. Natural” appearance that was comical to a pathetic degree. This was rather sad, because if they had availed themselves of what I consider to be the most neglected exercise in the Taijiquan curriculum, Three-step Tuishou, they would have been forced to abandon this external protocol in the very first lesson.

As I said, the Taijiquan Yang Style curriculum presents the student with behavior that not only develops new “internal” habits, but with behavior that at the same time completely contradicts that of previous stages. This forces the student to demonstrate the desired result of the exercise, while directly contradicting the outward behavior that makes such a result easily accomplished. When the weight is completely supported on one leg, and control of the body is given over entirely to that leg, it is quite easy to achieve the “empty” condition desired for the other one. Though still possibly manipulated in terms of certain internal parameters, the emptiness of the leg is maintained completely until it trades functions with the the other leg, which now, under the influence of such solo form discipline, becomes itself “empty.” This must be a habit that is independent of the “empty step” protocol as found in the form, persisting even when exigent circumstances demand a sudden movement and step that, for other reasons, cannot be afforded the luxury of complete weight differentiation, as found in the form. The very first step of the Three-step protocol forces one of the players to violate the restriction demanded by the solo form. 

The “emptiness” of the leg in question may be accomplished in any weight distribution. In the solo form there is one movement where the normal empty step protocol is purposely violated, and this is in the turn preceding the Double Lotus Kick, This turn is simply a rotating version of a “normal” step, in which the weight is allowed to fall naturally on the leg even as it touches the ground. Students who have compulsively internalized the external empty step protocol feel compelled to complete their turn with the weight still entirely on the standing leg, delaying the actual shift until the other foot has hit the ground. This shows a misunderstanding of the move. It is the only move that demands the emptiness of the stepping leg without the accompanying simplifying protocol. Put another way, this is all designed to facilitate the ability to “soften” the leg, making it completely receptive to its impact with the floor. When I asked Chu, Ch’u-fang to demonstrate an “empty” step, he proceeded to leap into the air and land on the opposite leg with a carefully modulated softness, as if trying to avoid breaking a sheet of ice. This was, of course, a patently diametric opposite to the protocol practiced in the form, and I told him so. “Oh, yes,” he said with a smile, “those steps (referring to the steps as done in the solo form) are also empty, but much easier to do.” What he had shown me was definitive of the empty step; the protocol of the form was only a simplification, for learning purposes. 

Another move that reveals the true mechanism of stepping is the “half-step” found in the transition from Brush Knee to Play P’i P’a. Here there is, from a martial point of view, a completely illogical step, a transition that, in a thousand matches, would virtually never occur. In catching the opponent’s punch, the form dictates a forward half-step. People do not focus their punches in the air in front of you, causing you to step forward to receive them. The invariable actual result of such an attack is a backward step on the part of anyone receiving it. If the solo exercise were trying to duplicate the actual step that you would be most likely to take when executing this form, you would step back when applying it, not forward. I have even witnessed teachers making well-meaning attempts to “correct” this “error” of the solo form by taking just such a backward step. They are confident that they have rescued Taijiquan from an “unrealistic“ practice. 

But in fact the solo form is absolutely correct. What one is practicing is the subjugation of the step to the movement of the body, that is, making it “follow the changes of the body.” The obvious question now is, if that is the case, why not combine this with the expectable movement of the torso, that is backwards in retreat from the punch. In doing so, however, we would be habituating a particular retreat, when the actual degree of advancing aggression is always different. Rather, we chose to simply practice the complete emptiness of the leg, and the half-step is not indicative of any likely actual step, but simply the step that results from following the torso to a one hundred percent weight shift. 

Every single movement in the solo form, in order to be effective, requires accompanying steps that are responsive to the opponent, and completely impossible to predict with any accuracy. In the solo form, we practice the condition and discipline of the stepping leg, its “emptiness,” rather than any steps in particular. That emptiness may be most easily perceived and habituated through the protocol of the exercise, but is in no way dependent upon it. 

The cultivation of “emptiness” in the stepping leg, and its subsequent ability to follow the body’s movement, is synonymous with rendering it incapable of making any step that appears difficult or even highly trained. The resultant steps are completely “unremarkable” because they are literally the “easiest” step possible in any given circumstance. Fortunately or unfortunately, the only remarkable (and I mean this literally, as in: something you would be inclined to notice and remark on) thing about the activity of a real master of Taijiquan in a fight is the result, in which movements that would not seem to express a great degree of power and look relatively “effortless,” have an effect that seems entirely disproportionate. I consider Mohamed Ali to be a fighter that generated a considerable amount of jing in his punches, jing that was in fact totally integrated with and also completely dependent upon his masterful footwork. He frequently was accused of participating in fights that were “fixed” in his favor, because his movements did not seem to express the amount of ordinary force that would seem necessary for their conclusive result. His beautiful separation of substantial and insubstantial, the masterful footwork that resulted from it, together with an apparently naturally playful attitude that seemed straight from the Classics (“The form is the falcon and the rabbit, but the spirit is the cat and the mouse.”), all conspired to prove that one need not study Taijiquan to develop some of its highest technical goals. 

This kind of footwork, being so dependent upon a number of fairly invisible and actually distinct disciplines, has always been considered “unteachable,” which is why I have always insisted that real skill in Taijiquan is indistinguishable from natural talent. In a real fight, the only clue to the fact that someone has studied Taijiquan would be the absense of anything that might clearly identify some other martial art. The true master of Taijiquan does not appear to be doing anything difficult or remarkable; he just seems unaccountably lucky, somehow always in the right place, at the right time. This is the result of footwork, and the first “step” on the path to this elegant, totally natural appearing footwork is the awkward, frankly clueless looking “empty step” of the solo form.